Friday, 23 March 1990


Paul Anderson, review of Revolting Peasants by Patrick Prior (Theatre Royal Stratford East), Tribune, 23 March 1990

The most extraordinary thing about the poll tax is not its unfairness – that's what we'd expect from a Conservative government – but its stupidity. In a society with a high level of geographical mobility, it's almost designed to be evaded on a massive scale. And evaded it will be, regardless of noisy "campaigns of non-payment" (who's going to be a martyr if quiet avoidance is possible?) or the pleas of Labour politicans for "civic responsibility" and patience until Neil Kinnock gets to Number Ten.

As Merlin Jenkins, the poll tax registration officer in this wonderful farce, puts it before announcing his resignation: "People just disappear. There's estates round here like the Marie Celeste." The humour of Revolting Peasants relies on the absurd failure of the political class – represented here by George, a Kinnockite Labour Party stalwart (complete with red tie but often without trousers) to recognise that, like it or not, no one who can get away with it is going to cough up.

George has nothing but platitudes to spout. "The law is the law and you get nowhere by breaking it!" he exclaims after being mauled by a police dog; "There'll be a few expulsions down the Walworth Road, eh Neil?" he asks his picture of Kinnock after his Labour Party branch passes a non-payment policy.

Meanwhile, his wife Mary has falsified their poll tax form (claiming that George is dead and she has a babyt her neighbour takes a fancy to the poll tax man and the police suspect a drugs ring...

This is superb popular  theatre, with an amazing eye for bad jokes, lewd suggestions and crazy predicaments. Bill Thomas is suitably hassled and useless as George, Yvonne Edgell wonderfully competent as Mary. All in all, it's one of the best comedies on the London stage this year, ranking with Brian Behan's Boots for the Footless at the Tricycle. It particularly deserves to be seen by anyone standing for a council seat in May.


Tribune leader, 23 March 1990

To read the reports in most British newspapers on last week's Anglo-American summit in the Bahamas, anyone would think that Margaret Thatcher's decision not to insist on "modernisation" of NATO ground-launched nuclear weapons in West Germany was a magnanimous gesture of compromise. In fact, she was recognising a fait accompli. Even before the Berlin Wall came down last November, Mrs Thatcher had been almost alone in pressing for deployment in West Germany of "Follow-on-to-Lance" missiles and new nuclear artillery. Since then, the consensus within NATO has been that the programme is stone dead.

Nevertheless, Mrs Thatcher's "concession" was a smart move. It successfully diverted the attention of the di­plomatic correspondents from her intransigence on the NATO nuclear "modernisation" that really matters, the plan to introduce new American strike aircraft to Europe, eventually equipped with new air-to-surface nuclear missiles instead of bombs. Most of this new hardware will be stationed in Britain if the plan goes ahead.

Air-launched "modernisation" was always the kernel of NATO's programme to compensate for the loss of Cruise and Pershing missiles under the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty. Today, with ground-launched systems out of the picture, getting the United States to upgrade its nuclear airpower in Europe is the only way that beleaguered West European Atlanticists can preserve both the visibility of the American "nuclear guarantee to Europe" and the "ladder of escalation" at the heart of NATO's doctrine of "flexible response". American nuclear submarines in the North Sea might have the requisite strategic capacity, but they are out of sight and too easily withdrawn.

The problem for Mrs Thatcher is that preservation of flexible response and the American nuclear guarantee no longer seems a particularly pressing issue either to the Bush Administration or to a growing section of the west European political class.

Since the revolutions in east and central Europe last autumn, the Warsaw Pact has collapsed. The Soviet Union can barely keep itself from disintegrating, let alone launch a military assault on western Europe. The talk in the White House and the chancellories of Europe is increasingly of cutting military spending and building a new security order for Europe.

This is not to say that the forthcoming NATO summit might not acquiesce in Mrs Thatcher's wild-eyed avowals that "business-as-usual" must continue at all cost. Con­tinental NATO leaders do want to maintain some element of American nuclear commitment to Europe, at least for the time being and, if that can be done without their own countries having to play host to unpopular new nuclear weapons, all the better. Because air-launched "mod­ernisation" would single out Britain for the bulk of deployments, Britain's European allies see a chance of having their cake and eating it.

Labour has made little of its opposition to air-launched nuclear "modernisation", largely because of its desire to win friends and influence people in Washington. Indeed, the party's defence spokesman, Martin O'Neill, has made it clear that a Labour government would accept deploy­ment of "modernised" forces in Britain, albeit only if NATO insisted and only if Britain were not the only European country to take them.

With the issue coming to a head and the possibility of a Labour government acknowledged even by George Bush, it is now important that Labour makes its objections to "modernisation" absolutely clear.

Friday, 16 March 1990


Paul Anderson, review of We the People by Timothy Garton Ash (Penguin, £4.99), Tribune, 16 March 1990

For more than a decade, Timothy Garton Ash has been writing journalism about the part of Europe that most of us call "Eastern" but which he, not altogether pedantically, prefers to describe as "Central". As well as articles for the Spectator and, latterly, the New York Review of Books, he has produced several books, notably The Polish Revolution, an exhilarating history-from-below of Poland in 1980-81, and The Uses of Adversity, a collection of essays on "the fate of central Europe" published last year.

We the People is a sequel to The Uses of Adversity, consisting largely of Garton Ash's eye-witness accounts of the revolutionary changes last year in central Europe, with chapters on the elections in Warsaw in June, the reburial of Imre Nagy in Budapest the same month, the breaching of the Berlin Wall in November, and two weeks of the "velvet revolution" in Prague.

Much of this material has appeared before in articles, but it deserves to be collected: Garton Ash writes superb colour pieces, and his contacts with the intellectuals who played such a major role in the upheavals are unmatched among British journalists.

Garton Ash was in the right place with the right people at the right time.

Where Garton Ash is disappointing is in his prognosis, mostly because of his almost unquestioned assumption that western Europe is the best of all possible worlds, but also because he has a tendency to dismiss complex questions with expansive gestures.

When, for example, he writes that, after the collapse of "real existing socialism", the basic model for central Europe's future, "in the three essentials of politics, law and economics, is something between the real existing Switzerland and the real existing Sweden", he blithely rules out not only the slim possibility of some sort of democratic socialism but also the rather likely scenario of central Europe following a "model" of capitalism far less benign than Sweden or Switzerland.

In similar vein, when he states that the key to avoiding a collapse of central Europe into poverty and virulent nationalist conflicts is "Germany remaining western", it's as if no one could possibly be of sound mind and believe that a neutral Germany is desirable.

For all his undoubted talents, Garton Ash can be as glib and as pompous as William Rees-Mogg. If his reportage will be read for years to come, his opinions are often the stuff of fish-and-chip wrappings.

Friday, 9 March 1990


Paul Anderson, review of Jackets II by Edward Bond (Bush), Tribune, 9 March 1990

Edward Bond’s new play, at the Bush for a short season in a production by the Leicester Haymarket, is a dour polemical herald of proletarian insurgency to come, set in a riot-torn city "somewhere in Europe" where the army officers are Old Harrovians.

The plot is simple. Phil, a young rioter, loots clothes for his mother and her friend, Mrs Tebham, whose son Brian, Phil's childhood friend, is now a soldier, posted to his home town to quell the insurgency. Brian's superiors want a martyr, and they decide to send him to certain death in a rendezvous with an insurgent.

Predictably, the insurgent at the rendezvous turns out to be Phil, who doesn't kill Brian but makes him feel so bad about being a class traitor that he shoots himself instead. Phil leaves his jacket on the corpse, and the police call his mother to identify the body. But Mrs Lewis becomes hysterical in the morgue, and it is left to Mrs Tebham, there to support her friend, to identify her own son as the dead man.

Bond manages to be genuinely shocking at times, and the actors all do an excellent job. But the message that Belfast is coming to Britain and that the proletariat had better be armed is too apocalyptic by half.

Thursday, 8 March 1990


Paul Anderson, review of The Revenge of History by Alex Callinicos (Polity, £9.95), Tribune, 8 March 1990

Alex Callinicos's argument in The Revenge of History will be familiar to anyone who has read the publications of the Socialist Workers' Party. The collapse of "actually existing socialism" in eastern Europe is not to be mourned by socialists, because it isn't (increasingly wasn't) socialism at all but rather state capitalism. Far from marking "the bankruptcy of the revolutionary socialist tradition founded by Marx",  the end of the Stalinist system means that true revolutionary Marxism-Leninism will no longer be held back by the popular misconception that it was somehow responsible for the disaster. Meanwhile, capitalism remains as crisis-ridden and irrational as ever, and social democracy offers no real alternative. The proletarian revolution, led by the Leninist party, is still on the agenda.

All this is stated clearly and concisely, and on the way Callinicos makes some telling points — about the flimsiness of Francis Fukuyama's The End of History?, about the vacuity of postmodernism, about the intellectual and political collapse of the orthodox communist parties. But in the end this must go down as one of the least convincing books yet published about 1989 and its aftermath.

One problem is Callinicos's conception of "state capitalism", which is based upon a definition of capitalism — "wage labour plus capital accumulation" — that makes it difficult to conceive of any feasible socialism. This is not to suggest that the left should be leaping to the posthumous defence of "actually existing socialism", but it just won't do simply to denounce as reactionary all the ideas of social democrats and market socialists, while gesturing vaguely in the direction of democratic planning through workers' councils as if it were a panacea.

More importantly, in his attempt to rescue Lenin from the dustbin of history, Callinicos falls in himself. His account of the fate of the Russian revolution dismisses far too casually the argument that the roots of Stalinism were well nourished in the Leninist conception of the revolutionary party and in the practice of the Bolsheviks after their seizure of power in 1917: the Red terror, the militarisation of labour, the suppression of workers' control, independent trade union organisation and rival political parties. Even in the hands of an articulate polemicist, the old excuses — the isolation of the Bolshevik revolution, the backwardness of Russian society and the defeat of Leon Trotsky by the right — are as unconvincing as ever. Callinicos gives no good reasons to expect that a Leninist revolution in the developed world today would be anything other than a bloody disaster.

Of course, the chances of such a revolution are luckily almost non-existent, but that, we can be sure, won't cause Callinicos and his pals in the SWP leadership any pause for thought. As long as a few hundred students every year sign up to replace the few hundred disillusioned ex - students who leave, the SWP leadership will continue quite happily to wallow in its belief that it is the vanguard of the working class. The overwhelming feeling one gets on reading this book is a sense of sadness that such an obviously intellectually capable man has wasted so much of his life on such a foolish cause.

Friday, 2 March 1990


Paul Anderson, review of Blasphemy Ancient and Modern by Nicolas Walter (Rationalist Press Association, £3.95), Tribune, 2 March 1990

Last February, after a campaign by fundamentalist Muslims in Britain and on the Indian subcontinent to have Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, supressed on grounds of blasphemy, Ayatollah Khomeini judged that Salman Rushdie should be killed for his crime. More than a year later, Rushdie remains in hiding, and the death threat remains in force.

Among British left-wingers and liberals, almost everyone has condemned the Ayatollah's fatwa; but that's as easy as agreeing with Michael Flanders and Donald Swann that "eating people is wrong". On the more difficult question of what to do about Muslim fundamentalist claims that Rushdie has blasphemed, British left and liberal opinion has been deeply divided.

At one extreme, there are those – including some Labour MPs with large numbers of Muslim constituents – who argue that Britain's blasphemy laws should be extended to cover religions other than Christianity. Britain is a multi-cultural society, they argue, and non-Christian religious believers should enjoy the same legal protection from detractors that Christians have.

This appears fair, but what about non-believers, and what about freedom of expression? As Nicholas Walter makes clear in this excellent critical history of blasphemy, extending the blasphemy laws would give all religious beliefs and ideas a privileged status that no other beliefs and ideas enjoy, protected from the normal cut and thrust of free intellectual debate.

Many of those who don't go as far as supporting extension of the blasphemy laws nevertheless argue from the same premise as those who do – that religious sensibilities are somehow deserving of greater respect than non-religious ones. How else is it possible to justify arguments that Rushdie should "apologise" to Muslims for the offence his book has caused, that a preface should be attached to future editions of The Satanic Verses "putting the other point of view" or that a paperback should not be published?

Only radical secularists, who are small in number, have taken up the argument put forward by Walter that nobody has the right never to have his or her beliefs ridiculed, scorned, offended or abused – that, in other words, the laws of blasphemy should be abolished and the Muslim fundamentalists (and every other would-be religious censor) politely invited to take a running jump.

"If there is a need to regulate offensive material about religion to prevent either public disorder or private damage," he writes, "this should be covered by the general law covering such areas, so that religious feelings or organisations have the same status as political feelings or organisations. ... In a more or less free society, everyone and everything must be open to question and criticism, however unpleasant or unfair, so that we may hear every side of the case and make up our minds in the light of both reason and emotion."

Quite so – and would that all members of the Parliamentary Labour Party had the backbone to proclaim it.

Thursday, 1 March 1990


Paul Anderson, review of Labour Rebuilt: The New Model Party by Colin Hughes and Patrick Wintour (Fourth Estate, £6.95), Sanity, March 1990

The Labour Party has had a rough ride since Neil Kinnock became leader in 1983, just after the worst general election defeat suffered by the party for 50 years.

His appointment was followed by a small improvement in Labour's opinion poll ratings, but it was not until 1986, in the wake of the Westland affair, that the party overtook the Tories – and by early 1987 it was back in the doldrums. After the drubbing in the Greenwich by-election came a general election defeat almost as bad as the previous one.

For 18 months after that there was no relief, and in late 1988, despite being re-elected as leader by a massive majority, Kinnock was seriously considering resigning. He didn't, and within six months his party had won a majority of seats in the European Parliament elections.

Since then, Labour has held a commanding lead in the opinion polls. For the first time since 1981, it does not seem completely improbable that Labour will form a majority govern¬ment after the next general election.

So what explains the turnaround? In part, of course, it is the result of developments over which Labour has had no influence – the implosion of the centre parties and the growth of popular disillusionment with the Tories as interest rates rocketed. But at least some of Labour's improvement can be put down to changes in public perceptions of the party. These days, would-be Labour voters are less prone than in the mid-eighties to be put off by feelings that the party is out-of-date and dominated by trade union barons and extremists. The Labour leadership has obviously been doing something right.

The problem is that is is difficult to work out exactly what. Under the influence of opinion pollsters and advertising executives, the party has undergone a whole series of dramatic changes – so many that today it is difficult to recognise Labour as the party that was once led by Michael Foot. In the run-up to the 1987 election, Labour trans¬formed its corporate image and its campaigning techniques. Since then, it has changed its method of policy-making and its policies. Fundamental reform of the party organisation, intended to replace the current federal structure with one based on individual membership, is under way.

The architects of the changes would have us view them as interconnected elements of a a grand modernising project with the aim of turning Labour into the 'natural party of government' in the nineties. Hughes and Wintour, the political correspondents on the Independent and the Guardian respectively, to a large extent concur with this analysis in their minutely-detailed account of Labour's internal politics.

For them, the whole package – changing the party logo from red flag to red rose; the presidential glitz of the 1987 election campaign; the policy review's ditching of commit¬ments to unilateral nuclear disarmament, high taxation and abolition of Tory union laws; the moves towards ending the block vote – was essential if Labour was again to be a serious contender for office.

Of course, there were cock-ups along the way – the farcical Labour Listens events in early 1988, the reaffirmation of unilateralism at party conference that autumn, Michael Meacher's obstinate refusal to go along with the line of union law the next year. Hughes and Wintour are good journalists, and they don't miss the cock-ups. They are also rightly critical of Labour's sloth in taking environmentalism on board and its failure to embrace proportional representation.

But on the whole their tone is congratulatory. I'm inclined to greater scepticism. In particular, the party's shift on defence and foreign policy, the subject of Hughes and Wintour's best chapter, far from equipping Labour for the nineties, looks more and more like a throwback to the sixties and seventies. According to the defence section of the policy review, passed last year at Labour conference, Britain under Labour would keep its nuclear weapons until they were negotiated away in multilateral negotiations (which might never happen) and would allow an American military presence in Britain for as long as the Americans wanted. If the Labour leadership gets its way, the party will enter the general election campaign without any commitment to reducing British military expenditure.

This return to orthodox nuclear Atlanticism might be more popular with the electorate than Labour's previous unilateralist non-nuclear position (though it's arguable that the old policy could have been a positive asset had Labour not treated it as an embarrassment), but it is curiously out of joint with the times. With the collapse of the party-states of eastern Europe, there has never been a stronger case for rapid demilitarisation and denuclearisation of the continent, withdrawal of both superpowers' military forces and abandonment of the bloc system. Instead, Labour advocates sitting tight and hoping for the best.

But the weaknesses of the 'new model party' are not just a matter of foreign and defence policy. The unwillingness of the party leadership to put forward detailed economic and social policy proposals that the Tories can run through the Treasury computer is perhaps understandable, given Labour's vulnerability to the charge of profligacy, but it cannot help but encourage suspicions that Labour doesn't really know what to do, or that it's planning to do very little. Then there's the problem of membership. As Hughes and Wintour make clear, Labour's precarious financial position demands a rapid growth in membership, as does the move away from a federal structure. But if the 'new model party' gives the appearance of being run from the top as a consum¬mately 'moderate' electoral machine with little or no role for most members in determining political priorities, who's going to sign up?