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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: The stabbing of Salman Rushdie gives new perspective to the ludicrous ‘war on woke’

This attack is what free speech is all about - not the ravings of Nadine Dorries

Image: The New European

Prior to the horrific stabbing of Salman Rushdie, I am sure there were plenty among those voting in the Truss-Sunak horror show, who would have had him down as, well, a bit woke. Arty-farty, lefty, not very “typical British” sounding or looking, and didn’t he used to complain about the British State despite them giving him the protection that kept him safe for so long after the fatwa was first placed upon him 33 years ago?

For all the nonsense about the “woke rubbish”, as Rishi Sunak calls it, that the two Tory contenders have put at the heart of their awful campaigns, the attack in New York brought some real perspective to another debate that gets the anti-woke right into a right old lather, namely free speech. To many of them, free speech is about not being able to say what you think about being “swamped by immigrants;” it’s old men who have never met a trans person getting even redder in the face about “pronouns”; it’s getting angry about lines in famous old children’s books being revised for the modern age; and tutting and shaking your head and asking “what was wrong with the Black and White Minstrels anyway? It didn’t offend ME!”

In my experience, when someone says “can you even say that any more?” the answer is almost invariably yes, you can; it’s just that certain things that were once deemed sayable (by some) – the N-word, the P-word for example  – have rightly been moved to the dustbin of history for all. 

The attack on Rushdie, on the other hand, really was an attack on free speech, one put in place before the actual assailant was even born. It was a writer being attacked because of his artistic expression, and the weaponisation of his work by others. I wonder if our culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, fully understands that. As a writer herself, she should. 

Yet her current obsession in the freedom of speech debate is that a prime minister should be free to lie at the Despatch Box in the House of Commons, and MPs should not be free to investigate this, without being subject to a campaign of abuse and vilification by her and Paul Dacre, her fellow soon-to-be-honoured-with-a-peerage by the most dishonoured prime minister in history abuser and vilifier.

I should declare an interest here. Salman Rushdie, and even more so his former wife Elizabeth West, became friends during that period when he was under 24/7 protection by the Special Branch. Fiona and I saw them fairly regularly, because they were very close to former Labour leader Michael Foot, and his wife Jill Craigie, huge supporters of the author in good times and bad. The Foots lived near us and often invited us to join them, Salman and Elizabeth for dinner. 

Michael, even in old age, was a wonderful raconteur, as well as being full of sound and solid advice for me, by then working for his successor Tony Blair. These gatherings were occasionally further enlivened by the fact that another former Labour leader, Neil Kinnock and wife Glenys, were also there, and I promise you, a night out with the Foots, the Kinnocks and the Rushdies was never anything other than entertaining, and culturally and politically stimulating. 

It is true that Salman sometimes found the 24/7 presence of his dark-suited, heavily-armed, permanently-ear-pieced minders oppressive. I think unless you have ever been in that position, where literally overnight your freedom is removed from you, and you are warned that your life is in real danger unless you agree to levels of protection granted to very few, it is hard fully to understand what it is like. He was grateful to them on a personal level, but frustrated at what his life had become, so that even as he was driven away from the Foots, we didn’t necessarily know where he was going, and at times nor did he. 

I remember him once complaining, ahead of a general election, that he didn’t have a vote “because I don’t have a permanent address.”

‘Oh,” I said. “I thought you lived here. You’re always here when we come round.” He saw the funny side, and appreciated too the incredible support Michael and Jill gave him.

Protection on the level he had is unbelievably expensive. It is not just the team you see with the person under protection; there is an advance team ahead of them at their next destination; the overtime and travel bills are enormous. So I am sure that not only he, but the security services, were pleased when they were able to make the judgement that the security levels could be cut down somewhat with the passage of time.

There will be those saying that perhaps he should have had that level of protection for life. I doubt Salman and his family will be among them. But as he lies in hospital, amid all the sympathy rightly flowing his way from around the world, it is worth reminding ourselves that arts and culture are fundamental to a well-functioning, happy, healthy, economically strong society; and that the issues surrounding the freedom of speech debate need to be reclaimed by progressives, not reduced to yet another lowest common denominator in the culture war nonsense so loved by the anti-woke brigade.

Can someone explain to me why England rugby coach Eddie Jones was “rebuked” by the RFU for pointing out that the game suffered because of the hold of private schools? Since when did telling the truth become a rebukeable offence? Is this the consequence of us having post-truth politicians at the top of the governing party, both the exiting leader and the next one, that other organisations turn against the truth too? 

Rugby players, as I know from my time on the Lions tour of New Zealand in 2005, like straight talking. They want coaches who level with them and don’t bullshit. 

A couple of years ago Jones and I did an event together in front of an audience of UK military personnel, and I saw close-up that he is someone who levels with people and doesn’t bullshit. He should be praised for telling the truth not rebuked, and the RFU should be more concerned with developing the game in state schools, than defending a status quo out of political rather than sporting grounds.

Right – I am on my private schools kick now and you’re not going to get me off it. Any time these Tory charlatans dare to talk about levelling up, dig out the graphic published last week by the Institute for Fiscal Studies detailing the changes in funding per pupil in state schools and private schools since 2004. 

For the private school sector, a steadily rising line. For state schools, a steadily rising line from 2004 to 2010, as the record investment under Labour kicked in. Then, as the private sector line keeps rising, the state line falls sharply as austerity bites, and it is now just bumping along the bottom, the gap between the two lines widening.

Levelling up my arse. Blood. Boiling. And to think the taxpayer subsidises the private schools via the nonsense of charitable status. Can we all please wake up to the reality of who these people are and what they are doing?

Finally, back to sport and to the superior form of rugby, rugby league.

A few weeks ago I was in Newcastle for the Magic Weekend, in which all the Superleague clubs take part. I had been chatting to Catalan Dragons star Sam Tomkins, was heading for a coffee with Warrington Wolves CEO Karl Firzpatrick, when a man came up to me and said he had written a screenplay about the origins of the sport, and its breakaway from rugby union in 1895 and would I like to see it? I said I would and he sent it to me.

Since then I have accidentally deleted it and can’t find it anywhere. Added to which I can’t remember the guy’s name. So if he is reading this, or any of you know someone who has been writing a screenplay about rugby league, can you ask him to get in touch again, please? Thanks.

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