Friday, 25 August 1995


New Statesman & Society leader, 25 August 1995

A year after the IRA ceasefire, there is no room for complacency. All-party talks must start soon – and all sides must give ground

 The IRA ceasefire is one year old this week. That is cause for some cheer: there has been peace in Northern Ireland during that time, apart from a few isolated shootings and the occasional riot. But it is decidedly not a cause for complacency.

The period of peace has shown us two important things aboutthe erstwhile terrorists. First, Sinn Fein enjoys the limelight and recognises that it gets more of it in peace than after violence. Second, traditional loyalists have been outflanked by the creativity of former loyalist para¬militaries, whose commitment to peace has proved as strong as that of republicans.

Perhaps more importantly, peace has made the lives of the ordinary people of Northern Ireland that bit more civilised. People feel free to shop and socialise in central Belfast and Derry. Tourists have flocked to the region as never before, not least from the Republic. The people want peace to go on.

For several months after the IRA declared its ceasefire, ministers appeared on the Today programme to question the permanence of peace. Having accepted that peace seemed more permanent than temporary, Sinn Fein was allowed to appear on news bulletins. Now the ministers ask: when will decommissioning begin? That is an important issue, but certainly not the only one at the moment. No mantra can be a substitute for positive action.

When the talks do start, the agenda must face up to economic and social issues, as well as political structures. Unemployment must be tackled, not least in those areas from which the extremes draw their support. Unity of purpose between loyalists and nationalists exists on gaining European Commission funds for the region. The tourist boards North and South have gained from greater cooperation. Such social and economic partnerships can help to dispel much political distrust.

Eventually, there must be moves towards political agreement. Nobody should expect overnight solutions. Sinn Fein may cling to a belief in a united Ireland in public, but even it is beginning to acknowledge the realpolitik already accepted by the major parties south of the border. Traditional unionists must be prepared to be as flexible as the newer loyalist parties. Power-sharing will need to develop, a new assembly will have to be created. But the greater cross-border cooperation will be as far as aspirations for unity can go for the moment.

In the longer term, Europe may offer more answers. The Commission has supported the peace process. The two most formidable politicians in the North, John Hume and Ian Paisley, both sit in the European Parliament. Europe has backed cross-border regional schemes in north western Ireland for years. In the future, politicians may be more pragmatic and increasingly prefer to deal with Brussels rather than London. That is no united Ireland. But it is infinitely preferable to the status quo before the ceasefire.

Private Lee Clegg may well have been a victim of circumstances, which led to his conviction for killing a young joyrider. But his premature release was the single most destabilising action of the British government in the past year. For the sake of a few extra backbench votes, John Major seemed prepared to sacrifice years of painstaking work. Fortunately, after a few days of protest, the issue has gone away.

There are ways for Major to redeem his position in Ire¬land. First, the London government shoulduse the Clegg release as a backdrop for more vigorous action to transfer prisoners home from British jails to Northern Ireland. Second, the parole board should become more flexible with non-violent Republican and Loyalist prisoners.

But it is not simply the British government that must make gestures. The IRA does not want to lose face; as Gerry Adams reminded a Belfast audience recently, the IRA has not gone away. So any expectation that the Provos will have dumped their arms outside Stormont on the way into talks is a fantasy. They could, however, arrange for a significant increase in the number of arms dumps "discovered" by the Garda and the RUC. That should allow Sinn Fein to take part in all-party talks. While they're at it, they should also end the punishment beatings of nationalist dissidents.

The talks must begin soon. There is growing impa¬tience about the speed of progress. Discount the dis-gruntled former Irish premier Albert Reynolds, who joined Sinn Fein to attack the decommissioning precon-dition. Listen instead to the current government in Dublin, which has been disappointed by both the pace of change in London and the insensitivity of some of Major's actions.


New Statesman & Society, 25 August 1995

Bryan Gould talks to Paul Anderson about the Evening Standard, Tony Blair, and why he quit British politics

Bryan Gould is still thinking of suing the Evening Standard for publishing an article under his name last week that was written by 19-year-old Nick Howard, the son of the Home Secretary.

"Many years ago when I was a law don I used to teach the law of libel," he says, sit­ting in his office at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, where he is now vice-chancellor. "And there's no doubt that I was libelled. The only ques­tion is whether it's worth doing anything about it in the light of the fairly prompt apology the Standard gave me last week." He hasn't done anything yet—but he's tempted because the Standard was just a bit lackadaisical. "It's at least worth get­ting an opinion on it. I still find it difficult to believe that it took them as long as it did—three-and-a-half days—to realise that anything was wrong. I mean, Nick Howard had sent the piece to four other papers. Surely someone on one of those papers must have noticed. Yet it was only when I discovered it that the Standard did anything."

Gould didn't see the offending article until after he'd read all the press com­mentary on it. "It was at the bottom of a pile of faxes sent me by my publisher," he explains. "I read them over breakfast last Thursday morning. I was astonished at the tone of the coverage and quickly real­ised from the quotes that things were being attributed to me that I'd never writ­ten. Then I came across a copy of the arti­cle itself." He laughs. "It bore no relation to what I was saying. But initially it was quite difficult getting it over to people that I wasn't complaining about being rewrit­ten but that the article was not mine."

In the end, however, he managed to persuade the Standard late on Wednes­day evening (New Zealand is 12 hours ahead of British Summer Time) that a completely different piece had been sub­stituted for his original. The paper's edi­tor, Stewart Steven, responded by setting up an internal inquiry into what had gone wrong, then published the story of what had happened in Thursday's edition, along with the article Gould had submit­ted in the first place and a grovelling apol­ogy to its author.

The cock-up soon eclipsed the sup­posed left-wing rebellion against Tony Blair as the silly season domestic politics story of the week. By the time Blair arrived back in Britain from holiday for the VJ Day commemorations—extracts from Gould's memoirs in the Guardian notwithstanding—the crisis alleged to be gripping his party had all but vanished.

Which only goes to show that the Labour leader is a very lucky man. What Gould actually wrote for the Standard is significantly more trenchant in its ques­tioning of Labour's whole strategy than anything else that has appeared in the past three weeks—despite its assertions that "Tony Blair has had a brilliant first year as Labour leader" and "looks a racing certainty" to win the next election.

The core of his argument is familiar to anyone who followed his career in the four or five years before he bowed out of British politics last summer—but it hits a particularly sensitive chord with the Labour leadership now because it chal­lenges directly the idea that Blair marks a fresh start for the parry. "Labour's new leader did not suddenly strike out in a new direction," he wrote. "He inherited an electoral strategy which goes back to the late 19803. It originated with Neil Kinnock after the 1987 election defeat, it was given new emphasis by John Smith, and it has now been carried to new heights by Tony Blair. That strategy is one of 'safety first'. Its essence is that Labour should do or say nothing which might conceivably alienate the voters."

And that, for Gould, is a major prob­lem. "What happens if the Tories, by some miracle, recover their popularity and disaffected Conservatives are tempted to return to the fold as happened in 1992?" he went on. "What is to bind them to their current and perhaps tempo­rary intention of voting Labour? Surely it would be more sensible for Labour, while they have the chance, to give these voters positive reasons for voting Labour so that they are less likely to revert to type if the Tories should engineer a brief recovery." So far, the Labour leadership has not made a reasoned answer.

Not that the former Dagenham MP is some wild revolutionary. His memoirs, published next month as Goodbye to All That, record the progress of an ambitious young man from a modest conservative family – a little less affluent than Blair's – from a colonial backwater. Born in 1939, he did so well at school and uni­versity that he made it to Oxford and a junior position in the Foreign Office. After that, it's a story of self-confidence frustrated by Britain's anti-meritocratic class system: a job as a promising young law don (in Oxford again), a spell in the 19708 as a promising young Labour MP for Southampton Itchen, a couple of years as a promising young TV journalist after he lost his seat in 1979. Then he won the safe Labour seat of Dagenham in 1983.

The glory years –the bits of the mem­oirs serialised in the Guardian last week­end—were in the mid-1980s, when, given a key job by Neil Kinnock, he became Labour's most promising all-round television performer. After that, however, he faded, after bitter in-fighting in Labour's upper echelons (faithfully recounted in the book). Removed from a front-bench economic portfolio in 1989, he said goodbye to British politics last year after losing his bid for the party lead­ership in 1992 to John Smith.

His problem was that he was a diehard s opponent of anything to do with European economic integration—and, by the time he was a contender for Labour's top job, the thinking left that was his natural constituency had embraced not just Europe but (for the most part) Europe even on monetarist terms. Gould left over Maastricht and what he saw as the failure of the left to mount a defence of national control of the economy. His memoirs are far from triumphalist.

Still, Gould is the first frontbencher from the Kinnock era to tell the story on the record, and he's sure that he has a rele­vant message even now. "I don't think that the situation has changed that much," he says of the past five years of British politics. "Underlying politics don't change very fast. In the 1980s, the left lost its intellectual self-confidence in the face of Thatcherism.

Towards the end of the decade, many people lost faith in Thatcherism, but Labour was so shell-shocked that it didn't take the initiative. The party is still cowering in the trenches, even though the Tories under John Major have no stomach whatsoever for defend­ing the territory."

The alternative, he believes, is for Labour to become "more positive". But what does that mean? "We should say: 'Vote for us for a better health service, bet­ter schools, better public services. We'll intervene in the economy to secure full employment,'" he says.

Unsurprisingly, he has few illusions that anything of the sort will happen. "Of course, most people who are responsible for Labour strategy now will throw up their hands in horror at this and say: "That's exactly what people don't want to hear. They're terrified of government, they don't want to pay bigger taxes.' Well, I'm not saying that you'll convince every­one with a positive message, but the ground is much more fertile for this mes­sage than the current strategists believe. Labour will never have a better opportu­nity to put it forward than right now. The Tories are discredited. No one believes that they've got the answers.

"I'm not saying that you blurt out any­thing that's at the top of your mind—you work it out extraordinarily carefully, then you go and spell out three or four well-prepared policies in some detail. You really press those very hard, confidently. It's a commonsense, almost precautionary strategy."

For all this, Gould insists that his enthusiasm for Tony Blair is genuine. "I think Tony, by virtue of his general image and rhetoric, is a more convinc­ing exponent of almost anything than John Smith or Neil Kinnock was," he says. "But this should encourage his advisers to give him his head more and allow him to be bolder in terms of sub­stance. It's a pity that they can't put into his mouth words of more substance than they have done. He's striking the right poses. But my fear is that sooner or later – and we could be getting per­ilously close to this point – his oppo­nents are really going to nail him on the disparity between the rhetoric and the substance."

But Gould has few expectations that his former colleagues in the shadow cabinet will save Blair from a grisly fate. "The dif­ficulty that I eventually faced up to was that there weren't many people who took my view," he admits. "I still maintain that I represented between 35 and 40 per cent of party opinion in 1992 in the broad sense of people who wanted to see more radical policies, full employment and all of that. But I'm not sure there are too many that would go along the whole way with me.

"Take the current shadow cabinet: there are people like Michael Meacher, David Blunkett—we immediately start running out of names here—to some degree people like John Prescott, and then very soft left people like Frank Dobson and Jack Straw—they'd be instinc­tively sympathetic but for reasons of Realpolitik would never give me any sup­port. They always saw their own career advance as much more important. Frankly, the difficulty is that there isn't a great body of people who think much further than the next shadow cabinet election."

Gould's book comes out next month and he'll be back in Britain to launch it. Not that he wants to come back perma­nently—"I really have no regrets about leaving," he says. And, although he remains fascinated by everything politi­cal and has good relations with the New Zealand Labour Party leadership, he has no plans to get into New Zealand politics. "The British Labour Party needs to take note of the monetarist turn that the New Zealand Labour Party took in 1984," he says. "To some extent, over the ERM, British Labour has seen the same thing happening already. The New Zealand experience is an object lesson for Labour in Britain.

"There's constant speculation here that I'm going to get involved in politics here. But I've no intention of doing so, and I've no regrets about leaving political life in Britain. Certainly when something like this Evening Standard nonsense crops up and the phones start going, both my wife and I say 'Thank God we're not involved in this on a permanent basis.' There's a life beyond Westminster and one of the problems with British politics is that too many people in Westminster don't realise that."

There but for...
Much fun has been had at the expense of the Evening Standard since it emerged that it had run a piece last Monday written by 19-year-old Nick Howard, son of the Home Secretary, under the by-line of Bryan Gould.
Surely someone would have thought that there was something a bit odd about an article by a man in his mid-fifties beginning: "I was three and a half during the Winter of Discontent, never watched Michael Foot give a speech on television and have no memory of the 1989 election campaign"? The editors at the Standard apparently thought Gould was imagining himself as a first-time voter – as the standfirst it published proclaimed.
But there was a whole lot more in Howard's effort that should have set the alarm bells ringing. Take this for starters: "The Labour Party developed out of Marxism and the desire for public ownership of industry was based on the idea that human nature is good, and yet is distorted by the workings of capitalism." Or this:"... even during the 1980s it was ideology developed from Marxism which motivated the Labour opposition to the privatisations and the union legislation." Gould would never write such simplistic drivel even if he were pretending to be a teenager.
Not that the rest of the press has very much to crow about. On Tuesday nearly every other papers wallowed the story unquestioningly. "The queue of malcontents attacking Tony Blair's leadership was joined yesterday by Bryan Gould," reported Patrick Wintour in the Guardian, adding that his criticisms were "similar to his assaults on Labour's two previous leaders". Jon Hibbs described Gould in the Telegraph as "the latest left-wing figure to undermine Tony Blair's leadership"; in the Independent, John Rentoul wrote of "an unexpectedly bitter attack on Tony Blair". According to John Deans in the Mail, Gould had "fanned the flames of revolt burning beneath Tony Blair"; in the Express, Patrick Hennessy had it that he had "launched the most powerful assault on Mr Blair since the Labour leader's year-long honeymoon was ended by MP Richard Burden's attack on his tactics last week". The Sun's Pascoe Watson wrote of "a devastating attack", and the other tabloids carried similar pieces without by-lines.
It wasn't until Tuesday afternoon that rumours started doing the rounds that all was not as had first appeared – and it was only late on Wednesday that Gould himself realised that the problem was not insensitive editing but that the wrong piece had been published under his by-line. On Thursday came the Standard's grovelling apology – and by Friday all the journalists who had taken the story at face value were having a good laugh at the Standard's expense.
As for NSS – well, we went to press too early to get the full story but late enough to excise all mention of Gould from last week's issue. With deadlines just a couple of hours earlier, we would have ended up with as much egg on face as Fleet Street's finest.

Friday, 18 August 1995


New Statesman & Society leader, 18 August 1995

A referendum on how the Commons is elected would give fresh legitimacy to Britain's democracy. Tony Blair should throw all his weight behind the idea

In a week in which media coverage of the Labour Party has been notable mainly for silly season fantasies about rebellions against Tony Blair's lead­ership, one story deserves to be taken very seriously: that of the drive by defenders of the first-past-the-post electoral system to get Labour conference this October to ditch the party's commitment to a referendum on electoral systems for the House of Commons.

With two major unions against the referendum (the Transport and General, and Unison), a third wavering (the GMB) and Tony Blair, never an enthusiast for electoral reform, apparently unwilling to defend the existing policy, the chances are high that the conference will vote for no change. But if it does this, it will have thrown away Labour's single most important commit­ment to constitutional reform and destroyed the credibil­ity of Blair's claims that he and his party are now commit­ted to pluralism. For his own sake, Blair must think again – and make it clear that he wants the existing policy to remain.

Of course, it is easy to see why opponents of a referen­dum – all of them, without exception, opponents of elec­toral reform – have made their push this summer to have the policy reversed. Many in the Labour Party accepted a referendum on electoral systems as a way of keeping the Liberal Democrats sweet, when it looked as if Labour would need tactical votes from Lib Dem support­ers, or even coalition with Paddy Ashdown, to have any hope of power. Today, Labour is riding high in the opin­ion polls, and it looks likely that it will be able to form a government on its own. Sops to the Lib Dems seem more a diversion than a necessity.

It could look very different at the time of the next general election. As Blair himself has said repeatedly, a massive opinion-poll lead nearly two years before an election guarantees nothing. Labour could yet find that it needs Lib Dem supporters' tactical votes or Lib Dem MPs' backing in the Commons, in which case a decision now to ditch a referendum on electoral systems will look asinine at best (as indeed will Peter Mandelson's  Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election campaign).

There's also the small matter of what dropping the referendum policy will do to Labour between now and the election. John Smith adopted it as a compromise to wind up the Plant commission on electoral systems and prevent a long and bloody internecine conflict between electoral reformers and opponents of change – and up to now it has worked a treat. If conference votes to abandon it, the least that can be expected is widespread (and justifi­able) resentment among the reformers. That is not something to be dismissed lightly – according to the most recent survey by Patrick Seyd and Paul Whiteley of Sheffield University, two-thirds of Labour's new mem­bers are in favour of electoral reform and only a fifth are against it.

But enough of realpolitik. The most important reason for supporting a referendum on electoral systems for the Commons is not that it facilitates pre-election Lib-Lab cooperation (welcome although that would be) or that it prevents acrimonious rows inside the Labour Party. Rather it is that a referendum would give the British people the chance our democracy needs to decide the sort of polity in which we live – and thus the chance to con­sign the winner-takes-all tribalism of first-past-the-post to the proverbial dustbin of history.

Put bluntly, the legitimacy of Britain's democratic sys­tem needs to be re-established. Popular disenchantment with the political process, particularly among the young, is at an all-time high. Politicians increasingly are seen as untrustworthy and venal, while the system is more and more viewed as remote and irrelevant.

It may well be true, as the defenders of the status quo argue, that most people care more about jobs, housing and the health service than about the electoral system, but that is beside the point. It is only when the people have a direct say in determining the basic rules of our democratic process that it will regain the popular support it needs to thrive.

In this sense, the holding of a referendum is more important than its outcome. NSS is a long-standing supporter of the German-style additional-member system of proportional representation: we would of course campaign vigorously for its adoption, and for an end to first-past-the-post, in a referendum campaign. But if the status quo won, we would have no choice but to enthusiastically embrace the people's choice.

The first question that must be asked of the cabal trying to get Labour to ditch a referendum is not why they so like the present system, but why they don't want to let the people decide.

Friday, 11 August 1995


New Statesman & Society leader, 11 August 1995

The Croat victory in the Krajina shows that the Serbs are not invincible – but it is not necessarily good news for Bosnia

The past week has seen the most significant turn­ing point in the war in former Yugoslavia since it began in 1991. On that, everyone agrees, regard­less of political persuasion. For the first time, the forces of Serb nationalism have suffered an overwhelm­ing – in fact, catastrophic – military defeat, and have been forced to cede territory seized and "ethnically cleansed" in the first couple of years of the conflict.

The first, obvious lesson of the successful Croatian assault that took the Krajina, overthrew the rebel Serb nationalist regime in Knin and relieved the besieged Bosnian government enclave of Bihac, is that the Serbs are far from invincible on the battlefield. They can be forced to yield their conquests. Slobodan Milosevic rose to power in the 19805 promising a Greater Serbia stretching from the Macedonian border with Greece to the Adriatic coast. His militarist dream motivated the Serb nationalist land-grab in Croatia and then Bosnia when the Croats and Bosnians decided to secede from Yugoslavia rather than submit to his hegemony. Now it is shattered.

It is hardly surprising that the first response to the news of the Croatian victory among the Bosnians fight­ing Serb nationalist occupation of their own country was unalloyed glee. Of course, the Krajina Serb forces were not as large or as well-equipped as those of the Bosnian Serbs, and it is relatively easy to reinforce the Bosnian Serbs from Serbia proper, particularly in eastern Bosnia. It is unlikely to be as easy to crush the Bosnian Serb army as it was to crush its Krajina counterpart.

Nevertheless, just weeks after the fall of Srebrenica and Zepa to the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosnians appeared, in the immediate aftermath of the Croatian victory, to have grounds for optimism. With Serb morale at an all-time low, the Bosnian Serb leadership apparently irrevocably divided and Bihac relieved, it seemed that the military prospects of the Bosnian government – and therefore the prospects of restoring a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, liberal society to the whole of Bosnia – were rosier than they had been since the beginning of the war.

As the dust has settled, however, the picture has begun to look more complex and rather less optimistic. Most obviously, almost the entire Serbian population of the Krajina – estimates range up to 200,000 people – have decided to flee rather than find out whether the Croats will keep their promises of democratic rights and reli­gious tolerance. No matter that it appears, on the scanty available evidence, that the Croat army did not engage in "ethnic cleansing" as practised by Serb nationalists in Bosnia – the result is a giant refugee crisis, accurately described by a United Nations High Commission for Refugees spokesperson as "a major humanitarian cata­strophe". Croatia's insistence that it will welcome the return of Serb Croat citizens and will guarantee the rights of all who are not war criminals will reassure only a handful of those who have left. Even at this early stage, it seems likely that many Krajina Serbs will become per­manent exiles in Serb-occupied Bosnia, adopting a stance of resentful ultra-nationalism.

Then there is the whole question of the intentions of Croatian president Franjo Tudjman now that he has taken the Krajina. Is there an understanding with Milo­sevic, formal or informal, for the latter to sit back and watch the Croats defeat the Krajina Serbs in return for Tudjman allowing the Serbs to keep Eastern Slavonia? More important, is there a deal to carve up Bosnia between Belgrade and Zagreb? So far, the evidence for a Tudjman-Milosevic pact is weak and circumstantial: Tudjman's scribblings on the back of a menu, Milose­vic's inaction last weekend and his attempt to supplant Radovan Karadzic with Ratko Mladic as Bosnian Serb leader. The evidence against, on the other hand, is no stronger: veiled Croatian government threats to take Eastern Slavonia by force, Tudjman's public appearance with his ally president Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia, the despatch of Serbian tanks in an easterly direction.

Obviously, a deal is a worse prospect for the Bosnians than no deal – but even in the absence of one there is a real danger that the Sarajevo government will now find itself even more at the mercy of Zagreb's whims than it has been so far. Control of supply routes to Bosnia has long been used by the Croats to ensure that the Bosnian government has only the military capacity that they want it to have. With Tudjman successful in his primary aim of taking the Krajina, the Bosnians could find all too easily that their supply of arms is effectively cut off. More than ever, it is imperative that the arms embargo on the Bosn­ian government is lifted.