In the wake of the terrorist attack on Manchester on Monday 22 May there was clear and immediate agreement by political parties and leaders that the election campaign should be suspended. This was not a time for electioneering or point scoring but for pausing and reflecting and allowing the rawness of grief and the vulnerability of sadness some space to breathe.
I felt sombre throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, I didn’t have any words to say, and I can imagine little less appealing than a politician or their volunteers turning up on my doorstep and trying to sell their policies, candidacy and commitments, to me. On Monday evening I had watched Theresa May being interviewed by Andrew Neil and looked forward to the follow ups throughout this week. But suddenly I couldn’t care less what other leaders might be skewed on as they faced intense questioning.
Young children had been killed, many others lay in hospital wounded, we now know that a young man walked up to the doors of Manchester Arena as the crowds were streaming out and detonated a bomb he was probably carrying in his rucksack and caused carnage. Twenty two people have died, many teenagers, one as young as 8.
The grief is unimaginable, but at the same time overwhelming. Anger is palpable but kindness is for many the first response. When presented with such violence the initial act is not to meet violence with violence but to offer all that we have to people who have lost so much more. Houses were opened, taxis provided, tea made for emergency services and pizza for reporters covering the unfolding events.
Such circumstances make us want to pause. To give dignity to the pain.
But politics has not stopped, it does not stop, arguably it cannot stop. While campaigning may have paused, and there was a cease fire in political hostilities, decisions were still being taken and people were viewing them and coming to a view as to whether they were the right thing to do or not. Politics is unavoidable, and we will have an election in two weeks’ time with crucial issues at stake. To not campaign in this context would send the message that the decision we take at the ballot box on 8 June is not important.
Rafael Behr wrote with precision in the Guardian on the need to return to politics and the election campaign: “Politics must not be treated as a distraction from the defence against terrorism. It is our defence against terrorism.”
Politics is too important to side line in the wake of grief.
There may be problems with some of the electioneering and petty point scoring, we may view with distaste some of the partisan disagreements that have for a few days drifted beneath the surface. But a key aspect of elections, and the democracy which relies on them, is that politicians disagree and parties present different visions and plans for the future. Partisan politics is a virtue and not a vice.
If we look with distaste at political activity in the light of this week’s tragedy then politics is being done badly. We should wake up, pay attention and do politics better. As Behr also states in the Guardian, not only should our politics continue to work, but it needs to be seen to work.
It is the authoritarianism of repressive regimes that wants to shut down political debate. Our democracy stands for difference and dissent, this is what gives democracy meaning, and what sustains its health. When we try and pretend we all think one thing, we give permission for our views to be taken for granted.
Elections are when we get to stand for what we believe, speak out for what we care about and insist that the authority we give to our elected representatives is only ever temporary.
As campaigns resume my hope and prayer is that they show civility to their opponents but do not hide disagreements. Tragedy was wrought this week on Manchester, and it demands a response, but the act of defiance called for in the final two weeks of the election is not to dismiss party politics as bad, but to do it better.
I want to hear how our parties will build a society rooted in love, truth, justice and freedom. I want to hear their differences, I want to see the disagreements, and I want partisan politics to be something we praise and protect not sneer at as an unsavoury side effect of something important but unappealing.
If campaigning is something we feel the need to suspend, then we need to campaign for better campaigning.
Christians in Politics have focused over the last year on encouraging Christians to disagree well, this is more vital now than ever before. Pat Finlow has written for us about how they want to see a new generation of Christians committing to service in the political world. Better politics is possible, but only if we’re willing and ready to show up.