Wednesday, 17 December 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, December 12 2003

I'm not sure whether, in the current climate, this will get me fired as a Tribune columnist — but in the past couple of weeks I’ve been coming round to the idea that top-up fees are not such a bad thing.

My main job, these days, is as a lecturer in City University’s journalism department, and I know from personal experience that higher education needs more money and needs it at once.

My department deservedly has a very good reputation. Most of its graduates get decent jobs when they qualify, and the majority go on to pursue successful careers in journalism — a tribute both to the quality of our students and to the expertise, commitment and hard work of my colleagues.

But, despite its success and reputation, journalism at City is seriously short of cash. The space we occupy is cramped, overcrowded and decrepit; we don’t have enough computers and other equipment; and the salaries of lecturers have been falling behind those of journalists on newspapers and magazines and in the broadcasting media (from among whom we necessarily recruit our teaching staff) for years.

I’m sure the department can survive for some time yet making up for lack of resources with enthusiasm and hard work. But eventually it will reach breaking point — most likely, I reckon, when it becomes impossible to recruit lecturers to replace those that leave or retire or impossible to afford industry-standard technology.

The picture in other university departments is much, much bleaker. After more than a decade of relentless expansion of student numbers with little or no increase in funding, they are at breaking point already. Unless they get an influx of cash, and quick, they will not be able to continue to function.

So what should be done to relieve the university funding crisis? The Tories reckon that the answer is not to find any more money but to slash the number of students in higher education — a position echoed in last week’s Tribune by Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham who is a prominent top-up fees rebel, with his contention that on current trends, “a serious over-supply of graduates ... will be competing for a limited supply of graduate jobs”.

I’m sceptical about this line of argument for two reasons. First, I hold the old-fashioned socialist view that a university education is a good thing in itself, and that a civilised society should aspire to make one available to everyone capable of benefiting from one — which in my opinion means at very least the 50 per cent of 18- to 30-year-olds the government wants in higher education. And second, it’s plain nonsense to think that we are anwhere near the limit of the economy’s ability to provide employment for graduates. There will always, of course, be a demand for plumbers and brickies and cleaners and so forth — but Britain’s only hope for prosperity in the globalised economy is an increasingly educated and skilled workforce.

So the universities need more cash. Where should it come from? General taxation is an option, and the Liberal Democrats have a coherent plan for bailing out higher education with a new top rate of income tax. One problem here, of course, is that overtly raising general taxation is anathema to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown: it just won’t happen. Another is that a simple increase in general taxation would not guarantee a continuing income stream to the universities: it would have to be hypothecated to prevent the Treasury diverting it elsewhere at some point in the future when university funding is not the flavour of the month.

A graduate tax (which would also have to be hypothecated) would be less of a problem politically. But it wouldn’t raise any money for years unless it were imposed on everyone who has ever taken a degree — a great idea in principle, though it immediately runs into the insurmountableproblem that the Inland Revenue has no way of identifying which taxpayers are graduates and which are not.

The upshot of all this is that I’ve been driven reluctantly to the conclusion that top-up fees have three serious advantages over the other options that have been floated. First, they are politically feasible: they do not offend against New Labour’s antipathy to overt increases in taxation, and there is no obvious practical obstacle to their implementation. Second, they deliver money at onceto the universities. And third, they will continue to deliver money to the universities regardless of future Treasury whims.

This is not to say that top-up fees are perfect. The government’s current plans might evolve towards allowing universities to charge what they like, which would genuinely create a two-tier higher education system in which elite institutions effectively exclude debt-averse working-class students. As the scheme now stands, however, the debts involved will be small, interest-free and repayable only when graduates are reasonably well-off. I’m sorry, but as a way of getting money into the universities, it’s rather neat.

Tuesday, 11 November 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, November 15 2003

Last week’s public spat between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair was about more than Brown’s displeasure at Blair’s refusal to give him a seat on Labour’s National Executive Committee — and it was about more than Brown’s opposition to identity cards or indeed his bizarre flirtation with Euroscepticism in the pages of the Daily Telegraph.

On this, everyone agrees. But how much more is difficult to judge. Was Brown merely asserting his status as the second-biggest beast in the Labour jungle after his return from paternity leave, with a view to (depending on your taste) grabbing a key role in writing Labour’s next manifesto, stopping Ken Livingstone’s return to Labour or stemming Peter Mandelson’s growing influence in Number Ten? Or was his display the start of an attempt to oust Blair as prime minister and take his place?

In common with every other commentator who has addressed these crucial questions, I can’t read Brown’s mind. But I suspect that he wasn’t going for broke.

However much he covets Blair’s job, it’s difficult to imagine circumstances before the next election in which he could mount a challenge. Blair’s standing inside the Labour Party is certainly at its lowest since he became leader in 1994. Brown is certainly the obvious alternative leader. But unless Blair is knocked down by the proverbial bus, discovered in flagrante with Prince Charles or branded an inveterate liar by Lord Hutton, the next ocassion on which he could be challenged for the Labour leadership is next year’s party conference — by which point Labour will be in pre-election mode.

Whatever else can be said about Brown, he is not stupid. So hunch says that last week’s shenanigans were less the start of an outright Brown bid for the leadership than a bit of opportunist self-promotion, a reminder to the world that the Chancellor remains the heir apparent, that he has ideas of his own that differ significantly from Blair’s — and that he is insistent on having a decisive influence on the manifesto, the career prospects of Red Ken and Mandy and anything else that crops up. In other words, it’s back to business as usual.

All the same, Brown did give the appearance of having lost patience with Blair, and it’s this, rather than any evidence that Brown is moving in for the kill, that has got everyone talking again about what Brown might be like as Prime Minister.

Here I have a confession to make. Ever since Blair became Labour leader in 1994, I’ve found it difficult to understand why a substantial number of Labour leftists — including the editor of Tribune and quite a few contributors — think that Brown would be significantly more sympathetic than Blair to their various causes.

Of course, Brown was, in the dim and distant past, very much of the left (though he was always a pragmatist too). And, unlike Blair, he is steeped in the traditions of This Great Movement of Ours. He speaks the lingo fluently and is rivalled as a glad-hander of trade union bureaucrats only by John Prescott.

Most important, Brown has so far been a successful Chancellor of the Exchequer in terms both of macroeconomic management (six-and-a-half years of reasonable growth, low unemployment and no currency crisis) and, to a lesser extent, of social democratic redistribution. Although his stealth strategy has done nothing to stop the increasing ineqaulity of British society, it has at least helped some of the worst-off.

But there is not a shred of evidence that Brown has been to the left of Blair in any substantive way since at least 1992. In opposition from 1992 to 1997, Brown and Blair were together responsible for the ultra-cautious, pro-business strategy that was branded “New Labour” after Blair became leader. In government, Brown has not only been the author of many keynote policies — the 1997-99 spending squeeze and 1999-2003 spending splurge, the expansion of the Private Finance Initative, the welfare-to-work programme, the five tests on British membership of the euro — but has been intimately involved in every area of policy that entails spending money. He has been as enthusiastic as Blair for labour market deregulation and private enterprise, as admiring of the American model of capitalism and as disparaging of the European model. Where Brown has differed with Blair, on the euro and on foundation hospitals for example, it has not been because he sees Blair’s position as too right-wing.

Brown has said nothing to disassociate himself from the authoritarian populism of the government’s crime and immigration policies, nothing to suggest that he supports further constitutional reform, and nothing to hint that he’d prefer a less pro-American foreign policy than Blair has pursued. The left is deluding itself if it sees Brown as the champion of anything other than Blairism with a scowling face.

Thursday, 23 October 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, October 31 2003

One of the most depressing features of the past few months has been the way the traditional left has responded to the increasingly apparent difficulties of the Blair government as its second term drifts listlessly on.

Most of the traditional left — by which I mean the Leninists outside the Labour Party, the hard left inside it and quite a lot of the Tribune left — appears content to mix wallowing in schadenfreude with a barrage of negatives: no to the euro, no to PFI, no to foundation hospitals, no to top-up fees, no to US and British troops in Iraq, et cetera et cetra.

Part of my problem here is that I can’t see why most of the things the left opposes should be opposed so vehemently, or indeed at all. Although there are obvious problems with PFI, particularly in the way it can create a “two-tier” workforce with workers in private companies enjoying substantially worse pay and conditions than their public sector counterparts, I’ve yet to hear a convincing case for believing that a new PFI school is worse than no new school. On foundation hospitals, I get the terrible feeling I’ve missed something important, because I just can’t work out what all the sound and fury signifies. I’m against top-up fees — a straightforward graduate tax would make much more sense — but I’d rather have them than continue to starve higher education of funds. Opposition in principle to British participation in the euro is a mark of political cretinism pure and simple. And immediate withdrawal of the US and British forces in Iraq is a recipe for a bloodbath.

And so I could go on. What really bugs me, however, is that a string of noes is, on its own, so utterly reactive and uninspiring. At precisely the moment that the government has lost momentum and needs a new direction, the traditional left has nothing constructive to say.

Things were not always thus. The left of the 1960s and 1970s was certainly no stranger to obsessive negativity — no to the Common Market, no to incomes policy, no to spending cuts — and it had plenty of other faults, not least a programme that was economically suspect and deeply unattractive to the majority of voters. But at least it had a programme, a set of policies, however misguided, that constituted a positive alternative to the drift and crisis management of the Wilson and Callaghan governments. Today, the traditional Left lacks even an incredible alternative programme.

Which is not to say that there is no alternative. Indeed, there is one outlined rather elegantly in a book published last week — Robin Cook’s The Point of Departure.

Most of the book comprises an account of Cook’s last two years in government as leader of the Commons — and most press commentary on it has concentrated on its revelations about Cabinet arguments in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

This is undoubtedly fascinating stuff, as indeed is Cook’s story of how his hopes for democratic reform of the House of Lords were scuppered, which make it clear precisely who was the villain of the piece: “It is an awkward truth for modernisers to face, but the reason we are to be lumbered with an all-appointed House of Lords is because that is what Tony Blair had always wanted.”

But the part of the book that is most important is the chapter “Where do we go from here?”, in which Cook outlines his thoughts on how to reinvigorate the Government.

He does not shy from criticism, but his emphasis is almost entirely on positive alternatives. He argues convincingly for what he calls “value-based politics” instead of the technocratic managerialism that currently characterises the Government’s approach. Labour, he says, should explicitly embrace egalitarianism, make the case for more regulation in the public interest, particularly in pension provision and to protect the environment, and adopt radical policies to revitalise Britain’s democracy: a largely elected second chamber, the return of powers to local councils that have been taken away by successive governments and, most important, proportional representation for the House of Commons. On the international front, the government should embrace Europe enthusiastically, setting a target date for entering the euro, and press for a stronger United Nations capable of reining in the US.

Little of this will go down well with the traditional left, with its hostility to Europe and constitutional reform. But it’s a better starting point than anything it has come up with — even though the chances that the government will take a blind bit of notice are as slim as slim can be.

Wednesday, 8 October 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, October 3 2003

Stephen Frears's dramatisation of the events that led to Gordon Brown not fighting Tony Blair for the Labour leadership in 1994, The Deal, screened by Channel Four last Sunday, was an entertaining confection — of that there can be no doubt.

But whether it was an accurate portrayal of what went on before and during the legendary meeting in the Granita restaurant in Islington is another matter.

As one Vikki Leffman put it in a letter to the Guardian this week:

“Some minor points which could have been easily checked were not. How do I know? I served the Blair/Brown table and owned the restaurant. No tablecloths, wrong table, we never served rabbit, Gordon did eat, the walls were blue . . . But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?”

It wasn’t just the tablecloths. The Deal was also weak on the political context. The impression it gave was that Brown would have been a shoo-in for the Labour leadership on John Smith’s death if only he hadn’t waited until after Smith’s funeral to start thinking about running — rather than jumping the gun as Blair did — and if only Peter Mandelson hadn’t backed Blair.

The reality was different. Brown had certainly been the most favourably positioned of Labour’s younger politicans to make a leadership bid on the previous occasion on which there had been a vacancy — in 1992, after the resignation of Neil Kinnock.

Then he had come under strong pressure, not only from Labour’s “modernisers” but also from a large part of its soft Left (including Tribune), to take his chance. He was seen as the only credible challenger to Smith, the decent, honest but terminally dull “safe pair of hands” who was the union barons’ choice. Brown seriously considered his options until the very last minute — I remember holding open a slot in Tribune one press day in anticipation of an announcement from him that he was entering the fray. But the announcement never came. Brown bottled out, pledged his support for Smith, and Smith won easily against Bryan Gould, whose campaign was doomed from the start by his fundamentalist Euroscepticism.

By the time Smith died in May 1994, however, Brown was no longer Labour’s up-and-coming golden boy. Appointed shadow chancellor by Smith in July 1992, he quickly alienated much of his erstwhile support. During that summer, as the pound came under increasing speculative pressure in the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System, he refused to argue for the devaluation that just about every economist believed the British economy needed. Then, when that devaluation came so spectacularly on “Black Wednesday”, he refused to welcome it. For the next 18 months, he stubbornly stuck to his guns, rejecting all calls to attack the beleaguered Major Government from the Left. Instead, he lambasted its tax increases.

In retrospect, this might appear a strategy of genius — but that wasn’t the way it played at the time in the Labour Party. From 1992 to 1994, Brown was subjected to an endless barrage of criticism from the left and the unions for failing to embrace a radical Keynesian economic policy. He responded by adopting what one colleague described as a “bunker mentality” — and his popularity in the party plummeted. He only just scraped on to the National Executive Committee in autumn 1993.

Meanwhile, Blair’s stock rose inexorably. As shadow Home Secretary from 1992, he made an extraordinary impact, outflanking the Tories on law and order with his rhetoric of “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” and “responsibilities as well as rights”. By late 1993, it was Blair not Brown who was Labour most lustrous rising star.

The point here is that — whatever deal was struck at Granita — Brown was by then negotiating from a position of weakness. By the time of the meeting, Blair had established himself as the hot favourite to win the Labour leadership. If Brown had decided to enter the contest, he would not have won — and he knew it. He might even have lost his job as shadow chancellor.

His only strong card was that his entering the race would syphon off some of Blair’s support — possibly enough to allow Robin Cook or another soft left candidate to come through the middle. (Cook was certainly considering his options at the time: I know because I kept open a slot on the New Statesman on press day for an announcement that never came . . .) Brown knew that if he declared he would not stand, no one else would enter the contest apart from the no-hopers John Prescott and Margaret Beckett, and Blair would become unstoppable.

So both men had an incentive to come to an arrangement. But if Blair really did tell Brown that, in return for not standing, Brown could be not only an all-powerful Chancellor but also his anointed successor, he was an extraordinarily soft touch.

Friday, 5 September 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, September 5 2003 

I’m used to wishful thinking in Tribune, but last week's piece by the convenor and chair of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey German and Andrew Murray -- respectively apparatchiks of the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Communist Party of Britain -- really was in a class of its own.

Their message was that all is for the best in the organisation that has been the public face of British opposition to the US-British war to oust Saddam Hussein.

"Although the war has been officially 'over' for four months," they intoned, "the anti-war movement is as busy as ever." Hundreds of people have turned up to meetings and conferences "marked . . . by a vibrant and democratic spirit. The Government's troubles over the death of Dr David Kelly have vindicated the movement. The unions are on board. Dozens of exciting activities are planned in the next few weeks.

And who doubts this? Only “former leftists such as David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen and Christopher Hitchens -- who believe that the whole movement is the result of a sinister collusion between Islamic fundamentalism and the Socialist Workers' Party". But they are "utterly ignorant of the Muslim community". And the SWP "is only a problem if you come from that part of the left which has spent the past 20 years stampeding ever-rightwards". "A lesson of this past historic and exciting year," they conclude, "is that such squabbles are of minor importance."

Well, if you believe that, you'll believe that the British revolution is imminent or that Stalin's slave-labour camps were a fiction of imperialist propaganda. The truth is that the Stop the War Coalition has been a colossal failure -- and that the politics of its leading actors bears a substantial part of the blame.

Here, it is necessary to go back a bit. Before 9/11, Iraq was not a major issue in Britain. The Leninist micro-parties and other leftists had railed for years about the iniquities of the UN sanctions regime against Iraq. But lifting it would have left no way of constraining Saddam. So most of the left agreed with the government that sanctions were preferable (if not quite as they were) to removing the pressure or escalating to all-out military action.

What changed after 9/11 -- when it became clear that the US was preparing to invade Afghanistan to root out al-Qaida and overthrow the Taliban -- was that Britain’s Leninists found a cause they shared not only with part of the non-Leninist left but also with a substantial section of Muslim opinion. Led by the SWP and the CPB, they set up a committee they dominated, the Stop the War Coalition, to campaign against US imperialist aggression.

On Afghanistan, its efforts were ineffectual – two lacklustre London demos, one of 20,000 and one of 50,000 -- but that wasn't surprising. Although there were doomsayers across the political spectrum who warned (incorrectly) that the Afghan war would be a disaster, few apart from the died-in-the-wool left, the pacifists and the Islamists questioned the legitimacy of the enterprise.

But once the Bush Administration's attentions turned to Iraq, British public opinion shifted -- and for good reason. There was little evidence that Saddam had any responsibility for 9/11 or would turn belligerent again. And invading Iraq appeared extraordinarily risky, not least because of the arsenal everyone assumed he possessed. From spring 2002, it was clear that there was a potential "coalition of the unwilling" opposed to war against Iraq (unless diplomacy had been exhausted and war had UN backing) including most of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and even some Tories.

This was an extraordinary opportunity for an effective mobilisation against war. But seizing it required an anti-war movement that reflected mainstream anti-war opinion. It had to be explicit that Saddam was a legitimate target for international action short of war. And it could not be, or seen to be, a front for self-styled revolutionaries or radical Islamists on the make.

The Stop the War Coalition failed on almost every count. It organised several big demonstrations -- including one in February that was massive. But that was all. Politically, it never left the leftist ghetto. The SWP conspired shamelessly to retain organisational control. The coalition was cool towards anyone further Right than Labour's hard left (though it tolerated anti-Semitic Islamists). It not only refused to accept that Saddam was a problem but welcomed his supporters. Once the fighting started, the coalition came close (and the SWP even closer) to endorsing the heroic Ba’athist socialist resistance. Unsurprisingly, the numbers on the demos melted away.

Of course, even the most competent and inclusive campaign might not have stopped the British government going to war. But the Stop the War Coalition could not have done much worse if its leaders had been in the pay of the CIA.

Saturday, 23 August 2003


Paul Anderson, review of Cold War, Crisis and Conflict: The CPGB 1951-68 by John Callaghan (Lawrence and Wishart, £14.99), Tribune August 22 2003

The historian John Callaghan, professor of politics at the University of Wolverhampton, is extraordinarily prolific. In the past 20 years, he has authored no fewer than five hefty tomes, including an impressive historical overview of the British left, a magisterial biography of the Stalinist ideologue Rajani Palme Dutt and a comprehensive history of European social democracy since the 1970s.

I have long been an admirer of his work, but his latest book, a history of the Communist Party of Great Britain from 1951 to 1968, just published by Lawrence and Wishart, is his best yet.

At first sight, his subject is not particularly attractive. The CP in the 1950s and 1960s was tiny in comparison with the Labour Party - the CP claimed fewer than 40,000 members in 1950 (when Labour’s official individual membership was more than 900,000) and it dipped below 25,000 in 1958, recovering to around 35,000 during the mid-1960s. It was a marginal force in electoral politics. It had lost the two parliamentary seats it won in 1945 in 1950, was humiliated in every subsequent general election and never got more than a toehold in local government.

Moreover, the CP was anything but a font of creative thinking on the left. The advocacy of an anti-fascist Popular Front that had sustained it in the late 1930s and then again in the 1940s (after an embarrassing gap during the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact) had stopped making sense with the defeat of fascism and the onset of the cold war. Although the party certainly had its share of talented intellectuals in the early 1950s — the historians Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and Edward Thompson and the critic John Berger are probably the best known today — its political culture was stifling, monolithic and intellectually stale. Its defining feature was its unswerving loyalty to the Soviet Union, on which it was financially reliant - and that unswerving loyalty led most of its best minds to leave in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

Most of the party's leaders were old and undynamic, unremittingly hostile to the emerging consumer society and to the corrupting influence of rock and roll. CP publications, most of them written in a notoriously wooden style, consistently predicted an imminent catastrophic crisis of capitalism - despite all the evidence to the contrary - that would inevitably lead to the establishment of socialism.

Yet, as Callaghan makes clear, it would be foolish to underestimate the significance of the CP or simply to dismiss it as dour and deluded. Its membership was certainly small by comparison with Labour’s - and smaller than it had been in the 1940s, when the CP had basked in the reflected glory of the Red Army's heroic efforts on the Eastern Front.

But it was still much bigger than that of any far-left party either before 1941 or since 1968. And the CP punched above its weight. It sustained almost as many paid party workers as Labour (except at election time), ran dozens of campaigns and was adept at getting its people into key positions, especially in the trade unions. By the late 1960s, co-operating with other left-wingers in various union "Broad Lefts" and riding on the back of a surge of workplace militancy over wages, the CP had serious leverage in the unions both at national leadership level and among shop stewards.

The CP was also much more influential in the realm of ideas than it ought to have been. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to dismiss its encomiums to Soviet achievements and predictions of capitalist collapse. But at the time its attitudes were widely shared on the Labour left. As Callaghan demonstrates, quoting amply from Tribune, although the Bevanite left took the side of Tito against Stalin in the early 1950s and was highly critical of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution, it repeatedly let itself be lulled into wishful thinking about the trajectory of Soviet socialism, exaggerating both the prospects of de-Stalinisation and the extent of Soviet economic and technological success.

The events and the political culture Callaghan describes were a long time ago. He leaves his story with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which divided the CP into pro- and anti-Soviet factions — a division that over the next 15 years turned schismatic and destroyed the party. But the mindset of the old CP is still a factor in British left politics. The Communist Party of Britain, which controls the Morning Star, groups together most of the CP’s pro-Soviet faction and behaves just as the old CP used to – right down to sucking up to dictatorships overseas, although in recent years it has had to settle for Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.

Friday, 25 July 2003


Tribune column, 25 July 2003

 I’ve just been informed that I'm going to be laid off. No, not by Tribune (you'll all be pleased to know), but by one of my other employers, The Guardian, for which I work casual shifts on the comment page.

There won't be any work for me, I was told, in September or October.

I'm hardly heartbroken: I've plenty of other work, and I think the Guardian will have me back. What gets me, however, is the reason I'm being laid off: the legislation passed by Tony Blair's government that gives workers the right to appeal against unfair dismissal after a year of continuous employment.

Worried by the prospect that the legislation will be used by a large number of casuals to claim permanent jobs – we are hired by the day and have no security of employment – the newspaper's management (like that of several other papers and magazines) has decided that no casuals should be allowed to work 12 months in a row. The rule now is that, once a year, every casual has to take two months off – and my time is up. Although that isn't a major hassle for me, hundreds of others whose sole source of income is casual shifts are having to take a substantial annual pay cut or find work with other newspapers or magazines.

It makes no difference if we protest that we have no intention of taking up our rights to employment protection or if we insist that we actually prefer our casual status to permanent employment: we're simply told that company policy is company policy.

Even signing a legally binding waiver – "I promise that I won't claim a proper job", or words to that effect – is not an option these days: that is one of the things that has been ruled out since 1997.

A defender of the legislation would argue that our problem is down to the attitude of management, and there is a lot of truth in this.

On one hand, they are undoubtedly trying cynically to resist giving permanent positions to a few people who have been casuals for ages and are to all effects and purposes doing a permanent job, but without the rights. On the other, they are working on the assumption that casuals are queuing up for permanent jobs, which is patently not the case: if they trusted their workers more, they would find that the catastrophe they fear isn't round the corner at all.

But this is not the whole story. The union most casuals belong to is the National Union of Journalists. And, like most unions, it is historically committed to decasualisation as a policy – and refuses to recognise that there is a problem with it.Its priority remains to get permanent jobs for the small number of its casual members who want them, rather than defend the now much larger number of casuals who prefer to remain that way. The argument that the union should be backing both groups falls on deaf ears.

Why this is I'm not quite sure, but the attitude at NUJ headquarters seems to be that casuals who don't want permanent jobs are suffering from some kind of petty-bourgeois false consciousness. The advantages of staying casual – that you can pick when you work and when you don't, and that you don't get saddled with all the dull administration and the culture of "presenteeism" that are the staffer's lot – simply don't register.

Now, I'm aware that employers using casual labour to evade their responsibilities are, in the grand scheme of things, a bigger problem than well-paid casual workers who value autonomy above security having to adjust their annual routines. There is, however, an important point of principle here that goes far beyond the little world of newspapers and magazines.
The "labour-market flexibility" this government enthuses about is largely a matter of employers being allowed to operate hire-and-fire policies. But some sorts of labour-market flexibility are good for workers – and unions should recognise it.

In a time of full employment and labour shortages, such as our own, many people recognise that the demand for their labour is such that they can earn a decent living without having to buckle under to the demands of a proper job. Working freelance or casual is not necessarily second-best to permanent employment: it can be a positive choice that gives you more control over your everyday life.

There is a simple solution: the government could legislate to reinstate the provision allowing casuals and short-term contract employees to sign a simple form waiving their employment rights. Something tells me that the unions would recoil in horror at such a move.
But has anyone got a better idea?

Friday, 11 July 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, July 11 2003 

I spent an afternoon this week poring over the report of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee on the decision to go to war with Iraq, and I agree with those commentators who dismissed it as an inconclusive document that does nothing apart from guarantee that the row over government dossiers on weapons of mass destruction will rumble on well into the summer.

There are still four possible scenarios for what will happen next, just as there have been since the row began (which as I remember was pretty much on the day of publication of the first dossier last September, which was widely criticised at the time for being old hat).

The first, which seems to be to remain perfectly plausible even though most people I know greet it with loud guffaws every time it is suggested, is that evidence soon emerges – in the shape either of the weapons themselves, of production facilities or of a credible witness from the very top of Saddam Hussein's regime – that Iraq really did have ready-to-use WMD at the time the dossiers were compiled.

In this case, both the government and the intelligence services will be off the hook, though there will doubtless be claims that the evidence is inadequate or even forged, and there will remain the suspicion that the evidence available to the government at the time it decided to go to war was flimsy in the extreme.

(There will also remain the strong argument that a country’s possession of weapons of mass destruction is not in itself an adequate reason for other countries to invade it, but that’s another question.)

The second scenario is that it turns out that the intelligence services told the government they were pretty certain that Saddam Hussein had ready-to-use WMD and the government acted in good faith on that advice – but, er, actually, ahem, whoops, Saddam didn't have WMD or at least didn't have them in a usable condition. In this case, the story is one of intelligence failure, and heads should roll in MI6 and GCHQ, though the chances are they won't.

The third scenario is the real killer for Tony Blair - that it transpires that the intelligence services told the government that they couldn't really be sure about Saddam's WMD capacity but the government decided it needed cover to invade Iraq so sexed up the evidence. In this case, heads not only should but would roll in government, and it’s difficult to see how Blair himself could survive.

The final possibility is that nothing very conclusive emerges from the whole affair, at least in the near future. Nothing much in the way of Iraqi WMD, no credible Deep Throats from Saddam’s inner circle, the funnies or Number Ten, no smoking-gun memos – just an ever-growing pile of circumstantial evidence, single-sourced gossip and inspired conjecture that turns the start of the war against Iraq into one of those stories that never dies, the assassination of JFK de nos jours.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s worth putting a small bet on scenario four. My guess is that the sequence of events in the run-up to war went something like this:

First, the Bush administration made it clear to the Brits by the beginning of 2002 at the latest that it was going to take out Saddam come what may for a whole string of reasons – his connections with terrorists, his military capacity, his continued defiance of the west.

Second, the Blair government, having at first been sceptical about this policy, came round to the idea of removing Saddam – but only if it were not done either unilaterally or without a credible and legal casus belli.

Third, the British and US governments decided on the basis of (largely accurate) intelligence reports that the hardy old issue of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was still the best way to broaden international support for an ultimatum to Saddam.

Fourth, as US rhetoric and military deployments became increasingly bellicose during 2002, Saddam dismantled his WMD factories and stocks, with the result that neither the readmitted UN inspectors nor the spooks managed to find anything.

Fifth, the rest of the world announced it was unconvinced by the argument that WMD provided a good reason for urgent action against Iraq and refused to back a second UN resolution.

Sixth, the US and Britain – faced with the alternative of stepping down and ceding Saddam a major victory – went ahead regardless and invaded.

Now it could be that I’ve got this completely wrong. The point, though, is that it’s one of several plausible narratives in which (a) every one of the UK players can claim to have acted in good faith throughout; and (b) every one of them can be accused by any other of consistent incompetence and procrastination. Which is a recipe for this one to run and run.

Friday, 27 June 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, June 27 2003

The other day, while I was looking through my files for something else, I turned up a clipping from the Oxford Mail in 1980. It was a news story about a demonstration by the Oxford Anarchist Group (of which I was then a member) on the occassion of the Soviet ambassador’s visit to speak at the Oxford Union, accompanied by a photograph of the dozen or so demonstrators.

Normally when I find things like this my first reaction is to sigh nostalgically. Weren’t we young — and wasn’t X a real stunner? How the hell did she end up marrying that chump who got that flash job in the City?

But this time I winced with embarrassment — and it wasn’t because of the haircuts or the clothes but because the slogans on our hand-painted placards were so asinine. One in particular stood out: “H-blocks, Gulag — Spot the difference, smash the lot!” (For younger readers, the H-blocks were the prison buildings in Long Kesh gaol just outside Belfast where IRA and other Northern Irish terrorist and paramilitary prisoners were held.)

We were protesting against a vile police-state, which was and is an entirely honourable thing to do. But we gave the impression that we were doing so because we thought that conditions in that vile police state were just as bad as here — rather than far, far worse. The British state’s policies in Northern Ireland at the time certainly deserved criticism, but to claim that the H-blocks were indistinguishable from the slave-labour system of Stalin’s Soviet Union was simply barmy. In our enthusiasm to make a point about our own society and its failings, we’d lost all sense of political perspective.

Ah well, you might think, that’s anarchists for you — and I’d agree insofar as anarchism’s blanket anti-statism does mean that many anarchists are peculiarly incapable of distinguishing among states. But anarchists are not the only leftists who are so keen to attack developed western capitalist democracy that they lose any sense of how much worse things are and have been elsewhere.

Indeed, cringe-making “spot-the-difference” comparisons of the “H-blocks, Gulag” type crop up time and again in leftist discourse. In the 1930s and again in the 1960s, the fashion was to describe anyone even vaguely right-wing as “fascist”. Since the 1980s, it has been the vogue in some leftist circles to describe the Labour Party’s internal regime as “Stalinist” — not because members are periodically rounded up, tortured into confessing crimes they have not committed and then shot, but because Trotskyists have been non-violently expelled from the party and outspoken critics of the party leadership have not been given plum jobs in government.

But “H-blocks, Gulag” thinking has been most noticeable of late in the post-September 11 anti-war movement. Time and again, in attacking the United States’s aggressive “war on terror”, Leftist writers and speakers have made preposterous claims about the supposed likeness of the Bush administration and al-Qaida, the Taliban in Afghanistan or Saddam’s regime in Iraq. Which is not to argue that the US is right or that it should not be criticised. It’s just that crass stupidity can undermine even the most righteous cause.

On a different matter entirely, the Guardian deserves congratulation for finding and publishing the infamous list of Soviet sympathisers that George Orwell handed over to the Information Research Department, a Foriegn Office propaganda unit, just before his death. The Guardian did rather sex up the news angle on the story, asking whether Orwell handed over the list because he fancied Celia Kirwan, a young woman friend who had just started working for the IRD — its front-page headline ran: “Blair’s babe: Did Orwell’s love for this woman turn him into a government stooge?”

But on the assumption that the list is genuine (and it appears to be), its publication should lay to rest the myth that Orwell was doing anything more sinister with it than advising the IRD that it should not hire certain people to write its anti-communist propaganda.

The 38 names on the list are all, with the exception of Charlie Chaplin and Michael Redgrave, authors or journalists; and all those with whom I’m familiar (which is not all of them) had publicly expressed pro-Soviet opinions in print at some point.

There remains the question of whether Orwell was right to hand over a list to a secret state agency not knowing whether it might be put to a use different from that for which it was prepared. But the claim that he produced some sort of “hit list” of targets for a British McCarthyism just isn’t true.

Monday, 16 June 2003


Paul Anderson, review of Orwell: The Life by D J Taylor (Chatto and Windus, £20), Tribune, June 20 2003

There is no doubt that George Orwell is an excellent subject for a biographer. He wrote two of the most influential novels of the 20th century, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four; he was an exceptionally talented polemicist, reporter and cultural critic; and he packed an extraordinary amount into his short life. He was, moreover, a notably complex human being: the old Etonian colonial policeman Eric Blair who turned his back on his class, changed his name and became a revolutionary socialist bohemian; the prewar quasi-pacifist who transformed himself into a wartime propagandist; the civil libertarian who turned over a list of Stalinist fellow-travellers to the spooks. Partly because of this complexity, he has remained a controversial figure to this day. No writer of the 20th century has attracted more fulsome praise or more excoriating denunciation.

D J Taylor is one of Britain's best highbrow book-reviewers, an accomplished biographer (his Thackeray, published in 1999, deservedly won plaudits) and a novelist of distinction. He has also been an Orwell obsessive since his teens, and he shares many of Orwell's literary enthusiasms (Swift, Dickens, Gissing).

Who could be better placed to write a life of Orwell? Well, if it hadn't been done before, hardly anyone - and if it hadn't been done before, Orwell: The Life would be hailed universally as the nearest thing to definitive you can get. Taylor has immersed himself in Orwell's writing and has trawled the archives. He has interviewed dozens of people who knew Orwell. He knows the secondary literature backwards. Orwell: The Life is an impressive piece of scholarship, well written and fair. It is generally sympathetic to Orwell but acknowledges his faults and even sets out the case against him.

The problem is that it has been done before. There were dozens of takes on Orwell's life between his death and the late 1970s, some good and some dire, but none of them done with the benefit of access to Orwell's own papers. In 1972, however, Orwell's widow Sonia gave Bernard Crick unrestricted access to the papers, and in 1980 Crick's magisterial George Orwell: A Life was published.

Now, there's a case for arguing that Crick's biography doesn't successfully capture Orwell's inner life (though you could equally well say that Crick resisted the temptation of engaging in the sort of amateur psychological speculation that has marred subsequent biographies). There have also been some important Orwell-related documents that have emerged since Crick first published - notably a version of his notorious list of fellow-travellers, but also material from the Soviet archives (turned up by Gordon Bowker for his new biography) that shows just how close Orwell came to being liquidated by the Stalinists in Spain. Several very good short books have been written contesting various aspects of Crick's take on Orwell, the best of them John Newsinger's Orwell's Politics.

But on most of the big things, Crick has not been found wanting - and, good as Taylor's Orwell is, too much of it retells a familiar tale. There is some interesting new material on Orwell's early life, but otherwise the freshest bits of Taylor's book are the short essays on various aspects of Orwell - his voice, his attitudes to the Jews, his paranoia - that he scatters through the main narrative. So much hard work and craft have gone into this book that it almost seems churlish to suggest that Taylor should have dropped the traditional biography and produced a collection of essays. But it is what I think.

Sunday, 15 June 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column June 13 2003

I'M not sure exactly why, but I felt deflated this week after Gordon Brown's announcement that we shan't be joining the euro for a while.

It was hardly that I was expecting anything else. True, I'd felt a little twinge of hope when Will Hutton reported in the Observer a few weeks back that Tony Blair was so fed up with the Chancellor's obstructionism on the euro that he'd decided to shunt him off into the Foreign Office. And even as late as Monday morning, I found myself imagining Gordon stunning the world by declaring that there was a persuasive case for British euro membership now.

But these were idle thoughts. All the evidence suggested Hutton's story was just too good to be true - and that there was a close-to-zero chance of Brown springing a surprise and giving the euro the green light. I had only modest hopes of New Labour in government even in 1997. After six years of disappointment, I reckon I've learnt that wishful thinking gets you nowhere.

So why did Brown's performance on Monday get me down? The more I mull it over, the more I realise that it's because I simply can't stand the thought of another two years - or three years, or five, or whatever - of British politics being dominated by the grind of inconclusive arguments about the euro.

It's not that I don't have my own view about it. I think Britain should join as soon as possible and put its weight behind proposals to tone down the anti-inflationary zeal of the growth and stability pact and to give the eurozone the capacity to run a redistributive fiscal policy. Britain's best hope, I believe, is to become part of a social democratic federal Europe. And we won't do that outside the euro.

The point is that I've thought this for years - and just about every other protagonist in the argument, whatever their views, is in the same boat. For all the pervasive grumbling from the sceptics that Britain has not had a proper national debate about our relationship with Europe since the 1975 referendum, the truth is that our relationship with Europe has been minutely dissected as no other political issue has been in recent times. All the positions are so well rehearsed that the argument has become stale and utterly tedious. It should be decision time.

The reason it isn't has precious little to do with the mounds of documentation produced by the Treasury on Brown's "five tests". There are of course real arguments to be had about the technical economics of joining the euro, in particular over the exchange rate at which we join; and it should go without saying that it would be mad to join if the British and eurozone economies were completely out-of-kilter.

But the Treasury documents show no such thing. Their most serious claim is that there would be a danger of inflation if Britain adopted eurozone interest rates, which is true - but we're not talking serious inflation, and in any case fiscal measures, otherwise known as increased taxes, could effectively counter the danger (as the Treasury report acknowledges).

No, the real reason that Brown put off the decision yet again is purely political. To put it bluntly, the Government is scared shitless that it will lose the promised referendum on euro entry. Which is not to say that the Government shouldn't be worried. If Britain voted no in a euro referendum, as all the polls suggest it would, Labour's credibility would be shattered, and the only beneficiaries - and I mean the only beneficiaries - would be the Tories.

Labour's mistake was offering a referendum in the first place, way back in 1996 when it was in opposition. At the time, it was greeted by nearly every commentator as a clever political gambit that not only neutralised Labour's own divisions on the euro but also had genuine cross-party popular appeal. But even then it should have been obvious that a referendum campaign would have to be fought against the rabidly anti-European Right-wing press as well as the Tories - and winning would not be easy.

Had Blair and Brown gone for a euro referendum immediately after the 1997 general election, they might just have prevailed - but instead they lost their bottle and effectively ruled out the referendum for the duration of Labour's first term. Since that defining moment, the referendum has become an increasingly daunting prospect. Monday showed that it has now rendered the Government incapable of acting decisively just as decisive action has become urgent.

Some on the Tribune Left will no doubt find some satisfaction in New Labour being hoist with one of its own petards, but I can't join them. In 1997, Blair was handed the best chance anyone has ever had of making Britain a full member of the European club. That he has blown it is his greatest political failure.


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, May 20 2003

In marked contrast to the hoo-hah in the press over Cambridge Spies, the BBC's big-budget television dramatisation of the already familiar tale of Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt, the genuinely newsworthy revelation in a new book of the identity of the Soviet agent who spied on George Orwell and other members of the Independent Labour Party contingent in Spain during the civil war in the 1930s has so far gone unremarked everywhere but the Guardian.

The story appears in a splendid new biography of Orwell by Gordon Bowker, and is the result of an extraordinary piece of historical detective work - aided by just a little bit of luck.

Back in the early 1980s, Bowker went to China to write for the Observer about the filming of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, and during his trip met several Western communists who had gone to live in China as admirers of Mao Zedong's revolution. One of them was an Englishman in his seventies, David Crook, who had arrived with his Canadian wife Isabel in the late 1940s. The Crooks had written several books on the impact of the revolution on a remote village and were now working as teachers in a Beijing university. Crook's enthusiasm for the regime was undimmed even though he had spent seven years in prison during the Cultural Revolution. He told Bowker that he had fought for the Republicans in Spain in the 1930s and had gone to China after reading Edgar Snow's sympathetic account of Mao, Red Star Over China.

Bowker wrote up Crook's story for the Listener and thought no more about it. But many years later, after publishing acclaimed biographies of the authors Malcolm Lowry and Lawrence Durrell, he started researching his book on Orwell. And in the Orwell archive in London, he came across a mention of a David Crook in a letter to Eileen Blair, Orwell's first wife, who had followed him to Spain and worked there in the office of the British Independent Labour Party in Barcelona.

Could this be the same David Crook? Bowker managed to find one of Crook's sons in London - who, to Bowker's amazement, told him that his father had spied on Orwell for the Communist International. Crook was by now very ill after suffering a stroke in Beijing - he died in 2000 at the age of 90 - but, said the son, had talked at length to a researcher in the United States and had admitted his role in Spain.

With this lead, Bowker tracked down the researcher, then scoured the archives - and turned up crucial Soviet intelligence files (in International Brigades collections in New York and London, of all places) that show conclusively that the David Crook he met in China had indeed become a Comintern agent in Spain in early 1937 after fighting in one of the International Brigades, which he had joined on the recommendation of Harry Pollitt, general secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain. They also show that, as part of the Stalinist campaign to liquidate Trotskyists and all other serious rivals on the revolutionary Left, he infiltrated the ILP contingent in Barcelona that was allied to the far-left (but non-Stalinist) POUM. As readers of Orwell's Homage to Catalonia will know, the POUM and its anarchist allies, hitherto the dominant force in the Catalan capital, were brutally suppressed in a Stalinist coup in May 1937.

Bowker says that Crook passed on everything he could find out about the ILPers - including Orwell - to his secret-police controllers, and that none of the ILPers seems to have suspected him. He was certainly one of the sources (along with at least one other British communist) for the indictment for treason issued by a Stalinist-controlled tribunal against Orwell and his wife just after they fled Spain in June 1937. It described both of them, wrongly, as "rabid Trotskyites", and was intended to be their death warrant.

Beyond this, Crook's precise role is murky. It is possible that he had sufficient scruples to help Orwell and others escape arrest in a raid by the Stalinist-controlled Spanish secret police, but it also likely that he played a small role in the notorious murder of Andres Nin, the POUM leader, and various other Stalinist crimes in Spain. Whatever, he remained a Comintern agent for at least another three years, ending up in China, before returning to Britain and joining the RAF. During the second world war, Bowker says, he served in RAF intelligence in Asia and the Far East.

It's a fascinating story - and one that breaks new ground. Bowker has put together the most compelling evidence so far published of direct involvement by British communists in one of Stalin's dirtiest crimes against socialism.

George Orwell by Gordon Bowker is published by Little Brown at £20.

Tuesday, 29 April 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, May 2 2003

The fuss seems to have died down a little over the discovery in Baghdad by a Daily Telegraph journalist of documents that appear to show that George Galloway, the maverick Labour MP, received large sums of money from Saddam Hussein. And it’s not surprising that the story has gone quiet. Mr Galloway is promising to sue for libel, and that has made not only the Telegraph but every other newspaper very wary. Recent changes in Britain’s libel law might make it possible for newspapers to mount a succesful defence that falls short of proving that the documents are genuine and that Mr Galloway took the cash, but this is by no means guaranteed. Once the writs start flying, any sensible editor takes cover.

In time, perhaps, we will get to know the truth about this murky business. Mr Galloway says he did not receive funding from Iraq, and it is indeed possible that he is an unwitting victim of some vile scam. Some of the more lurid scenarios that have been advanced by his supporters are, however, rather implausible.

In particular, the idea that the Telegraph forged the documents or published them in the knowledge that they are forgeries almost beggars belief. The Telegraph is certainly politically hostile to Mr Galloway and everything he stands for. But its reporters and editors are not crazy. They know that their reputations would be destroyed if they were discovered to have been complicit in faking evidence of this kind. They simply wouldn’t risk it.

It is slightly more believable that the documents were forged and planted for the Telegraph to discover by some spook or other. As several Galloway supporters have remarked, including the editor of Tribune, there is a history of this sort of thing.

The most notorious example, of course, was the Zinoviev Letter of 1924. Purportedly a missive from the head of the Communist International demanding that British communists prepare to subvert Britain’s armed forces, it was published by the Daily Mail in the run-up to the 1924 general election as a means of discrediting Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Government, which had negotiated trade treaties with Soviet Russia. In fact, it was almost certainly forged, probably by White Russian emigres with the connivance of British intelligence agents hostile to Labour.

There are also more recent cases of intelligence service dirty tricks to undermine Labour, most notoriously in the 1970s, when various spooks spent an inordinate amount of time and energy attempting to smear Harold Wilson as a Soviet stooge. And who can forget the Sunday Times’s preposterous claims in the early 1990s that Michael Foot was the KGB’s “Agent Boot”?

But is Mr Galloway the victim of this sort of sting? Maybe, but I doubt it. He just isn’t an important enough player to warrant the effort that would be involved in setting it up.

If he didn’t receive the money from Iraq, the most plausible scenario is that the payments were authorised somewhere in the upper echelons of Saddam’s regime — and then siphoned off by someone feathering his or her own nest.

This would fit not only with what we know about the enthusiasm of the Iraqi Ba’ath leadership for self-enrichment but also with its record of paying its supporters and propagandists abroad.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, its chosen vehicle in Britain was the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, the paranoid Trotskyist sect led by the late and unlamented Gerry Healy, which, in return for money to subsidise its daily newspaper News Line and the weekly Labour Herald, informed on Iraqi exiles in London and printed encomiums to Saddam — “a man of firm action in home affairs, insisting on the highest standards of dedication and integrity of Government officials”, as News Line had it in 1980.

Some time after the WRP imploded in the mid-1980s, the Iraqis appear to have decided that the Labour left and the peace movement was a better pond to fish in than the revolutionary Left. I remember as a journalist on Tribune in the late 1980s and early 1990s being offered by an intermediary free trips to Iraq at the regime’s expense, which I turned down. Plenty of others did not.

This is not to impugn their motives: often the only way to visit a totalitarian regime and meet its people is on an official trip. Nor is it to claim that every benefiary of Saddam’s hospitality turned into a propagandist for his vicious rule. But that was what he wanted — and from some people at least, all of whom should have known better, that was what he got.

Sunday, 27 April 2003


Paul Anderson, Chartist column, May-June 2003

If there is one thing that is clear about Britain’s Europe policy today, it is that it is in a right mess.

Most spectacularly, the Blair government’s policy on Iraq – first loudly backing the Bush administration as it prepared for a military strike, then attempting and failing to secure United Nations backing for an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, then playing a major supporting role in the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam – did serious damage to Britain’s relationship with the two most important countries of the European Union, France and Germany, both of which opposed the war.

How lasting that damage will be is another matter, however. The French and German governments were opposed to military action against Iraq for different reasons – the French out of Gaullist hostility to American unilateralism, the Germans out of social democratic respect for international law and a tendency towards pacifism – and neither has any long-term interest in stoking up antipathy to Britain.

Unless George Bush decides to extend the treatment given to Iraq to, say, Syria or North Korea, and unless Tony Blair backs him again, Britain’s relationship with the big hitters in the EU will return to normal. Already, it’s back to business as usual in the Convention on the Future of Europe, where Britain and France are pushing hard (and together) for an intergovernmentalist settlement, against the federalism of Germany and the smaller EU countries.

The unlesses of the UK-US relationship are important, but at present the signs are that the US military will be tied up in Iraq for some time to come (as Martin Woollacott argued in an excellent piece in the Guardian - click here) and that the British government is not keen on more military adventures for a while.

Jack Straw’s denials that any other invasions are planned are of course worth taking with a pinch of salt. But the recent revelations that he and Blair would have resigned if the backbench Labour revolt on Iraq in the Commons in March had been only a little bigger suggests that they might have learned a little in the past few weeks about the extent of opposition to their uncritically pro-American policy. I have a sneaking suspicion that their doubts about joining a madcap neo-con crusade will from now on prove decisive.

But we shall see. The end of the war in Iraq – which was a remarkable military success, whatever its political ramifications – turns the spotlight on other aspects of Britain’s European policy, in particular the euro.

And here the picture is anything but optimistic. Disagreements at the highest level on the euro, most notably between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, appear to have come close to paralysing the government – and as yet there is little sign of any resolution.

In early April, nearly all the broadsheet newspapers carried reports, inspired by briefings from sources close to Brown, that the chancellor would soon declare that his famous five tests for British entry into the single European currency had not been met, thereby effectively (though not explicitly) ruling out a referendum on the euro for the rest of this parliament (see for example the Guardian report here).

At the end of April, however, a seemingly authoritative piece by Will Hutton in the Observer (click here) claimed that Blair had decided to shift Brown from the Treasury to the Foreign Office in order to clear the way for a euro referendum next year.

That would be a massive gamble for Blair. Brown is a big figure in the government, the architect of its overall strategy and for many years the favourite to succeed Blair as Labour leader (and prime minister) if Blair decided to go. It is not implausible to suggest that Brown could send the government into terminal crisis if he decided to resist Blair over-ruling or moving him.

Then again, it is difficult to see how Blair can regain credibility in Europe unless he overcomes Brown’s opposition to joining the euro – and, given the apparent strength of Brown’s opposition, it is hard to see how Brown could remain as chancellor after being forced to eat humble pie.

So Hutton’s interpretation has a certain credibility to it. Nevertheless, there is a simple way out for Brown that has been given scant consideration by the commentators – which is that some time in the next month or so he announces that the five tests have been passed.

Such a scenario is also just about feasible. Although Brown has been quite happy for his political allies to tell journalists that his line on the euro is “not yet”, he has not committed himself publicly to this position. He still has the option of endorsing British membership now. The anti-euro lobby would feel horribly let down – but the political impact would be extraordinary.

Once again, we shall see. But if there is a euro referendum soon, under any circumstances, it will be a tough battle for the government to win.

The pro-euro camp has spent the past few years waiting for the go-ahead from Blair, and is not in good shape: if the referendum isn’t announced soon, Britain in Europe, the umbrella group that will be the basis of any “yes” campaign, will collapse.

To make matters worse, there has been a serious decline in support for the euro among trade unions, which will be one of the crucial elements in any “yes” campaign. Anti-European leftists have won key positions in several major unions in the past couple of years, and John Monks, the most articulate of the pro-euro trade union leaders, is leaving the TUC. Labour movement support for Britain joining the single currency will be in rather shorter supply than five years ago.

Yet joining the euro remains the best bet for a social democratic future for Britain. It is true, as Gordon Brown argues, that the EU’s system of economic management needs to be reformed, particularly when it comes down to the idiotic growth and stability pact, which effectively rules out counter-cyclical state spending. But here we are pushing at an open door: the rest of Europe, social democratic, Christian democratic and neo-liberal alike, realises that the regime of enforced austerity imposed by the Bundesbank and subsequently endorsed by the governments of Europe as the price of monetary union was a big mistake. Faced with low growth and rising unemployment, the governments of Europe recognise that John Maynard Keynes had some bright ideas after all.

If Blair does not go for a euro referendum this parliament, he will have missed the best opportunity any British government has ever had to define Britain’s place as a European social capitalist country. The next few weeks will be absolutely critical.

Friday, 11 April 2003


Tribune column, 11 April 2003

One of the most remarkable things about this war has been that, despite the wall-to-wall television coverage, no one who relied solely on the box would know what the hell is going on.

I’ve got a bog-standard cable-TV deal, but even I’ve had five 24-hour news channels to choose from. There have been TV journalists everywhere -- in Baghdad hotels before and after the Saddam regime collapsed, “embedded” with British and American troops, interviewing key figures in the every capital of the world, pontificating endlessly on air -- and dozens of discussions of the rights and wrongs, ins and outs, just about everywhere you look. The conventional wisdom is that this been the TV war to end TV wars.

But are we any the wiser? Not much. The live TV pictures -- of British and American troops in action, of Iraqis grieving their dead, of looters apparently running amok in Baghdad, of the civilian wounded in hospital -- might be unprecedented. But they haven’t helped anyone understand what's happened.

From the start, most of the important military engagements took place off-camera. We saw US troops securing a bridge across the Euphrates against small-arms fire, to take a typical example, but nothing of the crucial and apparently vicious battle with the Republican Guard defending Baghdad. We witnessed the Brits being feted in Basra, but there was barely a hint of the battle that preceded the fall of the city.

How fierce have been the firefights that have been routinely reported as such? Was there a wobble on the ground after week one, when it appeared that the coalition forces were inadequate to the task set them by George Bush and Tony Blair? What exactly by way of destruction have the American and British militaries wreaked on the Iraqis? We don’t know – or at least, we don’t know from TV.

From the Iraqi side, we got pictures of wounded civilians and bombed markets – and, of course, the idiotic information minister -- but no sense of the damage that the British and American bombardment did to the Iraqi military or of how Iraqi troops faced the overwhelming superior military might of the coalition forces.

Was there heroic resistance against impossible odds by anti-imperialist patriots armed  with nothing more than AK-47 rifles and the odd 1957-vintage T-55 tank? Or did only nothing-to-lose Saddam diehards put up a real fight, with conscripts forced into the US-UK firing line for fear of being shot in the back for desertion by the secret police? Or both at different times in different places? What is the true level of Iraqi casualties, civilian and military? How did they die, lose their limbs, starve? Nothing we have seen on TV has given us more than the vaguest clue.

Crucially, only rarely have we seen the dead – as Peter Preston, former editor of the Guardian, noted in a column this week. This most visible war has been a slaughter without visible corpses -- on either side.

Since the collapse of the regime, the fog has descended even more completely. The destruction of the Saddam statue undoubtedly made great TV – but although the jubilation of the crowds at the fall of the brutal kleptomaniac dictatorship was real, big questions remain about how far that particular symbolic moment was staged for the cameras. After that came the looting, which of course was not staged. But it remains unclear from the TV coverage who has been looting what or why.

Have hospitals been attacked out of sheer lumpen bloody-mindedness? Or because they were, until days ago, exclusively for the use of the party elite? Is civil war in the offing? What the hell is the coalition doing about creating a new Iraq? Or about aid?

The truth is that the breathlessly pacy 24-hour news TV coverage has systematically trivialised the war in Iraq. It has set the news agenda relentlessly: very few newspapers and even fewer broadcasters have dared do anything but follow its often dead-end leads.

Add the systematic lying by both sides in the war (dutifully replicated by sections of both broadcast and print media), the confusion of fact and rumour that is inevitable in wartime, and the hysterical mood (now slowly subsiding) that took hold of both opponents and supporters of the war in the British press – and it’s amazing that anyone has got any sort of handle on the whole show.

That we have is down largely to old-fashioned reporters, mainly press correspondents, who have shunned the temptations of both propaganda and instant sensation to file stories based on what they’ve witnessed for themselves. The journalistic heroes of the hour are not the TV stars but the likes of James Meek and Suzanne Goldenberg of the Guardian and Robert Fisk and Kim Sengupta of the Independent, who have churned out serious analytical words day after day.

Tuesday, 18 March 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, March 21 2003

Robin Cook's resignation from the government was hardly unexpected – but it was dramatic all the same. He is the only Labour figure of top rank to have quit on grounds of principle since Tony Blair became prime minister nearly six years ago: indeed, you have to go back to 1951, when Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman left Clement Attlee's government, for a Labour resignation with anything like the impact.

Although Cook's resignation statement to the House of Commons on Monday evening was eclipsed as news by George Bush's blunt 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, it was quite the most sensational parliamentary event in this government's lifetime. In calm, measured tones, Cook eloquently demolished the case for an immediate assault on Iraq. The contrast with Jack Straw's bumbling performance at the despatch box minutes earlier could not have been more stark.

As things now stand, Cook is finished as a government politician – that much is clear. But it would be foolish to write him off. At very least, as a backbench MP he could provide the left in the Parliamentary Labour Party with the intellectual sophistication and political clout that has been so obviously missing in recent years. Then there's the possibility of a comeback in Scottish politics. He could even be the best hope the beleagured Scottish Labour Party has of staving off major losses in the forthcoming elections to the Scottish Parliament.

But what's really intriguing is Cook's position if the war against Iraq were to go so horribly wrong that Blair lost the confidence of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

This scenario has been chewed over in recent months by just about every Labour Party member I know at every level – and most of them reckon that if Blair were forced out in such circumstances, Gordon Brown would be a shoo-in as his replacement.

Until this week, I thought the same, not least because all the other names being touted as possible successors to Blair would not be credible challengers to the Chancellor. Straw? Too compromised by his role in the Iraq policy. David Blunkett? Unpopular with those Labour Party and trade union members least likely to be prejudiced about his being blind. Charles Clarke, Peter Hain and Alan Milburn haven't held high office for long enough. And John Prescott, Margaret Beckett and Cook are all – how to put it politely – big figures whose career trajectories are not on an upward curve.

But Cook's resignation has made me think again – at least about him.

Like many others on what used to be called the soft left, I was disappointed when Cook decided not to challenge for the Labour leadership after John Smith died in 1994, and I still think he would have made an infinitely better Prime Minister than Blair. Unlike Blair, he is an egalitarian, an environmentalist and a committed constitutional reformer. From 1997 to 2001, he was a very good Foreign Secretary – particularly in repairing British relations with the rest of the European Union and in pressing for intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone - and as Leader of the House of Commons he made a valiant attempt (scuppered by Blair) to introduce a democratic second chamber. Like everyone else I know, however, I thought his time at the top was coming to an end. Now I'm not so sure. If – and it's a big if – Blair is forced out by a military disaster, it's not just wishful thinking to suggest that Cook would be in a very strong position to replace him.

Which is not to say that I am hoping for a military disaster to force Blair out. As I write, 48 hours have not passed since Bush's speech. But Saddam has rejected Bush's demand that he and his sons go into exile. It almost certain that by the time you read this we will be at war.

This is not what should have happened: other means of dealing with Saddam should have been given more time. Blair's strategy of hanging on to Bush’s coat tails and hoping to restrain him has proved a humiliating failure, alienating domestic public opinion and wrecking Britain's relations with France and Germany, the two most important members of the European Union. War will inevitably result in the deaths of Iraqi civilians and conscript soldiers – and there is a danger that the death toll will be massive. In the worst case, the attack on Iraq could turn into a conflict involving the use of chemical, biological and perhaps even nuclear weapons that engulfs the whole Middle East. Bush and Blair have taken an extraordinary risk this week. They should not have done so.

Nevertheless, I see no credible option for democratic socialists once the military action begins other than hoping that it works – and that it works quickly, consigning Saddam and his vile regime to the proverbial dustbin of history with minimal casualties on either side. Sorry, folks, but I think I'll be giving the next anti-war demo a miss.

Friday, 7 March 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, March 7 2003

Fifty years ago this week - at 9.50am Moscow time on March 5 1953, to be precise - Iosef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, better known as Stalin, breathed his last.

His death was a squalid affair, entirely befitting his regime. The Soviet dictator, probably by this point clinically paranoid, had suffered a brain haemorrhage on March 2 - but medical help was delayed by Lavrenti Beria, his scheming secret police chief, who hoped to succeed him. For more than two days, Stalin lay in bed motionless, surrounded by his family and the leading figures of the Soviet Politburo, many of them drunk and all of them terrified for their futures. No one admitted that his condition could be terminal. On one occasion Beria famously demanded of the as-good-as-dead Stalin in a loud voice: "Comrade Stalin, all the members of the Politburo are here! Say something to us!"

It would be comforting to relate that Stalin's death was greeted by a universal sense of relief, but it was not. The man who turned the already-extant Bolshevik police-state into a ruthless totalitarian dictatorship, killing millions in the forced collectivisation of agriculture and committing hundreds of thousands more to slave labour, was mourned in the Soviet Union as the heroic war leader who saved the world from Nazi Germany. (Never mind that the the business was done by the poor bloody infantry.) Abroad, he was given a send-off that was at least respectful and at worst obsequious - particularly on the left.

No one was more gushing than Rajani Palme Dutt, the chief ideologist of the Communist Party of Great Britain, writing in Labour Monthly: "The genius and will of Stalin, the architect of the rising world of free humanity, lives on forever in the imperishable monument of his creation - the soaring triumph of socialist and communist construction; the invincible array of states and peoples who have thrown off the bonds of the exploiters and are marching forward in the light of the teachings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin."

In similar vein, the CPGB’s leader, Harry Pollitt - whose apologists say was sceptical about Stalinism - paid tribute to Stalin as someone whose "miracles of communist construction are of a character that even Marx would never have dared to believe possible".

Tribune, to its credit, was more sceptical. In a piece headlined "Now let's bury the Stalin myth", Michael Foot wrote: "The Nazi-Soviet pact and the frightened sycophancy towards Hitler which Stalin displayed in the two subsequent years still stand out as probably the most grievous and colossal blunder of the century . . . He sent to their deaths almost all the leaders of the revolution. He distorted the socialist aim in a manner which would have horrified both Lenin and Marx. He then falsified the history of the revolution itself."

The deflation of Stalin's reputation was not long in coming. The Berlin workers' uprising of June 1953, the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and Nikita Khruschev's "secret speech" the same year to the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in which he (selectively) denounced Stalin's crimes, all saw to that. And within 15 years of his death there was a substantial scholarly literature available - at least in the affluent Western democracies - that gave chapter and verse on collectivisation, the Great Terror and just about every other aspect of his years of despotic misrule.

But the Stalin myth was never entirely buried. The Soviet tyrant remains an official hero in communist China to this day - and his memory is still revered by Russian nationalists and many leftists in the Third World. Tribune readers might take with a pinch of salt recent reports that Saddam Hussein has a library of books on Stalin and sees him as his role model: but the similarities between the two go further than their moustaches.

And even in Britain it's remarkable how Stalinism persists - albeit in a small way. The Communist Party of Britain is a pale shadow of the CPGB even of the early 1950s, but it is still able - just - to sustain a daily newspaper, the Morning Star, that retains the respect of a large swathe of the left in spite of its unthinking Stalinism. As the Independent on Sunday reminded us last weekend, Arthur Scargill of the National Union of Mineworkers and Socialist Labour Party remains an unabashed admirer of Stalin, as does Andrew Murray, the chair of the Stop the War Coalition (whom I remember in the 1980s working for the official Soviet news agency Novosti, buying full page ads in left newspapers to publish dull speeches by Konstantin Chernenko).

Which is not to claim that contemporary Stalinism poses a massive threat to civilisation as we know it: far from it. The Stalinists of 2003 are, at least in Britain, a sick joke. I just can't work out why so many on the left tolerate them. Can anyone enlighten me?

Respond to Tribune

Thursday, 20 February 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 20 February 2003

There is no doubt that Tribune has plenty to crow about in its record on various wars, but — contrary to the leader in last week’s issue — that doesn’t really include the 1930s and the start of the second world war.

True, the paper backed the right side in the Spanish civil war, arguing for military aid for the Republic and condemning the British Government’s asinine policy of non-intervention, with its willful blindness towards the massive armed support being given to Franco’s insurgent Nationalists by fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Tribune was also consistently critical of the Government’s policy of appeasement of Mussolini and Hitler, correctly warning that it only encouraged them in their expansionist ambitions.

But on the key question of what Britain should do instead of appeasing the dictators, Tribune — like nearly everyone else on the left in Britain — was badly caught out by the turn of events.

The paper had been set up by Stafford Cripps and others at the beginning of 1937 as the organ of the “Unity Campaign” to create a “United Front” of Labour and other left parties, most importantly the Communist Party, against fascism and appeasement. The CP had representatives on Tribune’s editorial board and played a crucial part in determining the paper’s editorial position.

The CP’s influence made sure that — despite protests from the Independent Labour Party and others — Tribune had nothing of substance to say either about the cynical way the Soviet Union sabotaged the Republican cause in Spain or about Stalin’s terror in the Soviet Union itself. The CP also played a role in ensuring that the paper opposed British rearmament against the threat posed by Nazi Germany (though in this almost the whole of the left was in agreement) and placed all its hopes in the creation of an anti-fascist international alliance of Britain, France and the other democracies of Europe with the Soviet Union. And when, in August 1939, the treacherous Stalin concluded an alliance with Hitler, Tribune was taken aback.

When Hitler subsequently invaded Poland, prompting Britain and France to declare war on Germany, the paper was left completely at sea. Should it embrace the British war effort as anti-fascist?

Or should it take the mendacious Moscow line and oppose the war as an inter-imperialist one?

For more than six months, to its shame, it opted for the latter course, following pretty much the defeatist position adopted at Moscow’s insistence by the Communist Party (despite the opposition of Harry Pollitt and other CP leaders). It was only after Aneurin Bevan and various other democratic socialists staged a boardroom coup in spring 1940 and ousted the Stalinists — including the editor, H J Hartshorn, who was replaced by Raymond Postgate — that Tribune abandoned its cringe before the Soviet Union’s betrayal of the left.

Now, you might be thinking, this is all very well, but it has nothing to do with what’s happening in the present. In 2003, who cares who was right in 1937, 1938, 1939 and 1940?

Well, I do, and I think everybody else ought to, not just because I think history matters in itself but because there are important lessons to be learned today from the mistakes of the left in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not agreeing here with those of the pro-war party who have spent the past year or more ranting on about how Saddam Hussein is the new Hitler and how those opposed to war are the modern equivalents of the appeasers. That line of invective was eloquently disposed of by Michael Foot in last week’s issue.

No, I’m talking about the way in which the outbreak of war profoundly changes political realities. Right up to the Hitler-Stalin pact, the idea that the world could be saved from war by an anti-fascist alliance between the democracies and the Soviet Union made a great deal of sense. Stalin was not the ideal ally — but the threat from Nazi Germany was such that desperate measures were necessary.

The pact, and the ensuing war, changed all that irrevocably. They were not what the left had wanted — any more than the Left today wants war against Saddam. But once the war had started, the left was forced into choosing between adapting to the new circumstances or railing impotently from the sidelines. We’re going to have to do the same if, as seems increasingly likely, the US launches the assault on Saddam we were marching against last Saturday.

Thursday, 6 February 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 6 February 2003

Last week, David Mills used his Tribune column to point out that the anti-war left in Britain has given scant consideration to the possibility that war on Iraq will be a stunning military success (at least in its own terms), an outcome that will leave Tony Blair in an extraordinarily dominant position in British politics.

His point is a good one, but I’d go even further. The anti-war left hasn’t even thought about what happens if, as now seems increasingly likely, all the efforts of the opponents of war, in the UN Security Council or on the streets of the world’s cities, are in vain — and the US actually launches the attack on Iraq that it has been preparing for a year.

To put the issue simply, as soon as the fighting starts in earnest, the anti-war lobby will have to choose among three options: demanding that military action ends at once; supporting a swift victory by the US with minimal casualties; and hoping that the US gets bogged down, with the result that public opinion in the west turns against the senseless slaughter.

The last of these is, of course, at the core of the Leninists’ approach to the current crisis. For them, Trots as well as Stalinists, “revolutionary defeatism”, the belief that one should support the “other” side in any “imperialist” war and work to turn the conflict into civil war, is a matter of faith. But for anyone who opposes war on the grounds that killing people is wrong and the number of deaths should be minimised, it is morally untenable (though judging by the disappointment one could sense in many peaceniks’ voices after other recent interventionist wars failed to result in vast numbers of body bags being flown home, there might well be a surprising number of takers for it). The only defensible options are “Stop the killing now!” and “Get the war over as quickly as possible with minimal casualties”.

“Stop the killing now!” has its attractions, not least that it is consistent with what the anti-war Left has been arguing for ages — in other words, that war against Iraq is a bad thing and should not take place. In terms of Realpolitik, however, it is a non-starter, for the simple reason that, once the fighting starts, any cessation of hostilities by the US would be seen as (and would be) a massive victory for Saddam — the worst possible outcome to this crisis apart from a protracted war in which hundreds of thousands die.

So I’m afraid that, if the US does attack — and I still hoping against hope that it doesn’t — I’m going to be executing a rapid U-turn and praying that it makes it to Baghdad and overthrows Saddam Hussein in double-quick time, with minimal casualties on both sides. As that great moralist Macbeth put it:
If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly


Still on the subject of the Left and Iraq, I hope Tribune readers will not be too offended if I ask whether Tony Benn’s mission to Baghdad to interview Saddam did anything whatsoever to further the cause of peace.

Criticising Benn has in recent years once again become tanatamount to blasphemy on certain parts of the Left, so I expect a hostile postbag. But was anyone really convinced by Benn’s performance? His questions to Saddam — a brutal dictator, mass murderer and serial international agressor — could not have been less critical or his demeanour more reverential.

I know the analogy between Saddam and Hitler has been overdone, but on this occasion Benn really did put me in mind of George Lansbury after he was ousted as Labour leader in the mid-1930s, visiting Hitler and Mussolini and pronouncing them men of peace.


Finally, a word on the Lords. Most of the blame for Tuesday’s farce, in which every option for reforming the second chamber was defeated in the House Of Commons, has rightly fallen on Tony Blair, whose cynical decision to make known his support for a wholly appointed Lords appears to have swayed a sufficiently large number of New Labour carreerists to scupper a Commons majority for a wholly elected second chamber.
But he is not the only villain of the piece. Several Labour MPs who are anything but Blairites voted with the Prime Minister and his cronies against an elected second chamber on the grounds that they didn’t want any sort of upper house.

Yup, it’s good old bone-brained Old Labour cretino-Leftism on the march yet again, supporting the an indefensible status quo against the best realistically achievable in the interests of an unattainable utopia. Thanks to their dim-witted but oh-so-principled stance, we now appear to be stuck with an undemocratic travesty of a second chamber for the forseeable future. Well done comrades! It’s great to see that the spirit of the 1983 election campaign lives on!

Friday, 24 January 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 24 January 2003

I learned long ago to treat anything I read in the Sunday Times as suspect in the extreme, but its story last weekend that most of the Cabinet had decided to support a wholly appointed second chamber as its preferred option for the next stage of House of Lords reform had a horrible whiff of veracity.

The paper reported a “highly placed source” saying that Tony Blair, John Prescott, Jack Straw and John Reid have all lined up behind “a chamber appointed by a commission with representatives from the regions, professional bodies, business, charities and retired members of the military”. It went on to quote “a senior MP close to the debate” who said that the feeling was that “an elected chamber would challenge the supremacy of the Commons and be a bulwark for electoral dissent because it would be elected mid-term. We could end up with opposing houses like the US Congress.”

This story could of course be baloney. The reason that the Government set up the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform last summer was the widespread fury among MPs at the lack of democratic legitimacy of Lord Irvine’s recommendation of an 80 per cent appointed, 20 per cent elected second chamber. In the circumstances, it seems on first sight just a little strange if some of the most senior members of the Government are now leaning towards an option that is even less democratic.

Moreover, when the committee issued its report last month, all the newspapers quoted “senior sources” saying that the most likely of the seven options it outlined to be adopted was a part-elected, part-appointed second chamber – either 60-40, 40-60 or 50-50.

But there are good reasons to suspect that the Sunday Times story is accurate. The Commons and Lords will have free votes on Lords reform early next month – and there is widespread support among MPs for a largely elected second chamber. Given that no one now backs Lord Irvine’s 80-20 appointed-elected option, the options for Government opponents of election of a majority of peers are limited. The choice is essentially between voting for 60 per cent appointed, 40 per cent elected, which has little support in either the Commons or the Lords – or backing a wholly appointed second chamber, the option backed by a large swathe of Tory peers. Given that they have always been implacably against election of any but a small minority of peers, it would not be too surprising if Blair, Prescott, Straw and company have indeed decided to go for the latter.

That it would not be too surprising does not, however, make it in any way defensible. The reason for making the Lords wholly elected or – second best -- at least largely elected is simple and compelling: it is only through election that a legislature in a democracy can be considered legitimate. An appointed chamber is an anti-democratic outrage, and the defenders of an appointed chamber in the current Lords are self-interested reactionaries. Without exception the arguments put up against election are entirely spurious.

An elected upper house need not undermine the authority or primacy of the lower house: legislation outlining their respective powers can see to that. Nor need an elected upper house necessarily be packed with superannuated politicians to the exclusion of anyone else: if the parties really want non-party people in the Lords, they can agree to stand down in certain seats to give independents a free run.

What an elected second chamber would be able to do, as an appointed one cannot now and could not if it were chosen by some independent committee of the great and good, is hold the executive to account – and it is this, rather than any concern for the primacy of the Commons, that is the real reason that many members of the Government are horrified at the prospect. They want a toothless House of Lords – a seraglio of eunuchs, in the memorable phrase of Michael Foot last time a Labour government tried to introduce a wholly appointed second chamber – because it makes for an easier life.

If next month they manage to sabotage the prospects of democratic reform of the Lords, they will throw away the best chance any government has ever had to rid Britain of a relic of feudalism that no other democracy in the world would tolerate. And they will deserve nothing but contempt from democrats of every political tendency.