22 March 2017

A dark day at Westminster


Right now, “who?” does not matter. Right now, “why?” is for later. The “how?” can wait for another day as well – even though we may suspect the answers to each of these enquiries. Suffice it to say that today’s attack on the Palace of Westminster is neither a surprise nor likely to be the last time something terrible, something shiveringly appalling, like this happens.

The symbolism matters, of course, just as it mattered when the IRA attempted to assassinate Margaret Thatcher in Brighton and John Major and his cabinet in Downing Street. And just as it mattered when Thomas Mair murdered Jo Cox in her Yorkshire constituency less than a year ago. Even so, a terrorist attack at the Houses of Parliament is about something more than symbolism.

Politics is a brutal business, made harder – and necessarily harder – by a British scepticism that considers politicians guilty until proved innocent. That scepticism can curdle into cynicism too easily but it remains a vital component of our democratic culture. Nor, despite what we sometimes like to think, is it new. There never was a golden age or, if there was, it was one that was not readily apparent at the time. The public has always been beastly to its representatives and rightly so.

And yet, within that, there are limits. An attack on the Houses of Parliament is qualitatively different from a car bomb placed in the heart of the City of London and different in kind again to a senseless atrocity carried out on a Cornish beach or a train. Those horrify too, of course, but in a different way. In those instances, had fortune turned just a little differently, it could easily have been you or me who found themselves at the centre of appalling events. In those instances, terror’s power comes from its apparent randomness. The victims are chosen by an accident of time and place.

An attack at Westminster is different. Today’s appears to have combined the randomness of a street attack with the specific targeting of a building of national significance. In that respect, there seem to have been two targets: those people unfortunate enough to be on Westminster Bridge at precisely the wrong moment and those, more numerous and symbolic, who work inside the Houses of Parliament itself.

That latter is, whatever your political preferences, an assault on a very specific place that means and represents something vital about our country. Westminster is the place we honour our shared agreement that our differences must be settled peacefully. That is the founding principle of modern politics; the contract upon which everything else in our society even, if you will, our civilisation is based. Except in the most truly exceptional circumstances  – circumstances so rare they have not been seen in Great Britain in living memory – the use of force, the coercive enlistment of violence to achieve or advance a political objective, crosses an almost sacred boundary. Give an inch there, and you rapidly lose a mile.

Whatever our parliamentarians’ shortcomings and whatever the divisions that fester in and pollute our politics, that vital principle still holds. Democracy is more than a building, naturally, but the building still matters as a statement of a shared commitment to the principles we have decided, over the years, decades, and centuries, should define us and shape the way we conduct our public affairs.

Institutions, so often questioned in an age less deferential than its predecessors, still matter. That’s one lesson we should learn again today. There are many things many of us think wrong with British politics at present, many things that could and should be ordered differently and better. But those shortcomings fade away on an afternoon such as this, replaced by something else that’s too easily forgotten: the importance of the values we say we honour but too often simply exist as platitudes to be paid lip-service but not much else.

An open society is also a vulnerable society but its openness is also the source of its strength. Amid the wailing of sirens and the confusion of the moment it is hard to remember this which makes it all the more necessary to do so. There is a limit to what even brave policemen and women and the security services can do to protect us; sometimes the bomber, or the shooter, or the knifeman, will get through.

Amid the horror, that’s a provocation too, one that tempts us to abandon the very things we say we cherish. That temptation must be resisted because yielding to it leads us nowhere useful. The principles parliament stands for – principles we often forget or take for granted – do matter even if it sometimes takes something terrible to remind us of that fact.

An attack on parliament is an attack on us all and an attack on the liberalism that guarantees our sense of ourselves and our society. As such it pierces us for it is, symbolically at least, an assault on us all.

But it’s precisely for that reason that it will fail. Because it reminds us of what we have in common: a civilisation shared on certain enduring principles that, though tested on days such as these, are strong enough to withstand those tests. This kind of horror cannot prevail; it will not stand. Because it asks us to be people we are not and we cannot, will not, do that. We hold the line.

Alex Massie is a political commentator