Defending the Danish cartoonist

But who will stand up for free speech in the UK?

It was less than a week ago that I asked, on the Staggers blog, why comedians today seem to be reluctant to satirise organised religion. On New Year's Day an answer of sorts was provided by an axe-wielding Somali man who broke into the house of the Danish artist Kurt Westergaard (the axeman has since been charged with attempted murder).

The reason for the attack? Westergaard is the cartoonist whose drawing of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, published in the Danish journal Jyllands-Posten in 2005, led to riots and assaults on Denmark's embassies around the world.

To his credit, the then Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, refused to apologise, and reiterated his defence of free speech on becoming general secretary of Nato last year.

Unfortunately, I do not believe that anyone who found themselves in a similar position in this country could rely on the British government to take such a robust stance. While papers across Europe reprinted the cartoon (and others -- Westergaard's was not the only one) as a gesture of solidarity, we had nothing but weasel words from our then foreign secretary, Jack Straw. There is freedom of speech, we all respect that, but there is not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory, he said.

I believe that the republication of these cartoons has been unnecessary, it has been insensitive, it has been disrespectful and it has been wrong. There are taboos in every religion. We have to be very careful about showing the proper respect in this situation.

Respect: there's a word. And there was none of that to be seen in the torchings of Danish embassies and attempted bombings in Europe that followed.

No respect for free speech. No respect for the fact that no one apart from the relevant publishers could be held responsible for the appearance of these cartoons. No respect for the idea that, pace Mr Straw, there is in fact no obligation to be gratuitously offended by a cartoon you would not have seen -- which was, in the case of many, published in a country thousands of miles away -- unless you had deliberately sought it out.

There is an echo in this of the equivocation by UK politicians after Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie over his 1989 book, The Satanic Verses. Lisa Appignanesi's The Rushdie File quoted the following report from Publishers Weekly that August:

A number of Labour members of parliament, several of them representing constituencies with large Muslim populations, have warned that unless the party presents a united front and encourages Rushdie to withdraw the book, or prevent softcover publication, it stands to lose a substantial number of seats at the next general election.

Eighteen years later, a former Labour cabinet minister, Shirley Williams, for ever stained her record as a politician of integrity when she said on Question Time that awarding Rushdie a knighthood had been "a mistake", because he was a man who "had deeply offended Muslims in a very powerful way". Boris Johnson played it for laughs on that same programme, saying:

I object to the knighthood on purely literary grounds. His novels are more or less impenetrable. What about John le Carré or Martin Amis? Or Dick Francis -- has he got a knighthood yet? He has a far better grasp of pace, character and plot than Rushdie.

Quite apart from the fact that Boris should have known (did know) better -- he is a highly literate man and I do not believe he is incapable of appreciating Rushdie's rich, enchanting work -- the only proper response was a straightforward rejection of the suggestion that anyone being offended was a reason not to confer an honour on one of our greatest living writers. The kind of response, in fact, that the late Anthony Burgess delivered back around the time of the fatwa.

To order outraged sons of the Prophet to kill him and the directors of British Penguin is tantamount to a jihad

he wrote in the Independent.

It is a declaration of war on citizens of a free country and as such it is a political act. It has to be countered by an equally forthright, if less murderous, declaration of defiance.

All of this is to make no judgement whatsoever on the content or merits of the Danish cartoons or of The Satanic Verses (although, unlike most of those who criticised that book, I have actually read it). Should writers and artists choose not only to satirise religion but to portray it in a way that is likely to offend? That is up to them. It is no sophistry but a hugely important defence of liberty to say that it is free speech itself that is sacred -- and that whatever "profanities" and "blasphemies" that may result are part of the costs of that liberty.

To stand for anything less is to give in to those who would enclose expression within an ever-tightening boundary of what is permissible. I was working at the Independent in 2003 when the paper published a cartoon by Dave Brown of the then Israeli PM, Ariel Sharon, eating a young child. It was shortly before an election, and Sharon was depicted as saying, "What's wrong. you never seen a politician kissing babies before?"

Brown indicated that his picture was after Goya's Saturn Devouring One of his Children, but it provoked howls of anti-Semitism and the case went to the Press Complaints Commssion. Ultimately, the PCC ruled against the accusation that the cartoon referenced the blood libel against the Jews, but I well remember the force of pressure -- in effect, a kind of moral blackmail -- that the paper was up against. It didn't seem to count for anything that the duty comment editor who approved the cartoon was Jewish, as was the paper's editor (now its editor-in-chief), Simon Kelner, and thus unlikely to be keen on promoting anti-Semitism on their pages.

Yes, the Independent was vindicated; but I wonder if the paper would dare risk such a reaction again. How much easier for someone to ask for an image be toned down a little bit, just to avoid a fuss.

Some readers may find my tone here surprising. Do I not regularly argue in favour of tolerance and acceptance of different religions? I do indeed, and I certainly would not urge anyone to set out to cause offence or deliberately increase hostility between those of varying or no faiths. I would, in fact, exhort them to do precisely the opposite. But neither would I claim the right to silence such voices, however unpleasant or loathsome I may find them -- which is why I also believed it was right for the BNP's Nick Griffin to appear on Question Time late last year.

Never mind what happens in Saudi Arabia or any other country. Free speech is a cornerstone of our society. Here we say that if you do not like a book, then do not pick it up. If you do not like a show -- such as Jerry Springer: the Opera -- do not go and see it. If you consider a newspaper to be anti-Semitic (as a neighbour once told me, explaining why he never read the Independent), you are under no obligation to buy it. If you find a cartoon offensive, you have only yourself to blame, frankly, if you search it out and disseminate it so that you and others may be needlessly upset by it.

Above all, remember that while your sense of offence may give you cause to protest, to remonstrate with or to condemn, it gives you no right to legal censorship and still less to violence.

My worry is that if a Kurt Westergaard were living in the UK today, who would publish his work, and which politicians would step forward to defend his right to express himself within the law? If we truly agree with the US Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, that "the principle of free thought is not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate", that is a question that needs answering. Our liberties are being threatened by a creeping curtailment, and a conspiracy of cowardice is letting them slip away, unnoticed and unmourned.

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.