29 JULY 1989, Page 8


Hattersley in the process of dying for other people's rights


Ido not think British politics has ever provided a more enjoyable spectacle than that of Roy Hattersley wriggling and blustering his way through the Great De- bate on Salman Rushdie's ludicrous novel: should it be banned, or should it continue to be published? The great joy is that we all know the score, and he knows we know it. On the one hand he must proclaim his undying belief in free speech. On the other he must point out that there is more to it than that. I have never heard a politician of any party proclaim his undying belief in free speech without a resounding 'but' which turns out to introduce the only point he wishes to make. On this occasion, we all know the point which Hattersley wishes to make, but he can't quite make it. As soon as he has said his 'but', he must drivel off into irrelevancies. He hopes and thinks that it will be enough for Labour's Muslim followers in Sparkbrook that he has said 'but' for the word to get round that he is on their side.

Well, the word has got round, but not only among the Muslims of Bradford, Leicester, Wolverhampton, Birmingham and one or two London seats. Just how it has done so may be hard to determine through the great smokescreen of contrary verbiage he throws up in every direction. Similarly, Mr Kinnock's position on The Satanic Verses is well understood to be the honourable and decent one best expressed by Brian Sedgemore, Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch to the Independent's Anthony Bevins: 'In my view, it is clearly insulting and offensive, but so what? I think it is not a very good book. But if big religions can't take insults.

Or possibly Kinnock's view is closer to that of Clare Short (Labour, Birmingham South) who mysteriously thought it a 'fine book' which had been 'misrepresented', but went on to point out: If we didn't publish all the books that offended Christ- ians, agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, Mus- lims, Hindus, Sikhs, we wouldn't have any books in Britain.' Whichever view he takes of the book's merits, word has got around that Kinnock is on the side of the angels, although one might well ask how we know this when we read what he actually said to Mr Bevins:

Asked whether he shared the view of Mr Hattersley, the Deputy Leader, that there should be no further editions, Mr Kinnock said: 'It is difficult to make the definitions of drawing a line and saying that not to go into paperback, for instance, would be a signifi- cant act. I think it's very difficult to draw that line.'

So where does Kinnock stand, or sit, or lie down? Apparently, in favour of publica- tion. Let us now follow Hattersley on the great debate, always remembering that the question before the House is: should the novel be banned, or should it continue to be published?

'The principle is clear enough,' wrote Hattersley in Friday's Independent:

Salman Rushdie's rights as an author are absolute and ought to be inalienable. A free society does not ban books. . . I have proclaimed those fundamental truths in mos- ques all over Britain — a considerably more daunting task than preaching the gospel of free speech at literary dinner parties.

That is quite true if his purpose in visiting the mosques all over Britain was indeed to proclaim this principle. What he was actually reported to have told them was that he believed the blasphemy .laws should be extended to protect the Moham- medan religion, which is not quite the same thing. He now says that he believes that equality before the law would be best achieved by abolition of the blasphemy laws, which again is not quite the same thing. T wonder which of these messages the Muslim faithful thought they were receiving. But get on with it, Hattersley. We are waiting for your big `but'.

`But it is preposterous to pretend that the first principle governing the publication of Satanic Verses is the last word on the subject.' Preposterous is it? Very well, let us proceed, always remembering that the question before the House is: should it be banned or should it continue to be pub- lished?

'I accept my duty to defend to the death the right of others to express opinions with which I disagree. . . .' It is only after we have asked him to show us his 'but' on this occasion that his game becomes clear. The truth is that he has not got one. He hopes to establish his position, without pinning himself down, simply by mouthing the word 'but' like a goldfish in a bowl: Tut I do not recall Voltaire requiring me to agree with ideas I find offensive.' Of course Voltaire didn't. Nor has anyone else. The question is: should it be banned or should it continue to be published?

'Mr Rushdie is entitled to abuse the religion in which he was reared and must be protected against those who want to intimidate him into silence. But.. . .' Here we go again. 'But the idea that we all have a duty to applaud his calculated assault is a novel interpretation of the liberal obliga- tion.'

Watch how he wriggles. Nobody has suggested that this fat man should applaud the ludicrous book. The question is: should it be banned or should it continue to be published?

After this, Hattersley abandons any pre- tence of addressing himself to the question of free speech: 'The proposition that Mus- lims are welcome in Britain if, and only if, they stop behaving like Muslims is incom- patible with the principles of a free society. Indeed, that proposition can only be de- scribed as racist.'

No it can't. Religion and race are entire- ly separate things. If 'behaving like a Muslim' involves polygamy or killing apos- tates and blasphemers then it is indeed true that they are welcome in Britain only if they stop behaving like Muslims, just as Hindus are welcome only if they abstain from suttee, Catholics if they abstain from St Bartholomew Day massacres and allow others to practise birth control. But my real objection to this waffle is that it has absolutely nothing to do with the question: should it be banned or should it continue to be published?

But by now Hattersley has wandered off into a long digression about Muslim mar- riage practices. I happen to agree with him that the state has no business to interfere in the Muslim tradition of arranged mar- riages, but that does not mean that I also give the nod to his encouragement of Muslim attempts to control what is pub- lished in this country. He ends with a message which he clearly hopes will have every Lodon primary school teacher nod- ding her head until her spectacles fall off: 'Muslims are people, too.'

I just hope there are some intelligent Muslims out there laughing at the contor- tions of this fat man as loudly as we all do.