Another look at Emma West
Libertarian Alliance, September 2014
There are, perhaps, more than two sides to the Emma West story. That this should be so is at least in part due to the torturous duration of her public exposure along with the complexity of the judicial process to which she has been subjected. Through it all, we have had to learn the story of Ms West at second or third hand. Rather like the Queen, by keeping her public statements limited she has made herself a tabula rasa for others to read into her character and intentions whatever they will. To certain people, she is a working-class heroine who dares to say the unsayable about issues of race and immigration. To others, she is a demon of our time, to be shunned and sentenced to deportation by Piers Morgan. Yet others hold her up as an example of a victim of mental illness and/or aberrant behaviour caused by prescription drugs but, in whatever case, subject to impulses beyond her own control.
Perhaps I am alone in finding all this media speculation rather tantalising. Who is the authentic Emma West? What is she really like? There is little that the media dislikes more than someone who, given their allotted fifteen minutes, fails to play the game. Perhaps her legal advisers have told her that silence is her best course of action. Perhaps she is, as has been said, too disturbed to focus on anything other than her own misery (her barrister, David Martin-Sperry, has said that she has attempted suicide on three occasions since the beginning of all this) or that of her domestic circumstances (in May 2013, she stabbed her husband twice in the back with an ornamental knife). I do not go along with the establishment’s medicalization of mental distress through the prism of mental illness, but that does not mean that her experience of mental distress has not been extreme and harrowing.
It is clear that reporting restrictions had been imposed upon this case which have now been lifted. From what has now been reported of the court proceedings, and here I rely mainly on the accounts provided by the Croydon Advertiser, West has asserted that she took an overdose of antidepressant medication combined with a glass of wine before the incident on the tram. She remembered that something had happened on the tram, but not what it was. A month later, video footage of her was on the national news, and she was hailed with some enthusiasm by the British National Party and the National Front, amongst others. We are now told by Mr Martin-Sperry that this political support “coupled with the pressure of the trial” “deeply distressed” West and led her to attempt suicide by twice trying to throw herself in front of traffic from roundabouts in Croydon. These actions led to her being detained in a psychiatric unit. Applications were made by her defence for the case against her to be terminated on the grounds of the state of her health. These grounds were refused by the Crown Prosecution Service and West’s legal team were preparing an abuse of process application when a compromise solution was proposed by the judge and accepted by both parties.
The nature of that compromise may give us pause for thought. The concept of plea bargaining is familiar to students of the American judicial process, but less so over here. As reported by the Croydon Advertiser,
West had denied racially aggravated intentional harassment on a tram travelling between Croydon and Wimbledon between September 30 and November 28, 2011.
However, she has now pleaded guilty to a lesser offence of racially aggravated harassment, alarm or distress, which crucially does not include mention of ‘intent’.
West, we are told, would not admit to anything that would have the effect of labelling her “racist”. Her defence has been to characterize her behaviour on the YouTube video as an episode of what amounts to temporary insanity, caused entirely by the mixture of her overdose of antidepressants with alcohol, and in no way representative of what she actually thinks on the issues of race and immigration. She would have us believe, it seems, that she in fact subscribes to the prevailing opinions on those issues; that is to say, those which are politically correct. Of course I have no reason to doubt West’s version of events, but having viewed the video in question in some detail, I still see in it someone who is, through evident and visceral anger, articulating deeply-held views and emotions in a blunt and direct manner, not a person who appears to be drunk, under the influence of drugs or otherwise insensibly dissembling.
That essential sincerity made an impression upon elements of our political spectrum that have for many years drawn their membership from the working class; from those, like West, who see their society changing before their eyes in ways that they cannot control and never consented to; who find that it is not merely the old economic certainties that have disappeared, but also those of their very social fabric – their family structures, the cohesion of their communities, their refuge in shared opinions and shared prejudices. Someone or something has betrayed them, of that they can be sure, but pinning down exactly what that force might be is a much more complex task. And in betraying them, it has driven them to the margins and taken away their voice. Can it be any surprise that when West and her ilk look around them, they say what they see?
If the BNP and the English Defence Force, among other similar groups, have been wooing West by sending her flowers and cheques, they have not been the only ones to pay her attention. The Croydon Advertiser reports that Mr Martin-Sperry has said that, in consequence of this public support,
“The net result is that threats have been made to burn down her house, not by the political right but by people from the other end of the political spectrum.
“There have been threats to burn her house, she has been physically assaulted and beaten to the ground outside her home.
“If she is to plead guilty to an offence which contained the words racial aggravation, she fears being labelled a racist.”
This week Mr Martin-Sperry said the arson threats had been made on an internet forum and the assault had not been reported to the police.”
So, let us understand a little more of what is going on here. West could, conceivably, have defended her comments. She could have said that her videoed remarks were indeed representative of her general views, albeit crudely and unfortunately expressed in a moment of anger. She could also have made a case that the labelling of her views as “racist” would have been the imposition of a Marxist construct whose shifting sands serve whichever emphasis the Left wishes to put on them this week. She might have developed her views into a political position that could have opened up opportunities to take on a wider role within society either within a political party or as an activist on the specific issues that she was particularly engaged with. But the consequences of doing so would, it appears, have been severe.
While the Left constantly demonizes such groups as the BNP and the National Front as violent extremists, it needs to look rather more carefully at its own ranks. It was not the Right who threatened to burn Emma West’s house down. It was not the Right who beat her up outside her home. If West had retained sufficient trust in the police to report the assault to them (and it should be remembered that she had assaulted a police officer when arrested for stabbing her husband), could she have been assured that she would have been believed, or that any serious action against the perpetrators would have followed? Is it any surprise that faced with this kind of pressure, a young mother in her position would say anything at all that might pacify a lynch mob? Is it any surprise that if someone is forced to deny their beliefs when on the receiving end of such behaviour, that they should be driven to suicide and mental torment? Was the only possible response for Emma West to plead insanity and beg for absolution on the grounds that she was not in control of her actions?
So I do not believe that Emma West’s case is quite as straightforward as Robert Henderson’s recent article indicates, although I do not deny that Robert makes some pertinent points therein. What I do believe is that Emma West began this series of events as a vulnerable person, and that she has become significantly more so in spite of the duty of care our society had towards her.
The challenges of West’s life should not be underestimated. She has a husband, and is a mother. She held down a job as a dental receptionist and nurse for ten years, despite suffering from depression since the age of eighteen. Her mental distress had resulted in her being sectioned just one month before the tram incident, after she attacked a close friend. Immediately before the tram incident, she had attended a session with her therapist which was sufficiently gruelling for her to overdose on her medication and resort to a glass of wine with lunch.
And to these direct pressures, we can add some more that are indirect but nonetheless insidious. Doubtless West has seen London grow significantly more crowded during the past decade, and has witnessed its public transport system become significantly more prone to incidents of low-level aggression and inconsiderate behaviour as it creaks at the seams to accommodate the extra load. Doubtless she has seen her job and her home life grow more difficult as government has imposed ever-greater levels of bureaucracy and micro-management upon employers and the welfare system. Doubtless she worries as wages stagnate while the cost of living soars, particularly with a growing child to feed. Doubtless she has wondered at the alienation of our society as it atomises ever further, the old links of family and class solidarity, the old values of protection for women, children and the elderly swept aside. Is it any wonder that all that weight would eventually cause something to snap?
A moment of anger – and she says that it was provoked when another passenger collided with her as she was standing on the crowded tram, knocking her infant son out of her arms and onto the floor of the carriage – has cost West any peace of mind she might once have had. What is the answer that society can offer? A supervision order and further mental health treatment, according to the court. The end of her career, according to the General Dental Council, which has struck her off and publicly branded her a risk to the “safety of her patients”. The major media outlets seem to have reported these events no differently than if she had not accepted the plea bargain; she is still eternally damned by the video footage that continues to reduce her life to two minutes and twenty-five seconds of ugly rage and hurt.
Perhaps someone in a stronger condition might have found some way to transcend such an episode and rebuild something. For West, she seems crushed by it all, destroyed by a system whose crusading zeal on behalf of its sacred cows carries all before it. It is not easy to hold West up as a martyr. What little we know of her life presents a picture of messy ambiguities, moral compromises and uneasy truths, not the certainties, consistency and steadfastness in the face of opposition that we might expect. Yet, perhaps she would not be the first in whom weakness and vulnerability in the face of overwhelming opposition came to be perceived as virtues.