Friday, 21 April 2000


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 21 April 2000

I never met Tony Cliff, the guru of the Socialist Workers Party, who died the weekend before last. But I'll always be grateful to him. Back in the mid-seventies, a brief encounter with the International Socialists, as his tiny political sect was then called, inoculated me against Leninism for life.

It happened like this. I was a bored teenager at a public school in Ipswich — and, under the combined influence of the New Statesman, Tribune and my grandfather, I'd come to the conclusion that capitalism was a bad thing that ought to be overthrown.

But how to go about it? I flirted briefly with the idea of joining the Labour Party, but the prospect of being associated (however distantly) with Harold Wilson's Government was too much to bear. The Communist Party locally consisted of a dozen or so pensioners whose hard-line Stalinism was a real turn-off — and the couple of Workers' Revolutionary Party members I knew were stark raving bonkers.

Then, however, I started to read Socialist Worker, the IS newspaper. Unlike Tribune and the New Statesman, it had no qualms about attacking Wilson for being a reformist toe-rag — and unlike the Morning Star it was not hung up on the supposed wonders of the Soviet police state. The slogan underneath the masthead on each issue, "Neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism", seemed to express in a nutshell precisely what I wanted. And the paper's preferred means of achieving this state of bliss, a revolution led by rank-and-file workers, appeared absolutely spot on. (OK, I know it seems completely quixotic now, but at the time, just after the 1973-74 miners' strike and in the middle of the Portuguese revolution, it wasn't quite so daft. Honestly.)

Anyway, after a couple of months of following Socialist Worker's inspiring reports of class struggle throughout the world, I decided to send off the form in the paper asking for more information. A few days later two long-haired beardies from the Ipswich branch of IS presented themselves at my parents' house — much to the consternation of my Tory grandmother, who was staying with us at the time and answered the door to them.

I started going to local IS meetings, selling the paper to my friends at school and reading my way through massive piles of IS pamphlets and books. I didn't actually join — I think I was too young to be a member — but for six months or so I was as immersed in IS as I had previously been in railway modelling.

Then, however, all of a sudden, it all went sour. For reasons that were unclear even then, Cliff decided that the time was ripe to turn IS, at the time a relatively pluralist outfit that allowed serious differences of opinion in its ranks, into a "proper" disciplined Leninist revolutionary party. He set up a central committee to run the organisation and gerrymandered the annual conference to minimise dissent. Then he launched what seemed to us a ridiculous campaign demanding the "Right to Work" — East Anglia at the time still had full employment — and expelled everyone who disagreed with him, including the six or seven most active members of the 15-strong Ipswich branch.

It was hardly on the scale of Stalin's Great Terror. Indeed, to the outside world all it meant was that no one sold — or attempted to sell — Socialist Worker outside the town hall and Crane's engineering works.

But the arbitrariness of Cliff's purge came as a real shock to me. I couldn't see how he could justify chucking people out of IS just because they disagreed with him about organisational structures, campaigning priorities or the likelihood of revolution in the next couple of years. He was, I thought, a bright bloke — but no brighter than plenty of other people in IS. He certainly did not have a monopoly of truth. And if he could behave like this towards comrades in a tiny organisation on the political margins, what on earth would it be like if the IS seized state power?

A couple of the people who had escaped expulsion tried to explain that Lenin's theory of democratic centralism dictated that, once decisions were made, every member of the party had to stick to the line. But I was unconvinced. Indeed, the more they talked about Lenin, the more I wondered whether what went wrong in Russia after 1917 might not have had a lot to do with Lenin's conception of the revolutionary party.

I started to read everything about Lenin and the Bolsheviks I could lay my hands on — and before long, thanks to Leonard Schapiro's The Origins of the Communist Autocracy, Gabriel and Daniel Cohn-Bendit's Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative and Robert V Daniels' The Conscience of the Revolution, my suspicions were amply confirmed. I'm pleased to say that I've never been tempted by Leninism in any shape or form ever since.

The same is true, of course, of thousands of other people who left IS or the SWP disillusioned over the years. I'm not sure whether Tony Cliff put more British socialists off Leninism in the last quarter of the 20th century than anyone else — but my guess is that he's up there with Gerry Healey, a much nastier man who ran the WRP.

Friday, 7 April 2000


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 7 April 2000

The names David James Watson and Richard Bartlitt will not mean a lot to readers of Tribune who are not subscribers to Free Press , the newsletter of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.

If you take Free Press , however, you will know that they are two MI6 officers who are alleged to have had knowledge of an assassination attempt against Muammar al Gadhafi, the Libyan leader, in 1995.

Their names have been known to many British journalists for some time, and on 10 March they were published by the Portuguese satirical weekly Tal&Qual . Subsequently they have appeared on several websites, one of which is Yet not one national daily or Sunday has published them in Britain.

The Observer came close to doing so on 27 February but was legally prevented from going ahead by the terms of an injunction covering information originating from David Shayler, the dissident MI5 officer, who first broke the story about the attempted assassination.
After that, no one dared mention the names in print until Stephen Dorrill, the author of a new book on MI6, did so in the issue of Free Press published this week.

The main reason for this reticence is simple: editors are worried by how the secret state might hit them if they publish.

So far, the response of the authorities to publication of materials relating to Shayler's allegations has been little short of draconian.

On March 6, a young student supporter of Shayler, Julie-ann Davis, was hauled out of a lecture theatre at Kingston university by the Special Branch, arrested and bailed – apparently in connection with the publication on the internet of an internal MI6 document giving details of the Gadhafi plot.

Subsequently, the Observer and the Guardian were served with a court order requiring them to hand over all materials relating to the Shayler case – a move provoked by the story that the Observer did run on February 27, without the names, written by Martin Bright after interviewing Shayler. The court order amounts to a trawl for information that might or might not be used in a legal action that might or might not take place. Yet if the two papers continue to defy it, journalists could be jailed.

All this is despite the fact that, so far, Shayler's allegations have stood up well to scrutiny – which means that there is a prima facie case for taking them very seriously.

Getting involved in assassination attempts on foreign leaders is not the sort of thing that MI6 should be doing in any but the most exceptional circumstances – if at all. And there appears to be no reason that Gadhafi, however unpleasant a dictator, was in any sense a legitimate target in 1995. Shayler wants an official inquiry into the alleged plot; at very least, it is in the public interest that his claims are examined openly and in public.

Yet the security state is doing everything in its power to prevent discussion of Shayler's allegations, even though there is no question that any MI6 operations, or officers' lives, could be put at risk by such a process. Any damage that Shayler's claims could possibly do – and there are grounds for thinking that they were never harmful to anything MI6's reputation – was done a long time ago. To put it bluntly, if Libyan intelligence officers are unable to read Portuguese, they must at least be assumed capable of surfing the internet.

What is most worrying about this whole obscene spectacle is that it is a Labour government that is presiding over it.

Of course, historically, Labour is no stranger to the persecution of journalists and whistleblowers in the interests of the secret state. The last Labour government deported the journalist Mark Hosenball and the former CIA agent Phil Agee on the grounds that they were dangerous subversives. After that, it used the Official Secrets Act to prosecute two radical journalists involved in the Agee-Hosenball defence campaign, Crispin Aubrey and Duncan Campbell, and a former signals intelligence soldier they had interviewed, John Berry.

But I really thought Labour had learned its lesson from the 1970s. During the 1980s, Labour was sharply critical of the Tory Government's prosecutions of Sarah Tisdall and Clive Ponting for leaking official secrets. Although it had little of substance to say on the biggest official secrecy fiasco of the decade, the Spycatcher affair – to which the Shayler case bears an increasingly sharp resemblance – it seemed inconceivable that a Labour government would ever allow the full force of the law to be used to defend the secret state from legitimate public scrutiny.

Even as recently as five years ago, Labour's pursuit of the Tory government over its attempts to cover up the arms-to-Iraq scandal – led by Robin Cook – appeared to be a harbinger of a much healthier attitude to the misdemeanours of the secret state once Labour won power.

Today, Cook is reportedly outraged by the heavy-handedness of the reaction to the publication of the Gadhafi plot materials. If the reports are true, that is to his credit. But the government's credibility among believers in freedom of expression and supporters of democratic accountability for the security and intelligence services will be shattered unless it stops the campaign to suppress discussion of Shayler's allegations right now.

Saturday, 1 April 2000


New Times, April 2000

Paul Anderson talks to Matthew Taylor, new director of the Institute for Public Policy research, the leading centre-left think-tank

'For me the most wonderful thing about this job is that I can say what I like without having to ask permission first,' says Matthew Taylor, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research. 'It's the best job I've ever had.'

If this sounds like a swipe at his previous employer, it is – but only a gentle one. Before taking the helm at Britain's biggest centre-left think-tank at the end of 1998, Taylor, now 39, was a senior Labour Party apparatchik, working as director of policy in the run-up to the 1997 general election and then as assistant general secretary. And although he is keen to emphasise IPPR's (and his own) independence from the government, he is just as insistent on the need to maintain friendly relations with new Labour.

'There are times when the message I get from the government is that I've gone massively offside, that I'm showing worrying signs of disloyalty, and that I'm forgetting who the real enemy is,' he says with a grin. 'This government has got a problem with those it can't control.

'But from the point of view of journalists and my mates, I'm too new Labour, and I don't take enough risks. The fact is that we work very closely with people in government, simply because it's our job to influence public policy. But that doesn't mean that we're at their beck and call.'

'Of course, it's hard to occupy a position of critical engagement with this government. Journalists just want you to be critical, while the government just wants you to be engaged. But we're an independent think-tank, and we have to tread that path.

'Sometimes it's uncomfortable, but the reality is that if you say something that embarrasses the government, you spend 24 hours with people ringing you up and shouting and screaming at you and then 48 hours later they'll ring up again and tell you: "We wish you hadn't done that but let's carry on talking."'

The IPPR has had to reinvent itself in the past three years. From its foundation in 1988 – largely at the instigation of Neil Kinnock, with cash from the tycoon Clive Hollick – until 1997, its role was that of chief policy trouble-shooter and wonk-recruiter for the Labour leadership. In the wake of Labour's 1992 defeat, John Smith gave it the task of sorting out the mess of party policy on the welfare state, setting up the Commission on Social Justice under its auspices. Although Tony Blair rejected most of the commission's recommendations, he took on its chief researcher, David Miliband, as his head of policy. Subsequently, Blair gave the IPPR a major part in his drive to get business leaders on side. In 1995, the IPPR set up the Commission on Public Policy and British Business, dominated by prominent business people and chaired by George Bain, principal of the London Business School, 'to investigate the competitive position of the British economy and the role that public policy should play in it'. Blair's launch of its report in January 1997 was a key moment in new Labour's campaign to persuade the business world that it was absolutely committed to flexible labour markets.

The IPPR has continued since 1997 to provide new Labour with personnel – in the past year alone, three of its staff have moved on to become senior government advisers. But after Blair became prime minister, it lost its function as chief policy trouble-shooter. In government, new Labour was able to call upon the vast resources of the civil service to do the detailed policy work in which the IPPR specialised. Suddenly, it was by no means clear what it was for.

'I think it's fair to say that the institute went through a crisis of confidence after the 1997 election,' says Taylor. 'Then after that there was a long period between my predecessor Gerry Holtham leaving and my joining. I inherited an institute that had a good reputation, but its reputation was in the past. We were in financial difficulties and we had a profile problem. I spent my first year here trying to get the place back on its feet.'

Taylor says that he is reasonably satisfied with progress so far. 'We've doubled in size, and the more projects you've got the more news coverage you can generate. Our profile has risen a lot. In the beginning I think it was because I was quoted as a former Millbank insider, but now I think we're getting the coverage for our work. We've also brought some good people in.'

He says that the IPPR has a broader range than any other think-tank and reels off a list of projects currently under way or soon to start – on the private finance initiative, the future of work, reform of the criminal justice system, the relationship between parents and schools, the prospects for social housing. 'And that's just a small part of it.'

But he admits to frustration too. 'There's not much of a tradition in Britain of people funding think-tanks,' he says. 'I'd love one of these internet millionaires to come along and say: "Look, here's a million quid." All the think tanks are scratching around for a few bob here and a few bob there. I've never explicitly competed with another think-tank for money, and I've got a great deal of respect for Tom Bentley at Demos and Michael Jacobs at the Fabian Society. The problem is that I get corporate sector people coming into see me -- one of them said: "I've got 10 grand to give to a think-tank. Tell me why yours is the best." So in those circumstances you have to sell the place. But it's not what I'm all about. I want to make the cake bigger rather than fight over the slices.'

Most IPPR research projects are self-generated, but lack of money means that what corporate funders are prepared to back is always a consideration. 'There are certain things we don't do work on because, although they're really interesting, there's no chance of funding. We're realistic about what is likely to get funded and what counts as an area of public policy.'

What government wants is also a factor. ' We don't get phone calls from government saying "Do this work",' says Taylor. 'But you hear speeches, you read articles and you think: "The government's got a problem here." And then you do something about it.'

Taylor is insistent that this approach is consistent with a commitment to being visionary and innovative. 'Think-tanks are only as good as their last idea. No one says: "We've got to listen because it's IPPR." The fact is that we've got a consistent record of developing good ideas and good policies. The important thing is to have a strong brand image. We're a progressive think-tank that develops policies that can be applied. We are not a think-tank that says we're above politics, neither left nor right but floating in the ether. We don't just have ideas that are visionary, we try to come up with things that can be done.'

So what is IPPR doing about 'the vision thing'? 'Politics is about changing practice,' he says. 'But it's also about creating a climate of opinion that enables you to change practice some more. Labour's strategy of progressive policies but centrist and sometimes reactionary rhetoric is proving counter-productive. You've got to create a mood.

'It's possible to imagine public spending in Britain at around 4 to 5 per cent more of GDP, with taxation at a higher level, a world where public services are things we're proud of rather than things we feel are crisis-ridden. We need to think about flexibility in the labour market that works for employees as well as employers. And we need to express a sense that the rich have responsibilities as well as the poor.

'While I agree with most of the things this government has done, I don't think it's changed the climate of opinion. On the constitution, Labour has created new political institutions – which are wholly welcome – but hasn't created a new political culture. But the worst example is Europe. The gap between Denmark and England in terms of quality of life and quality of public services is as big as that between England and Turkey. One of the priorities for IPPR in the next year is to shout about the best practice that takes place in European countries. To shout about the fact that in Belgium, every employer is required to let their employees work a four-day week if they chose to, about the quality of schools in Germany, about the quality of health-care in the Nordic countries.'