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