I remember when I first experienced contempt for Tony Blair, whom I had hitherto regarded, I am ashamed to say, with something approaching optimism. It was the Hoddle business. You know: the priceless moment when poor Glenn Hoddle, his brains turned to mashed swede from heading footballs, announced that he believed in the migration of the soul; and that, furthermore, he believed that the disabled were paying for sins committed in a previous existence.
The disabled lobby (if not the disabled themselves) went wild. They called for Glenda’s instant removal. The furore went on for days, until suddenly, to my astonishment, Blair added his own voice to the calls for the dismissal of the England manager. And at that moment the scales fell. Blair, I thought, you are a fool. You are meant to be our Prime Minister. You have before you a man of limited intelligence and a mullet haircut, who has had the bravery to express his religious opinions – opinions shared, by the way, with about a billion Hindus – and instead of maintaining a statesmanlike silence you jump on this bandwagon. Shame on you, I thought then, and I think the same today, because here we go again.
We have in our newspapers a non-story, a media spat, about the insults that newt-fancier Ken Livingstone is alleged to have dished out, on leaving a party, to a reporter from the Evening Standard. The story is now in its third or fourth day; it is dying; and what does our Prime Minister do? He intervenes! Iraq is still a war zone, our hospitals are filthy, people live in fear of crime, and Blair finds time to demand an apology – on behalf of the Evening Standard – from Ken Livingstone.
Well, I do not normally side with Red Ken, but on this occasion I say, Ken, whatever you do, don’t apologise. Tell the papers to take a running jump, and tell Blair to join them. There are all sorts of reasons why this advice is sound, and I speak as one who has been caught up in the modern mania for apology.
The first is that any apology, as Ken has made clear, would be completely insincere; and the second is that it would be a surrender to media bullying. If you look at the offending transcript, it is clear that Ken was crass in his comments about camps and security guards; and it may be that elsewhere Ken has said things that border on anti-Semitism, but these words are not in themselves anti-Semitic.
We must keep that in the front of our minds, and ring-fence it with iron bars of logic. I can think of plenty of things for which I would like Newtzilla to apologise – the £900 annual cost of the congestion charge for families dropping their kids at school; his evil bendy frankfurter buses, which are a menace to cyclists; his cheerleading for anti-Semitic Muslim clerics such as al-Qaradawi, who supports suicide bombers and the beating of women; the fact that the escalator at Highbury Corner has been unmended for so many months, as if no one at Transport for London could afford a screwdriver from the astonishing sums we pay them in Tube fares.
Yes, there are all sorts of crimes for which Ken should grovel, but I think it would be an utter disaster if he came anywhere close to grovelling to the Evening Standard. We have a cult of victimhood in this country, in which the complainants are often not the victims themselves, but self-appointed priests of the cult of victimhood, who believe it is up to them to decide when offence has been given. And we have powerful newspapers that like to find some offence, and then screech their imprecations until the so-called offender has apologised.
If politicians had any sense, they would stand up to these tyrants. If we had a good prime minister, he would show a lead; so the question is, why does Blair surf the tide of outrage, and insist on an apology from Ken?
The answer is to do with a new and depressing eruption of communal politics, fomented entirely by the Labour Party. As a leading Jewish commentator put it to me yesterday, Blair’s intervention is pitched squarely at the Jewish vote, and it is aimed, above all, at reassuring important Jewish donors that Labour is on their side.
And why is that necessary? It would not be surprising if the Jewish community needed reassurance, after the frankly sulphurous way in which Labour has been trying to appeal to British Muslims. As Rod Liddle points out in a brilliant article in this week’s Spectator, there may be a method in Labour’s bizarre Fagin-style campaign posters, and energy minister Mike O’Brien’s article in Muslim News, in which he attacked Michael Howard, saying, “Ask yourself what Michael Howard can do for British Muslims”.
There are about 300,000 Jewish people in this country, and about 1.5 million Muslims. There are at least 13 extremely marginal parliamentary seats in which the Muslim vote could swing the result, and seven seats where the Muslim vote registers at more than 25 per cent of the electorate. You, as they say, do the maths.
There is also the worrying hostility to Labour among Muslims, in the wake of the Iraqi war. That is why, Rod suggests, there may be this gentle subliminal anti-Semitism in some of Labour’s propaganda; and even if he is wrong, you can see why some reasonable Jews, on reading O’Brien, might feel in need of some sign of support.
And that, in a nutshell, is why Blair is driven to the ludicrous expedient of weighing in on this unedifying dogfight between Red Ken and the Evening Standard. Who is behind this degraded politics? Well, it was Campbell the football fanatic who urged Blair to get involved in the Hoddle business, and Campbell behind the Fagin ads, and Campbell behind the new demands for apologies. Campbell is back, and so are the bad old days.
[posted by my able colleague, Olly, as am away in Slovenia]