A Visit to Woolwich

by John O’Sullivan
The trial of the two men who proudly claim they killed British soldier Lee Rigby is drawing to a close.

From Green Park station in central London it takes only 15 minutes to get to Greenwich by the Tube. From there a taxi will get you to Woolwich in another 15. I took this journey a few months ago, and I learned from the taxi driver that I was just the latest member of a fairly crowded pilgrimage to see . . . well, what exactly?

Not where Drummer (Private) Lee Rigby was brutally murdered last May so much as where the English people in their thousands came to lay wreaths, medals, and other mementoes on the weekends following his death. The taxi driver gave me a running commentary: Here was the road where the banks of flowers had spilled over the pavement into the street; they had now been removed by local government authorities, but visitors kept coming; now they usually left flowers at the entrance to the Woolwich Arsenal.

We went there. The Arsenal has a proud past in imperial history. It was one of the main home bases from which the British Army set off to those small wars in Burma, India, the Crimea, South Africa, Matabeleland, and lesser, now-forgotten places that kept the Victorian public patriotically entertained for more than a hundred years. Today’s tribute to that past consists of an ancient cannon propped up on a small green facing the Arsenal, which is itself guarded by a soldier and two policemen at a military barrier. They look at me with detached professional curiosity when I get out of the taxi and walk over to a smaller green, where the latest mementoes have been placed.

These include wreaths, personal letters, small nosegays with loving notes attached, wartime medals, a pair of Army boots, photographs of Rigby, photographs of other soldiers, and more and more flowers in different combinations. Some of these have clearly been left by family, friends, and neighbors of the slain soldier. Quite a number are tributes from other soldiers, current and veteran, some who served in the Second World War, many who fought in the multitude of small “emergencies” that marked the retreat from empire, some from the victorious Falklands War.

They reveal a deep cultural substratum of British life, both middle- and working-class, that values those things at which the dominant metropolitan liberal culture instinctively sneers: courage, the manly virtues in general, family ties, regimental loyalty, comradeship, patriotism, the nation’s past. Such values and emotions have not disappeared, but they have been driven well underground until an event that is either historic or shocking — the Queen Mother’s funeral, the murder of Drummer Rigby — impels people to display them publicly and proudly.

It should be no surprise that the British public came out in its thousands to lay wreaths and other mementoes on the place where Drummer Lee Rigby was brutally murdered. People wanted to show solidarity with his family and with his Army mates.

*     *     *

But there was something different and distinctive about the crowd too. This was noticed by one seasoned observer, Peter Whittle, the cultural critic at Standpoint magazine, and not coincidentally a native of Woolwich. Shortly after the murder, he devoted a column to the crowd of mourners:

[On] that day at least, around three-quarters of the large crowd at the scene were white working-class, of all ages, many of them families. I can’t remember the last time I saw such a crowd in Woolwich, and it took me aback.

Woolwich is one of those outer-London boroughs that have been transformed by years of mass immigration; in the past decade alone the white population has shrunk by 10 percent. Seeing the people that day was briefly to see the Woolwich of my youth, a working-class military town with a significant immigrant population which was for the most part happily accepted.

Now it is home to everybody and nobody.

Whittle had previously written about Woolwich two years ago following the London riots that effectively trashed the center of his home town. He argued then that mass immigration, white flight, demographic change, and multiculturalism in a broad sense had changed what had been a working-class garrison town half an hour from central London into a kind of Babylon Anywhere, with no common social, class, religious, national, or community standards.

More than all these factors, however, he indicted the metropolitan liberal culture that had discouraged the development of any such community standards or even standards within micro-communities (a.k.a. families):

The cultural war waged by moral relativists and liberal self-haters has been hugely successful: they have trashed the place as effectively as any rioter. Authority, whether it be moral, social, familial, or legal, has been chipped away at so relentlessly that it has finally collapsed. It is this, pure and simple, and not the tired excuses about disaffection and poverty, that has led so effortlessly to the burning of pubs and looting of shops.

This cultural war — and it is one over patriotism and the social fabric rather than religious morality — has led also to something else: a widespread but usually hidden distrust of institutions that are seen to embody this destructive and ultimately anarchic stance. Whittle noticed that people in this “white working-class” crowd were reluctant to be interviewed by the BBC and other media crews reporting on the scene.

A BBC Newsnight reporter too saw this reluctance. He speculated that it arose from the belief that the BBC would never actually show how ordinary people actually felt about the murder of Rigby. One woman had said as much and, when he asked what she did think about it, she replied that the murderers should be sent back where they came from.

As Whittle points out, this reply is confused at best; one of those arrested for the murder was born in Britain. But it reflects truly enough the sense most people have that the BBC, the Guardian, and other guardians of liberal orthodoxy almost always deal with questions such as immigration and multiculturalism in favorable, indeed, celebratory, terms. The culturally dispossessed — those who say that their country has been taken away from them — are rarely given a media platform to air their uncensored views. So, as Chesterton wrote, they are a secret people who “have not spoken yet.” They are increasingly aware of that, and so are the various modern establishments, uneasily so. 

*     *     *

Another reaction to this media coverage — one much criticized in the immediate aftermath of the crime — came from Sir Simon Jenkins, former editor of the Times, here writing in the Guardian, to the effect that the Woolwich murder was “a mundane act of violence” which our “echo chamber of mass hysteria” had transformed into a significant political act. This brought down a firestorm of hostility on Sir Simon’s distinguished head.

I am less critical than others because Sir Simon probably recalls, as I do, the days when the BBC six o’clock news would end with an item like this: “The police are anxious to meet Mr. Christie of North Kensington in London to help with their inquiries. He is of medium height, bald, speaks with a cockney accent, and was last seen wearing a grey mackintosh and red tie. The public is warned not to approach him, but to contact their local police or to ring Scotland Yard at Whitehall 1212.”

This was the opposite of mass hysteria, namely a careful understatement designed not to interfere with a subsequent fair trial. But it had a kind of cool impressiveness because the listeners knew it was backed up by efficient policing and tough sentencing. The bald man of medium height with a cockney accent was usually on the gallows a month or two later.

The police proved efficient at Woolwich. They arrived at the scene of the crime and, after an exchange of gunfire, soon had the wounded alleged murderers in custody. But few people expected the murderers to receive condign punishment. In practice, murderers who get “life” are released after eight or ten years. Public outrage may keep these particular murderers inside for longer, as it did the Moors Murderer, Myra Hindley. But in this case there was no real confidence in such an outcome on the part of ordinary Brits.

That’s one reason why, contra Sir Simon, the “echo chamber of mass hysteria” in response to the murder was justified. When justice is uncertain and diffident, public opinion will be correspondingly loud and angry. The anger is directed towards the murderers; the indignation towards the authorities. Ordinary people retain at least some of the cultural self-confidence that the elites have lost. And they don’t like being governed by people who almost willfully lack authority.

*     *     *

The other reason is that the murder of Drummer Rigby was transparently not your ordinary, regular, “mundane” act of violence. How many murderers stop buses in order to have the passengers take photographs of their brutal handiwork? Or give vaguely political speeches to smart-phone cameras? Or wait for the police to arrive?

Whatever else it was, this was a political murder. And a political murder is worse than an ordinary decent crime (to borrow Belfast vocabulary) because its victims include all law-abiding citizens in addition to, here, the slain soldier and his family. It is an announcement to everyone that the murderer and his confederates intend to change the people’s way of life “by any means necessary.” It implies a long and violent conflict.

We could ignore this aspect of the murder if we so wished. Many people at the scene did their best not to grasp the meaning of the butchery in front of their eyes. And the murderers themselves sought to impose their own “narrative” on what everyone saw. Even the brave woman who comforted the dying man was, in effect, integrated by the murderers into their view of things by being accepted by them as a sort of neutral Red Cross.

In these circumstances the politicians have to make clear that the British people will make no concession whatsoever to the murderers and those who are ideologically sympathetic to them.

*     *     *

The problem since the IRA bombings of the 1970s is that it has become ever harder to make these declarations convincing. Prime Minister David Cameron received praise for his strong words following the atrocity. They were indeed well crafted and soberly delivered. It is hardly Cameron’s fault that such statements of determination have been issued so frequently after terrorist outrages that they have lost half of their force.

And when these declarations are followed by secret negotiations with (or concessions to) the terrorist groups responsible, as they repeatedly have been, they lose what remains of their force and become an incentive to despair and cultural self-contempt rather than a source of reassurance. That is another reason why ordinary British people feel a sense of fatalism when they hear brave words from an Authority that seems aware of its own hollowness.

Will it be different this time? And by this time I mean not the Woolwich murder alone but the overall jihadist assault on British democracy. Optimists argue that since this war is aimed at changing Britain from a constitutional liberal democracy into some kind of sharia-compliant multicultural theocracy, it cannot possibly succeed. A democratic government could not possibly surrender to such demands.

But if surrender happens — and we can be sure it would “happen” quite impersonally — it won’t be in the way of previous surrenders to terrorism. There would be no conferences in Lancaster House, no late-night discussions in Downing Street, no clocks kept artificially at five minutes to midnight to meet a deadline, and so on. Apart from anything else, we won’t be negotiating with terrorists this time.

How can I be sure of that? Well, the terrorists insist that they won’t negotiate with us. They want a straight surrender. And they do sound convincing.

So how might surrender happen? Well, if it happens, it will happen gradually, so that no single concession seems vital. Greater official tolerance for sharia courts on “family” or “community” questions; a welfare state that increasingly accommodates polygamy; a growing refusal of magistrates to license pubs in mainly Muslim suburbs; the spread of Islamist “no-go” areas, where the police don’t go, gays get beaten up, and women dressed “immodestly” have acid thrown at them; late in the day, a new licensing system for non-Muslims to enjoy their vices in designated areas under restrictive rules.

At which point the Brits would be living in a different country.

*     *     *

Is this inevitable? Of course not; it is not even likely. As Keynes said — and I am quoting him approvingly — “The unexpected always happens; the inevitable never.” But Mark Steyn shows how such a future is already beginning to unroll. And the fact that it is happening here suggests that it can happen here.

Other possibilities, however, also lurk in the current situation. For instance, the marches of the English Defence League might prove to be early signs of a strong populist reaction to Islamist agitprop, eventually leading to violent religious conflict in major cities.

That is the outcome predicted by the late Tony Blankley in a powerfully argued book, The West’s Last Chance. It is likely, in my view, only if governments fail — from a misplaced fear of seeming “racist” or “Islamophobic” — to enforce the law on all sides equally.

Northern Ireland’s Protestant paramilitaries hardly existed in the early days of the Troubles in the 1960s; they emerged because the Prods felt that London preferred Catholic interests to their own and that they must rely on themselves for protection against the IRA.

If such a sentiment ever takes hold in the current context, it might spread quickly from its present narrow social base. It is already being encouraged by the barely covert assumption of much liberal journalism that the worst aspect of a terrorist attack by Islamists is the possible backlash against it or the danger that it might confirm the warnings of the English Defence League.

Well, it might. But whose fault would that be? The EDL is as yet nothing but a handful of obstreperous cranks and young lads who feel abnormally patriotic after a few beers. It is already declining and dividing in all directions, as is the usual fashion of such groups. It might become more substantial only if the stolid self-controlled people in the “white working-class” crowds Whittle saw become convinced that the government is inert and helpless in the face of creeping Islamism — and probably not even then.

But saying that the EDL is “alien” in Woolwich — as one Guardian writer did — is an odd way of describing some of the people who were born and grew up there and who have since shifted elsewhere. It is also a roundabout way of doing some EDL recruiting.

*     *     *

There is, mercifully, a third possible future. This is that Britain will continue as an essentially liberal democratic polity, in which the “white community,” non-Muslim minorities, and the large majority of British Muslims live more or less comfortably together under a set of political rules that require assent to the principles of that polity.

If this is to be achieved and both the dystopian futures averted, it can best be done by coolly but firmly challenging Islamist claims now — by making clear that Britain will remain a liberal constitutional state for the foreseeable future and that British Islam will have to accommodate itself to such liberal practices as free speech, religious freedom for all, including Muslims and post-Muslims, and legal equality under a single rule of law.

The clearest way of making this point, as Australian politicians seem to have grasped, is to say that Britain will never be governed by sharia law. Most British Muslims, who have grown up in a free country and (perhaps without fully realizing it) have become liberals themselves in important respects, would understand why this assurance was necessary. But many of them won’t understand if the choice is never presented to them clearly and confidently.

As yet, however, such clarity seems beyond most British politicians.

*     *     *

We should not forget the murderers. After all, they did not start out as killers; nor as Islamist fanatics. One was a young, lively, generally popular Christian of Nigerian background. As with the London Underground bombers, his old friends and family are amazed at his transition to Islamist terrorism.

Yet the explanation is relatively simple. Both young men were acculturated in a nation, spooked alternately by multiculturalism and by a defeatist Europeanism, that offered them a great deal materially but very little in the way of national identity or cultural self-confidence. At best, in the atmosphere fostered by metropolitan liberalism, they assimilated to a nullity; at worst, they were not told to aspire to being British, or to be proud of being so, but warned against being seduced by a heartless racist System.

They were offered neither pride nor a challenge. Islamism came along and offered both. And under the influence of this pernicious nonsense, they murdered a decent young man not unlike themselves.

I thought at the time of their arrest that it would not take them long to realize their mistake — and the deep wickedness of that mistake. Unless the authorities allow them to receive counseling from the very forces that misled them — and nothing would surprise me about the self-destructiveness of the modern British political establishment — then their foolishly wicked beliefs would cease to get the constant reinforcement that is usually necessary to such delusions.

More likely, they would encounter hostility and violence in prison. And while they must be protected against brutality, they should be exposed to criticism, education, and the knowledge of how decent people view what they did. One ultimate aim of imprisoning them should be to move them to feel deep shame at what they did and to admit this shame publicly.

If it makes people happier, we can call this rehabilitation.

*     *     *

But it seems that I was over-optimistic, or at least premature, in hoping for any moral awakening on their part. We have seen them in the last two weeks now that their day in court has finally come around.

The trial itself can hardly have surprises in the Perry Mason sense of new evidence that overturns expectations. All the essential facts were known in advance, and the judge is mainly occupied in ensuring that the defendants get all the procedural protections of English law. But the details of the murder — and the video recordings of it — still have the power to shock. Rigby’s mother and sister had to run in tears from the court to avoid seeing him deliberately run down by a car driven by the two defendants before they went on to cut him up with knives and cleavers.

After seeing these clips, the court heard the defendants justify their actions. That was, if anything, even more shocking. Both gave essentially the same defense: They were soldiers carrying out the will of Allah and had chosen Rigby in the belief that, Inshallah, he was a soldier too: “I’m a soldier. I’m a soldier of Allah and I understand that some people might not recognise this because we do not wear fatigues and we do not go to the Brecon Beacons and train and this sort of thing. But we are still soldiers in the sight of Allah as a mujahid.”

This dreary, wooden rote justification ought not to be hard to undermine and over time to eradicate from their minds. The very essence of a soldier is that he identifies himself as one by wearing a uniform and making himself vulnerable to attack in a known conflict. He doesn’t just run over someone out for an afternoon stroll in the hope that he might be killing a serviceman. That kind of action is less soldiering than either a war crime or terrorism.

The trial is expected to end later this week. Only the final speeches of the defense and the prosecution and the judge’s legal summing up remain. It seems reasonable to speculate that, although everyone is innocent until proven guilty, they will have a long time to think about such distinctions. 

And what of the wider question? In order to summon up the moral courage to mount a policy of patriotic rehabilitation, the British people will first have to undergo it themselves. The crowds placing flowers at Woolwich suggest that there is an appetite for it among ordinary Brits. Or was that a “one-off”? Will it be forgotten by the next news cycle?

*     *     *

I said a short prayer in front of the Woolwich memorials, and returned to central London. My walk from Green Park station took me through St. James’s Square, where in 1984 a Libyan “diplomat” fired a shot that killed policewoman Yvonne Fletcher. There’s a memorial to her by the park just opposite the corporate headquarters that used to house the Libyan embassy.

Usually there are many flowers around it, but that morning there was just a single withered bouquet. A security guard told me that flowers are removed at regular intervals and just as regularly replaced. “The police have a ceremony every April on the anniversary of her murder,” he told me. “The chief of the Metropolitan Police gives a speech. Other organizations hold ceremonies too. It’s quite an active memorial.”

So there is hope. Restoring pride and memory are the first steps towards recovering the kind of liberal British patriotism that will assimilate those minorities that at present are either hostile to or simply disconnected from British identity.

Maybe the BBC would be a good place to start.

 — John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Hungarian Review.

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