3 December 2021

Richard Burgon’s views on China have nothing to do with progressive politics

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Among the trivia of modern politics is that, since its recreation in 1955, the constituency of Leeds East has had only three MPs, all Labour. I find it a pleasing antisymmetry that the first was Denis Healey, who possessed one of the most formidable intellects in British public life, whereas the seat is currently held by Richard Burgon, who does not.

We all make mistakes, and it’s forgivable that the list of Burgon’s gaffes is very long indeed. He famously urged people to turn up to a rally he was speaking at in Port Glasgow, only to inadvertently reveal that he believed this historic town, which he’d omitted to look up on Wikipedia, was the same place as Glasgow. Making what he thought was a decisive critique of New Labour on Question Time in 2019, he declared “I’m fully aware that Tony Blair was Prime Minister between 1997 and 2010”, which is not entirely true.

What is much less forgivable is taking on an important brief in politics whose subject matter you neither know nor care the first thing about. As, of all things, shadow City minister, Burgon was asked by Cathy Newman on Channel 4 Newsif he knew the size of the budget deficit. He replied defensively, ‘I’m not an economic . . .’, tailing off when realising that adding the word ‘expert’ would seem odd for an economic spokesperson. Asked on Newsnight about Labour policy on taxes, he replied: ‘It seems to me that we are being put on trial.’

Yet even knowing all this, I had till this week overestimated Burgon’s intelligence, as I’d looked merely at the evidence of his capabilities rather than anything deeper. On an LBC discussion yesterday, he was asked six times whether he believed the Chinese communist regime had committed genocide against the Uighur Muslim population of Xinjiang. Burgon’s response was that ‘there’s things that the government of the United States has done historically that we profoundly disagree with’, and spoke of Hiroshima. His response was worse than evasive. It was abhorrent.

I doubt that Burgon has given more than a moment’s thought to the Uighurs, but the evidence of grotesque atrocities against them is there if he cares to look for it. Amnesty reports have detailed these for almost 30 years. The statistical evidence of a precipitous collapse in birth rates among Uighurs in recent years confirms a pattern of savage repression, as do accounts of extra-judicial killings and official policy statements aiming at the mass institutionalisation of Uighur children and sterilisation of Uighur women. This is indeed a genocidal assault on a minority population.

Let’s try and put the best face possible on Burgon’s slipperiness. It’s possible, though not in my opinion accurate, to interpret the criteria for genocide so tightly as to exclude the campaign against the Uighurs. It is undoubtedly true that the Western democracies have committed errors, sins and outright crimes in pursuit of foreign policy goals. But to invoke the failings of our side to extenuate the far greater evils of repressive regimes is contemptible. It’s like saying that because the Roosevelt administration committed the shameful injustice of establishing internment camps for Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, Japan was innocent of atrocities across the captive populations of its empire. It’s a not just a non sequitur, but a foul and wicked position to hold.

With honourable exceptions, this sort of thing happens far too often on the radical left. Over many years I’ve been at pains to refute the lies of purported ‘anti-imperialists” who make common cause with right-wing Islamophobes to deny the atrocities of the Milosevic regime in Serbia. To this day, denialists of the genocide of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995 churn out lies and libels, even though the numbers of victims can be almost exactly established, for the bodies have been found, exhumed and identified with DNA analysis. There are people – often literally the same people – who have gone on to deny the crimes of President Assad of Syria and now the repression of the Uighurs.

This sort of activity has nothing to do with progressive politics. As a longstanding Labour voter, I hope that Burgon will suffer ostracism for his comments. I don’t think he’s a bad man, but as well as raw intelligence he lacks imagination, curiosity and simple human empathy. Density is no excuse for indecency.

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Oliver Kamm is a columnist and leader writer for The Times.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.