THE FIRST series of Big Brother in 2000 drew a long howl of disgust from the British intelligentsia. Martin Amis said it proved that meritocracy was dead – because ‘now you can become famous without having any talent by abasing yourself on a TV nerdothon’. Writers as diverse as James Hawes and Ben Elton wrote state-of-the-nation novels about contestants who will do anything to please the peeping Tom producers and their creepy audiences. I lost count of the newspaper pundits who said the show encapsulated everything that was sinister in modern life, and may well have said it myself.
The leaders of the anti-war movement should have paid attention. The rage showed that there were limits to the tolerance of the liberal middle class. We had our lines in the sand, damn it. Unfortunately, they were on the wrong beach.
George Galloway and his backers in the Socialist Workers Party are finished now. The alliance they organised between the Trotskyist far left and the Islamic far right, which produced the most disgraceful protest movement since the Thirties, can no longer count on the indulgence of polite society.
Was it Galloway’s support for every anti-American tyrant on the planet that did for him? Not at all. He could salute the ‘courage, strength and indefatigability’ of Saddam Hussein, Tariq Aziz and Bashar al-Assad with impunity. How about his apologetics for the ‘martyrs’ of al-Qaeda and the Baath Party who represent everything the liberal-left has been against since the Enlightenment? No, not at all, that was fine, too. Or perhaps his sickening attacks on ‘quisling’ Iraqi trade unionists when they were being murdered by those same al-Qaeda and Baathist terrorists?
Once again, polite society found no reason to take offence. Indeed, it cheered itself hoarse when Galloway dodged pertinent questions from US senators about how many starving Iraqi children had seen the profits from the option to buy 23 million barrels of oil Saddam gave his charity.
The liberal media have turned on Galloway because of a far more heinous crime: his appearance on Celebrity Big Brother. The Independent and the BBC are furious that Galloway is failing to represent his constituents while he is in the Big Brother house. Why they believe an operator who saluted Saddam and described the fall of the Soviet Union as ‘the worst day of my life’ should want to observe the niceties of parliamentary democracy is beyond me. He was hardly ever in the Commons when he wasn’t on Big Brother
However dunderheaded the charge, the SWP, which runs Galloway’s Respect party, is panicking. The comrades in his Bethnal Green and Bow constituency admit in a communique to the faithful that ‘it would be foolish to pretend that the issue will not cause us some damage’.
There is obviously an element of bourgeois snobbery about prole-TV at work here. But it is also the case that polite society couldn’t break with the thug on anything resembling a serious point of principle because it had so compromised itself.
In every developed country, the story has been the same. At the beginning of the Iraq crisis, the far left moved to the far right and took control of the anti-war protests. Behind them came many decent people who were against war for good reasons. Unfortunately, their hatred of Bush was such they couldn’t bring themselves to back democracy once it was over. They didn’t go as far as Galloway and support the Baathists, but they didn’t oppose them either.
In Britain, we had the honourable exceptions to the rule of Tony Blair, the majority of Labour MPs and the trade unions, but there was no sense among the wider liberal-left that the struggle in Iraq was anything to do with them.
The other day, I ran into Kanan Makiya, a writer who has done more than anyone to expose the horrors of the Saddam regime, and he was disgusted with the rich world’s liberals. He is collecting millions of old files in Baghdad so Iraqis will be able to find out what happened to their families during the 35-year Baath dictatorship. ‘All the time, I hear the insurgents crowing, “Even your friends in the West don’t support you.” And they’re right. We have been betrayed.’
The madness is passing now, with a whimper, not a bang. When Galloway comes out of the Big Brother house, no one in the middle classes will want to know him and that will be for the good. Far from being sinister, Celebrity Big Brother deserves to win a Bafta for its exposure of the truly sinister.
Still, aren’t they weird? The liberals who think it is worse to appear on a TV show than in the court of a fascist tyrant; the socialists who believe that it is left wing to ignore Iraq as the forces of the far right blow it to pieces. Not just fatuous and immoral, but weird beyond measure.
Lord Winston’s labour pains
Critics who thought that Lord Winston shouldn’t have promoted St Ivel fish oil for babies were reassured by the advance publicity for his Child of Our Time series – back tonight on BBC1. He sounded every inch the straight-talking doctor when he told my colleague Zoe Brennan that Debi, one of his mothers, was talking ‘nonsense’ when she blamed her son’s unhappiness on a difficult birth. ‘She’s had a different partner for each of her four children’ and it was hardly surprising if ‘different gentleman visiting every few months’ confused the boy.
But he doesn’t contradict Debi on air because, I suspect, he has to keep parents onside for the yearly series to continue until the children have grown up. He allows watching mothers who have had difficult labours to infer that their child may be unhappy and, therefore, goes from selling fish oil to snake oil.
Let’s do a deal with the bigots
The most encouraging reaction to news that the police were investigating Sir Iqbal Sacranie’s foul comments about homosexuality came from gay and secular leaders. Instead of revelling in the discomfiture of the fundamentalist head of the Muslim Council of Britain, they quite properly said that they believed in freedom of speech and that included Sir Iqbal’s freedom to be prejudiced and foolish.
As Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP, pointed out, the MCB has not returned the compliment. It’s all for freedom of speech when it comes to laying into gays. It also believes that the government has no right to ban the glorification of terrorism.
When it comes to freedom of speech about religion, however, it’s a very different matter. At the height of The Satanic Verses affair in 1988, Sacranie said that ‘death was perhaps too easy’ for Salman Rushdie. This did not stop New Labour almost tripping over its feet as it rushed to embrace the MCB when it came to power in 1997. As well as knighting Sacranie, it responded to his lobbying by putting before parliament a law against incitement of religious hatred. In their attempts to keep this unelected homophobe in their big tent, New Labour is prepared to ignore its more liberal supporters – and the conclusively argued opposition of the House of Lords – and force the bill through.
Rushdie is close to despair. ‘If Sir Iqbal Sacranie is the best Mr Blair can offer in the way of a good Muslim, we have a problem,’ he said last year.
I say let’s not despair, let’s deal. We’ll allow fundamentalists to express their funny views about homosexuality. In return, they can allow us to express our views about them. We might call our compromise ‘a free society’.