At 3am on October 12, 1984 a bomb exploded at the Grand Hotel in Brighton (pictured). The Conservative Party Conference was on and the place was packed with politicians, including the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Five people were killed, including the Conservative MP Sir Anthony Berry. Norman Tebbit, the President of the Board of Trade, was among the 31 people injured.
Mrs Thatcher had a very narrow escape and was extremely lucky not to be injured or killed herself. Yet at 9.30am, six and half hours after the blast, she appeared on the platform of the Conference Hall very near to where the IRA terrorist atrocity had taken place. Things proceeded as scheduled – including the set piece speech the PM had been planning to make in any event.
I was there and remember it very well.
I wouldn’t say it continued as “normal” – the atmosphere very subdued. Of course we were all in shock. It was the virtual silence I remember. We all spoke very quietly waiting to go in. For people of my generation, it did seem extraordinary that it was proceeding at all. But I remember an older delegate remarking to me: “We had this through the war. We all just have to keep going, to get on with it.”
In a rousing speech, Thatcher said of the attack: “It was an attempt not only to disrupt and terminate our Conference; It was an attempt to cripple Her Majesty’s democratically-elected Government. That is the scale of the outrage in which we have all shared, and the fact that we are gathered here now—shocked, but composed and determined—is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.”
Then she pressed on with the substance of her speech – about the miners’ strike, abolition of the GLC, more money for the NHS, privatisation, lower taxation, NATO and so on.
Given that example, I am uneasy about the suspension of campaigning for the forthcoming General Election. Certainly the mood will inevitably be different, even
when campaigning resumes. But part of a functioning democracy is to have a full and rigorous election campaign.
It has become fashionable to say the campaigning goes on “too long” or is “boring” and therefore that taking a day out will be no great loss. Perhaps. But now, it seems that two days have been removed. More may follow.
There is a limited amount of time before polling day on June 8. A limited number of
opportunities exist on a national level for the parties to publicise their policies and priorities – and for their leaders to then be challenged over them by journalists.
Then there is the local campaigning. This is done by volunteers. Again, the resources are limited. The time is finite. Often these are people who work during the day and then give up their evenings and weekends to push leaflets through letter boxes, allowing the local candidate’s message to get across.
Or they canvass. Yes some voters find this a nuisance and are too busy to bother with it. But many others have questions and arguments they want to raise. Or practical matters regarding electoral minutia – “Where is my Polling Station?” “Am I in time for a Postal Vote?” “Is my son George down on the register?”
Just after the start of the 1979 General Election campaign, the Conservative Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Airey Neave was murdered by Irish Republican terrorists. There was strong condemnation from across the political divide – including a powerful statement from the Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. But the campaigning was not interrupted.
Of course, it doesn’t mean that because arrangements are different now, we were right then and are wrong today. Nor are these easy judgments to make. There could be another attack at any time – would that mean campaigning suspended for longer?
But election campaigning is not some frivolous luxury. It is essential to our democracy. It is that democracy that so much of the world is denied and which Isis wishes to deny Britain – and when it is absent is so bitterly missed. I hope the campaigning will resume very soon.