On the Israeli right and far right. Or, Why is war breaking out – just now?


Often, when supporters of the Palestinian cause talk about Israel, we have a tendency to focus on the Israeli far right, making it seems as if settlers, and street gangs stand at the centre of Israeli politics and public life, without explaining how they play that key role.

An example of that risk would be the footage, shared originally by Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties in Israel’s parliament, which showed supporters of the far-right Jewish supremacist movement of Rabbi Meir Kahane, dancing in the vicinity of the Al Aqsa Mosque, and singing, “O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes”:

The reason the clip was compelling was because it appeared to show a crowd of several hundred people cheering at the prospect that Palestinians would be dispersed (which could not be done without killing people), and their land giving to Israelis. It fitted in with the many other reports we have had in recent weeks of ordinary supporters of Israel beating Palestinians in improvised acts of violence originating from within society, not the state.

But how representative was that crowd? Are the Kahanists as (most commentary in Britain would like you to believe) a minority within an otherwise healthy political system?

Meir Kahane was an American-Israeli who supported terrorism in the US against Palestinians. He emigrated to Israel in 1971 where he pioneered a provocateur racism which led to him being arrested by Israeli police 62 times in a decade (the number of his arrests are a sign of the way he irritated the major Israeli parties). He served one term in the Israeli Knesset, where he attempted to introduce legislation stripping non-Jews of Israeli citizenship and demanded the violent expulsion of Palestinians. Kahane pushed at the boundaries of what was then acceptable within Israel. In response, a law was passed in 1984 banning parties which incited racism from the Knesset. He lost his seat and did not stand again.

In 1994, (four years after Kahane’s death) one of his followers Baruch Goldstein carried out a massacre at Hebron, shooting 29 Muslims as they prayed. Kahane’s party was then banned.

If in the 1980s, Israeli politics was embarrassed by the presence of figures such as Kahane, that however no longer remains the case. Indeed, the present round of violence can be attributed to the activities of Kahane supporters.

In March, Itamar Ben-Gvir (pictured), the former head of Kahane’s youth movement, and now leader of a party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), was elected to the Knesset. Ben-Gvir has a photograph of Goldstein on display in his home. This month, he briefly established an office in Sheikh Jarrah to call for the expulsion of Palestinians who live there. He then visited the Temple Mount, starting off the cycle of right-wingers harassing Palestinians.

Ben-Gvir has been widely criticised within governing circles for his role in the present clashes, with Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai telling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “The person who is responsible for this intifada is Itamar Ben Gvir.”

In the 1980s, Israeli politicians united to expelled Ben-Gvir’s mentor Kahane; but in 2021, the reaction has been different. Although Ben-Gvir holds just a single seat in the Knesset, for weeks, he has been negotiating in public for a role in Netanyahu’s government. A month ago, it was reported that Likud had offered Ben-Gvir a ministerial post.

Indeed, Ben-Gvir is only the most prominent example of what is a general phenomenon of co-operation between the Israeli state (dominated as it is the Israeli centre right) and the far right (meaning those calling for the immediate killing of Palestinians).

I have referred, just above, to Sheikh Jarrah – eight Palestinian families living in this district have been involved in a longstanding legal struggle to keep hold of the homes they have occupied for more than fifty years. Despite their long possession of the land, formal ownership has been claimed by a settler campaign Nahalat Shimon International.

The politics of that campaign belong to the “centre right” not the “far right”. It exists to facilitate land transfer from Palestinians to Israeli and speed up the ethnic cleaning of Jerusalem. However, the identities of the people who fund the campaign have been kept secret, and in contrast to Ben-Gvir it prefers to operate within the bounds of the law, fighting

a 25-year legal battle to evict a relatively small number of families. (If the families are evicted, it is estimated 70 others could follow).

The state has given Nahalat Shimon its backing; so far, the appeal courts have all approved eviction. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has simultaneously welcomed the settlers’ victory and sought to depoliticise it, insisting that nothing more is going on than a landowner asserting their rights: “a real-estate dispute between private parties”.

It would not be totally wrong to see this strategy as one in which the energy comes from the extremes, arrives at the centre-ground and is partially dissipated there: a hearing of the Sheikh Jarrah case that was due to take place before the Supreme Court on 10 May was adjourned, presumably to discourage the crowds gathering on the streets.

From the perspective of the Israeli centre-right, the ideal would be a slow exhaustion of the Palestinians, in contrast to the immediate annexation desired by the likes of Ben-Gvir. But despite these differences of tactical approach, in practice, the two wings of the right have been allies. That alliance is why Ben-Gvir set up Sheikh Jarrah.

Indeed, the Kahane movement has sought to make itself central to the dispute, with Ben-Gvir abusing Palestinians demonstrating in support of the families, and radical settlers blocking roads and preventing access to the area. The alliance also explains why, for all of the criticism coming from the Netanyahu camp of Ben-Gvir, the latter remains an ally of the Prime Minister, and a candidate for a ministry in his government.

In a number of other writing projects I’ve talked about “convergence” between the centre-right and far-right in Britain, America, France, and over much of Europe anf the world since 2015. One of the core dynamics I’ve talked about is a breakdown of right-wing gatekeeping: so in the 80s, leading Republicans sought to detroy the career of David Duke, in the last five years by contrast they’ve gone along with Trump. The Tories used to try to break the likes of Mosley or even Powell; now they exert every effort to find a plave for their followers inside the tent. The shift in Israeli, between taking on Kahane in the 80s and trying to absorn Ben-Gvir today is an instance of the same process.

And, of course, that’s without getting into all the ways that even before the present crisis, the Israeli centre-right was already doing its best impression of far-right politics: the Jewish Nation-State Law, the patron role that Israell plays in relation to antisemites and far-rightists outside Israel, expanding the settlements, cooperating with Trump’s “Vision for Peace,” with its plans for population transfer, etc etc etc.

Given a choice between unleashing war on the Palestinian, killing hundreds of people, or rebuking an extremist further to his right – Netanyahu has chosen war. Where the Israeli far-right leads, the centre follows never more than a step behind.

When the Red Wall fell


A review of Mike Makin Waite, On Burnley Road: Class, Race and Politics in a Northern English Town

Makin-Waite was a council official in Burnley, when riots were followed by electoral success for the BNP (16% of the vote in Oldham West, 11% in Burnley), creating the conditions for the party’s subsequent breakthrough (3 councillors elected in Burnley in 2002, fifty council seats in Britain by the end of the decade).

A former member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and teenage supporter of the Anti-Nazi League, Makin-Waite was at a meeting of council officials in 2002. The town was on the way to becoming a byword for racism, but one after the other the senior officials rose to insist there was no reason to panic, cohesion grants, project work, the situation would soon return to normal. Makin-Waite said that normal wasn’t coming back any time soon, the problems were too deep-rooted for that. The chief executive glowered at him and called him to a meeting. Rather than discipline him as he feared for speaking out of turn, she gave him the job of leading Burnley Council’s response.

This is a detailed and compelling account of how the state dealt with the challenge of political extremism, patiently isolating its key figures over a period of many years. The irony that it took a Communist to rescue the town’s two-party system is not lost on Makin-Waite.

The social crisis in Burnley had been brewing for many years. Its political expression began in the Labour Party under the leadership of Councillor Eddie Fisk, who was by the end of the 1990s one of the town’s longest-serving councillors.

From the mid-1990s onwards, Fisk had sought to shore up his support in “his” ward of Lowerhouse, by involving himself in all administrative decisions. Fisk’s main agenda, Makin-Waite explains, was to prevent “ethnic minorities” from being housed there. When the party finally, reluctantly, decided it had no choice but to investigate him, Fisk was defended by the Conservative, Liberal Democrats, and many in his own party. “Everyone knew” that if Asian people were permitted to live in a predominantly white ward, those white voters would flee, and the area become run down. Surely, by keeping Asians and Muslims out of Lowerhouse, they reasoned, Fisk was doing what any principled councillor would do.

The real cause of poverty, Makin-Waite insists, was job losses not immigration: the town’s manufacturing employment fell by 80 percent between 1950 and 2000. But councillors had no inclination to fight redundancies (Fisk himself was a former prominent “working miner” from 1984-5). It was easier to blame the town’s Asian minority than to fight for jobs.

Fisk was expelled from Labour and ran as an Independent in May 1998. He still had such influence in his ward that his allies were able to secure the nomination of Samuel Holgate to stand against him. The latter secured the nomination, then in the final days refused to campaign, claiming he was too ill to lave his home. On Fisk’s victory, Holgate (now revealed to be Fisk’s nephew) left Labour for Fisk’s Burnley Independents.

Three years before the BNP came in to Burnley, appeals to white identity were already being used to cohere an anti-Labour voting bloc. The Independents did not stand in the 2001 general election, and their audience swung to the BNP. By 2002, the latter had 1000 members in Burnley. Its candidates included a pub landlord, a civil engineer and an assembly-line worker. Its leaflets appealed to “ordinary,” “decent,” “authentic” white citizens.

BNP members tried to engineer right-wing talking-points. They ran local bakers urging their workers to stop up to the Muslim pressure (what pressure, the bakers asked) and keep on baking their “Christian” hot cross buns. The councillors demanded the names and addresses of all asylum seekers living in Burnley – the request was refused. They asked if IT support could be provided by white employees only. They asked to opt out of receiving information being sent to all councillors (if it contained news about Muslims). Their publications complained that Muslims and Asians were getting preferential access to plum council jobs (35 of the council’s 700 employees were Asian). The council sent the party a solicitor’s letters saying the BNP were not entitled to lie. Next thing, a councillor was standing at Makin-Waite’s desk asking him to check the copy of BNP leaflets for accuracy – he declined.

Labour’s default reaction to a new class of politicians relying on myths of preferential treatment for outsiders was to demand more resources from government. Makin-Waite understands and to some extent commends this reaction, while also observing that it was inadequate. It was easier talking about bread and butter than admitting that large numbers of former Labour voters felt the appeal of racism. Councillors and party members were defensive and had no “confidence” in resisting racism.

Shaped by his own previous activism on the far left, Makin-Waite is attentive to the positions taken by radical anti-fascists. He argues however that anti-fascist materials had little purchase in the town – the BNP candidates were local, and well-known, beyind a certain threshhold of success just terming them “Nazis” no longer worked.

“The party had earned the right to be understood in terms of political sociology: it could not longer be defined through assessing its leaders’ hidden motives.” The BNP’s success “expressed a distorted logic of class as race”. The ideology was pernicious and exclusionary, but it succeeded for a time in making BNP voters situation in the town and their own personal circumstances intelligible. Makin-Waite described the local working class as “damaged” and the BNP succeeding because it offered a “wounded pride”.

Slowly, the BNP were driven back – Griffin’s racism and long-term commitment to fascist politics proved, over time, the liability it was always likely to be. But the end of the story is not a happy one. Burnley’s exceptionalism slowly paled. In 2016, the town voted 2/3 for Brexit. In 2017, it was the home to UKIP’s only county councillor. In December 2019, Burnley had a Conservative MP for the first time since 1910-11.

Makin-Waite argues that there is a continuity between the BNP’s electoral breakthrough in 2001-2, and the present talk of the Red Wall. Undoubtedly, there are continuities, although as the content of right-wing populism becomes successively diluted and normalised, so too is it harder to resist. The answer, of course, is a re-energised working class and re-learning of anti-racist first principles. But that, as Makin-Waite concludes, is easier said than done.

(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 booklaunch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).

The Rentons and the Fergussons: or, what makes a family?


My cousin Alex Renton’s book Blood Legacy, tries an original approach to get the British to talk about the slave trade. Not through fiction or history, not through the voices of the slaves or even of their masters. Rather, he asks, what does it mean to be the descendant of a family who owned slaves?

In 1833, the British government paid £20 million to the former owners of slaves. Among the winners named in Alex’s book are John Gladstone, enriched to the tune of more than £100,000, a wealth which crowned the rise of that trader from modest beginnings (one of sixteen children to a humble Leith merchant), and enabled him to subsidise his son’s career – Eton, Oxford, Parliament. Another Scottish family, the Smiths of Jordanhill invested their £70,000 on yachts. Taxpayers were still paying off the interest on our debt to the slavers as recently as 2015.

Some 950 slaves altogether were owned by Alex’s ancestors: Emoinda, Rachel, Monimia, Sophia, Peggy, and many others besides. He conveys the cost of their acquisition: a slave child cost less than a horse, a mule or a cow.

Alex has found in the family archive the papers of two Fergussons in particular. Sir Adam Fergusson (pictured), the older brother, and James the younger brother. Each had been expensively-educated, both were advocates (or, as we might say in England, barristers). As a lawyer myself, in winced in recognition of their careers.

James was liberal-minded and naïve. He told another brother, James, that “kindness and mercy” were the ways to get the most “usage” from slaves; “a good heart is as necessary as a good head to constitute a good Planter”. An inventory of his possessions however included a “Negroe iron chain” and “Negroe iron collars”.

Sir Adam welcomed his youngest brother’s generosity of spirit, and commended him on another of his investments: a silver branding iron with which Sir Adam and James’ initials could both be burned together into a new acquisition’s skin.

James Fergusson caught an infection and died in Tobago in 1777, after a mere four year’s career as a slaver. Sir Adam, by contrast, lasted another 30 years.

My favourite sections of the book begin in 1781, when a slave August Thomson (“Caesar”), the plantation doctor, travelled to London to confront Sir Adam after an overseer Andrew Murdoch had lashed Caesar, placed him in the stocks, and stolen his possession: 3 dozen plates, a dozen wine glasses, his silver shoe buckles and his doctor’s instruments. Caesar is named in a 1780 newspaper report as a member of the gang of runaway slaves led by Three-Fingered Jack. Assuming the record is true, he must have decided soon afterwards that a petition to his owner was a wiser course than continued insurrection. Caesar was plainly an intelligent and persuasive person, to have thrived as a doctor, to have paid for his route to London, and to have convinced any number of people that he had legitimate business in England.

Sir Adam first promised Caesar his protection, and then wrote to Murdoch, permitting him to do what he liked to the new-returned slave. Alex offers two possible accounts of his fate: there was a black Caesar living in Deptford in 1786, and a Caesar “alias John Thomas” in the Kingston workhouse in 1789. I like to think of Caesar as settled permanently in London, perhaps regretting his lost silver buckle, but building a new life here.

Alex puts a case for reparations, arguing that the former slave colonies remain underdeveloped as a result of the trade and that the descendants of the slaves continue to feel the psychological legacy of their ancestors’ humiliation.

He makes concrete the link between the past and the present by seeking of his own family, naming us as members of a wider group, “people who are heirs or descendants of those who profited from slavery”. We can make reparations, by telling the story of the trade’s violence, by acknowledging and by properly apologising for what our ancestors did.

Reading Alex’s book is not, of course, the first time I have had to think about slavery. In my own books about the Congo and my biography of CLR James, the trade was a large part of the story – first for the horror of what it was like to live in a country which was exporting slaves, and then, via the Black Jacobins, for James’ narrative of the Haitian slave revolt. (It is no exaggeration to say that when Alex began telling the story of August Thomson, I thought I felt an echo of James’ master-work).

But I have never seen it argued before that my life is changed because I, as a Renton, profited from slaves. There’s no point lying – that feeling was strange to me, unwelcome, and my immediate reaction was one of doubt. Is his account fair to his own family?

The shortest and most superficial answer is that they weren’t slavers. For although Alex is my first cousin, the story he is telling is of his maternal family’s involvement in the trade. Ever slaver named in his book is a Fergusson.

Well, every slaver except one. The one paternal ancestor he has traced (and who is my ancestor as well as Alex’s) is James Graham (1789-1860), a white-whiskered Victorian who was a merchant in Liverpool. Graham appears in various works that I have written for my family. Alex has dug up the names of the two house-servants owned by Graham (Nancy and Sarah) and the compensation he received from the state: £45. He also notes that James Graham was listed on his baptism as “non-white”. It turns out that the one slaver from whom I am definitely descended was the mixed-race child of Elizabeth (“a free mulatto”) and a plantation owner William Delaroche.

What does it mean to name the Rentons as profiteers from slavery, when the one undisputed slaver we count in our direct ancestors was himself descended from slaves?

And if I felt troubled by Alex’s narrative, I know there are others around in my family whose overwhelming reaction has been one of the most convinced hostility: how dare he name the Renton as slavers?

I have said that this reaction was superficial and fleeting. And now I want to explain why. For when I think of my paternal ancestors in eighteenth century Edinburgh, I know them as clergymen, teachers, and others of the middle middle-class. The Rentons were never gentry like the Fergussons (nor still less the “aristocrats” you read about in excited reviews of Alex’s book), but nor were they mere workers.

They shared in the great Scottish boom of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Money from slavery made it into their collection boxes, paid the fees of their pupils. If the Rentons did not share the Fergusson wealth, they benefitted from it at second-hand. They belong to a much wider story – the story of Edinburgh, of Bristol, of Liverpool and of London – and of the dripping of tainted wealth into many hands.

Alex cites the great Caribbean historian and politician Eric Williams, whose book Capitalism and Slavery insists that without the fortunes made through the slave trade there could have been no industrial revolution in Britain.

What would Edinburgh have been without the wealth of slavery? Poorer, shabbier, less grand. Homes might have been built but not the street upon street of townhouses with their high ceilings and their well-dressed occupiers promenading outside.

As well as the Renton ancestor who was both slaver and slave-descendant, there are other ancestors too. Churchgoers, they spoke out against the trade. And yet, reading Alex’s book, I think I see these good ancestors anew – pious and principled and ridden with guilt.

Alex ends his book by writing: “The story of transatlantic slavery is not over: we have it in us to change its consequences.”

I agree with him.

Jobs and Homes – reviews coming in


I thought I’d share a few of the reviews which have started to come in for my book Jobs and Homes.

For anyone who hasn’t read it yet, it’s an attempt not merely to explain how the law works, what happens in housing and employment courts – but also to tell a story of Britain – at a time when conflicts over housing are just important in constituting class as conflicts in the workplace. It’s a book about povery, about class. It sees the world through the eyes of my clients, and tells you what it feels like to be at the mercy of distant landlords, and what its like to organise against them. The book is also an attempt to describe, no matter how briefly, what sort of politics the Labour Party would need to recover from its present funk.

Anyway, here are extracts from some of them:


Dan Carrier in the Camden New Journal:

“…on March 5, a date that marked the UK’s first Covid death, David was representing a tenant who had lived in the same house for 30 years. For the past 18 months, mould had grown on walls and the boiler was broken. Her health had suffered and, to compound matters, the newly imposed bedroom tax meant she had to find an extra £120 a month.

What follows is a take-down of this poorly conceived, blunt and discriminative tax.

David argues the tax assumes “it is appropriate to force working-class people to move when their children have left home” in circumstances where middle-class people would not. Statistics show the number of bedrooms in the UK has increased by a third since 1971, while the population has risen by 9 per cent. It shows the reason we are still “room poor” is because numbers of people per household has declined.

“I am not suggesting that owner occupiers with spare bedrooms should be driven from their houses,” he writes. “I am simply pointing out the double standard under which the government did nothing to solve under-occupation, did nothing to encourage owners to share their homes, but took steps to evict poor families.”

A layer of malice was added by judging how many rooms a family should occupy, an unwieldy tool that fails to consider individual circumstances, while it also assumes there is somewhere else people could move to.

“The bedroom tax works by reducing a tenant’s housing benefit to the point where they are compelled to move,” he says. “But if moving is impossible, then what remains is the deliberate insistence that the poor should go hungry or lose their homes.”

David describes how the effect lockdown had on jobs. Part-timers were sacked, zero-hour contracts meant staff had no shifts, and the self-employed saw work disappear over night.

Above all, Jobs and Homes strips away the mystique of justice and illustrates how the law should be about helping people solve their problems.

David presents a powerful story of how legal aid lawyers work to balance the scales of justice tipped unfavourably against those most in need, and how our current approach to the Welfare State means his huge caseload isn’t going away.”

Mike Phipps for Labour Hub:

“Up to a million people in Britain are at imminent risk of losing their home, through a combination of pre-Covid changes to the benefits rules, the downturn in economic activity associated with lockdown, and inertia by the government.  Ministers have refused to amend the law, instead implementing only a series of emergency breaks, each of which has deferred the crisis without addressing the underlying problem of tenant debt. Homeowners, on the other hand, got far greater protection, with the Chancellor announcing a three-month mortgage holiday.

Nothing on that scale was granted to tenants. Only after mounting pressure did the government grudgingly concede a three-month stay on all possession proceedings – an issue raised by Jeremy Corbyn MP in his final Prime Minister’s Questions.

Renton has some straightforward solutions – a pay rise for those who cannot afford to live; abolish the compulsion on the courts to evict in some cases – specifically “ground 8” where the tenant is in eight weeks of rent arrears, and ”section 21”, which forces a court to order a repossession if the landlord has complied with certain procedural requirements; a rent arrears amnesty.

He even sent these ideas to the new Labour leadership and spoke by video link to the shadow housing minister, who unfortunately seemed more concerned about the plight of homeowners. Meanwhile, his advice to workers and renters on the sharp end is: link yourself to networks of specialist advice, participate in them, and increase the collective potential of your voice. In short, join a union.

Unlike many of the books I get to review, the engaging quality of the writing alone, leaving aside the humane and sympathetic treatment of the material, made Jobs and Homes a pleasure to read – and undoubtedly one of the best books of 2021 so far.”

Ben Reeve-Lewis, for Safer Renting

“Beneath all the soul sapping Union Jack, cod-world war 2 bullshit of contemporary times are real people, trying to obtain justice and redress through a court system that is listing dangerously to starboard, with huge backlogs of every kind of case and remote hearings that sometimes work but often don’t.

Aa David points out of government’s failure to address mandatory grounds for possession “Our housing law maximises landlord’s powers to evict and deprives judges of finding a balanced way through”. Here, here. There have been numerous calls to make Ground 8 (2 months rent arrears) a discretionary ground rather than a mandatory one but such calls have fallen on perhaps not so much deaf ears, so much as ears unwilling to hear.

Most chillingly and I’m amazed David Renton manages to control his anger, is the chapter in which he sets out the findings of the Briggs report and the suggested move to swapping lawyers for litigants in person guided by a computer algorithm, through which people can create their own litigation bundles and present their case, allowing the government to continue the mass sell-off of court buildings for developers to turn into quirky boutique hotels, with probably a ground floor cocktail bar jokingly called “The Robing Room”.

“To understand the rationale for online courts, we need to grasp the unspoken logic on which they are based; because so many courts have closed and so many already distanced from justice, the solution is to distance them further”.

An icy vision of the future for ordinary people but which seems in keeping with the present times, where private landlords are monetising homelessness and our government monetises the pandemic to swell the bank accounts of their mates and party donors

Jobs and Homes is a good read, a welcome read but not an easy read. You have to keep putting your coffee mug down so you can shake your fist.”


Last of all, you can of course order the book, here or here.

On clowns; good and bad


I remember when Boris Johnson came into power, when he was humiliated repeatedly by defeats in parliament – and so many of my friends were convinced that he would provide a short route to a Corbyn government – that I ended up writing a piece for my blog arguing that Johnson had all sorts of hidden strengths and should not be underestimated.

Right now, the danger on the left is the opposite. That people are so convinced he will be in power for decades and decades that they feel quite powerless.For a very long time, British politics has swung between periods of unresolved conflict and ones characterised by a stable single-party hegemony. We’re in one of those latter moments, and when they start they tend to go on a long time (11 years of Thatcher, 10 years of Blair…). They begin with a great wave of popular enthusiasm and for a long time the leader appears unassailable.

Or if you want a non-British comparison, try reading journalists accounts of visits to Italy in 1921. So intense was the enthusiasm for Mussolini that journalists describe visiting town squares and listening as crowded them, night after night, just ordinary unpolitical people – playing the fascist anthems till their arms were so tired they couldn’t go on any more.That hegemony didn’t end well for Mussolini. Twenty years later the same town squares were full of people singing the songs of the partisans.

There’s a reason why Mussolini is a useful comparison, not because he was a fascist (Johnson isn’t) but because both he and Johnson have established their popular appeal as instances of the clown. I do think the sharpest piece of political and cultural analysis of the Johnson’s appeal was Docx’s piece in the Guardian a few weeks ago.

Docx made the point that clowns can be incredibly effective politicians because they seem to stand outside the normal realm of politics in which a leader who lies, or who steals, is punished for their transgression. (Trump, too, was one of them and seemed for a short period to have similarly evaded the rules of political gravity).

While I think that identification is apt; the piece didn’t supply an answer to the obvvious follow-up question: if playing the clown can be such an effective way of winning at politics, why isn’t Eddie Izzard – or Mark Thomas, or Mark Steel – leader of the Labour Party now? There must be something high-risk about this strategy which encourages most parties to avoid it most of the time. The answer of course is that while the “good clown” is a figure of public approval, the “bad clown” is something else.

People who write stories for children will tell you that the most effective form of villain is not a bad character, but an unstable one. The surrogate mother who promises love they can’t deliver, the parent who is too busy with their career to show love, the father who is funny and generous in public but a violent drunk when the guests leave. And who could be more unstable than a leader who is a clown?

It is pretty clear what the vices of a Johnson government have been – a carelessness about deaths during the pandemic, an open door towards any freeloader tied to Johnson by contacts or ideology and determined to steal what they can. We have in front of us the prospect of many years of thieves’ government. And it will be worse than it has been – any instincts of poltiical self-restraint which Johnson once had will be loosened in a context where the people seem to applaud his acts of larceny, and the other parties are bereft of a compelling alternative vision.

I don’t know what form the opposition to Johnson will take, still less what politics will come after him. All I know is that at some moment even he, too, will pass. And that the theorists who are about to fill the pages of the Guardian, predicting a century of Conservative government will at some stage in the future look as foolish as the people who responded to Labour victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005 by insisting that the Tories would never govern again.

Eric Hobsbawm, 1956, and the crisis of Communist faith


The 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, the attempt to democratise the Communist Party of Great Britain and the splits which resulted from the failure of the democratisers’ faction, have long fascinated historians. We like the story because so many of the people speaking out against Stalinism were members of the Communist Party Historians’ Group. Through the interventions of the likes of Edward Thompson and John Saville (editors of the samizdat Reasoner magazine), and Christopher Hill (the minority voice within the CP’s subsequent Commission on Inner-Party Democracy), history itself seemed to be on the side of the party rebels. Moreover, their isolation and defeat was (seemingly) no loss for the dissidents. Such post-56 works of left-wing theory as Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, or Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down, recast a very wide set of prophets, iconoclasts and libertines as heroes in the long struggle for political democracy – making the left seem exciting, capacious and broad. The democratisers may have lost the battle for their party, but they undoubtedly won “the war”.

It’s in that spirit that I want to revisit Richard Evans’ biography of Eric Hobsbawm and the (remarkably brief) account he gives of 1956 – a moment which tore asunder Hobsbawm’s friendships and working relationships.

Evans notes Hobsbawm’s difficulties, his modest acts of dissidence – early in the crisis, he was one of a dozen intellectuals to sign a letter to the New Statesman criticising his own party for having supported the Soviet invasion of Hungary. When the other historians left the CP, he resigned as Chair of its CP Historians’ group. After the crisis was over wrote on occasion for their journal New Reasoner (one forerunner of today’s New Left Review). The party leadership despaired of him; however he remained its best-known intellectual.

A very great deal was at stake for Hobsbawm personallyin 1956 and yet Evans’ description of Hobsbawm’s decision to stay in the party is ultimately short, almost to the point of bathos. According to Evans, Hobsbawm spoke to the former Trotskyist writer Isaac Deutscher who had been warning for some time against the rightward drift of former Communists. Deutscher insisted that he should be expelled and not leave voluntarily, and Hobsbawm agreed with him.

I don’t believe this does any sort of justice to what must have been a moment of fear, anxiety and intense self-introspection for Hobsbawm.

Evans’ account loses sight of how intense Eric Hobsbawm’s moral debt to the party actually was. For years he had outsourced to it the political line around which he sought to organiser, the selection of the major authorities he should read and emulate. Just to give some examples cited by Evans himself earlier in his book. During the war, Hobsbawm sought to recruit fellow soldiers to the party. He passed on clandestine information to the party. He snuck Communist arguments into briefings given to other soldiers. He argues with friends in defence of even the most unpopualr twist and turn of Soviet policy – lecturing them on the necessity of the Hitler-Stalin pact.

In 1941-2, Hobsbawm had begun dating a young civil servant Muriel Seaman. Before they could marry, Hobsbawm insisted on her (re)joining the CP. In 1950, when their relationship foundered, Hobsbawm was not upset that Muriel was having affairs – what cut him to the quick, he told her, was that she had slept with a non-Communist. At one point Evans writes that Hobsbawm’s “loyalty was not so much to the Communirt Party as to the broad cause of socialism in general”, a comment so far out of kilter with the pages preceding it that I wished for that dialogue between writer and reader in which it would be possible to ask, I’m sorry, my friend, but have you read your own book?

Evans also underplays the practical importance of the History Group to Hobsbawm. He was, by contemporary standards, a late starter. He studied for 13 years continuously as an undergraduate and postgraduate before submitting his PhD (the war accounted for 6 of these years). At the end of his 30s Hobsbawm’s publication list was short, his set of non-Communist allies narrow to the point of vanishing. Evans grumps that the CP history group provided Hobsbawm with little more than opportunities to address seminars and conferences, and opportunities to address international audiences in Italy and Russia. But what more than that could any academic network supply? Without the other CP historians, Hobsbawm faced the prospect of being deprived of any coherent audience at all. Still less one that shared a common interest with him (in the application of Marxist ideas), or which contained individuals who had read as deeply as he had. After 1962, Hobsbawm was just about able to fashion something similar – an audience, through his writing, following the publication of Age of Revolution. But, now he was the speaker towering over his audience. Never again was he involved for any length of time in a discussion as part of a collective of equals.

Evans writes that Deutscher, by urging him to stay, gave Hobsbawm the reason he was lacking. This may have been Hobsbawm’s explanation (or one of several different ones given by him at different times). That is no reason to take it at face value, not when so much was at stake. The words spoken to Hobsbawm are supposed to have been uttered at an early meeting of Universities and Left Review, but that group did not take shape until spring 1957 – it was led by a group of ex-Communists, including Raphael Samuel, who had left the party at the crucial moment of November 1956. (Hill was one of the vert few to hang on past December 56 and still leave , but he had the excuse of the Democracy Commission). To get to spring 1957 without leaving was already to have taken a decision.

Moreover, Deutscher was no long-term influence on Hobsbawm. In the 700+ pages of Evans’ book, there is no further reference to the two writers meeting or corresponding beyond this once instance in 1956-7. In staying with the CP, Hobsbawm was not becoming a Deutscherite. Rather he continued to have a political relationship with the likes of Thompson, Savile, Hill, Samuel, etc – all of whom were now renegades (the CP archives are full of negative references to Thompson, in particular).

So, if it wasn’t for the sake of Deutscher, why did Hobsbawm stay? At its heart, Marxism is a very simple idea, that workers should take over the running of the world from the bosses. But on this simple pedestal all sort of complicated constructions can be based. If you want it serve this function, Marxism is capable of being a total philosophy of life, stretching from a theory of history to a vision of economics and society and politics and anything else you like.

When Thompson and Saville looked back at this time they could say, with justification, that they had chosen the simple core of Marxism versus the subsequent outgrowths. They wanted a philosophy which put them on the same side as the Hungarian workers fighting the tanks.

Whereas for Hobsbawm, in the last resort, it was the complications that mattered – the belief especially that in the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc workers were already in charge, and therefore no decisions authorised by those states could ever be truly wrong. In 1956 and for the rest of his life, he continued to argue that on the decision that mattered, whether to support a rising of insurgent workers or a socialist state, the principled cause of action was to side regretfully with the regime against which the workers fought.

When I was young, I used to believe that the left was the cause of moral justice and therefore that when people committed a crime against the integrity of socialist politics, they chose a voluntary exile. People who made excuses for rape and murder weren’t really part of the left at all. But having lived through battles in which high stakes were at play that approach seems naïve to me. No-one has the power to exclude those who get it wrong from the ranks of a cause as broad as the left. The best you can do is recall the names of the people who were principled and keep on arguing their politics, long after the dust seems to have settled.

Hobsbawm was part of the left – one of its best-known representatives. And if the price he paid for his decision was a degree of isolation after 1956, as the 1960s wore on he was treated as if forgiven. By contrast to him, Thompson and Saville and Samuel were kind and gregarious people, involved in social movements and generous to a fault with their time. They made friends easily, they adopted causes with a passion (and discarded them with equal determination). A halfway decent biography of any of them would be markedly unlike Evans’ book.

But how about a different question – was Hobsbawm a worse historian than them? Probably not. For what made Hobsbawm’s Marxism intelligible to millions of people after 1956 was precisely the characteristics which make it somewhat alien to me, the way it studies the oppressed and the oppressed as an eagle might, from such a great distance and with a focus so close to the infinite that the people on each side of the barricades are never quite seen. It was the same detachment which had guided him even through his moment of greatest crisis.

So where have all the evictions gone?


Last autumn, writing for the left-wing magazine Tribune, I predicted that winter 2020-1 would witness a large number of evictions. I predicted that, because there was a ban on bailiff’s appointments still in operation, many of these would be illegal evictions:

“One experience we will see repeatedly in the months to come is a spasm of fury on a landlord’s part when they grasp that an eviction, which they thought would only take a month or two from beginning to end, will require a year to work through every stage (from initial notice seeking possession, to court hearing, and then a bailiff’s date).”

“If I was a member of a tenants’ union, right now I would be preparing for what will inevitably be an increase in the number of landlords seeking to evict unlawfully, ignoring court proceedings and simply changing locks without an order. 

Today, unlike then, we actually have some solid data on evictions. We have “Mortgage and landlord possession statistics” for October to December 2020. They show that possession claims were still running at low rates by the end of last year – with more or less zero legal evictions taking place in that quarter. That’s not surprising; there was an eviction ban, and it worked. More surprising is the very low number of possession claims – ie landlords issuing a claim in the court, as a preliminary towards getting a possession order and then a bailiff’s date. Those were running at the rate of about 2,000 a month in October-December or 1/5 of the usual figure. In other words, landlords weren’t just failing at the final hurdle of the legal eviction process, they weren’t even getting to the first stage.

Meanwhile, Shelter believes 700,000 tenants have been issued with a section 21 eviction notice (i.e. a letter entitling the landlord to start possession proceedings) since the start of the lockdown. Fit that alongside the low number of possession claims, and the reality appears to be that landlords have been making a large number of very hollow eviction threats: for every 100 landlords threatening to take their tenants to court, only 1 actually has.

A further set of figures may help to fill in the gaps between these numbers. H-Clic is data generated by local authority homelessness officers. Of course, not everyone who loses their homes approaches their council. But we are at least talking about data which has been generated on a relatively consistent basis both before and during the lockdown.

According to these figures, just over 100,000 people asked their council for homelessness assistance – this figure is down by around 1/3 compared to 2019, but that fall is artificial. The local authority homelessness system broke down for large parts of the pandemic – for weeks, the offices were shut, and staff weren’t answering calls. It seems that real housing need is as great as ever.

Housing officers report that in the whole of the UK just 90 people were unlawfully evicted in October to December 2020. Now, from one perspective, this must be a highly misleading figure. The effect of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 is that a landlord can only evict, or take preparatory steps to evict, by issuing court notices, and taking a tenant to court. Anything more than that is – in the broadest terms – illegal. The figures show that, for example, around 6,000 tenants approached their local authority for help in winter 2020, saying they had been told to leave their flat and the landlord was ordering them to go because they had reached the end of their tenancy. Given that eviction bans were in operation for most of this time, there is a decent case to be made that most, many or even all of these tenants were being “illegally” evicted.

On the other hand, if we treat the figure of 90 illegal evictions as meaning that only 90 tenants had their locks changed by the landlord per quarter – this shows that, on that definition, illegal evictions were no higher in winter 2020-1 than they had been a year before.

To conclude, what do I think has been happening:

-Landlords have been issuing section 21 notices (i.e. threats to evict) at higher than pre-pandemic rates, but issuing court proceedings at lower than pandemic rates. Effectively, they have misunderstood the present legal situation and assumed that the current “eviction ban” means the same as what it did a year ago – that court hearings aren’t happening, when in actual reality the courts are open and desperate for more work. (All that remains is a ban on bailiff’s dates and that only until the end of this month).

-Landlords have been giving their tenants all sort of warnings, legal letters, notices, etc. But they haven’t yet resorted to the most extreme options of changing the locks, turning the electricity off – the things which might get a landlord in trouble with the police.

-One reason why we’re not getting more locks changed etc, is that tenants have a weak sense of their own rights. If a tenancy agreement comes to the end of its 6-month or 1-year term, that doesn’t mean the tenant has to leave (if they don’t, the tenancy will just become an automatic rolling tenancy). If a landlord issues a tenant with a section 21 notice, that doesn’t mean a tenant has to go – they can wait, and the landlord has to apply to the court. And if the tenant has access to any sort of legal advice, the chances are they will win a case to stay. But, instead of that, there are still tens of thousands of tenants every month receiving section 21 notices and treating those letters as an absolute insistence that they must leave. Tenants are treating landlords as if they have much more power than they do. In other words, landlords aren’t changing locks because they don’t have to – tenants are leaving, when asked.

I understand why tenants might want to leave in response to a first threat – often the same landlord who hand out section 21 notices repeatedly are also ones who refuse to pay for repairs. Most people don’t like conflict; what tenant would want to be stuck with a landlord who hates them?

In addition, with tens of perhaps hundreds of thousands of people having left London in the pandemic, now is a good time to be looking at the housing market and seeing if you couldn’t get just as large a flat on considerably low rent. Leaving a tenancy has beecome, for some tenants, an opportunity. The fear of tenants’ growing market power may also be causing some landlords to hold off on issuing possession proceedings – a tenant who can’t afford the full rent may still be a better commercial proposition than an empty flat.

For the moment, in hundreds of thousands of homes people are muddling by. Perhaps landlords accepting a lower rent than they need to (although paper rent arrears are growing all the time, to be enforced in due course), and tenants agreeing to go before they need to.

But, all the time, there’s a constant fear that the system is about to lurch in a much more sinister direction. That the eviction ban will end and nothing replace it. That landlords will be empowered to take all the steps that, so far, they’ve only been threatening to do.

The moment of truth will come at the end of this month, when the eviction ban reaches its end. If landlords respond by issuing claims in the proportion that they have been handing out section 21 notices – then we will indeed see the wave of evictions that tenants’ representatives have been warning about.

My book Jobs and Homes: Stories of the Law in Lockdown has been published by Legal Action. It is available to order here (https://amzn.to/3nFJXb4) and here (https://www.lag.org.uk/shop/book-title/210103/jobs-and-homes).

Eric Hobsbawm and the Cambridge Communists


This week I’ve been reading and watching two accounts, each of which focuses on the left at Cambridge University in the 1930s: Richard Evans’ biography of Eric Hobsbawm, and Trevor Nunn’s film Red Joan.

Evans’ book ranges beyond 1939 (its subject only died in 2012), but it is striking how much of his book is about Hobsbawm’s early life and influences rather than his writing. For nearly 200 pages of the book, Hobsbawm is at Cambridge – as an undergraduate, research student and fellow. Evans devotes what feels like a smaller number of pages to Hobsbawm’s entire body of published work.

As for Red Joan, this takes the real-life story of Melita Norwood who passed on atomic secrets to the Soviets and makes the story comprehensible to a British audience by ignoring her radical family, and pretending she was politicised at university. It swaps her real alma mater (Southampton) for a fictional time at Cambridge. Joan is radicalised there in 1936-9 due to a sexual intrigue with a foreign Jewish Communist and future Comintern spy, “Leo Galich”.

Red Joan is a case study in how badly served this generation of students activists is by its appearance in popular culture. The spies are all Jews and foreigners, or innocent Brits pulled along by them – which gets the relationships almost exactly the wrong way round. It misses the self-consciousness the students felt at their isolation from working-class communities – or the determined efforts they made to break down the walls separating gown from town.

Even Evans isn’t the corrective he should be. His account is detailed, full of keen judgments and sharp turns of phrase. He is especially good at translating Hobsbawm’s youthful diaries and poems from the German. But Evans defers to Hobsbawm’s own memoir, Interesting Times, which insists that while Hobsbawm would quite happily have spied for the Soviet Union if he had been asked, he never was: “We knew such work was going on, we knew we were not supposed to ask questions about it, we respected those who did it and most of us – certainly I – would have taken it on ourselves, if asked.”

I didn’t find this sufficient when I read Hobsbawm’s book 20 years ago. Nor is it entirely plausible when you read Evans’ account – which follows Hobsbawm’s closely.

There is another reason why I am interested in Cambridge. At one point in the history of the Communist International, its full-timers were organising strikes and protests. Or, at least, movement scaffolding: unions and parties and newspapers and radio stations. And there is another stage in the Comintern’s history when its full-timers – often the same people as before, just older – are running agents, gathering intelligence, etc. The latter work inevitably trained in its participants and their close companions, in habits of deceit, double-talking etc. If the politics of the early 1920s tended to idealism, a belief in the essential goodness of people and the immanence of change; then the politics of the late 1930s tended to shade off into cynicism, a belief in big-power rivalry rather than people.

It is true that there was little direct contact: the spies were on average 5-6 years older than Hobsbawm and in student politics that is a lifetime. However, the Socialist Club through which the CP operated was open to both graduates and undergraduates. Burgess for example left Cambridge in summer 1935 – just a year before Hobsbawm “went up”.

There were three routes via which Hobsbawm was in close proximity – friends of friends, you might say – with the spies. First, he was a student at Kings, where the lecturers included Maurice Dobb, who was credited by Kim Philby with having recruited him to covert work. In his memoir, Hobsbawm refers to Dobb’s prodigious influence on his own work, both prior to studying at Cambridge, and after he had left: he very pointedly writes nothing about any contacts he had with Dobb during the period when the two men ate and studied within yards of each other: Evans takes this absence at face value.

Second, Hobsbawm was a friend of James Klugmann, who had like Burgess left Cambridge in 1935; in Klugmann’s case to become Secretary of the World Student Association (WSA). Klugmann is named in numerous accounts as a recruiter of spies. (He also worked for the British Special Operations Executive during the war). As Evans notes, Hobsbawm knew Klugmann well and and helped him by doing translation work for the WSA but that is seemingly all.

Third, Hobsbawm was a member of the Apostles, a left-wing /gay / Cambridge counterpart to Oxford’s Bullingdon club. The group was intended to be small – a dining club of 12 people. When Hobswbawm joined in 1939 the other members included Leo Long (accused by Blunt in 1964 of being another Soviet Spy) as well as three of the five Cambridge spies (Bunt, Burgess and Cairncross). That three out of twelve members were Soviet spies and five out of twelve of them Communists is, it seems to me, quite a high proportion, and enough in itself to cast doubt on Hobsbawm’s blithe insistence (repeated by Evans) that, “I don’t believe the tone of the society was particularly red”.

Then you look at what the Apostles were debating – in November 1939 – ‘One big lie or many little lies?’ This was two months after the war had begun. By then, four of them were working in British intelligence (the three Soviet double agents plus Long). As well as the obvious British/Russian dual loyalties – two of those four (Philby and Burgess) were also pretending to have discarded Communism for fascism, as their cover for joining the secret state. Lies had become their stock in trade. So what did they say aboout lies, in their private discussions?

Evans tells us: “Eric responded to the question ‘One Big Lie or Many Little Lies?’ by coming down on the side of One Big Lie, but only one more meeting was held on 25 November 1939 before the war intervened…” From this I infer that Evans has read the society’s minute book. If there is more than just the title of the discussion – if there are notes of who spoke or the content of the speeches – I wish he had told us what they say.

What happens to all these various scraps when you add them together? If the question you are asking is “Was Hobsbawm a Soviet spy?” – then they don’t amount to anything much at all. He knew, worked repeatedly with and socialised actively with spies; he was not one himself.

But if the question you are asking is “What legacy did these times leave on Hobsbawm’s Marxism?”, there’s a good case to be made that this was unlike the “Marxism” that most people encounter when they read Marx or meet Marxists today. And unlike the Marxism even of John Saville, E. P. Thompson – and Hobsawm’s other temporary allies in the inner party struggle in 1956. It was a view of life in which the self-activity millions of people had been shoved noticeably to the side.

Hobsbawm was part of a Communist milieu at Cambridge running into several hundred people. He was undoubtedly far better read (at least in Marxism) than most of the other students. He certainly had a wider international experience than almost anyone else. He had, after all, been involved in student work in Berlin in 1932-3, as well as on the left before coming up to uni.

Evans depicts Hobsbawm as getting bored of student life, or certainly Communist student life, and swapping the CP for the university-wide paper Granta, into whose offices he walked in his first term asking for a writing job. This is plausible, no doubt it fits with the archives (although that might cause us to reflect on what sort of documents make it into the records, and which don’t). The account suits the drift of Evan’s narrative which is to convert Hobsbawm into a good Labour leftist, fallen unhappily among Bolsheviks.

That account doesn’t sit especially well however with either the many passages of Evans’ book in which Hobsbawm volunteers for clandestine war-time work for the party. Nor with the insistence with which Hobsbawm’s boasts of having been one of just three people on the Communist Party’s Cambridge Secretariat. If he was passed over for opportunities, then it is not because of a lack of willingness or visibility on his part.

The question which is worth asking is this – why didn’t Hobsbawm become a spy? Watching Trevor Nunn’s film, you find yourself impelled to the conclusion that really he should have done. For whoever wrote the screenplay of Red Joan appears to have just assumed that if British students volunteered to spy for the USSR, then they did because they were deluded, because they fell under the spell of foreigners for whom more was at stake – the loss of relatives, say, at the hands of the fascists. It follows that the apparatus of the spy machine was all a network of Germans, Russians, etc. And, if there was a real-life “Leo Galich” anywhere in Cambridge (a veteran political activist who had lived in a country taken over by fascists) – it was Hobsbawm.

Whereas what we know about the Cambridge spy ring is that in the end those who took part were all Brits: Maclean, Burgess, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross. They were radicalised by the experiences of the 1930s, by British society, by class and by a rejection of the arrogance that privilege imposes on its holders – that was more than enough for them.

I have already alluded to the way in which both Philby and Burgess bluffed their way into the Foreign Service, part of which involved posing as new recruits to the British far right. Both found it easy to pass in this milieu, where they were undistinguishable in either ideological or class terms from the people around them. Burgess’s father had been a Commander in the Royal Navy. When his son joined the pro-Nazi Anglo-German Fellowship, it seemed as if the previous five years he’d spent arguing for Communism steamed off him like water after a warm bath.

It was even easier for Philby, whose father had been a diplomat before him, and stood for election in 1939 on the ticket of the pro-Nazi British Peoples Party.

The recruiters at the Foreign Office were keen to allow the penitents their chance to serve. As Brits, or, more specifically, upper middle class former public schoolboys – they could talk their way into espionage roles in a way Eric Hobsbawm never could have done.

Jobs and Homes: now out


Keen-eyed readers may be aware that my book Jobs and Homes: Stories of the Law in the Lockdown has been published this week. The book can be ordered from the publishers Legal Action Group, without you needing to benefit any large tax-dodging companies anywhere. There is going to be a launch this Thursday, where the speakers are likely to include Sue James and Simon Mullings (two of the three most recent winners of the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year award), as well as the brilliant Liz Davies, once of the Socialist Alliance, more recently a stalwart of the Labour left, and for many years a superb housing barrister). You can sign up for the launch event here.

What I mainly wanted to do with this post was collect in a single place all the various articles I’ve been writing over previous weeks, (hopefully) introducing some of the themes of the book to new audiences:

‘Why Section 21 has got to go,” Morning Star, 22 March 2021.

‘Online injustice during Covid-19,’ Greater Manchester Law Centre, 22 March 2021.

‘The Eviction Crisis is Already Here,’ Tribune, 25 March 2021.

‘In Disrepair,’ London Review of Books, 1 April 2021.

‘Muted and invisible: Why justice online is justice denied,’ Open Democracy, 7 April 2021.

‘Landlord power is not just bad for tenants. It harms homeowners, too,’ Guardian, 10 April 2021.

‘In defence of lefty lawyers,’ Spectator, 10 April 2021

‘At the heart of the new Conservatism: the private sector landlord,’ Labour Hub, 18 April 2021.

Obviouly, these only add up to a small part of the book, but here’s hoping that they give you a flavour of what the book argues, and the sorts of people – tenants, landlords, etc – you’ll meet on its pages.

Finally, here an early review from the book’s Amazon page – from Stu Melvin the founder of the renters’ union ACORN:

“Through these fascinating insights into how the law and human need crossed paths during this extraordinary year, David Renton tells a story all about people. People in the corridors of justice. People in positions of power. And people on the sharp end. These stories are told with an intelligence and empathy that makes this book un-put-downable. Each case study provides a rare platform for a voice that deserves to be heard, but which the law is not often able to give that satisfaction to. However, without taking away from the stories of Davids clients in any way, in some ways the most fascinating insight is into the author himself, a true “peoples lawyer”. This is a real state of the nation address and an absolute must read.”

What’s so wrong with words?


Thane Rosenbaum’s book is part of a growing literature in the US, expressing doubts about that country’s free speech (“First Amendment”) tradition. Most of my readers come from the UK so it’s worth explaining what he’s against.

In as short as I can make this for Brits: the US Constitution was ratified in 1790. Eighteen month later, the First Amendment was added, as part of a group of amendments all protecting the individual from arbitrary government by protecting rights to jury trial, the right to silence, etc. The first amendment limits the legislature from curbing free expression, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech”. For more than a century after the amendment was ratified, judges ignored it. In the 1920s, judges invoked the first amendment, but in a canting, hypocritical way, eulogising its importance while criminalising all speech Socialists, Communists and radical trade unionists.

Since 1945, the First Amendment was extended beyond its original remit (“Congress shall…”) to include all parts of the government, and all private citizens in the US. All speech has required to be tolerated, even pornographers, fascists… Since about 1990, free speech has become a totem for the US right, a shield to protect everything they say, and a sword against their enemies. So, after the Trump coup of 6 January, the President defended himself from impeachment was by saying that it didn’t matter that he had incited his supporters to kill, to destroy property, or to sack Capitol Hill, the First Amendment makes all speech legal, irrespective of what comes from it.

Through the 39 chapters of his book, Rosenbaum gives his readers a series of reasons to doubt whether the First Amendment still does any good in protecting what most people would consider free speech.

His book begins in 2017 with Charlottesville, and the various neo-Nazis gathered there to chant “Jews will not replace us”. The idea behind that chant is the belief that every black person present in the US is merely by being alive, carrying out an act of violence against whites. And that Jews are the secret organisers behind the imagined mass murder of white people. These fantasies of anti-white violence are invoked, pretty obviously, to legitimise what fascists can tell themselves is pre-emptive and defensive violence on their party, murders such as the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in which 11 Jewish worshipers were killed.

Why, Rosenbaum asks, would anyone want to allow speech which is an incitement to murder? In reality, the First Amendment, is just one of several ways in which US law struggles to keep up with what every other affluent society has been doing for decades. No other country in the developed world permits this, any more than they tolerate the death penalty, or allow employers to go without paying maternity pay.

From there, Rosenbaum goes to other kinds of speech tolerated under the First Amendment, social media trolling, cyberbullying. Again, outside the US these are dealt with in the civil or criminal law as acts of “hate speech” (the US term) or “harassment” (as in the UK and Europe). Why does the US make itself the exception? “Other nations,” he writes, “managed to avoid the free speech madness”.

Rosenbaum responds to the argument that bad ideas die out when they are subjected to public discussion. To which, he asks, what happens if you are the individual who has to hear them, and you are in the middle of a riot?

From there, Rosenbaum pivots. He wants to be seen as a careful, balanced, person. Not an extremist, just someone worried about the excess of free speech. Therefore, there is a mandatory chapter insisting that as much as the right is a problem, there is also an issue of intolerant students. (He also has some pretty stomach-turning things to say about the rights of Palestinian to speak – or as Rosenbaum sees it, their obligation to be silent).

There is a lot wrong with this book. But it has its moments, too. Rosenbaum makes points which 90% of Americans don’t get to hear. That the First Amendment was only ever supposed to be a rule that bound governments, not individuals. That it is a right to speak, not an obligation to listen. That it does nothing to protect right-wing or far-right speakers, from the acts of people who will permit them to have a platform but are also intending to debate, to heckle, to subject them to slow handclapping.

That not every kind of spoken word is an idea.

That the much spoken-about free marketplace of ideas does not exist and could not meaningfully exist in a world dominated by the tech giants.

That the hearing of unpleasant words can cause physical harm, that stays in people’s bodies, that ruins their lives.

That the people who are on the receiving end of hate speech have a right to dignity and, at the very least, these two things need to be balanced.

Reading a book like this, as a socialist, or a European, or a practising lawyer, or someone who reads more than, I don’t know, one book every decade, you have to pinch yourself every two seconds and tell yourself: Let it go. You are not the audience for this book. It is not aimed at you. It is addressed at an imagined Middle American audience saturated with the assumptions of that media culture.

From that perspective this book is … ok. Ish. Kind of.

It doesn’t have the wide reading of a Jeremy Waldron, or the fizz of a P. E. Moskowitz, or the commitment of a Natasha Lennard or a Shane Burley or a Talia Lavin. But it’s a start.