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Culture wars, identity politics and free speech: Rod Liddle and Peter Tatchell in conversation

A conversation between Rod Liddle and Peter Tatchell

22 May 2021

9:00 AM

22 May 2021

9:00 AM

ROD LIDDLE: I am honoured to be speaking to you, Peter, on this anniversary of 50 years of causing havoc with the British establishment. You’re one of very few political heroes of mine. I know very few people in the country who are as committed to what they believe in as you. Now a film is being made about your life, isn’t it? It’s going to be on Netflix and it’s called Hating Peter Tatchell, which a lot of people have done over the years. How did that come about?

PETER TATCHELL: The film maker, Chris Amos, approached me several years ago and said, ‘No one has ever made a film about you and about your 50-plus years of campaigning, I want to do it.’ So, I thought, well why not?

RL: I’m just hoping that somewhere along the way you make some money out of this, Pete, because you haven’t done much for yourself in the last 50 years. Are you going to get any dosh out of this?

PT: The film was made on a shoestring so I don’t think anybody is going to be getting much money out of it.

RL: Let’s go back to the beginning. You’re Australian, born in Melbourne and came here as an act of cowardice, I might point out, Mr Tatchell, to avoid the draft in 1971-ish.

PT: Not entirely. Well, first of all, I left Australia because I had a moral and political objection to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war. I regard that as an unjust war so I wasn’t prepared to serve.

RL: A catastrophic war, yes.

PT: Probably I should have stayed and gone to prison but yes, you’re right, I cowardly left the country and came to Britain.

RL: My guess is that your political journey has always been rooted in that time of revolution, upheaval and awareness, which sprang out across Europe particularly in ’68, is that roughly right?

PT: Well, my first political awareness was much earlier — in 1963, when I was aged 11, I heard about the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four young girls about my own age were murdered. So that motivated me to support and be inspired by the Black Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King. But my first real actual protest was in 1967 when I was aged 15 and still at high school. Ronald Ryan, an escaped convict, was due to be hanged for the alleged shooting dead of a prison warder during an escape and, having read the autopsy report on the dead warder’s body, which was published in the local newspaper, I worked out that it would have been almost impossible for Ryan to have fired the fatal shot. The bullet would have had to do almost a U-turn in mid-air. So that got me involved in the campaign to try to stop his execution.

RL: And that was at 15, Peter, that you read an autopsy report — this is remarkable!

PT: In my mind there was at least a reasonable doubt about his guilt, but sadly he was hanged anyway, and it provoked a real crisis for me. I became a lifelong sceptic of authority. I thought to myself if the government, the police and the judges are prepared to hang this man, where there is at least some doubt about his guilt, I can’t trust them any more. I have to question everything. So that led me to question Australia’s ill-treatment of the indigenous Aboriginal people, it led me to question Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war, and it led me to question the persecution of gay people when I realised I was gay in 1969, aged 17.

RL: One of the wonderful things about you if I can… I think the phrase is blow smoke up your ass — you’ve always stuck to your principles about freedom of speech, and looking at each issue separately and never taking the easy line on it.

PT: My mother, a pretty hard-line Christian evangelical, always taught me to stand up for what I believe to be right and to not go along with the crowd. Now she meant that I think in a mostly religious sense, but I took it in a much broader sense.

RL: You were defeated as the Labour candidate for Bermondsey in 1983, and it stuck in my mind for these last 40-odd years that you were unjustly subjected to an appallingly homophobic campaign, which was won in the end by Simon Hughes, who turned out to be gay!

PT: The irony, the irony! But it was a very, very tough election. I mean some commentators have since said that it was probably the dirtiest and certainly… well, probably the dirtiest, the most violent and most homophobic election in Britain in the second half of the 20th century. I mean, I had over 150 physical violent assaults when I was out canvassing, with people punching me in the face, spitting on me. I had a bullet through the front door, one arson attempt, it was a very, very scary time.

RL: That is incredible, I didn’t know the full detail of all that. What did it teach you, that imbroglio with Simon Hughes and with the residents of Bermondsey?

PT: One thing it taught me was the power of the tabloid press. When I began the campaign I was way ahead, according to opinion polls, on 47 per cent of the vote. In the course of that election campaign, the constant barrage of misrepresentation, smears and so on, just whittled that support away. It made me very conscious of the importance of having a fair, accurate, responsible media. That’s absolutely essential for a democracy. The other thing it taught me of course was just how deeply homophobia was embedded in our society.

***

RL: Not once but twice you did a citizen’s arrest on Robert Mugabe. What was your objection to Big Bob?

PT: Where to start! Well, those arrest attempts were in response to appeals from human rights defenders inside Zimbabwe for me to do something to help highlight his human rights abuses. There was a whole gamut of things but the arrest attempts were predicated on the charge of torture.

RL: Didn’t you also try to arrest Mugabe in Brussels as well? And weren’t you beaten up then as well?

PT: In the lobby of the Hilton Hotel, but then, yes, I was really badly beaten up by Mugabe’s bodyguards.

RL: Isn’t that something which has had a lasting effect?

PT: It is, yes. I was ultimately briefly knocked unconscious and it has left me with some brain and eye damage which was compounded again in 2007 when I was attacked by neo-Nazis in Moscow.

RL: Yes, again, this was campaigning against Putin’s — what you would see as a homophobic regime presumably?

PT: Yes… I went to Russia on the invitation of Russian LGBT+ activists who were trying to hold a pride parade in Moscow. That’s perfectly lawful under Russia’s constitution and law but it had been banned. So we tried to march anyway, and a lot of people were seized by the police and arrested. Others like me got away, but we were eventually caught by neo-Nazis and very badly beaten.


RL: Back to Mugabe — weren’t you quite pleased in 1981 when he won the election and became the leader of Zimbabwe?

PT: I was.

RL: And you didn’t worry about what sort of man he was? I spoke to Ian Smith on the day Mugabe was elected and Smith said ‘He is a tyrant who will abuse people’s human rights and turn Zimbabwe into a basket case’. The right is sometimes right…

PT: Well, that may be the case in this instance. Quite clearly it was untenable for black people to be denied the right to vote and for a system of quasi-apartheid to exist in Zimbabwe, so to have black majority rule was the right thing‚ and initially, of course, Mugabe did lots of good positive things for the poor and the landless.

RL: But he was a totalitarian Marxist, Pete.

PT: Well, you can have Marxists who are democratic.

RL: Name me one?

PT: Well, there aren’t many.

RL: Not many indeed!

PT: What about Tom Wintringham, probably the greatest British Marxist of the 20th century, who was years and years ahead on the Nazi threat and the need to mobilise the British people in what he called a people’s war against the Third Reich? Many of his ideas were subsequently adopted by the Churchill government.

RL: But there is Marxism as an academic discipline and a means of thinking about things and there is Marxism when it gets its hands on the levers of power. I would have guessed that given the examples of Marxism in power in the last 70 years, you would be a bit averse to that mode of thinking now?

PT: Left-wing ideals in principle are fine and I uphold them, but so often in practice they are turned into a new form of tyranny and that is not what they should be about.

RL: What has happened to the far left? And what are its problems?

PT: The far left isn’t all bad, but there are some people there who are supporting very bad tyrants and very bad policies. So, for example, it shocks me that most of the left in general has been silent and inactive against the Assad regime in Syria. I think that’s quite shameful. Syria is the equivalent of Spain in the 1930s; it’s a litmus test of where you stand. A lot of people on the left rightly condemn Saudi Arabia and its war crimes…

RL: And Israel, Peter.

PT: And Israel, yes.

RL: More than Saudi Arabia, more than Syria, more than any other country they condemn Israel, and you’ve condemned Israel.

PT: What I’m criticising is the double standards. They condemn Saudi war crimes in Yemen but not Russian and Iranian war crimes in Syria — that’s double standards.

RL: Then there’s identity politics. We become compartmentalised into these various silos of victimhood, don’t we?

PT: I think the right is wrong to criticise identity politics. It is legitimate for people to campaign around specific instances of discrimination, whether it be racism or misogyny, but it’s also important to remember our common humanity, the things that unite us.

RL: That’s the point, isn’t it? Surely you must see that there is a culture war going on which does divide people? And it may well be that that culture war is one of the reasons that the Labour party failed at the 2019 election, because an awful lot of people rejected that obsessive identitarian approach to politics. Do you reject it as well, or are you really at heart an identitarian?

PT: I wouldn’t describe myself as identitarian, but I do think identity politics has been necessary in order to address issues that were being ignored by mainstream politics. It is only when women organised to demand specific rights and freedoms that eventually politicians and parliament began the process of change.

RL: But we’re there, aren’t we? Much as we may be there with gay equality, Pete. For example, I saw that the NUS recently said that gay people were not a victimised minority but were actually privileged and possessed many of the privileges that oppress other minority groups. The whole thing seems to be eating itself.

PT: I think we have to be very careful about the way sections of the left tend to demand absolute purity. None of us is perfect.

RL: But the trouble is, Pete, your whole career, your whole life of campaigning has held freedom of speech in enormous esteem, but there is an awful lot of the left which believes debate is otiose and that freedom of speech is an overrated commodity.

PT: It isn’t just a left failing, but you are right — I mean freedom of speech is one of the most important and precious of all human rights. Causing offence sometimes is involved in genuine freedom of speech. I stand by that — however, there are certain red lines. I think if someone makes false, damaging allegations like saying someone is a rapist or a paedophile, then…

RL: Or a racist.

PT: Or a racist, if it is untrue and unfounded, that’s not freedom of speech. If someone engages in threats, menaces and harassment, that’s not freedom of speech. And particularly if someone engages in incitement to violence, that’s not freedom of speech. I think that generally the best way to deal with bad ideas is with good ideas. So for example, when there were calls to ban Germaine Greer, I said don’t ban her, find a speaker to speak against her, protest outside the meeting, show why she’s wrong.

RL: But Peter, debate and freedom of speech are bourgeois and they are a reflection of white privilege and not everybody has access to that freedom of speech etc, etc…

PT: Well, that is true but there are also many on the right who take the same…

RL: Come on, I’m not sticking up for the right here, I’m a socialist for fuck’s sake.

PT: Well, there is a trend towards placing limits on freedom of speech, but I think it is somewhat exaggerated. Most students in surveys say that they value freedom of speech, including the freedom of speech of people with whom they disagree.

RL: This is where we differ, I suppose. I think that censoriousness is spreading. But perhaps you have a tendency towards utopianism? About five or six years ago you said that Muslims and gays should join together as being similarly oppressed. I remember thinking: ‘What effing planet are you on, Pete?’ Isn’t that kind of unrealisable?

PT: Well, I know it’s realisable because I’ve seen it in the campaign work that I do. My challenge to the Muslim community is to recognise the common experience of prejudice, discrimination and hate crime that they face in common with LGBT+ people. Of course it’s different, but it’s still a common thread of prejudice.

RL: Can I break in there? Fair enough and a fair point, but what I really meant was: when are you going to go on a gay pride march in Ramallah?

PT: I did actually discuss the idea.

RL: Are you a masochist?

PT: I did actually discuss the idea with some Palestinian activists and they said it was too dangerous for them and I shouldn’t go there.

RL: Yes, but what do you learn from that? You are attacking Israel at the moment, which is a democracy, which allows Arabs to vote in its democracy; the only country where Arabs are allowed to vote and where you can have a gay pride march through Tel Aviv.

PT: Yes, undoubtedly there are still serious problems with the Palestinian territories, particularly Hamas-controlled Gaza — you’d better not be gay there. I’ve helped gay people flee Gaza and seen the abuses and torture inflicted on them by Hamas police and security agents…

***

RL: Lastly, I know you’ve spoken out on the Qatari World Cup previously — are there any plans afoot for campaigning against that over the next year?

PT: There are but they have to remain confidential! Certainly I’m working a lot behind the scenes with Qataris, not just LGBT Qataris but also human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, labour union campaigners and so on, to keep Qatar and its human rights abuses up on the agenda. It is scandalous that Fifa ever agreed to allow Qatar to have the World Cup in the first place.

RL: It’s not really scandalous, it’s corrupt.

PT: Yes, well there are very serious allegations that Qatar was corruptly awarded the World Cup based on bribes.

RL: Yes, no question at all. And I think these enormous events in future will tend to be held in totalitarian countries because these are the countries that can ride roughshod over all objections to those events and which are able to exploit their workforces so that they are done quite cheaply.

PT: Just before I forget, did you hear about the case of the pastor who was arrested in Boris Johnson’s constituency?

RL: No, sorry, what was that?

PT: His name was Pastor John Sherwood, I think. He was arrested for preaching in a shopping centre that homosexuality was sinful and he said himself that he was a sinner, but the police said there had been complaints and arrested him quite roughly and I think totally disgracefully breaching his right to free speech. I’ve offered to testify in his defence even though obviously I disagree with his views on homosexuality.

RL: He was presumably just quoting from Revelation or something.

PT: Yes, he wasn’t being inflammatory or threatening, he wasn’t being hateful, he was simply expressing a point of view. I found it disagreeable but I don’t think he should be the subject of arrest and prosecution.

RL: He sounds a bit like my mother-in-law, who hands out leaflets that say much the same thing and when she meets a gay or transgender person says ‘God doesn’t hate you, he just hates what you do’. Peter, it was lovely to talk to you, as always — thank you so much.

PT: Likewise. Tell her she’d better watch out under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill: annoying people is a potential offence!

RL: It’s a potential offence, yes, that’s right! That says it all really.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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