Something Nasty in the Woodshed

Right-thinking, left-leaning people always thought that the Conservatives were inherently greedy and cruel. Even if was going too far to say that they were actual Nazis, we agreed that they flirted with racism, xenophobia and hatred of “the Other”. Nick Clegg seemed to speak for the anti-fascist wing of British liberal opinion when he accused David Cameron in the second of the general election leaders’ debates of allying himself in the EU with “a bunch of nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists [and] homophobes”. Guilt by association was still guilt, he implied. Conservatives did not care enough about fascistic hatred to renounce without equivocation all those who played with murderous ideas.

In the 1990s, the liberal-Left thought that Labour was the antidote to such right-wing extremism. As far as we were concerned, it was a warm, generous party that believed in community, help for the poor and all other good things. As that unjustly underrated political commentator Bridget Jones noted in her diary in 1997: “It is perfectly obvious that Labour stands for sharing, kindness, gays, single mothers and Nelson Mandela, as opposed to braying bossy men having affairs with everyone, shag shag shag left right and centre and going to the Ritz in Paris then telling all the presenters off on the Today programme.”

Unfortunately for right-thinking people, Tony Blair was too fond of overthrowing dictators for their taste and the consensus grew that Labour was a party that waged “illegal” wars abroad and destroyed civil liberties at home. If that wasn’t bad enough, it also taxed the upper-middle class. Throughout the last two decades, however, the reputation of the Liberal Democrats for virtue has remained unchallenged. The clichéd picture of the party as a collection of sandal-wearing, latte-slurping, tofu-eating teachers may have been patronising but it was not frightening. Liberals could be woolly-minded on occasion and their ideas might be impractical, but they remained good people. If their schemes for social improvement were doomed to failure, that was because of fallen human nature and the ways of a wicked world, not because liberals themselves were fallen or wicked. On the contrary, the world would be a better place if more people were like them. I suspect that if your son or daughter said they wanted to marry a Lib Dem, you might sigh and think that they could do better but you would not fear that a life of abuse and betrayal lay ahead of them. 

The strange alliance between Lib Dems and Conservatives is therefore causing less consternation on the Left than you might expect. By any rational standard, an election which sees a Tory government replace a Labour government is a straight defeat for the Left. Many leftists cannot see their defeat for what it is, however, and accept the obvious. For them, the presence of the Lib Dems in the new government is as reassuring as the presence of a police officer outside a rowdy pub. They will keep order, the thinking goes, and stop the Tory Right running wild. Many are privately going further and among the intelligentsia an incredible thought is taking hold. “Perhaps,” they are saying, if only to themselves, “a moderate Conservative-led government is what we wanted all along. It could deliver on causes dear to our heart — proportional representation, greenery and civil liberties — and if in time it offers tax cuts for people like us, well, would that be so bad? We’ve had years of a Labour government helping the poor, and what do we see: tattooed chavs and feral children bingeing on beer and burgers at our expense. That’s hardly an advertisement for social democracy.”

As a correspondent put it to me after I had written a firm but, I like to think, fair critique of the new coalition, “Hang about — this lot have cancelled the third runway, scrapped ID cards and promised to stop incarcerating children at Yarl’s Wood — not a bad start even though it pains me to say so. I, for one, would rather have the Tories tempered by the Lib Dems than the Tories undiluted. Let’s hope it works because we need a different kind of government right now and this is very different.”

To centrist Conservative intellectuals, the genius behind the coalition lies in its promise that it will soothe the anti-Conservative hatred that has stopped the party winning for almost 20 years. By including the Lib Dems, Cameron has turned the Conservatives from being a right-wing minority party into the dominant partner in a centre-Right majority coalition. The Tory centre hopes that the Liberal presence will allow its ministers to overcome all the old accusations of nastiness. The Tory Right fears that the Conservative centre may be right and that Cameron’s manoeuvre has pushed it to the margins — maybe forever. 

Beyond all the calculations of politicians and their allies lies the yearning for consensus that is buried deep in the national character. Partisans mock the exasperated audience members on Question Time who ask: “Why oh why can’t men and women of goodwill stop their bickering, get round the table and act in the national interest?” To the tribalist, they are idiot sentimentalists who think they can escape from the battle of ideas and clash of interests. Foolish they may be, but their desire for harmony and conciliation should not be underestimated. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the British believe they are a commonsensical people who can always see the advantages of compromise and the avoidance of unnecessary arguments. More voters than the ideologically committed like to imagine would welcome a national government in times of crisis. The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition is the next best thing. 

And what is giving it its popularity, what is making it seem like an alliance of sensible men and women willing to put aside petty differences, is the presence of the Lib Dems, a party which seemingly embodies moderation, compromise and a loathing of fanaticism. 

But the contented intelligentsia, the happy Tory centrists, worried Thatcherites and all who think we are in a new era of stability and compromise are wrong about the Lib Dems. They are not always moderate. In crucial respects, they are far closer to the caricature of neo-fascist Tories than the Tories are themselves. They will go along with the most bloodstained conspiracy theories and endorse medieval hatreds without a thought for how their actions damage the cause of democratic liberalism. Their prejudices are barely examined, however, in part because a lazy media has refused to cover them and in part because they are not, unfortunately, confined to the party.

Among the many failures of political journalists in this election — and we got pretty much everything about it wrong right up to the last minute when we were predicting a small Conservative majority — was the failure to understand the Liberal Democrats. Before Nick Clegg stormed the first leaders’ debate, lobby correspondents did not stir themselves to cover the party, even though it won 62 seats and close to six million votes in the 2005 general election. Lib Dems justifiably complained about the narrowness of Westminster journalists’ concerns and their lazy refusal to investigate the opinions of a country that had long ago broken away from two-party politics. But they should have been grateful that reporters have not looked too hard at the Liberals’ dark side. If they had, they would have seen it sinking in a swamp of conspiratorial paranoia. 

I am not taking an untypical case and exaggerating it for effect. I accept that all political parties have foul people in them, whose presence unscrupulous journalists can exploit to damn the wider organisation. So let me say from the beginning that the presence of Jenny Tonge as a peer on the Lib Dem benches in the Lords is not in itself an indictment of the Liberal politicians now in office. Rather, their willingness to defend her as she recycles some of the foulest racist theories in European history indicts them as shallow, slippery men.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict explains the shabbiness of Lib Dem thought as it explains so many other shabby arguments circulating in Europe. Its leaders ought to know that the only moral position to take is to support a two-state solution in which a free and democratic Palestine lives alongside Israel with borders that approximate the dividing lines of 1967. In theory, everyone except far-leftists, Islamists and neo-Nazis knows this. In practice, Lib Dem opinion has been seized by a reactionary version of radical chic in which murder is celebrated and racism dignified.

Let Baroness Tonge stand as an example of a malaise which has gripped hundreds of thousands of people who are playing with ideas previous generations would have described as fascist without hesitation. Instead of supporting the PLO-led Palestinian Authority, which for all its corruption and faults represents the best hope of a liberal democratic Palestine, she supports the clerical fascism of Hamas, and has gone to the Ba’athist tyranny of Syria to describe its leaders as “shrewd, plausible and actually very likeable”.

I don’t subscribe to “no platform” policies. I believe that the prejudiced must always be confronted. And despite knowing about her support for an organisation whose charter might have been written by Hitler, I gladly accepted an invitation to share a stage with her during a recording of Any Questions for BBC Radio 4. I was struck by the deference with which the apparent liberals in the hall treated her, as much by the coquettishness of her trite interventions on the side of the opponents of liberalism and democracy. At one point, she declared that she backed the Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin, because she “quite fancied” him, and the image of the pair together still has the power to make me sit bolt upright in bed in the middle of the night.

She admired Putin for the same reason that she applauds Hamas: he was against the West. She did not give a thought about the aspirations of real liberals and democrats in Russia, who want to change their kleptomaniac and oppressive state. All that mattered was that the Russian regime could frustrate Western plans. Do not dismiss her as an eccentric. Hers is a common and highly hypocritical version of Little Englandism found everywhere in modern liberalism. Instead of saying that they want the quiet life and to avoid foreign entanglements, its proponents hide their dislike of the policies of the rulers of their own countries behind a façade of insincere concern for the suffering of others abroad.

Mutatis mutandis, what applies to Russians applies equally to Palestinians. Tonge and many others do not sincerely wish to end Palestinian suffering. If they did, they would think about what
theocratic Islamism would do and is doing to Palestinian women, Christians, gays, socialists and, indeed, Palestinian liberals and democrats, and declare themselves an enemy both of Israeli interference in the West Bank and Hamas’s bid for power. They would overcome the wilful blindness in the West that refuses to see that anti-Semitism is not only about the hatred of Jews. From the czars through to the Nazis and on to today’s Middle Eastern tyrannies, dictators have used the Jewish “threat” to justify their rule and stigmatise their dissenters as Jewish dupes.

I do not want to push this argument too far because, of course, when all is said and done, anti-Semitism is mainly about hating Jews. And in Tonge’s discourse, tropes of thousands of years of loathing are repeated as if they occurred to her only yesterday. The all-powerful Jewish conspiracy controls everything, of course, even, somewhat implausibly, the Lib Dems. “The pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the Western world, its financial grips,” she declared in 2006. “I think they’ve probably got a grip on our party.” 

Once baronesses start talking like this, it is only a matter of time before they embrace the “blood libel”, the most ancient and dangerous racial theory Europe has produced. In Trials of the Diaspora, his scholarly dissection of English anti-Semitism, Anthony Julius explains the various fantasies collected under the heading thus: “They are known as the blood libel partly because they suppose that Jews wish to kill non-Jews (at first Christians, now more usually Muslims), partly because some of them involve the claim that Jews require non-Jewish blood for ritual purposes, and partly because so much Jewish blood has been shed in consequence of them.” 

The blood libel long predates the Jewish conspiracy theory, which only began to circulate after the Jewish emancipation of the Enlightenment. (Before then, even the maddest thinkers in Christendom could not manage to convince themselves that peasants in the shtetl were the secret rulers of the world.) In the first recorded instance that Julius can find, the feudal authorities executed 30 Jews in Blois, France, in 1171 for the ritual murder of a Christian, even though no body was ever discovered and no alleged victim was reported missing. He traces it through to the Nazi period where German propagandists told the occupied French that “the victory of the German armies was necessary in order that small children shall no longer be the victims of the Jews”, through to Syrian television, which annexed the European anti-Semitic tradition and replicated faithfully the medieval version of the blood libel by showing Jews baking bread with gentile blood.

This year, after Julius published his book, Israel sent aid workers to help the victims of the Haiti earthquake. All over the internet, the word went out that Jewish relief workers were not sincerely helping the needy but harvesting the organs of the gentiles. The Palestinian Telegraph, of which Tonge is a patron, helped to spread the slur. She then intervened and tried to keep the story going by saying the accusations were sufficiently credible to warrant an inquiry.

Racism is a retarded and repetitious mental deformation. I would be tempted to call it “boring” if its consequences were not so grave. It produces nothing new and nothing interesting, and so it is with some tentativeness that I assert that the story of Israeli doctors stealing the livers, hearts and kidneys of the victims of natural disaster strikes me as a new form of a 2,000-year-old hatred or at least an exceptionally rare version of it. Jews are so depraved, the Haiti story runs, that even their willingness to show their common humanity and help strangers in distress should never be trusted. For Jews are not human: they are bestial creatures who use the cover of altruism to dupe credulous gentiles and hide from them their true intention to murder the people they pretend to be saving.

Presented with the conspiracy theories of such vileness and with such a pedigree, Clegg proved that he was unfit to be called a liberal or democrat, let alone deputy prime minister of this country. True, he asked Baroness Tonge to stand down as a Lib Dem spokeswoman in the House of Lords but petulantly resisted all demands to expel her from the party. The Centre for Social Cohesion, which monitors white supremacist and radical Islamists, has repeatedly asked him why he did not act. Instead of behaving like a mature politician, Clegg’s temper snapped and he screamed that no one should dare question his honour. “The very suggestion that I might explicitly or tacitly give cover to racism, I find politically abhorrent and personally deeply offensive,” he cried to the Jewish Chronicle, while doing precisely nothing. The Liberal Democrat leader who accused David Cameron of not dealing with supposed anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe could not speak plainly against the tropes of actual anti-Semitism in his own party. 

Lord Wallace, the Lib Dems’ Foreign Affairs spokesman in the Lords, went further and deployed the low tactic of turning accusations of racism back on the accuser. The worst he could say about the baroness was that she was “over-emotional”. His lordship, however, explained: “The reason why we resist expelling her from the party is that we do sadly find the current Likud Party very intolerant of all criticism.”

His thinking ran thus: racist ideologies are not the products of repellent minds, but merely the result of an excess of emotion. Those who oppose them do not do so honestly because they know what horrors anti-Semitism brings. On the contrary, they rather than the baroness are the truly disreputable people, who are only raising this minor matter because they are the allies of the Likud. The Lib Dems are tolerant. It’s Tonge’s critics, not Tonge herself, who are intolerant and show their prejudice by insisting on standing up to those who say that a Jewish conspiracy pulls all strings and that Jews are murdering gentile children. 

The Liberal Democrats turn the world upside down, make black white and two and two five. In their imagination, it is intolerant to oppose bigotry, small-minded to stand up against fanaticism.

As it is impossible to write about Jews in the present climate and expect to have a sensible debate, let me replace them with blacks. Suppose a leading Lib Dem peer had said that black people were by their nature mentally inferior to whites. Would you expect liberal society to be satisfied if Clegg did not expel her from the party and screamed and shouted about his honour instead? I suspect most people would demand that he proved he knew the meaning of the word by taking action. Suppose the same Liberal peer were to go on to bring up the most poisonous myth of white supremacy and say that young black men were touring the cities looking for white women to rape. In those circumstances liberal society would consider it outrageous if Lord Wallace were to dismiss complaints by saying, “The reason why we resist expelling her from the party is that we do sadly find the current Zanu-PF party very intolerant of all criticism.”

That liberal society is not holding the Liberal Democrats to account tells us much about its double standards. Baroness Tonge is an extreme example of a liberalism that has turned sour and duplicitous, but she is not a freak. Like a fairground mirror, she exaggerates real faults in the Lib Dems which will have to be confronted with vigour now that Clegg is in power. Her concealed Little Englandism — the pretence to care for others while all the time avoiding true commitment on principled grounds — was in display everywhere during the second Iraq war. The party opposed it for good reasons, but even the best Liberal Democrats I know could not bring themselves to support those in Iraq who were struggling in the most awful circumstances to create a country worth living in decades of dictatorial rule. 

I cannot envisage such an insular party allying itself with the democratic movement in Iran now. And if Tehran’s push to produce the nuclear bomb results in war, I would expect them to insist on Britain staying out of it. At home, we can study the record and notice that the vast majority of Liberals are simply not involved in the struggles against radical Islam and the BNP. Indeed, the party has historically played on white racism and Islamist religious reaction to undermine Labour in the inner cities. 

Despite all the coos coming from leftish intellectuals and centrist supporters of the Cameron project, Lib Dems are not always as nice or as moderate or as well-meaning as ignorant outsiders imagine. They are often duplicitous, selfish and irresponsible. Some of the nastiest ideas of our time receive a safe home in their party. Some of the most cowardly leaders in British politics allow them to say there.

To everyone who says that the Lib Dem presence in the coalition protects David Cameron from the Conservative Party’s Right, I would reply: that’s all very well but who is going to protect Cameron from the Liberal Democrat Party’s extreme Right? 

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