Karen Bradley and the justification of state killing

7 Mar

There was some surprise at Northern Ireland Secretary of State Karen Bradley’s comments justifying killings by the British State. The surprise is surprising. Bradley is a British unionist and is merely upholding British unionist policy that the British state is legitimate. The logic of British unionism, like all forms of nationalism, is violence. Some British unionists are civic and seek forms of pluralism and toleration. But this is a minority interest. The logic of nationalism is the exclusion of others – by the use of force in some cases. In this case, the logic is that the British state must hold the monopoly of violence in Northern Ireland and therefore is correct to defend the use of force against subaltern and dissenting voices.

There was a moment when people may have thought that the British State was somehow neutral in relation to Northern Ireland (and indeed, Secretary of State Peter Brooke famously sent the IRA a secret message saying as much). But this moment was very much procedural. It was part of the peace process and designed to encourage Irish republicans to call a ceasefire, engage in negotiations, and disarm. That moment has long passed. Those strategic goals on behalf of the British State have been achieved. There is no pretence from the Theresa May government that it is anything other than unionist. Mrs May has been very clear about that in her public pronouncements. Part of this is the expediency of keeping the Democratic Unionists on board to prop up her minority government. But in a deep cultural sense, British Conservatives are statist, militaristic and unionist. That is part of their DNA – hence there should be no surprise at Karen Bradley’s comments. It is why I simply do not believe her apology.

There is another aspect to this as well: the fact that Karen Bradley was brazen enough to tell the truth about her support for state killings. Some commentators have put this down to Bradley’s by now well-known incompetence and professional laziness. I am not so sure (although I cannot dispute her incompetence and laziness – sue me Karen, we’ll happily go over your ministerial record in court). I think there is a wider issue here of the coarsening of political debates. We see this in many contexts: just check out Fox News and much of US politics for its rebarbative ‘stuff you if you don’t like what I’m saying’ tenor. In the UK, Brexit has been responsible for wiping away the pretence that pills should be sugared and that government should appear to be listening. Bradley’s comments should be placed in the context of a rougher form of political discourse, in which there is little pretence at achieving consensus, and no shame in offending citizens. It is worth reminding ourselves that Bradley’s offence is egregious. While she does not have the rhetoric flourishes of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro or his counterpart from the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte, she is effectively saying the same thing: the state has the right to kill some citizens without any pretence to due process.

Bradley’s apology is very revealing. It apologises for ‘offence caused’ rather than the actions of the state itself. A meaningful apology would mean going against her political base. It would separate her from the Daily Mail reading Conservative heartland and from the British Army – a surrogate for all things that are upright in broken Britain. That is why there was no meaningful apology. Bradley – like Duterte and Bolsonaro – was being honest when she justified state killing.

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