Private Eye magazine used to carry a regular column ("The Controversial Voice", sometimes "The Alternative Voice") by a fictional character called Dave Spart who specialised in banal non-sequiturs in a parody of leftist jargon, usually ending up contradicting himself.
I was reminded of Comrade Spart as I watched Aaron Bastani’s denunciation of the Royal British Legion (RBL) on his Youtube vehicle The Bastani Report, part of the Novara Media operation run by Comrade Bastani, and streamed live on 6 November.
It is an incoherent stream of consciousness (complete with much effing and blinding) from which the viewer can gather only that Comrade Bastani doesn’t like the RBL, thinks poppies are often used inappropriately (e.g. on a meat counter and bedecking a house on a working class estate) and thinks more should be done to help homeless veterans.
None of those are particularly controversial views on the left. A reasoned argument about Remembrance Day might have been a valuable resource for left-wing students denounced at Labour Students Political Weekend on 10-11 November 2018 for wanting to "to remember the dead in a way which is truthful" rather than join nationalist celebrations of Britain's wars (see from 2012).
But Comrade Bastani wasn't explaining. He was confident that he’s on safe ground with his audience: “We all know about the poppy appeal. It’s something that is a bit of a joke for people on the left.”
It wasn't clear is what Comrade Bastani’s central point actually is: does he think the RBL should be closed down and its work taken over by the state? Does he think the poppy appeal should be stopped because it glorifies war and imperialism? What exactly does he think should be done about homeless veterans? No clear answers are given.
It was clear is that Comrade Bastani is very pleased with himself – “Am I being overly sceptical here?” he smirks. Comrade Bastani’s pièce de resistance must surely be when he seems to steel himself and after a moment’s hesitation says "I think the poppy appeal is grotesque, it has a kind of triumphalist militarism to it. It's racist, right, it's white supremacist. There, I’ve said it: ready, fire, aim” (apparently, this last little expression is Novara Media’s catch-phrase).
That opinion on YouTube caused a minor outcry in the tabloid press. That was probably the comrade’s intention. Did he use the outcry to reach a wider audience with a reasoned case? He did not.
He appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions (Saturday 10 November) and was asked about the poppy appeal. He plainly lied: he denied that he’d ever said it was “racist” or “white supremacist”, and claimed that he really supported the work of the RBL. His YouTube tirade had simply been a denunciation of government “outsourcing” of social services. His critics, he suggested, had not seen the YouTube video.
Other Any Questions panelists, including the Tory minister Nadhim Zahawi and the Blairite Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, naturally took him to pieces. Bradshaw said (quite correctly) that it was a pity that Comrade Bastani had expressed himself in such intemperate language, because there were serious points to be made about (for instance) homelessness and the treatment of veterans.
To be frank, Comrade Bastani was left looking foolish. And a liar, whose final, rather pathetic, excuse was “I was being provocative”: surely the last refuge of the charlatan.
Comrade Bastani’s pathetic performance is a lesson for us all: serious leftists should hold coherent opinions, express them in a reasoned manner... and defend them when challenged. Comrade Bastani failed miserably on all counts. Truly, a Dave Spart for our times.