Fear and loathing in Westminster

Written by Denis MacShane on 27 October 2008 in Culture
In an exclusive extract from his new book, Globalising Hatred, Labour MP Denis MacShane explores anti-semitism in British politicsIn his diary entry of 31 March 1982, the Conservative politician Alan Clark wrote: “Today I asked an offensive question about Jews.

In an exclusive extract from his new book, Globalising Hatred, Labour MP Denis MacShane explores anti-semitism in British politics

In his diary entry of 31 March 1982, the Conservative politician Alan Clark wrote: “Today I asked an offensive question about Jews. It is always thought to be rude to refer to ‘Jews’, isn’t it? I remember that slightly triste occasion, watched from the gallery, of my father being inaugurated into the Lords and my rage at Sidney Bernstein, who was being ennobled on the same afternoon and would not take the Christian oath. As loudly as I could I muttered and mumbled about ‘Jews’ in order to discomfit his relations who were also clustered in the gallery.

“I had hung it around the Foreign Secretary’s visit to Israel...The House took it quite well, a few guffaws. It is always fun to see how far you can go with taboo subjects and titillate the House without actually shocking it.”

The cabinet Margaret Thatcher formed at the time of Clark’s Old Etonian closet Jew baiting had Jews in it and Mrs Thatcher’s own Finchley constituency had the largest share of Jewish voters of any seat in the Commons. But that did not lead to any reworking of the traditional vocabulary of sneers, jokes and barely disguised put-downs aimed at identifying Jewish cabinet members. The most notorious being Harold Macmillan’s line that the Thatcher cabinet “was more old Estonian than old Etonian” — a crack which sped through the bars of the Commons and in Tory clubland as a non-too-subtle way of putting Nigel Lawson, Leon Brittan or Michael Howard in their place. Over dinner in Hong Kong in the 1990s with the last Governor, the liberal, whiggish, tolerant Chris Patten I remarked that Mrs Thatcher had done well to show a British cabinet could contain able Jewish politicians at a time when Labour was gripped by a one-sided politics on Middle East affairs. “I don’t know, Denis,” he replied. “You should have been at the bar of the House during the Westland affair” — a reference to 1985 when the Jewish cabinet member, Leon Brittan, was involved in a scandal over whether Britain should look to Europe or the United States for military procurement. Indeed, Sir John Stokes, a Tory MP rose to complain that “there are not enough red-blooded, redfaced Englishmen in the Cabinet” as dinosaur Tory antisemitism surfaced in the row over who should be installed in Brittan’s place.

Pre-1939 British politics was marked by anti-semitism. Some of it was notorious like Oswald Mosley telling eastenders in 1937 council elections: “The Jews already in this country must be sent to where they belong... No more admitting of foreigners into this country to take British jobs.”

The dislike of the foreign worker — Jews in the 1930s for Oswald Mosley, Asians in the 1960s for Enoch Powell, Poles since 2004 for Migration Watch — is a pathology right-wing British politics can never free itself from. And not just the right. Labour’s Hugh Dalton, one of the key figures in Labour in the first half of the last century stood for Parliament in Cardiff in 1923 against the Jewish Liberal MP, Sir Arthur Mond, who founded the great chemical company that became ICI. Mond was accused of profiteering from contracts in World War 1.

In a speech, Dalton won applause by referring to Mond as having never got “beyond the Old Testament” — an obvious antisemitic jibe. John Beckett, who started as an angry leftwing Labour MP and who finished in the British Union of Fascists, is linked to Dalton by Beckett’s son, Francis, who wrote his father’s biography. “There may have been a part of both John (Beckett) and Hugh Dalton which saw a connection between the fact that Mond was corrupt and the fact that he was a Jew.”

In the 1930s, the Conservative Home Secretary refused to meet delegation from organisations combating antisemitism. Austen Chamberlain wrote of Disraeli that although he was an “English patriot (Disraeli) was not an Englishman”. In August 1945, writing of the Conservatives, the Jewish Chronicle reported that “antisemitism on the part of party supporters had led many local political associations not to select Jewish candidates”.

Indeed, the first-ever Jewish Conservative MP was not elected until 1955 and until the 1970 election there were only two Jewish Tory MPs. Today’s House of Commons has 22 Jewish MPs, of whom 11 are Conservative, eight Labour and three Liberal Democrat.

My overall impression in 15 years as an MP is that more MPs are broadly sympathetic to the cause of Palestinians than are willing to support Israel. The former MP, now a peer, Greville Janner, recalls that when he supported the Israeli attack on Iraq’s nuclear arms facility in 1981, his Labour colleague, Andrew Faulds, turned and said “go back to Tel Aviv”. Once when Janner was in the Chamber, a colleague said: “Your ambassador’s sitting in the gallery.”

It was the Israeli ambassador and the sense that Jewish MPs are not quite British pervades. During the 1973 attack by Egypt on Israel, the Labour MP Gerald Kaufman was critical of the arms delivery embargo the Conservative government imposed on Israel. “The Foreign Secretary, Alex Douglas-Home, told me my loyalty appeared to be to Israel and not to Britain. It was a clear anti-Jewish insinuation,” recalls Kaufman who is one of Parliament’s sternest critics of Israeli policy in the occupied territories.

When Greville Janner was introduced as a peer to the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, two Conservative peers were overheard saying to each other: “Who’s that, introducing the Archbishop?” “Oh, just some Jew.”

If the right has the BNP on its extreme flank, the left has Trotskyist groups. The leader of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, Gerry Healey, was denounced as “a blatant anti-semite” by his comrades. In the 1980s, many on the hard left in Britain used language which the now dead Jewish Labour MP, Reg Freeson, considered anti-semitic.

Freeson was a founding editor of the anti-fascist journal, Searchlight. This made him a target for antisemitic attacks in the 1960s. A pig’s head was nailed to his front door and a racist poster produced with its words formed from slices of bacon. After his election to the Commons in 1964, Freeson hoped his new status would protect him. But his new opponents reverted to old hates. He described how in the 1980s he found himself routinely described in left-wing papers as “the Zionist MP Reg Freeson”.

Freeson added: “This term, ‘Zionist’, was used even when the article had nothing to do with Israel, or Zionism. It was, in my view, the equivalent of the Blackshirts calling someone a ‘Jew-boy’ in the 1930s. I went to one LabourParty meeting, where a member, a left-winger, turned to me and said: ‘You’re a Jew, aren’t you?’”

The Labour MP, Oona King, whose father was an African-American political refugee witch-hunted out of the United States by McCarthyites in the 1950s was attacked as a Jew when she defended her East London seat against the Respect Party in 2005. King’s mother is Jewish. Her daughter is non-observant (though proud of her Jewish blood) and her parliamentary work focused on highlighting the Rwandan genocide and other third world issues. But the fact her mother was Jewish gave her opponents their opening. She faced taunts like “get out of here, Jewish bitch” and her political opponents sought to defame her by spreading rumours that she was secretly funded by Mossad and that she wanted to ban halal meat. “They point out I’m Jewish, and there’s a Jewish world conspiracy and I must be part of it,” she wrote in her diary. “Time and again during the general election campaign my Jewish background was used as a stick to beat me with.”

Although careful to make clear that anti-semitism was not the deciding factor in losing her seat in she argues that “anti-semitism was simply another factor that was skilfully manipulated for political ends.” In 2008, the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, lost his post to the anti-European right-wing Conservative, Boris Johnson. Three years earlier, Livingstone refused to apologise after he compared the Jewish journalist, Oliver Finegold, to a Nazi. Finegold was reporting for the London Evening Standard and tried to get some quotes from Livingstone. He had a recorder with him and caught on tape Livingstone turning to Finegold as the reporter tried to put his questions.

Livingstone: “What did you do before? Were you a German war criminal?”

Finegold: “No, I’m Jewish. I wasn’t a German war criminal...”

Livingstone: “Ah right.”

Finegold: “I’m actually quite offended by that. So how did tonight go?”

Livingstone: “Well, you might be, but actually you are just like a concentration camp guard.”

Unfortunately for the Mayor of London, this comparision of a Jewish journalist with a Nazi became a massive political story which resulted in considerable damage to Livingstone. He adamantly refused to apologise to Finegold.

Yet Reg Freeson, the Labour MP who was ousted and replaced as MP by Livingstone said he did not consider the ex-London Mayor to be ‘anti-semitic’ and as London’s Mayor Livingstone supported Jewish festivals and was never short of Jews amongst his supporters. As elsewhere, the problem is one of spectrum and discourse. Where does legitimate criticism of Israel or opposition to the political ideology of Zionism end and Jew-hate begin? When does language move from political robustness to offensive insults and then through to anti-semitic discourse? Is it up to the victim to define his sense of insult and outrage? Or can the person using the language beat his chest and protest others are being too sensitive?

A test might be the willingness to apologise and to realise that offence has been caused. Boris Johnson upset many when he described African children as “picannanies”. Yet he was willing to say sorry for the offence he caused. Ken Livingstone was not willing to say sorry to hundreds of thousands of London Jews for his offensive remarks. Boris Johnson has been willing to say sorry. Ken Livingstone was not. One of them is now Mayor of London.

é Denis MacShane, 2008. Extracted from Globalising Hatred by Denis MacShane, published by Weidenfeld &Nicolson price £12.99

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