Saturday, 13 June 1998


Paul Anderson, editorial, New Times, 13 June 1998

I’ve been involved in organising lots of conferences over the years, but nothing quite as big, ambitious or difficult as People’s Europe 98, which took place on the weekend of 5-7 June at the London School of Economics.

The idea was simple enough in the beginning. At last year’s Labour conference, I met Mary Kaldor, with whom I’d worked on the European Nuclear Disarmament Journal in the 1980s. I’d been involved in trying to get a radical left pro-Europe group off the ground, Left for Europe, and she’d been thinking about how the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, of which she was (and is) co-chair, could get involved in the British Presidency of the European Union during the first six months of this year. Wouldn’t it be great, we agreed, if we set up a pan-European forum of civil society that fed its deliberations into the Presidency, culminating in a big festival in Cardiff on the eve of the European summit there in June.

I didn’t give the idea much more thought – but Mary did, and in early December she said she’d got Robin Cook’s backing for the project. It fitted perfectly with the British government’s desire to open up the institutions of the EU, it seemed, and there was money available too. By the beginning of the year, we’d sorted out a realistic budget and lined up the staff we needed. A couple of weeks later, the Foreign Office gave us a provisional go-ahead for a big event in Cardiff on 12-14 June. Soon after that, we decided on the name People’s Europe 98 and made a start on setting up the advisory group that would steer the whole process.

Which is when it began to get complicated. The government started to get jittery over what it was letting itself in for. We emphasised that we had no dangerously subversive hidden agenda and made it clear that we were keen to get small business, the trade unions and local government on board. The FO was happy with our reassurances – but not Number Ten Downing Street, which refused to back People’s Europe 98 unless it was moved from Cardiff, unless it took place a week earlier, and unless various lefties involved in it took a backseat role.

To cut a long story short, we agreed reluctantly to change the time and place – much to the annoyance of everyone in Wales with whom we’d been working – and sorted out a personnel shuffle that made no real difference to our plans but looked better to Number Ten. In mid-March, we finally got the green light, just 12 weeks before the rescheduled event.

That People’s Europe 98 happened at all in such circumstances is a tribute to the staff and members of the executive and advisory committees who organised it. But it didn’t just happen – it was a resounding success. More than 1,100 people came along, more than 200 of them from outside the United Kingdom. There were 56 different discussion meetings on the programme, and by all accounts the overwhelming majority were extraordinarily good. There was a real engagement with government, in particular in the closing question-and-answer session with Robin Cook.

Most important, it looks as if People’s Europe 98 has enough momentum to continue in some form – as a Europe-wide organisation putting on similar events or as a Europe-oriented forum in Britain. Get in touch if you’re interested.

Friday, 12 June 1998


Review of Prawn Cocktail Party by Robin Ramsay (Vision, £9.99), Tribune 12 June 1998

On page 144 of Robin Ramsay's book on the "hidden power behind New Labour" there is a footnote: "I have written book reviews for Tribune since 1986. The first review of mine which did not appear was of a book attacking Britain's military-industrial complex, Neil Cooper's The Business Of Death. A couple of months before I submitted my review the unions represented in the British arms industry had run a full-page advert in Tribune saying, basically, 'jobs are at stake'. These two events are, of course, not connected."

Which is, of course, a joke - or at least I think it is, Ramsay doesn't really believe that the Tribune reviews editor, on receiving his piece, took a look and thought: "Hmmm. We can't use this. The defence unions might pull their advertising." Or does he? Worse, perhaps Tribune does work like that these days. After all, when I ran into the advertising manager last week, he did say that I’d better not slag off Ramsay's book because the publisher was taking an advert. I think he was joking, though I'm not sure.

The difficulty with writing about hidden influences in any sphere of life is simple. You need evidence, and evidence of what is hidden is by definition hard to find. It is all too easy to stray into the realm of conspiracy theory. Ramsay knows this danger from long experience. He has been editor and publisher of Lobster magazine since 1983 and was co-author with Stephen Dorrill of Smear!, a sober and comprehensive account of MIS's "dirty tricks" campaign against Harold Wilson. Prawn Cocktail Party cannot be dismissed as conspiracy theory, but Ramsay does push his thesis on the role of multinational capital in shaping the policies of New Labour rather further than the evidence will take it.

Ramsay's big idea is that there "is a group of interrelated and mutually supporting financial institutions whose interests lie outside the domestic British economy" - what he calls "the overseas lobby" - that has for most of this century pursued a policy of undermining everyone who has backed measures to ensure that wealth created in Britain stays here. With New Labour, he argues, the triumph of this lobby is complete.

It is not an implausible story, and Ramsay tells it with a polemical verve unusual in contemporary political writing. The chapter on shadowy American-funded transatlantic networks for members of the political elite is excellent, as is the one on Labour's fear of the City. The problem, however, is that Ramsay never tells us who, precisely, has been part of the "overseas lobby" or how members of the lobby operate - and the result is that he gives little idea of how its supposed influence could be countered beyond making a plea for Labour to resort to economic nationalism.