Boris Johnson’s politicizing of last week’s terror attack demonstrates an inexcusable self-centeredness

The tragic cost of the attack must be recognised as fundamentally human


It’s clear that last Friday’s terror attack on London Bridge was a tragedy on several levels. Not only did it constitute an attack on a way of life that we see as nonnegotiable, one that champions freedom of speech and democratic values unwaveringly, but for Cambridge University, its staff and students, and this city itself, the ramifications felt much closer to home. It is now known that the two victims of the attack were Cambridge graduates: 25 year-old Jack Merritt and 23 year-old Saskia Jones and that the attack was targeted at an event organised by the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology- the fifth anniversary of the Cambridge-linked Learn Together initiative. As the shock waves of such an incident reverberate through Cambridge, the necessity to honour and grieve the victims is felt acutely within the local community. On Monday, a vigil was held for the victims outside the Guildhall. It saw the local community gather together to commemorate the lives of two such valued individuals. Colleges flew their flags at half-mast in respect for the victims, and Cambridge's prospective parliamentary candidates immediately halted campaigning in the city.

Yet such examples of genuine grief and respect have not been replicated everywhere. In recent days, Boris Johnson has come under fire for attempts to politicize the event, claiming that such an incident was able to occur due to institutional flaws within the prison system and linking the attack to laws concerning automatic early releases. In an appearance on the Andrew Marr show, Johnson painted Labour as culpable for the early release of Usman Kahn (the perpetrator of Friday’s attack) and pledged that in the future, such serious offenders would not be entitled to early release.

Johnson’s attempt to integrate this tragic event into his Tory manifesto and capitalise on the attack as a campaign tool cannot help but feel overwhelmingly insensitive. It exposes a deep-seated self-centeredness that is entirely at odds with the very context that the attack occurred within. ‘Learn Together’, the initiative hosting the event last Friday, concerns itself with bringing together imprisoned offenders and those in higher education “to study alongside each other” and provide opportunities that will serve as useful for those imprisoned to better reintegrate into society upon release. What’s more, both Merritt and Jones have been repeatedly described as selfless volunteers, dedicated to fighting injustice and cruelty wherever they saw it.

When the very premise of the situation in which the attack took place would appear to be one of altruism and compassion, it seems cruelly ironic that twisting the narrative for political gain would even cross Johnson’s mind.

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In the run up to the election, a time when the twists and turns of Westminster politics dominate headlines, we should not accept the appropriation of such tragedies into a political discourse that is so unashamedly self-serving. Using the attack as a source of leverage against Labour amounts to a callous attempt to politicise a moment of great tragedy for Jack and Saskia’s family and friends, as well as for local and national communities, and is one that we should not stand for. Friday’s incident had a profoundly human cost, and the grafting of political agendas on to the incident must be deplored. Jack’s father’s poignant piece in The Guardian encapsulates just this; he describes his son in intensely personal terms; ‘Jack was proud. Jack was absorbingly intelligent. Jack was fiercely loyal. Jack loved music, art, eating good food with his family, and having more than one pint with his mates’. He acknowledges the anger Jack would feel if he knew that Johnson and his party were denying him the right to be grieved and remembered as primarily human, and one who would have a visceral and exacting response to Johnson’s blatant tactics of manipulation.

From Monday, picketing has been halted at the Sidgwick site, despite initial plans for the UCU strikes to continue until the end of term, in recognition of the need of those affected to have ‘access to the physical space of the Institute [of Criminology] to grieve… and to honour the memory of those who died’. Such action is telling; the strikes themselves are politically charged and treated with great gravity. The decision to suspend picketing cannot have been taken lightly. It is surely hugely symbolic and reveals a staff body that recognises and respects the human cost of the incident, and that is prepared to set aside political preoccupations (however pressing and grave) in order to support those in a time of emotional distress. Such a demonstration of compassion and solidarity within the Cambridge community is admirable and sets an example that Johnson would do well to follow.

I recognise that the very act of condemning Boris Johnson’s actions in this way may seem like the adoption of an inherently political stance in itself, and one with a particularly moralising and self-righteous tone. This is not my intention, I think it’s important and necessary to call out such crass behaviour when it is encountered.

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