Thursday, 9 December 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, December 10 2004

No journalist in his or her right mind argues too vigorously with the judgment of a British libel court — and I’m still just about in my right mind. You won’t catch me saying that George Galloway should have lost his case against the Telegraph because he lied in court and trousered large wads of wonga from that latter-day Mussolini, Saddam Hussein.

Indeed, though I’m no admirer of the MP for Glasgow Kelvin (soon to be candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow), I think he won pretty much fairly and squarely — given the rules of battle and the Telegraph’s legal tactics.

The Telegraph had precisely accused him of lining his own pockets with cash from the Iraqi regime (buying with it, inter alia, a “£250,000 villa” in Portugal). And it did so on the basis of a chance discovery of documents it had not established were genuine. Worse, if they were genuine, they did not show that Galloway had personally received a bean from Iraq.

In court, the Telegraph did not use the established defence of justification, that its defamation of Galloway was provably true (which would have meant demonstrating that the documents were genuine and that they showed he had personally benefited from Iraqi cash). Rather it adopted the weak defence that it had published material in good faith that it believed ought to be in the public sphere — the “Reynolds defence” established (if that’s the right word) a few years ago in a libel defence by the Sunday Times in an action brought by Albert Reynolds, the former Irish prime minister.

Like most hacks I know, I like the idea of the Reynolds defence: there are plenty of circumstances in which publication of defamatory material of provenance a bit too dubious to allow the defence of justification should be protected from libel action. They are, however, limited circumstances.

At very least, it should be incumbent on the publisher to make even the slightest question of the authenticity of such material explicit on publication: “If this letter is genuine, it suggests . . .” And the person who is its subject should at very least be given a serious opportunity to put his or her case.

Splashing unsubstantiated inferences from possibly dodgy documents across the front page at the first possible opportunity without allowing any time for someone to respond is — how shall we put it? — indefensible. And that’s what the Telegraph did.

But (and it’s a very big but) this should not be the end of the story. Galloway and his supporters have been crowing about his supposedly complete vindication by the High Court. But the judgment was much more limited. Galloway won because the judge decided that the Telegraph’s defence of its actions was asinine. It didn’t make clear any doubts it had about its documents, it massively over-egged its story and it gave Galloway only the most cursory opportunity to respond to its allegations.

The judgment does not, however, show that the documents on which the Telegraph based its story were fake. Nor does it put to rest the well sourced story — published by the Guardian earlier this year and not challenged legally by Galloway — that he accepted money for a pro-Iraq political campaign from a Jordanian businessman, Fawaz Zureikat, who got the cash for his donations, with the full support of Saddam’s fascist regime, from the UN programme set up to alleviate the effects on the Iraqi people of the sanctions imposed against Saddam during the 1990s.

This is a less damaging tale than the one published by the Telegraph. There is no evidence that Galloway benefited personally: any cash from Zureikat, he says, went to the Mariam Appeal, Galloway’s anti-sanctions pressure group. And there is no evidence that Galloway ever had even the faintest clue that Zureikat’s cash might have been siphoned off from the UN programme at Saddam’s request.

But this is still pretty damning stuff. At best, it shows Galloway failing to ask questions that he should have asked about where money was coming from. At worst — OK, I’m not going there.

In the meantime, lest we forget, Galloway will live for all time on videotape for his sycophancy to Saddam: “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.”

He was “Saddam’s little helper”, as the Telegraph headline had it, even if he wasn’t personally paid for his services and even if all the documents the Telegraph turned up were fakes. Now he’s decided to stand against Oona King in Bethnal Green and Bow, democratic socialists should make sure this apologist for kleptomaniac totalitarian dictatorship is dumped in the proverbial dustbin of history — where he belongs — by volunteering for her campaign.

Thursday, 25 November 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, November 26 2004

Say what you like about the government, the state of British football or the weather, it has been a marvellous couple of weeks for observers of the ludicrous antics of the British far left.

The biggest spectacle, of course, has been George Galloway’s libel action against the Telegraph in the High Court — unresolved as I write — which has been remarkable for the forthright way in which Gorgeous George explained his famous greeting to Saddam Hussein: “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.”

The MP for Glasgow Kelvin — and soon-to-be Respect Coalition (George Galloway) parliamentary candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow in London’s East End — said he was merely conveying the solidarity of the Palestinian people, whom he’d just met, to the Iraqi people, who would be informed of his salutation by Saddam — aka "Sir". And the Telegraph’s headline, “Saddam’s little helper”, was, he told the court, losing his calm momentarily, nothing less than “a dagger, a sword right through the heart of my political life”. Ooo-er.

To be honest, though, more heat than light emerged from the Galloway-Telegraph show — and for much of the past fortnight it has been almost eclipsed by the shenanigans surrounding another Scottish charmer of the left, Tommy Sheridan, member of the Scottish Parliament and perma-tanned figurehead of the Scottish Socialist Party, which Galloway refused to join after being expelled by Labour.

The story that did the rounds was that Galloway refused to accept the SSP policy of parliamentary representatives taking only an average worker’s wage from their salary: I am happy to report that Galloway says this was down to Sheridan misunderstanding a joke.

Anyway, Sheridan hit the headlines for resigning from the SSP leadership amid tabloid allegations that he had engaged in rumpy-pumpy with a woman other than his wife, Gail, who is pregnant. Sheridan, who came to prominence as the public face in Scotland of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency’s anti-poll-tax campaign in the late 1980s, denied the scurrilous allegations, said he simply wanted to spend more time with his family-to-be and promised he’d sue.

It seemed like end of story. But then it emerged that the SSP executive had forced him to resign for reasons that were at least in part related to his personal life — if not the story that had been splashed over the Sunday newspaper — and there were reports that he had been stitched up by his enemies in the SSP, who had not only conspired to evict him but had also fed the bourgeois media with various sex-romp claims. All the contenders for Mr Sheridan’s coveted position as leader of the SSP are, incidentally, former members of the Militant Tendency.

Phew! And that was before the return of the Redgraves, glory be, to the political fray, with two members of the famous acting family, Vanessa and Corin, announcing a new political party, Peace and Progress (click here), to fight the next general election.

Younger readers of Tribune might think that Vanessa and Corin Redgrave are no more than distinguished thespians with vaguely leftist views — that’s certainly the picture you’d get from the fawning pieces on their new initiiative in the Guardian (click here) and the Observer (click here) — but in fact it ain’t so.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the pair were leading lights in the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, a mad Trostskyist cult, led by the psychopathic Gerry Healy, that was revealed in the mid-1980s to have solicited and taken substantial sums of cash from Arab nationalist dictatorships, including Muammar al-Gaddafi’s Libya and, yup, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in return for favours that included grassing up exiles to their secret police forces (click here, here and here).

The scandal of the WRP’s Middle East pimping came to light after Healy’s sexual abuse of young women members of the WRP was exposed — and it destroyed the party. Yet the Redgraves remained loyal to their leader even after his disgrace. However inspiring they are on the stage, they have a record of political lunacy matched by no one else alive. There is no evidence whatsoever that they regret anything they have ever done.

And the moral of the story? Sorry, but it’s very simple. These people are at best comedians and at worst mountebanks of the worst kind. There is no credible left challenge to Labour at the next election anywhere in Britain. Vote tactically for the Lib Dems, for sure, but don’t waste your time on the candidates of the far left. They are, without exception, a very bad joke.

Thursday, 28 October 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, October 29 2004

Like most readers of Tribune, I’m hoping John Kerry wins the US presidential election next week.

I don’t like what George W Bush has done at home — massive tax cuts for the rich, a big squeeze on America’s already inadequate welfare state, favours to big business on every front — and I don’t like his foreign policy. The way the Bush administration has gone about its “war on terror” since 9/11 fills me with despair. Cosying up to the Israeli right; the extraordinary failure to prepare for the “morning after” in Afghanistan and, particularly, Iraq; the vile abuses of human rights in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib — time and again the Bush administration has proved itself irresponsibly short-sighted, incompetent and brutal. It’s time for a change.

Yet although I’m rooting for Kerry, I’m doing so in a manner so low-key it’s barely perceptible. OK, I’m writing this column, which of course will sway opinion throughout the world thanks to Tribune’s amazing syndication deals — aka me posting it on this weblog after the paper went to press.

Otherwise, however, I’ve done sweet FA. I’ve followed the US election campaign in the British newspapers and on TV, but far from obsessively. I’ve been to see Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 and was underwhelmed. And I’ve continued the boycott of American fast-food chains I began immediately after visiting Kentucky Fried Chicken for the first time in the 1970s. Well, they back the Republicans, don’t they?

But I’ve done nothing so bold as sport a Kerry campaign badge, let alone contact an American voter in a swing state urging support for Kerry. The Guardian set up a scheme to do just this last week, encouraging readers to write letters to 14,000 voters in Clark County, Ohio, putting the case for removing Dubya. The stunt has, er, certainly had an impact: it was picked up big-time by the US media, and for a while last week the Guardian’s website was one of the most visted on the planet.

But all publicity is not good publicity. Rather a lot of the American response to my favourite daily’s initiative was elegantly summed up by the disgruntled recipient of a letter who wrote back: “Hey, England, Scotland and Wales, mind your own business. We don’t need weenie-spined limeys meddling in our presidential election. If it wasn’t for America, you’d all be speaking German.”

One reason for my inactivity is that I take the point: we limeys — weenie-spined or otherwise — have no more right to intervene in US elections than have Americans to intervene in elections over here. More important, I can’t think of anything I could do that would make a blind bit of difference to the result on November 2.

But if I’m going to be completely honest, the biggest reason for my atrophy isn’t political realism. I’m as game for hopeless causes as the next dreamer — anyone for socialism, European federalism or proportional representation? The truth is that I don’t believe that the outcome of this election is quite as important — at least for anyone living outside the US — as most commentators seem to think.

Now, I’m not arguing here, as some Leninist crazies do, that there is no difference between Bush and Kerry because they're both capitalist imperialists. There is a gulf between them on domestic policy — on healthcare, on education, on workers’ rights, on pensions, on taxation. And there are at least grounds for believing that a Kerry White House would be rather more Realpolitik-oriented than a Bush White House — less adventurist and more enthusiastic about working through international consensus.

But the differences between Kerry and Bush on foreign policy (except on the environment) are not huge.

On one hand, Kerry is no dove: as Edward Luttwak argued cogently in the Sunday Telegraph last weekend, those peaceniks who think he would adopt a policy of non-interventionism simply haven’t examined his record, which is consistently hawkish (including voting for war in Iraq). Certainly, a Kerry victory would not – thankfully – mean a rapid withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

On the other hand, it’s at least plausible – I would say likely — that a second-term Bush administration would be much more cautious on foreign affairs than the first-term Bush administration has been. The neo-conservatives who lobbied successfully for the invasion of Iraq have also been responsible for everything that has gone wrong since, and their star is on the wane. What’s more, the scale of the US commitment in Iraq — and the likelihood that it will not be brought swiftly to an end — makes it extremely unlikely that any administration will seek out further targets for pre-emptive action.

Maybe I’m complacent, but I just don’t buy the scenario that has Bush marching into Iran or North Korea. Sorry if this sounds like heresy, but I think the world could live with a Dubya victory.

Friday, 15 October 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 15 October 2004

Welcome, comrades, to the European Social Forum in England’s London! On this weekend, the activists from all over the Europe and total globe involve and celebrate wildly in a festival of talks and actions against the capitalism and the globalisation. You can meet all progressives of the continent, no kidding — every tendency left on the shelf, pretty much 57 varieties like the Heinz company say! As delegate from the Slavka Movement of the Oppressed Minorities and member of the Slavka Revolutionary Workers’ Party central committee, I salute you!

It is naturally minus the imperialist pro-war social democracy, the opportunist poodler Blair and his co. But it is naturally also embracing the comrades semi-detached from any serious tendency but in struggle against what in the German it calls “the real politics”. I think here of the Red Pepper, Mrs Wainwright’s magazine, in forefront of anti-reality left here, with links to same currents in Brazil and elsewhere, with international circulation and many readers in proletariat!

As well there are — of course! — the Muslim brothers, in historic new alliance against the imperialism. Perhaps they can hook up with the lesbian sisters and come together for peace, like John Lennon sings in Beatles? It is festival against the war and the racist hate — solidarity with the martyrs against criminal Zionists and illegal occupiers of Iraq!

Make no mistake about it, we are one in struggle against imperialism. It is one struggle, one fight against mad dictator Bush and the corporate cronies who bring capitalist “civilisation” in ruins of Iraq.

We salute Respect coaltion, which is rocking the bourgeois politics to foundations in Hartlepool, Leicester and Aldgate East, all famous battles in this year of struggle, followed by comrades worldwide.

We salute also Comrade Scargill, leader of the struggling National Miners’ Union, in headlines this week for famous proletarian unity move. The knees of Blair and fellow scum are trembling in their bed!

The comrades you can listen this weekend are also the most famous top dogs in Britain for struggle.

Biggest dog of all is Comrade Galloway, partisan of anti-imperialist struggle and staunch friend of Iraqi people. He is leader of British proletariat against the lying so-called Labour Government! So what if bourgeois press say he takes shilling of Saddam Hussein? We say there is one solution only, death to bourgeois press scum!

Almost equal supreme dog is Ken Livingstone, leader of London workers. He too is the great anti-imperialist fighter. Many years, he backed the late Comrade Healy against the Pabloite revisionists and degeneration of workers’ international; now he struggles with class-fighters of Socialist Action who are staff of the revolution at City Hall!

But let us not forget the lesser dogs! Comrade Murray, leader of innumerate masses who march against Iraq war last year and rigid member of the mass-party, Communist Party of Britain. Mrs Comrade Chairman, second-in-command of the mass peace movement, militant of the mass-party, Social Workers’ Party. And many other dogs of other mass proletarian tendencies too numerous to mention!


Aaargh! OK, I can’t keep this nonsense up for the whole of a column. I’m no Craig Brown. I admit defeat. And I apologise if it’s not very funny. But seriously — how can anyone take this beano as in any sense politically important?

The participants represent no one but themselves. The overwhelmingly dominant factions on the British organising committee, who stitched up the agenda for the big plenaries, are the dinosaur sects of cretino-Leninism — the SWP, the CPB, Socialist Action. They couldn’t save a deposit in a general election and their politics stinks. The Respect Coalition, the nearest thing they have to a political project, is a principle-free alliance of leftist posturing and Islamist reaction fronted by a charismatic egomaniac.

OK, Ken Livingstone has given the shindig his backing — but that is the London mayor at his most Machiavellian, making sure he never has a challenger from the left however long he continues to pursue the boring gradualist social-democratic capitalist politics that are his (and our) only hope in the real world.

Perhaps if 50,000 people turn up to the ESF, as the organsiers initially predicted, the sheer weight of numbers will give it an unpredictable dynamism. But that is looking rather unlikely: even the organisers are now predicting only 20,000, and the best intelligence is that the actual number will be half that.

But I’ve got better things to do even if 100,000 arrive. Ipswich are playing at home, and I can’t stand Leninist bores.

Friday, 1 October 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 1 October 2004

Like Ian Aitken in last week’s Tribune, I’m amazed at how little has been made of the Daily Telegraph’s revelations the week before last that Tony Blair was warned long before the invasion of Iraq — by none other than Jack Straw — that the US had done little or nothing to plan for the “morning after”, and that as a result there was a serious risk of replacing Saddam Hussein with something just as bad or even worse.

For Straw’s warning was and is the most convincing argument against the war — that its aftermath was irresponsibly ill-thought-through.

There were and are other anti-war arguments, to be sure. In the months before the invasion took place, the most potent (lest we forget) was that it was dangerously reckless to take on a mad dictator who was probably armed with chemical and biological weapons and had previously been prepared to use them.

If the American and British governments were right about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction — and nearly everyone at the time thought they were, including Dr David Kelly, whatever his doubts about the presentation of the evidence — taking Saddam on in battle was crazy. It wasn’t quite as bonkers as, say, responding to the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 with an ultimatum to the Kremlin, but it wasn’t far off. Even a last-ditch use by Saddam of “battlefield” sarin nerve gas weapons against civilian targets would wreak terrible damage, the peacenik Cassandras warned (myself among them).

In fact, of course, it turned out that we were wrong — and so were the US and UK governments. The invasion was easily accomplished by the American-led coalition. Saddam’s army crumbled away, and he didn’t use those feared WMD. Indeed, it transpired that his chemical and biological weapons didn’t exist (or at least couldn’t be found).

Subsequently, the anti-war lobby changed track. It plugged away relentlessly with two claims: one, that the US and the UK went to war against Saddam on a premise they knew was false, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, and lied to us all; and two, that the invasion was illegal in the absence of a new UN resolution supporting it.

This line of argument is still very much alive — it was restated last week by Tribune’s leader column, and I’m sure it was very much to the fore in the minds of anti-war delegates at the Labour conference as they prepared for this week’s debate on Iraq in Brighton (still to take place as I write).

There's no doubt that this case against the war is superficially strong. It has been clear all along that Saddam’s supposed possession of WMD — or more accurately his refusal to co-operate with the UN inspectors charged with ensuring that he had given up the WMD he once had — was not the real reason the Bush administration decided to take Saddam out but was rather the pretext it chose to clothe with legitimacy its goal of regime change. It is certainly true that WMD was central to Blair’s public case for backing Bush. No one can deny that the WMD have not so far been discovered. And the second UN resolution was not passed.

But so what? It doesn’t follow from all this either that Bush and Blair knowingly deceived us about WMD or that they went to war illegally. It’s far more plausible that the US and British governments simply put the best gloss they could on the evidence available at the time — which with the benefit of hindsight turns out to have been shonky, but, well, no one knew that then. And the invasion of Iraq is at very least defensible in terms of international law because of the UN resolutions on WMD that Saddam blatantly defied, even if the WMD didn't actually exist.

More fundamentally, there’s the problem that international law is an ass. It makes the sovereignty of any state — no matter how unjust, undemocratic or bloody — pretty much inviolable so long as it stays just the right side of genocide or invading its neighbours. Even if the invasion of Iraq was against international law (and I don’t think it was), that in itself wouldn’t make it wrong. Regime change, as long as it resulted in a free democratic Iraq and was achieved with minimal casualties, was a worthy goal.

What the documents leaked to the Telegraph show, however, is that Blair backed Bush even though he was warned by Straw that the US administration simply hadn’t thought through what regime change should entail beyond smashing up Saddam’s state machine, and that the result of this lack of "morning after" planning could be chaos or a new dictatorship. In ignoring his foriegn secretary’s advice, Blair showed himself to be an extraordinarily rash gambler who is blind to the consequences of his actions. It's for this reason rather than any other that we should question his fitness for office.

Wednesday, 15 September 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, September 17 2004

I was supposed to spend last weekend decorating the hall, but I got sidetracked by reading Andrew Marr’s new book on journalism, My Trade. It’s an odd confection, part hilarious anecdote, part history, part “how to” guide. But it’s strangely addictive, not least because it contains some of the best sustained critical thinking by a practitioner that I’ve read for a long time on the state of British journalism.

Marr, currently the BBC’s political editor, has been consistently ribbed by Tribune in recent years because he was a bearded badge-wearing paper-selling Trot when he was a student at Cambridge University a quarter-of-a-century ago. (I think he was there at the same time as Martin Rowson, cartoonist and Tribune columnist, but I could be wrong.)

Now, I’m all for reminding the great-and-good of their youthful leftist foibles. I have enjoyed the recent spate of recycled anecdotes about Alan Milburn, in years gone by one of the mainstays of the Newcastle far-left bookshop Days of Hope (aka Haze of Dope), and Kim Howells, who might or might not take a sympathetic view of student occupations of campuses against top-up fees given his role in the famous Hornsey art-school sit-in in 1968.

But, hey, we all move on, and the real saddos today are the 40- and 50- and 60-somethings who have learned nothing in the past 20 or 30 years and are still peddling the same Leninist snake-oil — the Tariq Alis and George Galloways, the Andrew Murrays and Lindsay Germans.

By comparison, Marr’s journey — if not Milburn’s or Howells’s — has been one from darkness into light. These days, he is meticulous about keeping his politics to himself for professional reasons (just as he should be). But before he joined the BBC he was, both in his newspaper columns and in his book Ruling Britannia, published in 1995, an enthusiast for all the causes espoused by the thinking democratic left (or what remains of it): Europeanism, redistribution, the welfare state, devolution, proportional representation for the House of Commons, radical reform of the House of Lords.

Whatever, his new book has more than its fair share of moments. It is worth reading just for his hilarious account of his time at the helm of the Independent in the mid-1990s, which should be studied by every wannabe editor. He was pitched into it even though he had no experience as an editor since his school magazine. And he struggled from the start against almost impossible odds. His proprietors were clueless about the nature of the business they were running and, despite promises, cut his budgets (which meant job losses, which meant he lost it with the journalistic staff). Eventually he was sacked after one too many run-ins with the chief incompetent megalomaniac among his bosses, David Montgomery.

There’s also some well-told history here (albeit with a few sloppy factual mistakes). And some of Marr’s descriptions of how journalism works today are as good as any. But what’s best in My Trade is his take on the state of British journalism.

Like other left-of-centre practitioner-critics of the recent past — notably John Lloyd of the Financial Times and Martin Kettle of the Guardian — Marr is less than impressed by what he reads, hears and sees every day. He makes well directed swipes at the hackneyed emotionalism that has crept into every newspaper, the cult of celebrity and, particularly, the decline of reporting of politics and serious discussion of policy.

Unlike Lloyd and Kettle, however, Marr doesn’t consider that the problem is simply (or even largely) that journalists have been overcome by an all-pervading cynicism about the political class that renders them incapable of doing the job required of them in a democratic polity. Although he says that politcal journalists “have become too powerful, too much the interpreters” and that “the political story has become degraded”, he argues that the reasons “have as much to do with politics as with journalism”. The Labour government’s current troubles with the media are as much a deserved reaction to its strict news management regime as they are of hacks acquiring a permanent anti-politician sneer. “Central control and manipulation created, within a few years, some of the worst press coverage any government in modern times has suffered,” he writes of Alastair Campbell.

Marr identifies the real enemy as an “idle, office-bound, marketing-directed copycat culture in modern news which is turning off readers and viewers”. What journalism needs now, he says, is fewer columnists and more reporters getting out of the office and talking to real people. At the risk of giving Tribune’s new editor, Chris McLaughlin, a good excuse to get rid of me, amen to that.

Friday, 3 September 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, September 3 2004

Like every other leftie teenager of my generation I had that poster of Che stuck on my bedroom wall — in my case taking pride of place in a collage that included an International Socialists placard demanding “Defend the Portuguese workers’ revolution!”, some arty French shots of girls with not much on, bills for gigs I’d peeled off boards in town and assorted beer mats.

I was very proud of the overall effect, which I thought compared very well with the efforts of the Dadaist artist Kurt Schwitters, but my mum and dad redecorated the room when I went to university.

I protested, but to be honest by then I’d moved on. Most of the bands whose promotional materials I’d artfully arranged had become unfashionable with the arrival of punk, and I was no longer at all enamoured of the International Socialists, who had become the Socialist Workers Party and chucked me out. But I was particularly embarassed by the poster of Che, based on Alexander Korda’s famous photograph of him taken in 1960.

I know the image is always talked about reverentially by media studies types as iconic and everlasting — but in late-1970s Britain it became about as cool as flared trousers, for one simple reason: Wolfie Smith, the ludicrous bedsit revolutionary in the BBC sitcom Citizen Smith, who looked just like the Che in the poster. Wolfie, played by Robert Lindsay, was, to put it mildly, not the sort of character any serious (or fashion-conscious) socialist would ever wish to emulate, particularly if he had younger sisters.

More seriously, I’d also started to have big doubts about Guevara’s politics. When I put the poster up, I hadn’t known a lot about him. I knew he’d been a guerrilla leader with Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution, and I knew he’d subsequently worked tirelessly to foment revolution elsewhere and had been killed while leading an armed guerrilla uprising in Bolivia in 1967. All very romantic. But that was about it.

As I read more about the Cuban revolution and Latin America in the 1960s and the 1970s, however, it became clear that Che wasn’t quite the revolutionary hero I’d assumed him to be. Yes, he was personally courageous, single-minded and ascetic. But the guerrilla strategy he expounded and epitomised had been a miserable failure everywhere in Latin America except Cuba — and was roundly (and convincingly) condemned as suicidal adventurism by most thinking Latin American leftists.

Worse, Guevara, from the mid-1950s until his death, was an out-and-out dogmatic Stalinist — show trials, gulag and all — who was such an admirer of the Soviet dictator that he insisted on putting flowers on his tomb when he visited Moscow in 1960, fully four years after Khruschev’s “secret speech”.

If this Stalinism had simply been a matter of opinion with no effect on others, it might have been forgivable. But Guevara put his worldview into brutal practice. As a senior figure in Castro’s administration, he played a leading role in creating a single-party police state, throwing opponents into jail and banning free trade unions. And although he broke with Moscow in 1964, it was not because he had given up on Stalinism but because he thought the Soviet leadership was, unlike his hero Stalin, insufficiently committed to world revolution and crumbling in the face of petty-bourgeois deviationism.

And so it was, 25 years ago, that I came to the conclusion that Guevara was even less of a role-model than Wolfie Smith. Big deal, you might well think, but this rambling reminiscence does have some contemporary relevance. It was brought on by seeing The Motorcycle Diaries, Walter Salles’s movie about Guevara’s trip around Latin America in 1952 with his friend Alberto Granado on a battered Norton motorbike, long before he became a Stalinist.

I loved the film: it’s not quite in the class of Kings of the Road or Easy Rider or Thelma and Louise, but it’s an accomplished cinematic spectacle, as good a road movie as I’ve seen for a long time. One of the main reasons it works so well is that it doesn’t preach politics — all we see is the young Che and his mate coming up against appalling poverty and squalor and, well, being moved to do something about it.

Paradoxically, however, this is also the film’s greatest failing. What matters most about Guevara as a real historical figure is not that he was horrified by poverty and exploitation and decided to “do something” but that (after a brief flirtation with Gandhianism) he specifically and tragically chose the dead-end of armed struggle Stalinism as his mode of action — rather than, say, trade union organising or reformist democratic socialism.

It’s difficult to see how The Motorcycle Diaries could have gone into any of this and kept its coherence as a film, but the effect of its keeping the politics vague is to breathe new life into a myth that should have been buried long ago.

Thursday, 5 August 2004


Yes, it’s that time of the electoral cycle again. There’s probably nine months to go until the next general election, so we all need to work out how to vote.

As I’ve argued before in this column, for more than a decade the differences between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have been nugatory by comparison with the differences between either of them and the Tories. On some issues, Labour is more egalitarian, more liberal or more democratic than the Lib Dems; on others it’s the other way round. But both are parties of the democratic Centre-Left — and either is infinitely better than the Tories. So the priority at the next election, just as at the last one and the one before that, is to vote tactically for whichever candidate, Labour or Lib Dem, has the best chance of keeping the Tory out.

In most constituencies — those where Labour won at the last election or came second to a Tory — that means voting Labour. But in quite a few constituencies, the Liberal Democrat either won or came second to a Tory in 2001. In those constituencies, the best way to beat the Tory candidate next time round is to vote Lib Dem.

What follows is a list, in alphabetcial order, of: those constituencies in England and Wales where a Lib Dem came second to a Tory in 2001; and those in Scotland — where there have been boundary changes — where the Lib Dem would have won in 2001 if the new constituency boundaries had been in place. I have shamelessly pinched the latter from the excellent website Election Prediction.

But on with the fun. Lib Dem and Labour supporters should vote Lib Dem in England and Wales where a Lib Dem won in 2001 and in:

Aberdeenshire West and Kincardine
Argyll and Bute
Berwickshire, Roxburghshire and Selkirk
Bexhill and Battle
Bournemouth East
Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross
Cambridgeshire South
Cambridgeshire South East
Chesham and Amersham
Devon East
Dorset North
Dorset West
Edinburgh West
Fife North East
Folkestone and Hythe
Haltemprice and Howden
Hampshire East
Hampshire North East
Isle of Wight
Mid Sussex
Mole Valley
New Forest East
New Forest West
Norfolk South
Orkney and Shetland
Penrith and The Border
Ribble Valley
Ross, Skye and Lochaber
Saffron Walden
Skipton and Ripon
Surrey East
Surrey Heath
Surrey South West
Tiverton and Honiton
Tunbridge Wells
Westmorland and Lonsdale
Wiltshire North
Worcestershire West
Worthing West

Everywhere else, Lib Dem and Labour supporters should vote Labour.

Note that, just as when I did a similar column to this before the 2001 general election, I have carefully written it so that the Liberal Democrats can use it in election material to make it look as if Tribune, the Labour weekly, backs their candidate in each individual constituency. I have of course sent a copy to their headquarters in Cowley Street.

More seriously, there are a couple of things to note about my advice. The list doesn’t include Brentwood and Ongar, where Martin Bell stood as an independent against Eric Pickles in 2001 and came second, with the Lib Dem dropping to third from second in 1997: maybe it should. And, more importantly, I’m not sure what to recommend in seats held by Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party. The Tories are rank outsiders in all Plaid’s seats, so anti-Tory tactical voting is irrelevant in them. But in three constituencies the SNP would have won on the 2001 figures with the Tory second — Angus, Banff and Buchan, and Perth and North Perthshire. So maybe Labour and Lib Dem supporters there should vote tactically for the SNP.

Thursday, 22 July 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, July 23 2004

It might seem the height of perversity to most readers of Tribune, but in the past few weeks I’ve felt more than the odd pang of sympathy for Tony Blair.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve never been a fan of the man or his politics. Sure, before he became prime minister, I interviewed him a few times for Tribune and the New Statesman, and found him personable and charming. And yes, I voted for him in the 1994 Labour leadership contest.

But I was never a Blairite. I voted for him 10 years ago only because Robin Cook decided not to stand and the other candidates were not credible. My hopes of Blair (electoral success apart) were modest in the extreme — that he’d prove more of a constitutional reformer than he’d indicated previously, and that he’d be consistently pro-European.

From there, it was downhill all the way, even before he got to Number Ten. I found the “New Labour” rebranding of the Labour Party asinine and banal, its culture of spin and intolerance of dissent nauseating. Within a year of his becoming Labour leader, I was appalled by Blair’s extreme caution on everything apart from kow-towing to big business and law-and-order populism.

After 1997, with Labour in government, even my modest hopes evaporated. Far from embracing radical constitutional change, Blair did the bare minimum he could get away with. Devolution to Scotland and Wales and regional government for London went ahead — but reform of the House of Lords stalled after the removal of the hereditary peers, the long-awaited Freedom of Information Act was a damp squib, and the promised referendum on changing the electoral system for the House of Commons was postponed indefinitely.

On Europe, Blair blew his chance of securing early British entry into the euro, then stood in the way of developing a social-democratic bloc in the European Union with France, Germany and Italy by pressing a hard deregulationist position at every opportunity in every EU forum. Long before his capitulation to the Eurosceptics with his promise of a referendum, I’d given up on anything worthwhile coming from Blair’s supposed pro-Europeanism. As for the rest of the government’s record — well, there are certainly plenty of good things about it, including sustained economic growth, low unemployment and, at least in the past few years, serious increases in public spending (particularly on the health service and schools), but, as everyone knows, they have largely been down to Gordon Brown as Chancellor.

On those areas of domestic policy in which Blair has taken the lead — public service reform, crime, asylum — the government’s record has been at best uninspiring and at worst miserably illiberal. On foreign affairs, Blair’s real enthusiasm, his administration started surprisingly well, but since 2001 its unstinting support for the adventurism of George W Bush has been has been dangerously reckless and seriously damaging to Britian’s relations with Europe.

So why, you may well ask, have I started to feel some sympathy for Blair? Believe it or not, it’s because of Iraq. It’s not that I’ve come round to thinking that the war was right after all and that Blair deserves plaudits for his stance. Far from it: the decision to remove Saddam Hussein by force was irresponsibly risky and the US and Britain went ahead without adequate thought for what happened afterwards in both Iraq and the wider Middle East.

But I’m increasingly irked by the way the argument about the war has got stuck in a groove. Ever since Andrew Gilligan’s infamous broadcast more than a year ago, the media and most British opponents of the war have focused obsessively on a single issue — whether Blair lied about the threat of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction in order to bounce parliament and public opinion into backing war.

This is of course an important question. If he did lie — or, rather, if he could be proved to have lied — that would be very serious indeed, and he would be deservedly hounded from office in disgrace. Yet precisely because the consequences of being found out telling such a big lie would be so devastating, it was always implausible that Blair had gambled on any such thing. And with each inquiry and report, culminating in the publication last week of Lord Butler’s findings on the uses of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war, it has become ever more clear that, whatever else Blair and his circle did wrong, he genuinely believed the intelligence reports that said Iraqi WMD were a threat, and he acted on them, as he put it, “in good faith”.

Of course, the intelligence was dodgy and the weapons have not been found. But that isn’t the point. On the main charge levelled against him, Blair is not guilty, and no amount of invective can secure a conviction. On this, he has been absolutely right to face down the pack that is baying for his blood. There are plenty of reasons he should go — but not for deliberately misleading us about WMD. Like it or not, he didn’t.

Tuesday, 20 July 2004


Paul Anderson, review of Stalin’s British Victims by Francis Beckett (Sutton, £20), Tribune, July 9 2004

Harold Evans, the legendary former editor of the Sunday Times and The Times, is famous for many things, but for journalists of my generation he will always be primarily remembered as the author of a series of “how-to” books on the crafts of journalism. I still can’t get out of my head his injunction to would-be reporters (I think adapted from Beaverbrook or Northcliffe): “Always, always, always, tell the story through people.”

I was reminded of it again this week as I read a fascinating book by Francis Beckett, Stalin’s British Victims, which, as the introduction puts it, “tells the stories of four remarkable British women whose lives were scorched by Stalin’s purges”.

Beckett is a veteran left-wing journalist whose by-line will be familiar to Tribune readers, but in recent years he has also carved out something of a niche for himself as a popular historian.

In 1995, he published a marvellously racy account of the rise and fall of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Enemy Within. Four years later came a biography of his father John Beckett, a Left-wing Labour MP in the 1920s who became Oswald Mosley’s propaganda chief and a vocal supporter of Nazism.

Stalin’s British Victims is a by-product of his research for his history of the Communist Party. While writing that book, Beckett came across the cases of Rose Cohen and Rosa Rust. Rose Cohen was a bright young middle-class London Jewish woman who joined the CP at its foundation, married the leading Bolshevik sent by Lenin to sort out the fledgling British party, moved to Moscow and spent more than a decade there as a propagandist for the communist regime before being arrested in 1937 and shot.

Rosa Rust was the daughter of William Rust, a prominent British communist (best known as editor of the Daily Worker, precursor of the Morning Star) who — to cut a very long and complex story short — abandoned her as a girl in the Soviet Union. She nearly died as a slave labourer in wartime Kazakhstan before being rescued and sent back to Britain.

Neither woman’s story was exactly secret. Rose Cohen’s arrest had been reported at the time, and by 1956 it was clear at least to her friends — among them Harry Pollitt, the general secretary of the CP, who had been a long-time admirer — that she had perished. Rosa Rust’s extraordinary tale was also known to the British communist leaders. What Beckett found disturbing and fascinating, however, was the extent to which Pollitt and the rest of the British communist leadership kept completely quiet about what they knew and did their utmost to draw a veil over the women’s stories.

Beckett started digging, tracking down Rosa Rust in Redcar and Rose Cohen’s niece in London and searching through archives in Britain and Russia — and in the process discovered two other extraordinary stories of British women caught up in the madness of the purges, Freda Utley and Pearl Rimel, both of whom “saw their husbands taken away to the gulag and had to spirit their small children out of the country”. Utley, a journalist who became a prominent anti-communist polemicist in cold-war America, told her own story in a memoir published in the late 1940s but long forgotten. Rimel’s harrowing tale was unearthed by her husband’s great-nephew, a Dutch journalist.

The result of Beckett’s efforts is an absolutely riveting book that once and for all scotches the excuse used for years by British communists and fellow-travellers for their failure to speak out about Stalin’s terror — that they didn’t know what was going on until 1956, when Khruschev denounced Stalin in his famous “secret speech”. Pollitt, William Rust et al clearly had at very least a good idea of what Stalin was up to — and they decided to do nothing about it, in part because they felt that speaking out would damage the anti-fascist cause but also because they were intellectually and emotionally incapable of confronting the fact that the revolution in which they had invested all their hopes for the future had brought forth a totalitarian police state.

Beckett’s case studies do not constitute a comprehensive account of Stalin’s British victims — as he makes clear, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of other stories to be told — let alone an overview of the purges and the gulag. But by telling the story through people, he vividly brings home how Stalinism blighted and destroyed people’s lives — and why it still matters today.

The Guardian excerpted Stalin's British Victims a couple of weeks ago: click here

Thursday, 10 June 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, June 11 2004

I have no desire to speak ill of the dead, but I’m afraid some of the gushing obituaries of US President Ronald Reagan, who died last Saturday aged 93, have been too much to stomach.

I accept that the man was not the buffoon of leftist mythology. I’ll concede that he was good company and personally generous. I even acknowledge that his brand of right-wing anti-tax populism changed the face of American politics and indeed that the American economy and American society were irreversibly transformed (for better or worse) during his presidency, at least partly because of his policies.

But was he really the great statesman whose brilliant foreign policy won the cold war? Sorry, but Reagan’s role in the events that led to the collapse of communism in east-central Europe and then the Soviet Union was less than decisive.

True, the Reagan administration’s single-minded pursuit of the arms race during his first term made it clear at least to the more percipient members of the Soviet elite that there was not a lot of point in their trying to compete on warhead numbers and firepower because there was no way the Soviet Union could match either the level of US military spending or US technology.

True, this made much of the Soviet elite much keener on negotiating arms control treaties and settling for a new detente — so when in his second term Reagan changed track and offered the Kremlin jaw-jaw rather than war-war, he found a ready taker in Mikhail Gorbachev.

True, US funding of the resistance to Soviet imperialism in Afghanistan played an important role in forcing an unmanageable military crisis on the Soviet military that had a dramatic impact on morale in the upper echelons of the regime.

But the bigger truth is that the Soviet system collapsed and brought the cold war to a definitive end not because of anything America did but from within. “Actually existing socialism” had lost the plot long before Reagan came to power. By the time he won his first presidential election in 1980, it was profoundly sick.

In the Soviet Union itself, the optimistic expectations of prosperity and gradual political liberalisation that had characterised the late 1950s and early 1960s had long since been dashed. The economy was in a disastrous state: the only part of it that was remotely efficient was the military. Everything else was technologically backward and bureaucratically stifled. Even basic consumer needs for food, clothing and housing could barely be met. Politics was the exclusive preserve of a totalitarian gerontocracy.

In the Soviet empire, meanwhile, there was crisis. In Poland, Solidarnosc was posing the greatest challenge to Soviet hegemony in east-central Europe since the Hungarian revolution of 1956. In Afghanistan, the Red Army had marched in to save a crumbling client regime — and was already up against far more serious resistance than the US and Britain now face in Iraq.

Soviet relations with the West were at their worst since the Cuban missile crisis, partly because of Afghanistan and Poland but also because of the arms race. In Europe, Nato had responded to Soviet deployments of new medium-range nuclear missiles by promising its own nuclear modernisation.

What Reagan memorably described as the “Evil Empire” was vulnerable, and the time was ripe for a Western initiative to end the cold war by offering the Soviets aid in return for verfiable disarmament and political liberalisation — a point made by most of the European centre-left in the early 1980s.

Yet the Reagan administration rejected any such thing. It pumped cash into new nuclear arms, adopted new aggressive military strategies (including the Strategic Defence Initiative, otherwise known as Star Wars) and, most notoriously, supported the most unsavoury anti-Soviet forces in the developing world, including death squads and military dictators in Latin America, apartheid South Africa, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the most extremist Islamist opponents of the Soviet client regime in Afghanistan.

Of course, it’s possible that the Kremlin in the early 1980s would have rejected western overtures of any kind; but the option was never even tried. It is certainly to Reagan’s credit that, after five years of upping the cold war stakes, he agreed to parley with Gorbachev and signed the intermediate nuclear forces treaty.

But the preceding years of relentless confrontation were wasted years of cruelty, and their shadow still hangs over the world. In particular, al-Qaida was at least partly the product of the Reagan administration’s decision to back the extremist Islamists in Afghanistan. And you don’t get grimmer unintended consequences of your actions than that.

Saturday, 29 May 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, May 30 2004

I have a confession to make. Over the past few months, I’ve become an increasingly avid reader of news stories about the housing market. I know it’s a terrible thing to do, and I feel guilty and embarrassed about it. But I just can’t stop. Every day I nervously scour the pages of the newspapers for the latest news on house prices and the latest predictions of what’s going to happen to them in the next 12 months.

The reason my habit started is simple. Like more than two-thirds of households in England and Wales, I am what is known as an owner-occupier. In fact, I don’t own a lot: a couple of years ago I borrowed a large amount of money from a mortgage company to buy a small house, and I still owe the mortgage company most of it. But the boom in house prices since I took out the loan means that if I sold up tomorrow I’d have a tidy sum left over after I paid it off — more than I make in a year from working, as it happens.

If the housing market continues to boom, I’m in clover and the drinks are on me. I’ve got a bit of capital I can borrow against to buy a sports car, a conservatory, some designer consumer electronics or, more likely, a new kitchen for her indoors. Or I could simply cash in the profit — take a couple of years off work, finish the book I’m writing, travel the world (though of course I’d also then have to find somewhere else to live, and I’m not quite sure how the family would survive). But if the market crashes, bang goes the credit and bang go all those dreams of la dolce vita. In fact, I could be completely stuffed, particularly if interest rates go up, with a giant millstone of debt hanging round my neck . . .

OK, I’m exaggerating. In truth, I’m rather cautious. I don’t really believe that my two-up, two-down in Ipswich is worth what the estate agents say, and I’m not gambling on the housing market (not least because I don’t really want to put my nearest and dearest on the streets).

Unless there’s a world economic crisis of some kind, I can’t see interest rates hitting the point at which my mortgage payments become impossible to pay. And I actually think the best thing would be for house prices to fall, because as they are at the moment only the very affluent (or those with well-off and generous parents) have a hope of getting somewhere decent to live in much of Britain.

But there is a serious point to this. The fact that house prices are massively inflated is probably the most important factor in the British economic equation right now. It’s the main reason for the continued buoyancy of consumer spending, which has played a key role in keeping overall demand in the economy at a level that has pushed unemployment to its lowest level in decades. It’s the main reason Britain is generally feeling pretty good about itself, the main reason that Gordon Brown has retained a reputation for being a good manager of the economy, the main reason Labour is still likely to win the next general election even if it gets a kicking in the European and local elections in a fortnight.

It’s also, however, the biggest problem now facing the British economy. The reason house prices have gone through the roof is that demand for housing has consistently exceeded supply at a time when interest rates are low and seem unlikely to rise dramatically because inflation is low elsewhere in the economy. But it is almost inconceivable that we are not experiencing a classic bubble, rather like the one in the late 1980s. Sooner or later, probably sooner, it will come to an end.

The Bank of England wants to achieve a “soft landing” by putting up interest rates just a little every month until house-price inflation fizzles out, but its strategy is by no means guaranteed success. House-price bubbles are notoriously liable to burst. The last one did, pushing countless mortgage-holders in the early 1990s into negative equity and a significant minority into repossession or even bankruptcy.

Hunch says that if this bubble goes the same way, the impact will be worse, for the simple reason that so much more consumer credit is riding on house prices than was 15 years ago. A 30-40 per cent fall in house prices today — unlikely across the board, but it’s what happened in some areas of London and the south-east during the early-1990s property-price slump — would destroy the sense of self-satisfied prosperity that has characterised Britain, or at least that two-thirds of the population who are in on the act, over the past decade and more. Even a 20 per cent fall, much touted by market analysts, would wreck Labour’s chances of re-election as dramatically as the fiasco of sterling dropping out of the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System destroyed the Tories.

All in all, I’m glad I’m not in Brown’s shoes right now. Though maybe I’d be thinking that the best way out is to engineer a little coup d’etat for the big job and install some no-mark klutz — say Jack Straw? — to take the flak as the housing market collapses . . .

Thursday, 13 May 2004


Paul Anderson,Tribune column, May 14 2004

First things first: the pictures of American troops humiliating Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison — which the US administration admits are not isolated incidents of abuse even though it denies there was a policy of torture — are utterly disgusting and shaming. And the substantiated reports that British troops also systematically mistreated prisoners, though not generally as badly, are a disgrace. There can be no excuse for such brutality. It is irrelevant that Saddam Hussein presided over much more and much worse torture, or indeed that most of the Arab regimes that have expressed horror at the Abu Ghraib pictures are hypocrites. Torture is wrong, full stop.

And it is not enough that George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair and Geoff Hoon have apologised, or that the US soldiers caught committing vile acts on camera are in the process of being court-martialled, or that the British authorities in Iraq apparently stopped hooding prisoners last year after the Red Cross complained. It is essential that the extent of official encouragement of and acquiescence in ill-treatment of prisoners is investigated, exposed and righted. The process must take in training programmes as well as orders on the ground in Abu Ghraib. It must encompass prison regimes in Guantanamo Bay and the US itself as well as in Iraq. And it must hold to account not only those who actually did the torture but everyone who knew about it and did nothing — both in the armed forces and among politicians.

It does not follow, however, as many on the Left have argued, including Tribune, that coalition troops should be withdrawn at once from Iraq. Yes, the past fortnight’s disgusting revelations have done massive damage to the credibility of the claim that the occupation is bringing democracy and human rights to Iraq. Yes, Iraqi opnion appears to have turned against the occupation (though the hard evidence is a single opinion poll). Yes, that in itself makes it more likely that the US and its allies will withdraw their troops in the not-too-distant future.

But getting out right now would only make matters worse.

The presence of the coalition troops remains essential, for a few more months at least, if the current mess in Iraq is not to become a total disaster. If there is to be any chance of implementing the coalition plan for setting up an interim Iraqi government at the end of June and then holding elections, Iraq first of all needs security. And at present, like it or not, the coalition troops are the only available means of providing it.

The idea of replacing them with a United Nations force is fine in principle, but such a force could not be organised overnight, not least because the UN has no experience of running the sort of security operation that the situation in Iraq currently demands. For now, the only alternative to keeping the coalition troops in place is to let Iraq sink into bloody chaos. And that is the worst of all possible scenarios, regardless of whether you think the war to topple Saddam was right or wrong.

Which is not to say that the occupation can continue as it has done for the past year. The scandal of Abu Ghraib makes it essential that the coalition cleans up its act at once and is seen to do so. Most obviously, as well as justice being done and being seen to be done over past ill-treatment of prisoners, all use of coercive interrogation techniques must now stop, prisons must be opened up to independent international inspection and private security contractors must be reined in.

But it will not be enough for the coalition to address only the way it treats prisoners, essential as that is. It also needs to demonstrate to Iraqis that it is serious about handing over real power to them. That means making a concerted effort to get the democratic process off the ground — not just by ensuring that the UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, is given every assistance in getting an interim government installed on schedule on June 30, but also by bringing forward the date for the elections, currently pencilled in for January next year, to early autumn, and by announcing a date for withdrawal of troops (say 12 or 24 months from now).

This would not guarantee a successful transition to democracy in Iraq, but it might just work — and there is precious little else that holds out any hope. Nothing other than elections can give a new Iraqi regime legitimacy; and nothing other than commitments to holding elections as soon as possible and getting the occupation over as soon as security is guaranteed can now legitimise continued occupation.

Friday, 30 April 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, April 30 2004

OK, I’d heard the rumours that Tony Blair was toying with the idea of doing a U-turn on the European constitution. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have written my incisive column of a month ago (click here), which ran under the headline “We don’t need a referendum” (an accurate summary of its content).

Well, actually, it was so incisive that no one noticed — not even one of Tribune’s gaggle of geriatric Europhobe letter-writers. As for the government, the weekend before last our great leader announced that, contrary to previous declarations, the European constitution would be put to a plebiscite (or perhaps even two if the first one doesn’t turn out right).

As Private Eye’s caricature of Harold Pinter might put it: the bastard! But I’m not taking this personally. Really. Like most pro-European members of the cabinet, I’m angry because Blair’s decision was a shameless sop to the anti-European press, a surrender to the opportunist populism on Europe of Jack Straw and Gordon Brown — and totally unnecessary. It would have been completely legitimate to leave the endorsement (or otherwise) of the constitution entirely to parliament, and to do so would have saved us all from a truly gruesome fate.

Unless some other country rejects the constitution before we’ve voted (which is by no means impossible), we now face the prospect of at least 18 months and perhaps two years in which British politics will be dominated by a tedious debate about a document that will be read by hardly anyone and will make barely any difference to our everyday lives.

The “no” camp will trot out its familiar (and mendacious) claim that the constitution means an end to civilisation as we know it, a Brussels super-state swamping our dearly beloved democracy. The “yes” camp will counter with the equally well-rehearsed line that the constitution is mainly a means of streamlining the European Union as it expands eastwards that will do nothing to undermine national sovereignty. (This point happens to be true — but it is also about as inspiring as the paper clips sitting on my desk as I write this).

It will all be balls-achingly boring, an immense turn-off to an already pretty much turned-off electorate. If and when the vote takes place, plenty of people will vote “no” just to have a go at the government or because they think a “no” vote would be a way of getting rid of Blair. Hardly anyone who votes “yes” will do so out of enthusiasm for the constitution: I have yet to meet anyone who thinks it’s anything but an intergovernmentalist carve-up that does little to give the EU’s institutions the democratic legitimacy they need and is thus at best a stop gap. Rather, the motivation of “yes” voters will be simply that the “no” camp consists of the Tories, the BNP and the most ghastly elements of the brain-dead hard left.

And all for what? Well, if Britain were to vote “yes”, Blair would be able to claim a famous victory against the Europhobic press. That would, I suppose, be a good thing for democracy, though I don’t for a moment believe it would make the Sun or the Mail see the error of their ways and embrace all things European.

On the other hand, if, as is more likely, Britain were to vote “no”, the effect would be to give a massive boost to the xenophobia and parochialism that have blighted Britain’s relationship with Europe since the 1940s, effectively ruling out for the long term the possibility of Britain joining the euro or of otherwise playing a full part in the European project.

No one but the Tories could possibly benefit from such a disastrous outcome, and simply by risking it, Blair has been almost incredibly irresponsible. What on earth was going through his mind when he made his decision?

* * *

Almost as mystifying as Blair’s about-turn on the European constitution is the decision of the British National Party to invite Jean-Marie Le Pen to Britain this week to launch its campaign for June’s European Parliament elections.

Le Pen is undoubtedly the face of the contemporary continental far-Right most familiar in Britain. But that’s precisely the problem with him.

Far from reassuring voters that the BNP is now respectable — which was presumably the point of its parading him at a press conference in Cheshire then taking him to a rally near Welshpool — the appearance of the fat French fascist with Nick Griffin, the BNP leader who looks the epitome of an oily spiv, has served only to show that the BNP keeps some extremely unpleasant company.

Saturday, 17 April 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, April 23 2004

It's rare that I read a book and find myself in a mounting and increasingly uncontrollable rage. In fact, I can’t remember the last time it happened before last Wednesday.

But last week I was reading Scott Lucas’s new diatribe against George Orwell and the contemporary left-wing writers who supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, The Betrayal of Dissent: Beyond Orwell, Hitchens and the New American Century — and by the time I’d got two chapters into it my blood was boiling.

Lucas is an American academic, the professor of American and Canadian studies at the University of Birmingham, and a contributor to the New Statesman. Last year, he published a slim tome on Orwell, which rehashed the familiar and mendacious old Stalinist line that Orwell was not a real socialist (see Ian Williams's Tribune review here). He spiced up his argument with a denunciation of Orwell for handing over a list of communist fellow-travellers to a Foreign Office propaganda unit — in Lucas’s eyes an unforgivable act of treachery, even though Orwell was doing no more than advising a Labour government not to waste its time commissioning Stalinist apologists to write propaganda pamphlets against communism.

The Betrayal of Dissent picks up where the Orwell book left off. It starts by arguing that Orwell was a “policeman of the left”— mainly because of the list but also because he was rather rude in print about people with whom he disagreed. It then goes on to argue that several polemicists who have argued from a left or liberal position in support of military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq — in particular Christopher Hitchens, but also Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch, Johann Hari and various Americans who are less familiar this side of the pond — have taken the same role in stifling discussion of the rights and wrongs of the “war on terror”.

Now, I don’t agree with everything Hitchens, Cohen, Aaronovitch et al have written since 9/11. I was a reluctant rather than gung-ho supporter of the toppling of the Taliban by force, and I opposed the invasion of Iraq (though once it started I argued that the best thing would be for it to be successful and quick, and I believe that now the priority is to do everything in our power to ensure Iraq becomes a stable, civilised democracy, which means I am against an immediate withdrawal of coalition forces). The tone of the pro-war left — particularly of Hitchens and Aaronovitch — has often been intemperate and hectoring.

But I simply don’t recognise the picture Lucas paints as even a vague approximation of reality. Even if one accepts that Orwell handing over his list to the FO was “policing the left” (and I don’t, because it had absolutely no effect on the ability of the fellow-travellers he named to get their opinions into the public sphere) there is no evidence at all that the writers Lucas identifies as “policemen of the left” today have even gone so far as to advise that their opponents should not be published by government agencies, let alone that they have successfully stifled debate.

Indeed, even the most cursory reading of the left and liberal press in Britain and the US shows that proponents of an anti-interventionist position have at very least had a fair crack of the whip and in some cases — the Guardian and Independent are obvious examples — have dominated not only the comment pages but also reportage. Sure, there have been bloody great rows since 9/11 about just about every aspect of US policy, but knockabout argument is the stuff of democratic politics. Vigorous disagreement with your opponents is not the same thing as suppressing their views.

So what exactly is Lucas’s beef? In the end, I think, it comes down to a visceral antipathy, common to many on the left, to anyone who questions the notion that “the system” — the military-industrial complex, capitalism, imperialism, statism, call it what you will — can do nothing but wrong.

In this worldview, it is axiomatic that US intervention cannot be right, that all opposition to US imperialism is justified, that the mass media are mere propagandist tools of the ruling class — and that anyone who disagrees with these propositions can only be an agent of reaction.

Of course, political life would be much simpler if things were really like this. But they are not, and pretending they are is not only deluded but dangerous for the left. The notion that only unyielding total opposition to “the system” counts for anything is a recipe for an all-or-nothing oppositional left politics that can end only in defeat and disillusion.

The Betrayal of Dissent: Beyond Orwell, Hitchens and the New American Century by Scott Lucas is published by Pluto Press. For more on Lucas, see Norman Geras's blog here and follow the links. And for a brilliant humorous take on the general argument I'm making, see Geras's post here.

Friday, 2 April 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, April 2 2004

At first sight, nothing could be more democratic than a referendum. Referendums involve people deciding on things directly by simple majority, without the mediation of politicians or political parties. What could be more democratic?

But it’s not quite as simple as that. When one side in a referendum campaign has a lot more power, money and access to the media than the other, when voters are ignorant or apathetic about the issue being decided and when the vote takes place in an atmosphere of political hysteria, a referendum is anything but an exercise in democracy: it is no more than a means of guaranteeing that the rich and powerful and their hired demagogues and propagandists get their way.

And a referendum on the (still not finalised) European Union constitution, as demanded by Michael Howard and a cabal of Europhobic useful idiots in the Labour Party this week, would be a textbook case of such a travesty.

Just think about it. Hardly anyone in Britain has read even a summary of the draft constitution, let alone the whole document. A massive majority of people is completely clueless about what it contains. And this fog of ignorance would not clear during a referendum campaign. Most people simply couldn’t care enough about the European Union’s institutional arrangements to get clued-up.

And then there’s the press. The majority of the people might not give a damn about the constitution, but the press is overwhelmingly antipathetic to it. Of the national newspapers, the Murdoch, Mail, Express and Telegraph titles are all virulently anti-European and are already campaigning relentlessly for its rejection on crude xenophobic grounds, regardless of the consequences.

Against them would be the government, already unpopular and distrusted, backed up half-heartedly by the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent titles and the Mirror and its Sunday sister papers (if they could find space among the celebrity tittle-tattle) — none of them able to come up with a better case for the proposed settlement than the truthful but desperately unexciting argument that it’s not as bad as its detractors make out and a lot better than nothing, because nothing would mean the EU grinding to a halt.

In the circumstances, it is perfectly legitimate for the government to resist calls for the constitution to be put to a referendum.

The EU needs a political structure that works after enlargement, and it would be utterly irresponsible to endanger it by putting it at the mercy of a contest that would almost certainly be won by the populist propaganda of the Eurosceptic press. The argument that the government has denied the people a choice is easily answered: if the people care that much, they can always turf Labour out at the next general election.

Referendums are a fine means of deciding things that don’t really matter — whether Hartlepool has an elected mayor or whether smoking is banned in Norwich pubs — but for anything important we should rely on good old-fashioned representative democracy. Plebiscites are the refuge of populist charlatans.

* * *

On a different matter entirely, I’m afraid I can’t resist taking issue with the editor of this great organ, Mark Seddon, who argued in the Guardian on Monday that Tony Blair should come out in favour of John Kerry’s candidacy in this year’s US presidential election.

It’s not that I don’t want Kerry to win — I do, for lots of reasons, although I don’t think he’s any sort of panacea. It’s just that I don’t think it would be wise for Blair to declare a preference in the outcome of the contest.

Blair is going to have to work with the US administration whoever wins, and there is no sense at all in making an enemy of either candidate. The race between Kerry and George W Bush looks likely to be very close. According to the latest polls, Kerry is marginally ahead, but with six months of vitriolic campaigning still to come the result is impossible to predict. To cap it all, an expression of preference by Blair would have no effect at all on American public opinion. Blair is respected in America for his expression of solidarity in the wake of 9/11 and his support for the US over Afghanistan (and to a lesser extent Iraq) but he is not someone Americans look to for guidance in the polling booth.

Of course, Blair’s closeness to Bush in the past three years is a big issue in the UK, particularly among opponents of the Iraq war. But that is not a good reason to insist that he makes a complete chump of himself.

Tuesday, 16 March 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, March 19 2004

This week’s general election result in Spain is one of the most extraordinary in living memory. A week before polling day, prime minister José María Aznar’s conservative People’s Party was comfortably ahead in the opinion polls, and the talk on the left was of who would succeed José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero as leader of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) when it lost.

But then came the vile atrocity of last Thursday’s train bombs in Madrid — and everything changed, in a matter of 48 hours.

Encouraged by the Aznar government, which confidently declared that the perpetrator of the outrage was the Basque separatist group ETA, millions took to the streets throughout Spain on Friday to protest against terrorism. The demonstrations were angry yet dignified, a remarkable and moving affirmation of national solidarity against terror and terrorists, and for democracy. The number that turned out was bigger by far than the Europe-wide total of protesters against the Iraq war in February last year.

Yet there was something else bubbling under. Even as the crowds gathered, many Spaniards suspected that there was something just a little fishy about the government’s insistence that ETA, against which it had taken a notably hard line, planted the bombs.

And over the next 24 hours their suspicions were apparently confirmed. A van was discovered containing detonators and a tape of verses from the Koran. ETA vehemently denied responsibility not once but twice. And police arrested three Moroccans and two Indians — not widely represnted in ETA’s ranks — after finding an unexploded knapsack device of the kind used in the train bombings.

The evidence seemed to point towards al-Qaida or some other Islamist group — yet still the government pressed the all-too convenient line that ETA was responsible. By Saturday night, angry crowds were demonstrating outside the People’s Party headquarters in Madrid, accusing the PP of lying to maximise its vote. And on Sunday the Socialists were given a massive boost as voters repelled by the PP’s cynical attempt to exploit the deaths of 200 people for electoral gain flocked to the polling booths to kick out the conservatives. Almost incredibly, on Sunday evening the PSOE emerged as the largest party — and Zapatero found himself with the unexpected challenge of putting together the next government.

Who said that politics has become dull and predictable? This was an upset as big as Labour’s victory in Britain in 1945 — and for the first time since 1989 a continental European political story led the BBC news.

But what does it all mean? Most of the instant comment in the UK on the Socialists’ victory — from left and right — has interpreted the wave of revulsion against the PP as a refusal of Aznar’s support of the Bush administration’s “war on terror”, in particular the deployment of Spanish forces in Iraq.

There is some truth in this: the belief that Aznar’s backing for the US military action in Iraq made Spain a target for Islamist terror appears to have had a big effect on some voters, and the Socialists undoubtedly won support from their promise to withdraw the Spanish contingent from the coalition forces occupying Iraq — a promise repeated by Zapatero (with qualifications) after winning the election.

But to extrapolate from this that the Spanish have collectively decided that the best way of coping with Islamist terror is to withdraw from confrontation — capitulation or considered rejection of a counter-productive US policy depending on your point of view — is utterly ludicrous.

Sunday’s vote was not an endorsement of copping out of opposition to Islamist terror: it was a vote against politicians’ opportunist exploitation of mass murder, a vote for less self-serving rhetoric and more effective action against the mass murderers.

Yes, the Socialists were against the war in Iraq, as were the overwhelming majority of Spanish people. But voters who were anti-war above all else were committed to the PSOE and other left parties long before the train bombings and long before the late swing that pushed them into power. The Socialists owe their victory to people unmoved by their anti-war message but disgusted by the right’s lack of respect for the dead. If Zapatero is going to retain the suport of those voters, he’s going to have to take as tough a line against terror and terrorists as any other western government leader — though how his “troops out of Iraq” policy can possibly be seen as tough is hard to see.

Sunday, 29 February 2004


Paul Anderson, Chartist, March-April 2004

The most important thing to remember about the impending enlargement of the European Union is just how unimaginable it would have been only a short time ago.

Anyone who had suggested just 15 years ago – in early 1989 – that the European Community would today be about to take into membership a majority of the states of east-central Europe would have been a political laughing stock. The division of the Europe into two hostile blocs and Soviet domination of the east were givens, taken by just about everyone as unpleasant facts of political life that were likely to last a very long time if not forever.

Yet here we are in 2004, and the European club is about to welcome 10 new members, among them four states that were Soviet satellites in 1989 (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) and three that were actually part of the Soviet Union (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania).

Of course, they will be second-class members when they join on 1 May. For some time, their citizens’ freedom to work wherever they want in the European Union will be restricted, and their farmers will be denied the level of subsidy enjoyed by their counterparts in existing EU member states under the Common Agricultural Policy. None of the new member states will be part of the eurozone, either.

But none of this should be allowed to obscure the momentous importance of this enlargement of the EU. It marks the definitive end of the cold-war division of the continent and the near-achievement of the pioneering 1930s European federalists’ dream of a united democratic Europe.

Of the countries everyone agrees to be European, only Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, the states of former Yugoslavia – apart from Slovenia – and Switzerland are now outside the EU. And that is no mean achievement (although of course there is a strong case for arguing that any definition of “European” that excludes the Russians, Byelorussians, Ukrainians, Georgians and Turks is far too narrow). Even in the late 1990s, when the enlargement proposed was less far-reaching than the one that is now happening, plenty of informed people thought it impossible before 2010.

Which is not to say that the entry of the 10 new members will be unproblematic. In particular, every government in the pre-enlargement EU is worried, to a greater or lesser extent, about the possibility of a giant influx of workers from the accession countries, chasing better wages and better welfare provision. Even the British government, which expects few accession-country immigrants and would anyway welcome them because the labour market is tight, has changed benefit rules to exclude migrants from the accession countries. Nearly all the others, with Germany and Austria in the vanguard, have imposed strict quotas on immigration from the EU’s new members.

Immigration is the issue likely to have the biggest impact in the short term on the politics of the EU. To put it bluntly, if the controls over and disincentives to immigration don’t work – or, rather, are seen as not working by voters in the existing member states, there is a possibility of a swell of anti-immigrant sentiment that is successfully exploited by the right in the west.

This is, however, no more than a possibility. For a start, it is by no means certain that very many people from the accession countries will leave their homelands. Up-rooting everything to work abroad is not something people generally do unless they are either unusually adventurous or suffering from extreme poverty or persecution – and extreme poverty and persecution are not the lot of most citizens of the accession states, with the partial exception of the Roma of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The last time the European Community embraced a batch of much poorer countries – Greece, Spain and Portugal in the 1980s – there was no mad rush of migration, and there is no reason to expect this time to be different.

What’s more, it is doubtful that migration from the accession countries will in itself lead to a swell of anti-immigrant feeling even if large numbers move west. There are already many people from the accession countries living in the pre-enlargement EU – and although it would be idiotic to claim that they are never victims of discrimination or prejudice, with the exception of the Roma they are pretty much invisible. They are white and indistinguishable from the majority population by way of religion, dress or social habits – and thus rather difficult to turn into scapegoats for the troubles of the majority. “Vote Labour if you want a Latvian for a neighbour” just won’t wash.

The problem with this scenario is the exception to the rule of invisibility, the Roma – in Britain at any rate. Already, the right-wing press here is running scare stories about the imminent arrival of a flood of gypsies, many of them former failed asylum-seekers. So far, only the British National Party has shown any interest in exploiting the scare for electoral gain, but if it turns out to have any basis in reality it is by no means unlikely – despite Michael Howard’s apparent rejection of anti-immigrant rhetoric -- that the Tories will jump on the bandwagon, pushing a cocktail of anti-European, anti-immigrant xenophobia as their core political message at the next general election. We shall see.

But EU enlargement is important politically not only because of the impact of migration on the domestic politics of current member countries. It will also have ramifications for the EU’s political balance, for the economies of the whole union and for the way the EU’s institutions work.

The effects of enlargement on the political balance of the EU will be less marked than they would have been had it happened in the late 1990s, when social democratic parties were in power in the four biggest EU countries, Germany, France, Britain and Italy – not that they acted in concert, to their shame – and most of east-central Europe was governed by the centre-right. The ascendancy of the centre-left in western Europe was fleeting, and today the existing EU is roughly split between centre-left and centre-right governments. In east-central Europe, there was a shift towards the centre-left in 2001-02, though hardly one of seismic proportions, and today the accession countries’ governments are roughly split between centre-right and centre-left, much as current EU governments are.

But there are significant differences between east and west in the new EU, particularly on foreign policy, with the accession countries generally far more favourable to the United States. The governments of “new Europe”, as Donald Rumsfeld called it, were much closer to Tony Blair in their response to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq than those of “old Europe”.

How far this will make any difference in the next couple of years is hard to tell, because no one knows what (if anything) the US will do now in its “war on terror”. As ever, what will matter most in European Union politics are general elections in the member states. With nearly many governments east and west looking vulnerable to election defeat, no one can predict with confidence what the situation will be in a couple of years’ time. This year’s European Parliament elections will be an indication of the state of play, but with turnouts everywhere expected to be low even they will need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

The economic effects of enlargement are even more difficult to judge. It should be an engine of growth throughout Europe as everyone benefits from the opening of markets – but it might simply benefit the accession countries, exacerbating the globalisation-led flight of employment from the high-wage countries of western Europe while the poorest parts of western Europe suffer from the diversion of EU cash to the accession countries. Whatever, it is likely to have rather less influence on Europe’s economic performance than exchange rates (particularly if the US maintains its weak dollar policy) and the onward march of globalisation.

As for the workings of the EU’s institutions, enlargement will certainly mean a far greater emphasis in the short term on intergovernmental wheeling and dealing – and this in a set-up that is already dominated by intergovernmental carve-ups – for the simple reason that there is no alternative. In the medium to long term, however, everything is up for grabs. The proposed EU constitution is essentially intergovernmentalist, with a few sops to federalism. But there is little sense anywhere that it is a final settlement of the union’s institutional arrangements. No one knows whether its provisions will come into being, let alone that they will prove lasting if they do.

It’s true that it does currently seem unlikely that a polity as big and diverse as the enlarged EU could successfully evolve towards federalism. On the other hand, however, there are powerful pressures in the other direction: the euro, which demands a coherent centrally controlled fiscal policy; the likelihood that the smaller countries of the new EU will tire of being dominated by the big ones; and the EU’s much-discussed lack of democratic legitimacy, which can only be addressed by giving the European Parliament a much greater role, including the power to initiate legislation.

In other words, it’s business as usual on the European scene. There is no way the left can guarantee a social democratic Europe after enlargement. But there is also no reason to give up on that goal, which is no less credible than it ever has been.

Tuesday, 17 February 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, February 20 2004

By far the most entertaining read of the year — OK, I know it’s only February — is Francis Wheen’s broadside against contemporary bullshit, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. I read it in one sitting last weekend and laughed a great deal.

Wheen, once of the New Statesman and the Guardian and still of Private Eye, has spent the best part of 25 years as a journalist amassing material on mountebanks of all kinds, and he puts it to devastating use. Religious fundamentalists, free-market economists, management gurus, New Labour strategists, deconstructionist intellectuals, internet visionaries — you name them, they all get richly deserved trashings.

Wheen is of the left: his previous books include sympathetic biographies of Tom Driberg, the Labour left-winger, and Karl Marx. But some of the best bits of How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World are his debunkings of left charlatanry — in particular the willful failure of such “anti-imperialist” leftists as John Pilger and Noam Chomsky to recognise that everything the United States does is not by definition evil and that everyone who hates the United States is not by definition good.

Wheen is especially telling on two cases in the recent past when the “anti-imperialist” left lost the plot completely — its shameful opposition to western military intervention to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, and its conclusion after 9/11 that America had it coming because of its policies in the Middle East. “While expressing obligatory if perfunctory regret at Osama bin Laden’s methods,” writes Wheen of the latter, “many self-styled ‘progressives’ seemed to find his motives wholly explicable, and even reasonable.”

What’s particularly worrying about this current of leftist delusion is that it is so persistent. As Wheen points out, the belief that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” led large parts of the western left to view the Soviet Union as an ally and to suppress any criticism of it long after it became obvious to anyone open to reason that it was a brutal police state that had nothing in common with democratic socialism: even in the 1980s, you could find Labour MPs, senior trade unionists and left intellectuals who were as pro-Soviet as any 1930s communist.

More importantly for us today, over the past few months the “my enemy’s enemy” crew have found new friends in what they call the “resistance” in Iraq. No matter that the people attacking US forces and police stations and terrorising ordinary Iraqi citizens are either enthusiasts for the bloody dictatorship of Saddam Hussein or reactionary Islamists — they’re against the Yankee imperialists and so deserve our support.

As Pilger put it in an interview with an Australian magazine a few weeks back (click here for full interview): “We cannot afford to be choosy. While we abhor and condemn the continuing loss of innocent life in Iraq, we have no choice now but to support the resistance, for if the resistance fails, the ‘Bush gang’ will attack another country. If they succeed, a grievous blow will be suffered by the Bush gang.”

I used to have great respect for Pilger, who was a columnist on the New Statesman when I was deputy editor, and I still admire his early work on Cambodia and East Timor. But this line of “thinking” is beneath contempt. Pilger is right that victory for the Iraqi “resistance” would be a blow to the Bush administration. But it would also, more importantly, inevitably mean the imposition of yet another dictatorship, whether secular or theocratic, on the long-suffering Iraqi people — who have every right to be “choosy” — and an end to any hope of a free, decent, prosperous, democratic Iraq.

Sorry, but condemning the Iraqis to barbarism in order to cock a snook at US imperialism is in no sense “progressive”. Iraq needs peace and a sustainable civil society; and to get them the “resistance” must be defeated. The real danger is that the US will pull out of Iraq too soon, abandoning it to a bloody civil war.

I am not arguing that Bush was right to invade Iraq or that the Blair government was right to join in. The war was a massive gamble, and although one part of it came off spectacularly — Saddam was easily toppled and eventually captured — the US and Britain had not thought through what happened next. That was, to say the least, extraordinarily irresponsible.

But there is no way anyone can turn the clock back and stop the war: it happened, and everyone now has to live with the consequences. Having sold the war as necessary to prevent Saddam using weapons of mass destruction that have not yet materialised, Tony Blair has his own cynical reasons for wanting everyone to “move on” from the long-running argument about whether and how the war was justified. But he also happens to be right. The urgent question now is how Iraq can best be helped to emerge from the mess created by the war. And crude “anti-imperialism” is not the answer.

Tuesday, 3 February 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, February 6 2004

The media furore that has followed the publication of Lord Hutton’s report on the death of Dr David Kelly is of course understandable.

Hutton’s verdict was at odds with what most of the media expected and, more importantly, at odds with what most of them wanted. His damning criticism of the BBC’s handling of Andrew Gilligan’s notorious Today programme broadcast led not only to the resignation of Gilligan but to the departure of Gavyn Davies, the chairman of the BBC’s board of governors, and Greg Dyke, the corporation’s director-general. The government, by contrast, got off scot-free.

But to say that the uproar is understandable is not to justify it. Given Hutton’s narrow brief, and given what emerged in the course of his inquiry, it was never likely that he would come to any conclusion other than the one he came to. The real question the hoo-hah raises is why on earth the media expected anything different — and the answer has precious little to do with their failure to recognise Hutton's undoubtedly pro-establishment record over the years.

Lest we forget, Hutton was not charged with investigating the reasons Britain went to war with Iraq: his task was to look into the circumstances of Dr Kelly’s death. Quite reasonably, he limited himself to examining the chain of events, beginning with the production of the government dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, that ended with Dr Kelly’s suicide, focusing in particular on his interview with Gilligan, Gilligan’s subsequent broadcast, and the complex process by which Dr Kelly was identified as Gilligan’s source. He did not even attempt to consider whether the intelligence reports on which the dossier was based were accurate.

During the course of the inquiry, it became clear that Gilligan’s journalism was appallingly shoddy. He had based his story on a single source — which was almost incredibly unprofessional given the seriousness of the allegation that even though the government knew that Saddam Hussein had no WMD capable of deployment in 45 minutes, it nevertheless inserted the claim into the dossier. He had no credible contemporaneous record of his interview with Dr Kelly that showed he had at least reported an allegation in good faith. And he had behaved in an extraordinarily devious way once his story came under fire, attempting to pull the wool over his editors’ eyes about the nature of his source and trying to get Dr Kelly’s identity revealed by underhand means. Gilligan would have deserved criticism from Hutton even if had not emerged that the 45 minute claim had been inserted in the dossier late simply because it arrived late.

It also became clear during the inquiry that the BBC’s initial response to the government’s protests at Gilligan’s broadcast, defending him stoutly without bothering to check the provenance or veracity of his story, had been sloppy in the extreme. Again, the real surprise of last week is that anyone expected the corporation not to be deservedly hammered by the Hutton report.

As for the government, it should have become obvious at an early stage that it was on track to be cleared on the charge that it inserted claims it knew were false in the dossier. The mass of official documents made public by the inquiry certainly showed that the government “sexed-up” intelligence material to produce the dossier, at least in the sense of putting the strongest possible interpretation on it. That was revealing, and deeply unattractive. But there was nothing at all to show that the government had knowingly lied.

Nor should this have come as a surprise. Governments in societies with free media are often evasive, duplicitous and economical with the truth. But they don’t usually tell outright lies they know are outright lies — if only for the cynical reason that the costs of being found out are so great. Only the most desperate and reckless government would have attempted knowingly to falsify the WMD dossier.

None of this is to argue that the government’s handling of the WMD issue in the run-up to the war on Iraq was beyond criticism. There is a strong case for believing that the government seized on WMD as a means of justifying its support for an invasion the US had already decided upon for other reasons, and it has become increasingly apparent that there were major flaws in the intelligence on Iraqi WMD on which it relied.

Still less is it to argue that the BBC should somehow be reined in or prevented from doing investigative journalism. The government’s veiled threats to take the Hutton report into consideration when renewal of the coporation’s charter comes up were sinister and shameful.

My point is that too many journalists approached Hutton with the lazy assumption that it’s OK for a journalist to get a story “95 per cent right” (as former Today editor Rod Liddle put it) and with the prejudice that it can be taken as read that the government is lying to us nearly all of the time. Hutton’s report is a salutary reminder that in journalism the facts matter more than anything else.