Saturday, October 27, 2012

No jeans please, I'm British: an evening with Peter Hitchens (and Malachi O'Doherty)

It was about twenty to six on Tuesday evening and I was having a cigarette just outside the gates of the Elmwood Hall while waiting for that evening's Belfast Festival talk to begin.  It was then that Peter Hitchens came walking down University Terrace, appropriately enough, on his own (he always struck me as more of a lone wolf figure as opposed to someone who would have anything resembling an entourage).  He appeared quite taken with the venue he was about to enter so I decided not to distract him with any frivolous smalltalk.  Letting him enjoy the architecture of a nineteenth century Presbyterian church hall and allowing me to enjoy my Marlboro seemed like a good arrangement.  

I was a little shocked at the response I got from some friends when I told them I had picked up a ticket to see Mr Hitchens speak.  "Why would you want to see that man," said one.  "I saw him on TV speaking about drugs recently and I don't think I could put up with him," said another.  One would have thought that I had arranged to meet up with a Scientologist who was going to give me a free stress test, but on double-checking my booking I was indeed going to see a horrible, brutal, sexist, racist, homophobic monster (his words, not mine).  Had I been going to a meeting supporting gay marriage, or perhaps a gathering to call for the freeing of the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot, where myself and all my other 'right on' pals would trundle along to have our views reinforced and repeated back to us and applaud the speakers enthusiastically I doubt an eyebrow would have been raised.  But where would the fun be in that?  Northern Ireland is a place polluted by hideous cross-community consensus politics and lacks little real political debate (parade disputes during the summer do not count) so going to see someone I have irreconcilable differences with chat about politics that did not concern our petty tribal matters seemed refreshing.

I arrived into the hall and took my seat in the second row.  The attendance was quite impressive - somewhere in the region of 120 or 130 tickets had been sold for the event.  The attendees came well prepared, many of them arriving with their Hitchens books in hand ready for the post-talk signing.  While I attempted to kill time text messaging friends a man close to me decided the best way to fill in ten minutes was by doing a bit of light reading and working through a few pages of Antony Beevor's Stalingrad.  The atmosphere beforehand was made slightly more peculiar with the sound of Thom Yorke's voice emanating from the speakers in the old church.  And then, as I pondered the colossal gap left in my life by never having seen Radiohead live, it kicked off.

It is at this point worth adding that it was not all about the Peter Hitchens show.  Far from it.  As everyone's favourite opponent of central heating took to the stage he was accompanied by none other than the author and journalist Malachi O'Doherty, a man perhaps best known for having a link to yourfriendinthenorth on his official website.  Quite why the evening wasn't promoted as O'Doherty being 'in conversation' with Hitchens I don't quite know but it nevertheless did not seem to have much in the way of a negative impact on sales as both men were greeted by a close to full hall.  Indeed, this seemed to come as a pleasant surprise to the man from Oxford.  When asked by the bearded one if he had been aware of his popularity in Belfast he said nothing but gave a grin (possibly weighing up in his mind the prospect of embarking on an Enoch Powell-style career move across the Irish Sea).

The subsequent discussion seemed to touch on just about every subject under the sun: religion, drugs, the European Union, the Rolling Stones, the uselessness of the Conservative Party, the folly of intervention in Iraq and the idiocy of Tony Blair to name but seven.  There were even some funny moments.  Although he claims to have no sense of humour whatsoever, I have always found Hitchens to be quite witty in an extremely dry, self-deprecating and, dare I say it, English manner.  He admitted that his journey from left to right was predictable and "boring" but asked the audience who they thought was weirder, "me or the liberals still wearing jeans?"  

Clearly no friend of our present Prime Minister, he claimed that he could "carve a better political party out of banana" than do what David Cameron has done with the Tories.  That said, he did not offer up any answers of his own.  Quite the opposite.  From his traditional right-wing perspective we have passed the point of no return.  He claimed that alternatives were doomed to failure and all hope for his beloved nation was now irretrievably lost.  He told the audience that he had advised his children to leave as soon as they could.  He on the other hand is apparently too old to emigrate so instead shall live out his days "laughing" as the country drifts into rack and ruin.  All very depressing stuff I am sure you will agree.

O'Doherty played his role well; at times asking straight-forward questions to his guest, at other times sparring and jousting with him when he found his views a tad bizarre.  Malachi, as a former smoker who apparently struggled to give up cigarettes, clearly could not fathom Hitchens's assertion that there is no such thing as addiction - "you might as well believe in aliens," was how the Mail on Sunday columnist put it.  When he attempted to expand on this argument he ended up making a point that sounded, to put it bluntly, stupid.  He asked the audience whether they thought his love of bread made him a "breadist", that is someone with an addiction to bread.  Was this really the best he could do?  For a man whose radical views are normally backed up with something approaching reasoned intelligent argument this seemed exceptionally weak.  He also made clear his disdain for the term "soft drugs" and suggested that there should be heavier penalties for those caught in possession of cannabis.

At one point Hitchens was challenged from the floor by an irritating social worker who spent most of the evening tutting and making clear how appalled she was by the speaker's illiberal utterances.  She told him that while she found him quite charming she also found many of his opinions offensive (though on this night didn't mind paying £7.50 to be offended) and asserted that his views would offer no answers to the problems of the homeless people she worked with.  His response only served to offend the lady even more as he said the homeless had no reason to be without housing and should instead be with their families.  It was a classic right-wing answer if there ever was one, offering a simple solution to an incredibly complex and enduring problem.  And then, as if by magic, it was over.  Time flies when you're listening to a nostalgic angry old reactionary, doesn't it?

Afterwards, as an extremely long queue formed for the obligatory meet and greet, I made a dash for the bar at the Queen's Film Theatre just around the corner.  I'm sure he was disappointed but unfortunately Mr Hitchens will have to wait until another day to meet me.  So, in conclusion?  Not a bad night at all: excellent discussion, two good speakers on stage and interesting questions from the audience.  Whether the performance by Peter Hitchens will have won over any new recruits to the forces of conservatism remains to be seen.  Given that we are all doomed anyway I doubt he cares all that much.  For now at least I think I'll remain a horrible denim-clad leftie.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A step to the right, not a step in the right direction

I have written here many times about my belief in the need for a realignment of politics in Northern Ireland.  At times I consider hesitating from writing about it too much lest I begin to sound like a broken record, however when you consider something to be an absolute necessity then you have a duty, if only to yourself, to be a tad repetitive.  But whatever it is that I have said about the importance of this great realignment of our political scene, I do not consider the announcement that David McNarry has joined the United Kingdom Independence Party to represent a great leap forward.

As someone who has always believed that the involvement of more UK-wide and all-Ireland parties in Northern Ireland would help to break us away from the powerless navel-gazing six county entities that presently pollute our political space, the most I can say about the Strangford MLA's decision is that it represents an extremely minuscule crawl away from how we do things at present.  Realignment on the right is certainly as important to the future of NI politics as realignment on the left is so the Strangford MLA throwing his lot in with one of the 'London parties' should make more things a little bit more interesting, particularly if UKIP's current polling figures - most put them neck-and-neck with the Lib Dems right now - translate into Westminster seats after the next general election.  

The presence of UKIP in the Assembly might also trigger some local debate about the European Union and the future of it.  I am of course vociferously, although not uncritically, pro-European and pro-federalist, however the level and quality of debate in Northern Ireland ranks from (at worst) non-existent to (at best) some ill-informed pub blathering about bendy bananas.  Perhaps having Farage's party around might force the hand of Northern Ireland's pro-Europeans to finally make a stand in defence of the Union.  Whether we have the people capable of doing so is another matter altogether.

Beyond this I can think of little else that UKIP will offer.  With regard to Mr McNarry personally, I can think of absolutely nothing that he will offer.  For a man that has been contesting elections here since the early 1970s it is fascinating that despite four decades of active involvement his career seems to be nothing if unremarkable.  I could well be wrong but has David McNarry ever said anything of interest?  I checked through books, read his Wikipedia entry and performed numerous Google searches to see if I could come across even one single thing that made him stand out from the crowd, but there was nowt.  With his business background and his former senior ranking in the UYUC, the UUP and the Orange Order, he is the quintessential middle-class conservative unionist nonentity.

The major problem for Nigel Farage and his party is that this dreary 64 year old is now the public face of UKIP in Northern Ireland and their lone wolf up at Stormont.  With their only other elected representative in the province being a no-mark councillor by the name of Henry Reilly (a man who earlier this month referred to Sinn Fein members on Newry and Mourne Council as "republican scum"), the future does not look particularly bright for the organisation here.  In fact, I would not be at all surprised if at the next Assembly election we saw McNarry lose his seat to either the DUP or his old colleagues in the UUP.  The inevitable result of such a scenario would be Mr McNarry disappearing into retirement and his party drifting off into obscurity.

The main problem with the United Kingdom Independence Party and their Northern Ireland project is that, at heart, it offers very little in the way of change.  Yes, they may preach about how they are a 'national' political party but they remain a minor group and one that for now at least does not have a single bum on the green seats of the House of Commons.  Their current MLA and any future MLAs that are elected will register as 'unionist' under the hideous designation system in our Assembly.  They are a new unionist party.  In that sense, they are not the sort of new that we need.  They will not change political discourse in Northern Ireland.  They will not help to eradicate the green/orange division here that has kept local politics stale for so long.  Old wine in new bottles may be attractive to some but I doubt it will have any long-term mass appeal.  The prospects for UKIP here don't seem to be all that good.  Let us hope that it stays that way.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia... he needs a mirror"

Had the Leader of the Opposition not been the notoriously smug Tony Abbott you could almost have felt sorry for him as he sat there looking uncomfortable. Almost.

Monday, October 08, 2012

A queer old dispute

I wonder is Kellie Turtle genuinely surprised (see online petition) that Judith Cochrane and Chris Lyttle abstained from voting on the joint Green Party-Sinn Fein motion on gay marriage at Stormont last week or is she just trying to embarrass the Alliance Party?  There is, of course, nothing wrong with trying to embarrass the Alliance Party.  Indeed, I encourage it.  Over the years the party has got something of an easy ride from journalists as well as the voting public in this part of the world.  Beyond a vague wish for a 'shared future', a term bereft of any meaning that increasingly irritates me when I hear it, there is not much to set Alliance apart from the rest of our no-mark local parties.  Throwing some mud at wooly well-meaning liberals who break even the most bland and moderate of their promises should never be looked upon as a waste of one's time.  The important thing to know is why you are throwing it.

First off, I have to be honest and admit that the gay marriage issue is one that fails to fire me up.  Yes, I support marriage equality.  Yes, the Northern Ireland Assembly has once again got it wrong.  But I would telling a lie if I said this is one of the burning issues that I think about on a daily basis.  In fact, I have always found it slightly strange that it tends to be more of an issue for the left rather than for the right.  I thought David Cameron hit the nail on the head when he said he supported gay marriage "because he was a conservative".  To me this has always sounded more like a Burkean reform of the conservative institution of marriage, unfortunately many faith groups and people on the right don't seem to be able to appreciate this.

Secondly, for all those people there who feel 'sold out' by Cochrane and Lyttle, you really should have seen this coming.  The first sign (well, the first one that I noticed) that the party contained an anti-gay grouping came back in 2005 when an Alliance councillor in Lisburn opposed the use of the council's wedding rooms for civil partnership ceremonies.  Since then the party has been forced to walk something of a tightrope.  On the one hand, the organisation has been visible at the annual Pride marches in Belfast and wants to be seen as the "party of equality and human rights" (the words used by it's deputy leader during the Lisburn debacle).  On the other hand, the party has to take a look at electoral reality.  West of the Bann the Alliance Party is virtually non-existent.  All of their eight seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly lie east of the river.  The majority of those are in places with large Protestant populations (North Down, East Belfast, East Antrim - in other words places where Christianity is actually taken seriously).  This being the case it is not surprising that Alliance seem split on how to approach the marriage equality question.

At the weekend Chris Lyttle issued a statement which he said he hoped would "clarify" his position on the dispute.  In truth, it did nothing of the sort.  The first paragraph stated that for "personal and health reasons" he had been unable to attend a number of debates at Stormont, including the one in question.  In the second paragraph Lyttle said that "as a Christian I personally believe that marriage is the voluntary lifelong union, under God, of one man and one woman."  Following this he states in paragraph three that he supports the party position on gay marriage, namely that marriage be available on "an equal basis to same sex couples with legislative protection for faith based organisations to perform religious marriage as they determine."

In one sense it's totally contradictory, in another I can see where he is coming from and then in yet another way I can see that what he is essentially doing is struggling like hell to keep his liberal credentials intact while at the same time thinking about how the people in the church halls of east Belfast will vote at the next Assembly election.  Whatever his motive, he hasn't come out of this looking well.  With Judith Cochrane also failing to turn up at Stormont for the vote last week and with Trevor Lunn happily appearing in order to vote no to the gay marriage proposals (at least he is honest about it), almost half of Alliance's Assembly party has either abstained or refused to follow an official party policy it was claimed last month had the support of about 80% of party members.

As for those non-Alliance MLAs that voted yes, I remain to be convinced that the Basil McCreas and Barry McElduffs of this world are suddenly shining examples of open-minded progressive thought.  Remember how back in 2008 all of the nationalist and unionist parties at Stormont formed a united sectarian alliance to oppose the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.  Nothing has changed in this respect.  The fact that an almost fifty year old Westminster reform giving women control of their own bodies is still unanimously opposed by our local representatives tells us so much more about them than anything that has arisen from the recent marriage equality debate.

The Northern Ireland of 2012 deserves much better than the Assembly it is currently lumbered with.  By all means attack the pathetic actions of the naysayers in the Alliance Party but do not allow yourself to be misled by those in Sinn Fein, the majority of the SDLP and the tiny number of unionists that last week voted yes.  The traditional parties may have hired good PR firms, but they remain at heart the same old beasts overseeing the continued sectarian apartheid of Northern Irish society.  If we our to have any hope of a decent future in the long term then it must be a future that exists without them.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Inadequate lives

"He was born in 1917.  I can't believe he's still alive."

Those were the words I uttered (or something close to that) when I loaned a comrade of mine a copy of Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Revolution on Saturday evening.  Hobsbawm died the following day.  A similar thing happened in the middle of last month when I went onto Wikipedia to check if Santiago Carrillo, the former General Secretary of the Communist Party of Spain, was still alive and kicking.  It transpired that Signor Carrillo was indeed breathing the warm air of the Iberian Peninsula, yet within a week of me finding that out he would be dead.  I would not be superstitious in the slightest, however if you are ninetysomething ex-Stalinist and you are reading this I imagine you will be keeping your fingers crossed that I won't be performing any Google searches in the next few days in order to discover the present state of your health.

Eric Hobsbawm and Santiago Carrillo were men of the same era - the era of the Comintern, anti-fascism and the popular front.  Indeed, although I am unsure as to whether their paths ever managed to actually cross, it is remarkable just how closely linked these lives were.  Both men were born around the same time at the beginning of the last century (Carrillo in 1915, Hobsbawm in 1917).  Both had experience of confronting fascism in the 1930s (Carrillo in Spain, Hobsbawm in Germany).  The victory of fascism in both nations led the two to seek safety abroad (Carrillo in the USSR, Hobsbawm in the UK).  Both remained active in their respective Communist Parties in the decades that followed.  Both suffered something of a crisis of faith due to the actions of the Red Army (Carrillo during the Prague Spring in 1968, Hobsbawm with the Hungarian Revolution of 1956).  By the 1970s both had embraced the turn to Eurocommunism.  By the late eighties and early nineties both men had effectively accepted that their entire life struggle had been a failure.

It is not a simple tale.  These were complex individuals - too complex to be lavished with sickening praise or merely dismissed as apologists for totalitarianism.  Take Carrillo for example.  As leader of the PCE he played a major role in easing the tensions in Spain following the death of Franco and helped the country on it's transition to democracy.  In 1977 he wrote Eurocommunism and the State, Eurocommunism's seminal text which helped to edge western European CPs closer to social democracy (although they did not admit it at the time) and also acted as an ideological two-finger salute to Brezhnev and his chums in Moscow.  Perhaps his finest moment came in 1981 when gunmen under the control of botched coup leader Antonio Tejero burst into the Spanish parliament and ordered all of the deputies to lie on the floor.  Carrillo responded to their demands by remaining in his seat and coolly lighting a cigarette.  Yet for all of this the spectre of the Paracuellos massacres and other Civil War atrocities hangs over Carrillo, as does the fact that he remained a loyal Communist Party member before, during and for quite some time following the reign of Joseph Stalin.

Similar issues arise when we glance over the life of Eric Hobsbawm.  He was undoubtedly a fantastic writer and one of the great historians of the 20th century.  His quartet of books on the history of our world from the French Revolution to the end of the Cold War are texts that I shall never tire of reading.  He wrote about jazz, about bandits and he penned what is possibly my favourite autobiography, Interesting Times.  But despite all of this Hobsbawm remained a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Great Britain right up to it's dissolution in 1991.  In interviews he never seemed to be able to give a precise answer as to why he did not leave the party.  He claimed that he did not know, or did not want to know, about the crimes of Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s.  How, I wonder, must he have felt when he learned that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had led to the Soviets handing over to Hitler many German Communists - the very people he had been active with in Berlin fighting the Nazis - as a gesture of goodwill to the National Socialist regime?  By the fifties though he was prepared to term the uprisings in Poland and Hungary "revolts of workers and intellectuals against bureaucracies and pseudo-communist political systems."  After the events of 1956 Hobsbawm stated that he was no longer a party-liner, no longer a militant, no longer a true communist at heart.  Nevertheless, in spite of all of this, he remained a CPGBer right up to the death.  

Four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the party he had been loyal to for so long, Eric Hobsbawm appeared on Radio 4's long-running series Desert Island Discs.  When the presenter Sue Lawley asked him if the deaths of millions of people would have been worth it had it resulted in the creation of a socialist utopia he replied, "yes".  When pushed further on the issue about the deaths of so many people Hobsbawm replied with shocking bluntness that he saw no difference between those that had perished under Stalinism and those that had died in the Second World War - "dead is dead" as he put it.  The silence that followed this crude assertion suggests this was an answer that left Ms Lawley more than a little stunned (by the way, I would encourage you to listen to this programme on the BBC website as not only is the discussion on Hobsbawm's personal politics quite interesting but the selection of music ranging from Schubert to Billie Holiday serves to make ghastly statements like this a little more bearable).

Brecht once wrote that we should not fear death so much but rather the inadequate life.  Some may think it unfair to describe the lives of Eric Hobsbawm and Santiago Carrillo as inadequate.  There is, however, a strong case to be made for it.  For all of Hobsbawm's great writing and for all of Carrillo's good work in the era of the transition to democracy the fact remains that it took until their later years for them to realise that they were ultimately on the wrong side of history.  And even after they realised that, they still could not fully disown many of the horrific events which had taken place in the colossal disaster that they had played a role in.  Now they are both gone.  They are legend, they are history.  But dead is dead, as a great historian once said.  Their mistakes of the 20th century must never be repeated by the left of the 21st century.