Last week Tatchell announced that he was standing down as Green Party candidate for the constituency of Oxford East, where some thought he might be in with a shout. His withdrawal is a consequence of brain injuries he received back in 2001, when he was the only person in western Europe to stand up to Robert Mugabe’s vile regime in Zimbabwe. He tried to arrest Mugabe on a visit to Brussels and got his head kicked in (literally) by Mugabe’s goons. Two years ago he was beaten up again by neo-Nazis while campaigning in Moscow. He had hoped the injuries might abate with time and allow him to campaign in Oxford, but there was a slight relapse in the summer and he simply isn’t up to it. This is an enormous shame.
I know you may not share many of Tatchell’s politics but believe me, there is not a more brave, principled or decent man in the country. He has been absolutely steadfast and relentless in standing up for freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and in fighting persecution wherever it occurs. This has lost him many, many friends on the left, when he has been campaigning against Muslim preachers or misogynist and homophobic rap artists, whom he believes we should not lionise. His commitment to the principle of freedom of speech is absolute and unyielding. I remember talking to the born-again Christian bigot Stephen Green who had been arrested for handing out leaflets saying that poofs would burn in hell. The gay lobby, Green said, would be delighted with his arrest – except, he sneered, for Peter Tatchell, who would be defending his right to freedom of speech “as usual”. And so he did.
There’s an unpleasant symmetry to Tatchell’s withdrawal from Oxford East. Remember the 1983 Bermondsey by-election? Tatchell was the Labour candidate in this safe Labour seat but was defeated by a scurrilous and vicious homophobic hate campaign which was, at the least, sanctioned by the victorious Liberal candidate, Simon Hughes. Oh, the irony. And yet, even then, Tatchell did not raise the question of Hughes’ own sexuality, not once over the intervening 25 years. Hughes recently apologized to Tatchell, shortly after the Liberal MP had admitted, at last, to his own bisexuality; Tatchell accepted the apology graciously and said nothing more about the matter.
He would have made a wonderful MP, Tatchell, in South London or Oxford; someone who would have commanded the respect of both left and right, a voice of pure principle in a chamber progressively denuded of such a thing. Maybe on reflection he was too good for the place.