Friday, 23 December 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 23 December 2011

The journalist and author Christopher Hitchens, who died last week at the age of 62, was never associated with Tribune.

Indeed, in the 1970s, when he was a young journalist on the New Statesman and a member of the far-left International Socialists (the forerunner of today’s Socialist Workers Party), there was no love lost between him and this paper. He was with the competition – and his Trotskyist loathing of the compromises made by the traditional Labour left was reciprocated.

In 1978, after the New Statesman splashed a speech by Michael Foot from 10 years earlier on the front page, to contrast Foot’s critical attitude to the Wilson government of the 1960s with his supposedly shameless participation in the Callaghan government, Tribune’s parliamentary correspondent Hugh Macpherson wrote a column defending Foot’s achievements as a minister, warning against the left habit of treating any compromise as treason against socialism and attacking the Statesman for confusing the political circumstances of 1968 and 1978. In response came a blistering letter from Hitchens:
Many of us never thought of Michael Foot as a great socialist, and are therefore spared the pain of explaining his present conduct in those terms. But Macpherson's argument could be applied, without changing a word, as a defence of Denis Healey, Shirley Williams, David Owen or Roy Hattersley, all of whom deserve as much credit as Foot for the ‘achievements’ of this government.
Does Macpherson really think that the aftermath of Anthony Barber's chancellorship justifies support for, in no special order; the neutron bomb, the Shah of Iran, the Official Secrets Act, the 5 per cent pay limit, the savaging of social expenditure, the hoisting of unemployment figures, the deportation of dissidents and the burying of the Bingham Report? …
Like Foot's enthusiasm for Indira Gandhi's dictatorship, these are options, consciously and deliberately decided upon as matters of policy. Alternative strategies, to coin a phrase, were available in all cases and still are. If the mesmeric figure of Foot was not present among the ‘insiders’, this might be clearer to some people – which is why one assumes he is kept on …
Michael Foot's defenders seem entirely worthy of his political position – dishonest with an occasional whine from the left corner of the mouth.”
As far as I’m aware, this letter, published in Tribune on 24 November 1978, is the only thing Hitchens ever wrote for the paper. I remember it well – the Tribune-Statesman spat was a big talking point on the Oxford student left then  – and at the time I was on Hitchens’s side.

Hitchens remained a sworn enemy of Foot and a target for Tribune sniping until 1981, when Hitchens upped sticks and left the Statesman and Britain for the Nation and the United States. Relations warmed after Tribune ran approving reviews of Hitchens’s books in the late 1980s and early 1990s and took much the same position as him on the break-up of Yugoslavia, and I interviewed him for the paper in 1993. But we still never got a written word out of him.

Tribune and Hitchens were on opposite sides of the argument over the post 9/11 western military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq but never completely fell out. Mark Seddon invited Hitchens to put the case for military action to remove Saddam Hussein at the Tribune rally at the 2002 Labour conference, and Hitchens agreed. His speech was received in silence and politely applauded. In his memoir published last year, Hitch-22, Hitchens described the engagement as “my last appearance as a man of the left”.

I don’t think Hitchens ever completely ceased to be of the left, but that doesn’t matter. For all his faults and for everything that he got wrong (and there was plenty), his was a voice that was always worth taking seriously even when – particularly when – he was most at odds with the left consensus. He was the most accomplished literary-political journalist in the English language of the past 30 years, a brilliant stylist with an extraordinary range of interests and an unparalleled independence of spirit. He will be not be easily replaced.


With this issue Tribune celebrates its 75th birthday. The paper first appeared on 1 January 1937, and has been going ever since.

But it nearly didn’t make it. A couple of months ago it appeared to be on its death bed. Kevin McGrath, the businessman who had supported it financially since 2008, had announced that he was going to close it as a print publication and continue it as a website with an automated news feed. It was only after several weeks of negotiation that he agreed to sell it for a nominal sum to a new co-operative of staff and readers, the public launch of which will be announced in the new year.

It’s not going to be easy, but with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work I’m sure we can pull through. Here’s to the next 75 years.

Saturday, 10 December 2011


Paul Anderson, review of A Walk-On Part: Diaries 1994-1999 by Chris Mullin (Profile, £20), Tribune, 9 December 2011

The third and final volume of diaries from Chris Mullin is actually a prequel to the first two, covering his life and times as a Labour MP from 1994, when John Smith died and Tony Blair was elected Labour leader, to 1999, when he joined Blair’s government as a junior minister.

A Walk-On Part shares the qualities of the volumes covering 1999 to 2010, The View From the Foothills (2008) and Decline and Fall (2010). Mullin writes clearly and candidly, with an eye for telling detail and amusing anecdotes, some of them about the most unlikely people. He pulls no punches in his assessments of colleagues, including supposed superiors (Gordon Brown is described as ““a workaholic who is burning himself up for no apparent purpose” and every MP's complaint about Peter Mandelson's machinations is recorded) and, despite writing in his preface that “much pessimism and agonising has ended up on the cutting-room floor”, he has done little to excise from the record opinions or predictions that might now seem embarrassing or naive.

“We're going to lose. Blair knows it too. I can see it in his eyes every time he appears on the TV news,” runs an entry just a week before Labour's spectacular landslide in the 1997 general election.

The diaries are not just a political record, moreover. There is a lot about his family and friends, some of it funny and some of it poignant.

All this makes A Walk-On Part immensely enjoyable. But it has a serious purpose too – or rather several serious purposes. It is, for a start, an extended meditation on the role of the backbench MP in modern British politics. Mullin represented Sunderland South as a backbencher from 1987, and he paints a vivid picture of what the job entailed: the surgeries with constituents (some of them utterly unreasonable), the endless meetings, the constant travel back and forth from London. Some MPs might be snout-in-trough, lazy careerists, but Mullin was clearly assiduous and selfless in representing his constituents’ interests.

Throughout the period covered by this volume, Mullin had an important role in parliamentary politics as a senior member of the House of Commons Home Affairs select committee (from 1997 to 1999 as its chair), and the book deals in some depth with its work – often unsung and dreary but utterly essential in holding the executive to account. Mullin is always sceptical about the effects of his and his committee’s efforts, but A Walk-On Part is in its subtle way as convincing an argument as I’ve read for massively increasing the power and independence of the select committees in order to improve parliamentary scrutiny of government.

Mullin also has plenty that is serious to say about Labour politics. The diaries encompass the birth and electoral triumph of New Labour and the first two years of the Blair government – a quite momentous period, or at least that is how it seemed to most observers and participants at the time.

Most of the left to which Mullin belonged – he had been a strong supporter of Tony Benn as editor of Tribune in the early 1980s and in 1994 was a member of the hard-left Campaign Group along with Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner and Ken Livingstone – saw Blair as a cuckoo in the nest and opposed his every move, with ever-decreasing effectiveness. Mullin did not.

His diary entries abhor the vacuity of New Labour’s marketing and slogans, are withering about the idiotically centralised regime of party management at the core of New Labour, and are unsparing in their criticisms of much New Labour policy – particularly Gordon Brown’s timidity on just about every aspect of economic policy and the craven approach to Rupert Murdoch adopted from 1995. But Mullin recognises early on that Blair, for all his faults, is Labour’s best hope of winning and holding on to power, and he has no time for the oppositionist stance of his erstwhile comrades, choosing his rebellions against the leadership with care. It’s clear from his account that the marginalisation of the old left by New Labour was aided and abetted by the old left itself.

The events with which this book deals took place a long time ago – before 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, before the internet became a mass phenomenon, before boom turned to bust. Many of the people who appear in its pages are dead – Michael Foot, Peter Shore, Jack Jones, Joan Maynard, Joan Lestor, Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam – or long retired.

It is nevertheless remarkable how strangely recent it all seems. In part, this is because so many of the key players in Labour politics in the 1990s were still there at the bitter end of the 1997-2010 Labour government (most notably Brown and Mandelson). But it is also because so many of the issues then central in Labour politics remain so today.

The Labour leadership spent the 1990s desperately seeking credibility on the economy and chasing the votes of affluent middle-class voters. Mullin despaired and still despairs of many of the means it used in the process – “control freakery, a soft spot for rich men, the obsession with spin” – but thought and still thinks that the broad strategy was right. In his preface, he writes of Blair: “He was surely right about the need to seize the middle ground and stay there. His decision to rewrite Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution … was in retrospect a master stroke, though it didn’t feel that way at the time. His strategy of promising little and delivering more, in contrast to the over-promising and under-delivering of previous governments, was also surely validated. Likewise his determination to tackle the huge benefit culture (ironically the new government’s most enduring legacy from the Thatcher decade) and to reform public services, education in particular.”

Whether such a strategy will work against the background of economic crisis and insecurity as well as it worked during a period of boom is, of course, the big question facing Ed Miliband right now. If he hasn’t read this book already, he could do worse than put it on his Xmas list.