The British election - Tony Blair, Oona King, & George Galloway
Posted Monday, April 25, 2005, at 2:14 PM PT
Long Live Labor
Why I'm for Tony Blair.
By Christopher Hitchens
I joined the British Labor Party as soon as I was old enough to be eligible, which was sometime in 1965. I was not long after that expelled from its ranks, along with the majority of the Labor students' organization, because of Prime Minister Harold Wilson's contemptible support for the war in Vietnam. (I should have resigned, but I waited to be expelled instead.) Since then I have re-enlisted a few times, canvassed in a desultory way, off-and-on paid my dues, and hosted the odd Labor figure in Washington. It wouldn't have been thinkable for me to vote for any other party at election time, though in the 1979 election the Callaghan regime had become so corrupt and incompetent and reactionary that I didn't vote at all.
On May 5, 40 years after I first took out a membership card, it will be possible, for the first time since the 1945 Labor victory that threw out the Churchill Tories, to vote Labor on a point of principle. Sixty years is a long time to wait, but the struggle for Iraq has decided the matter.
Arguing about the war in Britain is quite different, in point of tone and alignment, from debating it in the United States. True, there is in both countries a huge mass of media and showbiz and academic liberals who take the very name "George Bush" as permission to bid adieu to common sense. But in the press there is quite a determined posse of staunch left-wingers (John Lloyd, Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch) who support regime change. The same is true on the benches of Parliament, where Ann Clwyd, a veteran Welsh radical, has for years been campaigning for the removal of Saddam Hussein. Several old friends of mine from the Sixties Left hold positions in Blair's government and never let an anti-war argument go unchallenged.
Meanwhile, most of the groaning and sniping about the missing WMDs comes from the hard right, which has a hold on the Tory party and more than a hold on the tabloid press. Anti-Americanism in Britain has long been a conservative rather than a radical trope, and dislike for George Bush is very common among the aristocratic remnant, as well as among those who are nostalgic for the British empire that America supplanted after the war. That especial form of British anti-Semitism ("You catch it on the edge of a remark," as Harold Abrahams puts it so well in Chariots of Fire) is beautifully ventriloquized in the way that certain BBC announcers pronounce the name "Wolfowitz."
The commonest liberal and Tory jeer against Tony Blair—that he is George Bush's "poodle"—is self-evidently false. Far from being a ditto to Washington, it was Blair who leaned on Clinton and Albright to intervene in the Balkans, putting an end to the long and disgusting Tory appeasement of Slobodan Milosevic. Without asking for any American approval, Blair also decided to stand by Britain's treaty with Sierra Leone and to send troops to put down the barbaric invasion of the hand-loppers and diamond-dealers, based in Charles Taylor's Liberia, who were among other things the regional allies of al-Qaida. In 1999, when Bush was still an isolationist governor of Texas, Blair made a speech in Chicago pointing out that Saddam Hussein's defiance of international law made a future confrontation with him inevitable. After Sept. 11, 2001, Blair told Bush that he would send ground troops to Afghanistan even if the United States would not.
Other considerations inflect the picture, altering the misleading liberal-vs.-conservative divide that our media have imposed on the argument. Blair's Britain is a sort of post-Keynesian full-employment and welfarist society. Its government makes at least the right noises about Kyoto, the U.N., Palestine, and the International Criminal Court. Thus there are fewer opportunities for anti-war voices to change the subject. And the anti-Bush/Blair "left" has, to its credit, been perfectly honest in identifying itself both with Saddam Hussein and with Islamic fundamentalism.
The most interesting local campaign of this election is being fought in East London, in the constituency of Bethnal Green, where the sitting Labor member is being challenged by the veteran Stalinist George Galloway. Oona King, the incumbent, is a woman of mixed African and Jewish descent who is attacked by the local Nazi party—itself anti-war—on both grounds. She has also been pelted with eggs and stones by Muslim thugs who stress the Jewish element of her heritage. Mr. Galloway's bloc is made up of the renegade pseudo-Bolsheviks of the Socialist Workers Party, its arms newly linked with the Muslim Association of Britain. He himself was a personal friend of Saddam Hussein's and a loud advocate of Ba'ath Party rule. He was expelled from the Labor Party when he called for jihad against British soldiers. Thus, the most reactionary forces in British society are fused in their admiration of the one-party state and the one-god movement. Or they nearly are: Last week a gang of supporters of the Hizb ut-Tahrir fundamentalist movement invaded the offices of the Muslim Association of Britain and ambushed George Galloway in the street, promising eternal hellfire to anyone so un-Islamic as to take part in an election at all. This of course is the doctrine preached by Abu Musab Zarqawi in Iraq. How satisfying that those who support the Iraqi "insurgency" from a safe distance have now received a taste of its real character.
There are things to dislike about Tony Blair. His rather sickly piety is one, and his liberal authoritarianism, on matters such as smoking and fox-hunting, is another. I can't forgive him for calling Diana Spencer "the People's Princess," or for seeking the approval of the Fleet Street rags, and he is one of those politicians who seems to think that staying "on message" is an achievement in itself. Nonetheless, he took a bold stand against the establishment and against a sullen public opinion and did so on a major issue of principle. It is absolutely necessary that his right-wing and clerical enemies be humiliated at the polls.Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a regular contributor to Slate. His most recent book is Love, Poverty and War. He is also the author of A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq and of Blood, Class and Empire.
The Independent (London)
April 21, 2005
Eastenders in turmoil, a fatwa on Galloway, and the most dangerous campaign in Britain.
The strange election in Bethnal Green and Bow
When I saw George Galloway at the hustings in Mile End on Wednesday night, he seemed uncharacteristically pale and shaken. Throughout the election campaign in Bethnal Green and Bow - where he is standing as the Respect candidate against the Labour MP Oona King - he has been running a high-volume, high-rage contest. Most of his campaign has consisted of legitimate political comment, even if I disagree: attacking the war as "evil", savaging King as "a Blairite android", and so on.
But some has burst beyond those boundaries: he has been telling the most alienated Muslim men in Britain that Tony Blair is "waging a war on Muslims ... at home and abroad". He is nudging towards a kind of inverse Powellism that tells the Muslim community it is under siege from a brutal terrorist state that will stop at nothing. Rivers of blood, he implies, are only months away.
The mood was becoming so ugly that I began to fret there would be violence. King was being attacked with eggs hurled by young Muslim men everywhere she went. Her tyres were slashed. Was worse on the way? At the first set of hustings, I saw similar men threatening Labour Party members as they spoke against Galloway, slamming their fists into their palms.
Somewhere at the back of my mind, I kept thinking about Theo Van Gogh, beheaded by an Islamic fundamentalist in the streets of Amsterdam with a butcher's knife. His "crime" was to make a film exposing domestic violence in the Dutch-Muslim community - and attached to his corpse was a death threat against a young immigrant MP. She is still in hiding. If it happens in this country, I kept thinking, it will happen in the East End.
Just as I was beginning to think I was heading into melodrama overdrive, I heard that Galloway had been told he was going to be hanged for being a "false prophet" by an Islamic fundamentalist group who believe democracy is "evil".
Suddenly Galloway was talking about his "respect" for Oona King, and King reciprocated by saying that "although George and I disagree about many things, we do not want to be violent towards each other." Incredibly, much of the audience at the hustings booed this sentiment; I hope they just misheard.
So what is happening in the East End? I know a few members of the Hizb al-Tahrir group who have been accused of threatening Galloway, although the group fervently denies it. They often man a stall just outside my local McDonald's and sometimes, when I am very bored, I pick a row with them. (Perhaps I should stop doing that now). They are intelligent and furious young conservatives, driven by hatred of Western liberalism in all its forms, and absolutely convinced they are being viciously persecuted by the "infidel" state. It is very hard to engage them in a political dialogue that makes sense - you talk tax credits and they talk Caliphate, you talk a higher minimum wage and they talk about Mohammed's third wife.
But I am programmed as a leftie to try to find the root causes of their anger. I search for it in every conversation, but these aren't displaced Palestinians or Chechens; they are fairly wealthy, fairly well-educated young men (never women, of course) who have grown up in free countries. I cannot find a root cause for their beliefs; they seem to be simply intoxicated by a superstitious, reactionary ideology. You may as well ask about the root cause of the Cambridge spies' conversion to Soviet Communism.
This week, Galloway had the look of a man who has been romancing a beast, only to find the beast has raced beyond his control. For several years now, he has been performing political cunnilingus on the most hardline Muslim groups in Britain. Look at the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), whose chief spokesman, Dr Azam Tamimi, says that Arab women "ask for" wife-beating, and believes thieves should be punished by cutting off their hands.
After years of wooing them and adopting their ultra-conservative position on abortion, euthanasia and more, Galloway has coaxed the MAB to urge its supporters to give him "maximum support." He has even adopted the mullahs' line on drugs, attacking King for her "soft" views on cannabis and calling for a "much tougher" war, no matter how many Muslim lives it takes.
Galloway clearly believed this ideology could be used for his political ends. Perhaps now he will see it for what it is: an authentically totalitarian movement capable of extreme violence against democratic politicians.
But would even this realisation stop Galloway stoking and supporting it? The other extraordinary aspect to the fight in Bethnal Green and Bow is that Galloway seems to have given up pretending he was sincerely opposed to Saddam. After describing Saddam's programmes of genocide as "a civil war with massive violence on both sides", Galloway has now called for Saddam's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, to be released without charge. Not to an international court; just released. "An eminent diplomatic and intellectual person" held "without any justification," was how Galloway described the man he spent a very merry Christmas with in 1999.
Aziz could have defected at any time. Instead, he stayed as one of the leaders of a fascist state. The vast majority of people who opposed the war had no sympathy with Baathism, and I have never met a pro-Saddam Muslim; but for anybody with eyes to see, Galloway's beliefs are now plain. I can understand why many decent people cannot vote for King because she supported the war, even though I don't agree--indeed I am campaigning for her. But why vote for an alternative who seems to be an apologist for even more Iraqis deaths?
I asked Galloway how many Muslims had been murdered by his friend Aziz. The correct answer: even more than have been slaughtered by Ariel Sharon, or by Israel in 38 years of occupying Gaza and the West Bank. Galloway said, "Why don't you go and take some more drugs, you druggie?"
This is part of a pattern. Galloway consistently sides with unelected, unrepresentative Muslim leaders at the expense of the majority of Muslim people. When he talks about "siding with Muslims", I am always tempted to ask: which Muslims? Female Muslims, chafing under their veils and reeling from the fists of too many of their men? Democratic Muslims, braving suicide-bombers to vote all over Iraq? Gay Muslims, living in terror and locked in mock-heterosexual marriage? Muslim trade unionists in Iraq, dismissed by Galloway as "quislings"? Tariq Aziz, or his victims?
In a column on Wednesday, I talked about how excruciatingly boring this election campaign has been. After hours watching two candidates who might be facing death, I'm almost tempted to swallow the valium of Blair vs Howard. Anything - even comatose boredom - is better than a Theo van Gogh on the streets of the East End.
The Independent - 21/04/2005
The Observer (London)
April 17, 2005
Following Mosley's East End footsteps
Appeals to communalism are once again echoing across the streets of Bow
Sunday April 17, 2005
In 1935, in London's East End, Sir Oswald Mosley, a former Labour MP and moustachioed loudmouth, addressed members of the British Union of Fascists, the cult he had founded to worship his personality. 'The yelling mob of socialists and communists are paid by the Jews,' he yelled at his mob. 'The big Jew finances and controls the old parties, both Conservative and socialists; the little Jew sweats you in the sweatshop.'
Writers on British fascism vary from the soft-hearted Lord Skidelsky to tough-minded researchers from the East End. On one point, they agree: Mosley's decision to play the race card was entirely cynical. He may have bent the knee to Hitler and Mussolini, but he wasn't more or less racist than any other member of the aristocracy. He embraced anti-semitism as it was the best way to appeal to the East End voters he thought would propel him back to power.
'Unlike the people around him, Mosley was never a convinced racist,' said Francis Beckett, the best of the tough-minded historians. 'Needless to add, that doesn't mean that he was better than them.'
Ranged against Mosley was what we used to call 'the left' back in the 20th century. The Labour movement and the communists declared that religion, race and skin colour didn't matter. What mattered was that immigrants and natives alike were members of the working class or brotherhood of man. Their common interests were more important than their superficial differences. It was a wildly romantic view. George Lansbury, the saintly leader of the Labour party, who was as adored by activists in the 1930s as Michael Foot was in the 1980s, couldn't bring himself to admit that there was racism in his beloved East End.
This was a fantasy, but a useful fantasy, and from the 1930s through to the 1970s, immigrants were helped by a left which announced that what they had in common was more important than what set them apart. They were as British as the next man; as much a part of the struggle against the boss class as any other worker.
In 2005, in London's East End, George Galloway, a former Labour MP and moustachioed loudmouth, is urging supporters of Respect to propel him back to power. Just as Mosley bent the knee to the fascist leaders of his day, so Galloway bent the knee to Saddam Hussein when he flew to Baghdad and burbled: 'Sir, I salute your courage, strength and indefatigability.'
There's no doubt that Saddam was from classic fascist tradition, but it's difficult to make the argument, not only because in his purges of his Baath party colleagues Saddam followed Stalin rather than Hitler, but because the common assumption is that fascism died in the 1940s. A fascist today is a father who tells you to take the stud out of your nose or George W Bush when you're losing the plot in a pub argument.
But fascism, that is, an extreme nationalism which wages genocidal campaigns against 'impure' ethnic minorities and restless wars of aggression against its neighbours, flourished in Iraq. The Baath party's ideologues were as inspired by Nazi Germany as Sir Oswald. Their language was all but identical. When Hitler planned the extermination of European Jews, he let out a contemptuous: 'Who remembers the Armenians?' (the victims of the Turks in the first, and first to be forgotten, genocide of the 20th century). When Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid - 'Chemical Ali', began the extermination of the Kurds, he let out a contemptuous: 'Who will say anything? The international community? Fuck them!'
Galloway's kissing of the ring of a tyrant with the blood of 1.5 million people on his hands was hardly a one-off. Iraqi left wingers I know loathe him because he denounced Iraqi trade unionists as 'quislings'. The fact that their comrades are still being tortured and murdered by a Baathist and Islamist 'resistance' which retains all of the far-right's hatred of unions hasn't helped cool their tempers.
Last week, he was continuing to act on behalf of the regime when he said Tariq Aziz, Saddam's foreign minister, was a 'political prisoner' who should be released. Aziz was Saddam's loyal henchman and up to his neck in his crimes.
Doubtless, at his trial, Aziz will say he was just obeying orders and it may work. But for Galloway to say that he shouldn't stand trial is to top Mosley. I can find no reference to Sir Oswald calling for the Nuremberg defendants to be released without charge.
To add to the foul atmosphere, there's a whiff of old hatreds in the air. Oona King, the Labour candidate, is getting fed up with Respect supporters bringing up her Jewish mother, although she says it makes a change from the British National Party bringing up her black father. Last week, King and a group of mainly Jewish pensioners gathered for a 60th anniversary memorial service for the 132 people who died in the last V2 rocket attack on London in 1945. Muslim youths spat and threw eggs at the mourners and shouted: 'You fucking Jews.'
In a letter to the Guardian, members of Respect said there was 'no evidence that this egg-throwing was anti-semitic'. Although it didn't condone them, 'such episodes do occur', and Galloway, John Major, Tony Blair and John Prescott had all had eggs thrown at them.
What can you say to that? Either it's slyly trying to avoid alienating potential supporters or Respect is so morally shrivelled it can't tell the difference between disrupting a political speech and attacking a service for the victims of fascism.
Oona King is a strong woman who can look after herself. The worst work Respect is doing is to its Bengali and Somali supporters, not its opponents. I was tempted to write that the party was as much a cult of the personality for Galloway as the British Union of Fascists was for Mosley, but that's not true. The media never tell you but Respect isn't a new organisation but is dominated by the old Socialist Workers Party, which ran the anti-war movement. After the great demonstrations against the war, it hoped for electoral gains. In the May 2003 council elections, it flopped. The only seat it won was in Preston, where local priests ordered Muslims to vote for their candidate.
The SWP has learned the lesson and made its own entirely cynical switch. It hopes to ride the religious tiger by persuading devout Muslims to follow the lead of godless communists. Boring old causes have been dropped to facilitate the marriage. 'I'm in favour of defending gay rights,' declared Lindsey German, the SWP leader. 'But I am not prepared to have it as a shibboleth, [created by] people who won't defend George Galloway and regard the state of Israel as somehow a viable presence.'
As the line changed, the party's paper tried to reconcile anti-capitalism and religious fundamentalism by calling on the comrades to protest against Spearmint Rhino lap-dancing clubs.
Galloway's propaganda follows the same pattern. It features a picture of Oona King with a cheesy smile and a low-cut dress. The headline doesn't say 'Decadent Western Bitch', but then it doesn't need to.
The sight of Trots in burkas would be hilarious if it wasn't a symbol of the shambles on the left. From the 1970s, the number of people who believed in working-class solidarity fell by the year, to the immense detriment of immigrants. Instead of being met by a left which emphasised what they had in common with the native population, they were met by relativists who emphasised the separateness of their race and religion. Notoriously, the process had the unintended consequence of keeping immigrants poor and isolated from the mainstream.
Respect is the dead end of this failed idea. It's as if the left of the 1930s had decided to fight Mosley by creating a party which emphasised Jewish separateness and then wondered why anti-semitism persisted.
Many of my colleagues think that Galloway could beat King. He's a ruthless operator and she voted for the war against Iraq and that's that. I'm not so sure. I went to speak at a King rally on the strange histories of the far left and far right. I expected it to be like most meetings I address: all but empty. Instead, it was packed and the audience was up for a fight.The Labour movement, Iraqi refugees and people with no great history of political activism are uniting behind King. The East End left may just manage to win one last battle.