Friday, 31 May 2002


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 31 May 2002

Like everyone else I know who edits or has edited a magazine or newspaper, I’m extremely keen on anniversaries. Not that I’ve ever been any good at remembering girlfriends’ or family members’ birthdays. It’s just that anniversaries of great (and indeed not-so-great) events are one of the few things that you can predict with certainty.

It’s not just that it’s all too easy to be caught napping by the invasion of the Falklands or the fall of the Berlin Wall or the attack on the World Trade Centre. Even normally reliable “on-diary” events have a nasty habit of being cancelled, postponed or curtailed — witness last year’s Labour conference. But nothing can possibly prevent 2002 being 10 years after 1992, 20 years after 1982, 25 years after 1977 and so forth. Armed with nothing more sophisticated than a dictionary of dates, any editor can plan a great deal of features coverage. And that, in the journalism business, is most reassuring.

This weekend, of course, the anniversary on most editors’ minds is Brenda Windsor’s glorious 50 years on the throne. As a republican, I’m not celebrating — but the wall-to-wall coverage of the jubilee has got me thinking about the future of the monarchy.

I have to admit that this started as pure self-indulgence — because the jubilee is yet another reminder that, yes, I really am middle-aged now. It can’t really be 25 years since I bought the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”, can it? In another 25 years I’ll be 67 and retired . . .

But then I had another thought. The current Queen is now 76 and on current form seems to have every chance of living at least to the same age as her mother (who died at the age of 101 earlier this year, though it already seems like another era). If she does, she will reign over us until 2027 — by which time her heir apparent, Prince Charles, will be approaching 80. And if he lives to be 101, his successor, Prince William, will be crowned in 2048 at the age of 65.

It should go without saying that this scenario might not come to pass. At best, some daring future government will legislate to make Britain a republic. The Queen might decide to abdicate (although she says she won’t) to give Charles a spell on the throne before he reaches his dotage. HM the Q or Charles could die before reaching 101.

But there’s no doubt that the House of Windsor faces the prospect of turning into a gerontocracy that makes the Brezhnev-era Politburo in the Soviet Union look like a brood of spring chickens. And even allowing for the fact that, on current demographic trends, the old will comprise an ever-greater proportion of the British population as the 21st century wears on, it is impossible to imagine an increasingly senile monarchy retaining popular support.

So perhaps, on reflection, we republicans should raise a glass this weekend and wish dear old Bren many more years on the throne. Gawd bless yer, Ma’am — the longer you hang on, the better it looks for us.


All anniversaries are artificial, but some are more artifical than others — and none more so than what would have been George Orwell’s 99th birthday, which has been marked by a explosion of controversy in the quality press over his legacy.

Most of the heat has been created by Christopher Hitchens’s fine polemical defence of Orwell, Orwell’s Victory, which has provoked the usual whining from latter-day apologists for Stalinism.

Predictably, much of this has focused on the (largely accurate) list of Stalinist fellow-travellers that Orwell passed on to a Foreign Office propaganda unit, the Information Research Department, in 1949, the implication being that Orwell was a grass if not a spook. Yet, as Hitchens makes clear, all he did was advise an ex-girlfriend who was working for the IRD about who should not be hired — which in the political climate of the time (Britain had a Labour Government and the Soviet Union was blockading Berlin) was perfectly honourable.

The other Orwell-related book that has caused a stir is Hilary Spurling’s revisionist biography of Sonia Orwell, the writer’s widow, whose reputation hitherto has been as an insufferable gold-digging drunk. Spurling’s defence of her subject is entirely convincing except on one thing that still matters — the charge that, in editing the Penguin edition of Orwell’s journalism and letters, Sonia omitted a lot of his late political writing in order to downplay his continuing commitment to democratic socialism.

The effect was to give wholly undeserved credibility to all those, conservatives as well as pro-Soviet leftists, who spread the odious lie that Orwell — the finest British left-wing writer of the past century — reneged on the left in his final years. And that remains unforgivable.

  • Orwell's Victory by Christopher Hitchens is published by Penguin Press. The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell by Hilary Spurling is published by Hamish Hamilton.

Tuesday, 14 May 2002


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 14 May 2002

I WAS going to write this week on the depressing business of Richard Desmond’s £100,000 donation to the Labour Party a few days before the government gave the green light to his takeover of the Daily Express and Sunday Express. Whatever next, I thought gloomily - Labour Party women’s conference sponsored by Readers’ Wives? Or maybe even a place in the House of Lords for the pornographer tycoon. Lord Beavershot does have a certain ring to it, and it fits the man perfectly. (If you don’t get the joke, I’m not going to explain it here.)

But then along came Robin Cook with his announcement that the government had torn up its plans for a largely appointed second chamber and that it was going to let parliament decide the composition of the new upper house. We were treated to the glorious spectacle of that pompous chump Derry Irvine, Lord Chancellor and chief architect of the Government’s now-abandoned scheme, having his nose vigorously rubbed in the ordure by Kirsty Wark on Newsnight.

Of course, there’s a long way to go before we get what we deserve – and what should have been the Government’s goal from the beginning – a democratically legitimate second chamber. A joint committee of the Commons and the Lords has to come up with options for reform that will be put to a free vote of our elected and unelected representatives – and then it has to put together detailed proposals.

Cook’s optimism this that the process can be completed well before the next election, which is likely in 2005, could well be misplaced. There is a strong possibility that the forces of conservatism (Irvine, John Prescott and the majority of peers) could scupper the project by stalling it, even though they seem unlikely to be able to muster a majority against a largely elected second chamber.

Nevertheless, the abandonment of Irvine’s half-baked plan for reform is cause for some celebration among democrats. Along with the launch last week of the Government’s blueprint for English regional assemblies, it gives at least a glimmer of hope to those of us who feared that Labour had given up on the idea of democratically reforming Britain’s creaking constitution.

It is rather strange that Prescott, who has been Labour’s leading advocate of a wholly appointed second chamber on the grounds that anything else would undermine the Commons, is also the party’s most enthusiastic devolutionist. The whole point of devolution to decentralise power, one upshot of which is inevitably a reduction of the role of the Commons in certain key areas of policy.

But let that pass. For a change, the government is doing the right thing. With a fair wind - and a period of silence on Prescott’s and Irvine’s part on Lords reform – we could see two radical democratic reforms in the next five years that would transform Britain’s polity for the better.


On a different subject, I hope the editor won’t mind me saying that the news of the revival of the Tribune Group in the Parliamentary Labour Party left me unenthusiastic. I’ve nothing against the MPs who have relaunched the group. Indeed, I’d agree that the PLP needs a Left-leaning pressure group that is less oppositionist than the Socialist Campaign Group.

The problem is the name – which the original group took from this organ back in 1966. No one at the time saw it as an act of larceny (because it wasn’t one), and during the 1960s and early 1970s relations between the group and the paper were mostly cordial and constructive.

But the closeness of the relationship also caused difficulties even then, particularly for the paper. Its identification with the ageing traditional Left of the PLP meant that it never really benefited from the upsurge in radical Leftism in the 1960s and 1970s among the young, who saw Tribune as old-fashioned and dull. In the 1980s, with the split between the Tribune and Campaign Groups and the former’s gradual drift into leadership-loyalism and inactivity, the relationship between group and paper fell apart. Peter Hain and others made a brief attempt to revive the group as a debating forum in the early 1990s, but were soon ousted by the leadership loyalists. After about 1994, the group lived on in name only. Few regretted its de facto passing.

Now, it could be that it all works much better this time, but I have a suspicion it won’t, for the simple reason that a weekly newspaper and a parliamentary pressure group need to operate by completely different rules. The paper has to provide a lively, up-to-date, well-written commentary on events and trends. The parliamentary group needs to lobby patiently for legislative change. Mixing the two is not a good idea. It would have been better for everyone if the new Tribune Group had found another name.

Wednesday, 1 May 2002


Paul Anderson, Chartist column, May-June 2002

April 21 2002 has to go down as one of the blackest days for European social democracy in the past 50 years. For Lionel Jospin to fail to reach the second round of the French presidential election would have been a disaster in any circumstances. For him to be beaten by the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen was utterly shocking, the most profound defeat for the left in democratic Europe since 1945.

What went wrong? Jospin’s government — despite notable successes such as the 35-hour week — was not popular, and Jospin himself was not the most inspiring of candidates. He also ran a dismal campaign. The opinion polls nevertheless suggested that he would coast into the second round, and many left-wing voters decided to use the first round of the presidential election to protest against the deficiencies of the government by backing one of the fringe left candidates or the Green — a self-indulgence that most regretted as soon as the exit polls were broadcast. Add the chord that Le Pen’s dominant themes of crime and immigration struck with many voters, and the die was cast for the debacle that ensued.

Of course, president Jacques Chirac won easily in the second round of the presidential election — and it is possible that the left, shocked out of its complacency by its failure on April 21, will do well enough in the National Assembly elections in June to win another majority. Perhaps, by early summer, France will be back to the status quo ante, with a left coalition government cohabiting with Chirac as president.

But such an outcome. by no means guaranteed or even likely, would not wipe out the disaster of April 21 — and even this, the most optimistic current scenario, is a far cry from what seemed achievable when the polls opened on April 21. There seemed then a real chance that Jospin would win a victory that would massively strengthen the position of social democracy in the European Union after the general election defeats of ruling socialist parties in Austria, Spain, Italy, Denmark and Portugal in the past three years.

As it is, the prognosis for the west European centre-left is gloomier than at any time for a decade. Social democrats are still in power in Belgium, Germany, Greece, Sweden and of course the United Kingdom. But in the Netherlands, which holds its general election in May, the Labour-dominated coalition government has resigned ahead over the damning report on the role of Dutch troops during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre — and the running in the election campaign is being made by a populist anti-immigrant right-winger.

In Germany, which holds a general election in autumn, the alarm bells are ringing for chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The same day as Jospin crashed to defeat in the German Social Democrats slumped to an unexpectedly ignominious defeat in the regional election in the eastern state of Saxony Anhalt France — almost unreported in the British press. The SPD haemorrhaged support to the former-communist Party of Democratic Socialism, the liberal Free Democrats and the centre-right Christian Democratic Union. The spectre looms of a return to the centre-right coalition that ruled the Federal Republic from 1983 to 1998.

Why is social democracy in this predicament? One way of answering this question is to go through the particular circumstances of each country — the perception in Spain that the Socialists were corrupt and had run out of steam, the failure of the Italian centre-left to push through much-needed economic and political reforms, the hopelessly schismatic nature of the French left, the economic plight of former East Germany, and so on.

But there are also factors that are common across western Europe. At the most general level, there has been a catastrophic erosion almost everywhere of the ability of the major left and centre-left parties to retain the loyalty of what were once their core voters, particularly the working class. (The most remarkable instance is not a social democratic party but the once-mighty French Communist Party, which 30 years ago easily scooped up one-fifth of the vote in a general election. Its presidential candidate on April 21, Robert Hue, won a derisory 3.5 per cent.)

This is partly down to changes in society and mass culture that have been remarked upon for the best part of 50 years — the rise of consumerism and the (increasingly tax-averse) affluent white-collar worker who identifies with the middle class, deindustrialisation and the fragmentation of working-class communities, the decline of political activity in parties and so forth. But it also has a lot to do with the inability of left and centre-left parties, in the face of all this and globalisation too, to articulate a coherent reformist programme that appeals to the self-interest of the poor without frightening away the relatively well off.

Ever since the end of Francois Mitterrand’s early-eighties French experiment in nationalisation and Keynesian reflation, the nearest thing that the left has had to a credible defining grand project has been the construction of a “social Europe”. The big idea, articulated by Jacques Delors and others, was an over-arching plan for not just economic but political union, with the introduction of basic workers’ rights throughout a new democratic, federalist European Union alongside the introduction of an expansionist counter-cyclical Europe-wide economic policy based on a single European currency.

But, with the right in government in nearly all the major EC states in the late 1980s and early 1990s — and with federalism anathema to the French and British governments — the deal that was struck on creating the European Union at Maastricht and subsequently was far from the social democrats’ dream. The leading figures in several social democratic parties, most notably the British, responded by capitulating to what the French call “neo-liberalism”, the doctrine that only a hire-and-fire work culture, backed up with punitive measures against the supposedly work-shy, could possibly work in the new globalised economy.

Instead of what would effectively have been a democratically accountable European government pursuing a redistributionist growth-oriented policy, the EU got a single currency run by an independent central bank committed only to anti-inflationary rigour. When social democrats came to power in the late 1990s in Italy, France and then Germany, the three biggest countries that in the putative euro-zone, they found their room for manoeuvre in the short term seriously constrained by the imperative of sticking to the timetable for monetary union. Their supporters’ high expectations were dashed.

The fact is that western Europe’s social democratic governments missed a great opportunity in 1998-99 to put together a far-reaching revision of the EU’s political and economic settlement along the lines originally envisaged by Delors. That they didn’t is easily explicable. The advocates of such a course (the Jospin government and Oskar Lafontaine, the German finance minister) were unceremoniously blocked by their opponents (the Labour government in Britain and Schroeder, but also the Italian centre-left), who believed that what Europe needed was a large dose of deregulation, privatisation and flexible labour markets. Just as important, no consensus emerged either on the political shape a democratically reformed EU should take; and, in its absence, the EU focused its efforts on the challenge of enlargement — the implications of which for public opinion inside the EU were never taken seriously.

It is here that the failure of the centre-left to come up with a coherent purpose locks into another common theme of west European politics in the past five years: the rise of a populist anti-immigrant right. Of course, antipathy to immigrants in western Europe long predates any plan to expand the single labour market to the low-wage zones of east-central Europe, and there is much more to it than fears of wages being driven down and of secure jobs disappearing.

Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that the imminence of enlargement has been one of the factors — along with the growth in the number of asylum-seekers and in illegal immigration that have accompanied the de facto decision of affluent western Europe to stop legal immigration — that have given the anti-immigrant right momentum.

The desire of large numbers of people in poor and war-torn parts of the world to come to relatively peaceful, affluent western Europe is completely understandable. So too, however, are at least some of the fears of immigration that are exploited by Le Pen, Haider and their ilk. It would be utterly reprehensible to condone the racism of the populist anti-immigrant right or to abandon the practice of offering asylum to the persecuted. But there are good reasons for adopting policies — with the emphasis on the carrot not the stick — that both persuade would-be economic immigrants to western Europe to stay put in their own countries and reassure west European workers that their jobs, wages and pensions are not going to be sacrificed on the altar of market economics.

The arguments bandied about by the Labour government in the past few weeks — that immigration is good for the economy and that we’re really hard on asylum seekers — send precisely the wrong message. This one demands the generosity and foresight of the Marshall plan — a radical reorientation of western policy towards rebuilding the shattered economies of the former-communist and third worlds.