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Mark Wheatley defends Guildhall event: "If we are happy to trade, as I believe we should, with Italy, then we should be willing to entertain people who shape such states."

A City councillor has spoken out in defence of a controversial event for right-wing Italian politician Armando Siri hosted at Guildhall on Monday, arguing that entertaining diverse views “is what maintains a healthy society.”

Mark Wheatley was among several councillors that joined senior City business leaders and politicians for lunch with the senator for Italy’s far-right Northern League party, which is set to form a populist government after months of political uncertainty in the region.

The event was hosted in the Aldermens’ Dining Room, allegedly to strengthen business ties between Milan and London post-Brexit, but came under fire this week after other councillors accused Guildhall of “rolling out the red carpet for the far-right”.

Some from the Labour camp called into question the Corporation’s centuries-old tradition of political neutrality. Others said an association with the Northern League, which is known for its tough stance on immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric, could damage the City’s reputation internationally as an open, ethnically diverse world leader.

But Mr Wheatley rejected claims the City should close its doors to potential trading partners purely based on their “questionable” political policies.

In a letter to City Matters, he said Senator Siri “did not raise religion or immigration during lunch”, but instead spoke of investment opportunities for UK businesses in Italy, the potential for tax liberalisation and the reduction of State debt.

“Those initiatives might might be questionable, or laudable, but none were offensive. They might enable us to promote UK businesses and, I believe, in business and the City that is our duty – as long as we do not entertain those who have transgressed internationally accepted laws and moralities,” he said.

He continued: “Many who hold less goodwill towards us are offered a platform regularly in the City, yet few complain – neither should they. Expression of diverse views – even those we question – and entertainment of ideas is what sustains a healthy society. Safe space is for a nursery not adult society.”

Mr Wheatley stressed that while he was not involved in the organisation of the event, he felt compelled to speak out after media coverage prompted “speculation about ‘the City’ and our ethic”. He pointed to the UK’s strong trade relationships with countries like Saudi Arabia despite “sharper moral dilemmas”.

“We welcome major trading partners, of all hues, politically. We do not need to subscribe to all the views of people we break bread with to identify shared interest and opportunity.

“If we are happy to trade, as I believe we should, with Italy, then we should be willing to entertain people who shape such states.”

Read the full letter below:

On Monday, I attended an enjoyable private lunch in Guildhall at which a senior Italian politician spoke. It was not endorsed by the City of London and neither are my comments now.

The next day, the Guardian picked up on the lunch with the headline ‘Guildhall is used to host a far right politician’. When asked to comment, I declined. I believed courtesy to the hosts and speaker required discretion. However, silence on the lunch, or the principle of such events, has only allowed space for speculation about ‘the City’ and our ethic. Such speculation deserves to be contextualised and challenged. So, from a personal perspective, I have a few thoughts to offer.

First, on this particular lunch, a group of respected management consultants were keen to hear about the potential for business between Milan and London in the wake of Brexit. I suggested a meeting over food and was pleased to join that. The speaker offered by the Milanese partners is an Italian senator from the Northern League called Armando Siri – who is stepping into Ministerial office in Italy.

He is spoken of as ’Islamophobic’ but from my enquiries why is not entirely clear. Members of his party certainly hold questionable views on migration generally but as far as I can see their policies remain within the broad bounds of acceptable political debate. People in Italy are not being systematically imprisoned or tortured, human rights are being respected.

Senator Siri did not raise religion or immigration during lunch. When separately asked in my earshot he was keen to emphasise an embracing attitude towards legal migration but concern about the impact on social provision of the illegal entry to Italy. His response appeared measured.

Instead, he spoke about opportunities for UK business to assist development of a major port infrastructure in Sicily and about his desire for tax liberalisation and reduction of State debt. Those initiatives might might be questionable, or laudable, but none were offensive. They might enable us to promote UK businesses and, I believe, in business and the City that is our duty – as long as we do not entertain those who have transgressed internationally accepted laws and moralities.

So, when much respected colleagues question Senator Siri being ‘given a platform’ I respond that he is within the bounds noted above, came in friendship offering opportunity. Many who hold less goodwill towards us are offered a platform regularly in the City, yet few complain – neither should they. Expression of diverse views – even those we question – and entertainment of ideas is what sustains a healthy society. Safe space is for a nursery not adult society.

We welcome major trading partners, of all hues, politically. We do not need to subscribe to all the views of people we break bread with to identify shared interest and opportunity. To my mind sanctions are a penultimate resort – only occasionally, such as over Apartheid, acceptable. If we are happy to trade, as I believe we should, with Italy, then we should be willing to entertain people who shape such states.

Now, let’s take a few examples of sharper moral dilemmas around trade than those we face on Italy. Saudi Arabia is liberalising but hardly an exemplar of human rights: we do business happily there. France bans the burqa, with President Macron’s vocal support. That does not chime with our views yet few suggest he is Islamophobic. Various European states are clamouring against the US desire for sanctions on Iran – conveniently ignoring capital punishment there for gay sex – yet we hear few concerns from otherwise progressive voices. Realpolitik is uncomfortable but sometimes necessary. An overly selective approach to it is hypocritical.

The list of states whose policies we deplore and politicians whose protestations we disagree with is lengthy. But, if we seek absolute moral cleanliness we will sacrifice our economy on the altar of political correctness. That might appeal to many Guardian readers instincts but it would destroy their lives.

Mark Wheatley

Common Councilman

Photo by Daniel Chapman (Creative Commons).

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