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Tariq Ali on the U.K. Election, Brexit & How the Tories Were “Taken Over by the Extreme Right Wing”

Web ExclusiveNovember 22, 2019
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Voters in the United Kingdom head to the polls on December 12, following a five-week campaign dominated by Brexit. The issue has paralyzed British politics since the 2016 referendum, in which a majority of voters in Britain voted to leave the European Union. The Conservative Party, led by Boris Johnson, is campaigning on a promise to “get Brexit done” once and for all, despite the political, social and economic dangers of leaving the bloc. Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn has promised to hold a second Brexit referendum if elected prime minister, while campaigning on ambitious promises including free tuition, expanded public services, the introduction of a 32-hour work week and more.

We continue our conversation with Tariq Ali, historian, activist, filmmaker, author and an editor of the New Left Review. He says the Conservative Party has been “taken over by the extreme right wing,” while Corbyn’s Labour is pushing a “radical social-democratic program.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. On Thursday, British Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn unveiled an ambitious election manifesto promising to transform Britain and resuscitate its public sector. The plan proposed a $100 billion tax increase on the wealthy to fund investment in infrastructure, as well as increased spending on education and healthcare. This is Labour Leader Corbyn speaking in the central English city of Birmingham.

JEREMY CORBYN: Labour’s manifesto is a manifesto for hope. That is what this document is, a manifesto that will bring real change, a manifesto that’s full of popular policies that the political establishment has blocked for a generation. But you can’t have it. At least that’s what the most powerful people in Britain and their supporters want you to believe. Over the next three weeks, they’re going to tell you that everything in this manifesto is impossible, that it’s too much for you, because they do not want real change in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn formally announced he’ll challenge Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a snap election scheduled for December 12th. The election will have huge implications for Brexit. On Tuesday, Corbyn and Johnson sparred on Brexit during a live television debate. This clip begins with Prime Minister Johnson.

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: Mr. Corbyn is trying to conceal the void at the heart of his Brexit policy and refusing to answer the question of which side — which side he would take.


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: But as the public still — the public have a right —


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: The public have a right to know.

JULIE ETCHINGHAM: OK, thank you. Mr. Corbyn, just very — just very briefly, Mr. —

JEREMY CORBYN: I’ve made the position clear: We will have a referendum, we will have negotiation, and we will abide by that result.

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: Let’s be — the union is, of course, the most important thing, just to answer the question straight up. The union — and it’s a fantastic thing. … For the chaotic coalition the team would comprise —


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: — in the second referendum.

JULIE ETCHINGHAM: Thank you. Let’s allow him to respond. Can you rule it out [inaudible]?

JEREMY CORBYN: Well, we witnessed nine years of chaotic coalitions already.

AMY GOODMAN: That was British Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and Prime Minister Boris Johnson debating Tuesday evening. Well, for more, we go to London, where we’re joined by Tariq Ali, historian, activist, filmmaker, author, editor of New Left Review.

Tariq, welcome back to Democracy Now! Explain what’s happening in this snap election that’s been called. What are the issues at stake and the stands Johnson versus Corbyn are taking?

TARIQ ALI: Amy, the first thing you have to understand is that the British Conservative Party has effectively been taken over by the extreme right wing inside that party, and they are waging a very right-wing campaign. On Brexit, their own position has changed from when they were threatening a no-deal Brexit to now accepting a compromise with the European Union. And Boris Johnson has decided to center the election on Brexit because he thinks he can convince people that every other politician in the land, especially Jeremy Corbyn, will never push it through.

The line Corbyn has taken is that whatever deal he achieves with the European Union will be put to the people, and they will be given a choice again. Now, this is unpopular with some of his own supporters, but that’s the deal. However, what Corbyn has been arguing is that he refuses to fight the election on Brexit or no Brexit. He says this election has to be fought on real social and economic issues.

And this is why he unleashed this radical social-democratic program at Birmingham not so long ago, which is the most radical program Labour has had for a very long time, indeed, for many, many decades — renationalizing the railway industry; taking back control of water so it’s no longer in the hands of the privatizers; making sure that the National Health Service is properly funded and that the privatization measures, which were infiltrated into this health service by both Tony Blair and David Cameron, will come to an end; free higher education for all, etc., etc. It’s a radical reforming manifesto. And this is now what the debate is going to be about.

And interestingly enough, amongst the undecided people, Corbyn scored a victory with that television debate, which you just showed an excerpt from. Not one of the great confrontations in British political history, but in any case, he scored well with unattached voters. So he knows that there’s everything to play for. And Corbyn is at his best when he’s campaigning, when he’s talking to ordinary people. He hates mainstream television and how it distorts politics and how it manipulates. And who can blame him? So he’s at his best when he’s talking to people on the streets or big meetings or answering questions from real people.

And we hope that he will become the largest party in Parliament, if not something more than that. I mean, the campaign is now, after a couple of weeks, beginning to pick up. And when I last spoke to Julian Assange and I said to him, “Do you see any hope at all, Julian?” he said, “The only hope is a Corbyn government, Tariq,” because, he said, “I can’t depend on the English judiciary.” So, on many, many levels — civil liberties, women’s rights, racism — I think this is the campaign that we’re going to see. And whether it enthuses enough people, who knows?

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq, I wanted to play for you British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s response to the Labour Party’s election manifesto that the Labor Leader Jeremy Corbyn just unveiled. He was speaking — Prime Minister Johnson was speaking during a campaign visit to a building site in Bedford, England.

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: None of it has any credibility whatever, because the whole of the heart of Labour’s manifesto — this was the moment. You know, it was lights, camera, action. Corbyn comes center stage, drum roll, and he completely misses his cue. Because what we want to know is: What is his plan to deliver Brexit, and what’s the deal he wants to do? And which side would he vote on that deal? And we still don’t know. Until we have answers to those questions, until we get Brexit done, none of this carries any economic credibility whatever.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Tariq Ali, your response?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I mean, it’s not surprising. Jeremy predicted this would be his response. And the answer to Boris Johnson is this: Even the long years Britain has been in the European Union, these policies have slowly been developing. If Britain is or isn’t in the European Union, from this point of view, it doesn’t matter. These are Labour’s policies, and they’re going to push them through regardless of what happens in relation to Brexit. The money is there. The rich are there, the billionaires to be taxed. This is something on which Corbyn is not going to retreat.

And quite honestly, it’s a — Corbyn’s election manifesto is a commonsense manifesto, unless you’re completely on the right or, you know, racist or whatever. I think it’s going to — it’s not going to be easy for Boris to totally demolish this case. That’s the big thing which Labour is banking on.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about Brexit, and talk about Boris Johnson’s view and Jeremy Corbyn’s view and what people will be basing their decision on in the snap election.

TARIQ ALI: Well, Boris’s view is as follows, that there was a referendum agreed to by all the political parties. In this referendum, the pro-European Union parties lost, and a majority of the British public, the highest number of people to vote for anything in this country ever, over 17 million people, over 50%, voted to quit the European Union. And governments have been prevaricating. But the point is this — this is true, by the way. It’s not false. But this referendum was pushed through by the Conservative Party to deal — David Cameron thought it was one way of getting rid of Boris and his gang, because he was convinced the British people would vote to remain in the European Union. Theresa May, who succeeded Cameron, is also pro-EU, and she wasted a lot of time in getting a deal agreed. So, Boris’s campaign for conservative voters is very simple: The people voted; the politicians obstructed. It’s a people-versus-Parliament issue. He’s not spelt it out in these terms yet, but that is what lies behind the thing.

Corbyn’s position is this. It’s three years now. People are fed up of this business. We should settle it for once and for all. So we should have a new referendum to see if people still believe in what they voted for three years ago. And in this referendum, they will be offered two choices: Labour’s Brexit deal or a choice if they’ve changed their minds to remain in the European Union. Now, many people, including Labour supporters, feel that Corbyn should be defending — and they voted for Brexit, especially working-class voters in the north of England — that Corbyn should just implement it. His view is, time has passed; we should have a new referendum.

The way the campaign is fought will determine what people think, Amy. And so far, Labour has made its position clear on Brexit, which obviously Johnson doesn’t like, but is now fighting the campaign on issues central to the everyday lives of working people and ordinary people in this country. Ken Loach’s latest film shows how zero-hours and what neoliberalism has done to the lives of young people. And everyone knows this. This is the experience of people in most parts of the country. So, if this message can be got across over the next few weeks, I’m moderately optimistic. I think — I think Corbyn could win.

The interesting thing is that the Liberal Party, the Liberal Democrats, are waging such a right-wing, anti-Corbyn campaign that now they’ve said that they’ll join a coalition with the Conservatives, Boris Johnson, if Boris just agrees to another referendum, which is very unlikely. And the Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson, though I’ve nicknamed her Jo Strangelove, attacks Corbyn for not saying in public that, if prime minister, he would press the nuclear button, saying he’s a pacifist, he’s this and he’s that, making a nuclear war one of the minor issues in this campaign. So, I mean, I think she will lose votes for saying that, and I think she might even lose her own seat in Scotland, which is very hostile to nuclear weapons. But it’s a crazy campaign, the Liberal —

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq, I wanted to also ask you about something else that came up in the debate between Johnson and Corbyn, and that’s the whole issue of Prince Andrew, Prince Andrew saying Wednesday he’ll withdraw from public duties amidst mounting public anger over his longtime friendship with the now-deceased serial sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein. In a BBC interview that aired Sunday, Prince Andrew denied accusations by Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who says she was sexually trafficked by Epstein and forced to have sex with the prince when she was 17 years old. A photo released by Giuffre shows Prince Andrew standing beside her with his hand around her bare stomach, with Epstein’s longtime confidant Ghislaine Maxwell in the background. I just wanted to go to Prince Andrew in BBC when he was asked if he was sorry for his longtime relationship with Epstein.

EMILY MAITLIS: Do you regret the whole friendship with Epstein?

bq: PRINCE ANDREW: Now, still not, and the reason being is that the people that I met and the opportunities that I was given to learn, either by him or because of him, were actually very useful.

AMY GOODMAN: This was just an astounding response, that Buckingham Palace is trying to take back now, given the allegations against Jeffrey Epstein as a serial sexual predator and sex trafficker. So I wanted to turn to a part of the live TV debate between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his rival Jeremy Corbyn. The moderator asked if the monarchy is fit for purpose. This is Corbyn’s response, followed by Johnson’s.

JULIE ETCHINGHAM: Is the monarchy fit for purpose, Jeremy Corbyn?

JEREMY CORBYN: Needs a bit of improvement.


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: The institution of the monarchy is beyond reproach.

JEREMY CORBYN: Before we discuss Prince Andrew, I think we should discuss the victims that are there because of what Epstein was doing. And I think there are very, very serious questions that must be answered, and nobody should be above the law.

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: I think all our sympathies should be obviously with the victims of Jeffrey Epstein, and the law must certainly take its course.

AMY GOODMAN: Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn responding to this question, with Jeremy Corbyn talking about the victims of Jeffrey Epstein, and Prince Andrew’s response that he could not be sorry for his longtime relationship with Jeffrey Epstein because he had learned so much from him. Tariq Ali?

TARIQ ALI: I wonder what Prince Andrew actually learned from Epstein, Amy. I heard this interview, and it’s puzzling. Did he learn the benefits of pedophilia? Did he learn what it is to assault young women who have been bought or brought in for to serve these people? I mean, what that interview revealed is that Andrew is like many other rich people: stupid, wanting more money, more greed, thinking they are entitled to do what they want with young women or young men or whoever. I mean, they feel no one can touch them. They are untouchables. And when they’re exposed, then they squirm.

But while others involved have apologized or tried to, this fellow didn’t even attempt anything like that. He didn’t know what to say. I mean, I’m sure he was briefed. He was taught what to do. There were divisions within Buckingham Palace as to whether he should do the interview at all. One of his people resigned because she said, “You shouldn’t be doing this interview.” And then he comes up. Why? Why do you want to bother?

I mean, quite honestly, the monarchy is long past its sell-by date. And I think after her majesty the queen passes away, there will be a debate on whether to continue this farce or not. I mean, basically it’s a tourist attraction so that lots of people can come from the United States and watch the, you know, guards dressed in red, marching up and down. And that could be organized as a virtual thing. You don’t need a living monarchy to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: What is Jeremy Corbyn’s view of the monarchy? Does he think it should be abolished?

TARIQ ALI: Well, about several years ago, Jeremy’s mentor, Tony Benn, proposed a bill in Parliament to democratize Britain, which was cosigned by Jeremy. And the first item on the bill was that Parliament should abolish the crown, i.e. the monarchy. It should democratize the judiciary. It should abolish the House of Lords. Jeremy is a signed-up member to Benn’s democratic campaigns. And I think they haven’t had time to deal with this as yet. It’s a bit sad that Tony Benn is no longer with us, because he would have pushed this democratic agenda through. And at its heart lies the monarchy and the House of Lords, and it’s high time they were abolished. They will be sooner or later, but it’s taken a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, before we end, I wanted to ask you about the uprisings that are happening around the world. And are these playing in at all in British politics right now? I mean, whether we’re seeing this massive protest of well over a million people in Colombia, the ongoing protests in Chile, in Lebanon, in Iraq, what we’re seeing in Bolivia right now and the overthrow of Evo Morales — the significance of all of this at this point?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I think it’s extremely significant, because what it reveals is a new generation completely alienated from the political structures of their societies, in most cases. It’s the case in Chile, where Sylvie [sic] Bachelet, the socialist president for two terms, did nothing to transform, reform and get rid of Pinochet’s structures, political, socioeconomic structures, in that country. And this is what young people in Chile are saying.

AMY GOODMAN: Although Michelle Bachelet, of course, was a victim of Pinochet. Michelle Bachelet was a victim of Pinochet — her, her mother, her father.

TARIQ ALI: She was. She was. Of course she was. Which is why she should have acted on this. I mean, it’s a real tragedy. So the protesters are not involved with any political party in Chile, because they don’t like what Bachelet did when she wasted two terms in not doing anything and basically following the U.S. lead in foreign policy, a U.S. which was centrally involved in the Chilean coup d’état, as you know better than most.

In Lebanon, it’s the same thing. It’s heartening to see the Lebanese demonstrations in Beirut, young people, Christians, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Druze, people of all different denominations marching together and saying, “We want to get rid of all of them.” And the “all of them” they’re talking about is corrupt politicians, their oligarchies, their crookedness, what they are doing to the country. So they want change, too.

And in Iraq, people are just fed up that, you know, nothing much has happened for them since the occupation. They live in dire conditions. And many of their parents and grandparents remind them of what Iraq used to be. Despite Saddam Hussein’s atrocities, they say life was better under him. This is very common now in Iraq and in Libya, Amy.

So, the effect it has here — here, young people are saying it’s the Corbyn campaign. If Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t win, I think you will see trouble here. You’ve seen it in France with the gilets jaunes movement, the yellow vests, where the repression was horrendous. We now have got the figures: 10,000 arrests, people shot with gas in the eye. The head of the French health service recently blogged, pleading with the government, “Please stop firing in young people’s eyes. We’ve had to remove one eye completely, and many, many people are now suffering.”

So it’s not simply that it’s happening elsewhere. It’s happening in Europe, as well. And, of course, in your country, you have these huge gatherings. I mean, 26,000 people gathering in Brooklyn to hear Bernie Sanders, that sort of thing doesn’t happen every day in an election campaign. So I think underneath the surface and above it there is a lot of rumbling.

AMY GOODMAN: And in your country, I mean, in Britain, you have thousands of people taking to the streets, particularly around the climate crisis, not only when President Trump made that state visit to London, but you have Extinction Rebellion.

TARIQ ALI: Yeah. That has been huge, very well organized, unpredictable. Attempts to delegitimize it have failed, because the courts have ruled that the police have no right to ban these demonstrations, which is one of the few legal victories a movement has won in this country in recent years. So, that is happening here.

And, you know, let’s hope it ties in with the election campaign. I think the figures are that over a million people have registered between the ages of 18 and 34. They’ve kept to the date, they’ve registered. So I hope that that helps. It would be amazing.

Also, Amy, if Corbyn wins and begins to implement the program, it will have a big effect globally. If it can be done in Britain, why can’t it be done in France? Why can’t it be done in the United States? Why can’t it be done in country X or Y or Z? It will show that it is possible to reverse all the damage inflicted by the neoliberal system, its economic policies, its wars, etc. Corbyn would be the first prime minister of this country who has been an antiwar activist and president of the Stop the War campaign for some years.

So, that is one reason the right is so upset and the establishment has been trying to destabilize him, and this absurd, absurd accusation of him being anti-Semitic has been thrown into the ring by right-wing and liberal Zionists, which has unfortunately had an impact. But, you know, people are fighting back, including large numbers of Jewish activists from Jewish Voices for Labour. But they’ve hurled every possible charge you can imagine at him — he’s a terrorist, he’s an anti-Semite, he’s a communist, he’s going to be like Stalin. You cannot imagine it outside this country, what they’ve thrown at him. And he’s come back fighting. Well, this is probably his last fight politically to win this election, and let’s hope he succeeds.

AMY GOODMAN: The British Labour Party saying it would remove companies failing to take action on climate change from the London Stock Exchange if Labour wins the general election December 12th, announcement coming after Britain’s Green Party criticized Labour for dropping plans to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Tariq Ali?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I think Labour has got a green program, a green socialist program, as they call it. And it will be the first government to try and start taking action on this front. Obviously, the Greens would like more action taken more quickly, but it may not be possible. In any case, a number of Green candidates in this election have said that they’ve called on their supporters to vote Labour in marginal seats, where there’s a chance that even a thousand votes for the Greens might let in a Conservative.

So, lots of green groups locally are acting on their own, and I think it would have made a lot of sense in this election, probably one of the more critical elections in recent British history, if the Greens had decided, “OK, in this election, apart from two or three seats, we should throw our forces behind Labour.” That would have helped them get closer to what they believe in.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, your view, from across the pond, of the impeachment inquiry that’s going on in the United States of President Trump, both what’s happening as well as whether you think he is being impeached for the right reasons?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I think there are many reasons to impeach Trump for. This reason, to an outsider, looks very trivial, Amy. OK, I mean, we all know what Trump is capable of doing. That he got involved in persuading a Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden’s son is pathetic. But that doesn’t mean other presidents haven’t done it. But they’ve done it in a more concealed way, by using their civil service, by using their intelligence services to get some dope on what their enemies in the United States are up to. I mean, the Watergate hearings, you know, remind us of what Nixon did to try and destroy his enemies. But so, it’s nothing new. What is new is the way that Trump does it, and then he tweets about it to everyone, boasting.

So, whether that is enough cause for impeachment, I don’t know. It seems — that, in itself, seems trivial to me, when the House and the Senate did nothing to Bush, who waged war on Iraq under completely false pretenses, lied to his people, as Colin Powell has now virtually admitted: “The evidence was false. I was tricked.” This is the secretary of state. Why wasn’t Bush impeached? He should have been impeached for taking the United States to war, a much, much more serious charge.

The Trump impeachment is largely theater. You know, you watch back, and you sort of smile and are amused by both sides. But I don’t think it’s going to bring him down, and it might even backfire. I mean, “What are your real politics?” one has to ask the Democrats, you know. “Where do you stand on the central issues of the day? Why not fight Trump on all that?” You know, he could be — I mean, he could even be impeached for stressing white supremacy, though that would be pushing it. But that’s a more serious charge, in my opinion, than the charge they’ve concocted in relation to the Ukraine, a country in which the United States, before Trump, under the Clintons and Obama, have been maneuvering, interfering in its politics, toppling governments, putting new governments in. That is much more reason for impeachment. But this is what you’ve done to the Ukraine because you wanted to build a country which you ultimately wanted to bring into NATO to isolate the Russians. But this particular charge, I don’t find it that convincing. I mean, I’m sure it happened. It probably did happen. But so what?

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, I want to thank you for being with us, historian, activist, filmmaker, author, editor of the New Left Review and co-editor of the new book, just out, In Defense of Julian Assange. To see our Part 1 interview with Tariq Ali and Margaret Kunstler, you can go to democracynow.org. Thanks so much for joining us.

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