Thursday, 8 December 2011

Flynn: tolerating the intolerable

Last week, two things happened which produced condemnation by our politicians. Jeremy Clarkson appeared on national television threatening to shoot strikers in front of their families. And Paul Flynn MP, interviewed by the Jewish Chronicle, spoke against having a Jewish ambassador for Israel, after suggesting in Parliament that he might be working for a foreign power.

Clarkson is a big-mouth and a boor. He may even, from his recorded comments, be described as casually xenophobic. He is also – many may not realise this – extraordinarily successful at an international level (Top Gear has 350 million viewers per week in 170 countries – believe me, despite their protestations the BBC will not sack him any time soon). I don’t particularly warm to him or his alleged humour, but that’s beside the point.

On the other hand Flynn is, by all accounts, worthy: a hard-working MP who has previously won Backbencher of the Year and who has written at least one rather good book, which I have read. I have always thought quite highly of him and never thought him remotely racist.

And yet…there was something much more disturbing about what Flynn said. Clarkson was merely being Clarkson, a cartoon figure of the right. In fact, the day of a strike, he was clearly looking to court controversy, wind up the lefties and sell his book, which is precisely what he has achieved. He also represents no-one apart from himself, and surely more controversial subjects have been broached in practically any episode of Little Britain. And he did issue, at least, a qualified apology.

Flynn is one of us, a representative of our proudly anti-racist party, and yet he was happy to trot out the centuries-old anti-Semitic trope of “divided loyalties” – that a Jew could not be loyal to their country first. He thoughtlessly mixed religion and nationality. He made what amounted to a personal attack on a public servant, partly on the basis of their religion, which they are hardly able to change. His Tory committee colleague and friend, Robert Halfon, who is Jewish, showed all the signs of being genuinely shocked and puzzled at his behaviour rather than politically opportunist. And Flynn has also failed to apologise.

But it gets worse: what received little press coverage was the extraordinary defence given by Flynn for his remarks, that he was merely representing the views of two of his constituents. And who, pray, were these two: not any old constituents, were they? Step forward, some old Palestine campaigning chums, Pippa Bartolotti and Joyce Giblin.

Blogger Lucy Lips shows Bartolotti, former Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) member (yes, them) and Galloway acolyte, pictured holding a Syrian neo-Nazi flag and then with Hamas terrorist leaders, quoting her sympathy with the anti-Semitic views of one of them, al-Zahar: “It seemed to me that he no longer separated Zionism from the ordinary Jew, but…one could hardly blame him”. There then follows a brutally accurate observation:
“what Paul Flynn MP has done is the equivalent of a Labour MP expressing concerns about the trustworthiness of non-Anglo Saxon British public servants, at the behest of a British National Party activist”.
It’s instructive to compare and contrast in this tale of two censures. The swift and unequivocal condemnation from the Tories is an entirely consistent reflection of Cameron’s attitude to racism within his own party (and, of course, a political open goal). And his predictable comment on his friend Clarkson was that it was “a silly thing to say and I’m sure he didn’t mean that”. But what was important, of course, was that it also had the ring of truth: Clarkson was obviously not going to pick up a gun and shoot them.

But Flynn clearly did mean his comments, rightly condemned by politicians across the political spectrum. With one notable exception, that is: his party leader. Miliband lambasted Clarkson’s comments as “absolutely disgraceful and disgusting”. In contrast, as the Jewish Chronicle’s editor, Stephen Pollard, pointed out, on the subject of Flynn he allowed it to be briefed that the comments were “unacceptable” but was personally silent (it was left to other Shadow Cabinet members to speak out). As he was over the three Labour MPs who invited the anti-Semite Raed Salah to speak at the Houses of Parliament. In both cases the Chief Whip spoke to the MPs involved, and in both cases nothing further happened.

We may speculate as to why: Miliband’s sensitivity about his own Jewish roots; his unwillingness to confront union bosses, who have singularly failed to condemn Flynn either and broadly support the PSC; or thinking the issue not sufficiently important. But all these reasons fail to convince: there are times when you have to do what is right. “I have rarely felt such a sense of disappointment in a Labour leader as I do today in Ed Miliband, writes Jenni Frazer in the Chronicle…Flynn has now brought this attitude into respectable conversation”. Unwittingly, perhaps, but he has: and Miliband has looked away.

In the 60s, the Tories were nearly destroyed by Enoch Powell. In the 70s and 80s, they were still friends with the bad guys: on the side of P W Botha and Pinochet. But they learned their lesson. The wheel has come full circle and the Tories are now, with the possible exception of their ill-advised grouping within the European Parliament, the party of zero tolerance to extremism. Office-holders within their party are representatives and must behave accordingly. Transgressions are condemned immediately, and without reservation, at the highest level – often the party leader – and disciplined, which is exactly how it should be.

Labour, on the other hand, is now another party. It has become the party of indiscipline, and tolerance of the intolerable.

UPDATE: According to the JC, Paul Flynn has today finally made a statement apologising for his remarks, two weeks after the original claim in Parliament and one week after the interview with the JC. The JC’s Martin Bright is quite right in saying it was the “honourable thing to do”.

However, this does not answer why he made such statements in the first place, and why he took the word of two people with the background and history described above, against that of a senior public servant, whose only real crime seems to have been that he was Jewish.

Neither does it answer, two weeks after the issue first came to light, the continued silence from the leadership.

This post first published at LabourList


  1. Hi Rob,

    I don't see the relevance in bringing Clarkson up, as a counter figure, to express, rightfully IMO, the criticism about Flynn. Clarkson is not a politician, not an elected representative of anything, and has every right to speak his mind, as any other person, and face the consequences of his jokes. Incredible that so many in this country waste time condemning jokes.

    Let's face it, no side of the political divide has the exclusivity on silly comments, racism, condescension, and sheer stupidity. However, when those on either side of the divide make stupid comments they should be made accountable for it, without having to draw parallels with those on the other side, and much less, with those whose characteristics and public personae don't even provide room for comparisons.

    Apples with oranges?

  2. I think we agree entirely on how relevant Clarkson is to politics: not at all. As you and I both say, he represents no-one.

    The only point of raising him is precisely to highlight the fact that so many column inches have been wasted on Clarkson when something much more important - the Flynn affair - received much less. It is also important, in light of that, that Ed Miliband chose to comment on Clarkson but not Flynn.

    So, I think you've misinterpreted me: it's not about "sides" of the political fence, at all. It's about the important versus the unimportant. Clarkson could equally well have been some other fool who represents no-one on the left as the right.

  3. I'll gloss over Clarkson (after all, no need to pepper your blog with 4 letter words). Now to Flynn, yes, seems like an asinine thing to say. But I am working on my theory "Jewdar" which I began formulating on a trip to Finchley synagogue. I wore my late pal's yarmulke and as I chatted about aliyah was told I am "not Jewish enough". Not the worst thing that has ever happened to me, I only discovered I am about 1% Jewish a year or so ago. I shall end by stating "There are 2 types of folks in the world, those who can Tell A Jew, and those who cannot".

  4. Not sure how to answer that...and probably doesn't need one...

  5. I agree with your analysis, Rob, and I found the Clarkson parallel quite telling.

  6. Thanks Sarah. Yes, the comparison is about whether people focus on the right things - some (both here and at LabourList) seem to have interpreted it as a left-right thing. It's not.


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