Friday, 20 December 2002

GET THE BEAN COUNTERS OFF OUR BACKS

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 20 December 2002

Higher education has taken a long time to become a big issue for the Blair government – but now, thanks to the fiasco surrounding top-up fees, it’s as big as anything domestic apart from the firefighters and Cherie’s dodgy pals.

“Education, education, education” was the New Labour mantra for a long time, but until now that has meant “schools, schools, schools”. Labour came to power in 1997 without very much to say about Britain’s universities other than that they were dreadfully important and that loads more people ought to go to them.

In its first term, the new government’s only headline-grabbing actions on HE were its decisions to charge undergraduate students tuition fees and to abandon the (already much-reduced) system of student grants, in favour of loans all round.

These were both controversial measures, rightly opposed by most of the Left as disincentives to study for broke would-be students. But their effects were, at least as far as can be determined, marginal. A few wannabe students were put off, but not many.

Meanwhile, far more important changes were taking place in the universities. Most crucially, massive pressure was placed on higher education to continue to increase the number of undergraduates getting degrees without spending any more money – in other words, to run bigger classes. The universities duly obliged. Student numbers have rocketed.

At the same time, the government introduced several packages of measures, as Gordon Brown would put it, supposedly designed to make higher education more efficient and accountable – which have in fact only increased the already giant mass of bureaucratic management bullshit clogging up the whole system.

Here I must declare an interest. I am a lecturer in the journalism department at City University in London.

In the past two years, the number of students I teach at undergraduate level has increased by nearly 50 per cent, without a proportionate increase in staffing. That would be a challenge in itself – but it has been accompanied by an extraordinary explosion in idiotic government-inspired management-speak paperwork that threatens to take over my life.

At the insistence of the ministry, every tutorial I have done for the past two years has had to be recorded on a form that is saved in triplicate – to be read by precisely no one – to show that, er, I’m doing the tutorials I would have been doing anyway. This week, I got a questionnaire about a mentor scheme I didn’t know existed – I was apparently a participant – which of course I returned after judging it a great success in each tick-box on the form.

But the really stupid waste of time, imposed on colleagues in universities throughout the country, has been rewriting course descriptions to fit a template ordained by central government. The declared purpose is to make all courses comparable by introducing a standardised credit system, but I can’t see any outcome other than that I will have to fill in more unread forms next year.

Someone, somewhere thinks all this is rational. I imagine some latter-day Sidney Webb at the education ministry – well, actually, some jerk with an MBA who thinks educational success can be measured in the way you measure productivity in a call centre – getting a big kick from being able to sit at his computer and, after a little fiddling, reassure himself that Advanced Econometrics and The Poetics of John Milton are worth 30 points apiece at every university offering courses of those titles at undergraduate level.

Contemplating his satisfaction, I feel it almost petty to complain that vast amounts of my time, and my colleagues’ time, are being wasted to satisfy an anal-retentive desire to ensure that an apple equals a banana throughout the British university system.

None of it will make a blind bit of difference to anything we do in the lecture theatre or seminar room. None of it will have any effect on standards, except insofar as time spent on it could have been used to improve them. And it takes hours and hours . . .

Higher education needs to be set free, say the enthusiasts for top-up fees. I agree – and it’s true that money is a problem, though I’m a graduate-tax enthusiast myself. As well as more cash, however, and more important, the universities need freedom from the New Labour creed of pointless management intervention in pursuit of imagined market opportunities. But please, Mr Clarke, don’t send me a questionnaire about how it ought to be done.

Friday, 15 November 2002

MOST OF THE LEFT IS STILL RUBBISH

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 15 November 2002

Graham Day of Falkirk wrote a letter last week complaining that my last column was "more concerned with re-fighting the sectarian battles of 30 years ago than with taking the left forward in 2002" – and his point has been echoed (sort of) by a couple of friends. "I don't give a monkey's about the bloody IMG and WRP any more," one old anarcho buddy told me on the phone. "I'd completely forgotten they existed until I read your piece." "I don't know why you bother," said my chum from the Socialist Alliance in the pub. "Who needs to be reminded of all that old stuff?"

OK, point taken, me old mateys. I suppose it is rather a long time since the heyday, if that's the right word, of the nuttier Trots. In my defence, though, I was writing about a new television programme dealing with the secret state's infiltration of the far left in the 1970s. More important – and maybe I should have spelled it out in the last column – there are real similarities between the left then and today.

The International Marxist Group and the Workers' Revolutionary Party might have disappeared off the radar a long time ago – although, bizarrely, one faction of the old IMG has found a niche for itself as Ken Livingstone's office staff. (Well, the world revolution has to start somewhere, doesn't it comrade?)

But Leninist sects only marginally less pernicious than the WRP and only a little less deluded about their world-historical role than the IMG are very much a part of the current scene. Witness the sectarian warfare that has all but destroyed the Socialist Alliance or the "revolutionary defeatist" (in other words, pro-Saddam) position taken by some of the leading lights in the organising committee of the Stop the War Coalition.

Also very much part of the 2002 left are bone-headed 1970s-style anti-European Labour leftists who think nothing of lining up with the most reactionary Tories in pursuit of the goal of keeping Johnny Foreigner at bay. So too are thick-witted left trade union leaders, schooled some years ago as Stalinist cadres, who are convinced that they are the vanguard of the working class but have the strategic acumen of lemmings.

And then there are the deluded anarcho direct-actionists who think that capitalism will crumble if the next demo is big enough, and the almost-but-not-quite-anarcho anti-globalists who believe that the best solution for world poverty is to deny the poor of the Africa and Asia the benefits of capitalism.

Aaaargh. It's difficult to deny that the left at its worst is pretty much the same as it was 10, 15 or 20 years ago – apart from the fact that there's no longer a Soviet Union to excuse for its crimes against humanity. The worst of the left is still utter rubbish.

What really gets me down, however, is that there's not much more of the left these days than the worst of it. Thirty, 20, even 10 years ago, the idiocies of the Leninists, left Europhobes, Third Worldists et al were tempered by the existence of a strong democratic and libertarian left current – based on the centre-left of the Labour Party but stretching from left liberalism and the principled minority of the Labour right through to the intelligent libertarian fringe of the far left. It had several notable defining features: its commitment to individual liberty and to extending the scope of democratic decision-making; its antipathy to authoritarian states throughout the world (whatever their ideology); its political realism (at very least, scepticism about "the revolution"); and, most important, its social egalitarianism.

This democratic socialist left was once the ideologically dominant force in British left politics. But it is now in a worse state than at any time in the past 50 years. In fact, it has almost disappeared.

For all Labour's faults in the 1980s and early 1990s, it remained a democratic socialist party: Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Roy Hattersley and John Smith all came from the democratic socialist Labour tradition. Tony Blair did not – and under his direction, with the help of others, New Labour has effectively abandoned the causes of liberty and equality.

One might have thought that this would at least have prompted democratic socialists to protest loudly, but on the whole it has not. Indeed, it is only a slight exaggeration to say that the democratic socialist perspective is invisible apart from Hattersley's Monday column in the Guardian. Some democratic socialists have been co-opted into government and can't be expected to utter a coherent sentence until they get out. Some are old or have died. But most seem simply to have given up.

I'm not quite ready to do that yet. But it does seem to me that "taking the left forward in 2002", as Graham Day puts it, is a matter of reviving a prone body that is in real danger of expiring. And I'm not really sure where to start.

Friday, 1 November 2002

TWO CHEERS FOR GERHARD SCHROEDER

Chartist, November-December 2002

The big news in European left politics this autumn has undoubtedly been the victory of Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrat-Green coalition in the German federal elections in late September.

It was remarkable not least because, for most of the year, it had seemed extremely improbable that Schroeder would retain power. The centre-right bloc of the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, had led in the opinion polls until 10 days before the election. And its candidate for the chancellorship, the CSU’s Edmund Stoiber, believed he had won even after the votes had been cast. Almost incredibly, he claimed victory on the basis of inaccurate exit polls – only to concede defeat after real votes had been counted.

Of course, Schroeder’s victory was narrow. The share of the vote taken by the SPD was 38.5 per cent, down from 40.9 per cent in 1998 and only 9,000 votes ahead of the CDU-CSU nationwide. The ruling coalition would not have been returned had it not been for the exceptional performance of the Greens – who fought an excellent campaign focused on the charismatic foreign minister Joschka Fischer and took 8.6 per cent, up nearly two percentage points, their best ever share of the vote. As it is, its majority is slim, down from 21 to nine seats in the Bundestag, and it remains to be seen whether it will survive a whole term. With nearly 10 per cent of the workforce unemployed and growth sluggish, the government is particularly vulnerable on the economy.

Nevertheless, the result is a resounding success for the centre-left – and one that has major implications both for German domestic politics and for the rest of Europe and the wider world.

Domestically, the election not only confirmed the Greens as Germany’s third party ahead of the liberal Free Democrats – who won a disappointing (for them) 7.4 per cent – and appears to sound the death-knell for the former-communist Party of Democratic Socialism in what was East Germany. Its onetime supporters deserted it in droves for the SPD, and it failed to reach the 5 per cent threshold for proportional representation in the Bundestag. With only two seats in the new parliament, down from 36 in the last, its future as a player in German politics at the federal level is now bleak.

It is on the European and wider international front that the German election result is most significant. Most obviously, Schroeder and Fischer won after – some would say by – explicitly distancing themselves from the Bush administration’s sabre-rattling on Iraq. Their stance caused uproar in Washington, but it has also drawn their government closer to Jacques Chirac’s French government, which is also openly sceptical about precipitate unilateral American action.

But this is not the only issue on which Berlin and Paris find themselves in agreement. Both are in trouble under the terms of the stability and growth pact because, with their economies stagnant, they are spending much more than they are receiving in tax revenue – and both are increasingly open to the idea that the pact should be reformed to allow eurozone states more room to spend their way out of recession. There have been too many false dawns for the sort of “Eurokeynesianism” advocated by Jacques Delors and other European social democrats in the late 1980s and early 1990s for this to cause an outbreak of rejoicing on the left, but the signs are definitely more hopeful on this score than for several years.

The Germans and French are also increasingly prepared to cobble together compromises to ensure that EU enlargement happens on time – witness the way Chirac and Schroeder stitched up a deal to preserve the Common Agricultural Policy at the Brussels summit in October, to the apparent chagrin of Tony Blair.

All this has led to much speculation about the revival of the Franco-German axis that dominated west European politics – more specifically, the politics of the European Community – in the 1980s and early 1990s. Yet, although the new warmth between Berlin and Paris is significant, it is not the whole story.

For a start, even before the next round of EU enlargement takes place in 2004, the ability of the EU’s two most populous countries to call the shots is not what it was 10 years ago, let alone 20. With the enlargements of the 1980s and 1990s to take in Greece (1981); Spain and Portugal (1986); and Sweden, Finland and Austria (1995), and with the concomitant growth of qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers on a variety of policy areas, even the big countries have to get smaller allies to back them. France and Germany acting together are undoubtedly a heavyweight act, but they cannot steamroller through anything they want. Once Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia join the fold from 2004 – as, after Ireland’s yes vote in its referendum, they are almost certain to do – the idea that a Paris-Berlin axis can drive European politics becomes almost laughable.

What is more, France and Germany disagree profoundly on one of the most important bones of contention in current EU politics – the future constitutional framework for the enlarged EU.

The Convention on the Future of Europe, which has been deliberating in Brussels under the chairmanship of former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, has not set the world alight. Indeed, it has been largely ignored by the media, not only in Britain, where European politics has never been taken seriously, but also on the continent.

Yet the issues that it is discussing are crucially important. The EU has had a problem with its lack of democratic accountability since long before it became the EU. Put bluntly, it has been clear for years that most of its crucial decisions are made behind closed doors by means of intergovernmental stitch-up in the Council of Ministers – with the rest emanating from the unelected European Commission. Democrats have long argued for reform, either by making the EU more answerable to national parliaments or by increasing the powers of the European Parliament.

With enlargement, however, relying on intergovernmental stitch-up becomes more than a democratic disgrace. It could lead to the whole EU decision-making process seizing up in intractable arguments. Everyone now agrees that institutional reform of the EU is an urgent necessity.

The problem for Giscard is that the two main recipes for reform that have been put forward are incompatible. On one hand, federalists – crudely speaking, Germany and most of the smaller states, though not the Scandinavians – think that the way to avoid stasis and increase the democratic legitimacy of the EU is to create a supranational polity in which intergovernmental horse-trading is reduced and the European Parliament assumes greater powers. On the other, the intergovernmentalists – Britain, France, Spain and the Scandinavians – see increasing the accountability of the EU to national governments and parliaments as the only possible solution.

Unsurprisingly, no compromise acceptable to all has emerged from the convention – but unless it does it is difficult to conceive of enlargement not being an almighty mess. It’s just possible that the new Franco-German entente will yield a solution, but at present the signs are few and far between.

The final significance of Schroeder’s victory is that, together with the election success of the Swedish social democrats just before it, it appears to have stemmed the advance of the right in continental politics, which now seems to have reached its furthest points this spring with the socialist disaster in the French presidential and National Assembly elections and the spectacular success of the Fortuyn List in Holland. The 1998 dream of social democratic hegemony in Europe is still a pretty distant one these days, but at least it seems less hopelessly utopian than it did this summer.

SURPRISED? PULL THE OTHER ONE

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 1 November 2002

Like quite a few other former far leftists, I turned on the telly last Sunday to watch the first part of True Spies, the BBC's much-hyped expose of the state's snooping on the left in the 1970s and 1980s, fully expecting to be overcome by a sense of righteous indignation at the way the spooks interfered with our civil liberties.

Instead, to my surprise, I found myself more amused than outraged. Of course, there were some nasty tales related – of legitimate campaigns infiltrated and undermined, of workers blacklisted and denied work for their political opinions, of union bosses who grassed up their members. But overall the effect of True Spies was to point up the ridiculousness of both the spies and the Leninists who were their main targets.

The programme kicked off with Ricky Tomlinson – now the father in The Royle Family, in 1970s real life a militant building worker and a member of the Trotskyist Workers' Revolutionary Party.

Now, if there was ever a leftist group that saw the tentacles of the secret state everywhere, it was the WRP. Led by the notoriously thuggish Gerry Healy and bankrolled at different times by Saddam Hussein and Muammar al Gaddafi, its defining feature was its paranoia. You didn't have to be mad to join, but it helped. No one who was a member could have failed to pick up the message that the WRP was, as the vanguard of the British revolution, a target of the spooks – and that constant vigilance was necessary to avert the threat they posed.

Yet here was Tomlinson playing Britain's favourite cuddly slob, feigning surprise that he could ever have been considered a threat to state security. "Subversive? My arse!" he quipped to camera.

Not his greatest performance, I'm afraid – though it was not as unconvincing as Tariq Ali's. Older readers will remember that he came to prominence as a revolutionary student firebrand in 1968 and for several years after that was a leader of the International Marxist Group, a Trotskyist outfit that was less paranoid than the WRP but shared its absurd pretension of being about to lead the British proletariat into the inevitable forthcoming revolution.

The IMG, like the WRP, considered that it was a target of the secret state: indeed, it would have been offended if it had not been, because that would have meant it wasn't taken seriously.Yet here was old Tariq blathering on about how let-down he felt that someone he trusted had been a Special Branch man and how sad it was that these rotten spoilsports had interfered with the basic democratic right to work for the violent overthrow of democracy.

Er, sorry, maybe I've missed something here, but if you spend your time boasting about how you and your comrades are going to smash the bourgeois state – or if, like the Communist Party of Great Britain, you're bankrolled by and propagandise for a hostile superpower – can you really be too shocked when the bourgeois state decides to open your mail and sends along a couple of coppers in disguise to keep an eye on you? Only if you're a complete fool.

And another thing. If you're a really serious revolutionary, is your way of trying to determine whether someone is a police stooge to go to en masse to the pub and drink 10 pints of beer with the suspect while quizzing him? Almost incredibly, this was what the IMG did with one Special Branch "hairy" who appeared on True Spies. He said that soon after this incident he decided he needed a new job. He didn't say whether the reason was the dreadful hangover or the realisation that he was wasting his life snooping on a bunch of clowns.

Not that many of the Special Branch and MI5 types interviewed on the programme seem to have recognised that most of the subversives they were trailing would have had trouble organising anything more dangerous than a 10-pint piss-up. Almost without exception, they attested to the crucial importance of their work in saving British democracy from the red extremists – an estimation of the Leninist sects' potency strangely close to their own delusions of their world-historical role.

In truth, Britain's 57 varieties of Leninist never posed a threat to the security of the British state. The CP had a certain political cachet in the 1930s and 1940s but never became a mass party – and although it had significant influence in the trade unions in the 1960s and 1970s, it neither initiated nor controlled the wave of wage militancy that swept Britain's workplaces in that era. The Trots made a lot of noise and ran a few reformist campaigns but were even more marginal except when they took over a few Labour parties (and town halls) in the 1980s.

But at least the Leninists kept Special Branch and MI5 occupied. Without the CP, the WRP, the IMG and all the rest, the spooks would have had to invent them. Who knows? Perhaps they did.

Monday, 21 October 2002

STRAW'S USELESS EUROPE BLUEPRINT

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 21 October 2002

The Convention on the Future of Europe is not, I have to admit, the sexiest of topics. Set up after last year’s Laeken European summit and chaired by former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, it has been deliberating in Brussels for nearly eight months now on the institutional arrangements for the soon-to-be-enlarged European Union — and it’s fair to say that it has yet to set the world alight. The British media have for the most part given it the wide berth they usually give to serious EU politics. But even on the Continent it has been a front-page story only when a senior government politician from one of the EU’s big member states has outlined his “vision” in a set-piece speech.

In a way, this isn’t too surprising. The Convention is a talking shop charged with an almost impossible task: reconciling the views of those who want a federal Europe with those for whom federalism is anathema — and then coming up with a coherent programme for reform. Everyone knows that, so far at least, there has been no sign that the Convention will thrash out a formula acceptable to all — and everyone knows that, in the end, any recommendations it makes can be blocked by any government that dislikes them.

Nevertheless, the issues the Convention is discussing are rather important. The institutional inadequacies of the EU have been clear for years — since long before it became the EU, in fact. But enlargement, now almost certain to happen in 2004, makes it a matter of urgency to deal with them.

The big problem, to put it simply, is that Europe has operated up to now largely by way of intergovernmental horse-trading behind closed doors in the string of meetings known as the Council of Ministers, augmented by initiatives from the European Commission (which is supranational but appointed by member states’ governments).

Although this set-up was never particularly democratic, it worked reasonably well while there were few governments doing the wheeler-dealering and appointing the commissioners. But as the number of member states and the responsibilities of the EU have increased, it has become not only more and more time-consuming and inefficient (despite various piecemeal reforms) but also less and less democratically accountable. With enlargement, there is a real danger that the EU’s decision-making processes will grind to a halt — and that they will do so amid a collapse of popular belief in their legitimacy in every member state.

In these circumstances, there is a prima facie case for a radical recasting of the way the EU operates, with a drastic reduction of the role of the Council of Ministers, a dramatic increase in the democratic accountability of the Commission, and a concomitant massive increase in the role and powers of the only key EU institution that is both supranational and directly answerable to the citizens of Europe, the European Parliament — including, most importantly, the right to initiate legislation. The argument here has been forcibly put by Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister.

Yet what is the British Government, in the person of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, proposing? Well, according to his piece in the Economist last week, just the opposite: maintaining and strengthening the role of the Council of Ministers, with perhaps a nugatory increase in the powers of the Parliament to oversee the Commission. It’s difficult to imagine anything more timid, anything less likely to work in purely instrumental terms or anything more likely to exacerbate the EU’s democratic deficit.

***

On A different matter entirely, like many other readers of Eric Hobsbawm’s new autobiography I was intrigued by the veteran Marxist historian’s statement that he had been “unable to rediscover” a copy of a 1940 pamphlet on the 1939-40 Russo-Finnish war that he co-wrote with the late Raymond Williams when both were undergraduate communists in Cambridge.

It didn’t take me long to track it down: my old pal Kevin Davey had a copy, which he kindly lent me. Nor did it take long to realise that Hobsbawm might not have gone out of his way to dig it up. War on the USSR?, as it is called, is a shabby specimen of communist defeatism during the Hitler-Stalin pact (“With no chance of starving Germany of food or war materials and no front on which to achieve military victory, Britain and France cannot win this war . . .”) that shamelessly defends Stalin’s invasion of Finland.

OK, I know I’d squirm if anyone dug up stuff I wrote in my early twenties. But it’s not so easy to shrug off Hobsbawm’s diatribe as a youthful indiscretion. For all the sophistication and erudition of his later work, he remained a member of the party that commissioned this mendacious piece of propaganda to the bitter end.

Monday, 14 October 2002

SADDAM MUST GO – THE QUESTION IS HOW

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 14 October 2002

Like most Tribune readers and contributors, I am against the United States waging a war to topple Saddam Hussein. I am, moreover, against it regardless of whether the US gets support from the United Nations Security Council. I am unconvinced that war will easily get rid of Saddam except at an unacceptable cost in casualties. I am not persuaded that the US has a credible strategy for replacing his regime with one that is civilised and democratic. And I am worried by the potentially disastrous knock-on effects of war elsewhere in the Middle East.

So, on the face of it, the big anti-war protest in London last weekend should have filled me with hope – or at least given me a warm feeling of solidarity. But it did nothing of the sort. Not for the first time, I came away from a giant leftie demo glummer than when I turned up.

Part of the reason is undoubtedly that I’ve had enough of demos and everything that goes with them: the hours of being serenaded by Leninist bores selling dire propagandist papers; the slow trudge through streets of unstaffed offices surrounded by morons shouting witless slogans; the interminable dull speeches at the end – and all for what? Well, we meet a few old friends and have a drink, get a bit of fresh air and (of course) make our point. It’s just a pity it’s only to ourselves and the cops . . .

But my sense of ennui after last weekend’s march wasn’t just the feeling of futility I usually get after such events. It also had a lot to do with the politics of the occasion.

To put it bluntly: where was there any acknowledgment that Saddam Hussein is a dangerous, vicious tyrant whose demise should be an urgent priority for every democrat, humanitarian and peace-lover in the world?

All right, I accept that most people in the anti-war movement have no doubt that Saddam runs a vile totalitarian police state. The problem, however, is that, in the cause of peace, they have conveniently forgotten what’s wrong with Iraq and have joined hands with all manner of dubious apologists for Saddam – the 57 varieties of Leninist “anti-imperialist” (both Stalinist and Trot); a significant section of anti-Israeli British Muslim opinion; the pacifists whose ideological forebears cringed before Hitler in the 1930s; a smattering of useful-idiot journalists and politicians who have travelled to Iraq as guests of the regime and haven’t twigged that “ordinary people” under police-state regimes have no choice but to be effusive to any foreigner about the wonders of their predicament. The horrible truth is that no one in the anti-war movement has raised a squeak about Saddam’s hideous crimes or considered what the Iraqi people themselves want.

Pretty much the same goes for the danger posed by Saddam to the rest of the world. OK, so Tony Blair’s dossier on Saddam’s programme for weapons of mass destruction contains little that is new – and there is certainly an argument to be had about how close Saddam is to reacquiring an arsenal that is an immediate threat to his neighbours or his own subjects.

But it is incontrovertible both that rearmament is his goal and that he has been pursuing it relentlessly in recent years. Has anyone in the anti-war movement even acknowledged that this is a legitimate cause for concerted international action against Iraq that falls short of war – such as (dare I say it?) properly policed sanctions and intrusive weapons inspections?

My point is simple. Saddam is the enemy of everything that democrats and humanitarians hold dear. The argument between proponents and opponents of war should not be about whether the world should act to undermine his despicable regime and deny it the means of waging war, but about how it can most effectively and decently hasten its downfall and its replacement with a pacific democratic polity.

Yet many on the left seems mesmerised by asinine arguments for letting Saddam be. He’s not the only evil dictator in the world, they say, nor even the only one who is developing weapons of mass destruction – as if his crimes were exonerated by those of others. The Americans wouldn’t care if Iraq didn’t have oil, they go on – as if that means that there’s no reason to give a toss ourselves, regardless of the nature of Saddam’s regime and regardless of the whole world’s material interest (lusty proletarians not excepted) in the maintenance of stable and secure energy supplies.

I’m not arguing for precipitate military action to bring down Saddam – honest. But the case against it is not strengthened by stupidity. Until the anti-war lobby accepts that Saddam is a problem and that the world would be a much better place without him, it’s a dead-cert loser.

Monday, 9 September 2002

BOLSHEVISM IN THE DOCK

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 9 September 2002

It is rare for a political book to make quite as big a splash as Martin Amis’s new settling of accounts with Stalin and revolutionary socialism, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million. In the US, where it was published a couple of months ago, it has been the most talked-about and reviewed work of non-fiction for a long time. Over here, the Guardian has excerpted it at length and discussion of its merits and demerits has spread from highbrow reviews pages into opinion columns and even leaders.

What makes this particularly surprising is that it is such a poor effort. Amis boasts of having yards of books on the Soviet Union on his shelves, but he hasn’t read them very thoroughly. His account of Stalin’s rule, riddled with factual errors, is based largely on half-a-dozen standard works, most of which have been around for years. Despite this, he gives the impression that he is the first person to discover the truth about Stalinism – “Everybody knows of the six million of the Holocaust,” he declares at one point. “Nobody knows of the six million of the Terror-Famine.”

Worse, his insistence on situating Stalin’s terror in the context of his personal experience – his father Kingsley’s membership of the Communist Party in the 1940s and 1950s, his best friend Christopher Hitchens’s Trotskyism in the 1970s and continued enthusiasm for Lenin, the way his baby daughter crying once made him think of a notorious 1930s Moscow prison – is almost laughably narcissistic. And his Big Idea, that liberal opinion indulged western supporters of the Soviet regime (by which Amis means anyone with the remotest sympathy for the October revolution) because the USSR was funny in a black-farce kind of way, barely deserves to be taken seriously.

Nevertheless, Amis is on to something. His lumping together of Stalinists, Trotskyists and everyone else on the left who ever expressed admiration for Lenin as culpable for Stalin’s crimes is certainly crude, even silly: on these grounds even Ramsay MacDonald and Bertrand Russell stand accused for hailing the Bolsheviks’ peace proposals in 1917-18. But he is right to argue that it’s not just the out-and-out followers of the Moscow line – members of the Communist Party and fellow-travellers – who deserve to be judged harshly by history.

How different the Soviet Union would have been if Stalin had not won control in the 1920s remains one of the great unanswerable questions of 20th-century history. But the idea that there was a golden age of Bolshevik rule before Stalin’s rise to power, a theme common to Trotskyism and every other variety of Leninism, is not borne out by the brutal facts. Embrace Bolshevism, and you embrace terror – however reluctantly or abstractly. As Amis puts it of Lenin and Trotsky: “These two men did not just precede Stalin. They created a fully functioning police state for his later use. And they showed him a remarkable thing: that it was possible to run a country with a formula of dead freedom, lies and violence . . . October 1917 was not a political revolution riding on the back of a popular revolution. It was a counter-revolution.”

Of course, most western democratic socialists never fell for the myth of the Stalinist betrayal of October: their delusions were different. From the very earliest years of the Bolshevik regime, they were prone to hope against the evidence that the Soviet model of socialism was evolving towards democracy. The New Economic Policy, the Popular Front, Stalin’s 1936 constitution, Khruschev’s “secret speech”, Imre Nagy’s liberalisation in Hungary, “socialism with a human face” in Czechoslovakia, Solidarnosc in Poland, Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika – all were heralded by western socialists as steps on the road to utopia or at least signs of democratic change. Even since the collapse of “actually existing socialism” in the Soviet bloc in 1989-91, a large section of the left in the west has remained nostalgic for what might have been, if only. That Soviet-type socialism’s supposed potential for democratic evolution was a chimera is still unthinkable for much of the left.

Does any of this matter any more? I think it does, and not just because history is important in itself. The Soviet Union might be no more, but its association with the left lives on in the popular imagination. Leninists remain the most visible leftists in our political culture, their manipulative practices still too often tolerated by democratic socialists. And the temptation to see faraway brutal police states as progressive is still with us – witness the way that much of the left still fawns before Castro’s Cuba and communist China.

For all its faults, Amis’s book poses awkward questions that the whole of the left needs to address.

Friday, 26 July 2002

SPEND MONEY TO MAKE MONEY

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 26 July 2002

This paper has made dicing with death something of a way of life. It has rarely if ever made a profit in the conventional sense, relying for most of its 65 years on fund-raising and subventions from rich benefactors and trade unions to compensate for trading losses. And it has come perilously close to closure at least six times.

Two of these close encounters with the grim reaper were in my time on the staff. In 1988, the board decided to cease publication the next week unless a large sum of money was raised at once. So we ran a front page bare apart from the words “DON’T LET THIS BE THE LAST ISSUE OF TRIBUNE” and launched an emergency appeal – which rescued the paper by raising nearly £40,000 from readers and the unions.

Even that was not enough to keep the wolf from the door for long, however. Within three years, we were so short of money that we had to reduce pagination from 12 to eight tabloid pages a week for several months – and even this would have been unsustainable had we not managed to slash our typesetting costs by introducing desktop publishing.

So I had a feeling of deja vu all over again when I read in last week’s leader that Tribune was again running out of money, and that the board had decided to seek a buyer or launch another emergency appeal.

Of course, some would say that Tribune’s repeated crises show that its allegiance to the Labour Party, its policy prescriptions or even its democratic socialism are irrelevant or outmoded. Others would go further, as the political journalist Julia Langdon does in the current British Journalism Review, arguing that there is little space in today’s media world for political weeklies and that the days of even the New Statesman and the Spectator are numbered.

In my gloomier moments, I admit, I am at least tempted by such views. The massive expansion of the comment, features and reviews sections of the national press – to say nothing of the impact of the internet – has put immense pressure on the weeklies to find niches of their own. (This is a particular problem for Tribune and the Statesman because of the extent to which the Guardian and in recent months the Mirror have encroached on their territory.) I also often despair of the way parts of the Tribune left hang on to political nostrums that should by now be languishing in the dustbin of history – anti-Europeanism, scepticism about constitutional reform, nostalgia for Soviet communism and so on.

But at heart I remain convinced not only that the reinvigoration of egalitarian democratic socialism inside the Labour Party is the best hope we have – but also that there is room for well-written, well-edited political weeklies in Britain, particularly on the left. There is plenty the Guardian and Mirror don’t do that can and should be done, and plenty they do badly that can and should be done better. The Observer has dumbed down its political coverage and the Independent titles have lost the plot. The Morning Star’s Stalinism is risible and the Trot papers are moronic. Add the declining standard of politics and current affairs broadcasting, the patchiness of foreign coverage everywhere except the Financial Times and the Economist, and the failure of most reviews sections to notice most politics and history books – and the space for Tribune and the Statesman is very much there to be taken.

That the Statesman, with Geoffrey Robinson’s millions behind it, has failed to carve out a niche cannot be put down to lack of cash. But Tribune can justifiably claim that its current difficulties are the consequence of chronic under-investment. To make money in publishing, you need to spend money, on promoting your publication and on improving editorial quality. This in turn increases circulation, which in turn increases revenue both directly, through newsagent sales and subscriptions, and indirectly, by making your publication more attractive to advertisers. If you get it right – and OK, it’s a big “if” – you end up with a virtuous circle of growth and financial security.

Tribune, however, has never had the money to mount substantial promotion campaigns or to maintain more than the bare minimum level of editorial staffing. For several years, its operating margins have been so tight that the smallest downturn in advertising revenue pushes it into danger – which is what has happened in the past year, just as it happened in 1986-87 and 1990-91.

As before, the sums required to plug the gap are not huge, though they are large enough to necessitate urgent action. And, as before, just plugging the gap won’t be enough to secure Tribune’s long-term future. To have a chance of escaping the cycle of dependency and crisis, it needs an injection of investment large enough for a sustained push for growth. Of course, even that is not a sufficient condition for success – but it is a necessary one. Anyone out there prepared to gamble a quarter of a million quid?

Friday, 12 July 2002

IDIOTS AGAINST THE EURO

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 12 July 2002

The maxim that all publicity is good publicity has long had its advocates on the fringes of politics: those who have no other means of making a mark – harmless radical provocateurs as well as murderous terrorists – often come to revel in notoriety.

What I’ve never seen until now is the principle taken up by a mainstream political campaign that is attempting not to shock or terrorise but to convince the public of the justice of its cause.

Yet what else can explain the extraordinary cinema ad by the campaign against British membership of the single European currency, in which the comedian Rik Mayall, humorously dressed as Adolf Hitler, rants “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Euro!” at the camera?

The no campaign and Mayall himself have rather half-heartedly claimed that the vignette is merely a joky way of highlighting the Nazis’ enthusiasm for a single European currency – and as such is a legitimate point to make in the debate on British membership of the euro.

If you believe that you’ll believe anything. It is true that Hitler imposed an economic union of sorts on occupied Europe during the 1940s – but that’s about it. The postwar European project, of which the euro is part, never had anything whatsoever to do with the Nazis’ dream of a German empire subjugating the peoples of Europe through genocide, terror and never-ending war.

Indeed, it was from the start explicitly framed as a means of preventing anything like Nazi Germany ever happening again.

The big idea of Jean Monnet and the other forefathers of what is now the European Union was that if the states of Europe pooled their sovereignty, slowly building common institutions and a common political culture, it would become impossible for an expansionist militarist Germany ever to rise again. And – so far at least – it seems to have worked rather well.

These anti-Nazi roots of the EU are so well documented that it almost beggars belief that the no campaign could even suggest that the euro was originally Hitler’s idea. Almost – but not quite.

Ignorance about the history and institutions of the EU is endemic in Britain. Postwar continental European history is taught in few schools, and continental European politics is covered superficially by the British media.

Add the national obsession with the second world war, the constant drip of anti-EU propaganda in the press and the endurance of xenophobic stereotyping of continental Europeans in the popular imagination – also consistently reinforced by the media – and it’s just about possible to credit that some cretin in the no campaign decided that a little bit of historical falsification might make the headlines without putting off the punters.

The no campaign’s crass appeal to stupidity and prejudice deserves to fail miserably, and if “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Euro!” is the best it can come up with, it will undoubtedly do so. The near-universal condemnation of the Mayall ad in the past week has left the no campaign looking very silly indeed.

But it would be a mistake to bank on it continuing to score spectacular own goals. A vigorous and intelligent yes campaign is still needed to see it off – and as yet there is no sign of any such thing. The yes campaign has barely raised its head, and when it has it has appeared unconfident and timid.

It has advanced no populist argument for the euro apart from saying that lots of jobs will disappear if we don’t join – and that if we do we won’t have to pay to change money when we go on continental holidays.

What’s almost entirely missing from the yes campaign’s case is the strongest argument for joining the euro – that it locks Britain into a European model of welfare capitalism that is far more egalitarian, more socially responsible and more tightly environmentally regulated than the free-market capitalism of the United States.

Of course, Britain would have to go into the euro at the right exchange rate to reap the benefits, and there is a strong case for reforming the way that the European Central Bank operates, in particular by making employment creation one of its objectives.

In the longer term, there is also a need for co-ordinated Europe-wide redistributive fiscal policies to counter the effects of a “one-size-fits-all” interest rate.

But none of this invalidates the fundamental social democratic case for joining up. When is the Government going to make it?

Monday, 1 July 2002

TROTS RESPOND ON THE CPGB

Paul Anderson, review of The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920 by James Eaden and David Renton (Palgrave, £45), Tribune, 1 July 2002

The Communist Party of Great Britain was not one of the success stories of the 20th century. Founded in 1920, it struggled through the next 15 years as a tiny sect reliant for survival upon subsidies from Moscow, briefly caught the popular mood of the left in the late 1930s and 1940s (with a gap between 1939 and 1941 when Stalin was Hitler’s ally), then lived a life of fitful but inexorable decline through the cold war until its death, unmourned, in 1991.

The facts of the story are well known. During its lifetime — partly because its protagonists thought they had a world-historical role, partly because its antagonists half-believed them — the British CP always received far more attention than its rather limited impact appeared to warrant. And since its demise its entrails have been picked over relentlessly by historians, both specialists, writing about key communist personalities and campaigns, and generalists taking the broad view of the party’s rise and fall.

Since 1991, there have been three overview post mortems: one by a critical old CPer, Willie Thompson; one from a Tribune democratic socialist, the journalist Francis Beckett; and one (a shabby job) by two academics, Keith Laybourn and Dylan Murphy. So why do we need another? Well, what’s missing is the Trotskyist version, and that’s what Eaden and Renton provide, building on the pioneering work on the early years of the CP by Brian Pearce and Michael Woodhouse published back in the 1950s and 1960s.

Eaden and Renton are sophisticated Trots, and their book is extremely well researched – they have read all the secondary literature and lots more besides. They make telling points against the revisionist school of CP history that tries to minimise the role of Moscow’s diktats in the everyday life of the party — and there is much else in their account that is praiseworthy, in particular the material on the CP’s strangely ambiguous role in the industrial militancy of the 1960s and 1970s.

The problem, however, is their unyielding belief that all would have been for the best in the best of all possible worlds if only the correct Leninist line had been consistently applied. According to Eaden and Renton, the CP was fine until the degeneration of the first workers’ state but lost its way because from the late 1920s it followed Stalin into abandoning the perspective of world proletarian revolution. The CP became a tool of a revisionist Soviet foreign policy that (after a tragic and quixotic ultra-Leftist phase of attacking socialists as “social fascists”) sought coexistence with capitalism – advocating a “popular front” against fascism with liberals and “progressive” conservatives rather than a “united front” with other workers’ parties. After that, it was downhill all the way except for brief spells when the CP rediscovered the delights of the proletarian united front — particularly in 1939-41, when all true socialists were against the war effort . . .

I’m sorry, but this is too much to swallow. For starters, it ignores the brutal fact that throughout the 1920s the CP was a tiny militant sect, massively outnumbered and outpowered intellectually by the Independent Labour Party. Then there’s the small problem that it was only when the CP shifted to the Right in the 1930s and again between 1941 and 1945 that it came close to becoming a mass party. As for the claim that 1939-41 marks some temporary respite from political degeneration, well, that’s not the way it seemed to the majority of the Labour Left, which saw the Hitler-Stalin pact and the CP’s subsequent defeatism as a great betrayal.

I could go on. On more recent history, Eaden and Renton are weak on the crisis in the CP that followed Khruschev’s secret speech and the Hungarian revolution in 1956; and they have little of interest to say on the role of the CP in the early-1980s Bennite Labour Left or in the second wave of CND. They take a peculiarly superficial view of the arguments that attended the collapse of the CP in the mid-1980s — were the Eurocommunists really no more than opportunists of the worst kind? — and add nothing to our understanding of the momentous events of 1989.

All the same, I recommend this book. I thoroughly enjoyed disagreeing with it.

SOCIAL DEMOCRACY CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS

Paul Anderson, Chartist column, July-August 2002

Just three years ago, social democratic parties were in power in all but four west European democracies — Spain, Norway, Ireland and Luxembourg. Crucially, Germany, France, Italy and Britain, the four largest countries, all had governments formed by social democrats or in which social democrats were the dominant coalition partner.

Although the picture was by no means completely rosy — the polls suggested that both the Italian centre-left and the Austrian social democrats would lose to their next general elections — many on the left looked forward to the prospect of a new era of social democratic hegemony in western Europe.

How different the picture looks today. Since the end of 1999, governing socialists have been ousted in Austria, Italy, Denmark, Portugal, Holland and France — and there is a strong chance that the German social democrats are heading for defeat in the autumn. If they lose, only Britain, Greece, Sweden, Finland and Belgium will have governments of the centre-left.

So what has gone wrong? There is no easy answer. Each country that has swung to the right in the past three years has done so for particular reasons. The Italian centre-left, for example, was punished by the voters for its fractiousness and indecisiveness, and the French socialists were undone by Lionel Jospin’s incompetent campaign and widespread protest voting for far-left candidates in the first round of the presidential election. The right-wing parties that have won power have very little in common, as none other than William Hague recognised in a recent article.

But there are common themes in the demise of governments of the left. All were victims of popular concerns about crime and immigration that were successfully exploited by right-wing populists. And all suffered from the abandonment of left parties by many of their traditional core working-class supporters, disillusioned by the perceived failure of centre-left governments to make a difference to their lot.

These two phenomena are undoubtedly linked. The things that working-class voters feel let down over by social democratic governments are crime, jobs, housing and pay — and the belief that immigrants are responsible for rising crime, housing shortages and the scarcity of well-paid employment is widespread.

So should the defeated centre-left parties respond by adopting the rhetoric of the right and talking tough on crime and asylum-seekers? That is certainly the advice of the Blair government in Britain — and there is no doubt that, in purely electoral terms, it can be an effective short-term tactic.

In the longer term, however, it cannot be a solution. Not only does it pander dangerously to prejudice, giving a spurious legitimacy to racism that can only benefit the right — it does nothing to tackle the root causes of working-class disillusionment with centre-left governments: the persistence of unemployment, low pay and poor housing.

To regain credibility, the centre-left throughout Europe needs to offer something more than efficient administration of the status quo and a few palliatives for the worst excesses of neo-liberalism. And that means developing coherent and ambitious programmes at both national and EU level for creating jobs, eliminating poverty, reducing insecurity, improving public services and increasing the accountability of political institutions. In other words, rather than echoing the right, it needs to set out a distinctively social democratic reformism that convinces voters that there really is an alternative.

Thursday, 27 June 2002

ORWELL WAS NOT BIG BROTHER

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 27 June 2002

I apologise for returning to the subject of George Orwell’s list of alleged Stalinist sympathisers, but Elizabeth C Hazlehurst’s letter a fortnight ago (Tribune June 14) demands a response — not least because she got her facts wrong.

What actually happened was this. With his friend Richard Rees, Orwell in the late 1940s compiled a notebook listing people prominent in literary and political circles, mainly in Britain and the US, who they thought might be “crypto-communists” (secret members of the Communist Party) or “fellow-travellers” (non-members of the CP who publicly defended Stalin’s Russia).

There were — are — 135 names in this notebook, and most were published in a volume of Peter Davison’s edition of Orwell’s Collected Works in 1998 (the ones not published were those of people who were still alive, and they were excluded to avoid the possibility of libel actions).

There are four important factual points here:
  • This was a speculative list two friends put together for their own amusement. It was not intended for wider circulation, let alone publication.
  • Although some of the names in the notebook have notes appended that identify them as probable covert CP members or even Soviet agents, far more are defined as merely na├»ve, dishonest, sentimental or silly in their attitudes to the Soviet Union and the CP.
  • Orwell and Rees were largely accurate in their assessments. Nearly everyone in the notebook had expressed gushing admiration for Stalinist Russia or participated in CP-run campaigns.
  • The list in the notebook was not the list Orwell gave in 1949 to Celia Kirwan, a former girlfriend who had asked his advice on who should and who should not be asked to write by the Foreign Office propaganda outfit for which she worked, the newly established Information Research Department. The IRD list contained only “about 35” names, according to Orwell, and it has never been published: for reasons best known to the Public Records Office, it has been withheld from release. Although the names Hazlehurst mentions in her letter — Nancy Cunard, Cecil Day Lewis, Tom Driberg, John Steinbeck, Orson Welles et al — are in Orwell’s notebook, we don’t yet know whether they are on the IRD list.
Of course, the facts aren’t what are really at stake. The big questions are whether Orwell was right to compile his notebook for his own purposes and whether he was right to hand over the shorter list to the IRD.

On the first of these, I fail to see how anyone can object to a political journalist keeping tabs on his or her subjects’ political affiliations and backgrounds. Every political journalist does it. Unless you know, say, that the chair of campaign A is a member of the central committee of a Stalinist micro-party, or that the leader of trade union B is affiliated to a Trotskyist groupuscule, or that the columnist for respectable broadsheet C was once a lobbyist for Slobodan Milosevic, or that the Tory MP for D has repeatedly taken freebie holidays in Northern Cyprus, you miss important stories.

Handing over the shorter list to the IRD is more controversial — but I still don’t think that it amounted to more than a minor error of judgment. The purpose of the list was to advise the Foreign Office about whom not to hire to write articles, pamphlets and books for a new outfit that had been set up by the Labour government to counter Communist propaganda abroad with arguments for democratic socialism.

Now, it’s perfectly possible to argue that the IRD should never have been set up on the grounds that a democracy should have no recourse to propaganda — and there is a strong case for believing that in later years its role in spreading rumour and disinformation was reprehensible.

But in 1949, the idea of the IRD did not seem at all shady. There was good reason to fear Stalin’s intentions in Europe. The Soviet Union, itself a vile dictatorship, had ruthlessly suppressed nascent democracies in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, imposing pliant puppet dictatorships and imprisoning democratic socialists. West Berlin was under Soviet military blockade, and it seemed to many that Stalin was preparing for all-out war. Orwell was by no means alone on the Left in thinking a British socialist propaganda effort justified.

If there remains a case against Orwell’s action, it is that he did not know to what use his list would be put by the state. That was certainly a risk — but in the circumstances of the time it was an understandable one to take. It certainly should not be allowed to besmirch his reputation.

Friday, 14 June 2002

'NO' TO THE EURO IS FOR TORY DUPES

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 14 June 2002

Last week’s revelation that the campaign against British membership of the euro is planning to keep the Tories out of the public eye and rely instead on the efforts of a bunch of alternative comedians – or rather, an alternative bunch of comedians – is highly significant.

It shows for the first time that the no campaign is extremely nervous. The opinion polls have begun to turn as voters realise that the euro carries no threat to their well-being, the Government is looking increasingly ready to go for the referendum – and the no campaign’s focus groups are telling it that it hasn’t a hope in hell if it is seen, as it is today, as a Tory front organisation.

Whether Vic Reeves and Harry Enfield have the wherewithal to change this public perception is, to say the least, questionable. But this is not just because they lack the gravitas to convince on an issue of such importance or because the big idea behind the recruitment of their comic talents, that the euro is a “joke currency”, is asinine and puerile.

Far more important is the brute fact that the popular perception of the anti-euro campaign as a Tory front is pretty much accurate.

Consider the following:
  • The Tories were the only major party to fight the last general election on an anti-euro platform.
  • Their current leader, Iain Duncan Smith, rose to political prominence as a Eurosceptic rebel against the Major Government in the 1990s and owes his current position to the popularity of his virulent anti-Europeanism in his party.
  • The Tories constitute by far the largest body of organised anti-euro opinion in the country.
  • Tory activists dominate the anti-euro campaign at every level.
  • The no campaign is funded by Tory businessmen.
  • Only the Tories can benefit politically from a no victory in the referendum – and only a no victory in the referendum gives the Tories any hope of subsequent electoral recovery.
It is no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that the man who announced the Tories’ backseat role in the no campaign, its former director, Dominic Cummings, was speaking in his current capacity as director of strategy at Conservative Central Office – a position to which he was appointed by none other than Mr Duncan Smith.

The promised low profile for the Tories is, in short, nothing but a Tory ruse – and those non-Tories who have rallied to the no campaign after being assured that it would not be Tory-dominated, Labour leftists and Greens as well as comedians, have allowed themselves to be conned. They are dupes of the Tories – just as 1930s pacifists were dupes of Hitler and liberal members of Communist front organisations were dupes of Moscow.

OK, I exaggerate, but only a little. I am of course aware that many Labour Left and Green opponents of the single currency are not knee-jerk anti-Europeans, that there are legitimate criticisms of the way the euro operates and that some on the Left who are against the single currency also want to dissociate themselves from the official Tory-led no campaign.

But the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. The truth is that there is no way that an independent left campaign against the euro will be able to make itself heard in the run-up to the referendum: it simply won’t have the resources or indeed the political clout to make an impact. (Unlike in 1975, no one of Cabinet rank is likely to be in the no camp.)

The referendum campaign will be a contest not between advocates of capitalist Europe and proponents of a socialist Britain standing alone, but between those who want to be part of a capitalist (but at least caring) Europe and those who want to let the market rip in an authoritarian offshore tax-haven. Anti-euro leftists will have the choice of watching from the margins shouting irrelevant slogans or throwing their lot in with the Tories.

Either way, they will play the role of useful idiots in a reactionary populist xenophobic crusade – and either way they cannot win. If Britain votes no, the victors will not be those who dream of a proper left-wing Government in Britain or those who believe that the European Central Bank should do more about unemployment: they will be Mr Duncan Smith and his followers, whose currently hopeless predicament will be transformed. And if Britain votes yes, well, the anti-euro left will be deservedly and universally lampooned as an irrelevance – and shunned as Tory stooges by the rest of the left.

Sunday, 9 June 2002

TWENITETH CENTURY HACKS

Paul Anderson, review of People's Witness:The Journalist in Modern Politics by Fred Inglis (Yale University Press £19.99), Tribune, 9 June 2002

Traditionally, books that tell the history of journalism come in two kinds. On one hand, there are memoirs by veteran journalists, typically with titles like Witness to History or Sixty Years on Fleet Street, which are stuffed with anecdotes about observing great events, mixing with the famous and infamous and scooping the opposition. On the other, there are accounts, mainly by academics, that concentrate on the institutional, social and political contexts in which journalists have worked: histories of newspapers and broadcasting organisations, heavyweight biographies of press barons, social histories of the media, and so on.

Fred Inglis's big idea was to produce a book on 20th-century journalists that synthesises the two approaches — "one which offers to reorder a galaxy of starring and not-so-starring, more dimly significant names in a new historical constellation", as he puts it somewhat inelegantly his introduction. Unfortunately, People's Witness, although undeniably pacy and enthusiastic, does not in the end deliver the goods.

The book mixes brief lives of Inglis's journalistic heroes (and a few villains) with observations about the changing nature of the mass media and summaries of the ideas of various sociologists of the media, all topped off with ruminations on myths of journalism in fiction and on the influence of fictions on journalism.

The good guys are those journalists, most of them foreign correspondents or essayists rather than reporters or commentators on domestic politics, who made it their vocation to speak truth to power, among them Martha Gellhorn, William Shirer, George Orwell, I. F. Stone, James Cameron and Harold Evans. The bad guys are those who kow-towed to governments and big business and pandered to popular prejudice. Which is fair enough — and refreshing in this cynical age — except that Inglis's heroes are already so familiar. Although his sketches are well drawn, they are superficial. If he has done any archival research he has hidden the evidence well.

Inglis is better on the way the media industry has changed over the past century, where he draws heavily on James Curran and Jean Seaton's classic Power Without Responsibility, and his short accounts of the thoughts of Max Weber, Jurgen Habermas, Pierre Bourdieu et al are competent if hardly ground-breaking. When he gets to outlining his own views about journalism, fiction and truth, however, his predilections for prolixity and opacity get the better of him. "The distinction between history and myth is harder and harder to draw," he concludes after a particularly convoluted chapter on recent films about journalists. Er, why?

People's Witness is also flawed by annoying errors. In the space of a couple of pages on 1980s Britain, to take just one example, Inglis makes it appear that Rupert Murdoch shut down The Times for a year (that happened in 1978-79 before he appeared on the scene), renders the Social Democratic Party as the Social Democratic Alliance and has Robert Maxwell drowning in the Meditterranean rather than off the Canaries. These are hardly fatal mistakes, but they add to the impression that this book was researched and written in great haste.

Friday, 31 May 2002

TIME IS ON THE REPUBLICAN SIDE

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 31 May 2002

Like everyone else I know who edits or has edited a magazine or newspaper, I’m extremely keen on anniversaries. Not that I’ve ever been any good at remembering girlfriends’ or family members’ birthdays. It’s just that anniversaries of great (and indeed not-so-great) events are one of the few things that you can predict with certainty.

It’s not just that it’s all too easy to be caught napping by the invasion of the Falklands or the fall of the Berlin Wall or the attack on the World Trade Centre. Even normally reliable “on-diary” events have a nasty habit of being cancelled, postponed or curtailed — witness last year’s Labour conference. But nothing can possibly prevent 2002 being 10 years after 1992, 20 years after 1982, 25 years after 1977 and so forth. Armed with nothing more sophisticated than a dictionary of dates, any editor can plan a great deal of features coverage. And that, in the journalism business, is most reassuring.

This weekend, of course, the anniversary on most editors’ minds is Brenda Windsor’s glorious 50 years on the throne. As a republican, I’m not celebrating — but the wall-to-wall coverage of the jubilee has got me thinking about the future of the monarchy.

I have to admit that this started as pure self-indulgence — because the jubilee is yet another reminder that, yes, I really am middle-aged now. It can’t really be 25 years since I bought the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”, can it? In another 25 years I’ll be 67 and retired . . .

But then I had another thought. The current Queen is now 76 and on current form seems to have every chance of living at least to the same age as her mother (who died at the age of 101 earlier this year, though it already seems like another era). If she does, she will reign over us until 2027 — by which time her heir apparent, Prince Charles, will be approaching 80. And if he lives to be 101, his successor, Prince William, will be crowned in 2048 at the age of 65.

It should go without saying that this scenario might not come to pass. At best, some daring future government will legislate to make Britain a republic. The Queen might decide to abdicate (although she says she won’t) to give Charles a spell on the throne before he reaches his dotage. HM the Q or Charles could die before reaching 101.

But there’s no doubt that the House of Windsor faces the prospect of turning into a gerontocracy that makes the Brezhnev-era Politburo in the Soviet Union look like a brood of spring chickens. And even allowing for the fact that, on current demographic trends, the old will comprise an ever-greater proportion of the British population as the 21st century wears on, it is impossible to imagine an increasingly senile monarchy retaining popular support.

So perhaps, on reflection, we republicans should raise a glass this weekend and wish dear old Bren many more years on the throne. Gawd bless yer, Ma’am — the longer you hang on, the better it looks for us.

***

All anniversaries are artificial, but some are more artifical than others — and none more so than what would have been George Orwell’s 99th birthday, which has been marked by a explosion of controversy in the quality press over his legacy.

Most of the heat has been created by Christopher Hitchens’s fine polemical defence of Orwell, Orwell’s Victory, which has provoked the usual whining from latter-day apologists for Stalinism.

Predictably, much of this has focused on the (largely accurate) list of Stalinist fellow-travellers that Orwell passed on to a Foreign Office propaganda unit, the Information Research Department, in 1949, the implication being that Orwell was a grass if not a spook. Yet, as Hitchens makes clear, all he did was advise an ex-girlfriend who was working for the IRD about who should not be hired — which in the political climate of the time (Britain had a Labour Government and the Soviet Union was blockading Berlin) was perfectly honourable.

The other Orwell-related book that has caused a stir is Hilary Spurling’s revisionist biography of Sonia Orwell, the writer’s widow, whose reputation hitherto has been as an insufferable gold-digging drunk. Spurling’s defence of her subject is entirely convincing except on one thing that still matters — the charge that, in editing the Penguin edition of Orwell’s journalism and letters, Sonia omitted a lot of his late political writing in order to downplay his continuing commitment to democratic socialism.

The effect was to give wholly undeserved credibility to all those, conservatives as well as pro-Soviet leftists, who spread the odious lie that Orwell — the finest British left-wing writer of the past century — reneged on the left in his final years. And that remains unforgivable.

  • Orwell's Victory by Christopher Hitchens is published by Penguin Press. The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell by Hilary Spurling is published by Hamish Hamilton.

Tuesday, 14 May 2002

GOOD NEWS AT LAST ON LORDS REFORM?

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 14 May 2002

I WAS going to write this week on the depressing business of Richard Desmond’s £100,000 donation to the Labour Party a few days before the government gave the green light to his takeover of the Daily Express and Sunday Express. Whatever next, I thought gloomily - Labour Party women’s conference sponsored by Readers’ Wives? Or maybe even a place in the House of Lords for the pornographer tycoon. Lord Beavershot does have a certain ring to it, and it fits the man perfectly. (If you don’t get the joke, I’m not going to explain it here.)

But then along came Robin Cook with his announcement that the government had torn up its plans for a largely appointed second chamber and that it was going to let parliament decide the composition of the new upper house. We were treated to the glorious spectacle of that pompous chump Derry Irvine, Lord Chancellor and chief architect of the Government’s now-abandoned scheme, having his nose vigorously rubbed in the ordure by Kirsty Wark on Newsnight.

Of course, there’s a long way to go before we get what we deserve – and what should have been the Government’s goal from the beginning – a democratically legitimate second chamber. A joint committee of the Commons and the Lords has to come up with options for reform that will be put to a free vote of our elected and unelected representatives – and then it has to put together detailed proposals.

Cook’s optimism this that the process can be completed well before the next election, which is likely in 2005, could well be misplaced. There is a strong possibility that the forces of conservatism (Irvine, John Prescott and the majority of peers) could scupper the project by stalling it, even though they seem unlikely to be able to muster a majority against a largely elected second chamber.

Nevertheless, the abandonment of Irvine’s half-baked plan for reform is cause for some celebration among democrats. Along with the launch last week of the Government’s blueprint for English regional assemblies, it gives at least a glimmer of hope to those of us who feared that Labour had given up on the idea of democratically reforming Britain’s creaking constitution.

It is rather strange that Prescott, who has been Labour’s leading advocate of a wholly appointed second chamber on the grounds that anything else would undermine the Commons, is also the party’s most enthusiastic devolutionist. The whole point of devolution to decentralise power, one upshot of which is inevitably a reduction of the role of the Commons in certain key areas of policy.

But let that pass. For a change, the government is doing the right thing. With a fair wind - and a period of silence on Prescott’s and Irvine’s part on Lords reform – we could see two radical democratic reforms in the next five years that would transform Britain’s polity for the better.

***

On a different subject, I hope the editor won’t mind me saying that the news of the revival of the Tribune Group in the Parliamentary Labour Party left me unenthusiastic. I’ve nothing against the MPs who have relaunched the group. Indeed, I’d agree that the PLP needs a Left-leaning pressure group that is less oppositionist than the Socialist Campaign Group.

The problem is the name – which the original group took from this organ back in 1966. No one at the time saw it as an act of larceny (because it wasn’t one), and during the 1960s and early 1970s relations between the group and the paper were mostly cordial and constructive.

But the closeness of the relationship also caused difficulties even then, particularly for the paper. Its identification with the ageing traditional Left of the PLP meant that it never really benefited from the upsurge in radical Leftism in the 1960s and 1970s among the young, who saw Tribune as old-fashioned and dull. In the 1980s, with the split between the Tribune and Campaign Groups and the former’s gradual drift into leadership-loyalism and inactivity, the relationship between group and paper fell apart. Peter Hain and others made a brief attempt to revive the group as a debating forum in the early 1990s, but were soon ousted by the leadership loyalists. After about 1994, the group lived on in name only. Few regretted its de facto passing.

Now, it could be that it all works much better this time, but I have a suspicion it won’t, for the simple reason that a weekly newspaper and a parliamentary pressure group need to operate by completely different rules. The paper has to provide a lively, up-to-date, well-written commentary on events and trends. The parliamentary group needs to lobby patiently for legislative change. Mixing the two is not a good idea. It would have been better for everyone if the new Tribune Group had found another name.

Wednesday, 1 May 2002

SOCIAL DEMOCRACY ON THE ROPES

Paul Anderson, Chartist column, May-June 2002

April 21 2002 has to go down as one of the blackest days for European social democracy in the past 50 years. For Lionel Jospin to fail to reach the second round of the French presidential election would have been a disaster in any circumstances. For him to be beaten by the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen was utterly shocking, the most profound defeat for the left in democratic Europe since 1945.

What went wrong? Jospin’s government — despite notable successes such as the 35-hour week — was not popular, and Jospin himself was not the most inspiring of candidates. He also ran a dismal campaign. The opinion polls nevertheless suggested that he would coast into the second round, and many left-wing voters decided to use the first round of the presidential election to protest against the deficiencies of the government by backing one of the fringe left candidates or the Green — a self-indulgence that most regretted as soon as the exit polls were broadcast. Add the chord that Le Pen’s dominant themes of crime and immigration struck with many voters, and the die was cast for the debacle that ensued.

Of course, president Jacques Chirac won easily in the second round of the presidential election — and it is possible that the left, shocked out of its complacency by its failure on April 21, will do well enough in the National Assembly elections in June to win another majority. Perhaps, by early summer, France will be back to the status quo ante, with a left coalition government cohabiting with Chirac as president.

But such an outcome. by no means guaranteed or even likely, would not wipe out the disaster of April 21 — and even this, the most optimistic current scenario, is a far cry from what seemed achievable when the polls opened on April 21. There seemed then a real chance that Jospin would win a victory that would massively strengthen the position of social democracy in the European Union after the general election defeats of ruling socialist parties in Austria, Spain, Italy, Denmark and Portugal in the past three years.

As it is, the prognosis for the west European centre-left is gloomier than at any time for a decade. Social democrats are still in power in Belgium, Germany, Greece, Sweden and of course the United Kingdom. But in the Netherlands, which holds its general election in May, the Labour-dominated coalition government has resigned ahead over the damning report on the role of Dutch troops during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre — and the running in the election campaign is being made by a populist anti-immigrant right-winger.

In Germany, which holds a general election in autumn, the alarm bells are ringing for chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The same day as Jospin crashed to defeat in the German Social Democrats slumped to an unexpectedly ignominious defeat in the regional election in the eastern state of Saxony Anhalt France — almost unreported in the British press. The SPD haemorrhaged support to the former-communist Party of Democratic Socialism, the liberal Free Democrats and the centre-right Christian Democratic Union. The spectre looms of a return to the centre-right coalition that ruled the Federal Republic from 1983 to 1998.

Why is social democracy in this predicament? One way of answering this question is to go through the particular circumstances of each country — the perception in Spain that the Socialists were corrupt and had run out of steam, the failure of the Italian centre-left to push through much-needed economic and political reforms, the hopelessly schismatic nature of the French left, the economic plight of former East Germany, and so on.

But there are also factors that are common across western Europe. At the most general level, there has been a catastrophic erosion almost everywhere of the ability of the major left and centre-left parties to retain the loyalty of what were once their core voters, particularly the working class. (The most remarkable instance is not a social democratic party but the once-mighty French Communist Party, which 30 years ago easily scooped up one-fifth of the vote in a general election. Its presidential candidate on April 21, Robert Hue, won a derisory 3.5 per cent.)

This is partly down to changes in society and mass culture that have been remarked upon for the best part of 50 years — the rise of consumerism and the (increasingly tax-averse) affluent white-collar worker who identifies with the middle class, deindustrialisation and the fragmentation of working-class communities, the decline of political activity in parties and so forth. But it also has a lot to do with the inability of left and centre-left parties, in the face of all this and globalisation too, to articulate a coherent reformist programme that appeals to the self-interest of the poor without frightening away the relatively well off.

Ever since the end of Francois Mitterrand’s early-eighties French experiment in nationalisation and Keynesian reflation, the nearest thing that the left has had to a credible defining grand project has been the construction of a “social Europe”. The big idea, articulated by Jacques Delors and others, was an over-arching plan for not just economic but political union, with the introduction of basic workers’ rights throughout a new democratic, federalist European Union alongside the introduction of an expansionist counter-cyclical Europe-wide economic policy based on a single European currency.

But, with the right in government in nearly all the major EC states in the late 1980s and early 1990s — and with federalism anathema to the French and British governments — the deal that was struck on creating the European Union at Maastricht and subsequently was far from the social democrats’ dream. The leading figures in several social democratic parties, most notably the British, responded by capitulating to what the French call “neo-liberalism”, the doctrine that only a hire-and-fire work culture, backed up with punitive measures against the supposedly work-shy, could possibly work in the new globalised economy.

Instead of what would effectively have been a democratically accountable European government pursuing a redistributionist growth-oriented policy, the EU got a single currency run by an independent central bank committed only to anti-inflationary rigour. When social democrats came to power in the late 1990s in Italy, France and then Germany, the three biggest countries that in the putative euro-zone, they found their room for manoeuvre in the short term seriously constrained by the imperative of sticking to the timetable for monetary union. Their supporters’ high expectations were dashed.

The fact is that western Europe’s social democratic governments missed a great opportunity in 1998-99 to put together a far-reaching revision of the EU’s political and economic settlement along the lines originally envisaged by Delors. That they didn’t is easily explicable. The advocates of such a course (the Jospin government and Oskar Lafontaine, the German finance minister) were unceremoniously blocked by their opponents (the Labour government in Britain and Schroeder, but also the Italian centre-left), who believed that what Europe needed was a large dose of deregulation, privatisation and flexible labour markets. Just as important, no consensus emerged either on the political shape a democratically reformed EU should take; and, in its absence, the EU focused its efforts on the challenge of enlargement — the implications of which for public opinion inside the EU were never taken seriously.

It is here that the failure of the centre-left to come up with a coherent purpose locks into another common theme of west European politics in the past five years: the rise of a populist anti-immigrant right. Of course, antipathy to immigrants in western Europe long predates any plan to expand the single labour market to the low-wage zones of east-central Europe, and there is much more to it than fears of wages being driven down and of secure jobs disappearing.

Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that the imminence of enlargement has been one of the factors — along with the growth in the number of asylum-seekers and in illegal immigration that have accompanied the de facto decision of affluent western Europe to stop legal immigration — that have given the anti-immigrant right momentum.

The desire of large numbers of people in poor and war-torn parts of the world to come to relatively peaceful, affluent western Europe is completely understandable. So too, however, are at least some of the fears of immigration that are exploited by Le Pen, Haider and their ilk. It would be utterly reprehensible to condone the racism of the populist anti-immigrant right or to abandon the practice of offering asylum to the persecuted. But there are good reasons for adopting policies — with the emphasis on the carrot not the stick — that both persuade would-be economic immigrants to western Europe to stay put in their own countries and reassure west European workers that their jobs, wages and pensions are not going to be sacrificed on the altar of market economics.

The arguments bandied about by the Labour government in the past few weeks — that immigration is good for the economy and that we’re really hard on asylum seekers — send precisely the wrong message. This one demands the generosity and foresight of the Marshall plan — a radical reorientation of western policy towards rebuilding the shattered economies of the former-communist and third worlds.

Friday, 19 April 2002

THE EURO DECISION CAN'T BE SHIRKED

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 19 April 2002

LAST week’s launch of Labour Against the Euro caused barely a ripple on the political pond, and it’s not hard to see why: the usual Labour Eurosceptic suspects say the same old thing yet again. Hardly the thing to drive the Queen Mother’s funeral or Israel’s assault on the Palestine from the front page.

But the new campaign deserves more than what Ernie Bevin once described as “a complete ignoral”. In the current political climate there is a real danger that its fatuous, head-in-the-sand message will be taken up widely in the Labour Party — for no better reason than that it is opposed to the party leadership’s line.

The Labour sceptics rest their case on two main arguments: first, that there
are good economic reasons for Britain not to join the euro; and second, that joining the euro would be a “diversion” from the task of improving Britain’s
public services.

Their economic case against the euro in the short term boils down to the assertion that UK interest rates need to be higher than those in the euro-zone in order to keep a lid on inflation — one result of which is to make sterling’s exchange rate against the euro too high for British euro entry.

But what are we really talking about here? It’s not as if UK interest rates are 5 percentage points above the euro-zone’s, or that the UK is fighting off double-digit inflation, or that sterling is 25 per cent overvalued against the euro. The interest-rate difference between Britain and the euro-zone is less than a single percentage point, UK inflation has been hovering for years between 2 and 2.5 per cent, and the sterling devaluation required, according to just about every credible economist, is in the region of 5-10 per cent. Reducing UK interest rates to those of the euro-zone carries few inflationary risks and would go a long way to encouraging the small devaluation most economists think we need to enter the euro. With the economic cycles of the UK and the euro-zone are more in step now than at any time in the past 20 years, the truth is that we can join the euro pretty much when we want.

Aha, say the LATEites, but what about the “one-size-fits-all” interest rate policy if we join the euro-zone? And what about the European Central Bank’s limits on public spending, which would rule out Labour’s spending plans? Well, you get a single interest rate with any currency, and you cope with any regional imbalances with taxation and spending. It’s true that the Europe-wide mechanisms for this are inadequate at present — but, as every social democratic party inside the euro-zone argues, there is nothing to stop them being improved. As for the claim that the European Central Bank would outlaw Labour’s spending plans, sorry, it’s just complete cobblers.

The part of the LATE case that really annoys me, however, is the argument that joining the euro is somehow a “diversion” from Labour’s primary task of improving public services. It’s true that some members of this government are uncannily reminiscent of US President Gerald Ford, who was said to find simultaneously walking and chewing gum too much of an intellectual challenge. But the idea that it is beyond the government to organise a referendum campaign on the euro at the same time as spending more money on the National Health Service is ludicrous.

The fact is that the euro is utterly unavoidable and urgent. The government has no option but to make a decision inside the next two years, for the simple reason that it cannot assume that it will be in power for more than three terms (and even that assumption could turn out to be optimistic).

Of course, it might decide to stay out, but I doubt it. Even if it is not swayed by the best reasons for joining — that the euro is a massive step on the road to a democratic federal Europe characterised by a much more social model of capitalism than that of the US — it almost certainly will be by the experience of being increasingly excluded from influence in the European Union the longer it delays opting in.

Precisely when the government should declare for the euro and hold the referendum is of course a matter for dispute. It would be madness to hold a referendum if there were a serious chance of losing. But the opinion polls increasingly suggest that a referendum could be won this side of the next general election. Whether the government has the guts to risk it is another question, but the rewards of winning would be massive. A decisive yes vote would consign both the Tories and the Europhobe left to the proverbial dustbin of history — a mouth-watering prospect if ever there was one.

Friday, 5 April 2002

DIGITAL TELEVISION MONKEY BUSINESS

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 5 April 2002

The farrago that now appears likely to end in the complete collapse of ITV Digital puts the government in a very difficult position.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the government had invested all its hopes for the roll-out of digital TV on the channel. There are still the BBC’s digital efforts, after all — although I’ve yet to meet anyone who has seen the much-hyped BBC Four, not least because no one I know has found a shop selling the promised £99 set-top boxes that would allow those of us who don’t want pay-TV to receive the BBC digital channels.

But ITV Digital was key to preventing Rupert Murdoch having a monopoly on commercial digital TV in Britain — and in the short run a near-monopoly of the platform for all digital TV in Britain. If it goes under, the Government will have the stark choice of either accepting Murdoch’s monopoly or legislating to remove his control of what TV is broadcast digitally. The first option would outrage everyone who cares about diversity of media ownership, including most Labour MPs; the second would outrage Murdoch, whose support has been so assiduously courted over the years by Tony Blair.

That’s not all, though. The final straw for ITV Digital was its stupid decision to pay over the odds — a whopping £315 million — for television rights to Nationwide League football. It went into administration after failing to persuade the football clubs to accept a much-reduced sum for the remaining years of its contract. And the upshot is that, because so many clubs have come to rely on TV money, ITV Digital’s demise will almost certainly result in several of them going under.

This is a problem for the government because so many of the 30 or so clubs that are in danger are in towns that have marginal Labour seats. Just a little Tory opportunism (“We won’t let English football go under”) would have the Government squirming — and quite right too, because the failure of ITV Digital
is at least in part a failure of Government policy.

For these reasons, last week’s confident assertion by Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, that there will be no Government bail-outs for either ITV Digital or the football clubs deserves to be taken with a very large pinch of salt. So too does her claim that the timetable remains the same for the switch-off of the analogue signal and the sale of its waveband to the highest bidder.

She is, of course, right, to argue that football needs have its house put in order before anything else happens. But the way to do that is to legislate to end the “winner takes everything” economics of the Premiership, whereby Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and a couple of other clubs get ever-richer and everyone else — particularly in the Nationwide but also the smaller Premiership clubs — is forced to pick up the scraps. And that is the last thing that this supposedly football-friendly Government would ever consider.

***

Given how bad it could have been, the national outpouring of bullshit following the death of the Queen Mother last Saturday has so far been remarkably restrained. By comparison with the hoo-hah that came after the death of Diana in 1997, it has been entirely avoidable if you don’t bother to read the papers or watch the TV — no one but no one is talking about it outside media land. And there have even been some critical pieces on the “matriarch of the nation” in the Guardian and elsewhere, which have pointed to the reasons the Queen Mother does not deserve to be lauded despite her morale-boosting role during the blitz: her (and her husband’s) shabby pro-appeasement stance in the late 1930s, her opposition to decolonisation in the 1950s and 1960s, her generally reactionary views on just about everything, her snobbery.

What no one has brought up, however, at least as far as I’m aware, is the question of how much it cost us, the British taxpayer, to keep her in the opulent style to which she became accustomed after marrying the future George VI in 1923.

Unless I’ve got something horribly wrong about the way we paid for the monarchy in those far-off days, she lived the best part of 80 years at least partly at the taxpayers’ expense (admittedly with more than a little help from the House of Windsor’s extraordinary, nominally private, wealth).

We helped her buy and keep up several country homes, employ hundreds of servants and maintain a serious gambling habit. Of course, you could argue that it was all worth it – but, now we’ve enjoyed the meal, it would be good to know the bill.

Sunday, 3 March 2002

PLENTY OF ENEMIES ON THE LEFT

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 3 March 2002

I have always found it faintly amusing when lefties attack other lefties for committing the venal crime of attacking lefties — but only faintly. I can’t help but think of the old Popular Front slogan “no enemy on the left”, a mendacious Stalinist device to isolate those left-wing critics of the Soviet Union in the 1930s who could not be silenced by incarceration or assassination.

Not that I believe those Tribune correspondents who have denounced me in recent weeks for having a go at the Morning Star are right now sharpening their ice picks. It’s just that alarm bells start ringing in my head whenever people claim immunity from criticism from the left on the grounds that they are on the left themselves. Because declaring oneself to be on the left is not in itself a guarantee of virtue or intelligence — far from it. Indeed, over the years, the self-styled British left has shown itself as capable as anyone of massive errors of judgment, sometimes in the best possible faith, but often through wilful refusal to face reality.

For much of the 20th century, the biggest blind spot was the Soviet Union, which from the 1920s until well into the 1960s was seen by a substantial minority of Brit leftists, even non-communists, as a socialist utopia in the making — despite all the evidence, incontrovertible by the early 1930s at the very latest, that it was a vicious police state. As regular readers of this column will be aware, I think that failure of judgment is still important, not least because it is replicated today by apologists for Cuba, China and other scumbag dictatorships.

But leave that aside for now: the Soviet Union and various other supposed socialist paradises are by no means the only big things the Brit left (or a large part of it) has got wrong in the past 100 years.

Take Europe after the Versailles treaty. Back in the 1920s, the view that the greatest threat to peace in Europe came from France was almost universal in Labour and other left circles, a misjudgment that paved the way for the left consensus of the 1930s that rearmament was an inappropriate response to Hitler’s militarist expansionism. Ahem.

Or take the dynamics of the economy after the second world war. From 1945, with a handful of exceptions, the left consistently misread what was happening to the British economy, time and again predicting a repeat of the economic crises of the 1930s. In fact, Britain, like the rest of the western capitalist world, enjoyed an almost uninterrupted post-war boom that lasted 30 years. And it was followed not by a catastrophic crash but by a decade of slow or no growth, then the Tory boom and bust of the late 1980s and early 1990s, then a decade of growth that is only now coming to an end. For a system that much of the left has long diagnosed as being on its last legs, capitalism has shown, and continues to show, remarkable resilience and vigour.

Or take Europe in the same period. Most of the left has barked up the wrong tree since at least the 1950s. Remember the prophecies of doom in Tribune and elsewhere at the prospect of British membership of the Common Market? Remember, more recently, all those confident predictions that the single European currency could not possibly be launched on time? Is it any accident, as the Marxists used to say, that the very same doomsters are now the ones who say British membership of the euro would be a disaster?

Now, you could argue that none of these examples — and there are plenty more of the same kind — is any more than an intellectual or moral failure: embarrassing, damaging to the credibility of the left, but of marginal importance otherwise. I disagree, because I believe that what we think about the world matters, in part because I’m still enough of a Marxist to believe that it cannot be disentangled from the way we act. And even if a case can be made that some of the left’s biggest intellectual and moral faux pas had little direct effect on the everyday lives of the British people, there are other left misjudgments that are less easily shrugged off: the 1960s enthusiasm for system-built tower blocks that became prisons for their inhabitants, for example, or the pedagogic fashion, from the same era, for abandoning the teaching of formal grammar, with disastrous effects on basic literacy. (Again, I could go on.)

My point is simple. No one has perfect foresight. But lefties have got it wrong so profoundly in the past that we should take it as axiomatic that at any time the left consensus incorporates a large measure of utter bollocks. No enemy on the left? There are always plenty, and there’s never any excuse not to get stuck in.