ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on how the UK is in a bad place when it comes to racism – and why recent political events have made it worse.
Amid all the excitement (sic) ahead of the election, I overlooked a request from the editor to contribute to the ‘book of the year’ feature in the Christmas special edition. Had it been a choice for the year ahead, I would probably have chosen Better to Live, a very personal, psychological and psychiatric account of a lifelong struggle with depression, which is out in May. I cannot recommend it highly enough though it may be that, as its author, I am somewhat biased.
Looking back on 2019, I have a shortlist of four, one fiction, three non-fiction. Partly inspired by Nicola Sturgeon, I intend to recalibrate my balance between fiction and non-fiction in 2020. When Scotland’s first minister disclosed her reading list for the year just gone, she revealed herself to be a major consumer of novels. I also noticed in a photograph taken at her home that authors are arranged alphabetically on her bookshelves. I find this curiously impressive.
As for the work of fiction that made my own shortlist, I came late to the party for Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, but having done so, all I can say is that Gail Honeyman deserves all the awards and the sales, the fame, the fortune and the film rights that her debut novel has delivered since publication in 2017.
I go even further back for the three non-fiction books on my shortlist. Indeed I was only three when, in 1960, American journalist William L Shirer wrote his account of Nazi Germany, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Though it is badly dated in parts – his views on homosexuals come as a bit of a shock to a modern reader – it is nonetheless an epic, and hard to read without seeing things that resonate today.
My second choice was written more recently, in 2018, but with similar themes updated for the modern world, Fascism: A Warning, by former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright. If Shirer’s obsession was Hitler, Albright’s are leaders of today, including some in the great democracies, not least the US, who are busy undermining and undoing the institutions and the practices of democracy.
My winner, The Volunteer, by Jack Fairweather, was indeed written last year, though the remarkable story it tells also dates back to the Hitler era.
I am somewhat ashamed to say I had never heard of the book’s hero – and hero is the right word – a Polish resistance agent named Witold Pilecki. The book’s title comes from the fact that Pilecki volunteered to get himself sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, to develop a resistance unit, and to gather intelligence in the hope that the realities of what was happening there could be communicated to the outside world, and provoke international outrage and action.
Though most of us know the outlines of the Auschwitz story, it is such an important one that there can never be too much detail when it comes to telling it. Fairweather’s is a great book not simply because at its heart is a great man, blessed with seemingly limitless courage, cunning and humanity; but also because of the often minute details recorded of everyday life during the two and a half years he was imprisoned, prior to his escape.
Page after page, you’re left asking not just how it came to be that such unspeakable inhumanity was normalised, but also how it took so long for the world to find out the full extent of what was going on there. And part of the answer, sad to say, was, amid all the other challenges of wartime, indifference among the anti-German powers.
Though eventually they took the kind of interest Pilecki had been risking his life to generate, it was a long, slow story, and unimaginable suffering was inflicted in the meantime. The Shirer book focuses much more on the appeasement of Hitler by, not least, UK prime minister Neville Chamberlain. But it was by exploiting the very human desire in most people not to see or fear the worst that Hitler was able to get away with what was happening in Auschwitz for as long as he did.
I have written here before about the parallels between the 1930s and today, and I hope my recommended reading list does not expose an unhealthy obsession.
But the reason I chose to write about my book choice two weeks after being asked to was because of something that happened not in the 1930s, or 1940s, in Germany, but in London, not far from where I live, last weekend.
My partner Fiona and I were out for a walk with Georgia Gould, daughter of my close friend and colleague Philip Gould, who died nine years ago, and her fiancé, Alex Zatman. Georgia, leader of Camden Council, took a call which somewhat ruined the nice, quiet, calm, post-Christmas, pre-New Year time we were having.
“Oh my God,” is rarely a good sign as the first response. The reason was that the call was to tell her of the anti-Semitic graffiti which had been painted on Camden shops and a synagogue.
No doubt ‘oh my God’ is exactly the response that the hard-right, hard-left, or just plain hard-nasty anti-Semites responsible would want from a female, Jewish, Labour council leader like Georgia. But whether it is the action of a lone saddo, or something more organised, being horrified is the right reaction.
Is graffiti highlighting anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, or the anniversary of Kristallnacht, as horrifying as gas chambers, or people being forced to dig their own graves, or live and then die in the brutal squalor outlined in Fairweather’s book? No, maybe not. But what all three of my non-fiction choices show is that fascism doesn’t start with the gruesome stories told in The Volunteer. It ends there… if it is allowed to.
It is up to all of us, but especially political leaders, to make sure it doesn’t, not least by calling out anti-Semitism, and indeed any racism, wherever it shows itself.
We – as in we the UK – are not in a good place on this. Football pundit Gary Neville was, if I may use a football pundit cliché, spot on to point out the possible link between a seeming revival of racist abuse inside football grounds, and the fact that we have just endured an election in which the two dominant figures, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, have faced legitimate and disturbing questions about their and their parties’ attitudes with regard to race.
Johnson needs to understand that the word of a prime minister carries a lot more weight than the word of a journalist. He needs to use his words a lot more carefully, and seek to curb his habit of pandering rather than challenging on race. And whoever finally follows Corbyn as Labour leader needs to show a far more robust and rigorous attitude to anti-Semitism in the party.
British leaders, sadly, do not matter nearly as much as they did in the war years. In Shirer’s account, Hitler was obsessed with the views of “England”, and in Fairweather’s, Pilecki was desperate for the realities of life in the camp to be presented to senior politicians in London. But they still matter a lot. And the very minimum required of our politics right now is that all the leaders of all the main parties understand the risks attached to the rise of racism, and in word and deed work to halt it. The signs, thus far, are not great. But the risks are enormous.