We never loved each other, Ken Livingstone and I. We first clashed in public more than a decade ago, and have enjoyed castigating each other ever since. But now that he has been suspended from the Labour party for a second year in a row, I come not to bury him but to praise him. For there is something valorous, even glorious, about his downfall.
It was the MP for Bradford West who triggered his demise. In April last year Naz Shah was exposed for sharing anti–Semitic content on social media. Among these posts was a graphic advising the deportation of all Israeli Jews to the USA. Though such views are hardly a problem (can even be a boon) for a Bradford MP these days, any ambitious young politician may still find them a hurdle. Sure enough, Shah performed all the textbook PR moves. She laundered her reputation through meetings with Jewish ‘communal leaders’. In an apology to the House of Commons, she said she realised how ‘ignorant’ she had been about all matters Jewish. And her career continued.
Douglas Murray and James Forsyth debate Ken Livingstone’s survival:
One reason for her survival was the monumental act of martyrdom, or deflection, that Ken Livingstone accomplished for her on live radio. While insisting that Shah was not an anti-Semite, Livingstone got into a discussion in which he insisted that Adolf Hitler was in fact a Zionist. This act of self-detonation was performed in such impressive style that this radio interview seemed to run on, in one form or another, for a full year.
Livingstone’s inability to appear on radio, television, or any street corner without mentioning the late German dictator became a source of niche fascination. Not least for the former mayor’s bizarre little appendices, such as his insistence that Hitler’s period ‘supporting Zionism’ was ‘before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews’.
For his doggedness alone, Livingstone has been admirable. Perhaps he has just been around the block too long to care for the whole formal apology/community meetings malarkey. Whatever the reason, there is something refreshing about a politician (even a retired one with a wrong idea) who refuses to play the game in this way. For a year, interviewers (often seeking to talk about subjects other than Hitler) have asked Livingstone why he will not say what everyone wants him to say. Yet he will not. He carries on arguing over aspects of deals he claims took place between ‘the Zionists’ and Hitler eight decades ago.
During this time it has become clear that Ken’s main, perhaps sole, source on Hitler and Zionism is a book by the Marxist writer Lenni Brenner called Zionism in the Age of the Dictators. In the 34 years since its publication, this work has rarely been cited — and never in any serious work of history.
As anybody who has ever talked to Livingstone will know, he is an eager lover of books and ideas. Sadly for him — and as a wiser head might now have worked out — with Brenner he is on to a serious wrong ’un.
As the historian Paul Bogdanor showed in a scholarly article last year, Brenner imbibed his ideas from the well of Soviet propaganda. As opposed to far-right Holocaust fabrications (which either claim that it did not happen, or downplay the numbers), Soviet-inspired anti–Semites tend towards claims that the Jews were themselves involved. Brenner, who was involved in the 1980s with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), clearly helped dig this well, from which Livingstone drank deeply. In Livingstone’s own 2011 memoirs he credited Brenner’s books with having ‘helped form my view of Zionism and its history’.
On international affairs — an area in which he has mercifully never had a meaningful role — Livingstone’s views are a hodge-podge of learning from quacks. But all good quacks lean on nuggets of truth. In the case of Jews in the 1930s, it is true that a small number of Labour Zionists had meetings with Nazi officials in 1933 about helping German Jews emigrate to what was then Palestine. But these were not ‘clandestine’ meetings, as Brenner and Livingstone claim. And their aim was not to cooperate, much less find mutual interest in the creation of a Jewish state, but rather one small part of a desperate scramble to get some people and possessions out of Germany.
Brenner and Livingstone’s take is classic crackpot history. And like Livingstone’s frequent citings of Mosaddegh and the CIA in discussing the wider Middle East, it isn’t that what he’s saying didn’t in any way happen. It’s just that what happened doesn’t remotely support the conclusions he comes to.
Many observers, especially British Jews, wonder why Livingstone wants to keep raking over all this. Is it a demonstration of anti-Semitism? Or senility? Both seem possible. But it is also possible that, armed with his little learning, Livingstone has chosen his version of history, as many people do, and is sticking with it.
He is wildly wrong, of course. If he had any power, his proselytisation on behalf of his theory could be dangerous. But Ken has no power, and his crazy insistence on arguing every inch of ground has instead allowed a public debate about a corner of left-wing pseudo-history that might never otherwise have had a light shone on it to allow for such mainstream debunking.
Whatever happens, it looks as if Livingstone will keep arguing his case, talking Hitler into every microphone he sees and banging on about details of 1933 while schoolgirls walk giggling by. But he’s not such a bad person to watch. He has shown an ambition to get the past right. He has refused to buckle even when the world has told him to. He is a man seeking truth while swimming in error. Perhaps it says something about our age of half-truths and swiftly swapped opinions that, in a certain light, Ken can look almost noble.