David Rose

What happened to the open-minded Diane Abbott that I once knew?

The Hackney MP's attempt to disassociate herself from her letter to the Observer was unconvincing

April 28, 2023 11:07

Back in the 1980s, when I was a fledgling reporter for the London magazine Time Out, my friendship group included several people who worked for the breakfast TV station, TV AM. Among them was a young, African-Caribbean producer with obvious intelligence, an open mind and a warm, outgoing personality.

She’d been to Cambridge, where she was supervised by the great Jewish historian Simon Schama and had been chair of the university Liberal Club. A few years later, in 1987, she became Britain’s first black female MP. Her name, of course, was Diane Abbott.

It's hard to square those memories of her with the events of the past few days: of Abbott’s letter to The Observer, in which she claimed that Jews cannot be victims of racism, but only “prejudice” of the type endured by other white-skinned minorities such as redheads; of her unconvincing attempt to disassociate herself from its contents, with the claim that the published version was merely an “initial draft”; of the swift Labour Party decision to withdraw its whip from her; and, not least, the denunciation of her views by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer as “antisemitic”.

The JC has covered this saga intensely, breaking two exclusive stories. First came our disclosure that she sent the same letter on two separate occasions a few hours apart without amending it, a full seven days before it was published.

We’ve also run an interview with the writer Tomiwa Owolade, whose own Observer piece saying that anti-Jewish racism needed to be taken as seriously as any other kind triggered Abbott’s missive. In Owolade’s view, she cannot be allowed to stand again for Labour unless she offers a much more persuasive apology and a proper explanation for what she said – which seems vanishingly improbable. 

There are some obvious lessons from this affair. As Owolade told me, we do now have evidence that some on the left really do think that Jews, as white, sometimes well-off and powerful people, cannot suffer from racism – a pernicious idea that echoes ancient antisemitic tropes. Encouragingly, this claim has been denounced by all but a handful.

The story of Abbott’s letter also supplies more evidence, of which plenty already exists, that Sir Keir was deadly serious when he said on his first day as leader he would do all he could to tear out Labour antisemitism by its roots – and is quite prepared to be ruthless when required.

But to me, there is another, sadder aspect to this. Whatever happened to that warm, open-minded TV AM producer – who, as Owolade told me, once strenuously denounced the American Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan for what he unquestionably was, a rabid, Jew-hating bigot? What was it that turned her into this glowering, hard-left apparatchik? Was it the racism she has, undoubtedly, experienced? The baleful influence of her comrades? Or has she changed simply as a consequence of being in the bear pit of politics for so long? I don’t have the answer, but I do feel regret.

I’m rather less sympathetic to the MP from the other side of the Commons aisle who permanently lost his party’s whip this week – Andrew Bridgen, finally expelled from the Tories for his grotesque claim that Covid vaccines were the “biggest crime against humanity since the Holocaust”.

On Wednesday, the day of Bridgen’s expulsion, I happened to be sitting in the atrium at Portcullis House, the airy space inside the Westminster complex where journalists and MPs often hang out. A line of reporters was queueing up to interview him, and it seemed that having expressed this repellent opinion, he was revelling in all the attention - and appeared the opposite of contrite.

Karen Pollock of the Holocaust Educational Trust had said that comparisons between life-saving vaccines and history’s worst genocide should have no place in politics, but Bridgen was having none of it. His expulsion, he said, “only confirms the culture of corruption, collusion, and cover-ups which plagues our political system”.

Personally, I’ve no time for vaccine sceptics. Anti-vaxxers – think Andrew Wakefield and MMR – can do great damage. I suppose I would, like Voltaire, defend their right to make their case. But the electorate expects its representatives to be grown-ups. By first making, and then re-emphasising, his vaccine statement, Bridgen proved he isn’t. It’s said he may join the Reclaim Party led by the former actor Laurence Fox. I have a hunch most Tories will think they’re welcome to him.

Abbott’s apology may not have been convincing. But at least she made a stab at it. Bridgen’s response to his well-merited disgrace has been simply to double down.

April 28, 2023 11:07

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