The British recruits who have joined Isis are not exceptions. They flourish in a culture in which it is so commonplace to offer support to authoritarian regimes and movements that few bother to condemn it. Free speech ought to mean the freedom to challenge and criticise in all except the most tightly defined circumstances. Instead in Britain tolerance has become indifference; a lazy desire to live in our comfortable bubbles. The dominant culture views vigorous criticism as rude or insensitive – or, to use that popular and completely meaningless school-prefect putdown, “inappropriate.” More often that not, criticism is taken down and used as evidence of the critic’s failings, his or her obsessions and phobias.
We cannot be bothered to challenge fanatics. We say we don’t want to ‘force our views on others’ – as if argument were physical coercion. And if those others leave England to enslave Kurdish women, or applaud kleptomaniac dictators, we are not responsible. We never concerned ourselves with their affairs, nor argued with them for a moment.
Many poisonous plants have bloomed in this dank climate. From the left, George Galloway has crawled to half the tyrants and tyrannical movements of the Middle East, and the National Union of Students and the ludicrously misnamed ‘Stop the War Coalition’ have refused to condemn Islamic State’s war against the ethnic and religious minorities of Syria and Iraq. More recently, the Bruges Group from the right of the Tory Party, the Conservative Friends of Russia, Nick Griffin and Nigel Farage – the far right and the further right, you might say – have formed a British fan club for Vladimir Putin.
Not to be outdone, British leftists are back, bending the knee this time to Communist China. Chinese liberals call them ‘the panda huggers’: Western intellectuals, who tell Chinese people how lucky they are to live under communist rule. The independent Chinese news service Beijing Cream has passed me the details of the latest tourist to fly in and flatter his hosts. The full story is on its site but briefly, you may remember John Ross, from Socialist Action, a Trotskyist entryist group into the Labour Party.
If you do not remember him, your taxes still paid for him. Ken Livingstone hired Socialist Action activists on six-figure salaries because he knew they would be loyal to him in all circumstances: cultishness and subservience to the leader being natural bedfellows. Ross and the rest of the clique went on to take redundancy of around £200,000 a head from the London taxpayers when the voters threw out Livingstone in 2008.
He washed up in China as a senior fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University. Instead of supporting the protestors in Hong Kong, who are arguing for some of the democratic rights that Londoners enjoy, Ross is telling them how grateful they should be to the Chinese Communist Party. He approved of the system the party wished to impose on Hong Kong: three candidates, handpicked by Beijing – or ‘any colour you like, so long as it’s red,’ as the demonstrators say. It was ‘much more democratic than the United Kingdom,’ he told his Chinese audience. My colleagues on Beijing Cream wrote in reply that this must be the same United Kingdom
Where calls for a referendum on Scottish independence were ruthlessly censored, its leaders crushed, journalists and activists imprisoned, and where the streets of Dundee and Glasgow are now lined with friendly, tear-gas wielding soldiers.
Doubtless Ross was flattered when the Chinese tabloid the Global Times asked to interview him for a profile of western China watchers. But the Chinese press is not always as cowed as outsiders believe. The reporter – Lin Mellian – produced a balanced assessment of the Chinese state’s cheerleaders, which included critical comments. I am flattered to say that Lin Mellian quoted a piece I had written when Ross was still delighting us in London with his company:
Ross – a Marxist economics commentator once described by left-wing writer Nick Cohen as ‘so lacking in economic knowledge that he decided that the Russian Communist party was a force for the future two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall’ – has professional reasons to view China warmly.
As soon as it appeared, Ross behaved as anyone who remembers Livingstone would expect him to behave: he demanded censorship. Ross first insisted that I should be described as ‘right wing’ – the cheek of the Trot; and then said ‘Cohen has no knowledge of economics’ – which was rich coming from him. In the end, criticism was cut. ‘Of Cohen, all reference had vanished like a dissident in the night,’ Beijing Cream said. The editors at Global Times inserted praise in its place, and the young reporter may be in trouble for behaving as an independent journalist rather than a state propagandist. (Best of luck, if you’re reading, by the way.)
I cannot disagree with Beijing Cream when it writes that Ross engaged in
[T]he unwarranted harassment of a female Chinese journalist at a state-owned paper, a shrill demand for heavy-handed censorship, and the wholesale manipulation of someone else’s work to further his own agenda.
Why is Britain so good at producing creeps like him? Money comes into it. In a country where so much is up for sale, there is no special shame in working for a public-relations agency with murderers on the account, as long as the murderers are not common criminals but heads of state with diplomatic recognition. I am certain, for instance, that Peter Mandelson would not be so close to the oligarchy if Russia went bankrupt.
It is worth watching Putin’s English-language channel Russia Today to see the parallel world the dictators have built. You will see the producers put forward ‘experts on Britain’ who you have either never heard of – or who you resolved to avoid – receiving fees and recognition for outlining the West’s faults, while forgetting to mention Putin’s crimes. These can be tempting prizes for marginal figures – mainstream British society relegates to unnoticed lives in crumby jobs, as can posts at a dictatorship’s university.
But material interests cannot be the sole explanation for our creepiness any more than it can explain the rest of human behaviour. Greed does not drive young men and women to kill for Islamic State. (Or not greed in the traditional sense. They have a greed for violence, millennial certainty and sex beyond parental control.) They are not mercenaries but wholehearted believers. Meanwhile, dictatorships’ fellow travellers are not so much undeserved supporters, as believers for want of better.
I do not think that those who do not know Tories understand how the European Union has driven them close to insanity. Putin’s British allies on the right and far right see this dull and failing bureaucratic enterprise as a leviathan. Men like Bernard Jenkin and John Redwood unblushingly describe the EU as a predatory state rather than a diplomatic alliance, which has only added new members by consent.
To them and their friends, the EU is an aggressor that has provoked Russia by seeking to expand its empire into Ukraine. Any crime by Putin, including annexing territory and fermenting civil war, is forgivable if it tames the Euro monster that haunts Conservatives’ nightmares. Tories’ willingness to befriend their enemies’ enemies matches the eagerness of liberal-leftists to embrace or at least excuse radical Islamists, from the camps of the Gaza Strip to the classrooms of Birmingham. Islamists oppose the established order in Britain and the West. As do they. Hence, as with the right and Putin, the liberal-leftists’ faults aren’t really their fault, but a natural and understandable reaction to a greater evil.
Above all else, however, lie the suffocating evasions of British life. Discussions of why Britain exports so many of its citizens to propagandise and on occasion fight for dictatorial movements are rare. The harm we do to the rest of the world is ducked. Few admit that liberals do not like to take on the enemies of liberalism , and seek to shame or convert them with robust argument. They do not want to lay themselves open to accusations of ‘obsessiveness’, ‘witch-hunting’ or even ‘McCarthyism.’ In any case, it’s too much trouble.