Red Ken and the final solution


Under pressure: Ken Livingstone suspended over allegations of anti-Semitism

There’s that infamous joke about the Jew stopped in Belfast and asked to declare his religion. On hearing his affiliation he’s asked: “Yes, yes, but are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?” I know, it’s a poor joke – and I doubt it was funny first time around.

The Irish think history has been hard on them: political and religious discrimination, the loss of sovereignty with the Act of Union, the famine, civil and political unrest. We warm to a narrative of oppression, and wear the mantle of victimhood easily. Our folk singers embrace the theme, and our bookshelves groan under the weight of countless horrible histories.

But in the list of historic injustices, nothing compares to the suffering of the Jews. Their story is one of trial and endurance – even in the centuries before the birth of Christ. But nothing the Egyptians handed down in Old Testament times was comparable to the excesses suffered during the Christian era – culminating in the horrors of the Holocaust.

Forgetting that Jesus was never a Catholic – he died a Jew – the Church actively supported the persecution of the Jews on the spurious basis that they bore collective responsibility for Jesus’s death. It was a case that all original sins are bad, but some original sins are worse than others. It was only in 2000 that Pope John Paul II made a formal apology to the Jews.

He said: “We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood.”

Throughout the course of history there have been countless crimes against humanity. For many countries, their histories are accounts of murders, massacres and acts of genocide. From the Peloponnesian War – five centuries before the birth of Christ – through to modern day acts of mass slaughter in Bosnia, Rwanda and Sudan, man has been committing acts of inhumanity to man.

Every death is a tragedy, and morally there is no difference between the suffering of a Jew in a Nazi concentration camp or a Bosnian Muslim in Srebrenica.

But it is impossible to view the current row over allegations of anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party, or indeed broader criticism of Israel, without also being conscious of the enormity of the Holocaust. It is also important to recognize that anti-Semitism is not just a problem of the British Left. Two millennia of indoctrination has ensured that anti-Semitism is woven into the fabric of our culture. In trying to deal with the current controversy, I think it is important that we recognize the baggage non-Jews carry into the debate.

That baggage should not stop the legitimate questioning of the Israeli government. Its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should properly be called to account for his policies and the actions of the Israeli security forces, and there is much for Netanyahu to answer to. Nor should it stand in the way of the search for a long-term solution to the establishment of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

But neither the proper scrutiny of Israeli policy, nor the cause of the Palestinian people, is helped by crass posturing by British politicians more interested (it must be said) in domestic political squabbles than the long-term interests of people living in the Middle East.

I have a bit of time for Ken Livingstone. I like a politician who is prepared to go against the tide and who speaks out against orthodox thinking. But in identifying Hitler – a monster who made an industry out of genocide – with Zionism, Livingstone went too far. He deserves the opprobrium heaped upon him.

In a foolish and hubristic sentence he has undone his political reputation. In the process he has undermined one of his closest political allies and aided those who want to see his party reduced to a footnote in history.

Livingstone’s act of stupidity has exposed the vein of naked intolerance that underpins political discourse – whether that be racism in the debate over immigration; sectarianism in the jostling for position in the Assembly elections; or anti-Semitism in the British Left’s approach to Middle Eastern politics.

While all those –isms remain unchallenged, we are diminished as human beings and we become even more vulnerable to discrimination and intolerance.

So tell me, are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?




Jeremy Corbyn and the decline and fall of British Labour


Jeremy Corbyn: accidental leader of the Labour Party

So what is to be made of the Right Honourable Jeremy Corbyn: accidental leader of the British Labour Party, champion of unpopular causes; and a meek-mannered vegetarian surrounded by carnivores?

There is no doubting the scale of Corbyn’s mandate. It’s huge. As his minions keep repeating, no other party leader has been elected with such a groundswell of support.

In the main, electoral systems are designed to ensure moderates (within an acceptable range) get in.

This has worked effectively enough for Labour in the past. The middle ground – represented by Wilson, Callaghan, Kinnock, Blair, Brown – has held sway. The donkey-jacketed left wing intellectual Michael Foot was the exception that proved the rule.

But the fratricidal Ed Miliband changed the rules ‘in the interests of party democracy’. Under his somewhat bonkers electoral system anyone with three quid spare could sign up as a Labour supporter and get a vote, and many on the disenfranchised left did just that.

That in itself would not have been enough to see Corbyn through. MPs are the gatekeepers to getting on the candidates’ list and, as we have seen in recent months, Corbyn does not have a natural majority there.

He effectively blagged his way onto the leadership ballot with the borrowed votes of some idealistic MPs (such as Margaret Beckett) who thought the left should have a voice in the leadership debates, but never imagined people might vote for Corbyn.

This, of course, is history. But understanding the nature of Corbyn’s ascent is critical to understanding the intricate power politics currently being played out in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Corbyn is perplexing because he does not play by the rules. In a parliamentary system that prizes loyalty above principle, he is a serial rebel. Indeed, it is reckoned he has voted against Labour more times than current Tory Premier David Cameron.

He abhors the theatrical cat and mouse game of Prime Minister’s Question Time, and raises issues on behalf of Joe and Jo Public. And he is suspicious of ritual and kow-towing (as well you might be if you, like him had attended a private school and endured its hierarchical ravages).

All this, of course, is part of the reason why he was successful in the leadership ballot. People don’t like career politicians (and who can blame them). Today we respond positively to ‘authenticity’, and Corbyn has managed to transcend his privileged upbringing. He is not afraid to call a shovel a spade.

On the face of it, he seems to be an awfully nice bloke. Even his political foes agree.

And there are those of us who believe that someone who has attracted the enmity of The Sun, The Daily Mail and Tony Blair cannot be all bad.

Among a certain class of people – let’s call them the contrarians – Corbyn is a good thing for politics, for parliament and for the democratic cause. As the course of Irish history has shown, great injustices are done when people refuse to defy the accepted wisdom. Corbyn’s record on issues of peace and justice is not what some would paint it.

But politics is not just about principle, it is also about power. Without power, you can achieve nothing – as the Liberal Democrats and Labour are learning to their cost.

Many in the parliamentary Labour Party have memories fresh enough to know what power tasted like, and they miss it. Corbyn has never had it, and wants it only on his terms. And there lies the fault line in Her Majesty’s so called Opposition.

It rift is not just between MPs and their leader, but between the parliamentary party and the party in the country – the hundreds of thousands who voted Corbyn as their leader, and who expect him to deliver a new style of politics: old Labour politics, stripped of the centrist trappings added by Blair and Brown.

Corbyn’s new year reshuffle was designed to tilt the balance in the direction of the party in the country. But it backfired. Hillary Benn – the primary target – proved to be untouchable. The leader in waiting, an effective parliamentarian with all the street cred of a Benn, remains Foreign Secretary.

And in resorting to the traditional black arts of spin and counter-spin, Corbyn’s aides cemented the notion that the reshuffle was a botched narrow-minded political putsch rather than a confident statement of intent by a strong leader.

Of course every mistake he makes is magnified by a hostile press. They are out to get him. But at the moment, Corbyn and his aides seem to content to write the Tory Press’s story for them, and the result of their ineptitude will be to put off even further the day when Labour regains a hold on power.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on January 8 2016

In the gutter … looking at the stars



Lord George Brown: a tired and emotional man

There’s a fabulous story about George Brown, the former British Foreign Secretary in Harold Wilson’s first government. It’s almost certainly not true, but it should be.

Brown was a drunk in an era when it was quite acceptable to be a senior member of Her Majesty’s Government while being incapable of functioning as a rational human being. (Ok not much has changed.)

The story goes that Brown was on a trip to South America extolling the virtues of Britain in a post-colonial world. One night, he’d rather over indulged at a very grand reception. From across the room he spotted a talk willowy figure dressed from head to toe in scarlet. He decided he might be in with a chance and sauntered across to the alluring ‘lady in red’.

“Fancy a dance, dear,” he said in the seductive tones of a politically-correct Nobel Prize-winning scientist.

The tall slim figure looked down at Brown disdainfully.

“I’m sorry sir, there are three reasons why I can’t – you are blind drunk, this is not a waltz but the Peruvian national anthem, and I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.”

For quite a while, the Press turned a blind eye to Brown’s indiscretions. Sobriety was not much valued in the newspaper business in those days, and he was a character. But Private Eye was less inclined to ignore Brown’s activities. The phrase “tired and emotional” was coined as a euphemism to describe his state of consciousness in the service of the realm.

From my teenage years I vaguely remember a story of Brown – then a peer – being found by reporters one evening in the gutter. The incident, which happened in 1976, when Harold Wilson was still in Number 10, prompted an observation in The Times that “Lord George-Brown drunk is a better man than the Prime Minister sober.”

I had sort of forgotten about Brown until he popped up in my life again when I was going through the papers of the late Alastair Hetherington in the special collections at the London School of Economics.

Hetherington, a former editor of the Guardian, ended his career as a professor of journalism at Stirling. Most of his papers are in the University of Stirling library, but LSE has six boxes of material.

LSE’s holdings are almost exclusively file notes of meetings with politicians – mostly Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson (both of whom recognised the importance of the Guardian as the UK’s only left-leaning national newspaper); Jo Grimond the Liberal leader; and Dick Crossman (the Labour politician and professional political gossip).

There are a few records of meetings with Brown, including one at the Shepherd’s Hotel in Cairo where Hetherington walked in on a full-scale row between Brown and his Foreign Office minder; and another of a meeting to discuss the Middle East where Hetherington described Brown as “neither drunk nor sober”. Hands up if you know what he means by that.

In December 1964, two months after the General Election that first brought Wilson to Number 10, Hetherington had dinner with Brown where they gossiped about members of the cabinet, and discussed the economic situation, the state of the pound, and Vietnam – Wilson was decidedly uncomfortable about the Johnson administration’s policy there.

Brown – who was an impressive political operator at his best – impressed Hetherington. But the editor noted: “I was thankful nevertheless that he wasn’t prime minister.” He was not the only one who thought that. Tony Crosland, referring to the contest between Wilson and Brown for the Labour leadership had said it was a choice between a “crook” and a “drunk”.

I thought of the gutter story again on my last night in London when I lost my footing in a pothole near Covent Garden and fell dramatically at the feet of a tourist – finding myself in much the same position as Lord George-Brown in 1976 (though I was sober your honour).

As I lay there on the tarmac, two things came the mind. The first was whether my sprained ankle would be considered to be a work-related injury given I was a on a research trip; the second was Oscar Wilde’s observation: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

I bet George Brown thought that too.


Situations Vacant: an opposition for Scotland


Down and out: Jim Murphy, Scottish Labour leader

On the morning of May 8 2015, Labour died, suddenly. May it rest in peace.

When I was a young journalist, I remember being given a kicking one night by the revise sub – a senior journalist whose responsibility it was to save the readers from my mistakes. He had taken exception to the phrase “died suddenly”. I had used it in an obituary.

“Everyone dies suddenly,” he told me. “One second you are alive, and the next you’re dead.” Having witnessed a few lingering deaths since, I’m not sure he was right, but theoretically there must be a point at which extinction happens.

For proof of his theory, one need only look at the fate of the Labour Party in Scotland. The dinosaurs took longer to die than Labour, swept aside on election night by the irresistible force that is the Scottish National Party.

First past the post is a cruel political system, but there’s no comfort for Labour in looking to the electoral system for an excuse. It was comprehensively beaten, rejected by an electorate that had lost faith in the party and its ability to articulate the concerns of Scots.

In the aftermath of the vote, it’s been said that Labour’s problem was that it was not right wing enough in England and not left wing enough in Scotland. While there may be some truth in that, it does not tell the whole story. Many of those who voted SNP were not ‘dyed in the wool’ old time Socialists.

Labour’s problem is that for too long it has taken Scots and the Scottish electorate for granted. Its grandees have been more focused on London and the national stage – Gordon Brown, Douglas Alexander, and Jim Murphy, among others; while the party in Scotland has been inward-looking, hubristic and deaf to its electorate.

The writing has been on the wall for some time now, but nobody in Scottish Labour has been bothered to read it. The panda joke it used to make so gleefully about the Tories (more pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs) now applies to Labour too. There’s been no coming back for the Tories – once a force to be reckoned with in Scotland; it’s doubtful whether Labour is capable of coming back either.

There’s a vacancy in Scotland for a credible opposition; but nobody is capable of providing it. That’s not good for politics and, while they might not admit it in public, it’s not good for the SNP either. Strong oppositions make for good governments.

The Labour leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, is determined to hang on to his position, even though he has no credible personal or party mandate to continue. Replacing him would be like putting a new captain in charge of the Titanic. Best to let him go down with the ship.

The Labour movement needs to recognise that it can no longer fight for power in the United Kingdom as a single party. Scotland needs a new opposition party to challenge the SNP on its own terms and in its own territory. It will no longer yield to a party that has its headquarters in London, and its primary focus on the political cockpit in Westminster.

Scottish Labour is dead. There should be no attempt at resuscitation; just a simple cremation, with the ashes buried at the feet of Donald Dewar in Glasgow’s Buchanan Street.