Fighting talk: Sir John Mortimer and David Starkey

Sir John Mortimer describes New Labour's proposal to outlaw religious hatred as a 'victory for the Taliban', while David Starkey claims there's nothing to Blair's war 'but words'.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Sir John Mortimer: ‘What I am terrified about is what this government is doing to civil liberties.’

‘Blair’s speech was completely ludicrous – he looked and sounded like a man possessed. I kept thinking to myself, “Oh Tony, do calm down, you’ll embarrass Cherie”.’

Sir John Mortimer, author, playwright and Old Labour supporter turned New Labour critic, was not impressed by prime minister Tony Blair’s ‘treading of the boards’ at the Labour Party conference on 2 October. Blair might have won plaudits everywhere from the Labour-supporting Guardian to the Labour-baiting Telegraph, but Mortimer was ‘agog’: ‘He was trying to conjure up an image for himself as Blair-as-Biggles – flying around with his scarf flapping in the wind to purge the world of sin. Not only was I not convinced by it, I’m not sure Blair was convinced by it.’

According to Mortimer, Blair’s ‘newfound crusade’ is a convenient cover for his ‘lame record’ of sorting out problems here in Britain. ‘It was telling that the first news item after Blair’s speech was about an unfortunate man who had spent hours on a trolley in casualty and then wound up dead in a hospital cubicle. In four years, Blair has done nothing for hospitals and can’t even get those ghastly overcrowded tube trains to run on time. How nice for him to forget it all and slip off to Russia to take tea with Putin and discuss all the other problems on Earth. It’s a rather wonderful cover-up.’

But what has bugged Mortimer most since 11 September has been New Labour’s ‘horrifying disregard for liberty’. In his pre-Rumpole of the Bailey days, Mortimer was a barrister who took on precedent-setting free speech cases and became known for his dedication to civil liberties. Now, he ‘watches in terror’ as New Labour ‘takes away even the most basic of our rights’. ‘They have been doing it with a vengeance since 11 September’, says Mortimer.

‘What I am terrified about is what this government is doing to civil liberties. This proposal to outlaw religious hatred and people who are bigoted about religion – it may sound well and good and proper, but it’s a disaster…the end of civilisation. If there is a law saying you can’t be rude about anybody’s religion, you would have had to outlaw people like Darwin, or people who criticised the Church of England, or atheists, or anybody who was rude and disrespectful of religion.’

Mortimer might be ‘horrified’ – but he is not surprised. ‘What should we expect? Free speech is looked down upon with utter disdain’, he says. ‘There seems to be a new rule that says you are not allowed to offend anybody – you can’t offend the Irish, you can’t offend the Scottish, you can’t even offend the Welsh anymore. And now you can’t offend any religious people, even though a lot of them deserve it. It is a politically correct approach that regards free speech with suspicion – as if we all want it just so we can be spiteful and hateful all the time.’

Mortimer even goes so far as to compare the proposal to outlaw religious hatred to the laws of the Taliban: ‘This religious hatred law is actually a victory for the Taliban, it’s like what they have: laws that determine what you can and cannot say about religions. It is a great victory for terrorism that we are trying to change our laws to restrict freedom.’

And his alternative to the proposed religious hatred law? ‘We should be allowed to be rude about anything to anybody at any time for whatever reason.’

Looking back on the past three weeks, Mortimer says events have ‘confirmed his concerns’ about Tony Blair – that he is ‘a not very impressive politician playing at being a statesman’. Now, Mortimer would like Blair to ‘stop pretending to be a mini-Churchill, to calm down, and for life to get back to normal as soon as possible’.

‘That’s the worst thing about all this – how we can’t get on with normal life and normal politics. I lived through the Blitz, when there were buildings falling down around our ears – but everybody went about their lives as normally as possible, and that was our strength. People talk about the Blitz spirit today, but I can’t see it. The events of 11 September were terrible, but can we please get back to normality now?’

David Starkey: ‘Since 11 September, it has become clear that the government is a message without a medium, words without substance, sound and fury signifying nothing.’

‘This is what happens when you have a two-bit actor as prime minister – he acts, the audience applauds, the sycophants slather, and the curtain goes down. It was utterly unconvincing.’

David Starkey, historian, inquisitor on Radio 4’s Moral Maze, and no fan of New Labour, didn’t know whether to ‘laugh or go to the toilet’ while listening to prime minister Tony Blair’s speech to the Labour Party conference on 2 October. ‘The speech confirmed for me that Blair is a manipulative politician-cum-actor down to his very fingertips – who will turn even this horror, even this world terror, into an opportunity.’

An opportunity for what? ‘To do two things’, says Starkey. ‘One, to play the statesman and two, to play the crude party politician. The two roles are entirely incompatible, but Blair is using the terrible events of 11 September as a desperate attempt to fuse them.’

What about the comparisons between Blair and former British statesmen like Gladstone and Churchill? Starkey laughs hysterically and makes a long farting noise down the phone. ‘What utter nonsense. Only the most sycophantic of the sycophants would even begin to make such a comparison. [In the past] there was at least a real enemy, there were real things to be done. Blair is just posturing and I would like him to calm down and please give us a period of silence.’

But Starkey the historian does concede that there has been something historic about Blair’s behaviour since 11 September. ‘It’s all been an historic blunder’, he says. ‘Of course, politicians always use events cynically, even events as horrific as 11 September. The question is whether the use they make of those events is sensible and acceptable or not – and Blair’s use of what happened in New York and Washington is most certainly not. His moral crusade is completely absurd – particularly when it’s a supposedly great, inspiring, international, moral crusade that also finds time to worry about the Euro and public sector unions. I mean, really.’

According to Starkey, the events of 11 September were not even a real problem for Britain – until Blair pulled out all the stops to make them Britain’s problem. ‘This isn’t a genuine emergency’, he says. ‘Blair’s original argument was that this was the largest number of British dead in any single peacetime atrocity – and he and his ministers very irresponsibly talked up the numbers of dead Britons into the 500s and even up to 1000 at one stage. Now those numbers are coming down to fewer than 100. But in order to justify his vacuous crusade, Blair first had to make the horror as much a British thing as he could – and that was particularly unsavoury to watch.’

In case you can’t tell, Starkey has never been a friend of New Labour, as anybody who has listened to him on Radio 4 will know. And since 11 September, all of his prejudices about Tony Blair seem to have been confirmed – and then some.

‘There is one thing that I was pretty sure of before 11 September, and now I am certain of it and would stake my life on it – there is nothing to Blair but words. On the constitution, it’s words. On the public sector, it’s words. On human rights, it’s words. And now this war – it’s words. New Labour has done fuck all – and please put that in. Since 11 September, it has become clear that the government is a message without a medium, words without substance, sound and fury signifying nothing.’

Starkey has even harsher words for home secretary David Blunkett and his proposed restrictions on freedom in the wake of the terrorist attacks. ‘I do not trust Blunkett at all’, he says. ‘Everybody in New Labour – and especially people like Blunkett who were once on the left – have betrayed everything they ever stood for. Why should we trust any of them now, particularly during a war?’

So short of giving up his act and trashing the whole New Labour project, what should Blair do now? ‘Shut up’, says Starkey. ‘And realise that he is a Macbeth in decline.’

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issues: Attack on USA

Fighting talk: Howard Jacobson and John Pilger, by Brendan O’Neill

John Mortimer: ‘Why I wouldn’t lunch with a government minister’

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