This afternoon’s assault on London Bridge has become a wearily familiar scene in Britain, as have the words of condemnation and calls for unity from the country’s political leaders that inevitably follow such incidents. There are the expressions of outrage, that the attacker showed cowardice and the emergency responders great bravery. The public is urged to be vigilant, but not let the terrorists win. All of these statements can be—and are—true, and yet they can blur together to the point where they flirt with being meaningless unless a leader is able to capture the moment.
It is worth remembering that this attack comes just two and a half years after the previous frenzy of violence at the same spot in central London, at a similar point in that year’s general-election campaign, when eight people were killed and dozens of others injured using the same methods designed to spread fear: wild, roving stabbings and fake suicide vests for extra terror. The 2017 London Bridge attack came not long after an even bloodier atrocity in Manchester, when 22 people were murdered in a suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert. Both attacks happened during that year’s general-election campaign, twice causing the contest to pause, while also throwing new political issues into the mix in ways few expected, from foreign policy to the impacts of austerity. The same may happen again this time, or altogether new issues may emerge. No one knows.
The crucial point, however, is that the atrocities did more than throw up new policy issues. They served to reveal the essence of those vying to lead the country, lifting a curtain on the humans underneath.
What the country saw then—in truth, the campaigns themselves had already revealed elements of these characters—were two entirely different people with different impulses and instincts. Then–Prime Minister Theresa May, a security-conscious former home secretary, buried herself in the work of government, chairing emergency meetings to oversee the response. There were hardly any tweets or other social-media engagement—nothing deemed trivial. It was a time for prime-ministerial behavior, she and her aides believed. While unafraid to attack Labour politically for its response—this was not a politically naive woman—her immediate reaction was to focus on the effort to control the situation.
Corbyn, as leader of the opposition, was free from the constraints of executive power, yet the two crises and his response to them nevertheless revealed core elements of his character as well. His reaction, particularly to the Manchester attack, was to show solidarity. His leadership was emotional, compassionate. The day after that bombing, a vigil was held in Manchester. May stayed in London to oversee the response, sending her home secretary, Amber Rudd, instead; Corbyn made sure he was there.