I didn’t plan to write this piece. Back in October, when I interviewed Peter Tatchell it was intended to be for video only. And sure enough we published the full video, as well as broken down clips, on Facebook and YouTube. Later on we also posted a couple of short news pieces based on the interview. Yet I still had this nagging feeling that I hadn’t quite done the discussion justice. That something was missing. This article is the belated result.
What surprised me most about meeting Peter Tatchell was how much I agreed with him. I may be a conservative, and he a socialist campaigner, but our views didn’t feel diametrically opposed. Granted on economic policy there was little common ground. But on free speech, dealing with dictatorial regimes and much of social policy we were substantially aligned. I think this says a lot about how much the centre of gravity in British conservatism has shifted in the past 40 years, largely in my view for the better. Yet the left has changed as well. Not so long ago the idea of a left-wing activist refusing to share a platform with Tatchell would have sounded like satire, and yet it has come to pass. I spent 90 minutes discussing this transition, and its causes, with Tatchell back in October.
Below is a summary of what he said by certain key themes, whilst I’ve posted my video of the whole interview at the bottom.
Tatchell is a strong supporter of free speech describing it as ‘one of the most precious and important of all human rights’. He explains that ‘I don’t believe there is a right not to be offended. I believe one of the hallmarks of a free and open society is you do have a free and open debate, that people are free to say what they think’. Tatchell insists on applying this position consistently, including to those belief systems which incorporate a God: ‘I think it’s very dangerous the way in which people who have made in their own minds perfectly valid criticisms of religious ideas and practices should be labelled as racists…all ideas, including my own, should be subject to criticism and scrutiny’.
On the bigger pitcher Tatchell asserts that ‘there certainly has been a summersault to some degree between left and right on free speech. In the 1960’s…free speech and enlightenment values were very much core and central to left-wing thinking’. Meanwhile ‘nowadays much of the right is championing free speech’ though ‘I’d make certain qualifications about why they are doing it’. We turn specifically to campus authoritarianism with Tatchell noting that ‘in some universities there have been some very worrying trends in terms of no platforms and safe spaces which have inhibited free speech’.
Tatchell is a critical supporter of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. He describes him as ‘the right guy for next Prime Minister’ but ‘there are some issues where I do have disagreements’. Partly this relates to economic policy, where Corbyn is ‘not as radical as I am’. Tatchell explains that Corbyn is ‘very good on what I call “welfare statism” – making the benefits system more efficient and fair and good for people in need, making sure the schools and hospitals are in good quality…but I also want to see a structural transformation of the economic system’. But the biggest difference is on foreign policy and in particular how leftists should respond to dictatorial regimes (in 2016 Tatchell disrupted a Corbyn speech on human rights to demand he take stronger action against the Russian bombing of Aleppo).
Regarding the Russian bombing Tatchell asserts that Corbyn ‘could have gone to Parliament and demanded a debate and a vote on humanitarian airdrops’ and describes his decision not to as ‘a huge failing from a left-wing figure who you would have thought would stand in solidarity with civilian populations who were suffering mass indiscriminate bombings’. Russia is described as ‘a quasi police or fascist state’, and in response ‘we haven’t seen any serious solidarity with the democratic or left forces within Russia’ from Corbyn. In particular Tatchell notes that ‘there are thousands of people in the revived network of gulags, secret black prisons which exist all over Russia, many of them are political prisoners…when trade union leaders were threatened by Putin I didn’t hear a word of criticism from Jeremy Corbyn’. Instead ‘If you Jeremy he will say he condemns abuses of human rights in Russia but he’s not actually going out and supporting campaigns and challenging the Putin regime in the way we would expect from any politician and especially a politician on the left’.
Tatchell is if anything even firmer on human rights abuses by Hamas in Gaza, which runs the territory as a one party dictatorship. He describes Corbyn’s silence over this as ‘absolutely wrong and he needs to be called out, the problem is if that happens you get labelled as a Tory or Tory scum…I’m saying it because I want Jeremy Corbyn to do the right thing and because his stance on some of these issues is actually undermining Labour’. Similarly ‘When I think about Jeremy’s longstanding critique of Saudi Arabia, he’s been very very good at highlighting the human rights abuses’ by the Saudi state, ‘but he’s never said anything like those kinds of criticisms when it comes to the Assad or Putin regimes in Syria or to the actions of the Iranian backed Houthis in Yemen – they’re also committing war crimes…but I haven’t heard Jeremy condemn the Houthis or Iran’.
Left support for totalitarian dictators
Related to what he said about Corbyn many of Tatchell’s most emotive lines were used when criticising those on the left who sympathise with anti-Western totalitarian dictatorships, on faux anti-imperialist grounds. He asserts that ‘How anybody on the left can support Putin Russia is beyond me, it is a shark capitalist society built on the theft of state assets by oligarchs who are nearly all in league with Putin…Putin is in league with the Russian Orthodox Church which is one of the most misogynistic, homophobic and religiously sectarian religious institutions in the world, it’s unbelievable and it shows how the left really has lost the plot’. Tatchell adds that this ‘mirrors the look the other way attitude which many on the right adopted to totalitarian regimes like Pinochet’s, South African apartheid, Franco’s Spain’.
I ask why, in Tatchell’s view, a section of the British hard-left appear to sympathise with ultra-reactionary powers like Putin’s Russia. He asserts that ‘a lot of them take the view that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so Russia is a counterweight to the US, the US is the main enemy therefore we must support Russia’. However ‘I don’t buy that. If you make alliances with devils you become tainted by them, you collude with the oppression they inflict upon their own people…if you took that attitude you would say that the left should have supported Nazism because it was standing up to the British Empire’. Indeed Tatchell adds that ‘sections of the left did for a period dismiss the war against Nazism as another inter-imperialist war but they never really cosied up with Hitler in the way that some on the left are now doing with Putin’.
Regarding the British left more generally Tatchell explains ‘I think it’s certainly true that much of the left is driven by an anti-Western agenda, and I share a lot of the critique they have of the West, but that doesn’t push me into the arms of unpleasant anti-human rights movements like Hamas and Hezbullah. They stand for values and principles which are totally diametrically opposed to those of the left’. He later underlines this point by asking ‘why would any left-winger want to support an organisation like Hamas that would jail trade unionists, jail socialists, that doesn’t believe in political or economic freedom or equality, that everything in its agenda is stamped by the hallmark of religious fundamentalism and theocracy, is wants a theocratic state, and that…is a negation of left-wing values’.
This criticism of those on the left who turn a blind eye to authoritarianism is maintained consistently, including towards those regimes which claim to be of the left. Tatchell is deeply critical of the ‘love in that many on the left have with Venezuela’. He notes that ‘this regime is maintaining itself in power with tear gas and even bullets, many on the Venezuelan left are also disenchanted with the regime at a time when many Western leftists are still singing its praises’. Curiously Tatchell claims that the Maduro regime isn’t of the left at all, but rather ‘is a right-wing anti-working-class Government which is using the cloak of socialism to justify its existence’. He adds that ‘in all the basic tenants of economic and political policy the Venezuelan regime now fits a classic right-wing template’.
Now of course Peter Tatchell is best known for his the lifetime he’s spent trying to improve gay rights, so we turn to discuss this subject. Tatchell is clear both that enormous progress has been made on this subject in his lifetime, transforming the lives of millions of gay people, and that much still needs to be done. He notes that ‘in the late 1980s at the height of the aids panic… two thirds of British people polled said homosexuality was mostly or always wrong. Now that figure’s down to about a fifth. So a huge huge positive change’.
However homophobia remains a big problem, particularly in early education were ‘half or nearly half of all LGBT people in schools get bullied and victimised’ whilst ‘a third of LGBT people in the country, getting close to a million people, have been victims of homophobic hate crime’. Tatchell believes that education can do much to improve the situation, calling for ‘LGBT inclusive sex education in schools…that should start during the first year of primary school…I think that can really change things for the future’.
We discuss some of the campaigns Tatchell has mounted, and tactics he has used, in the name of improving gay rights. Perhaps most controversially was the public outing or threatened outing by OutRage!, within which Tatchell was a key figure, of gay bishops and MPs who publically opposed equal gay rights in the 1990s. Towards the end of 1994 OutRage! outed ten Bishops as gay, in response to their part in opposing gay equality within the Church of England. It followed this up in 1995 by threatening to out 20 MPs it believed were gay, who had voted against gay rights legislation.
Tatchell is entirely unrepentant, indeed his only chief regret is that the tactic, which he terms ‘ethical outing’, wasn’t employed earlier. He explains that ‘I think probably I should have tried to do outing much sooner……I think if some politicians had been threatened with outing in the 1980s many of them would not have voted against equality’. Beyond this he admits the campaign sometimes had perception problems with OutRage ‘not prepared for the firestorm of misrepresentation that followed’. In particular he noted the common perception that the Bishops were being outed simply because ‘they were gay and in the closet’, instead ‘it was because they were part of the homophobic church and colluding with the homophobic church that was oppressing not only LGBT Christians but the wider LGBT community’.
When it comes to gay marriage, which was legalised by the Tory/Lib Dem Government in 2013, Tatchell admits that Cameron ‘does deserve considerable credit because I think there are other Conservative leaders like Iain Duncan Smith who never ever would have done it’. He references his own role in the process, stating that in 2010 ‘I ambushed Boris Johnson at the London LGBT pride parade in front of all the media and asked him if he would be supporting marriage equality…eventually I got him to say yes’. Once that happened ‘I put that out to loads of Tory MP’s all over the country I said “Boris is supporting marriage equality will you?” and a lot of backbench MP’s who had been hesitating, once Boris said yes they came on-board’. When pitching to Tory MPs Tatchell made the point that ‘marriage is a conservative value, that the Conservatives believe in strong and stable families’. He notes that the language of Cameron’s 2011 Conservative Party Conference speech was ‘almost, perhaps by coincidence, the wording I’d been circulating’.
A lifetime of activism
We turn finally to discuss Tatchell’s experiences during a lifetime of political activism, activities which have made Tatchell one of the most renown campaigners in the UK. Taking on violent homophobes, dictatorial regimes and far-right fascists and Islamists has not been easy. Tatchell explains that ‘I’ve been attacked well over 300 times, actual physical violent attacks, including about 50 bricks and bottles through my flat window, three arson attacks, a bullet through the front door, and I’ve been beaten up with fists, bottles, iron bars, bricks you name it, a few attempts to stab me in the street’. From 2004-6 he was under armed police protection as a result of his campaigning against certain Jamaican Reggae and Dancehall artists who advocated violence against homosexuals, when he ‘organised the stopping and cancelling of their concerts all over Britain, Europe and the United States which cost them millions and millions of pounds in lost revenue’. In response he was ‘told by the police that a hit man…had been sent to kill me’. More recently Tatchell has received ‘a lot of pretty serious death threats from Islamist extremists’.
The impact of a lifetime of violent attacks and intimidation has, quite understandably, had a significant impact on Tatchell’s health. He explains that ‘I’ve experienced post-traumatic stress disorder to the point where I have night terrors wake up in the middle of the night literally clutching my heart felt like it’s almost pounding out of my chest, and that’s very scary’. As a result ‘it’s been a very very high pressure life and there have been moments of depression and anxiety and thinking oh this isn’t worth it’, but ‘then I somehow find the inner strength to think well I have helped make these changes, I should keep going because I can make more’. Considering the impact of his work, which must have benefited thousands of lives in the UK and beyond, I dare say there are a great many who are glad he did.