Opinion

Essential voices of protest must not be compromised

If there aren’t people challenging unnecessary orthodoxy, we'll find ourselves in a sorry state, writes Big Issue editor Paul McNamee

Peter Tatchell

Photo: Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

Years ago I was a music journalist. I was on the news desk of the NME for quite some time. In those days we got a lot of unsolicited calls and tips. They were a mixed bag, but now and again proved useful.
Eminem’s mum rang me one evening. That was an eventful few hours.

Every week, for a year or two, mostly on a Friday, I’d get a call from Peter Tatchell. Around that time, over 20 years ago, he was still speaking for Outrage! and attempting citizen’s arrests on Robert Mugabe. He didn’t always have anything new, and I didn’t always give him my undivided attention. Neither did he always make sound arguments. But he was dogged. LGBTQ+ rights were still hard won a generation ago. He’d been fighting since his opposition to Section 28, and in years before that. He can be difficult, and in recent times has been a polarising figure. Not everything he says is defensible. But he is one of those rare people who has fought hard for what he believes in, to help others, regardless of the personal consequences. 

I wasn’t surprised to see him arrested in Qatar protesting against the Gulf state’s criminalisation of LGBTQ+ people. Neither was I surprised that there were questions about the arrest. Tatchell is a pretty good self-publicist and understands the value of a good stunt. But then doing what he does without that level of ability to promote would be self-defeating. 

The official UK government line on Qatar, if James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, is the accepted spokesperson, is that gay people heading there for the World Cup in a matter of weeks should “flex and compromise”. Flex and compromise. What about things that are objectively right and wrong? Is it right that people should be oppressed or subjugated because of sexuality? Or creed? Would that same flex and compromise be used as an argument to tell the Uyghurs to pipe down in China? It’s not a sustainable line to take.

It’s a shame that David Beckham has accepted a lot of money to shine Qatar’s crown. He has such a platform that people would have sat up had he publicly condemned the regime’s treatment of minorities, or their treatment of migrant workers readying the ground for the World Cup. It says much that the righteous Eric Cantona stood tall and said “Non!”

It’s not just in Qatar where protesters are making a mark. The rise of brave young women in Iran shaking that terrible theocracy in ways it hasn’t been pressured for a generation could lead to real and proper change. I’m glad they didn’t flex and compromise. 

In Britain we must allow voices to be heard. At Big Issue we continue to report on the Westminster government’s sly legislation against protest. It says something about the desire to quash uncomfortable voices that regardless of the chaotic change of leader and cabinet in the last number of weeks, Priti Patel’s bill has not been forgotten or booted out.

If there aren’t people challenging unnecessary orthodoxy and making authorities uncomfortable, then what a sorry state we will find ourselves. We are entering a period when those who strike for their rights will also be pilloried and singled out as enemies of the state. That is a signal to support them, not the opposite. As the hard winter approaches, voices for what is right must be heard louder and louder.

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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