Friday, 28 May 1993


Tribune, 28 May 1993

The journalist and controversialist is back from the US to launch a new book of essays. He talks to Paul Anderson

“We play a game on the left in America,” says Christopher Hitchens. “Which election do you wish that the Republicans rather than the Democrats had actually won?

“Some very daring souls say that if Thomas Dewey had beaten Harry Tru¬man in 1948 there would have been no cold war,” he says. “People can never dare to take it back as far as Franklin Roosevelt. And some of them don’t agree with me that Barry Goldwater should have beaten Lyndon Johnson in 1964 – because then there would have been no Vietnam war.”

Hitchens, in London for the launch of his latest collection of essays, For the Sake of Argument (Verso, £18.95), delights in upsetting received wisdoms, particularly those of the left.

Indeed, he does it for a living. Since leaving Britain for the United States 15 years ago, he has written a column for The Nation, the American weekly that plays much the same role as the New Statesman here, in which he has made a speciality of stirring up as much controversy as he can in pursuit of hypocrisy and cant.

He has done much the same in many other Ameri¬can periodicals and, particularly of late, on television and radio talk shows, becoming something of a minor celebrity.

America, it seems, loves to hate Hitchens’s posh Brit drawl, his alien far-left politics and his ability to shock. Here, we get the articles between hard covers, and late. Some of the stuff in For the Sake of Argument dates back to 1987, although most, including the best of the columns from The Nation, are from 1990-92. Still, late is better than never.

The book includes pieces on an extraordinary range of themes – from P. G. Wodehouse through the delights of “Booze and fags” (written, he claims, “while cold sober”) to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie – and it is all worth reading. But the best bits, undoubtedly, are his commentaries on American politics, especially the no-holds-barred assault on Bill Clinton, which has been almost uninterrupted since the Arkansas governor started running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“So what is all this garbage about ‘the new paradigm’ of Clinton’s forthright Southern petty-bourgeois thrusting innovative fearless blah blah blah?” he yelled at readers of The Nation in March last year after Clinton had authorised the execu¬tion of a prisoner on death row. “In a test of principle, where even the polls have shown that people do not demand the death penalty, he opted to maintain the foulest traditions and for the meanest purposes. As the pundits keep saying, he is a man to watch.”

It is clear that Hitchens is already well on the way to deciding that last year’s election was one of those that the Democrats should have lost. Clinton is proving precisely the disaster that he thought he would be.

“In the campaign, his only consistent point was to say that he would cut the tax burden insofar as it fell on the ‘middle classes’, whom he refused to define,” he says. “He wanted everyone who heard that message to think it meant them. Now he’s increasing taxes, mainly on the middle-income population, and everyone in the administration is pretending that this isn’t a breach of promise.

“You’re supposed to get points for lying in that way, and you do get them from the opinion poll racket and from the people who write columns in the bourgeois press. But actually it isn’t all that smart because people find you out quite quickly.”

Clinton, he goes on, was an establishment candidate, bankrolled by Wall Street and special-interest lobbies. “The reason substantial sections of the establishment swung to him is that they’re afraid of the underclass. It was the Los Angeles riots that got Clinton elected. His test will be whether he can bring in these people who are very nearly excluded from society.”

So far, the signs are ominous. The reform of the health service that Clinton promised during the campaign has already foundered, as has his at¬tempt to give a boost to the economy.

On foreign policy, “in many areas he’s worse than George Bush”, says Hitchens, quoting the new president’s policies on the Middle East (where Clinton has been much more sympathetic to the Israel lobby than his predecessor), Cuba (where he “campaigned against Bush from the right”) and nuclear testing.

“Whatever you think about Bosnia, it is only possible to say that Clinton has been contemptible. He played with all sorts of solutions, raised expectations and, when anything showed signs of giving the least political difficulty, he dropped it. By any standards, a really low-grade performance.”

The only thing that Clinton is good at, according to Hitchens, is appealing to the myriad of special-interest lobbies that make up so much of what thinks of itself as the American left: “He has manipulated images so that people in the gay movement, the feminist movement, the civil rights movement and the Hispanic lobby feel that privately he’s on their side.”

Hitchens is scathing about this pandering to what he calls “identity politics” – the idea that there is something radical about identifying oneself as a member of a group ‘“oppressed” by dint of sharing such traits as skin colour, gender or sexual preference.

His opposition is not based on a reactionary yearning for a society run by white male heterosexuals: rather, his point is that the growing importance of racial and sexual identities in politics is a symptom of social fragmentation, with no necessarily radical implications. “The left has falsely convinced itself that there are all of these individual emancipations going on, and I think it’s going to be disappointed. What’s missing in all this is any conception of citizenship or comradeship or the common good. And that’s too precious to give up to any special claim.”

Hitchens’s initial journalistic reputation was founded on his coverage of British politics in the seventies, particularly for the New Statesman. He left for the US and The Nation because “the Statesman was going down the karsy very suddenly and very depressingly and there was nowhere else that I wanted to go or would have had me. Everything else looked pretty lousy too: the experience of the Callaghan years, seeing Thatcherism coming. I thought: ‘If I don’t get out now, I never will.’“ Even the left of the late seventies suffered from “extreme crumminess”, and the Labour left was worst of all. “Internal fights on the National Executive Committee don’t make very interesting copy even if you’re interested in it,” he says.

For all this, he retains a keen partisan interest in Britain. He is, of course, no admirer of the contempo¬rary Labour Party. One of the best pieces in For the Sake of Argument is “Neil Kinnock: Defeat Without Honour”, written for The Nation after last year’s British general election, an excoriating assault on Labour’s failed strategy in the late eighties; “Tell us what you want, it wheedled the voters, and we will agree to stand for it. Here are our principles, and if you don’t like them, we’ll change them.”

Hitchens has not changed his mind in the past year. Unsurprisingly, he is particularly hard on the Clintonmania that hit Labour’s upper echelons six months ago. “Clinton’s victory was something to cling to after the humiliation of Kinnock: here’s the new paradigm – apolitical, technocratic, lowest common denominator – and it works!

“Labour has learned absolutely nothing from the defeat of Kinnock. All its leaders think is: ‘Well, we must try harder next time.’“ He remembers John Smith from the seventies as “a talkable-to guy”. But “throughout the whole of the Wilson-Callaghan humiliation I don’t think he gave the whips any trouble at all. He’s a conformist, a complete conformist.

“People always say: ‘Well, what about the alternative?’ That, of course, turns any dolt into a master political strategist, as we saw with the Kinnock team. ‘Consider the alternative’ would be my slogan.”

Friday, 21 May 1993


Tribune, 21 May 1993

Labour's aid and development spokesman talks to Paul Anderson about Bosnia and the role of intervention

"Thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians to be murdered and mutilated and tortured," says Michael Meacher. "Can the European Community really do nothing to stop aggression against a European country whose independence and sovereignty it recognised?" Needless to say, Meacher is talking about the war in Bosnia, a subject on which, despite being a member of the Shadow Cabinet, he has often come close to contradicting the cautious official Labour line expressed by Jack Cunningham, the Shadow Foreign Secretary.

Meacher, the MP for Oldham and Labour's spokesman on aid and development, does not hold with the view that what is happening in Bosnia is simply a three-sided civil war in which no single side should be seen as the worst offender. Although "well aware that the Serbs have a case" and that "atrocities have occurred on all sides", he clearly identifies the Serbs as the aggressors in the war.

Disgusted by the fact that United Nations humanitarian relief convoys have had to ask the Serbs' permission in order to reach the besieged Muslims, he asks: "Can we allow UN authority to be made dependent on the will of the aggressor? If we live in a civilised world, we cannot allow these things to go on." In line with this, he is much more hawkish than most of his Shadow Cabinet colleagues about military intervention. Rather than simply backing air strikes on the Bosnian Serbs' supply lines if they continue to reject the Vance-Owen plan for cantonising Bosnia, Meacher wants deployment of ground troops to defend the Muslims against attack.

"It is hopeless to deliver humanitarian aid if we abandon people to be wiped out," he says. "Safe havens must be implemented. That means giving real protection for the besieged Muslim enclaves and a new mandate for the UN troops there. There has to be UN defensive military protection. There is a difference between this and an offensive war, pushing the Serbs back from their ill-gotten gains.

No one is asking for that." Meacher does not believe that intervention on the lines he suggests would take a massive army.

"A well-trained professional force, with modern technology, command of the air, helicopter gunships and armour could have a really big impact quickly." While Cunningham has consistently portrayed the Vance-Owen plan as a viable basis for peace in Bosnia, Meacher describes it as "deeply flawed". "It rewards aggression and ethnic cleansing. It depends on the creation of enclaves, undermines the unitary state and completely ignores the question of the refugees," he says. "There are 2,500,000 refugees, most of them in the former Yugoslavia but some 500,000-750,000 outside. Are they to become the Palestinians of Europe? If so, even if we get a ceasefire, we won't get peace but a running sore of violence in central Europe for decades to come.

"The only merit of Vance-Owen is that, if the Serbs sign up to it, it just might get a ceasefire. It is not remotely tenable as a long-term political solution: the difficulty is the map, which none of the three sides will accept, except perhaps the Croats." The real issue, he goes on, is finding an alternative to Vance-Owen that could form the basis for a long-term political settlement. "I would still like to believe that there is a possibility of retaining a unitary state with a high degree of local autonomy," he says. "The only other option is partition. We can't rule that out if that's the only way of keeping the peace. It's certainly better than a whole series of wars."


Bosnia is not the only place where Meacher would like to see outside intervention in what traditionalists consider to be the "internal affairs" of a sovereign state.

Indeed, he considers that, with the tensions of the cold war at an end and hot wars raging in many parts of the world, the time has come for the international community to limit countries' rights to carry on as they like within their own borders.

"There are certain extreme cases in which an individual country's sovereignty should be over-ridden," he says. "The first is genocide. The second is total breakdown of law and order and all government institutions, as we saw in Somalia. The third is when free and fair elections are held and deliberately over-ridden — Angola, Burma, Haiti, for example."

Military intervention, he says, should always be the last resort: there is a whole series of other pressures, from withdrawing diplomatic relations, through withholding aid, to full-blown sanctions, that should be applied and found to fail before military action is considered. Equally importantly, all these pressures should be applied by the UN rather than by a single member-state or group of memberstates.

"This is nothing to do with neo-colonialism," Meacher emphasises. "We're talking about protecting innocent people from violence." This notion of redefining the role of the international community in countries' internal affairs is just one part of a "completely different foreign affairs and development agenda" that he would like to see adopted. With the cold war over, he argues, the great divide in world politics is between the rich developed North and the poor, underdeveloped, indebted South.

"I was staggered when I came to this job to find that current indebtedness of the Southern world is £850,000 million. The effect is utterly crippling. We are driving countries into impoverishment for decades to come." Debt repayments by the poor countries to the rich ones are now almost double the total of aid from rich to poor countries.

"Debt relief is not only necessary but also in our own self-interest. It could create demand for our goods and services that we are not going to get from anywhere else. We must be crazy not to seize the opportunity to help ourselves and those in the South." He suggests that 60 per cent of Third World debt be written off and easier terms agreed for the rest.

Meanwhile, he goes on, the rich countries must "reject the temptations of protectionism and remove barriers to the import of processed goods from the South", in order 'toles:Ince the Iatter's reliance on primary products, prices of which have slumped in recent years. Structural adjustment programmes, the privatisation-and-deregulation packages forced on developing countries by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, "have repeatedly failed and should be denounced", says Meacher. "We've got to come up with an alternative."

On aid, he makes familiar Labour points about the Tory government's halving of its commitment since 1979, arguing that the position has been made even worse by the diversion of large parts of the aid budget from the poor South to the countries of the former Soviet bloc. He also insists that "part of an aid and development policy must be protection of fundamental human rights", with aid channeled only through non-governmental organisations in countries that are not up to scratch. Finally, he says that aid and development cannot be dissociated from the requirements of law and order.

"In Mogadishu last year I was shown a warehouse piled to the ceiling with sacks of maize. A couple of miles away, according to Save the Children, a couple of thousand people, mainly children, were dying each day. But the food could not be distributed because of the fighting."


Meacher's enthusiasm is such that it is difficult to credit that he was given the post of aid and development spokesman last year as a way of shunting him to one side. Nevertheless, he clearly believes that his brief is not given enough priority by the contemporary Labour Party.

"Labour is not engaging with the electorate as effectively as it could be in evoking a crusade, a vision, a sense of purpose, in enthusing people," he says. "There are people out there who need to be convinced that the Labour Party has got stuck in on the fundamentals. This issue could play a big part in it. The sufferings and viciousness of the civil wars across the world so totally over-ride the arcane mysteries of Maastricht that it is astonishing that the Foreign Office can be so wound up in something that is so navel-oriented."


Tribune leader, 21 May 1993

The yes vote in Tuesday's Maastricht referendum in Denmark does not bring to an end the argument about European union. But it does radically change its terms.

Ratification of Maastricht throughout the European Community is now guaranteed. The question now is not whether European union takes place but what sort of European union is built on Maastricht's foundations.

Of course, those foundations are shaky.

As Tribune has argued, there is plenty that is wrong in the treaty. Its provisions for political union are wholly inadequate: instead of massively increased powers to the European Parliament, it gives pride of place in the new Europe to intergovernmental bodies. In the wake of the exchange-rate chaos and Europe-wide recession brought on by German unification, just about everyone now accepts that the timetable and convergence criteria for economic and monetary union laid down by Maastricht are unrealistically tough.

Then there is the problem of Britain's opt-out on the social chapter, which denies British workers the rights enjoyed by their colleagues elsewhere in the EC.
Nevertheless, the British left should be breathing a sigh of relief at the Danish vote. Had they voted no, not just Maastricht but the very possibility of European union would now be dead. We would now be looking forward to life on the periphery of Europe, as Germany, France and the Benelux countries went it alone with an economic and political union of their own.

That would have been a disaster for the prospects of developing the pan-European institutions capable of carrying out the Europe-wide strategies for growth that the slump-hit continent so desperately needs.

Of course, Maastricht does not create those institutions, let alone the political will for implementing a European recovery programme. Without the treaty, however, it would have been impossible to conceive of their construction.

The task now is for Labour to put Maastricht behind it and to develop a coherent European policy that focuses on what the party would like to see coming out of the next round of intergovernmental conferences on European union, scheduled for 1996.

If Labour is serious about the idea of alternative European economic strategies, it has to advocate a much bigger role and greater powers for EC executive bodies and if it does that, it must suggest ways of making these bodies democratically accountable.

The obvious solution is to embrace wholeheartedly the goal of a democratic federal Europe, in which the European Parliament has much the same function as a parliament in a decentralised federal nation state. Whether Labour has the confidence to bite the bullet is another matter entirely.

Friday, 14 May 1993


Tribune leader, 14 May 1993
The Tories suffered humiliating defeats last week in the Newbury by-election and the county council elections. But Labour has precious little to celebrate.

In Newbury, the Labour candidate, Steve Billcliffe, got 1,151 votes, less than 2 per cent of the vote, and lost his deposit. It was the lowest Labour share of the vote in any parliamentary election since 1918 and, con­trary to Labour claims (after the result) that the party had run a deliberately low-key campaign, it happened despite strenu­ous Labour efforts to improve on last year's general election showing.

This cannot simply be dismissed with a casual shrug of the shoulders. Although it is true that, as Peter Mandelson said, the voters of Newbury were essentially voting against the Tories, it is also true that the way they did so was by placing their cross­es next to the name of the Liberal Demo­crat candidate.

Given the scale of Labour's humiliation, it is not treachery to ask whether it is worth going to the expense of fighting by-elections in seats that Labour knows it can­not win. It is ludicrous to claim that by-elections are an opportunity to get the mes­sage out to the nation: in Newbury the me­dia treated Labour as an irrelevant side-show. And the claim that running a candi­date in every by-election is essential if Labour is to maintain its credibility as a national party is more than outweighed if results prove that Labour's claims to be a truly national party are exaggerated.

Of course, there are few seats in the country where Labour starts from quite such a low base of support as in Newbury – and there is always the argument that fighting hopeless seats is good practice for candidates and for the party apparatus. But Labour would be foolish to press on with its present policy without some seri­ous thought about its effectiveness.

Newbury saw a level of anti-Tory tacti­cal voting unlike anything witnessed before in a by-election, and it was not an isolated phenomenon. Throughout the south, voters in the county council elec­tions backed the candidate most likely to keep the Tory out. The result was humilia­tion for the Conservatives as they lost council after council. The main beneficia­ries were the Liberal Democrats – and this has inevitably raised the question of whether Labour should relax its antipathy to Lib-Lab coalitions in local government. In Tribune's view, the answer is simple: the party should allow county Labour groups to make up their own minds without inter­ference from the centre.

The more important issue is the implica­tions of the results for national politics. If the Liberal Democrat surge proves to be a one-off, Labour's refusal to counte­nance talk of pacts and coalition will be vindicated. If, however, it presages a Liber­al Democrat revival that does serious dam­age to Labour's chances in those parts of the south where the party needs to win seats, Labour's line will look dangerously complacent and short-sighted.

Labour can see off the threat from the Liberal Democrats but only if it develops policies and a style of politics that appeal to people who are now tempted to vote Lib­eral Democrat. The problem is that it is still by no means clear that the party has either the will or the imagination to do so.

Desai wrongly sacked to save Smith blushes

Last week, Meghnad Desai was fired from his position as a front-bench Labour economic spokesman in the House of Lords. In his Tribune column last week he had written that, if Labour aban­doned its policy of increasing income tax for high earners, he would "remove zero-rating for VAT on all items" and compen­sate for the regressive impact of such a move by increasing benefits to the poorest.

No one in Gordon Brown’s office had actually read the article, so Mr Brown was caught unawares last Thursday when Norman La­ment, giving the false impression that the article backed Tory policy on tax, quoted it at him in the House of Commons. Subsequently, John Major did the same to John Smith during Prime Minister's Questions on the same day: Mr Smith was made to look a complete fool after claiming that the article had been written while Professor Desai was on the back benches. Hours lat­er, Professor Desai was relieved of his post. The sacking has been treated as some­thing of a joke by most of the media, but it is nothing of the kind. In his Tribune column, Professor Desai was expressing opinions that are in no sense at odds with Labour Party policy – and the reason they are not is simple. Put bluntly, there is no finalised Labour policy on taxation and benefits. At the insistence of none other
than Mr Smith, the party contracted all that out to the Commission on Social Justice, which is supposed to have complete freedom to examine the options on funding the welfare state.

Professor Desai, by suggesting an .option for taxation policy, was playing a wholly le­gitimate part in a necessary debate. That he was sacked for doing so gives the impression not just that Mr Smith is petty and vindictive but, more importantly, that the whole party leadership is deeply intellectually insecure and intolerant of discussion. So much for "open opposition", the buzz-phrase in so many party documents in recent months.

Friday, 7 May 1993


Tribune leader, 7 May 1993

The wave of optimism that swept Eu­rope after Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, signed the Vance-Owen plan for a settlement in Bosnia could all too easily turn out to be premature.

The first real test of last weekend's agreement is not so much whether or not the Bosnian Serb "parliament", meeting as Tribune went to press, endorses Mr Karadzic's move but whether or not the Serb armed forces in Bosnia stop fighting and then withdraw from their positions in accordance with the timetable in the Vance-Owen plan.

It is essential to recognise that, as things stand, the likelihood of this happening is remote indeed. Fighting is still going on and shows no sign of ending. More impor­tant, nothing that we know about the Serbs’ previous behaviour or their war aims suggests that they will easily give up the territories that they have seized in the past year.

The Serbs have occupied much land, "ethnically cleansed" the countryside and besieged the towns in pursuit of a Greater Serbia stretching from Vojvodina in the north to the Adriatic coast, including large parts of Croatia and Bosnia.

The Vance-Owen plan has many faults, the most important of which is that its goal of a Bosnia cantonised on ethnic lines, which has already encouraged the Serbs and Croats in their seizures of land, is dan­gerously close to partition. Nevertheless, by resisting partition, preserving the terri­torial integrity of an ethnically diverse Bosnia and refusing to recognise the mili­tary gains of the past year's war, the plan is an obstacle to the Serbs’ dream – and as such is unacceptable to the Serb forces on the ground in Bosnia.

In the end, it is their attitude that counts, not what Mr Karadzic might say when his arm is being twisted by the Serbian gov­ernment, desperate to have the sanctions against it lifted or at least eased.
Put bluntly, this means that the interna­tional community is very soon likely to be faced with a choice between capitulating in the face of Serb intransigence and some­how making the Serbs stop fighting and withdraw.

In such circumstances, as Jack running, ham, the shadow Foreign Secretary, has said, it would be idiotic to send in United Nations forces in a "peace-keeping" role: there would be no peace to keep and they would simply be sitting targets. A very dif­ferent sort of military intervention would be needed to force the Serbs to comply with the Vance-Owen provisions (or indeed some other plan for a post-war settlement in Bosnia, such as a United Nations protec­torate, if Vance-Owen falls apart).

So what sort of military intervention would do the trick? Essentially, we are back to the arguments that were raging before the outbreak of optimism in the wake of the Athens conference.

As Tribune argued a fortnight ago, air strikes on Bosnian Serb supply lines, sug­gested as a last resort by the Labour front bench, would not be enough: the indica­tions are that the Bosnian Serb forces have plentiful arms and ammunition. Interven­tion by ground forces, backed by heli­copter-borne forces and with air support, would be essential if they were to be made to accept a ceasefire and retreat.

Contrary to the arguments of opponents of such a course of action, this would not take a massive army, nor would it be irre­sponsibly risky. The Bosnian Serb forces are less than formidable. Their soldiers, some 60,000 in number, are ill-disciplined, ill-equipped and inexperienced, their ar­tillery immobile and their 300 tanks mainly ancient Soviet T-55s. They have advanced as far as they have only because the Bosni­an government, with 90,000 troops under arms, has had no adequate means of stop­ping the tanks. (This, incidentally, gives the lie to claims that the wooded mountain­ous terrain makes intervention by ground troops too difficult: tanks cannot operate in wooded mountains.) It is hard to believe that, confronted by well-equipped, profes­sional intervention forces, the Bosnian Serb forces would have much stomach for a fight.

The upshot is that a relatively small NATO force of around 50,000 to 75,000 troops – the same size as the peace­keeping force envisaged in the Vance-Owen plan – could, if necessary, force the Serb forces to lay down their arms and with­draw. Once it had done this job, it could be turned into a peace-keeping force. Alterna­tively, a separate UN blue-helmet force could be introduced to oversee implemen­tation of the political settlement.

The hope that it will not come to this, that the Bosnian Serbs will meekly act as the rest of the world wants them to and that a UN peace-keeping force will be all that is required from the international community, must not be allowed to eclipse hard-headed realism. West European gov­ernments are looking for any excuse to re­vert to hand-wringing if anything goes wrong with implementation of Vance-Owen: it is up to the left to keep the pres­sure on them so that they prepare for the worst.

Policy forum offers little hope of creative thinking

The idea behind Labour's National Policy Forum, which meets for the first time this weekend, is not a bad one. For sev­eral years now, the party's annual confer­ence has been a wholly inadequate forum for policy-making: trade union block votes have guaranteed that just about anything dreamed up by the small group of politi­cians in the Shadow Cabinet and the Na­tional    Executive    Committee    has    gone through on the nod. Labour needs some sort of body in which a wider group of people, including ordinary individual members, can have a real influence on party policy.

Unfortunately, there is little hope that the National Policy Forum as currently consti­tuted will fulfil any such role. Because of Labour's financial crisis, it has – been slimmed down to just 100 members and will meet only annually instead of quarterly.

This weekend's meeting will have only four hours of open debate – which works out at two-and-a-half minutes per member. That would be a great formula for a radio quiz game, but it is hardly the way for a serious political party to behave.

It will be a miracle if the forum is the source of creative thinking and constructive debate that the party's spin-doctors claim it will be.