Might as well mention him first, just to get it out of the way.
It has to be done, you see. Considering we’re trying to work out ways of tackling antisemitism. And ways of not being racist towards Jewish people. In the 21st century. In the UK. Hitler is obviously the first port of call when discussing these things. You know, Hitler? Yeah, Hitler.
Maybe this was the former London Mayor and suspended Labour politician Ken Livingstone’s thinking when he came before the Home Affairs select committee this afternoon.
In the first evidence session on antisemitism, as part of a nationwide inquiry, the British politician who has most often been accused of offending Jewish people over the past few decades mentioned the Nazi leader a mere five words into his first answer. And just five minutes into questioning from MPs, he’d mentioned Hitler in every answer. And been asked about him precisely zero times.
To be fair to Livingstone, he was called on to apologise for comments (about Hitler. Who else?) he made just before the local elections in May, for which he was suspended from the Labour party. (Spoiler: he wouldn’t. But he did concede that if he “could go back in time and avoid mentioning Hitler and Zionism, I would” – regret that lasted about 30 seconds, before he linked Hitler to Zionism. Again.)
Livingstone, with his infuriating placid grin fixed throughout the hearing, is like one of those grandparents who always refers everything back to the war. But not the kind of reminiscences you’re used to, about rationing, or being evacuated and seeing your first cow. Reminiscences about Hitler. And not just any old Hitler. A very specific period of Hitler’s rule – before “he went mad”, apparently. “On the 6 July 1920, Hitler made a speech, and I quote…” was one of the least bizarre ways Livingstone began his answers throughout the session.
But he came unprepared. “I haven’t got a copy of Hitler’s manifesto,” he admitted to the room. That’s our Ken. Always honest, happy to improvise, never armed with the specific pronouncements of fascist leaders required to prove his point.
“Most Jews are well-educated, have done their history, and they know what I said was true,” he insisted. Two out of three ain’t bad.
So sure is Livingstone of his view of history that he has offered people “the best dinner of their lives” if they can find fault with it. He told the room that no one so far has taken up the offer. “It may be that nobody wants to have dinner with you,” replied chairman Keith Vaz, to giggles from the committee.
But not everyone was laughing. Labour MP Chuka Umunna, who looked on the verge of tears, gave up questioning Livingstone about his definition of antisemitism and accused him of betraying his party:
“You’re not a historian, you’re a politician and by needlessly and repeatedly offending Jewish people in this way you not only betray our Labour values but you betray your legacy as mayor. Because all you are now going to be remembered for is becoming a pin-up for the kind of prejudice that our party was built to fight against. That is a huge shame and it’s an embarrassment.”
Livingstone merrily responded that Umunna was one of the “embittered” Labour MPs who had it in for Jeremy Corbyn. “Pathetic!” hissed Umunna. “Order!” yelled Vaz. “Hitler!” cried Livingstone. OK, he didn’t really. But he did offer to take Umunna to dinner, which had the same effect.
But perhaps the only statement we needed from this hearing was from the hitherto silent committee member Nusrat Ghani MP, who suggested that Livingstone may have an “unhealthy obsession with Hitler and Nazi Germany”.
Livingstone denied the accusation, arguing that he grew up during the war, therefore it was his frame of reference. But, hey, “if the BBC want to give me half an hour to do a history of the period, I’d be delighted to do it”. He’d better remember his copy of the manifesto for that one.