Selective evidence: an ugly political game

Commentary surrounding the horrific Rochdale case speaks more for the critics than the victims.

As a polemicist, you’re faced with a choice when something as horrific and complicated as the crimes in Rochdale comes along. Do you research it, investigate it, look into it, and then arrive at your conclusions? Or do you simply see everything on the table as being evidence that you’ve been right all along? 

Look, I am a polemicist myself; here I am, writing this blog. And there’s a temptation to see a big news story, especially a shocking one like this, as something that can be scavenged for easy reaction. 

But this isn’t any ordinary news story: it’s a story about sexual predators and young people in care. It’s a story that involves lives being shattered and vulnerable people having been abused. Is it really the time to be picking over the evidence and looking for things that prove you right so you can stick two fingers up at your opponents? 

Julie Bindel writing in the Guardian sees the story as evidence that the media would rather focus on the ethnicity of the offenders than the fact that young girls have been preyed upon. Melanie Phillips, in the Daily Mail, says that this was a consequence of the "Islamophobia witch-hunt".  

Reading through blogs and opinion pieces from the usual suspects, it’s clear that a lot of disparate people with frequently opposing views have all found something to take from these crimes and claim as proof that they’re right. 

Of course they may all be right; they may all have focused on different aspects of the whole picture. Or they may all be wrong, focusing just on the things they want to see. But it’s interesting to see how this case, this shocking case in which real people’s lives have been ruined and wrecked beyond almost all comprehension, should have coincidentally proved so many commentators right about the things they believed before the trial took place. 

The guilty verdicts came in, and the keyboards started clicking. You and I could have predicted with a fair degree of certainty what was going to be said before it was said – some of these things just write themselves, after a while, and don’t even need the author’s byline there to give it credibility. Just feed the data into a machine and it’ll come out nicely and neatly arranged in the same predictable pattern. 

The thing is, what have we actually learned from these crimes, these wrecked lives and this whole miserable affair? Some conclusions were probably already drawn before the verdicts were delivered. Nick Griffin, of course, chose to make gleeful political capital out of it, before two of the convictions had even been decided upon – though anyone on a jury who could possibly be influenced by a Nick Griffin tweet shouldn’t be serving on a jury in the first place. 

I found myself increasingly frustrated when reading commentary on this episode. Some people were desperate to downplay whatever racial or cultural element to the crime there had been; others were determined to show that there was, and that their political opponents were somehow in part responsible for these men’s actions. It was not an entirely edifying spectacle, and the victims didn’t seem to be at the forefront of many writers’ concerns. 

Cheap political capital: a member of the BNP demonstrates outside the Liverpool Crown Court. Photo: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear