Good riddance to Tom Watson
He is an authoritarian, a conspiracist and an anti-democrat.
Tom Watson’s shock departure from parliament has apparently come as a blow to centrists everywhere. His decision to step down as Labour deputy leader and MP for West Bromwich East has already been written up as yet more proof that British politics has been taken over by the ‘extremes’. ‘Can the last sane MP in Westminster turn out the lights’, tweeted one commentator last night.
We have seen much the same response in recent weeks as various Conservative ‘moderates’ have announced they will not be seeking re-election. Many of them had the whip withdrawn for voting against the government on the so-called Surrender Bill to extend Article 50. Understandably so, given they effectively kneecapped their own government’s negotiating strategy. Still, it was presented as a ‘purge’.
The narrative goes something like this. Just as the ‘moderate’ Amber Rudds and Philip Hammonds of this world have been pushed out of the Tory Party by Hard Brexit ideologues, so it is with Tom Watson and others in Labour. This standard bearer for ‘sensible’ Labourism has finally given up in the face of the Corbynista takeover of his party.
Read between the lines, however, and it pretty quickly becomes clear that ‘moderate’ is just a codeword for Remainer. It’s not really about being moderate at all. Which is why the label is still liberally applied to those in both the Labour and Tory parties who have done everything in their power to overturn the Brexit vote, the biggest democratic mandate in British political history. Which is a pretty immoderate thing to do.
But using the words sensible and moderate to describe Tom Watson really is a crime against language. And not just because he, too, was committed to overturning the Leave vote, over the heads of the 68 per cent of his constituents who voted for it. Few MPs in recent years have taken as many authoritarian and indefensible positions as Watson. Even fewer have done so with such craven opportunism.
Discussion of Watson’s departure has so far been focused on what it all means for the election and for Labour. Will this dog their campaign? Have the New Labourites finally lost to the far left in the battle for the ‘soul’ of the Labour Party? Interesting questions, sure. But we should take this opportunity to scrutinise Watson’s record. Because it is horrendous.
Watson arrived in parliament in 2001, quickly becoming a New Labour loyalist, drawn into Gordon Brown’s orbit. Naturally, he voted for the Iraq War. He recently said he still loses sleep over that decision, but that at least he learned from his mistake. Which I’m sure is of great comfort to the families of the dead, and the inhabitants of that region, still plunged into chaos by him and his colleagues’ learning experience.
Fast forward a few years and Watson was focusing his authoritarian instincts on causes closer to home. Following the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World in 2011, he became a prominent backer of press regulation. For him, you could say it was personal: during the expenses scandal a Sun hack nicknamed him ‘Tommy two-dinners’ over revelations that he claimed the maximum £400 per month food allowance.
Watson was among the most prominent MPs pushing for the introduction of state-backed regulation, which would have been the first such system since Crown licensing was abolished in 1695. It was a plan that very nearly succeeded in the form of something called Section 40, which would have forced publications to sign up to a state-backed regulator. And had they refused, they would have been liable to pay the costs of any court case brought against them, even if they won.
In this battle against press freedom, Watson made some interesting allies. Max Mosley – son of the fascist leader Oswald Mosley and a long-time proponent of press regulation – gave £540,000 to Watson’s office. Watson said he was ‘very proud to call Max Mosley a friend’. He even stuck by his mate Max last year when the Mail revealed Mosley’s involvement in the publication of a 1961 leaflet railing against ‘coloured immigration’.
Watson’s parliamentary career shows how conspiracism has entered the political mainstream. What seemed to motor his crusades was the conviction that shadowy cliques were pulling the strings. In 2012 he published a mad book called Dial M for Murdoch, in which he accused the media baron Rupert Murdoch (owner of the Sun and others) of running a ‘shadow state’ and exercising a ‘poisonous, secretive influence on public life’.
This conspiracist bent led him into easily the most unsavoury chapter of his already chequered career. In 2014, Watson met Carl Beech, then known to the public as ‘Nick’ – a man who claimed he was the victim of a VIP paedophile ring that went right to the top of Westminster. Beech told lurid stories of rape, abuse and murder. And the police, desperate to atone for the Jimmy Savile scandal, launched a witch-hunt, cheered on by the likes of Watson.
Watson did all he could to spread the conspiracy theory. He repeated Beech’s claims in the House of Commons, under the protection of parliamentary privilege. He later lobbied the Crown Prosecution Service to pursue an investigation into former home secretary Leon Brittan, one of the men Beech accused, over another unsubtantiated rape allegation dating back to 1967. Brittan died in 2015, with the case still hanging over him. Watson took the opportunity of Brittan’s death to denounce him in the Commons as ‘close to evil’.
Beech’s claims were completely made up, and all those named were cleared. He was eventually arrested and exposed as a fantasist, and a paedophile to boot. But not before he and his high-profile supporters had dragged a string of prominent men’s names through the mud, doing irreparable damage to due process. Watson has never apologised for the role he played in this modern-day witch-hunt and has even had the cheek to suggest that he, too, was a victim of Beech’s lies.
So this is the man they call sensible. This is the man they call a moderate. It’s a testament to the screwy political times we live in that someone who promotes the shackling of the press, and the overthrow of popular democracy, and who dabbles in lurid conspiracy theories, should be considered part of the cool-headed mainstream. And it’s a testament to some Remainer commentators’ moral rot that being anti-Brexit apparently absolves a politician of all his other sins.
Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_
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