Friday, 26 January 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 26 January 2001

Oh dear. A year ago, a month ago, even a week ago, you could rely on Sion Simon, the onetime Millbank apparatchik turned political commentator, to mount a spirited defence of the Government, regardless of the circumstances. First in the Spectator, then in the Telegraph, and latterly in the News of the World, he would turn his hand to praising in lavish terms the most asinine "New" Labour policy initiative and defending the most hopeless minister.

So reliable a mouthpiece was he that, last year, Tribune's regular contributors discussed the possibility of running a satirical homage, written by a different person every month. The initial idea was to call the spoof "Simple Simon – the 'Who ate all the pies?' man", but that was felt too cruel and a little clumsy. In the end, we decided on "Brion Bunter – the New Labour punter" as a working title, which tallied perfectly not only with Mr Simon's girth and love of lunch but also with the sophistication of his political analysis. Unfortunately, the whole project came to nought. No one bothered to make the effort to turn in the first parody – and then he lost a few stone over the summer.

Whatever, something has changed in Mr Simon's world. Last Sunday in the Screws, he wrote a piece calling for half the Cabinet to be fired – including John Prescott, Robin Cook, Nick Brown, Ann Taylor and Chris Smith. Then, not content with that, he went on to pour scorn on the performance of our dear Home Secretary. Jack Straw, he opined, "has been happiest to ape Tony Blair's style as far as his talents will allow . . . But, despite all appearances, Straw's not a complete fool. I'd be astonished if he were sacked altogether."

Not a complete fool, eh? But a fool, it is clear, none the less. Which is why, one can only assume, that Mr Simon – who is likewise not a complete fool – believes that Mr Straw should be put in charge of our schools.


There are, however, some more serious questions that deserve attention – not least how to vote at the next general election. Last week in this slot, my old friend and colleague Steve Platt devoted his column to the potential for left-wing electoral challenges to Labour, and concluded that, in the absence of proportional representation, a left alternative party has no chance of gaining parliamentary seats.

He's quite right – though that doesn't mean you should vote Labour everywhere next time. I shall be setting out here very soon the definitive list of constituencies where only a Lib Dem vote makes sense. But his piece did get me thinking. Like him, I've taken it for granted for years that PR would be a boon for the British left, allowing the emergence of a serious Green-left party that could realistically hope to win between five and ten per cent of the vote. And like him, I despair of the continuing head-in-the-sand commitment of most of the Labour left to maintaining the first-past-the-post status quo for Westminster elections.

But unlike him, I'm by no means sanguine about what has happened to the non-Labour left in the past couple of years since PR was introduced for the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Greater London Assembly. To be sure, it has been good to see the Greens win representation in Europe, Scotland and London. But any pleasure has been undermined by the extraordinarily narrow-minded anti-Europeanism that is at the core of their politics.

Meanwhile, the rest of the non-Labour left seems still to be stuck in the Leninist swamp, parroting the same old tired slogans. I don't really care that Militant has changed its name or that the Socialist Workers' Party is now prepared to work with Militant, Socialist Organiser and a couple of tiny Stalinist splinter groups to fight the next election as the Socialist Alliance: deep down, they're still the same dishonest anti-democratic sects, primarily interested in recruiting to their own ranks in preparation for a revolution that is always round the corner but never comes.

I wouldn't vote for them as a protest against New Labour, let alone if they had a chance of winning.

Friday, 12 January 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 12 January 2001

Quite the best beano of the festive season had nothing whatsoever to do with the time of year – the launch party for Gassed, Rob Evans’s new book on the British military’s shameful chemical warfare experiments on unwitting servicemen.

More than 200 hacks, liggers and assorted malcontents turned up to a boozer in Clerkenwell to congratulate the author, once a regular Tribune contributor, now on The Guardian, and meet old mates. I’m not entirely sure how I got home afterwards.

Whatever, I left with the book and read it over Christmas – and it’s an extraordinary piece of work on a scandalous story. Evans describes in detail how, for more than 70 years, Britain’s clandestine chemical warfare establishment at Porton Down, Wiltshire, conducted experiments on human “guinea pigs” to discover the effects of various chemical warfare agents. More than 3,000 troops were exposed to nerve gases alone, some of them, it seems, volunteers who believed they were helping to find a cure for the common cold. In 1953, a 20-year-old airman died as a result of being deliberately exposed to nerve gas. Many other participants in the experiments say their health has been impaired. True to form, successive governments have refused to award them compensation — though the police have at long last been persuaded to make inquiries.

Evans tells the story with meticulous care. He spent years researching it, conducting more than 100 interviews and trawling for months through declassified documents in the Public Record Office. What’s more, he did most of this unpaid. He was employed for a short while researching some aspects of the story for TV and used bits and bobs of his research in pieces for various newspapers and magazines. For the most part, however, the book was a labour of love, the work on it fitted in while earning a living doing other things.

Evans is not, of course, the first author to have done this – but his experience is increasingly the norm for anyone writing non-fiction that requires extensive research. More books are being published each year than ever before, but with the big publishers increasingly interested only in the bottom line, even the most meagre advance is hard to get unless you are considered a bankable star (in which case, name your price and forget about the quality).

To make matters worse, investigative journalism has gone out of fashion in the mainstream media, so it’s very difficult to subsidise writing a fat tome with related hack work. Very few newspapers or magazines have any genuine interest in complex researched stories any more — lifestyle and celebrity copy is cheaper and shifts more units — and the in-depth investigative TV documentary is now an endangered species. What a bloody world.


But enough of grumbling: there’s been plenty to lift the spirits in the past couple of weeks — honest. I was particularly cheered by the near-universal derision that greeted reports that Tony Blair wants a “radical” manifesto on which to fight the next general election. Even normally government-sympathetic commentators poured scorn on the idea. Give us a break, wrote Hugo Young in the Guardian, the boy wouldn’t know what was radical if it bit him on the bum (I paraphrase). Radical schmadical, opined Steve Richards in the Independent, what we need is more money spent on the railways so I’m not kept waiting every morning at Carshalton (ditto).

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that Labour ought to go into the election on a “steady-as-she-goes”, safety-first programme. Rather it’s that what Blair thinks is radical is nothing of the kind: setting up websites for this and that, half-arsed pilot schemes of one kind and another, illiberal law-and-ordure measures, yet more deregulation and encouragement of “labour market flexibility”.

A truly radical platform would promise to complete the constitutional overhaul begun in 1997 by introducing an elected second chamber, elected regional assemblies for England, proportional representation for local government and a referendum on PR for the Commons. It would make the case for transforming Britain’s relationship with Europe, promising an early referendum on joining the euro and unstinting efforts to make the European Union democratically accountable by increasing the powers of the European Parliament. It would pledge a massive expansion of public investment in transport, education, health and housing, and a shift away from means-testing to universal provision in pensions and other benefits. It would be green to the core, with a swathe of measures to combat global warming. And it would contain plans for weaning Britain off the arms trade.

I’ve a sneaking suspicion I’ll find rather more of this in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto than in Labour’s. What a pity they have no chance of winning.

  • Gassed by Rob Evans is published by Stratus at £20.