Richard Heller: Jeremy Corbyn right to ridicule a tyrant – but be careful

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
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AT this moment, Jeremy Corbyn is not exactly the toast of Tirana. He provoked a furious response in the Albanian capital by quoting the country’s former Stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxha, at Labour’s Christmas party.

Mr Corbyn has taken a global kicking for his remarks, especially in our own media, but his critics are wrong to imagine that he approved of Enver Hoxha. The quotation actually holds Hoxha to ridicule.

I can say this with confidence because I discovered it (in translation) and can claim to be the first person to make use of it in this country. Enver promised his people on New Year’s Day 1967 that “this year will be harder than last year. On the other
hand, it will be easier than next year”.

There are many possible explanations for Hoxha’s remark. It may have been a piece of ruthless honesty, like the manifesto of King Reheboam to the people of Israel in the Old Testament: “My father hath chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.”

Perhaps Hoxha was set
up by a subversive translator on the English service of Radio Tirana. But the likeliest explanation is that he made a complete prat of himself, like his contemporary Marshal Costa e Silva, the hardline right-wing ruler of Brazil, who said: “When the military took over, the country was teetering on the edge of a precipice, but now we have moved confidently forward.”

The Albanian reaction to Mr Corbyn is understandable. Hoxha was a demented tyrant who ruled his country by starvation and spying. At his zenith, one third of all Albanians were members of his hated secret police, the Sigurimi – trying to escape his gulags by denouncing the other two-thirds. I visited Albania in 1992, seven years after his death, and met a man who had spent 30 years in a gulag for not cheering hard enough at a Hoxha speech.

However, it is no disrespect to Hoxha’s victims to mock the old brute today. Mockery diminishes him – not them. It will do more than anger to destroy his reputation and forestall any revived cult of Hoxha. It was therefore encouraging in 1992 to see caricatures of Hoxha and read parodies of his turgid and unsellable collected works.

Millions of Russians, encouraged by their present ruler, have become nostalgic for Stalin, an even worse ruler than Hoxha. It would be useful to remind them that Stalin was not only vicious but incompetent and oafish – and that he enjoyed listening to gramophone records of singing cats and dogs.

Tyrants can stand any amount of loathing so long as they are feared. But they cannot survive ridicule, which destroys respect and obedience. Nicolae Ceauşescu of Romania, another Communist dictator in the Hoxha mould, discovered this in 1989 when he thought he could survive the fall of Communism elsewhere.

He and his harpie consort wife went to harangue protestors in the capital, Bucharest. They knew that the game was up when they heard people mocking them, and took flight. The army and the police deserted them and they were soon captured and executed.

In Britain, we have a long tradition of mocking rulers, whether our own or those of other countries. Richard III was taunted to good effect by his enemies on the eve of Bosworth. The Elizabethans mocked Philip of Spain during the Armada. They mocked the Pope, whom most of them regarded as an existential threat to their state. Later Britons mocked the French Revolution’s leaders, and Napoleon, but they also mocked George III and his governments at home. Britons mocked the Boer leaders. They mocked Kaiser Bill. Above all, they mocked Hitler, without ever forgetting his evil.

Jeremy Corbyn has every right to be part of this tradition, but he must learn to do this more skilfully. Comedy and satire are much more demanding than indignation and he should have prepared his material carefully. Some reports suggested that he omitted the punchline of the Hoxha quotation, which would make it much harder to convey its idiocy.

Even without this error, Jeremy Corbyn took a huge risk in attempting irony. Hordes of people, especially in his own party, are eager to denounce anything he says. They invariably interpret him literally and ruthlessly ignore any subtext. But he should continue his quest to join the nation’s taunters. It is a better style for him, or any leader, than robotic indignation.

As an exercise, Jeremy Corbyn should now look at a picture of Donald Trump. He must suppress the urge to denounce him or join the call for a ban (which will actually help Trump among American voters). Instead, he should think of some zingers about Mr Trump’s horrific hair.

Richard Heller was formerly chief of staff to Denis Healey.