Sunday, 3 March 2002


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 3 March 2002

I have always found it faintly amusing when lefties attack other lefties for committing the venal crime of attacking lefties — but only faintly. I can’t help but think of the old Popular Front slogan “no enemy on the left”, a mendacious Stalinist device to isolate those left-wing critics of the Soviet Union in the 1930s who could not be silenced by incarceration or assassination.

Not that I believe those Tribune correspondents who have denounced me in recent weeks for having a go at the Morning Star are right now sharpening their ice picks. It’s just that alarm bells start ringing in my head whenever people claim immunity from criticism from the left on the grounds that they are on the left themselves. Because declaring oneself to be on the left is not in itself a guarantee of virtue or intelligence — far from it. Indeed, over the years, the self-styled British left has shown itself as capable as anyone of massive errors of judgment, sometimes in the best possible faith, but often through wilful refusal to face reality.

For much of the 20th century, the biggest blind spot was the Soviet Union, which from the 1920s until well into the 1960s was seen by a substantial minority of Brit leftists, even non-communists, as a socialist utopia in the making — despite all the evidence, incontrovertible by the early 1930s at the very latest, that it was a vicious police state. As regular readers of this column will be aware, I think that failure of judgment is still important, not least because it is replicated today by apologists for Cuba, China and other scumbag dictatorships.

But leave that aside for now: the Soviet Union and various other supposed socialist paradises are by no means the only big things the Brit left (or a large part of it) has got wrong in the past 100 years.

Take Europe after the Versailles treaty. Back in the 1920s, the view that the greatest threat to peace in Europe came from France was almost universal in Labour and other left circles, a misjudgment that paved the way for the left consensus of the 1930s that rearmament was an inappropriate response to Hitler’s militarist expansionism. Ahem.

Or take the dynamics of the economy after the second world war. From 1945, with a handful of exceptions, the left consistently misread what was happening to the British economy, time and again predicting a repeat of the economic crises of the 1930s. In fact, Britain, like the rest of the western capitalist world, enjoyed an almost uninterrupted post-war boom that lasted 30 years. And it was followed not by a catastrophic crash but by a decade of slow or no growth, then the Tory boom and bust of the late 1980s and early 1990s, then a decade of growth that is only now coming to an end. For a system that much of the left has long diagnosed as being on its last legs, capitalism has shown, and continues to show, remarkable resilience and vigour.

Or take Europe in the same period. Most of the left has barked up the wrong tree since at least the 1950s. Remember the prophecies of doom in Tribune and elsewhere at the prospect of British membership of the Common Market? Remember, more recently, all those confident predictions that the single European currency could not possibly be launched on time? Is it any accident, as the Marxists used to say, that the very same doomsters are now the ones who say British membership of the euro would be a disaster?

Now, you could argue that none of these examples — and there are plenty more of the same kind — is any more than an intellectual or moral failure: embarrassing, damaging to the credibility of the left, but of marginal importance otherwise. I disagree, because I believe that what we think about the world matters, in part because I’m still enough of a Marxist to believe that it cannot be disentangled from the way we act. And even if a case can be made that some of the left’s biggest intellectual and moral faux pas had little direct effect on the everyday lives of the British people, there are other left misjudgments that are less easily shrugged off: the 1960s enthusiasm for system-built tower blocks that became prisons for their inhabitants, for example, or the pedagogic fashion, from the same era, for abandoning the teaching of formal grammar, with disastrous effects on basic literacy. (Again, I could go on.)

My point is simple. No one has perfect foresight. But lefties have got it wrong so profoundly in the past that we should take it as axiomatic that at any time the left consensus incorporates a large measure of utter bollocks. No enemy on the left? There are always plenty, and there’s never any excuse not to get stuck in.

Saturday, 2 March 2002


Paul Anderson, Tribune 65th anniversary issue, 2 March 2002

I was editor of Tribune from 1991 to 1993, but I joined the paper in 1986 when it was edited by Nigel Williamson — a man who in a dozen years went from hippy to Bennite to Walworth Road apparatchik to senior Murdoch hack to hippy again. He made me reviews editor, a job I’d dreamed of doing since getting hooked on George Orwell in my early twenties, and the five years I did it were some of the happiest I’ve had. Neither Nigel nor his successor as editor, Phil Kelly, ever interfered with the pages. I commissioned and wrote just what I wanted.

I became editor when Phil left to become Michael Meacher’s spin-doctor, and I had two-and-a-bit years at the helm before defecting to the New Statesman. My first year covered the run-up to the 1992 general election — a journalistically frustrating time. Everyone in the Labour Party desperately wanted to win, so no one was prepared to write or say anything controversial.

After the defeat, the gloves came off, and life at the paper improved immeasurably. It’s not too boastful to say that Tribune had a year at its agenda-setting best, particularly after the pound crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday. Looking at copies from that time, I’m struck both by the range of contributors and by the quality of Tribune’s journalism — particularly the feature pages edited by Caroline Rees and the interviews and news backgrounders written by staffers and regular freelances.

I’m proudest, however, of the stand we took on the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Alerted by Mark Thompson’s running commentary on the developing crisis and encouraged by Michael Foot, who moved into the Tribune office after retiring from the Commons in 1992, the paper was the first in the country to condemn British appeasement of Slobodan Milosevic and the first to demand intervention to save Bosnia.

Of course, editors and hacks have never really run Tribune. In my time on the paper, the real powers at 308 Gray’s Inn Road, as they had been for years, were the Sheilas (Noble and Marsh) and Jean (Gibbons), respectively the production editor, subscriptions manager and general manager of the paper.

Sheila N enforced standards of English and style more rigorous than any currently pertaining in the national daily press and somehow made sure everyone on the paper who wanted did lunch every Thursday. Sheila M persuaded subscribers who were about to lapse not to do so with personal letters dissociating herself and the socialists on the paper from the editorial line (a position of which I entirely approved). Jean managed to run the business side without ever issuing a rubber cheque — a considerable achievement in our desperate financial position. Had it not been for the generosity of its readers, Tribune would have closed in 1988, and it survived past 1991 only because of the savings we made from introducing desktop publishing.

It wasn’t all fun. Producing a political weekly on no money is stressful. We had rows in the office and in board meetings and repeated run-ins with politicians and spin-doctors. But I wouldn’t have missed a minute of it for anything. Here’s to the next 65 years.