Nick Cohen

How to be a traitor

How to be a traitor
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No one is as hated as deeply as the apostate. Ordinary opponents are nothing in comparison. They are unbelievers, who know no better. It is not their fault if the light has not fallen on them. The apostate, by contrast, has known the truth and rejected it. There can be no excuses for his treachery, no defence of ignorance the law. The Devil must have seduced him, or to translate old superstitions into language of a secular age, he must have “sold out”.

For all the apparent differences between left and right, they share a complacent assumption that only corruption can explain why a believer could reject them, when they are so obviously right and good. The Tea Party, Ukip and the Conservative right cannot have a polite argument with leaders who contradict their views. They must be a “Republicans in Name Only” or “Tory Wets”. In return for jobs in the “liberal elite” in London or Washington DC and the flattery of their la-di-da new friends, they renounce the honest opinions of decent people. On the left, the labels change but the sentiment remains the same. The apostate has sold out to big business or the mainstream media. He is only saying these terrible things because he is rich, or a public schoolboy or white. His wealth and background did not matter when he went along with orthodox thinking - few people on his own side will attack a public school socialist as long as he remains a socialist. As soon as he changes his mind, however, they will use faults they previously ignored to damn him.

If you think this is just psychological speculation, consider the fate that awaits the Conservative Party if it wins the next election and holds a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. If you read the Mail, Telegraph and Express newspapers, you will have noticed they cannot print a good word about the EU. It is not just that the balance of opinion is weighed towards one side more than the other. There is no weighing of alternatives. The EU is beyond debate. Its wickedness is a given. In Conservative associations, candidates know they cannot support the EU in any manner if they want to secure a nomination. The same applies in right-wing think tanks (where thought about Europe appears to be impossible).

Yet come the referendum, David Cameron, William Hague and George Osborne will advance arguments for staying in Europe, and these arguments will be THOROUGHLY CONSERVATIVE. Ever since Elizabeth I, the first aim of English and then British foreign policy has been to stop one power dominating the continent and threatening Britain. If we pull out of the EU, the rest of Europe might unite against us, and we will have no allies to help us fight back. Many people in business and the City will agree, but will they make their case vigorously? Conservative supporters will have heard nothing like it from their own side in years. The fear that pervades conservative Britain of speaking out of turn, or stepping away from the crowd, will make centuries-old arguments seem as shocking as the arrival of heresy in a medieval nunnery.

Fury and vilification will follow and I wonder whether the Conservative Party will be able to take the strain.

There can be just enough truth in the accusation of selling out to stop it being wholly false. Undoubtedly if you go to work in a big business or the European Commission your opinion may change – although that may be because you realise that big business or Brussels is not as bad as the critics paint it. And who can deny that money – both an excess of it and a lack of it – changes the way you think? Environment determines consciousness to some extent.

But the example of the Tories and Europe teaches us other truths, which blow away the consoling stories party-liners tell to each other:

· Like old religious heretics, many of today’s traitors revolt against the abuses of their church. Left-wingers break with conventional left wing politics because of the Left they see before them. Right-wingers break with conventional right wing politics because of the Right they see before them, not because Satan in one of his modern forms has corrupted them.

· Often they are dissatisfied because the Left or the Right is not living up to its own principles. In that sense they regard the people around them as the real traitors. Naturally such thoughts do not endear them to their former friends.

It is what they do next that defines them. When faced with abusive attacks, and attributions of the lowest possible motives, the danger is they are so outraged they become what their enemies say they are. The Tory becomes a liberal, as the widely abused Chris Patten did, or the leftist goes right because he can no longer stand the hate-filled condemnations of his former friends.

George Orwell put the case against letting criticism drive you to distraction in 1945, when he published Animal Farm. The mainstream left was overwhelmingly pro-Soviet. The mainstream right was not so different and treated the Soviet Union as our gallant ally in the war against Nazism. T S Eliot, often seen as a model of High Tory rectitude, refused to allow Faber & Faber to publish Animal Farm for the most cowardly of reasons. Attacking Stalin’s terror even in a fairy story was “Trotskyite” he told Orwell. "We have no conviction ... that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the present time.”

About the only people organising against communism in Britain was a small organisation called the League for European Freedom, run by one Katherine Stewart-Murray, the Duchess of Atholl. She had been nicknamed the “Red Duchess” in the 1930s because of her support for the Republican cause in Spain, but was a dedicated anti-Communist by the 1940s.

Her league would offer Orwell solidarity and some shelter from all the people who denounced him. The Duchess invited him to address a meeting. Orwell replied that although he found much of what the League was saying was more truthful than the “lying propaganda” to be found in most of the press

I cannot associate myself with an essentially Conservative body which claims to defend democracy in Europe but has nothing to say about British imperialism. It seems to me that one can only denounce the crimes now being committed in Poland, Jugoslavia etc. if one is equally insistent on ending Britain's unwanted rule in India. I belong to the Left and must work inside it, much as I hate Russian totalitarianism and its poisonous influence in this country.

In other words, just because he disagreed with left wing thought on one point did not mean that he would abandon his past and disagree with it on every point.

You might find Orwell's scruples over-fastidious. Writers, who have no allegiances except to their own consciences, can utter such worthy sentiments. But political campaigners must be more practical. They may have no choice other than to find allies where they can, if they want to see their cause advance. It they are too pure, they will lose.

It's not that easy. Religious extremism has already done to left wingers what Europe will do to right wingers. The experience shows that ignoring the niceties and finding allies where you can is not the hard-headed option it seems.


The case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a warning of the dangers of hugging whatever friends you can find. She ought to have been a leftwing heroine. Think of it: a black, African feminist, who had suffered female genital mutilation and fled to Holland to escape a forced marriage. Once there, she campaigned against the patriarchal abuse of women, and against religious bigotry, both causes you might have thought left wingers would hold dear. Fanatics threatened to kill her and succeeded in murdering her friend the director Theo van Gogh for making a film showing how the Koran licensed the subjugation of women. Her life has been in danger ever since.

The people, who ought to have been her comrades, treated her shamefully. The Dutch Labour movement did not want to listen. She joined the Dutch liberals, who then proposed removing her bodyguards and leaving her defenceless against assassins. Liberal journals in New York sneered. Only last month Brandeis University played a sick trick on her. It announced it was granting her an honorary degree, which she had never asked for, and then publicly humiliated her by withdrawing the offer because religious and left wing lobbyists had told its administrators that she was an Islamophobe; a tainted woman respectable American academics should have nothing to do with.

By then Ayaan had found sanctuary at the American Enterprise Institute, a Conservative think tank. If you only think about the practicalities of her position, it is hard to blame her for going. When her natural allies deserted her, only the American right was prepared to offer her a home and take her concerns about the abuse of Muslim women seriously.

You can find a similar story in Britain. For years the leftish campaign group One Law for All has campaigned against Sharia courts in British cities. Even though it is run by an Iranian feminist, its left-wing enemies denounced it as Islamophobe and borderline racist. A few months ago its co-spokeswoman Anne Marie Waters walked out. She had had enough of trying to persuade the British left to take the fight against religious reactionaries seriously. “It's like banging your head against a brick wall,” she told me. She wants nothing more to do with left wing politics, and is setting up a right wing campaign group against Sharia.

All perfectly natural you might think. But however snide the academics were who denounced Ayaan Hirsi Ali, however pitiful their contributions to women's equality when set against hers, they did have a small point. In one interview they found she had talked about how the West needed to fight a war to defeat Islam, not militant Islam or Salafi Islam but

Islam, period. Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace...I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars.

Granted, her enemies have seized with gratitude on one interview among hundreds. They made no allowance for the fact that men have been trying to kill her in the name of Islam, and she could hardly be expected to indulge them. But still her words show that there's no middle ground in Western culture wars either. Because she ended up on the American right, she was in a environment where such sentiments are commonplace rather than bizarre, but where atheist critiques, not just of militant Islam but of Christian and Jewish extremism are never made. The charge of double-standards haunts her.

As for Anne-Marie Waters, she has gone so far to the right, she is now standing for Ukip, a party which numerous scandals have shown contains candidates whose attitudes towards women and gays are not so different from the attitudes of the religious fundamentalist she opposes. I understand how she got there, but she is in danger of denouncing one form of oppression rather than all oppression and turning into a modern Duchess of Atholl.

I hope that when all the Conservatives biting their tongues on Europe belatedly find the courage to raise their voices, they will not let the screams of hatred that will fill their ears drive them out their party, and push them to renouncing their beliefs in free markets and low taxes as well.

You should not let your enemies define you, and so threaten and infuriate you they turn you into something you are not. The secret of being a good traitor is never to betray yourself.