Ken Livingstone, former London Mayor, former Labour MP and now presumably former key ally of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, has dug holes for himself before. But, somehow, he’s always managed to escape from them. However, it’s difficult to see how Ken – or more precisely, Ken’s political career – can escape from the hole he dug for himself three days ago. This time, Ken didn’t just dig a hole. He dug a very deep hole; and then he used the shovel to commit ritual hara-kiri and dropped to the bottom of that hole; and then in his dying convulsions he dislodged the loose dirt above so much that it all fell in on top of him.
Ergo: politically, Ken is dead and buried.
If you’re in Britain – and unless this past week you’ve been living as far underground as Ken’s career is now – you’ll know what the furore is about. Ken claimed that Adolf Hitler was “supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing 6,000,000 Jews”, a comment which got him suspended him from the Labour Party. It also prompted the Jewish comedian David Baddiel to muse on twitter: “Is it just me, or is there a possibility Hitler was actually a tiny bit mental even in 1933?”
Ken has past form in this area. In 2005, he told Evening Standard journalist Oliver Finegold, whom he knew to be Jewish, that he was behaving “like a concentration camp guard. You’re just doing it because you’re paid to, aren’t you?” He’s also once told the Iraqi-Jewish property developers the Reuben Brothers to “go back to Iran and see if they can do better under the ayatollahs”; and claimed that London’s Jewish community had started supporting Margaret Thatcher as it “got richer”. That last comment was made in 2014 and must have brought joy to the heart of Labour’s then-leader Ed Miliband, the son of Polish Jews.
Ken spouted his Hitler / Zionism guff in defence of the Labour MP for Bradford West, Naz Shah. Two days earlier, she’d been accused of antisemitism when it transpired that in 2014 she’d reposted a Facebook meme calling for Israelis to be re-located to the United States. At the time she’d joked that this “might save them some pocket money.”
Needless to say, the British media is now filled with stories not just about Ken, Naz and antisemitism in the pro-Corbyn left wing of the Labour Party; but also about the furious reaction to this by figures on the party’s more Israel-friendly right wing, which has inspired headlines about civil war in the party and possible leadership coups. None of this has helped Labour’s cause a week before parliamentary elections in Scotland and Wales, council ones in England and mayoral ones in London.
(c) Swindon Advertiser
I’ve always been fairly left-wing in my outlook. It’s always seemed the right (as opposed to right-wing) way to be. You seek fairness for those whom society treats less well: women, the poor, ethnic minorities, etc. And, as a logical extension of that, you believe everyone deserves equal respect. However, during my youth I gradually realised that in some left-wing circles there were groups it was okay not to like – groups of people you could hiss and boo and actively malign.
These included Israelis, though here the antipathy was usually prefaced by: “I’m not anti-Jewish, I’m just anti-Israel”. Also, white South Africans, who were supposed to be apartheid-loving gits, the lot of them, living lives of luxury whilst around them their black countrymen suffered; and those beastly boorish Protestants who spent their time oppressing Roman Catholics over in Northern Ireland. This last assumption made things a wee bit problematic for me because I’d been born in Northern Ireland, a Protestant; and had lived there for 11 years before my family moved to Scotland.
The more I think about it now, the more uncomfortable it feels in retrospect. For instance, shortly after starting college, I met some students who shared my politics and got into what seemed, for a few heartening minutes, like the first intelligent, adult political discussion I’d had in my life. At last, I thought, I was among articulate kindred spirits. But then the topic shifted to Northern Ireland and suddenly I felt less confident. A few anti-Protestant things were said. Then I piped up. “Well,” I began apologetically, “I’m afraid I’m a Northern Irish Protestant…” I felt furious with myself afterwards. Why had I felt the need to use that regretful “I’m afraid”? Why apologise to them for being what I was? I should have said, “Piss off, we’re not all like that.” It wasn’t as if I was the Reverend Ian Paisley – I’d never stood on a pulpit or a stage and damned Catholics to hell. My politics were the antithesis of he and his ilk represented. Yet I’d sensed the mood of group disapproval and I’d kowtowed to it.
Too often, that’s the way it works on the left. Its more zealous believers have a crass tendency to group communities into good guy and bad guys – ignoring the truth that inside every community you’ll find good guys, and bad guys, and guys of countless shades of goodness and badness in between. Northern Ireland’s Protestant community contained bigoted blowhards like the Reverend Ian Paisley; but it also contained liberal souls like Ivan Cooper, one-time politician and civil rights activist (who had the traumatic experience of organising the 1972 protest march that ended with 14 civilians being shot dead by troops on Bloody Sunday).
The left’s criticisms of Israel often come clothed in terms that show a similarly-offensive tendency to generalise. The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu treats Palestinians horribly; therefore all Israelis approve of the Palestinians being treated horribly. But that’s garbage. Plenty of Israelis detest Netanyahu for what he’s doing. I know – in my time I’ve met a few of them.
Netanyahu may be a malevolent old tosser, but to blame everyone who has the misfortune of being governed by him for what he’s doing? That makes as much sense as blaming Ken Livingstone, Naz Shah, Jeremy Corbyn and every Labour supporter in Britain for what David Cameron’s Conservative government is doing at Westminster – attempting to cut disability benefits, refusing to give sanctuary to 3000 abandoned Syrian children, etc. Politics is thankfully more sophisticated in Scotland nowadays, but on more than one occasion during the 1980s I heard people say that everyone in England was a wanker because “they all voted for Maggie Thatcher.”
Meanwhile, there’s a left-wing school of thought arguing that Israel’s creation in 1948 was a terrible mistake that brought untold suffering; and the mistake ought to be corrected by dismantling Israel. But the creation of nation states has caused suffering throughout history. Take Australia, for instance. I haven’t heard anyone suggest that Australia, despite the near-extermination of the Aboriginal peoples who were originally there, should now have its non-indigenous inhabitants relocated to Europe or North America – which Naz Shah’s Facebook meme proposed for Israel. Blaming millions of people just for being in a country, because their forefathers moved there, propelled by the machinations of history, is a cruel and futile policy. It’s surely more sensible now to put efforts into promoting good government in such countries, government that treats all citizens with respect and decency.
Anyway, returning to Ken – I’m actually slightly sad to see him end up like this. I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him, but I thought Ken (whom I heard speak once, thoughtfully and eloquently, at the 2011 Green Fair in London’s Regent’s Park) was, in his prime, a bold, quick-witted and entertaining politician. I’ve known a few Conservative-minded Londoners who expressed respect for him as Mayor because, at the end of the day, whatever the hue of his politics, he genuinely wanted the best for the city. And only a total, bigoted thicko would object to his moving response to the London bombings in 2005.
Admittedly, as a Northern Irish Protestant, I did blanche when, in 1983, he invited Sinn Fein leader and Provisional IRA mouthpiece Gerry Adams to London as an honoured guest of the Greater London Council (which he was then leader of). Still, a quarter-century later, in 2007, Ian ‘No surrender to the IRA’ Paisley did a deal with Sinn Fein that allowed him to become First Minister of Northern Ireland while ex-IRA man Martin McGuinness served as his deputy. So at least Ken’s courting of Sinn Fein and the IRA was less hypocritical than ‘Big Ian’s’.
And generally he did a better job as Mayor of London than his successor, that old-Etonian, Latin-spouting, tousle-haired idiot man-child Boris Johnson. Boris has form himself in saying offensive things about groups of people. He once, for example, described Africans as “tribal warriors” who “break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.” But Boris-comments like those haven’t attracted the opprobrium in the British press that the Ken-comments have. No doubt because most of Britain’s newspapers are right-wing and, while they’re happy to call Ken a racist arse, they think that Boris is the bees’ knees.
(c) The Guardian