Why we should mourn Denis MacShane’s fall from grace

Campaigner Denis MacShane

Campaigner Denis MacShane

What are we to make of Denis MacShane’s fall from grace? This week, the former Europe Minister pleaded guilty to filing nearly £13,000 of false expenses claims from his think tank, the European Policy Institute.

Mr MacShane has described his actions as “a grotesque mistake”. It is certainly that. He has already paid a heavy price for his poor judgment in terms of loss of reputation and he could still face a greater one when he is sentenced next month.

I hope he does not go to prison, but then I count myself as a friend of Denis MacShane. My opinion on his sentence and every other aspect of this case must be taken in this context.

I first came across his work as a journalist and campaigner when I was living in Paris in the early 1990s and when his centrist, pro-European, anti-totalitarian position was deeply unfashionable and New Labour was yet to be invented. I did not always agree with him but, unlike many on the left, he at least reached the positions he took by thinking them through.

He has been one of the community’s greatest champions

But I only got to know him properly when I began writing about the rise of political Islam in Britain. As someone who had taken the time to read into the subject, he was one of the few politicians on the left who grasped the authoritarian nature of political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East and Jamaat-e-Islami in South Asia.

His campaigning against antisemitism has always been similarly rooted in an understanding of its historical and intellectual roots.

We British have always been suspicious of people like Denis MacShane: academic, multilingual, “foreignish”. He is the very definition of “too clever by half”, a crime far worse in some people’s eyes than expenses fiddling.

A year ago, I wrote in these pages that the Jewish community needed to decide if it wished to stand by one of its greatest champions after he resigned as MP for Rotherham. His disgrace is greater now and there is every reason to feel disappointed in Denis and even let down. There are those who will suggest that the causes he espoused are somehow morally poisoned by the crimes to which he has admitted.

There are certainly some who will draw comfort from the fact that such an active campaigner has been removed from the field.

I have no doubt that, whatever happens, Denis MacShane will be back. He has reinvented himself before and he will do it again, perhaps under his original name, Denis Matyjaszek. But, for now, others must enter the rather large space he vacates fighting racism and totalitarianism. His causes are pure, even if Denis MacShane is less so.

Last updated: 11:07am, November 22 2013