Clint Eastwood for Labour deputy leader

By David Osland

It’s one of the most famous film scenes of the entire New Hollywood era. Clint Eastwood, in his signature role as maverick San Francisco Police Department inspector Dirty Harry Callahan, points his revolver at an apprehended bank robber and voices a piece of dialogue many schoolboys of the period knew by heart.

“I know what you’re thinking: ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself,” he breathes menacingly.

“But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?”

Dirty Harry, directed by Don Siegel, was a reactionary picture by design. Its depictions of violence against women deservedly attracted feminist protest outside the 1971 Academy Awards ceremony.

The script actually set out to legitimise police brutality, marking a cultural harbinger of the law and order approach that typified the Reagan era which commenced in the following decade.

But by comparison to the outburst from Angela Rayner last week, Inspector Callahan should now be reassessed as the kind of politically correct liberal who at least stops to ask punks questions. Ms Rayner is having none of that.

Speaking at a podcast recording, Labour’s deputy leader insisted: “On things like law and order I am quite hardline. I am like, shoot your terrorists and ask questions second.”

There was worse to come when the audience reacted badly, with Rayner – the Momentum-backed official left candidate in the 2020 contest, let us recall – affecting a cringeworthy but studied ‘aw shucks, did little ol’ me say something contentious?’ tone.

Twitter users were quick to point out the problems with her position, pointing to the police summary executions of innocent people such as Harry Stanley in 1999 and Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005 as examples of why shooting first and asking questions later is genuinely a bad idea.

But there was, of course, no retraction. The outburst was part of a co-ordinated Labour frontbench drive to get home the message that Labour is now strong on law and order.

Earlier in the week, Shadow Justice Secretary Steve Reed got things rolling by resurrecting the New Labour ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ mantra. Starmer himself has subsequently demanded that the government gets slap-happy with the ASBOs.

Consciously or subconsciously, Rayner was likely referencing an interview Jeremy Corbyn gave the BBC in 2015, three days after the Islamic State attack on an Eagles of Death Metal show at a club in Paris, which saw 90 rock fans brutally murdered.

One of the two assailants detonated a bomb vest; the other, who was actually in the process of killing further hostages, was taken out.

These events unfolded in exactly the sort of venue I hang out in, at a performance of exactly the sort of band I go and see. I could easily have been there had I been in the French capital that night.

“I’m not happy with the shoot-to-kill policy in general. I think that is quite dangerous and I think can often can be counterproductive,” Corbyn told Laura Kuenssberg.

“I think you have to have security that prevents people firing off weapons where you can, there are various degrees for doing things as we know. But the idea you end up with a war on the streets is not a good thing.”

Up to a point, the interview probably ranks as a flub. Rock concerts are nowhere attended by armed police. The reply could have been worded far better, not least by being prefaced with the general observation that, tragically, sometimes there really is no alternative but to terminate a terrorist with extreme prejudice.

But the remarks themselves were perfectly coherent, and – one could argue – the only humane and broadly liberal approach to shoot-to-kill in general, as opposed to particular, situations. Of course questions need to be asked prior to pulling the trigger.

Predictably, Corbyn’s words somehow became twisted into ‘Jezza wants to let ISIS run amok on the streets of Britain’. Around 18 months later, in the wake of the Borough Market attacks, even Theresa May resorted to the trope in one of her speeches.

Let’s just say that the kind of people who came to Starmer’s defence over the Savile slur were not so quick to rally to his predecessor.

No doubt the new received wisdom in the Labour leadership is that tough talk on law and order is a shortcut to rekindling the affections of the Red Wall.

But coming just weeks after Derry marked the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, at which the Parachute Regiment gunned down 13 innocent people, without questions being asked until the Saville Inquiry commenced 28 years later, the message to anyone concerned with civil liberties is terrifying.

After all, Dirty Harry was a fictional character. Angela Rayner is Labour’s second most senior politician.

David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time left wing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland

Image: Angela Rayner MP. Source: https://members-api.parliament.uk/api/Members/4356/Portrait?cropType=ThreeFour. Author: David Woolfall,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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