When I heard that Tariq Ali was coming to Bristol, I was incredibly excited. He is a man who has been at the forefront of left-wing activism for decades, and has met with legendary figures such as Malcolm X and John Lennon. To a young activist like myself, he is – and excuse the lack of intellectual language here – an absolute badass. Not just for the causes he champions, but also in the intelligent but understandable and articulate manner with which he puts across his ideas. On the topic of badassness I must also mention a story that can be found on his Wikipedia page. Even though I got to briefly talk to him after the event, I refused to fact check this as it is too good to let something like the truth hinder it: While in Bolivia in the 1967, Ali was accused of being a Cuban revolutionary and said to the authorities: “If you torture me the whole night and I can speak Spanish in the morning I’ll be grateful to you for the rest of my life.”
The talk itself was very engaging but polarising for the audience. Ali spoke without notes, but with no sense of hesitation, reflecting his passion and knowledge on the topic. The main topic of discussion was themes discussed in his book The Extreme Centre: A Warning, which focuses on the rise of the neo-liberal agenda in the last 30 years, and how the main political parties have centralised, giving very little alternative for voters. Ali suggested this may represent the “death of democracy” and stated he “couldn’t in good conscience tell someone to vote Labour”. The latter statement riled some of the old lefties in the room as with one questioner asking “what if conservatives get to power, or worse, UKIP?” But Ali stood his ground, stating that as far as he was concerned “Labour [were] now right wing” which, I think, is the most damning criticisms you can get from an old school lefty.
Also discussed was Scottish independence (no, he was not treading the easy ground) and how Westminster, big business, and the media had conspired against the independence movement, using heavy handed scare tactics to maintain the union and prevent a possible swing to the left within British borders. The breaking of the promises made by Westminster before the referendum has, he stated, led to a “breaking of tribal loyalties” within Scotland with lifelong voters now abandoning Labour to find alternatives and “if it can happen in Scotland it can happen in England”.
Even the EU didn’t avoid scrutiny. Ali described it as the right idea being carried out in the wrong way, criticising Germany for ignoring the democratic remit of countries like Greece with their enforced austerity and criticising the fact that major decisions are made by the unelected European Commission.
Overall, unlike many political talks, it wasn’t just a speaker preaching to the converted – the audience was at times challenged with ideas with which they may not necessarily agree – but was always thought provoking. It was incredibly inspiring to see a man who has been so long at the political grindstone still talk with such passion and hope for change.
Image: Nina Subin