There are many clever people – pollsters, commentators, strategists – who say that Jeremy Corbyn’s past does not matter, that the voters do not care about it, and that his critics ought to move on. Recounting every Islamist he shared a platform with, every anti-Semite he rallied beside, every Irish republican he cosied up to is a waste of time. Corbyn has caught the spirit of the moment and his detractors are stuck in the past.
They may be right but let me try to explain to them why we care so much about these things. Thirty-four years ago today – at 2.54 a.m. to be precise – a bomb tore through the Grand Brighton Hotel during the Conservative Party conference. Anthony Berry, MP for Enfield Southgate, was killed, along with Muriel Maclean, Eric Taylor, Jeanne Shattock and Roberta Wakeham. Margaret Tebbit was left paralysed and Margaret Thatcher only narrowly escaped the blast. The device had been planted by IRA member Patrick Magee and the IRA released an infamous statement claiming responsibility: ‘Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once; you will have to be lucky always.’
They did get lucky again, but the Brighton bombing was the closest they would come to assassinating a British prime minister. Neil Kinnock wrote to Mrs Thatcher after the attack to profess himself ‘horrified and outraged at this terrible atrocity’ and to describe the terrorists as ‘the sworn enemies of all the people of normal mind and reasoning politics’.
One of his backbenchers, however, took a different tack. Two weeks after a Tory MP and four others were murdered, Jeremy Corbyn invited two convicted IRA terrorists to Parliament. Two years later, Corbyn was arrested at a ‘solidarity’ demo for Patrick Magee and other IRA members outside their trial at the Old Bailey. By this point the court had already heard that Magee’s palm prints were found on the registration card for the hotel room in which the bomb was planted and his fingerprints on a bombing calendar listing further atrocities to be carried out in the year after Brighton. Corbyn was arrested for obstruction at the demo and spent a few hours down the local cop shop. He later wrote a note to the protest organiser, on House of Commons headed notepaper, saying: ‘Thanks for your help, hope you get out as I did! All the best, Jeremy.’
Labour MPs evidently do not grasp the significance of this behaviour, for they continue to sit behind this man and campaign to make him Prime Minister. And so I ask myself: What if, two weeks after Jo Cox was murdered, a backbench Tory invited members of National Action to Parliament? What if, while her murderer Thomas Mair was in court declaring ‘death to traitors’, that same Tory MP was outside at a ‘solidarity’ vigil? What if that Tory MP had been willing to get himself arrested for the pleasure? And what if he had written a cheery note to the organiser of the demo?
Now imagine that Tory MP ended up party leader one day. How would Labour MPs respond? Would they cut his backbenchers the same slack they cut themselves? Would they shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Oh, they’re just being loyal party people’ or ‘He’s doing well in the polls’? Would they empathise with the Tory MPs and members who said they were staying to fight for their party’s ‘soul’? Would they hell. They would be howling and marching and demanding every last Tory MP resign. And they’d be right.
Instead, Labour MPs have surrendered – those, that is, who bothered putting up a fight in the first place – and decided to go along with Corbyn and his moment. They reason that, yes, he’s a despicable man but he may get them back into government or at least get rid of this hopeless, rotten, callous government. Even those who do not believe this hang around and do their bit to put Corbyn in power because, however much extremism and anti-Semitism pain them, walking away from the Labour Party would hurt them more. This is how Corbynism corrupts the soul and tribalism poisons the antidote. They have more in common with Corbyn than that which divides them.
The clever people may be right. The Brighton murders have receded sufficiently from our collective memory to lose their visceral horror. It has been so long since we heard insidious apologism for the IRA that the thought of it can’t quite stir the same hot contempt. The generations that have come since may regard Britain as an illegal occupier, Ulster the West Bank across the Irish Sea and Gerry Adams an avuncular freedom-fighter. Among the semi-ironic alt-leftists who ‘stan’ Corbyn on social media – the Lmaoists and the Lolsheviks – political violence is a source of boisterous humour and vicarious thrills, just another level unlocked in Call of Duty.
But, however unfashionable it may be right now, the past matters. Truth matters. Jeremy Corbyn’s character matters. And the character of this country – and what would become of it if we made this man our Prime Minister – matters. It may not be clever of us, the voters may not care, but some of us cannot move on.