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Let the Kremlin cranks have their London meeting

You're hardly saving democracy by shutting down George Galloway and his ilk.

January 24 2023, 17.07pm

First, the throat clearing. I hold no candle for George Galloway, Chris Williamson, David Miller, the ghouls of Grayzone, Mick Wallace, Claire Daly or any of the assorted Stalinoids, conspiracy theorists, campists and cranks scheduled to speak at the “No2Nato” conference.

I’ll admit, if pushed, to a macabre fascination; no more than that.

But seeing the absurd, hysterical and ill-judged campaign to shut down Galloway’s conference, now cancelled by secularist venue Conway Hall, has left me every bit as depressed as watching one of his interminable speeches would.

Let’s state some basic principles:

  • Galloway and his friends have every right to place a booking with a venue. 
  • A public venue hosting an event does not amount to that venue’s endorsement of everything said from the platform, or the views of every attendee.
  • A venue has every right to accept or refuse the reservation of whomever it chooses (with obvious caveats on protected characteristics of race, age, gender etc.)
  • To devote one's energies to shutting down a public meeting on a political topic - or any topic - is to take on the role of the censor: whether or not one feels one’s cause is justified, or clear-cut, is beside the point. 
  • Threatening a venue with complaints to “funders, partners and hirers” is intimidation.

The depressing thing about watching all this unfold is the feeling that the space for free speech really is narrowing. Conway Hall’s very foundation, growing out of the South Place Ethical Society, an early 20th century atheist group, is based on being a space where heretical, even blasphemous ideas could be expressed. This inevitably led to a fairly advanced free speech position, with a booking policy that could be said to be secular in the truest sense. The venue has seen everything from Mahler recitals to Al Muhajiroun rallies over the last century or so, and in radical circles was generally regarded as a sort of indoor Speaker’s Corner, with cheap room hire and some OK pubs nearby. Counter-demonstrations outside Conway Hall events are not exactly unusual.

But righteousness is a hell of a drug, and even a heartfelt desire to do something good, something liberal (i.e. show solidarity with Ukrainians in their anti-imperial struggle) can lead one to oppressive tactics and positions (flooding a small venue’s inbox with emails, tweets and threats to its income in order to shut down a pro-Russian meeting.)

Its been suggested that the objection to Galloway’s circus is not that it is pro-Moscow, but that it is lying to the general public by positioning itself as “pro-peace”. This positioning is, of course, is as tactic as old as the Soviet Union itself. As I write, I have in front of me an account by the US academic and activist Sidney Hook, of his counter campaign against the Soviet-backed, and ludicrously-titled, “Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace”, which took place in New York in 1949. Hook was as vehemently anticommunist as they came in postwar America, but in his account he notes “we had no objection to the Communists or anyone else holding their meeting. We defended their right to do so…. What we objected to were the false pretenses under which the conference was soliciting support…”.

Hook and his colleagues in the Committee for Cultural Freedom and successor groups were hardly apologists for Soviet/Russian totalitarianism - indeed Hook would go on to argue that Leninists and others who believed in the violent overthrow of the state should be barred from public office - but even while acknowledging the perniciousness of Kremlin apologists (this at the time of the Berlin blockade), they did not see it as their duty or their right to shut down their Communist-backed meetings, and were critical of noisy right-wing protests calling for just that.

As former Communists and fellow travellers, New York Intellectuals like Hook understood the authoritarian mindset better than most, and would have recognised its temptations, and ultimately it’s allure to the well-intentioned, to those who wish themselves to be, or believe themselves to be on the right side of history. 

The philosopher John Rawls suggested that ideally,  “a person would choose for the design of a society in which his enemy is to assign him his place.”

Similarly, when addressing questions of free speech and censorship, it’s always worth approaching the question from a position of total wrongness. That is to say, most of us believe we do our best to be right most of the time. But it’s always worth asking “What if everything I believe in was deemed by the society I live in to be completely wrong? What then? How would I like that society to treat me, and others who believed as I do?”

This is not a plea for “tolerance” of the views of Galloway, Miller, Blumenthal, Wallace et al - a group that are now fully mired in the defence of the indefensible. It is, instead, a plea to be true to our own values. If we say we stand for democracy, for liberty and for freedom, then those values must be applicable to the worst of us, even those who actively and enthusiastically campaign against them. We won’t save democracy by shutting down George Galloway.