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Friday, 19 August 2011

Party leaderships should distance themselves from Livingstone and Walker

Here in Scotland, while SNP MSP Bill Walker has been actively cultivating his reputation of being a crusty, reactionary religionist bigot, his party's leadership have - quite surprisingly - been silent on the matter.

For those not well-informed about Scottish political matters, the SNP government announced that later in the year it would be running a democratic consultation on same-sex marriage. This is a positive move, supported (obviously) by the Liberal Democrats, Greens and the Labour Party. Unfortunately, in advance of the consultation and unhelpfully pre-empting its findings, one SNP MSP - John Mason - put forward a motion in which he suggests that the government's actions amount to forcing equal marriage upon those who oppose it, and asks the government to "note" that there are many Scots opposed to marriage equality. As I observed at the time, this is a rather spurious justification; I wonder if Mason would accept that the SNP should not pursue independence simply because many Scots are opposed to it?

While Mason's move was unhelpful, worse was to come in the shape of another SNP MSP: Bill Walker. Walker went further than Mason, arguing that "gay marriage is a contradiction in terms" and "just not right". More pertinently, in a bizarre outburst he compared LGBT rights campaigners to Nazis. I'm sure the First Minister, along with every sane person in Scotland, realises that is not the kind of language either his party or Scotland wants to be identified with in the lead-up to the consultation.

There is no doubt that this has been embarrassing for the SNP and the First Minister personally. Yet he has persistently refused to criticise Bill Walker, even for the sick and unnecessary Nazi slur. Scottish Television reported that, when a Labour MP privately asked Mr Salmond to distance himself from Walker's comments, not only did he refuse but was "rattled" and "went absolutely crazy". While I can fully appreciate why defending Walker must be rather uneviable; what I don't quite comprehend is why Salmond is refusing to even comment, let alone take action. We haven't even seen an intervention along the lines of "Walker is entitled to his view but they're not necessarily those of the SNP as a whole." Nothing.

I have a great deal of respect for Alex Salmond and I am disappointed, as well as surprised, that he has not sought to distance himself or his party from Bill Walker's ill-advised remarks. The homophobic sentiment expressed by Walker was bad enough, but the Nazi references are simply inexcusable. I can not, for example, imagining the SNP leadership remaining so silent if Walker had made a similar statement on the issue of race or gender. A week later and Salmond continues to refuse either to apologise or to condemn the comments. I can understand Salmond not wanting to turn this into a political issue but the longer he maintains his silence, the greater the likelihood of it becoming one.

Salmond must distance himself from Walker and his intolerant attitudes otherwise there is a very real risk that the SNP's reputation for equaility and fairness will be seriously undermined. The likes of Walker must also appreciate that with elected office come certain responsibilities and one of those is not to label those of a different opinion as Nazis in the national press.

Yesterday, in a different political context, another high profile politician made an unwelcome reference to Nazism. Labour candidate for London Mayoral elections, Ken Livingstone, referred to his contest with incumbent Boris Johnson as "a simple choice between good and evil", and akin to "the great struggle between Churchill and Hitler". Such a statement both historically inaccurate in the extreme as well as insulting on a number of levels, especially to those who fought against Nazism in the 1940s. Livingstone went on to make some rather unfunny jokes about voters supporting other candidates burning is Hell "for all eternity". While not providing much in the way of amusement, Livingstone's humour does provide some curious insights into the workings of this man's mind.

Reaction was predictable. Mr Johnson's campaign has said it is ignoring the comments, but they seem the only people in London who are. Every newspaper, local and national, are running with the story. Today's Independent quotes Tory MP Gavin Barwell who says that "even to joke that Londoners who don't vote for him will 'burn forever' after everything we have been through in the past two weeks is crass even by his standards. After the events of the last week, Londoners need a mayor who will unite our city, not one who regards people who don't share his views as evil."

Mr Barwell is correct: Livingstone's comments were crass, ill-advised, potentially inflammatory and divisive. I personally have concerns that someone who is running for high office can not only compare opponents to Hitler but then have the temerity to later dismiss it as mere "humour". It is not remotely funny and even Labour supporters on twitter were shocked and embarrassed. A Labour frontbencher told the Daily Mail that "every time he opens his mouth, he becomes a less serious contender for London mayor. Whatever you think of Boris Johnson, he cannot be compared to Adolf Hitler. And nobody in their right mind would compare Ken Livingstone to Churchill."

Ken Livingstone belongs to the same school of political thought as Bill Walker: if you don't like someone, and lack the intellectual rigour to win the argument, just call them a Nazi. Such an approach to political discussion is not befitting of a local councillor, let alone an MSP or the Mayor of London. Ed Miliband must distance himself at the very least from these stupid comments and probably from Livingstone himself who has a reputation for pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable. I appreciate that, with Livingstone's past, any Labour leader will naturally be wary of risking a prolonged fight with him but the ex-mayor lacks the credibility and popularity he once had. Surely it wouldn't be hard for Labour to find a strong and serious candidate capable of taking the fight to Boris Johnson.

No respectable person should using Nazi analogies as terms of abuse, and Livingston and Walker have both been widely and publicly criticised for it. However, that none of this criticism has come from their respective party leaders is deeply concerning. There must be serious questions asked as to whether Walker and Livingstone are fit for public life; until Salmond and Miliband openly criticise these renegades there also remain very real questions about their own fitness for office.

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