The great liberal betrayal by Nick Cohen – full text

New Statesman
Monday 1st November 2004
The left, in the form of the Stop the War Coalition, has fallen out even with Iraqi comrades who opposed the war. Why? Because those comrades don’t see hostage-takers and decapitators as resistance fighters.

The British anti-war movement is falling apart, but for a reason that the most cynical observer of the left in the 20th century could never have imagined. The left, or at least that section of it which always manages to get the whip hand, has swerved to the right – to the far right, in fact – and is actively supporting theocrats and fascists: the oppressors of racial minorities, secularists, women, gays and trade unionists.
It is the last item on this list that has proved too poisonous for the democrats in the Stop the War Coalition to swallow. Mick Rix, former general secretary of Aslef, the train drivers’ union, has resigned from the coalition and condemned its “stupid and wild accusations” against Iraqi trade unionists. The public sector union Unison is threatening to sever all links after Subji al-Mashadani of the Iraqi Federation of Workers’ Trade Unions (IFTU) was screamed down at the recent European Social Forum. “The people who harassed the IFTU general secretary and prevented the meeting from taking place have no interest in genuine debate or the peaceful, democratic future of the people of Iraq,” Unison said.
Pro- and anti-war Labour MPs have signed a Commons motion put down by the (anti-war) Harry Barnes in mid-October, which denounced “a scurrilous statement” that “would strongly imply support for the so-called resistance and thereby acquiesce in the murders of more people such as Ken Bigley, as well as hundreds of ordinary Iraqis”. The Stop the War Coalition statement in question reaffirmed its “call for an end to the occupation, the return of all British troops in Iraq to this country” and recognised “once more the legitimacy of the struggle of Iraqis, by whatever means they find necessary, to secure such ends”. The organisers of the march through London on 17 October in the name of peace were now supporting the hostage-takers and decapitators, the jihadis and the Ba’athists, in whatever acts of terror they thought necessary to stop elections taking place. You could write a book on the reasons for the left’s rightwards charge – now I come to think of it, I have: Pretty Straight Guys, available in all good bookshops – but the point to keep in mind is that the crossing of the line from opposing Bush/Blair to outright support for everything the decent left has stood against has been on the cards since the beginning of the Iraq crisis.
The Stop the War Coalition is dominated by the Socialist Workers Party, the most unscrupulous and unprincipled of the far-left sects. When the SWP takes over a cause, agendas are rigged, meetings are packed, and debate is suffocated. Everyone with experience of the left knows that the SWP is a totalitarian organisation both in theory and in practice, but they rarely say so in public, and nor do the liberal media. Yet the anti-war movement marked a new low, even by the standards of the SWP’s grim record. The supposedly Marxist party allied itself with the Muslim Association of Britain, which supports sharia law, with all its difficulties with democracy, women and homosexuals. The unlovely couple then claimed to represent the millions who opposed the war, and those who marched under the slogan “Not in my name” did not go out of their way to contradict them.
Naturally, no criticisms of Saddam Hussein and no alliances with his victims could be permitted. George Galloway, who had saluted the tyrant’s “courage, strength and indefatigability”, became the movement’s leader. Since then, we have had gay rights campaigners being surrounded by howling Trots and radical vicars when they tried to speak up for persecuted Palestinian homosexuals, and the former left-winger Ken Livingstone embracing a far-right Islamic cleric who has supported wife- beating, queer-bashing and the murder of Jewish civilians.
What has been disorientating from the start has been the ease with which the opponents of Saddam’s 22 years in power have been forgotten. They were victims of a state that was authentically fascist, to use that abused word correctly for once. It was fascist not only because the founders of the Ba’ath Party were inspired by Nazi Germany, but because Iraq had the classic fascist programme of the worship of the great leader, the unprovoked wars of aggression, the genocidal campaigns against impure ethnic minorities, and the suppression of every autonomous element in society, including free trade unions.
While the blanking out of men and women who shared the liberal left’s values was understandable before the war – the good reasons for stopping George Bush and Tony Blair had the regrettable but inevitable effect of crowding out the bad – the persistence of denial afterwards has been inexcusable and truly sinister.
If you think the sell-out is just a local problem confined to a few creeps on the far left who believe that anyone who kills Americans is a freedom fighter, consider the case of the Liberal Democrats. Charles Kennedy managed to get through his entire speech to the Liberal Democrat party conference without once mentioning the liberals and democrats in Iraq who face kidnap or murder for fighting for the rights that he takes for granted. I can’t remember a single occasion when the Lib Dems have taken up the cause of Iraqi democracy. Nor is denial simply a British phenomenon. Iraqis trying to cope with a criminally incompetent American occupation, and working under threat of assassination by Saddam’s supporters or religious fundamentalists, have looked across the liberal west for support – and met indifference.
For the past two years, we have had the eerie sight of a left without comrades. On the face of it, the left has not been so strong for decades: millions have marched under its banners, Blair has been wounded, perhaps fatally, and the BBC and the liberal papers are onside for the first time that anyone can remember. But if you ask on whose behalf the left is pouring out its heart – for whom is all this left-wing outrage? – no one can produce a single reputable ally. The Kurdish victims of Saddam’s genocidal campaigns were all the rage on the left when Iraq was America’s de facto partner. But they became an embarrassment long ago when Saddam invaded Kuwait and became America’s enemy, and have been unmentionables ever since they committed the unforgivable crime of supporting the overthrow of a tyrant who sought to exterminate them.
The Iraqi Communist Party won’t do. It opposed the war, but worked with the Americans once it was over. For a while, a group called the Worker-Communist Party was fashionable. It opposed the war and the occupation. However, the WCP, too, has wised up and decided it wants nothing to do with the British anti-war movement’s alliance with the far right. Recently, it dissociated itself from “left groups like the SWP [which] want to see Moqtada al-Sadr winning the current conflict. This stand has nothing to do with the socialist movement.”
Precisely. The story of how the Iraqi trade unions have rammed this point home offers to British trade unionists and anti-war Labour MPs a small glimmer of hope amid the murk. At any leftish meeting on Iraq, you are likely to meet the IFTU’s Abdullah Muhsin, who tactfully points out that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, being on the left isn’t simply a pose. You are meant to stick by your comrades, or at least give them a fair hearing.
Muhsin describes the history of Iraqi unions, how their members were executed or driven underground by Saddam, while “yellow” unions were established to do the regime’s bidding. The federation opposed the war and wants the occupation to end as soon as possible, but has earned the hatred of the anti-war movement because it has the cheek to regard the Ba’athists and the Islamists who want to kill them as the greater enemy, and the IFTU is winning round to its point of view those who are serious about left-wing politics. As Muhsin explained at the Labour Party conference: “There are grave security problems in Iraq, but those causing them are not, as some have wrongly said, ‘the resistance’. They are . . . a mixture of [Saddam loyalists] and foreign fighters, who have, for the first time in Iraq’s history, imported the terrible weapon of the suicide bomb.”
Three conclusions can be drawn from the long struggle to get the British left to accept the obvious:
1) The people who can be relied on to make a stand in hard times won’t be found in the broadsheet opinion pages or on Radio 4 chat shows, but in the boring and perennially unfashionable labour movement.
2) The democratic left should never again allow itself to be led by the supporters of totalitarianism.
3) No one who considers himself a democrat, liberal or socialist can continue to associate with the Stop the War Coalition