Labour's new civil war

All is not well within the Labour Party. David Miliband’s backers are regrouping. The Ballsites are

On Monday 27 September, David Miliband stood dead centre on the main stage at the Labour conference in Manchester. His back ramrod straight. Here was the Lost Leader. Master of none that he surveyed. But he had come to deliver an important message. We must unite, he said. We must come together. An end to the briefings. An end to the factions. An end to the cliques. His audience rose as one.

Fast forward 24 hours. The bars of Labour 2010 in Manchester are jammed with delegates dissecting another speech, the one made by the new leader, Ed Miliband. In the bar of the Midland hotel, a former Blairite cabinet minister shakes his head and says to me: "It's a disaster." A senior Brownite mutters into his mobile: "Anti-business, weak on crime, no message." Another Gordon Brown loyalist shrugs and says: "Doesn't matter. In two years we'll have him out and Yvette Cooper in."

Across town a senior frontbencher sits down to dinner with the editorial team of a Sunday newspaper. What's his view of the speech? "If Ed thinks I'm going to follow that crap about not banging up criminals, he's got another thing coming. Life should mean life, and I'm going to keep saying it." The journalists smile. Did he know, they tease, that when Andy Coulson heard Ed praise Ken Clarke on lenient sentencing, he punched the air.

In the Radisson hotel a member of the new leader's campaign team looks at me, bemused: "We keep reaching out to people. They just keep brushing us off. They don't want to know." On the other side of the bar another Ed supporter clenches his fist in triumph: "Fuck the Blairites. How many divisions have they got?"

No briefings. No factions. No cliques.

The Labour Party has entered a post-cold-war era. The two great Blairite and Brownite power blocks have fractured. Where once there was iron certainty, now there is only doubt. "People are confused," one MP tells me. "They're used to knowing who or what they're for and what they're against. Now all that's gone. To be ­honest, they're a bit rudderless."

The politicians. The activists. The spinners. The strategists. The thinkers. The policy wonks. The organisers. The gurus. The army and camp followers that make up the great Labour tribe are emerging, blinking, into a new dawn. Some are fearful, while others are hopeful. All recognise the landscape around them has changed.

“New Labour was about marshalling everyone into Tony Blair's big tent," says the Compass chair, Neal Lawson. "That's the old politics. The new pluralism is about acknowledging there are lots of little tents. How you build those tents into a strong, progressive community is the challenge."

It's a challenge that excites him. No wonder. Compass spent the years of Blair and Brown out in the cold. Now, as he puts it, "Ed Miliband is playing all of our greatest hits."

Not everyone is impressed by the tune. On the other side of the encampment sits Progress: centrist thinkers to some, Blairite outriders to others. "Our message to Compass is, 'Good luck'," says Progress's deputy director, Richard Angell. "Have a go. If Neal thinks his leftist, statist prospectus is the route back to power, good luck to him."

The old dividing lines may be becoming blurred. But they have not been erased. This is why Ed Miliband's team are monitoring, with a vigilance bordering on paranoia, the signals emanating from the shattered bunkers of the two old great powers. How are the grizzled Blairite and Brownite veterans adjusting to the new world order?

Among the former, there is a clear sense of preparing for a long game. "We have to be realistic," says one insider. "If David had won, he would have been constructing a ten-year strategy. Unless there's a miracle, we're not going to win the next election, certainly not with an overall majority. We need to plan on that basis."

The plan, given the rancour that ­existed between the Blairites and Ed Miliband during the leadership contest, is a surprising one. "We've got to reach out," says another senior Blairite. "We've got an opportunity to shape Ed. To mould his vision. Read his conference speech. The Compass left were claiming it ticked all their boxes. But if you actually read the words, rather than try to interpret them, you see a clear message. The heir to Blair, at least in the short term, is Ed Miliband."

These overtures have been welcomed by Ed Miliband's team. "Look at the leadership election," says one lieutenant. "Ed and David supporters represent more than 80 per cent of the party. That has got to be the basis on which we build the new progressive consensus. The realignment has to start from there."

Former Blairite advisers have been in discussion with Stuart Wood and Greg Beales, Ed Miliband's chief communications and policy aides, about assisting in the development of strategy. There have been "clear the air" talks with members of David Miliband's campaign team. "Take someone like [the shadow defence secretary] Jim Murphy," says a fellow shadow cabinet member who worked with Ed Miliband on the leadership contest.

"When we were doing ­liaison between the campaigns, he was vicious. Incredibly difficult to work with. But since the election he's been a different person. He's been making a conscious effort to build bridges."

Not all relations are so harmonious. A number of Blairite ministers, such as Hazel Blears, Ben Bradshaw and Pat McFadden, were offered shadow ministerial rolls but refused them. There are policy tensions, especially in areas such as law and order and deficit reduction. "It's all very nice reaching out," says one former Blairite minister, "but it can't just be a choice of either silence or division. You can't just say, 'I'm going to kill New Labour, but don't worry, I'll be personally nice to you.' If I articulate an alternative policy prospectus, I don't want to see that dismissed as an attempt to drag people back to the past."

But the greatest concerns within Ed Miliband's team focus on the Brownites. Or rather, the Ballsites. Definitions are important. The old Brownite faction fractured during the transition to No 10 and split further over the leadership election. Ex-Brownite supporters, such as Douglas Alexander, who worked for David Miliband, and the New Statesman's former owner Geoffrey Robinson, who endorsed him as his second preference, went in one ­direction. The former chief whip Nick Brown ­endorsed no one. Younger Brownites such as Tom Watson and Michael Dugher worked for Ed Balls but moved in behind Ed Miliband at a crucial moment in the contest. Balls himself steadfastedly refused to back either of the two front-runners. Keeping track of where these disparate groups are moving is a priority for Team Ed. "People like Tommy [Watson], Michael and Ian Austin are good guys," says one member of the shadow cabinet. "We think we can do business with them". But what of Balls and Cooper? "They're the past. They're history."

The animosity that exists between Ed Mili­band's team and Balls is raw and pal­pable. "Ed Miliband's team are terrified of Ed Balls and Yvette," says one Brownite insider. "They think they're going to come and try to kill him. And the reason they think that is ­because they will."

Ed Miliband's first shadow cabinet appointments brought this animosity into the open. The decision to withhold the shadow chancellor portfolio from both Balls and Cooper was seen as an act of war. "Stuart Wood was ringing round journalists desperately trying to find out how hard Ed and Yvette were briefing against the appointments," says one friend of the most powerful married couple in politics. "It was embarrassing. If you're going to shaft Ed and Yvette, do it. But don't complain when there's a reaction."

There was a strong reaction. "They're already organising," says one shadow minister. "Yvette has been contacting all the teams identifying one member to be her link person. The cover is she's doing it as part of the women's brief. But everyone knows she's building a base."

Another insider, who is respected by both the Miliband and Balls camps, is more circumspect. "Yes, there was briefing. Ed and Yvette were genuinely upset. But we're at the start of a complex process. Both Ed Balls and Ed Miliband are having to radically reassess the nature of their relationship. That's going to take time. The danger is that good intentions are deliberately misinterpreted the wrong way. Both of them are up for a dialogue."

According to some members of Ed Miliband's team, the decision not to appoint Balls as shadow chancellor was political, not personal. They say he effectively talked himself out of the shadow chancellor role with his increasingly aggressive positioning on the deficit. "He just kept pushing it further and further," says one insider. "We didn't have any choice."

But they reject suggestions that the current deficit-reduction strategy reflects in any way the "Balls Plan". "Balls just isn't on the same page. This is Alan [Johnson's] and Ed's plan. It's nothing to do with Ed and Yvette."

For Balls, there was anger at the way Ed Miliband distanced himself from the government's record during the leadership campaign. "As the campaign went on, Ed [Balls] became more and more frustrated," says one senior aide. "Ed Miliband was acting as if what happened in government had nothing to do with him. It looked like he was dumping on Gordon just to get elected. Ed B didn't like it."

Others are more nuanced. "You have to remember there was a time when Ed Balls was Gordon's go-to guy and Ed Miliband was doing the photocopying," says one senior Brownite. "In the short term, that's hard to take. It needs a readjustment on both sides."

Ed Miliband's team acknowledge that Balls and Cooper pose a threat to their man but believe it is containable. "How many votes did Ed Balls get in the leadership election? OK, Yvette topped the shadow cabinet poll, but when you have to vote for six women, that's not that hard to do. They're just being driven by ego. They're trapped in the past."

The calculation Ed Miliband is making is that there's little appetite within the party for a return to personality-based agitation. That and a belief that the junior former Brownites are genuine in their desire to build a constructive relationship with the new leader. But one observer counsels caution: "People like Tommy, Ian and Michael want to work with Ed Miliband. But they're essentially tribal. If it comes to a war, they'll line up behind Ed and Yvette."

Some jockeying for position is inevitable in the aftermath of a change of political leadership. But, as a rule, structures are quickly created to channel and control those pressures. An impression is developing that Ed Miliband has not yet managed to put those structures in place. "It's clear Ed's team did not have a strategy for victory," I am told by one David Miliband supporter. "They operated purely on the basis of a series of tactical decisions. It's one of the things that have eaten up David the most. He feels he's lost to someone who had no clear idea why he wanted to win."

Even those around Ed Miliband acknowledge that they are on a steep learning curve. "You've got to understand the scale of the problems we've inherited," one shadow cabinet member tells me. "This is a party that's going through a healing process. The scars of the Blair and Brown years run deep. Ed's still a novice rider and he's trying to get to grips with a very large horse."

Some see the criticisms as little more than expressions of bitterness from David Miliband and his supporters. "David had his opportunity," I am told by one MP. "The MPs, the party and the machine were in his pocket. He blew it. He should get over it."

But among other sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party there is nervousness. "There's a sense of a vacuum developing," says a shadow minister. "People are looking for leadership and direction. And at the moment they're not getting it." Another shadow minister laughed at his team's disorganisation during their first Commons questions. "I got up to say something and sat down again. Can't remember what it was . . . It's all a bit of a joke."

Old stagers who lived through the Blair and Brown years are astonished at the extent of the autonomy being granted to the shadow teams. Policy development is being managed internally. Centralised control is minimal. One shadow minister confirmed that none of the teams had received instructions from the leadership on the need to avoid uncosted spending commitments until Alan Johnson demanded it.

“People are just going to have to get used to this," says one shadow minister who did not back Ed Miliband but is warming to his approach. "The days when things were just handed down from on high are over. We're being given responsibility. We need to be mature and run with it."

Some of the differences are generational. Not everyone has embraced the new politics, especially the rapid promotion of elements of the 2010 intake. "It's insane. They should refuse," says one veteran of the 1992 election, on hearing of the junior shadow ministerial appointments. Most members of Generation Ed report few problems. "It's working pretty well," says the shadow culture minister Gloria del Piero. "People have been helpful and supportive. After the election defeat there's a real sense of everyone pulling together."

However, anxiety runs deep. Ed Miliband's supporters claim to have been shocked by the hostility they received from Labour officials in the wake of his election victory. Ninety per cent of party staffers, whose votes were treated like a mini constituency, voted for David Miliband. "It was unbelievable," says one campaign worker, "they acted like we had no right to be there. Ed's going to have to clean house."

In order to help begin that process, Ed Miliband's team are reaching beyond the party. Caroline Badley, who masterminded Gisela Stuart's surprise victory in Birmingham Edgbaston, Nick Lowles, who leads Hope Not Hate's successful push against the BNP, and London Citizens, who worked closely with David Miliband's campaign, have all been asked to contribute to a campaigning template for the new leadership team. But again, tensions are surfacing.

London Citizens' aggressive organising model, built on church-based community activism, has met with resistance. "These guys burst in, hijack a meeting, demand everyone signs up to their agenda and talk down anyone who disagrees," says one veteran campaigner. A conference fringe meeting degenerated into rancour after London Citizens activists repeatedly called on Ed Miliband to endorse their organisational model and refused to let him leave the meeting until he had done so.

Maurice Glassman, the academic and god­father of British community organising, and someone so well connected that he worked ­simultaneously on both Ed and David Miliband's leadership campaigns, says people have to be open to a new way of working. "You ­cannot overstate the extent to which Labour has lost the ability to organise," he tells me. "Yes, we can mobilise. Get out the vote at elections. But then, once the election is over, it's all left to deflate like an old balloon."

Another reform Ed Miliband is considering is the introduction of a directly elected party chair. Again, the driving force behind the proposal is Compass. "The top priority for us and for the new leader must be party reform," says Compass's general secretary, Gavin Hayes. "We need a root-and-branch review of all areas of Labour's structure."

Party chair is the big prize. "This person will be the commander-in-chief of the grassroots, elected by individual members," Hayes says. "Ed isn't going to have time to be worrying about the nuts and bolts of party organisation. That's why we need this role."

But the putative commander-in-chief faces opposition from an influential quarter. "The unions won't go for it," says one source. "It'll be seen as a Trojan horse. If you get one member, one vote for an elected party chair, why not leader? In the unions' eyes, once you lose the electoral college, that's the link broken."

During the leadership election, David Mili­band told Jon Cruddas, the influential Labour MP for Dagenham, that he would introduce a party chair but only if it was by the election of individual members. Cruddas warned against this but agreed to approach the union general secretaries. They were firm in their opposition. It was a non-starter. Cruddas told Mili­band that even if he, Miliband, won, he'd refuse to stand.

What of the Lost Leader himself? Is he committed to uniting behind his younger brother, who many believe betrayed him. In the immediate aftermath of the election, there was no hiding his bitterness. "He was in a dark place," says one friend. "It was very difficult for him to take." But he has apparently returned from holiday in Italy reinvigorated. "Had he fought and lost, that would have been it," says a senior former campaign aide. "But the way he sees it now is that he won the party, won the MPs and won a decent share of the unions, even with their machine against him. He's not just going to walk away."

Another former aide concurs: "When I heard he'd put out that statement about building an organising base and doing some policy thinking, I didn't think anything about it. Then I went back and had another look. Policy development in education, environment and foreign affairs. His own activist model. Campaigning in the Scottish, Welsh and local elections. It was a pretty clear statement of intent."

“David's rediscovered his excitement in politics," says Lisa Tremble, his former communications director. "He's looking forward to the new challenges. He's not going anywhere."

The consensus of those close to David Miliband is that he does not believe the election defeat fully extinguished his chances of becoming Labour leader one day. He sees himself as the "under the bus" candidate, were political misfortune to befall his brother. They insist, however, that there are no plans to nudge Ed towards the curb.

Within the wider Blairite circle, there is residual sympathy for the manner in which David Miliband fought and lost his campaign. There is also a feeling among some that he needs to accept reality. "I don't think any of the candidates who lost last time around are ever going to be leader," says one former Downing Street adviser. "Over the short term there isn't going to be a vacancy. Medium to longer term, I think Jim Murphy is our standard bearer, with Alan Johnson riding shotgun."

Perhaps. But the one certainty is there are no longer any certainties. Everything is in flux. John Prescott's "plates" are shifting once again. When David Miliband made his plea for unity, it was undoubtedly sincere. But everyone seeks unity. The Blairite outriders. The Ballsites. The Milibites. The problem is not a desire for unity; the problem is lack of agreement on what to unite around. "Frankly, I wish Ed Miliband hadn't run," says one MP. "We should have had a straight battle between David and Ed Balls. One final reckoning. A fight to the death. Then the Blair/Brown struggle would have been resolved once and for all."

As it is, there is no resolution. Most people have not yet picked sides. They don't want to. They are the Ednostics, watching and waiting to see how their new leader faces up to the trials ahead of him. That represents an opportunity for Ed Miliband. But also a threat. There is some space. But also a void. If he doesn't fill it, others will. "He's got a window [of opportunity]," says one MP. "But he's got to use it. It's not ­going to be open for ever."

The tents have been erected, the campfires lit. They are either shining a light on a new political community or pinpointing the location of a series of enemy encampments. One MP's assessment is stark: "We're either on the threshold of the new politics or we're on the brink of a civil war."

No more briefings. No more cliques. No more factions.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Advantage Cameron

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