What would Clement do?

A Labour blog that witters on about Clement Attlee. Hurrah for The Major!

Archive for the tag “Nick Cohen”

Defending Offence: A reply to a writers’ question (1)

The reason I have not gone all out attacking Islamism in my art is because I feel the real that someone will slit my throat…

(Grayson Perry, quoted by Nick Cohen, pp 50 “You Can’t Read This Book” 2012)

…I worked on this opera about Jerry Springer. And, um, we got accused of being blasphemous, which was, came as a genuine surprise, ’cause it honestly had had really good reviews in the Church Times and Catholic Herald when it first went out in the theatre. So it was kind of weird, it all came a bit out of nowhere. We got 65,000 complaints when it went out on television. The BBC executives that commissioned it had to go into hiding, with police protection. And me and the composer were going to be taken to court and charged with blasphemy. But at the end of June, the High Court threw the case out on the grounds that it isn’t 1508.

(Stewart Lee,transcript from his show “90’s Comedian”, published in 2010, “How I escaped my certain fate…”)

Since its publication, “You Can’t Read This Book” by Nick Cohen has become one of the most important publications of the of the decade for anyone who sees free speech and free thinking as vital to the progress of humanity. After publication, there have been many reviews, mostly positive, of a book that takes an overview of the state of play for anyone who wants to tell truth to power, or simply be well informed. Having divided his arguments into three sections – “God”, “Money” and “The State”, Mr Cohen then rounds on the forces that he sees as being the enemies of truth.

With the lamented early death of Christopher Hitchens, Cohen is perhaps the best contemporary western journalist and essayist we have nominally on the left. I consciously say “nominally’, as he has been alternately the darling and the whipping boy for certain parts of the left liberal commentariat for much of his career. Oh how they loved his well researched attack on Blairism in “Pretty Strait Guys’, and how they pilloried him for his support for the destruction of the Ba’ath regime of Saddam Hussein, even if it meant supporting an unpopular war. Yet the fair weather friends of the far left, and their careless parrots within the wider currents of mainstream left/liberal thought would do well to cast aside prejudice and read a passionate, well researched and and literate defence of basic freedoms that without which, no truly liberating progress can come about.

I had no real intention to add to the pean of praise heaped upon his latest work, yet in a reply to a post I made on the 18th, I found myself reaching for my copy once again. Jaime Lynch Staunton, a writer and blogger asked the question:

Who is being cowardly and subservient to religion? How?

To do Jaime justice, I will divide my answer into two sections, and two posts

WHO…

In 1989, one of the great English Language novelists of modern times published his latest work. As in previous works, it was an exploration of themes close to his own experience as an immigrant from the Indian subcontinent to Britain. Salman Rushdies’ “The Satanic Verses” was attacked by fundamentalist clerics in Iran (a dictatorship had previously praised his earlier work), and the Ayatollah Khomeni pronounced a fatwa upon him, his publishers, and booksellers worldwide. Numerous attacks on bookstores and translators ensued or we threatened, most notably in Japan in 1991, the murder of an academic translator, and in Italy the stabbing of another. To their great credit, both the British Government and the publishing industry stood firm, and Rushdie has so far eluded his assassins.

There was a backlash, aided and abetted by those who should, and did, know better. Keith Vaz, MP for Leicester South, came to the fore in this country calling for the book to be banned, in effect asking that Britain follow the lead of Apartheid South Africa. Predictably enough, Norman Tebbit weighed in, to kick an opponent when he was down. More disturbing was the response of some other western authors…

Most bizarre of all though, was the noise by a number of eminent writers and authors. John le Carre’, John Berger, Roald Dahl, Hugh Trevor-Roper, and others began a sort of auction of defamation in which they accused Rushdie variously of insulting Islam, practising Western-style cultural colonialism & condescension, and damaging race relations.

(Christopher Hitchens, in “Unacknowledged Legislation, Writers In The Public Sphere”, Verso, 2000. pp.127)

Rushdie even managed perhaps the greatest feat of ecumenicalism, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Vatican, and the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel all issuing statements to the effect that the main problem with the fatwa was not the actual death threat, but the blasphemy committed by the writer.  George Bush the first refused to follow in the footsteps of Vaclav Havel and Irelands’ Mary Robinson in upholding the international promise of the US constitutions’ First Amendment. Germaine Greer defended the rights of book burners everywhere, to her shame.

Eventually, the fatwa was lifted, as part of the ongoing diplomatic efforts of Iran to gain better relations and recognition in the west. Then in 2007, the now Labour Government gave Rushdie a Knighthood for services to literature. Again various radical Islamist organisations claimed offence. Predictably, many on the right criticised the award being given to a writer so firmly opposed to “Mrs Torture”, yet even some of them defended his right to write what he thought, notably Boris Johnson and Peter Hitchens, whilst claiming his work to be “unreadable”. In the same edition of the BBC programme “Question Time”  the daughter of Vera Brittan and Liberal Grande Dame Shirley Williams could not bring herself to support the appointment, saying that it was ill-timed, begging the old partisan question “if not now, when?”.

Now, with the murder of an American Diplomat and staff in Libya, apparently over manufactured offence caused by a grubby little film, and the French call to leave muslim countries over some cartoons, Mr Rushdie has become the subject of another well-funded fatwa bounty.

But of course, this is only one man, and one book. Hilary Clintons response to the supposed “offence” caused by the film “The Innocence of Islam” speaks volumes:

…our country does have a long tradition of free expression, which is enshrined in our Constitution and in our law. We do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be.”

No British Foreign Secretary could say the same without contradiction on each point – historical, legal, and practical.

In December 2004, a crowd of up to 1,000 Sikhs protested outside Birmingham Repertory Theatre, some stormed the building, stopping the first performance of the play “Behzti (Disgrace), by the female British Sikh writer Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti. The play explores themes of abuse and hypocrisy within the Sikh community, and is set in a Sikh temple. It is, very obviously, a work of fiction. The play was cancelled after two days of negotiation involving the police and local dignitaries.

The leader of this self-appointed group, Mr Sewa Singh Mandla justified his actions thus:

In a Sikh temple, sexual abuse does not take place, kissing & dancing do not take place, rape doesn’t take place, homosexual activity doesn’t take place, murders do not take place

As reported in The Sikh Times, Steven Glover, writing in The Daily Mail expressed “a degree of sympathy” and found it “hard not to admire” the protesters. It was perhaps no surprise that the Roman Catholic Church in Birmingham, in the person of Archbishop Vincent Nichol would make common cause against free thought in these words:

Such a deliberate, even if fictional, violation of the sacred place of the Sikh Religion demeans the sacred places of every religion. 

Of course, I should not have to remind any reader of the actions of Christian Voice over “Jerry Springer – The Opera”, the protests and threatened protests that forced 9 theatres to pull out of the nationwide tour, the level of threat which sent BBC staff into hiding…

The cumulative effect of these and others religious protests and threats has been, in one writers’ words to “internalise the fatwa”, so that many artists and writers self-censor, much as most did under the great dictatorships of the twentieth century. In the end, all authority, secular and religious, relies more on “the policeman in your head” rather than the policeman on the street. Although there are policeman out there, ready to pounce whenever one transgresses the shifting boundary of “offence”.

In the light of past scandals, the Arts Council is, as in the case of “Jerry springer” much less likely to grant money to any production that could cause offence to be manufactured. It is not hard to find a local politician, of any party, who will readily give voice to any loud “community” based campaign against whatever is seen as against any particular religion. The over used word “respect” is now the mantra when it comes to deeply held beliefs – as if simply believing something deeply enough makes it impossible to challenge. The Commission for Racial Equality conflates religion with race regularly, as do many others, which is insulting on both levels, if you think about it.

So, Commissioning Editors, Publishers, Producers as well as writers all tend to shy away from the new religious taboos – finding much more comforting and safe ways to shock us – a “Booky-Wook” here, a “Little Britain” there, but please, don’t offend the clerics too much eh?

 

Noes To The Left…

Two recent articles on the Referendum on Electoral Reform (no, please wait, its not that dull…) by decent leftwingers against change have got me thinking. Nick Cohen in The Spectator today, and Darrell Goodliffe at Left Futures (links on your right) both have it in for AV and Nick Clegg. As a Democrat and a Socialist, I have to disagree with my no-doubt honourable opponents here, and this is why…

Nicks article is mainly a sustained diatribe against celebrity endorsements of the Yes campaign, and, to a certain extent I have to agree – certainly I do not believe that any campaign or issue is “good” on the say-so of an actor, singer, poet or model. Often I find myself taking a reverse opinion, wondering where on earth you could find Fois Gras in Asda, or eat swans stuffed with owls whilst wearing only cruelty guaranteed fur and blood diamonds. But this is simply the reaction of someone who doesn’t like to be hectored at by those richer, safer and more powerful than himself. In the case of Electoral Reform, surely anyone who has the vote in the UK is entitled to their opinion? The charge Nick makes is that we in the yes campaign are hiding Nick Clegg behind the skirts of Helena Bonham Carter.

Now for those of a Liberal Democrat persuasion, there may be some truth in this, but the fact remains that the Yes campaign is much broader based than that. I really have little sympathy for Little Nicky and his Orange Book groupies, but the case for reform of our voting system is much more important than any one party. Mr Cohen and Mr Goodliffe decry the only option on the table for change – that of the Alternative Vote (AV). I understand the misgivings, and the arguments against it, but is it not better to get some change, rather than none? The Royal Commission under Lord Jenkins proposed a system incorporating AV plus an element of proportionality – AV plus, which could be introduced early on if Labour commits to it fully, and we win in 2015. And heres the rub, whatever the Lords have managed to squeeze out of the Coalition in concessions, we still lose 50 MPs and constituencies before 2015. The majority of these will be Labour, in a staggering move more suited to Al Capone than a democratic government. Without a change in the voting system, Labour face the prospect of being gerrymandered out of office for at least a decade. What on earth will be left to save in 2025? Will we have to start all over again? Can we?

For Labour, there is also a tactical consideration here. We oppose the Coalition on pretty much everything they are doing, and that means laying into the Lib Dems. This is no bad thing at all, but we may very well have to form some kind of alliance with them at some stage to win back power. To do this, we must prove ourselves to be willing to make changes, and to live up to the “Democratic” part of Democratic Socialism. We may also see a growing number of Lib dem activists from the Social Democratic wing come over to our side… Yet No campaigners within Labour, honest though they may be, are proving themselves just as tribal as Clegg, and as wedded to the old Tory “No reform” policy as Ham-Face Cameron… Think again Please…

Iraq, Ed, David and the rest of us…

IRAQ – RIGHTS AND WRONGS

For all that he said in his first leaders speech, few can doubt that the most important moment for many on the centre-left was Ed Miliband’s apology on Iraq. In very careful language, reminiscent of Robin Cook, he made the legal and diplomatic case for the thinking opposition. Big applause, or not, depending on your point of view. This was the moment that Labour finally started to reach out to many of those inside and outside the movement who deserted us in droves after 2001, finding a home for their votes in The Greens, or in the Liberal Democrats.

It was a move, however, fraught with difficulty, encapsulated not only by the recorded reactions of elder brother David, but followed up by pieces on the national press from pro and anti-war voices, such as todays article in The Times by David Aaronovitch.

A someone who started out as instinctively against the Iraq adventure, yet came to believe that although very flawed, it was the right thing to do (albeit awfully executed), I think I can add something here. Since 2001, the spectrum of centre-left opinion has been divided rancourously and dangerously over Iraq. The two sides have expended much bile and energy on each other, rather than on supporting arab Democrats and Trades Unionists across the middle east. The terms of debate have become increasingly extreme, the result being that many opportunities to challenge the real “neocons”,  “imperialists”, and “excusers of tyranny” have been ignored. Rational debate on Israel, Islamicism and attitudes to Human Rights has all but vanished.

There were honourable people on both sides of this clash, some, like Johan Hari and Nick Cohen, have changed sides over time, others, like David and Ed Miliband have not, but no matter, the point is that amongst ourselves we need recognise what this has meant to the hopes of the Left. My position would best be summed up by paraphrasing Nick Cohen in his book “Whats Left?” –

“OK, I didn’t initially support the War for a number of reasons – knee-jerk anti-americanism, a feeling of being rushed, the dodgy dossier and lack of a clear UN sanction, as well as suspicions as to the motives of GW Bush and his oil-rich friends. I marched, I shouted, and still we went to War, which in military terms was won quickly and with ease.

However, I could still see that deposing Ba’ath tyranny was a good thing for the people of Iraq, and that there was a chance to build a democratic, federal Iraq. The occupation, hamstrung by Washington’s obsession with doing things on the cheap and via private companies, has been a disaster, making mistakes detailed in books such as “State of Denial”. Nation building is still an honourable ideal, if done on an open, honest basis.

The trouble is that most of the hardcore anti-War campaigners have moved from opposing “Imperialism” to supporting an insurgency that is comprised of old Ba’athists, Clerical Fascists, and is in large part backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. It repeatedly targets intellectuals, women, and the most progressive parts of Iraqi society. Whatever the obscene death toll in Iraq post-war, the largest number of those killed by violent means have been killed by these people. Faced with a choice between some freedom and none, I have to choose some freedom under occupation.”

Thanks Nick, anyway, there is a real danger today that attitudes towards Iraq will become the touchstone for a division within our party, between those who wanted David, and those who didn’t. This would be the worst outcome for all concerned. It would also be against the stated wishes of a certain D. Miliband MP…

AN INSURGENCY OF OUR OWN?

From the moment a couple of weeks ago that Ed emerged as a real contender for the Leadership, those closely linked to the New Labour “Project”  swung into action. Tony Blair very wisely mentioned no candidate by name, followed by Lord Mandelson, John Rentoul, Alistair Campbell and David Aaronovitch were much more specific, as were the Murdoch Press. Attacks on Ed as being “Red”, a geek, too young, too leftwing, too odd etc became increasingly heavy. This is all part and parcel of debate in an election, and is fair enough, however, from Sunday onwards, “New Labour” voices in the Media intensified their attacks.

In a breathtaking reversal of Labour history, it was now the rightwing, having lost a Leadership election, that seems to want us to commit political Hara-Kiri, just so its favoured son can pick up the pieces after 2015. It is very tempting to describe these voices as latter-day Bennites of the Right, if so many of them hadn’t been Bennites back in the early 1980s that is. A more accurate description of this situation would be the distrust between the pacifists and non-pacifists in the Labour movement post 1918. It is often glossed over, but throughout the inter-war left, divisions arose over attitudes to The Great War, and not everyone was able to re-unite immediately post November 11th. Clem Attlee is an outstanding example of someone willing to work with both sides, while himself being a wounded Gallipoli veteran. It took (pacifist) McDonalds treachery, and Bevins harsh 1935 speech attacking George Lansbury before the wounds were healed in general terms. In the meantime, other internal battles – with the ILP, The Socialist League and perpetually with Morrison expended valuable time and effort better spent combatting unemployment, The National Government and the BUF. (Shades of today?)

Another parallel would be the destructive and futile decade long battle between the Gaitskellites and Bevanites for the soul of labour in the 1950s. Remember, we lost in 1951, although polling one million more votes than the Tories, and the fratricidal warfare that Attlee tried so hard to prevent led to us losing those votes and every election until 1964 – thirteen wasted years indeed.

IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY…

It seems that, having still not got used to losing grip on the levers of power, a tightly knit group of politically motivated individuals are hell-bent on sabotaging our chance to effectively renew, oppose, and defeat this Coalition.

It does not have to be like this – I doubt very much if electing Ed has ushered in a period when we embrace the 1983 manifesto like a long-cherished Bible. The vast majority of our new members (myself included) are eager to return to Government, with a new purpose, although we may be a little to the left of the “true” Blairite tendency. We want the power to save the NHS, create a fairer, more equal Britain, stop the atomisation of our education system along class lines, rebalance the economy and effectively regulate the city. We want to see fair voting system, and elect The House Of Lords amongst many other things.

Surely, we can have a rational debate about policy and outcomes, rather than harmful sniping that could become outright war if we don’t all grow up now. We owe it to our Party, to ourselves, and to our Nation.

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