Category Archives: Me; running

A level playing field for tenants?

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We face one of the most pro-landlord governments in history. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Eddie Hughes, is a landlord. The Prime Minister is a landlord. One in four Conservative MPs are landlords.

But there will still be some moments of opportunity when the press and politicians are compelled to engage with our proposals for reform. In the autumn, for example, the government will publish its proposals for the abolition of section 21

Tenants’ rights’ advocates have always known that you can’t abolish section 21 without rewriting other parts of our housing law.

1) What will happen to ground 8? The government wants to tighten it to make it easier to evict. But because of Covid and Covid-related rent arrears, the number of people with arrears of more than 8 weeks rent have rocketed. In those circumstances, the arguments for loosening ground 8 and giving tenants more chances to pay off their debts are overwhelming

2) And what about tenancy deposits? One of the considerable virtues of the present section 21 is that it has significantly reduced the long-standing disgrace of landlords taking deposits, holding them at the end of the tenancy, and forcing tenants to endure a bitter and hopeless battle to get their money back.

There has to be some mechanism, of similar force, to the rules currently in the Housing Act 1996 which mean that no section 21 notice can be served if a deposit was left unregistered.

Here’s a modest proposal: why not say that all notices are invalid: no section 8 notices can be given – if a deposit has been taken and not registered?

I also want to talk though about a vision to take us beyond the current crisis.

Plainly, at a certain basic level, you couldn’t ever have a level playing field between landlords and tenants. Or not in the housing market we have now, where in our largest cities it is normal for people to spend half their net income on housing.

Every landlord is renting over something inessential to them: the rent – the profit they can make – on their 2nd, their 3rd home, in some cases their 100th home. While very tenant is negotiating over something essential to them: the roof over their heads without which they cannot live.

The purpose of landlord and tenant is to moderate but not remove that essential inequality.

If it’s right that there is a limit to what the law can deliver, it follows that the sort of changes we should look for aren’t only laws to help tenants lawyers defend this or that case. What we need also are reforms which change the balance of power outside court.

Here are two examples I’ve been considering:

  • Simplification

Every housing lawyer will be familiar with the basic point that, when it comes to possession, a tenant’s rights and a landlord’s obligations depend entirely on what form of tenure applies. In the simplest example: most private landlord evict their tenants pursuant to section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, which means special notices, and the accelerated possession procedure. While most housing associations rely on section 8, meaning different notices, and the ordinary possession procedure.

The problem is the multiplication of tenures. There are different procedures to evict secure tenants, flexible tenants, introductory tenants, demoted tenants, student tenants, asylum seekers, tenants holding a property as a term of their employment, tenants of homeless housing, property guardians, and so on.

This multiplication of tenures means that it is almost impossible for the ordinary, well-informed tenant even with access to such resources as the Shelter website or Nearly Legal to say with any conviction whether – on the receipt of a notice telling them to leave – they have to go. Maybe they leave prematurely; maybe they employ a lawyer. But that will be at a cost to them (unless they are eligible for legal aid) which will be relatively greater to them than it will to the average landlord.

We should be arguing it for a massive simplification of housing law. That process could help tenants as much as any modest tweak to this or housing law.

  • Settlement / advisers

One of the things we have seen under Covid is that formal legal evictions came to an end. But more than 100,000 people were encouraged or compelled out of their homes. If we do abolish section 21, landlords won’t be able to evict at will, and tenants will stay in properties for longer. Where does that leave us in the situation where both sides have accrued rights: on the tenant’s side, disrepair or an unpaid deposit maybe, on the landlord’s side unpaid rent?

Often, we spend out time at court, negotiating very complex orders whose practical effect is that both sides “drop hands”. The disrepair extinguishes the debt; the tenant leaves – perhaps not as fast as the landlord would like.

One thing I’ve been mulling over is what happens in employment law when both sides negotiate a departure (a dismissal) with compensation. The deal isn’t binding unless the employee gets a solicitor or a union to sign it off. Usually the employer pays for that advice.

The compromise is reached before, and instead of litigation.

Should we lobby for something similar in housing law? It would give tenants a right to advice. Not necessarily to sue or counterclaim, but to ensure that everything is done right.

Such a reform would create a space not just for lawyers but also for tenants’ unions and tenants’ associations, social movements that are our natural allies.

To conclude: housing law has changed as much in the past year as it has ever changed. We can’t just take a defensive stance of resisting every change the government proposes. We need to have a vision of our own for housing law.

(If you’re interested in the ideas set out in this piece, I will be speaking at a meeting of the campaign group SHAC on Monday. Link here. You can also buy my book, Jobs and Homes, which was published by Legal Action group this spring and is available here or here).

Resisting Forstater and the push back against trans rights

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Reaction to the decision of the Employment Appeal Tribunal (“EAT”) following Maya Forstater’s successful appeal has followed predictable lines. Opponents of trans rights have welcomed the decision, while on trans social media the most common reactions have been ones of anger and resignation.

The judgment deserves to be read more carefully than such immediate thoughts allow. It combines long pages of careful analysis with a single passage of carelessness. What I’ll try and do in this piece is (1) explain what the main part of the Forstater decision says and how it relates to the broader politics of “free speech”, (2) show how the judge dealt – in passing – with the more general issue of trans rights in equality law, and (3) explain why although the judge’s comments are likely to give encouragement to trans exclusionary positions, they are unlikely to settle over time as the main understanding of the law.

(1) Forstater and free speech

Forstater is a writer on sustainable development. She worked as contractor of CGD Europe, a US-based thinktank. Her contract was terminated. She says this was because of posts she had made referring to trans women as “men”.

At the first hearing, an Employment Judge had to consider whether Forstater’s beliefs were protected under the Equality Act. The Judge noted that, on her own account, Forstater held nuanced opinions. But she regarded people’s birth gender as immutable, and the decision as to what pronouns, etc, to use as her choice alone (“No one has the right to compel others to make statements they do not believe”). The Judge was astonished that she refused to recognise a trans woman as a woman, even in circumstances where that woman had gone through the lengthy and court-like process of acquiring a Gender Recognition Certificate. The Judge concluded that Forstater’s beliefs were “absolutist”, and should not be treated as protected beliefs for the purpose of the Equality Act.

This decision has now been reversed on appeal, which the Appeal Tribunal finding that beliefs such as Forstater’s could be protected under the Act, and it would be unlawful to discriminate against her on account of them.

In the UK, there is no general rule permitting absolute free speech in the workplace. When an employee is dismissed and seeks to challenge their dismissal in a Tribunal, the two main routes open to them are to say they were unfairly dismissed, or that they were dismissed because of a characteristic which is protected under the Equality Act, in other words, their race or gender, religion., etc.

A belief can be a protected characteristic under the Act. But which beliefs should qualify for protection is not simple. Everyone accepts that religions should qualify for protection; a Sikh should not be dismissed because of their religion. As for which other beliefs should qualify, this is a matter of caselaw (i.e. decisions made by judges not parliament).

Judges have settled on the following tests: a belief must be genuinely held. It must be a belief and not a mere viewpoint. It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. It must attain a certain level of cogency and seriousness. It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

This last part of the test (referred to in the judgment as “Grainger V”) explains the different decisions in Forstater’s case. If a worker’s belief is that they are entitled to violate other people’s dignity at will, it would be strange to shield that worker from dismissal. In protecting such a worker, the courts would just be ensuring that their colleagues had to endure upsetting speech.

The purpose of the decision of the EAT is to maintain the tests set out above but to re-balance them in the direction of free speech. This, the Appeal Tribunal achieves this by drawing on two provisions of the European Court of Human Rights, article 10 which protects free speech, even for opinions which offend, shock or disturb, and article 17 which removes protection from any person who performs “any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms” of others.

The Appeal Tribunal ruled article 17 provided the “benchmark” in free speech cases. It follows that all opinions should be protected by free speech rules save for “the most extreme beliefs akin to Nazism or totalitarianism or which incite hatred or violence”. Maya Forstater’s opinions were not in this category; therefore she is protected.

An optimist would say that in drawing the line where he did, at the boundary-point of fascism, the judge was cutting with the grain of old positions in the free speech debate. He was expanding the category of opinions which require protection, even where those opinion are likely to annoy and offend but fall short of calling for the general silencing of everyone else. To that extent, the judgment takes a stance as old as Milton with his belief that it is legitimate only “to suppresse the suppressors themselves”.

A pessimist would reply that the judgment also fits just as well with the growing use on the centre-right of “free speech” as a wedge issue, to unite different kids of right-wing politics and to split apart a left which is divided along culture lines. Two of the most popular tweets in the judges’ support have come from Paul Embery and Douglas Murray. They take it as a sign that the culture wars are turning in their preferred direction.

And of course, there are other processes also pointing that way, not least the proposed Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.

In deciding the case as it did, the Appeal Tribunal did not set Forstater on a clear course for victory. It remains open to her employer to argue that it did not dismiss her for what she thought but for what she said. There are many opinions which are capable of protecting an employee, but which might not protect them in practice. Think for example of the belief that man-made climate change is an urgent threat to the survival of the world. This is a legitimate opinion and one capable of protection from discrimination. But if an employee of an oil company was to start tweeting that her employer was burning the planet, and the employer dismissed her, the business would say that they were not seeking to restrict their employee’s opinion simply guarding the reputation of their brand.

To say that an opinion is capable of protection is not guarantee that its holders will win their discrimination cases, it is merely to create the conditions so that there is a genuine issue to be tried and one capable of going either way.

(2) Forstater and the status of trans people in equality law

Almost all of the judgment is cogent and if, unwelcome to trans people, it was not unexpected. The most important problem with it is something the Judge addressed in passing. At page 48 of the decision in a footnote, the judge remarks that trans opinions, too, are protected in online debate, by section 7(2) of the Equality Act.

The Act provides that a person has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment if they are proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone “a process … for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex”.

Until now, lawyers have always understood that any trans person goes through a process (or several processes): at one point they are perceived as having a certain sex, and at another point they are perceived as having a different sex/no sex/many sexes, etc. And the journey undergone by trans people to be reassigned might be any sort of informal process, eg applying to your employer to change your work ID, etc etc.

At the top of the judgment, the judge wrote, that although the protected characteristic of gender reassignment under s.7, EqA “would be likely to apply only to a proportion of trans persons…” suggesting that, in his opinion, section 7 does not apply to most trans people, and only applies to people applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate.

If other judges are to conclude that these offhand remarks are binding then the result would be a step backwards for trans lives, stripping away rights which many civil courts have until now applied to all trans people without question.

Many people have read this part of the decision and been troubled by it. What I want to argue here is that even if anti-trans advocates start quoting the President of the EAT, and arguing that he is right and that trans people have or should have no protection under the Act, probably, their arguments will lose.

(3) Forstater and the future of trans rights

Therefore, in the third and final section of the piece, I want to set out why, I still think not merely that the President of the EAT is misguided, but why it should be relatively easy to persuade other judges that he was wrong.

(i) “Dicta”

The President of the EAT is an important judge in the courts and tribunal system, but even his authority is limited. The sentence, “Although the protected characteristic of gender reassignment under s.7, EqA would be likely to apply only to a proportion of trans persons…” forms no part of his actual decision, and was wholly irrelevant to the case he had to decide, which was simply about how far the Equality Act goes to protect trans exclusionary opinions. As lawyers, when a judge comments on something outside the main body of the case we call this “obiter dicta” and it is not binding on lower courts, no matter how senior the judge.

(ii) Contradicts the reasons given when passing the bill

This issue was discussed in Parliament before the bill was passed and ministers gave the clearest possible account of who the bill was intended to protect. The Solicitor-General was asked who section 7 was meant to cover.

Lynne Featherstone MP asked, “I have constituents who are indeterminate and would not necessarily be identified as gender reassigned or as one sex or the other. They are somewhere in between and unidentifiable physically. I want to make sure that those people are protected. They may not even be on a journey; they may just be indeterminate in their gender identity, so there is no reassignment at all. Would that be covered?”

The Solicitor General responded, “First, the medical definition in subsection (1)(a) is undoubtedly covered by our clause. Secondly, a person living permanently in the gender role other than their birth sex is covered. Thirdly, somebody who has received gender recognition would obviously be covered, and fourthly, somebody “who has a gender identity that is different from that expected of a person of their recorded natal sex”, is covered too. Where is the deficiency in our clause? Each and every one of those cases is covered, and I have said that at least 15 times.”

Parliamentary language would not have more weight in court than a reasoned decision by the President of the EAT; it does have more weight than mere off-the-cuff remarks by them.

(iii) unlike the President, other judges have had to deal with this issue

For example, in Taylor v Jaguar, the Employment Tribunal addressed this issue and found that non-binary people were covered by the Act (see section 173 here). The decision of an Employment Judge at first instance would not normally have more weight in court than a reasoned decision by the President of the EAT; but it does have more weight than mere off-the-cuff remarks by the President.

(iv) If you read the section clearly, it is plain that it intended to cover most/all trans people

If the point of section 7 was, as the President seems to have guessed, to protect people in or contemplating an application to the Gender Recognition Panel (GRP), the drafters would have used different language.

At no point does section 7 refer to that panel. The section could have done, and didn’t.

The section does not even use language which could refer to the panel only. If you look again at the words, “A person has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment if the person is proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex,” there are three clear signs that the drafters intended to look beyond the Panel.

First, they spoke of “a” process, not “the” process. IE suggesting they believed that more than one kind of process was available.

Second, they referred to “part of a process”, IE suggesting that to satisfy the definition of section 7 you did not need to have to be considering even a whole process, but only part of a process. (EG approaching a doctor to ask for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, which might in turn be used for any different kind of formal or informal process later).

Third, the section refers to “other attributes” of sex than the physiological – eg new clothes, or changing other visible markers of sex or gender, which is a much broader process than approaching the GRP for a certificate.

(These last two points were accepted by the Tribunal in Taylor v Jaguar)

(v) The President’s “solution” to section 7 was over-complicated, artificial and simply makes no sense of how the Equality Act works, or is intended to work

The judge grasped that interpreting section in the way that seemed obvious to him would have negative consequences for trans rights.

The judge therefore wrote in a footnote that if section 7 was understood in the narrow way he assumed it had to be such an understanding should not concern trans people since “A trans person could potentially bring a claim for harassment related to gender reassignment (where the definition under s.7(2) is satisfied), sex (see e.g. P v S and Cornwall County Council [1996] ICR 795 at paras 17 to 22), disability based on the conditions of Gender Dysphoria or Gender Identity Disorder (see EHRC Code at para 2.28), or even a philosophical belief that gender identity is paramount and that a trans woman is woman”

The judge insisted that trans people could not lose out from his judgment for if it protected anti-trans opinions then it must also protect pro-trans opinions.

That would true but misses the point. In designating that trans people have no rights under the Equality Act save for the small minority who have applied for a Gender Recognition Certificate, the Appeal Tribunal would be encouraging other judges to hold that most of the time most trans people have no rights. It would follow that a non-binary person asking their employer to permit a gender-neutral uniform has no right to ask. A landlord could evict a trans tenant who was just living silently in their home.

I doubt many people would understand the law as the Judge tried to explain it – i.e. that right-wing, even far-right, activists have a protected status in the law (so long as they are not actual fascists) but most of the time, in most circumstances, most trans people don’t.

Moreover, some of the example he gives of when trans people would be protected are patronising and bear no real reality to trans lives. For example, his suggestion that a trans person suffering GID could label themselves disabled and demand protection on that basis, would protect some trans people. But if you ask most trans people “do you consider yourself disabled?” the vast majority would answer – rightly – of course I don’t.

They want, and the law gives them, protection as trans people.

All this mess comes, ironically, from an effort by the Judge to explain that trans rights were protected and that his decision did nothing to infringe them.

If that was his intention then a much simpler more practical way to do that would have been either to keep silent, or to go along with the ordinary interpretation of section 7, one which (as I indicate above) was, after all, what ministers said when explaining the Act.

In conclusion, this was some loose indeed careless wording by a senior judge. It is most likely that other judges will simply ignore it. If they don’t, and this becomes a live argument, I hope that by collecting together in one place the above points this post will be of assistance to other lawyers and to trans people fighting for equality in their own lives.

No Platform in the 1930s and 1940s

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Thanks to the work of the anti-fascist historian Evan Smith, many socialists are aware that the anti-fascist tactic of “No Platform” was first written down at the start of the 1970s, and had become by April 1974 the policy of the National Union of Students. But 1974 can hardly be the start of the story. There had been anti-fascists in Britain since Ethel Carnie Holdsworth and Ellen Wilkinson in the early 1920s. How had anti-fascist in the 1930s or 1940s responded to the criticism that, by confronting the far-right, they were damaging free speech?

In the 1930s, anti-fascist protests were largely restricted to the political left. At Olympia in 1934, socialists, Communists and others forged tickets to a fascist rally, managed to get in, and heckled the fascist leader Oswald Mosley from inside his meeting. As the anti-fascists heckled, Mosley stopped speaking, and his supporters shone spotlights on the hecklers so that they could be beaten. In the meeting’s aftermath, Mosley was widely denounced in the public press, and his wealthiest domestic backers abandoned him. Two years later, at the Battle of Cable Street, a crowd of 150,000 socialists and British Jews, summoned onto the streets by East End Communists, confronted Mosley and the police and prevented him from marching through the East End.

 The conflict between left and right was violent; with fascists boasting of the beatings they inflicted on their opponents, and the left being unafraid of using force in its defence. Unsurprisingly therefore, when you read fascist accounts of these struggles, the references to free speech are few and shallow. In February 1933, Oswald Mosley told readers of The Blackshirt that anti-fascist protests meant that “we have reached a point in this country in which free speech is a thing of the past.” This was stated briefly, in a matter-of-fact manner and with little suggestion of regret. The real purpose of invoking free speech was to advertise the fact that a “Fascist Defence Force has been organised to protect free speech”. It had already “often met and defeated ‘Red’ violence.” Mosley had in fact been operating a private militia for two years by this point, explaining in a message to its members that they would be “an iron core in [our] organisation around which every element for the preservation of England will rally when a crisis … comes.”

On the other side of the barricades, the discussion of free speech was more intense. Anti-fascists argued that by standing up against the far right they were creating the conditions for more speech, not less. In 1937, the poet Nancy Cunard wrote to 148 of her fellow writers asking them their opinion of the Spanish Civil War. A victory for fascism, the poet W. H. Auden argued, “would create an atmosphere in which the creative artist and all who care for justice, liberty and culture would find it impossible to work.” “Civilisation,” the novelist Storm Jamieson maintained, is incompatible with fascism, “this doctrine which exalts violence and uses incendiary bombs to fight ideas.” “Two things make the future real,” the journalist John Langdon-Davies wrote, “the artist’s imagination and the worker’s hope. Fascism destroys both.” Being for free speech, each of these writers insisted, meant opposing those who would turn Europe into a jail.

The dilemmas of repression

From 1939, Britain was at war with Germany. Mosley’s main activity was now to campaign for peace with the two fascist states, from which he had received (as civil servants had identified) tens of thousands of pounds of financial subsidy. On 9 April 1940, Britain’s ally Norway was invaded by the German army. On the same day Vidkun Quisling the leader of the Nasjonal Samling Party proclaimed himself prime minister. Ministers concluded that Mosley was the prime candidate to play the role of Quisling in Britain. Accordingly, from 22 May 1940, the authorities began to intern prominent fascists under Defence Regulation 18B. More than 750 supporters of Oswald Mosley were eventually detained. Almost all the leading fascists were held in custody.

Responding to Mosley’s internment was not a straightforward question for the left. Any moves to oppose it would have been interpreted as an alliance between two groups of extremists. At a time when the USSR and Nazi Germany were co-operating in a non-aggression pact, any such move would have been political suicide. But if they supported internment, they were giving their backing to practices of detention without trial, with every possibility that such weapons would be used against them next. The Daily Worker was banned in early 1941; the Cabinet discussed extending interment to Communists – Winston Churchill supported the move.

The Communist Party determined to bluff the crisis out, supporting the internment of the fascists and then (i.e. after Hitler’s declaration of war on the Soviet Union), positioning itself as the keenest exponent of the continued internment of Mosley’s followers. In 1943, the barrister and Communist fellow-traveller, D. N. Pritt, drafted legislation to make fascism unlawful. It would have created six offences: the advocacy of fascist doctrines, the veneration of fascist leaders whether dead or alive, the display of fascist symbols, the advocacy of racial hatred, printing of literature for any of these purposes, or the membership of a proscribed party.

In November 1943, Oswald Mosley was released. Reports gathered by the Home Office showed indignation storming across the country. The Communist Party organised a series of demonstrations against his release, especially in factories engaged in war production.

Champions of free expression often argue that measures to limit speech are counterproductive, that they only serve to radicalise the unwanted minority, sending it underground, encouraging its supporters into ever more violent acts. Others argue that when the state intervenes against a party it can destroy the latter’s capacity to organise and deal it a shattering blow from which that movement never recovers.

The psychological damage that internment caused to British fascists illustrates both of these reactions at once. Plenty of 1930s fascists simply gave up politics. Nellie Driver, who had led the BUF in Nelson in Lancashire, swapped fascism for Catholicism. Alec Miles, one of the BUF’s industrial organisers, left the movement and reinvented himself as a left-Labour councillor in Westminster. The novelist Henry Williamson begged his fellow fascists to renounce politics. “[Mosley] was news,” Williamson wrote, “but bad news.”. Others, meanwhile, saw themselves as having been unjustly martyred and used their anger at repression to justify increased activity. James Larratt Battersby a Stockport factory-owner became convinced that Hitler had been a “divine spirit” sent to free the world of evil. Around a specially built altar, he and around a dozen friends in a fascist commune held midnight services praying to God and to Hitler his messenger.

Kicking over the platforms

After the war ended, various attempts were made to revive the British Union of Fascists. These efforts reached their peak in summer 1947, with a succession of different fascist groups holding street meetings at up to 20 different locations on Saturdays. Following the bomb attack on the King David Hotel, and the killing of two British sergeants at Netanya by people calling for the creation of an ethnic Jewish state in Israel, there were large -Jewish riots in August 1947, in Liverpool, Eccles, Salford and Manchester. These anti-Jewish riots gave Mosely’s supporters a national profile. The Daily Mail reported the fascists’ weekly meetings under the regular title: “The Battle of Ridley Road”. Mosley’s supporters across London were required to attend these meetings, which for a period of two months had a regular audience of around two to three thousand people.

Different left-wing and anti-racist groups were involved in the struggle against fascism in the 1940s, including members of the Communist and Labour Parties, Commonwealth, and supporters of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen. Anti-fascist journalists published articles warning of the growing strength of Mosley’s movement. In recent years, the best known anti-fascist organisation from this period has been the 43 Group, a body of around five hundred young Jewish men and women, many of whom had recently served the British army during the war.

The 43 Group had its own newspaper, On Guard, which sought to both report on events in Britain, and give coverage to anti-fascists elsewhere. The singer Paul Roberson gave an interview. Other articles criticised the first sitting of the House Un-American Activities Committee, recognising the threat it posed to free speech.

Much of what the 43 Group did was the sort of campaigning that anti-fascist groups have done in Britain and elsewhere both before and since. Spies were sent to infiltrate fascist meetings. Speakers were teased and heckled (“Hello, Clark Gable … Take his photograph. Mussolini used to stand like that”). If members of the 43 Group could defeat Mosley’s supporters peacefully – for example, by claiming a local speaker’s corner before the fascists did, they would.

The distinctive tactic of the 43 Group, in 1946 and 1947, was to form its members into what was termed a flying wedge, a group of about fifteen people who would charge a fascist speaking platform, knocking it over and sending the speaker flying.

One member of the 43 Group, Morris Beckman, conveys the extent to which their activities focussed narrowly on turning over speaker’s platforms. By summer 1946, “Between six and ten fascist meetings per week were being attacked by the Group … A rough estimate showed that one third were ended by the speakers’ platform being knocked over, another third were closed down by the police to keep the peace, and the remaining third or so continue to the finish due to too heavy a presence of police or stewards.”

This was a time before television, when most people would get their news from the radio, the press or cinema. Entry to these media was closed off to the far right, as indeed to the far left and to religious minorities, but particularly to the right because this was after a war in which hundreds of thousands of British people had died fighting fascism. Beneath the public world of high political debate, there was a busy tradition of informal discussion, with dozens of town and urban markets in which people would stand on a wooden box and speak.

While no-one had yet formulated the phrase “no platform” nor would for twenty years, the day-to-day political work of the 43 Group was a practical application of that tactic. It was a narrow and specific method, limited to fascists. It was intelligence-driven: the 43 Group had infiltrators within the circles of Oswald Mosley’s most senior supporters; and relied on them to provide credible accounts of when a fascist assembly was due to start.

It was based in certain contexts: not the universities (although these have been much more important in recent times), nor elections, nor new media, but an older forum – street meetings. When thinking of “platforms”, Beckman and his comrades meant them literally. The members of the 43 Group wanted to close off any possible means by which fascism might win new recruits. The tactic emerged in a Britain where, if it was possible to turn over twenty platforms in one afternoon, then Mosley’s route to his audience would be closed off entirely.

The anti-fascists of the 1930s would look back on Cable Street, and invoke its name. But it was in the late 1940s, for the first time in British history, that anti-fascists could seriously envisage a future where no fascists were permitted to speak – none, anywhere.

(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my own next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here.)

(Tickets for the book-launch – tonight – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths, can be ordered here).

No Platform isn’t an attack on free speech

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Listen to the reasons the government has given for introducing its Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, and a clear picture emerges. Universities have failed to protect free speech; the greatest threat is the danger of left-wing students no-platforming conservatives. In the words of the consultation document for the bill: “There is a growing atmosphere on campuses that is antithetical to constructive debate … This can sometimes translate into examples of no platforming of speakers”.

In the same document, Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson acknowledged that hardly any visiting speakers have actually been banned, but insisted that “even one no-platforming incident is too many.”

Here, I’ll explain where no platform comes from, and show that it is a better, more principled theory, than the government’s alternative.

As the historian Evan Smith has shown the phrase can be traced back to a front-page article in a magazine, Red Mole, published in 1972, “No Platform for racists”. The author, John Clayton, was worried by the growth of the National Front. He wrote: “the pernicious activity of the extreme right must be knocked on the head”.

In 1974, the National Union of Students passed a motion “recognis[ing] the need to refuse any assistance (financial or otherwise) to openly racist or fascist organisations or societ[ies] (e.g. Monday Club, National Front, Action Party/Union Movement, National Democratic Party) and to deny them a platform.” No Platform has been NUS policy ever since.

The motion was directed at student unions. Faced with the prospect of fascist speakers on campus, it rejected the common-sense tactic of students simply voting with their feet not to attend. It was adopted in the early 1970s when protest was widespread. Just as workers were fighting for control of their workplaces, so were students fighting for control over syllabuses, and to democratise the relationship between teachers and taught. They believed they had a right to decide which guest speakers were invited.

The list of groups prohibited under the motion contained three clear fascist parties (Mosley’s Union Movement, the National Front, and the National Democratic Party), and only one that was not. The Monday Club’s activities were causing increasing disquiet to its parent Conservative Party. Its member had held rallies against immigration which were taken over by the Front. Others boated to the press of their admiration for Mein Kampf. Most student radicals believed the Monday Club was in a de facto alliance with the NF.

The National Union of Students was not saying that all racist speech should be prohibited. In a society where racism was as endemic as 1970s Britain, when it was common in newspaper and TV programmes, how could students have removed all racism? Rather they were trying to prevent speech by fascists or those allied with fascism.

Since the 1970s, the meaning of the term “no platform” has been challenged: there have been instances of the tactic being applied to groups other than fascists. In the 1980s, for example, feminists debated whether anti-abortion campaigns should be no-platformed (when I was a student in the early 1990s, a broad activist consensus held that that would go too far).

The exact point at which the line is drawn is always changing, not least because the right changes. But every time the idea swells beyond its original use, there are always other radicals arguing that no, this tactic is only appropriate to fascists.

The reason why the focus of “no platform” is always being brought back to that starting point is because fascism is a different sort of enemy to other forms of right-wing politics. Under Brexit and Covid right-wing politicians may dream of a more authoritarian form of “managed democracy”, but the limits imposed of their own politics thwart them. The fascist groups, by contrast, really are planning a one-party state in which all other views are banned.

Within the range of “no platform” politics there is a second area of contest. No platform was meant to be a form of do-it-yourself politics. But in less heady moments than the early 1970s, there is always a tendency to look for shortcuts, to begin a campaign against one or another figure by demanding that university administrators – or social media platforms – silence them. Such top-down politics, I’d argue, isn’t no platform but something weaker and worse.

At the core of No Platform, is a necessary and simple idea – that students should be entitled to draw a line and refuse a platform to groups that cross it. It’s an idea, ironically, that even the Conservatives don’t contest, or at least not when it comes to fascists.

Think, for example of the trouble Education Minister Michelle Donelan got into after she went on Radio 4 last month and insisted that under her Bill Holocaust Deniers would be permitted to speak. “A lot of the things we would be standing up for would be hugely offensive, would be hugely hurtful,” she said. Ever since then, Donelan has been telling everyone who will listen that no, she didn’t mean what she appeared to say. And yes, of course, under any healthy system Holocaust Deniers would be silenced.

Unfortunately, she is simply wrong about the impact of her own bill. You can’t constitutionalise free speech in universities, make it an overriding duty – without at the same time giving opportunities to the far right.

The government’s ideological view of the world threatens to trap us all in a false dilemma. Free speech is a virtue – but to achieve it, we must give opportunities to fascists and Holocaust Deniers even if hardly anyone wants to hear from them.

The way out is to grasp the insight on which no platform was based. The generation who persuaded the NUS to adopt no platform didn’t want to see less speech, they wanted to see more of it. They had just lived through the Oz trial (the UK counterpart to the trial of the Chicago 7), and hated the idea of letting the government or courts decide who got to speak.

The alternative they grasped is that it is possible to demand both free speech on campuses and a specific exception limited only to fascists. That was the principled position in the early 1970s; fifty years later it is still the best answer.

(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my own next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here. Tickets for the book-launch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).

Read, Antifascist!

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A review of Shane Burley, Why we Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance and Surviving the Apocalypse

Over the last four years, while the right has been growing in America, I have tried to keep up with that small group of antifascist writers who seem best informed about what’s been happening, the likes of Mark Bray, Talia Lavin, Alexander Reid Ross and Natasha Lennard. That doesn’t mean I’ve agreed with each of them on everything, just that they’re the ones who’ve spotted trends earliest and done the best job of explaining them. Within this group, the writer who I’ve followed the closest is Shane Burley.

Three years ago, when most British anti-fascists still believed that Richard Spencer and the Charlottesville strategy represented something real and growing, Burley was already talking of Spencer’s “extreme decline”, and crediting anti-fascists with that victory.

A year and a half ago, he spotted the first signs of deplatforming, and suggested it might prove a “death sentence” for the right. That was then, and his point has become even more compelling since, now that the people subject to that attack aren’t merely the likes of Nazi cosplayers Andrew Anglin or Mike Enoch, but the likes of Steve Bannon and Donald Trump.

For all those reasons, you won’t be surprised that I am an enthusiast for this collection of Shane Burley’s journalism, which brings together in one place seventeen of his articles, showing how the right has changed over the past half-decade, and how anti-fascists have developed to fight it.

Here are some of the passages which interested me. Early in the introduction, Burley justifies his use of the term “Apocalypse,” to describe not merely the millenarianism on which fascism thrives, but the world beyond that conflict, in which the planet is warming, species dying, etc. “We all agree on this,” he writes, “we all know that Covid is merely the first of what are going to be an increasing number of crises on the same scale.” He goes on to argue that million of people have been given an “ideological training” in how to deal with the catastrophe by the myths of the distant past. And fascism, as a form of crisis politics, is given particular opportunities to grow.

That is not to say that Burley regards all ideological influence as equally suspect. He writes about his own intellectual debts, and the impact on him of his ancestors’ Judaism, with its sense that we are living on the verge of end times. For several pages of his book, Burley tells that story. I just want to say how interesting, and how bold I thought that move was. For, of course, many of the famous writers who composed the major anti-fascist works were Jewish. (How could that fail to be, when fascists have been so unremittingly hostile to Jews?) But whether we are talking about the activists of the 20s and 30s, or any more recent activist, that Jewishness has always been coded and secularised. I can’t think of another anti-fascist book which has been so open in saying; here is where I’m coming from. This is what the people who came before me believed; they help to shape me.

Burley writes about the way in which a certain kind of far-right politics (the “alt-right”) was elbowed out of the way, realtively early in the Trump presidency so that what came to dominate was not a Klan or Nazi-stle politics, but a right deeply rooted in the Republican Party.

Another chapter looks at Turning Point USA, and the way that campaign uses its demands of “free speech” to call for the dismissal of left-wing lecturers, the deportation of undocumented students, etc. We have seen in Britain, of course, how keen the Conservatives have been on creating the conditions for a similar movement to emerge here.

Burley considers the violence used by James Alex Fields, in driving his Dodge Challenger into a crowd at Charlottesville and killing Heather Heyer. The media, Burley writes “want a long gunman”, because that fits with the story they like to tell in which the far right is always a movement of political innocents whose lapses can be excused as a series of inexplicable, individual, acts. “Fields is guilty,” Burley writes, “They are all guilty.”

Burley writes about the “revolutionary lives” that are appropriate to an era of climate and social catastrophe. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please…” Marx once wrote. Burley, whose book has more references to the IWW than it does to Leon Trotsky, finds his own road to a similar conclusion, “We cannot determine the whole of our future, but we can choose what we run towards.”

Another chapter talks about the myth of usury, and how that has become an idea central to the far-right, which has its own myth of the “demonic capitalist”, and its obverse a healthy ruling-class with the Jews purged from it, ready to play their part in restoring capitalism to what it should be.

Often when you read collections of journalism, they suffer from the defects that key moments are missed, or big ideas are repeated from piece to piece. The whole is less than the parts.

Unusually, Burley’s book is stronger than the individual pieces. He has plainly spent many hours choosing which pieces to select and rewriting them, making sure that they fit together. They range so widely, they cover such a large ground of strategic thinking – both on their side and ours – that what emerges is an important, clear and coherent account of America as the tear gas blew, a Ten Days That Shook The World for a new generation of anti-fascists.

(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my own next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here. Tickets for the book-launch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).

Antisemitism: can we agree on anything?

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A review of Jo Glanville, Looking for an Enemy: 8 Essays on Antisemitism

I imagine everyone reading this blog would share some basic points about antisemitism. First, that there is more antisemitism (or at least more noticeable antisemitic speech) in the world than at any time in decades. The number and ferocity of physical attacks on Jews are at postwar highs. Antisemitism has been mainstreamed in several countries’ national discourse.

Second, it’s also the case that at the same time, the political far-right whether in its cultural, electoral, or street forms is more popular and successful than at any time since 1945.

From that point onwards, however, it’s likely that any consensus will break down. There must be a correlation between the two trends I’ve just outlined but it’s not obvious which dynamic causes the first. If you listen to Jewish writers: people who identify with the left tend to argue that it’s the growth of the far right which is causing the anti-Jewish racism. But other Jews, who support the political centre or right disagree. How could the far right explain what we saw among parts of the Corbyn Labour Party? Or in France?

This collection, edited by Jo Glanville of the Jewish Quarterly, aims to shed light on the debate by bringing together a range of Jewish contributors. Mikolaj Grynberg describes how in Poland state laws criminalising the discussion of Polish complicity in the Holocaust have reinforced a hostile popular fascination with Jews. Glanville herself writes on the myth of child sacrifice, arguing that it continues to inform more widespread discourses of Jewish conspiracy and cruelty. A broad-brush piece by Philip Spencer manages to write as badly about the Labour Party as it is possible to do: by simultaneously arguing that all Corbyn supporters were racist (all? Even those of us who repeatedly challenged anti-Jewish racism?), and by refusing to cite any actual instances of antisemitic speech with the result that no one reading his piece would think – that happened, that’s very bad, it needs to stop now. Jill Jacobs addresses the familiar reality that Donald Trump both supported Israeli and encouraged racism against Jews. Tom Segev writes about the use of the Holocaust within Israel, criticising Netanyahu but doing so with extreme caution.

The three most interesting chapters, it seemed to me, were those written by Dan Trilling on the right in Britain, Natasha Lehrer on the crisis in France, Olga Grjasnowa on Germany.

Trilling in a short, well-argued contribution, insists that antisemitism operates to the “fasces” (the fascist symbol of authority, a bunch of sticks held together), like the leather strap, the “binding agent” which ties together what would otherwise be a disparate and incompatible set of ideas, its rejection of both capitalism and communism. Open antisemitism may have diminished to some extent on the right, but it is replaced a by a conspiracism within which old Nazi slogans (such as “cultural Marxism”) are easily revived.

France meanwhile is the clearest case for those who want to argue that antisemitism is emerging at all points on the political spectrum, and that the equation “anti-Jewish racism is a far-right phenomenon” is hopelessly glib. Lehrer describes the mobbing of the Jewish controversialist Alain Finkielraut, by a crowd of Gilets Jaunes supporters chanting, “Filthy Zionist bastard”, “France belongs to us,” and “We are the people.”

The politics of this scene are complex: the GJs were a broad, populist, movement with roots in both the French left and right. Most people I know, I guess, would have blamed this scene on neo-Nazi infiltrators within that group. Yet, while undoubtedly the GJs were subject to such raiding, I doubt most French Jews read the situation like that. For the message the French media gives is that Israel protects French Jews, and that story is amplified both by Finkiekraut himself and by the largest far-right party the Front National. If the French press was to be believed, and some people do believe it, the further right you go in politics the more pro-Jewish people are.

Or think of some of the other examples cited by Lehrer: Jewish schoolchildren shot in Toulouse in 2012, the murders at the Hypercacher supermarket in 2015, the killing of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in 2018. (These three attacks were antisemitic and none can plausibly be blamed on the right). French Jews, Lehrer writes, constitute less than 1 percent of the population, and suffer more than 50 percent of racist attacks. This racism comes, Lehrer argues, predominantly from black people and Muslims.

It is extraordinary to go from Lehrer’s account of France to Olga Grjasnowa’s Germany. There, she argues, Jews are taught to live in fear of racism, which they are told is solely and uniquely the preserve of outsiders – the same blacks and Muslims. But look at the figures for antisemitic hate crimes recorded in 2019: 1,898 including 62 acts of violence were carried out supporters of the far right; 24 (3 of them violent) by Muslim antisemites. The press, she argues, has invested huge time and energy in persuading Jewish people to fear the wrong people, not the far right who are a real threat but Muslims, who in most of Europe aren’t any threat at all.

Several of the pieces in this book are interesting; for people unfamiliar with the widespread sense of anxiety among Jewish Europeans, this is a good place to understand it. Reading this collection as a whole, the question is really whether it coheres. The individual contributions have the feel of voices taking past one another. It is as if the editor had hosted an academic event, allowed each contributor to speak for 40 minutes each, but insisted on strict rules that none of the participants were permitted to comment on each other’s paper.

What might Natasha Lehrer say to Olga Grjasnowa, or Grjasnowa to Lehrer, if each was told to hash out their discussion over beigels? I like to think that quite quickly, they might have got beyond the point of each telling the other, “I’m sorry, you’ve just completely misunderstood what’s going on”. It is exactly that missing discussion between participants that would have been most interesting.

What do the far right want when they demand to speak?

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All across the United States and Europe, we are seeing the spread of a certain idea of free speech. Unlike the great free speech battles of most of the last 200 years, this is a war being waged by the right. In a typical “free speech” battle, a speaker representing politics somewhere to the right of old-style conservatism is demanding that some other organisation (a university, a broadcaster, an online space) provide a platform to him. The centre-right supports this demand, judging that in backing its outliers, its own base will grow.

What I explore in this piece is what this notion of free speech offers the far right. Bluntly, what is the speech that supporters of the far-right would make, if they were permitted? Many of my examples are from Britain, but the dynamics I describe are just as visible in the US, in France, in India, and everywhere else where the right is growing.

i) The far right must speak because it is under attack

The far right derives its entitlement to speak from the idea that its people are facing some overwhelming threat, and the threat posed to them dictates that they must be heard. The threat does not have to be real, it is all the most effective if it is plainly a nonsensical lie. Think for example of the Great Replacement myth that a secret association of Jews are somehow conspiring to change the “white” countries of the world into majority black and Asian states. This story provides its believers with an organising. It tells them that any black presence in any historically white country is a challenge, the first threat to their own genocide.

Sometimes, the threat can be petty; all the far-right needs is an argument which places it on the defensive, in order to counter-attack. A decade ago, the sociologist Joel Busher noticed that one of the most common claims made by supporters of the English Defence League (EDL) was the claim that they were being criticised for putting up English flags. Almost all of his interviewees would tell a story in which Muslims or left-wingers would ask them to take their flags down. The flag-holder would then exult in the way they humiliated their opponent, swearing at them, threatening violence, or actually carrying out. The point of the story wasn’t that any of this happened, too many people were claiming at once to be the one person that this had happened to, or even that the threat was particularly worrying: the Muslims and left-wingers in this story weren’t rude or violent, just annoying.

What the story offered was a narrative of how right-wing activists could change from being part of a beleaguered political minority to become articulate and confident activists. The threat leads to speech, and then to further speeches of the same sort.

ii) The far right must speak out because no one else will speak for it

In the far-right narrative of free speech, its activists must talk because the state and the political centre (including the centre-right) are unreliable allies. Supporters of the far right complain that liberals, socialists, blacks, Muslims and feminists all have access to well-respected public bodies. The authorities and the state all support the left.

When the EDL interviewees were quizzed about this, they had a narrative in which high-profile, well-funded and respected campaigns (Amnesty, Liberty…) were all willing to speak up on behalf of Muslims and the left. While they, alone, were defencless.

iii) The alternative to speech is silence, and silence is a form of agony

I remember sitting in court in July 2018, at the time of former EDL leader Tommy Robinson’s appeal against his conviction for contempt of court. Robinson was able to follow the proceedings only remotely, relying on a video link from prison. “Can you see your barrister?” the usher asked. “Yeah.” “Can you see the judges?” “Yeah. Are they supposed to be that small?” Bored, ignored by the lawyers in court, Robinson was all “please” and “thank you”. “I’m not nervous before a court case,” he said, “not usually.” Soon enough the sound was switched, off, leaving Robinson picking distractedly at his shirt.

When they spoke, his lawyers made every effort to present Robinson as a champion of good relations between different communities. Tommy Robinson was a delicate man, his lawyer explained, the victim of self-doubt. When in prison, he suffered anxiety, butterflies to the stomach. The street-fighter changed himself into an object of pity.

iv) Far-right speech is an act of solidarity…

When activists on the far-right assert their entitlement to speak, they claim to be speaking on behalf of others. Think, for example, of the QAnon conspiracy theory and the way it insists that the world is being secretly controlled a small group of Satan-worshiping paedophiles (including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and George Soros). The victims of this fantasy are, its believers claim, children who are being trafficked in huge numbers. Or you could think alternatively of the movements that have grown up in Britain and in Europe promising to put an end to an imagined wave of Islamic rapes.

v) … But not a very generous act of solidarity

But while supports of the far right insist they must speak up for other people, these others are not to liberated but kept mute. The right believes it is protecting white women and children from Muslim rapists. And this is not a dynamic of giving women or children a platform, but rather of permitting white men to speak for them. As socialist feminist Kate Bradley observes, “Placing women on a pedestal soon turns to violence and aggression if they prove insubordinate or unhappy with their passive position.” From the Proud Boys, with their ideal of the “Veneration of the Housewife”, it is a short step to attacks on women, such as Lauren Southern who was abused for not sleeping with white racist men, or Richard Spencer’s wife Nina Kouprianova. A fellow white nationalist, at one point he brought her into his interviews. Weeks later, he was shouting at her that she should kill herself.

The far right’s protection of white women sits alongside a misogynistic language of hatred for the weak (“cucks”) and the left (“snowflakes”). In both its protective and its denunciatory faces, the most basic belief of the far right in relation to women is that they are not full human beings and require someone else to speak for them.

vi) Because the far right it has spoken up for these victims, it is excused if it then acts aggressively toward them

The protective urge liberates the far right to prey on the very people it claims to speak for. More than 40 supporters of the British far right have been jailed for sexual offences against children since 1999. Other prominent fascists have been prone to the same vice: Frank Collin’s career as leader of the National Socialist Party of America, and tormentor of Skokie, ended in 1980 when he was convicted of eight counts of taking indecent liberties with children aged between ten and fifteen, and he was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Tommy Robinson is an example of the sane phenomenon. How could anyone criticise him, his supporters argue, when has pledged himself to support vulnerable white women? But “I’ve always been comfortable,” Tommy Robinson writes in his memoir, “in a bloke-oriented environment,” and it is a feature of his memoir that very few women are mentioned: his mother, his wife (good), his probation officer (bad). He recalls “having a bit of a domestic” when walking outside his home with his wife – by which he means attacking and beating her.

Participants in far-right politics tell themselves that they are the champion of “women and children”; but there is no real-life category of women and children. Rather the difference between women and children is that women are adults and entitled to speak for themselves, while children are less than adults and still obliged to depend on others to speak for them. To speak of the rights of women and children as a single group is to assume that women have no entitlement to speak and can be heard only if men speak for them.

vii) Far right speech is never much more than an excuse for violent acts

Supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory have been arrested after attacking restaurants wrongly rumoured to have held children captive, assembling bomb-making materials, attacking Roman Catholic churches, derailing trains, stalking politicians, and attacking the buildings where politicians live. If a child has been punished (and a child is the most powerless person imaginable) then there is principle no action which goes too far in the task of recusing them. Someone who attacks a child can be beaten; they can be killed, and their killers will have a moral justification. For in order to prevent cruelty to children, any act is legitimate. To invoke the suffering of non-existent children is to legitimise violence without limit against those who reject the conspiracy theories on which the far right thrives.

The invocation of the rights of children in the face of imagined liberal conspiracy serves the purpose of persuading the supporters of the far right that they are the victim of history, and the only people capable of avenging an enormous historical wrong. The threat faced by the far-right is so terrible, so violent, so overwhelming – that any degree of violence is legitimised.

(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here. Tickets for the book-launch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).

Trolls, shit-posters… you have nothing to lose but your self-made chains

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Friends who only know me from me from my books about fascism sometimes ask whether I’ve ended up on far-right hitlists. Not really. There was a death threat I was sent when I was at university – more a chain letter with some pornographic cartoons than anything more serious. There was a time in Sunderland when the organisers of the BNP branch read a letter of mine in the local paper, and tried to knock on every door of the street I lived until they found me. (The street ran to number 800 and, as far as I can tell, they never got anywhere near the flat where I was staying).

Years ago, in Liverpool, a former BNP member who’d been on trial for attempted murder got hold of my email address, and that only. But, to be honest, he was more looking for someone -anyone – to read his turgid memoirs than to do any harm to me.

In the last decade, most of the hatemail has come from other socialists. Like the person in the SWP who wrote to me, “Fuck off back to Eton you filthy rich tosser … you snivelling piece of shit.” When I pointed out that he’d sent what he plainly thought was an anonymous message from his private work computer, and therefore that I could identify him, the comrade had the good sense to respond, “I was completely wrong to say the things I did and I would like to offer my apologies.”

Then there was the fellow antizionist who wrote to me last year, “I suspect that the only thing you have fought for is a good seat at a restaurant … I won’t congratulate you on becoming a class traitor, not least because you were always of the wrong class anyway”. Which was at least better-written, and me laugh, even if the rest of the letter was annoying, stupid and rude.

What intrigues me is why people send this “red-on-red” fire? Obviously, there’s the narcissism of small differences, the way in which when you’re stuck at a point on the political spectrum it can feel as if people with a similar politics to you are operating as gatekeepers, keeping your voice from getting the attention it deserves.

But I think there’s something more than that, to do with the long-term consequences of the relocation of life from off- to online. Some readers will recall a time when online discussion was minimal, when it was something which took place in universities and through an electronic infrastructure which excluded the vast majority of people, and when other means of international communication was prohibitively expensive. (Don’t you remember having saying to people: I need to make a call, it’s international – I’ll pay you?)

If you had said to anyone 30 years ago that we were on the verge of a transformation in people’s ability to speak, opening up interpersonal communication to billions of people, the prospect would have filled every one of us with delight.

Plainly, social media is not only a negative phenomenon. Billions of people devote their creativity and ingenuity to the effort to make that experience as pleasant as possible. A shared experience on this scale could not simply be unpleasant, any more than all “food” or all “water” could be bad. Yet the fact that speech is mediated – i.e. communication controlled by huge businesses – has replaced the prospect of liberation with something less.

We spend hours of our lives, dozens of them a week, hundreds a month, thousands a year – doing what, exactly? We want to be liked; we want our posts to be read. We know that the most effective means of obtaining a like – a follow, a friendship request – is by “taking down” something we disagree with. This behaviour isn’t an attraction to someone else. It is alluring to you, dear reader. It is alluring to me.

There are a thousand fine gradations between making a well-deserved point, puncturing someone else’s nonsense, and mocking them openly, harassing, calling for them to be dismissed. And yet these are all fine distinctions within one total set of behaviour: lines drawn on the same piece of cloth.

Anyonymous posting, commenting beneath the line – they change the people who do them.

The free speech battles of our time thrive on fume. Both sides present the enemy as capable of dealing to them a fatal defeat from which they could never recover. Typically, one side makes this claim with greater truthfulness than the other. But, typically, that justice claim gets lost, shrouded in the claims of mutual victimhood.

Somehow, we have to detach ourselves from the social media companies. The last time I looked, the wealth of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was $80 billion, almost all of it contained in the share price of his company. He was the world’s fourth richest person. Since 2012, Facebook’s share price has been growing at the rate of roughly $50 billion a year, earning Zuckerberg an effective income of about $8 billion a year.

We need to stop feeding their personal wealth; we also need to stop behaving in the ways that their products encourage.

(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here or here. Tickets for the book-launch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).

Israel and the global far right

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Following on from my recent piece describing how the Israeli centre- and far-right ally, what I wanted to explain here is how the Israeli right seeks to place itself at the centre of global far-right organising.

There are lots of examples of this at the “far” far-right of politics. In Britain, you might think of the English Defence League, riven as it was by competing pro-Israel factions (supported by Tommy Robinson), and another large group of members wondering why they needed to have any position on Israel at all. Or you might think in America of the Israeli flags seen in the crowd during Trump’s attempted coup in January.

But I also want readers to think of “near” far-right: the close alliance between the likes of Bolsonaro in Brazil and the Netanyahu government in Israel. This alliance has been most sigificant in Eastern Europe. In 2018 and 2019, Israel was the patrons of a “Visegrád” group of European governments: Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, meeting their leaders, and seeking to lessen global criticism of them – particularly over antisemitism.

Israel’s patronage has been a particular boon in Hungary. At the end of 2017, the governing Fidesz party began campaigning for fresh elections, with the message that there were millions of Muslim migrants willing to enter the country from Africa and that they would bring terror to Hungary. This was accompanied by attacks on the “political empire” of George Soros the octogenarian banker who had donated some $4 million to pro-democracy NGOs in that country. Fidesz promised to introduce an anti-Soros law, allowing the government to ban organisations which campaigned for the free movement of people. During the election, giant posters were put up all over the country insisting “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh!” Making explicit what the official campaign was happy to leave implied, thousands of these posters were then covered in graffiti denouncing Soros as a Jew.

In 2017, the European Commission initiated an “Article 7” procedure, first against Poland, and then against Hungary. This power allows disciplinary sanctions to take taken against members of the European Union where they have failed to comply with the common values of the EU, including upholding the rule of law. In August 2020, Germany’s Europe Minister Michael Roth argued that one of the reasons why Article 7 had been needed was the willingness of the Fidesz government in Hungary to employ antisemitism against its opponents. Part of the Hungarian response to these criticisms was to insist on the closeness of its ties to Israel: Prime Minister Netanyahu had visited Hungary in 2017, the first Israeli leader to do so in three decades. He had termed Orbán, a “true friend of Israel”. How then, Hungary’s defenders argued, could the Fidesz leader be an antisemite?

As I’ve noted above, the street British far right has long contained pro-and anti-Israel factions. The latter has been in the ascendant for the last decade, and has been amply rewarded. The pro-Israel campaigner Robert Shillman for example sits on the board of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. In 2017, Shillman funded a series of “Shillman Fellowships” at the far-right media channel, Rebel Media. Among the beneficiaries of his generosity was Tommy Robinson who was paid a stipend of £100,000 per year. The highest profile funder of this sort is the Middle East Forum (MEF), which in the US sustains the Campus Watch website to spy on campaigning by Palestinians and leftists. In 2018, when anti-Islamic activist Tommy Robinson was jailed for contempt for court, the MEF donated £47,000 to the cost of his legal fees. As a result, in both 2017 and 2018, the highest-recorded donations to the British far right came from US-based pro-Israel activists.

Another story of entanglement between the far-right and the Netanyahu government lies behind the myth of George Soros, the individual who incarnates better than anyone else today’s antisemitic fantasies of Jewish control. That myth originated within Israel itself. In 2012, the right-wing website Latma produced a music video “Jews united against Israel” mocking left-wing Jews who did not support the occupation. Its main targets were President of the New Israel Fund Naomi Chazan, and George Soros. “When Soros handed out cash by the truck,” the video begins, “to funds, associations, to every schmuck … We [Soros and his allies] hate Israel every one of us”.

A year later political consultant George Birnbaum, who had served for eighteen months as Netanyahu’s chief of staff, was commissioned by Viktor Orbán to draw up an election strategy for Fidesz. In Birnbaum’s words, “There was no real political enemy … there was no one to have a fight with.” From there came the idea of a puppet master, who could be accused (despite his age and long absence from Hungary) of manifesting a secret control over all the forces in Hungarian society who were matched against Orbán. Soon Soros was accused of supporting non-governmental organisation, and environmental campaigners, and campaigning for Hungary to be flooded with refugees. He was said to control the mafia.

The Soros myth was then amplified again from within Israel, in 2017, when Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair published a cartoon showing Soros as the puppet master controlling first shape-shifting lizards, then Illuminati, and then finally a triad of anti-corruption activists, journalists and left-wing politicians.

In July 2019, when Israel’s ambassador to Hungary made the mistake of siding with that country Jewish organisations in criticising Orbán’s anti-Soros campaign as antisemitic, Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly criticised his own ambassador. The Israeli foreign ministry issued a statement saying that Soros “continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected government” by funding organizations “that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.”

In September 2019, Netanyahu senior raised the stakes even higher, accusing Soros of conspiring with Israel’s nuclear rival Iran.

Since 2016, the image of Soros as an all-powerful malevolent force has spread from Israel and Hungary across the world, and become a recurring antisemitic myth. The journalist Hannes Grassegger who has done more than anyone to document its spread. He writes: “In 2017, Italians started talking about Soros-financed immigrant boats arriving on the shores. In the US, some people suspected Soros was behind the migrant caravan entering from Central America. A Polish member of parliament called Soros the ‘most dangerous man in the world’.” And you could carry this list on, through dozens of countries, any number of centre-right politicians not least in Britain.

The myth of Soros’s secret power is simultaneously the most important single weapon in the global arsenal of contemporary antisemitism and a product of Israel’s unrestrainedly-partisan political culture, in which insults are ubiquitous and the left routinely denounced as traitors.

Israel has of course not been alone in acting as a global patron to far-right causes: Russia played a similar role after 2005, so too did the United States under Trump’s presidency. (I write about both these dynamics in my book, The New Authoritarians).

But the perceptions of Israel on the world stage remain different from those of Russia or the United States. The latter are widely understood as bullies, “imperialists”, rightly condemned for such actions as the war in Iraq from 2003 or Russia’s war in Syria.

The difference with Israel is that the country is able to use the legacy of the Holocaust and the fate of the six million dead, as a constant method of stripping away Israel’s, and its allies’, culpability for increasing racism. Western guilty is displaced from those who actually died, not merely to the state which claims to operate in their name, but to any other nation in any short- or long-term alliance with it.

In this way, the insistence on making sure that Jews are never unsafe again ends up shielding not just racists in general but – more particularly – some of the most aggressively anti-Jewish politicians in the world

On supporting Palestine

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This is one of those times when lots of people are talking about Israel and Palestine, and expressing their support for Palestinians. I want people to speak out against bombings, against ethnic cleansing, against the removal of families from homes in which they have lived for more than 50 years. I do not want there to be any state in the world which excludes people from citizenship along ethnic lines. Still less do I want there to be a state which dispossesses people while claiming to speak for the world’s Jews. But, for the Palestinians to win, they will need to have the backing of huge numbers of people. That means that for everyone giving their support to Palestine, it matters how we talk.

It is possible – in fact it’s quite easy – to express support for Palestinians in ways which are pointlessly grating to ordinary Jewish people, whether or not those words are antisemitic.*

Here are some tips of my own to help people in the UK to get it right, by helping a righteous cause without being idiots:

1. (The easy bit). Just don’t say things which are plainly and clearly antisemitic. Eg one socialist group I’m in last week included a comment asking where a Jewish person who supports Israel’s gets her money from. Which plays old fantasies that all Jews either have money or conspire together and can call on people who do.

2. Don’t blame British Jews for the actions of the state of Israel. This is why the racist cavalcade was so incredibly stupid: the people driving the cars went to a perceived Jewish area in order to upset British Jews. Such behaviour isn’t just offensive it’s also counterproductive – it turns people against the majority of folks who supporting Palestinian rights and aren’t idiots.

3. Don’t demand that British Jews take a stance. If you find someone disagrees with you, don’t ask “Are you Jewish?” If you put something on your facebook wall and people say they don’t like it, don’t say “the Jews are disagreeing with me”.

4. Criticise Israel – Israeli tanks, Israeli ministers, Israeli actions – try not to say “Zionists” as a shorthand not “the Zionists” unless you’ve thought carefully about the point you’re making, and you’re being really, *really* precise.

5. Don’t post anything in haste or in anger. If someone annoys you, put a timer on your phone and just don’t say anything for 10 minutes. There is a real chance that what they’ve said is badly written or even wholly inoffensive, and that your response will significantly increase the tension in the room.

6. Try hard to avoid analogies with the 1930s. You might think you’ve come across a brilliant, one-liner which explains it more than anything. But all that will happen is that someone else reading your post will think – me, you’re call me a Nazi, me?

7. Don’t blame “religion”.

8. Don’t assume. The world is full of antizionist Jews; it is full of zionist Jews, and (shocking as it may seem) people who just want to be left along and get on with their life and that matters a lot more to them than your guesses about what they did/do/should think.

9. Listen to people you disagree with. This is one of the issues that involves people – and a lot of them – which means almost everyone will know at least one thing you don’t. If only you give them a chance to speak you. If you let them tell you someone you didn’t know, you will be a better activist for it.

10. Don’t be afraid to apologise.

Oh, and last of all, don’t be afraid to call *me* out. Quite a lot of these things are things that I see because *I’ve* done them wrong – and I’m not proud of them. I’m posting this as much for me as anyone else. If I’ve got things wrong, show me, and I’ll apologise and I’ll do my hardest to get it right next time.

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*(It’s also just about possible to be grating on social media and to be effective, but the group of people who are sharp enough to do this are vanishingly small – it’s more or less just Jewdas – and they’ve been thinking about the cultural politics of this for years).