The liberal hypocrisy over the Arizona shooting

The knee-jerk hysteria blaming Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck risks sinking to the level of the far righ

I'm not sure whether John Wilkes-Booth was a Republican. His shooting of Abraham Lincoln tends to indicate not. Lee Harvey-Oswald described himself as "a hunter of the fascists". That was after his defection to the Soviet Union. When Samuel Byck plotted to murder Richard Nixon, one can assume it was not Nixon's fanatical liberalism that offended him. Ronald Reagan's would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr reportedly acted out of an obsession with the actress Jodie Foster. None, to my knowledge, had any connection with Sarah Palin.

The reaction to Saturday's shootings in Arizona, or the left's reaction to the shootings, has been a case study in partisan, knee-jerk hysteria. In fact, it's been a case study in the sort of partisan, knee-jerk hysteria that is usually the preserve of the far right.

As nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green lay dying, there was no need to call the police. We already knew the culprits. "Glenn Beck guilty," tweeted Jane Fonda. "Mission accomplished, Sarah Palin," blogged Markos Moulitsas, founder of Daily Kos.

Let's for a moment set aside the sheer tastelessness of the attempt to appropriate mass murder for political purposes literally within minutes of it happening. Let's park the self-indulgence of people who claimed a shooting that robbed six families of children, fathers, mothers, husbands, wives and grandparents was "an attack on us all".

Those arguing the Arizona shootings are the product of US right-wing politics, and are demonstrative of a new culture of violent political intolerance, do not have a shred of evidence upon which to base their case. None. All they have to deploy are the same narrow-minded, reactionary, "guilt by association" smears that foster the very extremism they attempt to decry.

"The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on this country is getting to be outrageous," said Arizona's Pima County sheriff Clarence Dupnik. At least Sheriff Dupnik can claim direct association with Saturday's appalling events, and the strength of his response is understandable. But factually, he is wrong. The last time the United States witnessed a sustained programme of organised political violence, bigotry and intimidation was in reaction to the civil rights advances of the 1950s and 1960s. And it was organised, endorsed and appeased by, among others, Southern Democrats.

The US does have a history of isolated attacks directed against its elected representatives. But the thing that connects almost every one of the perpetrators of those crimes is their easy access to guns. My understanding is that Gabrielle Giffords was an opponent of gun control. In 2008 her spokesman voluntarily told local media that she was the owner of a Glock pistol.

We should also remember there are those in the UK that carry guns. Two of them are the Special Branch officers currently detailed to escort our own Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who has required their protection since voting to increase tuition fees. As we decry the political culture that begets violence in the States, perhaps we should cast a critical eye closer to home.

The US commentator Michael Tomasky is among many who have identified "the violent rhetoric that emanates from the right wing of American society" as contributing, even subliminally, to the shootings. But is "violent rhetoric" the preserve of the right? When John McDonnell expressed a desire to travel back in time and "assassinate" Margaret Thatcher, I don't recall the left rising in condemnation. Nor when Ken Livingstone expressed a wish to see the Saudi royal family swinging from lamp-posts.

The outcry from liberal commentators would at least have more weight if it carried the virtue of consistency. Instead, it is infected by hypocrisy. The very voices condemning the malign impact of Sarah Palin's website are the same ones that were raised in indignation when it was suggested that Pastor Jones, the Quran-burning preacher who was planning to march through Luton with the English Defence League, might be banned. Palin's graphics were deemed an assault on our freedoms. An intimidatory march through Britain's Asian communities is apparently fundamental to them.

Palin and Beck should be condemned, but not because their politics resulted in six people being shot dead in an Arizona shopping mall, appalling though that incident was. They need to be condemned because their politics leads to a quarter of a million people being killed in Iraq. Or because their policies on "abstinence" lead to hundreds of thousands dying of Aids. Or because their penal policies lead to thousands being executed by the federal state.

The American right is fast approaching its day of reckoning. It will be delivered not at the barrel of a gun, but at the ballot box. If we stoop to their level, all we will do is see that day delayed.

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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories