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.