The Daily Telegraph comments on Ken Livingstone's ingratiating remarks to his Chinese hosts comparing the Tiananmen Square massacre to the poll tax riot in Trafalgar Square:
They reveal a mentality that, even if he had no other disqualifications, ought to bar Mr Livingstone from office.... His off-the-cuff comments indicate his true outlook: when the lights are thrown on suddenly, the rats have no time to hide. That Mr Livingstone should see any equivalence between the autocrats of Beijing and the Tory administrations of either Lord Liverpool or Margaret Thatcher tells us a great deal about him. For the record, the 1990 riots began as a protest against a tax introduced by a democratic regime. A peaceful march was hijacked by violent anarchists.
This is slightly overwrought, but not by much, and I do agree that on several grounds that Ken Livingstone is unfit to be the leader of municipal government in a great cosmopolitan capital city. His remarks in this case are wrong not because of what they say about his political premises, but because they betray a vacuum where a sense of public service ought to be. Fortunately foreign policy is not part of Livingstone's remit, but even as London Mayor he will come into contact with delegations representing autocratic governments. On those occasions, he need not hector, but he does need to have the imagination to realise the moral compromises that this will involve. Just because you deal with a murderous regime doesn't mean you have to flatter it.
That Livingstone is a vapid and silly man seems to me a better explanation for his latest remarks than The Telegraph's diagnosis of "the horrible morality of some on the far Left, keen to minimise the abominations carried out in the name of Communism". But it's no excuse. An absence of ideological principle easily mutates into acquiescence in the indefensible, and worse. In commenting on China, others have trodden that ground, and their sentiments are not as notorious as they ought to be. It is well known that Edward Heath declared of the Tiananmen massacre: "There was a crisis after a month in which the civil authorities had been defied. They took action. Very well." (Heath claimed, against his critics, that the "very well" was an expostulation rather than being related to the previous sentence - which hardly made it any better.) It's less frequently remarked that this was no blind spot: Heath's was a realpolitik scarcely distinguishable from power-worship. As he wrote in his memoirs, The Course of My Life (1998, p. 647):
Of course it was right to deplore and condemn the brutal suppression which occurred in June 1989 [at Tiananmen Square] but, in general, we in the West must learn to be rather more cautious about judging the political arrangements in other parts of the world by our own subjective standards.
What can you say? Heath's unpopular and ineffectual premiership was marked by a diplomatically successful trip to China, and this may have coloured his sentiments. ("Mao was the first person he had seen in months who was actually pleased to see him," commented one of Heath's friends, according to John Campbell's Edward Heath: A Biography, 1993, p. 635). But his quietism (so apt for the Major/Hurd Conservative Party of the 1990s, I thought) was gross and inexcusable. It still fell short, though, of the most ignoble remark on China I have come across in the past decade. In his diaries, Free at Last!, covering the 1990s, Tony Benn wrote (p. 371) the following entry for 6 June 1996:
Had a long talk to the Chinese First Secretary at the embassy - a very charming man called Liao Dong - and said how much I admired Mao Tse tung or Zedong, the greatest man of the twentieth century. He said that I couldn't admire Mao more than he did. I asked him how Mao was viewed now. He said Mao was 70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong; the Cultural Revolution didn't work. He said he had been named after Mao - it was amusing.
So for Benn, the greatest man of the last century was the mass murderer who exceeded all others: the one who killed more people even than Hitler or Stalin. He said this to a representative of the Chinese government; and he found it all a bit of a giggle. Most political commentators have warmed to Benn since his near-destruction of Labour as a credible party of government 25 years ago. I find that my contempt for the man only deepens.