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Artillery Row

Keir the coward

Narrowing the borders of permissible opinion will not solve Britain’s societal crises

One of Keir Starmer’s priorities as Leader of the Opposition was to wash the stains of Corbynism out of the Labour Party. This has been a task he has pursued to the extent of backing Corbyn’s own exile.

The war in Gaza has been a test for Starmer’s reformist credentials. This week, Labour withdrew its support for Azhar Ali, its by-election candidate for Rochdale, after he turned out to believe in the obnoxious, unevidenced idea that the Israeli government enabled the October 7th atrocities to give itself an excuse to kill Palestinians. It would not have been smart to enter the by-election making George Galloway look like the less cranky option.

Now, Graham Jones, a former MP and a candidate for the Haslingden and Hyndburn constituency, has been suspended after an audio recording emerged which captured him saying “f**cking Israel” and suggesting that British-Israelis should be arrested if they serve in the IDF.

Let’s hold on a second. Mr Jones said:

No British person should be fighting for any other country. At all. Full stop. It’s against the law and they should be locked up.

Now, it is not in fact against the law for British nationals with other nationalities to serve in the armed forces of the countries of their other nationalities, so we can convict Mr Jones of ignorance. But if this is what he thinks should be the case, well — how is that out of bounds? Is there some kind of unimpeachable human right for people — dual citizens or otherwise — to fight for other nations? 

Is there some kind of unimpeachable human right for people … to fight for other nations? 

I don’t see how, and as much as I don’t personally have strong views on the subject, I can see how the moral and diplomatic questions that it could entail would incentivise a nation to prohibit it. In Poland, where I live, it is illegal to fight for another nation unless you have special consent. (Speaking of which, I have a vested interest in opposing such laws. If Poland was attacked I would — or, at least, I hope I would — volunteer to defend it. If the kind of law Jones had in mind was in effect in Britain, then, I would have to abandon my British passport.)

As for saying “f**cking Israel” — it is certainly crass, but is it a suspendable offence? Really? We’re talking about a candidate for Haslingden and Hyndburn here, not the Foreign Secretary. Besides, it is interesting that these are the first words Mr Jones says in the clip released by Guido Fawkes. Specifically, he says:

… fucking Israel again, you know. And I’m sure that all these people think that when they go home. But you will not get Israel over the line unless we go at them hard.

I could be wrong, but I suspect from the reference to “these people” that Jones was putting the words “f**king Israel” into someone else’s mouth. Still crass, of course, but it’s not as if he threw back his head out of nowhere and yelled “F**KING ISRAEL” at the Moon.

The last accusation against Mr Jones is that this was at the same meeting where Mr Ali voiced his conspiratorial suspicions and Jones did nothing about it. This lack of judgement strikes me as being more serious than his other supposed offences, which makes it peculiar that it has been the least emphasised, but I’m not sure that you should be suspended over something someone else said unless it was an earnest plan to commit a crime.

Ed Balls has said that Mr Jones is “not a Corbynite, not hard left, absolutely not anti-Israel”. That’s not the point. The question is whether he is antisemitic, and I don’t see anything antisemitic about his words. No one has even explained what would make them so.

Unless they know something significant that we do not — which I admit is possible — the Labour Party’s leadership are not being brave or principled in suspending Mr Jones. I’m reminded of when Keir Starmer announced that he would not wave at Jeremy Corbyn if he saw him in the street. If you have a serious disagreement with someone you have thought of as a colleague and a friend you should take it up with them, not theatrically unperson them. But Starmer appears to care more about being seen to care than the actual issues.

Meanwhile, the Telegraph smells political blood and has rounded up other questionable quotes from Labour candidates and MPs. Frankly, some of the offerings are pathetic — and on the part of the journalists, not the politicians. I suspect I disagree with Thangam Debbonaire MP on 99.9 per cent of issues, for example, but she stands accused of saying that selling arms to Israel is a “grave concern” and accusing the state of violations of international law. Is that it? If that is impermissible speech then I’m a cauliflower.

I can understand why people are concerned about British politics and dark crankishness. George Galloway, the communitarian rabble-rouser who speaks as if he is standing in East Jerusalem and not in Rochdale, is looking like the favourite in the forthcoming by-election, thanks to the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel rage of local Muslim residents. A steep increase in antisemitic incidents has also understandably heightened tensions. But dangerous insurgent trends in British society will not disappear if candidates and politicians are policed more. They exist independently of Westminster discourse. Unreasonable restrictions on legitimate speech will not calm things. Quite the opposite.

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