Tariq Ali is recalling a party for the late Tony Benn on the House of Commons terrace shortly after Labour’s 1997 election victory. “Edward Miliband, as he was known then, came up to me, eyes shining, very excited, asking: ‘Tariq, what would you do if you had just won?’ I said: ‘The first thing I would do is to renationalise the railways. Between 70 and 80% of the people want that, it would be very popular.’ And he rolled his eyes in despair at me.”
That Milibandian eye roll was, for Ali, a symbolic moment: it typified how the current Labour leader had snapped into line with the Blairite betrayal of the social democratic principles of the party that, under Clement Attlee, had created the NHS and nationalised the commanding heights of the economy – the very principles that Ed’s father Ralph Miliband stood for.
Indeed, in his introduction to a new collection of Ralph Miliband’s writing, called Class War Conservatism and Other Essays, Ali quotes his anti-capitalist socialist intellectual friend approvingly on the nature of that betrayal. “The failure of social democracy implicates not only those responsible for it,” wrote Ralph Miliband. “Because of it the path is made smoother for would-be popular saviours, whose extreme conservatism is carefully concealed beneath a demagogic rhetoric of national renewal and social redemption.”
Ralph Miliband, who died in 1994, did not live to see New Labour in power, still less Ed or David rise through its ministerial ranks, but Tariq Ali suspects he wouldn’t have enjoyed the sight. “His political views were far removed from those of his sons, and pretending otherwise is foolish,” writes Ali. “He was extremely close to his sons, proud of their success, as any other migrant refugee would be – his kids have done well in a foreign land – but not in a political sense at all. He loathed New Labour and in our last conversation described Blair as ‘Teflon man’. Neither he nor his wife, Marion – an equally strong-minded socialist and feminist – ever tried to inflict their politics on their kids. Given his short temper, I wonder whether this self-denying ordinance would have survived the Iraq war. I doubt it.”
Nor did Ralph Miliband live to witness New Labour’s U-turns over nationalisation. In his new book, The Extreme Centre: A Warning, Ali recalls how, in the early 1990s, John Prescott and Frank Dobson promised to overturn John Major’s sell-off of British Rail. “Let me make it crystal clear,” said Prescott, the future Labour deputy leader, “that any privatisation of the railway system that does take place will, on the arrival of a Labour government, be quickly and effectively dealt with … and returned to public ownership.”
As you’ll have noticed, that didn’t happen. Once in power, New Labour continued the Tories’ neoliberal agenda. Today, Labour promises “public control” of the rail network. But it falls some way short of the version of “red Ed” that is lodged in the popular imagination, and which Ali wishes was a reality.
Another source of shame, he writes, came in the spectacle of New Labour ministers “celebrat[ing] the party’s startling change of register in 1997 by enriching themselves”. There’s a section in the book called “The Trough”, in which Ali lists those new Labour ministers who, after office, profited by advising or serving as directors of firms that benefit from privatisation of healthcare and private finance initiatives. The likes of Alan Milburn, Charles Clarke, Patricia Hewitt and Tony Blair (whose fortune Ali estimates to be between £40m and £60m) parlayed democratic political office into private fortunes, he contends. “The symbiosis of big money and minimalist politics has reached unprecedented heights.”
The unprincipled U-turns, the grubby symbiosis, and what Ali calls “Tweedledum-Tweedledee” party politics have alienated the electorate, he argues, and made us feel democracy as practised in Westminster is a peculiarly sick version of what it was supposed to be: rule by and for the people. Ali has a plan to change all that.
“You can’t just wait for something to happen. You have to do something,” says the 71-year-old, removing the splendid Red Army sheepskin coat he bought a long time ago in New York for $75, after having pictures taken in the garden of his home in Highgate, north London. “I suggest a charter of demands. Try to get a million signatures, starting now in 2015. Then march en masse to parliament and present the demands to the Speaker. Doesn’t matter who’s in power.” He calls it the Grand Remonstrance of the People of England.
The last Grand Remonstrance, you may recall, took place on 1 December 1641, when the English parliament presented a list of 204 grievances to Charles I about the way he was running the country. It was followed by civil war and the beheading of the king, and, as one of the greatest history books about that era was entitled, the world turned upside down.
Ali is proposing something similar, perhaps minus the beheading. What would his Grand Remonstrance contain? “Renationalising the railways and most of the utilities – gas, water, electricity. Just take them back. Argue with whoever says that can’t be done. Cut down military spending, reduce this absurd notion that Britain is a big player on the world stage – it isn’t.”
Ali’s initiative is borne of exasperation with the English. He’s tired of contrasting the exciting political cultures of Scotland and Greece, and the Bolivarian social democracies of South America, with the inert English, supine in the face of democratic deficit and neoliberal austerity. “It’s such a simple idea. I think lots and lots of young people would be interested, and it would unite people who are not engaged in politics, and some who are but don’t know what to do.”
There’s nothing so intolerable to Ali as disengagement: his life has been one of unremitting political enthusiasm. In the 1960s, the Pakistani-born, Oxford-educated leftist writer and film-maker quickly became an iconic figure of the New Left, a writer for the socialist Black Dwarf newspaper, a leading figure in the Trotskyist International Marxist Group, one of the signatories, along with the Beatles, of a petition calling for marijuana to be legalised, and so synonymous with radical demos (such as the one outside the US embassy in London against the Vietnam war in 1968) that he, reportedly, became the inspiration for the Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man. In the 1970s he stood as a Trotskyist candidate for parliament. He has written 20-plus books on history and politics, plus novels and screenplays. When he talks, the left listens.
Last year he was in Scotland, and found a political culture north of the border that made him sorrowful that he had the misfortune to live south of it. He argues that England in general, and Westminster in particular, is dominated by what he calls the extreme centre. What does that mean? “It is the political system that has grown up under neoliberalism. It has existed in the States for at least a century and a half, where you have two political parties with different clientele but funded by the same source, and basically carrying out the same policies,” says Ali. “This system has now extended to Europe.”
What’s extreme about the extreme centre? “It backs the American wars and it attacks its own people through austerity. It believes in surveillance on a level we have never seen before, it puts civil liberties under threat, it renditions people – a polite word meaning that people are kidnapped and handed over for torture. People talk about the extreme left and the extreme right, but the real danger today is from the extreme centre.”
Such policies are partially responsible for the terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, the rise of Islamophobia and antisemitism, he argues. “State security services know this better than our political leaders. Did you know more young Muslims are employed by the state security services in Britain, France and Germany than work for al-Qaida and Isis? So they must give the security services a pretty good image of what the mood in the community is – and they say again and again that the reason for this radicalisation is the wars Britain and the US are fighting in the Muslim world You go out and fight wars and commit brutalities that make individual terrorist brutalities pale by comparison. How can you expect people not to be radicalised? They have no other way of expressing their anger. And they become terrorists.”
A few days after our interview, I email Ali to ask him about the killings in Copenhagen. What prompted a radical Muslim to kill a participant at a free speech debate and a guard at a synagogue? Ali responds quickly: “Am in the States, where Copenhagen is overshadowed by the Chapel Hill killings [the murder of three Muslim students in North Carolina earlier this month]. A non-religious fundo kills three Muslim students. A jihadi known to Danish intelligence does his business. The violence springs from the chaos of a disordered world.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are no Je suis Charlie stickers on the windows of Ali’s Highgate home. Heroising the murdered Charlie Hebdo staff, as French president François Hollande did, is inimical to Ali. “I knew the magazine in the late 60s, and it was very radical – they were banned by the French government for making fun of De Gaulle the day after he died. In the 80s it had become a stale magazine, and people have told me that one reason for attacking the Muslims and reprinting the Danish cartoons was to boost circulation.” He argues that Je suis Charlie stickers express something other than support for freedom of expression and condemnation of those who murdered in the name of Islam – a loathing for Muslims.
Why, then, does he think Islamophobia, if that’s what it is, is on the rise in Europe? “This is a very straightforward example of finding scapegoats because you don’t want to admit that what you’re doing is partially responsible.” And those he thinks partially responsible for the rise in Islamist terrorism in Europe are the politicians of the extreme centre. Ali cites a recent article in French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, in which one of Charlie Hebdo’s founders, Henri Roussel, contended that French foreign policy is largely to blame for the attack on the magazine. Ali agrees: “Hollande makes wars in countries where he doesn’t need to, to replace someone who’s bad with someone who’s equally bad. You see this in Libya, you see this in Syria, you see this with Isis.”
As in France, so in Britain. It follows that one reason Ali favours a Grand Remonstrance is to create a mass movement in England that would emulate what Syriza has done in Greece and Podemos in Spain – thereby taking on the the extreme centre and revivifying democratic politics. It’s from such grassroots movements that Tariq Ali hopes that the extreme centre will be destroyed.
He certainly has no hope that the general election will do much but change Tweedledum for Tweedledee. “That’s why young people around the country aren’t voting, and why people such as Russell Brand have an appeal. Younger people have been disabused of tribal loyalties to party that are more likely to afflict older people.” He’ll be voting Green. Why? “Because the Green candidate here is an old comrade from the 60s, a trade union activist, anti-war, rock solid on most issues. Why should I bother voting for anyone else?”
He expects Ed Miliband to form the next government, but, because Labour is likely to be trounced in Scotland (“the SNP may well get 80% of the Scottish vote, so Labour heartlands like Glasgow will fall to them”), Ali reckons Miliband will only be able to do so with support from another party. But neither the SNP nor the LibDems, the most likely coalition partners, would be easy for Miliband to work with: Labour spent last year bitterly campaigning against the former, and has spent the past five years denouncing the collaboration of the latter with the Tories’ governmental austerity policies. “In any case, it’s not going to be back to politics as normal.”
Just before we finish, Ali tells me of something that made him despair in London recently: the sight of union jacks flying at half-mast after the Saudi king died. “That was Britain on its knees before big money. It was grotesque and so plain and simple.” Perhaps it was, but many didn’t even notice them, still less understand whose death was being mourned and the ritual abasement the lowered flags symbolised. If Ali wants to awaken England from its apolitical slumbers, he has his work cut out.
• The Extreme Centre is published by Verso at £7.99