Irving and Livingstone: what liberal backlash?

The imprisonment of David Irving and suspension of Ken Livingstone are the logical extension of an illiberal political climate that some of the backlashers helped to create.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

These are, as we know, illiberal times, when you can hardly smoke a cigarette, celebrate a goal or hate religion/homosexuality/the Welsh/whatever without the risk of having your collar felt. Yet suddenly it seems as if everybody wants to sign up to a ‘liberal backlash’.

Austria’s jailing of David Irving for Holocaust denial has met with widespread opposition in Britain from many whom in normal circumstances would cross the road to avoid the fake historian. And the decision of the Standards Board for England to suspend London Mayor Ken Livingstone for a month, for bringing his office into disrepute by comparing a Jewish journalist to a concentration camp guard, has been widely criticised among Livingstone’s opponents as well as supporters. (The suspension has now itself been ‘suspended’ by a high court judge.)

What is behind this sudden outbreak of backlashes?

Although they come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, both Irving’s imprisonment and Livingstone’s suspension should certainly be opposed. spiked made that clear from the moment these issues arose, when Irving was arrested and Livingstone reported to the authorities. We do not support either Irving the far-right crank or Livingstone the left-wing opportunist, but we do have a strong and consistent commitment both to freedom of speech and democratic accountability (see Freedom of speech in Europe: it’s all or nothing, by Brendan O’Neill; Bringing democracy into disrepute, by Josie Appleton). A few others took similarly public stands of principle.

Over the past week or so, however, many who previously took little or no interest in these issues suddenly began howling with outrage at the treatment of Irving and Livingstone. Confronted with these extreme examples of the ugly illiberal and anti-democratic tendencies in politics today, they recoil in horror. Yet these cases are in fact only a logical extension of the broader political climate we live under now – a climate which many of the alleged back-lashers have helped to create and institutionalise.

For example, laws and rules and codes against hate speech have mushroomed in British and European society over recent years. Governments and campaigners of different stripes have engaged in crusades to outlaw offensive and provocative words, whether spoken by far-right politicians or radical Muslim clerics. There has also been a strong lobby within New Labour to make Holocaust denial a crime in the UK, as it is elsewhere in Europe.

Yet when the Austrians put this not-in-front-of-the-children approach to debate into practise, by locking up Irving for something he said years ago, there is a general throwing up of hands and wailing of ‘we didn’t mean that!’. Many of Austria’s critics seem to be in denial about their own anti-hate speech arguments. Would they object as loudly if the leader of the British National Party were to be found guilty of the incitement to race hate charges on which he currently faces retrial?

Mayor Livingstone, of course, has spent years demanding bans and restrictions on words which he finds offensive. Yet now he has been hoist with his own petard, punished for what he said rather than anything he did. In another sense, Livingstone’s suspension can be seen as a result of the wider tendency to put personal characteristics rather than political principles at the centre of public life, and to subject democratically elected representatives to the supervision and guidance of unaccountable bodies and officials. Yet these political trends have been supported by many of those now objecting to the treatment of Livingstone.

New Labour and the liberal press made issues of ‘sleaze’ and personal character central to their assault on the last Conservative government, hounding Tory politicians over their tax returns rather than their taxation policies. Tony Blair subsequently based his appeal on his personal image as a ‘pretty straight guy’, and New Labour set up anti-sleaze bodies such as the Standards Board to police the behaviour of elected representatives.

Even Livingstone ran for London mayor on a personal ticket as an honest man of the people. His suspension can be seen as a pay-off from this ‘trust me, me, me’ school of politics where character matters above conviction. Thus the Standards Board ruled that the mayor’s behaviour outside a party had brought not only himself but his office into disrepute – or in other words, as Livingstone’s allies used to say, that the personal is political. Livingstone may complain now that it is an outrageous assault on democracy for some unelected bureaucrats to ban a mayor – as indeed it is. But his case would be stronger if he and every other Labour politician had not seemed so in thrall to unaccountable quangos, semi-state committees and unrepresentative lobby groups for years.

It is hard to launch effective opposition to bans and proscriptions when you have supported the political process that led up to them, and helped to create the illiberal climate in which they can be imposed. Worse, some of the loudest arguments used against the judgements against Irving and Livingstone reflect similar anti-democratic instincts as those they purport to criticise.

Take the widespread objection that Irving, and to a lesser extent Livingstone, will be turned into ‘martyrs’ by being persecuted. The assumption appears to be that there is a pan-European mob of racists waiting to rally around Irving the Holocaust-denier if he is persecuted. At another level, it is also implied that stupid Londoners will be conned into sympathising with the dreadful Livingstone if he appears to be picked on.

What many of these allegedly liberal protests reveal is a profound mistrust of the public. Just as the Austrian authorities locked up Irving for fear that his idiotic speeches might prompt a Nazi revival, so these critics want him released for fear that his imprisonment might have the same effect. And just as the sleaze police assume that they, rather than the dumb electorate, are best-placed to judge the London mayor, so some objecting to Livingstone’s suspension appear worried that it will help him pull the wool over gullible voters’ eyes.

In fact we should be against these illiberal measures for precisely the opposite reasons: because we do trust the people to decide for themselves what they think of an Irving or a Livingstone. Here at spiked, of course, we believe that the two should be treated very differently. Irving’s crankish racism should be exposed, ignored, allowed to fade away. Livingstone’s popular miserabilist politics should be rigorously argued with. Both will require a commitment to free speech and democratic debate that seems sadly lacking in public life today.

A backlash is a momentary, partial thing that changes nothing unless it leads to a questioning of the underlying political realities. Instead the recent reaction to these decisions has done little to challenge the illiberal, anti-democratic drift of our time. Even the mayor’s appeal had to be left in the hands of a high court judge. It is high time we were left to judge important issues for ourselves.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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