All turmoil on the western front

The election that gutted Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals swept in dozens of unlikely MPs. So how will t

In this busy year of news, one that has continued with such ferocity that it has made a mockery of the idea that nothing much worth reporting happens in summer, it would be easy to continue to think of Canada as the heaven where, as the Talking Heads frontman David Byrne would have it, "nothing ever happens". There has been no Canadian spring, the country's finances are shockingly sound, our journalists have played nice and our soldiers are no longer involved in combat operations in Afghanistan. Dignitaries staying at our hotels do not mistake the chambermaids for kinky visitors and our MPs, who do not fiddle their expenses much, keep what photographs they may have of their private parts to themselves. Damn it, when Vancouver rioted in June after the city's ice hockey team lost to Boston in the worst-played series final in memory, it was family and friends who turned the miscreants in - that is, when the good-natured rioters did not head down to the station to confess. In Canada, we can't manage much of a scandal of any kind, though this summer in a rural part of Quebec, historically home to odd cults, neighbours did have to call the police after they heard repeated screams from a farmhouse. Three women were found wrapped in mud, plastic and blankets and had to be taken to hospital, where one died from her unfortunate "earth-healing therapy". As Barack Obama wrestled with impending default, Canadian newspapers were calling for the regulation of spas.

It is easy to mock. And yet, quietly, these past five years, a very different Canada from the one in which I grew up has emerged. The New Canada is a "warrior nation" that favours combat over peace operations and big industry over the environment. Having put an end to the country's draft dodger legacy by sending a few sorry US war resisters home, the present government publishes, in American style, a list of most wanted "war criminals" and plans to deport 1,800 illegal immigrants speedily. It has designed an "Anti-Human Trafficking Act" that makes scapegoats of the miserable and has made whatever opportunity it could muster, in the past couple of years, out of ships arriving with beleaguered immigrant Tamils (aka terrorists) who "jump the queue". It has let Omar Khadr, convicted of killing a US marine in a firefight in Afghanistan when he was 15, languish in detention in Guantanamo despite a decision by the country's Supreme Court that his rights were being transgressed. It has made the presence of a member of the military at the swearing-in of new Canadian citizens mandatory. As the self-styled party of law and order, the Conservatives are planning mega-prisons. They also hope to do away with the hated national gun registry, the legacy of a Liberal bill introduced in 1995 in the murderous wake of Marc Lépine - a psychopath not dissimilar to Anders Behring Breivik - who killed 14 female students and injured 14 other people in a rampage at the University of Montreal during which he yelled: "Down with women!"

The Conservative hatreds are many - and in their persistent display lies an indication of what is, despite the party's majority at the May general election, after five years of trying, a lingering sense of insecurity in a country that is essentially liberal by nature. So, for the Conservatives, the project of the transformation of Canada is ongoing, which means constantly finding new ways to revile the Liberals and their myths and icons that our brilliantly controlling prime minister, Stephen Harper, and his right-hand man, the minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, have despised for so long. Out with peacekeeping. Out with benign multiculturalism. Out with the obnoxious relativism of the country's charter. In with the war. In with the police. In with the good old-fashioned qualities of Presbyterian hard work and merit that liberal Canadian talk about rights, rather than responsibilities, put in the shade for a decadent, not enlightened, half-century.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the great Liberal prime minister who led Canada between 1968 and 1984, but for an interregnum of nine months, is the figure repeatedly held up to the Conservative Party faithful as a reminder of the slack, tolerant, more empathetic country that, at any point, we might dangerously revert to being.

The target, always, is Trudeau and the liberal generation that, worse than being in a position of power for the better part of four decades, had huge fun as it did so. Canada's military lobby blames the Liberal Party for running down the armed forces by having them made "peacekeepers", and for striving instead towards an exuberant and inclusive idea of Canada, epitomised by Expo 67 in Montreal. The Liberals are hated by Conservatives for their multicultural policies and for making the country a haven for dual-passport-holding, quasi-Canadian freeloaders as well as (Kenney again) for their "bloated bureaucracies of the nanny state".

The great irony is that the Conservatives now employ more government workers than their predecessors ever did; and if indeed Canada has escaped the 2008 recession and the aftermath that has been ruining just about every other G20 country, it is entirely because of Keynesian spending and the healthy balance sheet and sound fiscal policies (in particular, tough regulations binding Canadian banks) that were inherited from the Liberals back in 2006. But no matter. Trudeau is a symbol of a Canada that the Conservatives have dispensed with, yet it just won't go away.

Arguably the country's greatest modern statesman (the other contenders, Lester B Pearson and Wilfrid Laurier, were Liberals, too), Trudeau is remembered elsewhere for a dandy pirouette at Buckingham Palace and a wife with a fondness for Rolling Stones, but he is remembered in Canada for defeating, or at least allaying, Québécois separatist ambition. However, in the fossil-fuel-rich west, seat of the country's Conservative Party, Trudeau made the egregious mistake in 1980 of imposing the National Energy Programme. This was a self-sufficiency plan that put a lid on oil and gas prices for the benefit of the rest of the country following the Opec fuel crises. Ever since, the federal Liberal Party in Alberta has been put on a par with, say, Pakistan's security forces.

The year 1980 may seem a long time ago, but in western Canada it is not. Young men and women from economically beleaguered "have not" provinces such as Nova Scotia and, with its failing manufacturing base, Ontario, commute thousands of miles to work amid the oil sands of the fantastically wealthy province. Ten minutes after arriving, they take on the region's atavistic hatred of the Liberals, in the name of a policy that was started and ended before they were born - one that Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal Party's last failed saviour, was hardly about to pursue. Trudeau's is a spectre that has done the Liberals no favours, either.

Solicited in 2006 from his post at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University to run for the leadership of the Liberal Party, Ignatieff was supposed to have been Trudeau's latest, winning incarnation. Perhaps it was a harbinger of the plan not going quite right that when, one election late, he finally became the party leader, the New York Times featured Ignatieff in its Fashion and Style section, rather than the Magazine, to which he had contributed as a writer for years. Ignatieff inherited a party that had succumbed to a sort of flesh-eating disease. Hastened by the indignation, disbelief and shock of Liberals that they were not still the "natural governing party", the rot came on in 2003 after the resignation of Jean Chrétien, the last prime minister to have led the Liberals to a majority.

Seeing the end of their cushy ride, rife with the corruption that comes from too many years of entitlement, many Liberal luminaries quit rather than face having to toil from the opposition benches, adding to the veneer of arrogance the party had acquired. After four nearly uninterrupted decades of Liberals in office, and despite the fears they might have had about Harper's neo-Conservative "secret agenda", many Canadians believed that it was time for a change. Paul Martin - who, as Chrétien's minister of finance, was credited with having developed the cautious policies that have made Canadian banks exemplars of adroit fiscal policy - came and went. Quickly. So did Stéphane Dion, a well-meaning but bumbling and ineffectual leader who, against expectations, defeated Ignatieff's first attempt at the party leadership as a newly elected member in 2006.

In December 2008, after Harper prorogued parliament rather than face questions about the army's transfer of detainees to Afghan police, who did not play nice, Dion led a coalition of the Liberals, the socialist New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Bloc Québécois to make his case to the Canadian people, with what is possibly the worst promotional video ever shot by a politician anywhere in the world. Dion's amateur moment slammed the door shut on any possibility of a Liberal return to government that year, and in from the side stepped Ignatieff. Throughout that year's election campaign, he had supported Dion about as warmly as Tony Blair did his old chum Gordon Brown. At last, the fight card read Ignatieff v Harper.

The stage was set for what might well have become a fascinating contest between two Canadas. A cagey Harper represented a mostly rural Canadian constituency that, on the one hand, was historically ill-disposed towards anything foreign but, on the other, was also eager to prove itself a country in its own right, able to sit at the table with the big boys through means such as a fighting army, the right of citizens to carry a gun, and the quasi-Soviet societal engine of Albertan oil. In the other corner sat Ignatieff - educated, sophisticated and patrician. To the ordinary Canadian, he invoked every second-rate British schoolteacher or actor who, for a couple of centuries, had arrogantly passed himself off as Lord Muck in a country that he imagined knew no better. Yet Ignatieff nevertheless provided Canadians, as Trudeau with his inimitable style had done, with standards to aspire to. He was someone who, even with his fickle humanitarian views, notably on the role of Canadian soldiers and on the use of torture as a means to an end, embodied the thoughtful, internationalist society that Canada had prided itself on being since the days of Prime Minister Pearson, who won a Nobel Prize for his diplomatic role in the deployment of the first UN peacekeeping force during the 1956 Suez crisis.

Except that the opponent Harper feared - the bright, haughty, unapologetic intellectual - never showed up. Ignatieff was on the defensive from the start. He was leading a divided party, as Dion had done before him, that was constantly calling for an election but always scared of losing and ducking the gun at the last moment, making noisy stands only to back down, again and again, exhausting voters who felt - new immigrants especially - taken for granted by the Liberal Party that had represented them for so many years. The Conservatives, so deft at rousing enmities, did whatever they could to augment Canadian suspicion of a man who'd lived abroad for decades. He had described himself, in a foreword to his Massey Lectures (the CBC equivalent of the BBC Reith Lectures), as feeling like an "alien" in his former homeland, and while resident in the United States had implied he was American. He had spoken of Canada, when he did, disparagingly.

Ignatieff countered by trying to pass himself off in a folksy, hoi polloi way. In 2009, with Obama installed in Washington, he bragged about chums at the White House who would take his calls, but was humiliated when Harper obliged him to accept a hurried chat with the president at Ottawa Airport as Obama left after his first official visit to the Canadian capital.

That same year, in contrast to the honesty of The Russian Album, Ignatieff's memoir of his tsarist ancestry on his father's side, he published True Patriot Love. It is a pandering, disingenuous book about the maternal, Canadian side of his family and a thinly veiled attempt to prove his nationalist bona fides (in a first for him, it was not published outside Canada).

There had been a moment, after Harper won the 2008 election with a second, tenuous minority, when Ignatieff behaved quite effectively like a scathing headmaster, demanding that the prime minister report to him every three months on the state of the country's finances in the face of the accelerating recession. But then, like Dion, on too many questions - the war in Afghanistan, Quebec's position in the confederation, the green economy or the conduct of Canadian mining companies operating abroad - Ignatieff conceded ground to Harper rather than prompt an election. It was impossible to see how the Liberal position was much different from Harper's.

To the charge of the Conservative television attack ads that "He didn't come back for you", Ignatieff could only respond earnestly, rather than ridicule Harper's demagoguery. And to the Tories' rants insisting that the country needed economic stability, raising the spectre of a coalition that would include separatists and socialists, Ignatieff replied that he would never lead one. He never questioned why talk of coalition politics should be irksome to a country that has always made a point of negotiation, nor pointed to the British example, not yet tarnished. Only in the final moments of the 2011 campaign did he throw off his accumulated constraints, but it was all too late.

In the first of two televised election debates - one in English and the other in French, the NDP leader - Jack Layton, was supposed to have been a player on the sidelines. His was the third party, bound to lose seats as Canadians prepared to choose between the two old contenders, the Conservatives and the Liberals, with the Bloc Québécois taking its usual majority of seats in the French-Canadian province. But Layton, an angular, handsome man with a bald pate and a trim silver moustache, pared expertly. The NDP leader was also recovering from a hip operation. He was a walking advertisement for a Canadian health-care system under Conservative attack, and inadvertently he was endearing himself to Quebeckers because he was using a cane, as the former provincial Parti Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard, a sentimental favourite in Quebec, had done. Tellingly, he was referred to in la belle province as "Jack", the first name of Québécois folk heroes from Kerouac to Villeneuve. Ignatieff pressed repeatedly, but did so with a hectoring air that Canadians do not like, and Harper was able to appear like a weary parent instructing the children. It was Layton, however, who delivered the killer punch after Ignatieff hollered at his indignant Conservative opponent: "This is a debate, Mr Harper. This is a democracy."

“I've got to ask you, then, why do you have the worst attendance record of any member of the house of parliament?" Layton said, pointing out that the Liberal leader had missed 70 per cent of the votes in the House in 2010. "If you want to be prime minister, you've got to learn how to be a member of the House of Commons first. You know, most Canadians, if they don't show up for work, they don't get a promotion."

There was no recovering. He'd been doing a lot of travelling around the country to meet Canadians, Ignatieff might have said, but didn't. Instead, the charge stuck.

Still, few were prepared for the extent and the nature of the Liberal defeat on 2 May. In a house of 308, the party was reduced from an
already low 77 seats to 34, the smallest caucus in its history. Ignatieff lost his own riding. Yet the big surprise was neither the Conservative rise nor the Liberal loss, but the wild surge of the NDP, riding a Quebec protest vote to a record 103 seats, becoming the official opposition for the first time in its history. Quebeckers had turned to the NDP en masse, awarding the party 59 of the province's 75 seats and reducing the Bloc Québécois, its teamsters in Ottawa, from 49 seats to non-party status. The majority had voted, in presidential rather than parliamentary style, for Jack, without even bothering to consider who the local candidate was. The Conservative Party won 166 seats, securing the first Harper majority in four attempts as the left-of-centre vote split between the Liberals and the NDP in many Ontario and British Columbia ridings. As with so many Canadian governments, however, the Conservatives encountered a big hole of support in Quebec, where even Gilles Duceppe, the Bloc Québécois leader and thorn in Canada's side, lost his seat as Ignatieff had done.

Into Quebec came a flotsam of rookies that neither the party administration nor even the candidates had expected to win. Among them were former separatists, a successful candidate who had spent the campaign in Las Vegas and several who had never visited their ridings.

The NDP "Orange Crush" nevertheless transformed parliament into the most representative elected legislature anywhere. More than half of the NDP members are women. The party includes an aboriginal Canadian, Cana­da's first Tamil MP (an important change, given the way the Conservatives vilify Tamil immigrants), a couple of former punk rockers, a 27-year-old bar manager who had her son when she was 17, the McGill Four (a quatrain of students from the popular Montreal university who won seats in Quebec) and a 19-year-old, Canada's youngest ever MP. Pat Martin, a carpenter and veteran Dipper who became NDP spokesman on agriculture in May, said: "There are not enough grumpy old white guys. I feel quite isolated, marginalised by all these young, energetic, attractive, intelligent people . . . We'll have to make sure we don't insult anyone by assuming they are staff or parliamentary pages."

But Canada's electorate is volatile, and not just in Quebec, and it would be a mistake for either the Dippers or the Conservatives to believe that Ottawa's new panorama is permanent, or that the Liberals have squandered irrever­sibly the middle ground from which Canada has historically been governed. A cautionary tale, to which few Tories are paying heed, is that of 1993, in which the Progressive Conservative majority of Kim Campbell, Canada's first and only female prime minister, was reduced from 151 seats to two. The Liberals have been punished for their arrogance, but after three consecutive defeats they may be seen to have paid their dues. The critical Quebec vote has always been volatile but is also adept at serving the needs of the province, electing Liberals to Ottawa and separatists at the provincial level and watching the returns accrue from deals made between the two sides.

Quebec's representation in Ottawa has had many incarnations. There is no question that Quebeckers were fed up with the Bloc, the most recent embodiment of Québécois separatism (or "sovereigntism", as it has come to be known). The anglophone Canadian media's pronouncements in the days after the election however that the Quebec independence movement was dead and that the province "wanted in" to federalism were, however, premature.

And, for the first time in decades, there is the possibility in Ottawa of an effective opposition, though the NDP, with four years to prove that it belongs, is so far off to a wounded start. At the NDP convention immediately following the election, the confident party rejected all talk of a leftist merger with the humbled Liberals but was unable to drop the socialism from its constitutional lexicon, or to amend its troublesome resolution that, in any Quebec referendum on sovereignty, a mere 50 per cent plus one would constitute victory.

Then, in July, the NDP's hero, Jack Layton, needed to step aside for treatment of a second, grave cancer, and it turned out that the acting leader he had hand-picked, the former union boss Nycole Turmel, was a member of the Bloc Québécois until just months before the election. The gaffe contributed to a general sense that the NDP surge was so great that the party's leadership has no clear idea of who is in its camp.
Meanwhile, Bob Rae, the Toronto MP and former Ontario premier who is now acting as "interim" Liberal leader - he lost to Ignatieff in the third round of the 2006 leadership race and was passed over when Ignatieff was appointed in the truncated 2009 contest - is the most articulate speaker in the House and is proving that his party is not quite dead. To his side is another Trudeau, Pierre's appealing 39-year-old son Justin, who augmented his own reputation on the hustings in May.

But as always, power makes its own exertions. At least for the time being, the Conservatives appear to be behaving more like Liberals on various fronts. They have pledged support for health care and, sensing Canadians' weariness of war, speak more mutedly about Afghanistan. Toronto, usually a Liberal bulwark snidely ignored by Tory Ottawa, has finally elected Conservative members (the party won 29 out of 44 seats in the Greater Toronto area), bridging the urban/rural fault line that is Canada's unspoken class divide. A lot of the old Tory rhetoric about "cultural elites", and the party's grass-roots suspicion of cities as ghettoes of lawlessness, activism, pot-smoking and gay marriage, cannot hold. Many of the new immigrants to Canada, who have by and large settled in commuter suburbs, are already in the Conservative fold, and now the urban centres and their crucial ridings are within reach.

It's hard these days not to see the long future of a Conservative Party digging in its heels, though it may well turn out to be a party more liberal in nature. The news, in Canada, is that we can't help but revert to being ourselves - and that may be tedious to some.

Noah Richler's "What We Talk About When We Talk About War" will be published in September by Goose Lane Editions

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?

RALPH STEADMAN
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The age of outrage

Why are we so quick to take offence? The Private Eye editor on Orwell, Trump and the death of debate in post-truth politics.

Anyone who thinks that “post-truth politics” is anything new needs to be reminded that George Orwell was writing about this phenomenon 70 years before Donald Trump.

Audiences listening to President-Elect Trump’s extraordinary disregard for anything resembling objective truth – and his astonishing ability to proclaim the absolute opposite today of what he said yesterday – will be forcibly reminded of the slogans that George Orwell gave to his political ­dictators: Black is White, War is Peace, ­Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength (the last of which turned out to be true in the US election). But any journalist trying to work out what the speeches actually mean, amidst the mad syntax and all the repetition (“gonna happen, gonna happen”), cannot help but fall back on Orwell’s contention that “political chaos is connected with the decay of language”. And the sight of Trump praising Secretary Clinton for her years of public service in his post-election victory speech while the crowd was still chanting his campaign catchphrase of “Lock her up” was surely a perfect example of Doublethink.

No wonder Trump is an admirer of Vladimir Putin, who is an admirer of the Soviet strongmen whom Orwell satirised so well. These echoes from the past are very strong in America at present but there are plenty of them reverberating through British and European politics as well. Our Foreign Secretary managed to accuse other European leaders of a “whinge-o-rama” when they issued qualified statements of congratulation to the new president-elect, even though he himself had previously accused Trump of being “nuts”. Black is White, Remain is Leave, a Wall is a Fence, two plus two equals five: but Brexit means Brexit.

You may find this reassuring, in that we have been here before and survived – or distressing to think that we are regressing to a grimmer Orwellian age. But one of the worrying developments attached to these “post-truth” political figures is the increasing intolerance in public debate of dissent – or even disagreement – about what objective truth might be.

A great deal has been written recently about the influence of social media in helping people to become trapped in their own echo chambers, talking only to those who reinforce their views and dismissing not only other opinions, but also facts offered by those who disagree with them. When confronted by a dissenting voice, people get offended and then angry. They do not want to argue, they want the debate to be shut down. Trump supporters are furious with anyone who expresses reservations about their candidate. Pro-Brexit supporters are furious with anyone who expresses doubts about the way the process of leaving the European Union is going.

I edit the magazine Private Eye, which I sometimes think Orwell would have dismissed as “a tuppeny boys’ fortnightly”, and after the recent legal challenge to the government about Article 50 being put before parliament, we published the cover reproduced on page 25.

It was a fairly obvious joke, a variant of the “wheels coming off” gag. But it led to a large postbag of complaints, including a letter from a man who said he thought the cover was “repulsive”. He also said he wanted to come around and smash up the office and then shove our smug opinions so far up our arses that we choked our guts out.

There was one from a vicar, too, who told me that it was time to accept the victory of the majority of the people and to stop complaining. Acceptance was a virtue, he said. I wrote back and told him that this argument was a bit much, coming from a church that had begun with a minority of 12. (Or, on Good Friday, a minority of one.)

This has become a trend in those who complain: the magazine should be shouted down or, better still, closed down. In the light of this it was interesting to read again what Orwell said in his diary long before internet trolls had been invented:

 

We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends.

 

This was in 1942, when the arguments were about war and peace, life and death, and there were real fascists and Stalinists around rather than, say, people who disagree with you about the possibility of reconciling freedom of movement with access to the single European market.

Orwell also made clear, in an essay called “As I Please” in Tribune in 1944, that what we think of as the new online tendency to call everyone who disagrees with you a fascist is nothing new. He wrote then:

 

It will be seen that, as used, the word “Fascism” is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee [a Tory group], the 1941 Committee [a left-liberal group], Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.

 

When Orwell writes like this about the level of public debate, one is unsure whether to feel relieved at the sense of déjà vu or worried about the possibility of history repeating itself, not as farce, but as tragedy again.

The mood and tone of public opinion is an important force in the way our society and our media function. Orwell wrote about this in an essay called “Freedom of the Park”, published in Tribune in December 1945. Five people had been arrested outside Hyde Park for selling pacifist and anarchist publications. Orwell was worried that, though they had been allowed to publish and sell these periodicals throughout the entire Second World War, there had been a shift in public opinion that meant that the police felt confident to arrest these people for “obstruction” and no one seemed to mind this curtailment of freedom of speech except him. He wrote:

 

The relative freedom which we enjoy depends on public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.

 

This is certainly true for the press today, whose reputation in the past few years has swung violently between the lows of phone-hacking and the highs of exposing MPs’ expenses. In 2011 I remember at one point a football crowd shouting out the name of Ryan Giggs, who had a so-called superinjunction in place forbidding anyone to mention that he was cheating on his wife and also forbidding anyone to mention the fact that he had taken out a superinjunction. He was named on Twitter 75,000 times. It seemed clear that public opinion had decided that his private life should be made public. The freedom of the press was briefly popular. Later the same year it was revealed that the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked by the News of the World, along with those of a number of high-profile celebrities, and the public decided that actually journalists were all scumbags and the government should get Lord Leveson to sort them out. Those who maintained that the problem was that the existing laws (on trespass, contempt, etc) were not enforced because of an unhealthy relationship between the police, the press and the politicians were not given much credence.

In a proposed preface to his 1945 novel, Animal Farm, Orwell wrote: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

This is the quotation that will accompany the new statue of Orwell that has now been commissioned by the BBC and which will stand as a sort of rebuke to the corporation whenever it fails to live up to it. The BBC show on which I appear regularly, Have I Got News for You, has been described simultaneously in the online comments section as “overprivileged, right-wing Tory boys sneering at the working class ” and “lefty, metropolitan liberal elite having a Labour luvvie whinge-fest”. Disturbing numbers of complainants feel that making jokes about the new president-elect should not be allowed, since he has won the election. Humour is not meant to be political, assert the would-be censors – unless it attacks the people who lost the vote: then it is impartial and neutral. This role for comedy would have surprised Orwell, who was keen on jokes. He wrote of Charles Dickens:

 

A joke worth laughing at always has an idea behind it, and usually a subversive idea. Dickens is able to go on being funny because he is in revolt against authority, and authority is always there to be laughed at. There is always room for one more custard pie.

 

I think there is also room for a custard pie or two to be thrown against those who claim to be outsiders, against authority and “the system”, and use this as a way to take power. The American billionaire property developer who is the champion of those dispossessed by global capitalism seems a reasonable target for a joke. Just like his British friend, the ex-public-school boy City trader-turned-critic of the Home Counties elite.

The emblematic quotation on liberty is from a preface that was not published until 1972 in the Times Literary Supplement. A preface about freedom of speech that was censored? It is almost too neatly Orwellian to be true, and in fact no one seems to know exactly why it did not appear. Suffice to say that it is fascinating to read Orwell complaining that a novel which we all now assume to be a masterpiece – accurate about the nature of revolution and dictatorship and perfect for teaching to children in schools – was once considered to be unacceptably, offensively satirical.

The target of the satire was deemed to be our wartime allies the Russians. It is difficult to imagine a time, pre-Putin, pre-Cold War, when they were not seen as the enemy. But of course the Trump presidency may change all that. Oceania may not be at war with Eurasia any more. Or it may always have been at war with Eastasia. It is difficult to guess, but in those days the prevailing opinion was that it was “not done” to be rude about the Russians.

Interestingly there is now a significant faction on the British left, allied with the current leader of the Labour Party, who share this view.

 

The right to tell people what they do not want to hear is still the basis of freedom of expression. If that sounds like I am stating the obvious – I am. But, in my defence, Orwell once wrote in a review of a book by Bertrand Russell published in the Adelphi magazine in January 1939:

 

. . . we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.

 

Orwell himself managed to come round to a position of accepting that an author could write well and truthfully about a subject even if one disapproved of the author’s politics: both Kipling and Swift were allowed to be right even though they were not left enough. So I am hoping that we can allow Orwell to be right about the principles of freedom of expression.

In the unpublished preface to Animal Farm he writes:

 

The issue involved here is quite a simple one: Is every opinion, however unpopular – however foolish, even – entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say “Yes”. But give it a concrete shape, and ask, “How about an attack on Stalin? Is that entitled to a hearing?”, and the answer more often than not will be “No”. In that case the current orthodoxy happens to be challenged, and so the principle of free speech lapses.

 

One can test oneself by substituting contemporary names for Stalin and seeing how you feel. Putin? Assange? Mandela? Obama? Snowden? Hillary Clinton? Angela Merkel? Prince Harry? Mother Teresa? Camila Batmanghelidjh? The Pope? David Bowie? Martin Luther King? The Queen?

Orwell was always confident that the populist response would be in favour of everyone being allowed their own views. That might be different now. If you were to substitute the name “Trump” or “Farage” and ask the question, you might not get such a liberal response. You might get a version of: “Get over it! Suck it up! You lost the vote! What bit of ‘democracy’ do you not understand?”

Orwell quotes from Voltaire (the attribution is now contested): “I detest what you say; I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Most of us would agree with the sentiment, but there is a worrying trend in universities that is filtering through into the media and the rest of society. Wanting a “safe space” in which you do not have to hear views that might upset you and demanding trigger warnings about works of art that might display attitudes which you find offensive are both part of an attempt to redefine as complex and negotiable what Orwell thought was simple and non-negotiable. And this creates problems.

Cartoon: "Voltaire goes to uni", by Russell and originally published in Private Eye.

We ran a guide in Private Eye as to what a formal debate in future universities might look like.

 

The proposer puts forward a motion to the House.

The opposer agrees with the proposer’s motion.

The proposer wholeheartedly agrees that the opposer was right to support the motion.

The opposer agrees that the proposer couldn’t be more right about agreeing that they were both right to support the motion.

When the debate is opened up to the floor, the audience puts it to the proposer and the opposer that it isn’t really a debate if everyone is just agreeing with each other.

The proposer and the opposer immediately agree to call security and have the audience ejected from the debating hall.

And so it goes on, until the motion is carried unanimously.

 

This was dismissed as “sneering” and, inevitably, “fascist” by a number of student commentators. Yet it was only a restatement of something that Orwell wrote in the unpublished preface:

 

. . . everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way. Both capitalist democracy and the western versions of socialism have till recently taken that principle for granted. Our Government, as I have already pointed out, still makes some show of respecting it.

 

This is not always the case nowadays. It is always worth a comparison with the attitudes of other countries that we do not wish to emulate. The EU’s failure to confront President Erdogan’s closure of newspapers and arrests of journalists in Turkey because it wants his help to solve the refugee crisis is one such obvious example. An old German law to prosecute those making fun of foreign leaders was invoked by Erdogan and backed by Mrs Merkel. This led Private Eye to run a competition for Turkish jokes. My favourites were:

 

“Knock knock!”

“Who’s there.”

“The secret police.”

 

What do you call a satirist in Turkey?

An ambulance.

 

As Orwell wrote in even more dangerous times, again in the proposed preface:

 

. . . the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the [Ministry of Information] or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion.

 

I return to stating the obvious, because it seems to be less and less obvious to some of the current generation. This is particularly true for those who have recently become politically engaged for the first time. Voters energised by Ukip and the EU referendum debate, or by the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, or by the resurgence of Scottish nationalism or by the triumph of Trump, have the zeal of the newly converted. This is all very admirable, and a wake-up call to their opponents – the Tartan Tories and the Remoaners and the NeoBlairites and the Washington Liberal Elite – but it is not admirable when it is accompanied by an overpowering desire to silence any criticism of their ideas, policies and leading personalities. Perhaps the supporters of the mainstream parties have simply become accustomed to the idea over the decades, but I have found in Private Eye that there is not much fury from the Tory, New Labour or Liberal camps when their leaders or policies are criticised, often in much harsher ways than the newer, populist movements.

 

 

So, when Private Eye suggested that some of the claims that the Scottish National Party was making for the future of an independent Scotland might be exaggerated, there were one or two readers who quoted Orwell’s distinction between patriotism being the love of one’s country and nationalism being the hatred of others – but on the whole it was mostly: “When if ever will you ignorant pricks on the Eye be sharp enough to burst your smug London bubble?”

Those who disagreed with the SNP were beneath contempt if English and traitors if Scottish. This was matched by the sheer fury of the Corbyn loyalists at coverage of his problems with opposition in his own party. When we suggested that there might be something a bit fishy about his video on the lack of seats on the train to Newcastle, responses included: “I had hoped Private Eye was outside the media matrix. Have you handed over control to Rupert Murdoch?”

Their anger was a match for that of the Ukippers when we briefly ran a strip called At Home With the Ukippers and then made a few jokes about their leader Mr Farage: “Leave it out, will you? Just how much of grant/top up/dole payment do you lot get from the EU anyway? Are you even a British publication?”

In 1948, in an essay in the Socialist Leader, Orwell wrote:

 

Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.

 

In other words, the defence of freedom of speech and expression is not just special pleading by journalists, writers, commentators and satirists, but a more widespread conviction that it protects “the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of Western civilisation”.

In gloomy times, there was one letter to Private Eye that I found offered some cheer – a willingness to accept opposing viewpoints and some confirmation of a belief in the common sense of Orwell’s common man or woman. In response to the cartoon below, our correspondent wrote:

 

Dear sir,

I suffer from a bipolar condition and when I saw your cartoon I was absolutely disgusted. I looked at it a few days later and thought it was hilarious.

 

Ian Hislop is the editor of Private Eye. This is an edited version of his 2016 Orwell Lecture. For more details, visit: theorwellprize.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage