Newsnotes 009 – January 1989

Notes on the News

by Madawc Williams

Terminate with extreme Liberalism

The defeat of Michael Dukakis became inevitable, when he took the advice of his campaign managers and started fudging the question of whether he was or was not a Liberal. By treating the matter as something possibly disgraceful, he was doing the Republicans’ work for them. By the time he decided to switch tactics, it was too late.

The sad thing is, Dukakis did have some quite good ideas. His proposal to give the USA a rudimentary Health Service was excellent; at present even rich people can get broken by serious illness. He would also have been certain to raise taxes to help plug the Federal Budget deficit

On the other hand, had Dukakis won, he might have either opened up the way for new expansions by Russian tanks and Iranian religious fanatics (as Carter did), or else blundered into a really dangerous confrontation (as Kennedy did over the Cuban missiles). America’s liberals have a bad record in dealing with the rest of the world.

President Bush has promised not to raise taxes. In any other county but the USA, he would have the power to cut public expenditure instead. The US Constitution denies him that authority; it is deliberately designed to prevent concentration of power. Thus he may not be able to close the gap between spending and revenue; not unless he can get a solid and extensive deal with Congress. The chance remains that there will be a real economic bust-up, at just the moment when most socialists are assuming that the crises of capitalism are over.

Gorbachev’s Last Post

When Lenin wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, it did not occur to him that his own party might create a state that would end up as the last vestige of imperialism. But that, in effect, is what has happened.

The USSR is nominally a free federation of Socialist nations. In practice, it is an evolution of the Russian Empire. Its leaders may be beginning to denounce “Stalin’s crimes”, but they are happy to hang on to the loot he acquired for them. Apart from Finland and a chunk of Poland, Stalin recovered all the territories the Tsars had once held, and added a few bits besides.

In terms of abstract logic, the sort of logic that is talked at the UN when other parts of the world are discussed, there is no reason why each of the republics of the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” should not become a separate nation-state. And indeed, the Soviet constitution introduced by Stalin in the 1930s does give them the right of secession. (It gives Soviet citizens all sorts of splendid rights that they have never in practice been able to enjoy.)

But there is little chance of these nations ever again becoming nation-states. Not for any reason of abstract justice or morality. But for a very basic power-political reason: the Great Russians dominate the existing set-up, and would probably start a nuclear war before they would agree to let go of the non-Russian territories. For this reason, and for no other, the Baltic republics should be advised to put up with Moscow rule. Still, it is the last vestige of imperialism; let no one pretend any differently.

Revolt of the Poll Tax Payers?

In the 1960s and 1970s, right-wing “ratepayers” candidates had some success in local elections. They were limited by the fact that most people in high-rate areas do not directly pay the rates, or else do not find them a great burden. The “ratepayers” protest could only go so far.

But what happens with the Poll Tax?  Most people on the Left have been assuming that it will rebound against the Tories. But the big Poll Tax burden will be felt by poor people in the Inner Cities. They may try to vote out Thatcher – but her power base is in any case elsewhere; she can live with their hostility.

Given a fourth term for Thatcher – a depressingly likely event at the time of writing – what will they do? Poor people crushed by a burden of Poll Tax are likely to turn to anyone who offers to ease the pain. Specifically, there could be an opening for some sort of non-Thatcherite cost-cutting regime that would offer to cut or sell off everything to ease the burden.

It is a disgraceful fact that many people on the Labour Left are unconcerned about the Poll Tax. They themselves will be able to pay it; they calculate that it will also inflame “the masses” and increase their power. This cynical calculation may also turn out to be wildly wrong. Honesty can very often be the best policy!

The PLO almost say it

Supposing you have a neighbour who has several times tried to murder you; who declares that he has a perfect right to murder you; and who has been indirectly responsible for the deaths of many of your relatives. And supposing that he makes a series of ambiguous statements that could be taken to mean that he no longer intends to murder you. Do you therefore embrace him as a friend?

The PLO’s statement on Israel was hailed by everyone who is in no danger of having to live with the consequences. It was taken to mean that the PLO recognised Israel, because this was the simplest interpretation of what it said. And a few weeks later, Arafat actually said explicitly that this was what it meant. As far as most of the world is concerned, Arafat and the PLO have done everything they can be expected to do. It is now up to Israel to respond.

The world has a short memory. It has forgotten that back in the 1930s there was simply no place in the world for the Jews who were being pushed out of Germany and eastern Europe. It has been forgotten that Hitler would have been quite willing to ship them to Palestine, had not the British bowed to Arab pressure and forbidden it.

The UN resolution of 1947 tried to make the best of a bad situation. The displaced Jews of the world had to go somewhere; it was understandable that many could no longer feel safe. as a minority in any non-Jewish state. A single Jewish state – in a world full of states dominated by Christians or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists – seemed the only solution. But one also had to recognise the rights of the ex1stmg inhabitants. Therefore, the UN decided on part1Uon. The Jews said yes; the Palestinians said no, and asked their fellow-Arabs to help them throw out the Jewish settlers.

Arafat has come as close as he can to abandoning this policy, without actually abandoning it. He says that the PLO now accepts Israel – but the PLO as a whole has not said it. Nor has the PLO modified its charter, which still talks of wiping Israel off the face of the map. Even his best friends would not call Arafat straightforward!

It is notable that he waited until after the Israeli election; a slight swing to Labour might have produced a government willing to give up Gaza and the West Bank. It was almost as if he designed it to be something that would impress the world, while avoiding any risk that Israel could actually accept it.

If this was his aim, then he has succeeded very well. The USA has agreed to talk to the PLO. But no one on the Palestinian side seems very upset at what Arafat has conceded. And the pressure will now be on Israel, not just to trade land for peace, but also to accept a sovereign PLO-dominated Palestinian state. Israel, the only homeland for the much-persecuted Jews, is supposed to trust its future to the PLO’s apparent change of heart.

One should look at the way that other Arab states have treated their minorities – Kurds in Iraq, non-Muslim Blacks in Sudan. Islam in general is less tolerant than it was in 1947, when it refused to see that the Jews might have any rights in the original Jewish homeland, the core of their religious and cultural feelings.

Israel has good reason to fear the possibility of a Palestinian state. Nation-states are sovereign; in the last analysis they are not bound by any agreements they may make. Even if Arafat means it, he cannot speak for his successors. Today Gaza and the West Bank; tomorrow the whole of what was once Palestine!

[In the event, peace was made too late, when Israel had become more right-wing and less inclined to compromise.]


Iranian revolution was a high point of the “Islamist” movement within Muslim countries. With luck, it may tum out to have been the high point: a peak of power and potential that will not be repeated.

It is wrong to speak of “Islamic Fundamentalism”. Christian Fundamentalism involves hanging onto a literal belief in the cosmology and history of the Book of Genesis and in the whole Bible as the literal Word of God. In this sense, all devout Muslims are Fundamentalists; they believe the Koran to have been given down directly from God. And since the Koran is mostly moral exhortation, this does not create such a tension with science and secular knowledge.

The Islamist movement is basically an attempt to rule modern states according to laws derived from the Koran, and worked out in detail for pre-industrial states. Islamists also claim divine sanction for their politics; anyone who is against them is against God

The Iran-Iraq war was a direct test of this notion. And Iran, despite having a larger population, failed to break Iraq. Nothing in the course of the war suggested either divine guidance or divine favour. They fought it for several more years than were strictly necessary, at vast cost in blood and money. Islamism in Iran proved to be entirely human and fallible.

The victory of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, and the fragile peace that seems to have been made in Sudan, could be signs of a turning of the tide. It is not a question of lack of belief in Islam; when Benazir Bhutto referred to General Zia’s death as a punishment from God, she doubtless meant it quite literally. What it may mean is a resurgence of an older and more tolerant form of Islam. Let us hope so.

[It might have been so, without the war waged on Saddam’s Iraq.]

Potted History

The standard view of the Nazis was cobbled together for propaganda purposes before and during World War Two. Many aspects of it were quite false. For instance, it

was implied that most of them, including Hitler, were homosexual. This was totally false, but it made for good propaganda at a time when homosexuality was deeply unpopular. It was also claimed that Hitler was really called Schickelgruber. His father was for a time known by that name, but had established his membership of the Hitler family some time before Adolf himself was born.

I do not blame the people who cooked up the original propaganda. Lies are unpleasant, but not as unpleasant as bombs and bullets. Given that the war could not be avoided, it was fair enough that truth should be the first casualty. It would have been a victim of genocide, had the Nazis won.

The trouble is, most people since then have been too lazy to go back and work out what the Nazis actually were and were not. Everyone played the game of associating their political enemies with Fascism. Even the neo-Nazis tend to imitate the propaganda-Nazis, not the complex populist movement that actually existed. And of course, no one could understand why the Germans should have accepted such a thing.

Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past Is Myself is one of a limited number of books that give a different and more plausible picture of the rise of Hitler. Hardly anyone expected things to go the way they actually did. They backed him because he seemed the best chance of a return to normality. A way out of a world slump that had made everybody poor in the name of economic orthodoxy. A way out of the Versailles settlement that had torn away large territories that were ethnically German. Had democratic politics been succeeding – as they did succeed after World War Two – Hitler would have remained a fringe politician.

I’d been looking forward to seeing the television adaptation of this work. I should have known better. Smart media folk are not going to let the testimony of an eye-witness jolt them out of their pre-conceived ideas. Dennis Potter’s Christabel has restored all the comic-book Nazi cliches.

It’s often been noted that those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It was only good fortune that the far right chose to be comic-opera rather than authentic fascists. But, on the other hand, we do have Thatcherism.

Thatcher owes nothing to Hitlerism; I have no doubt that she feels a genuine loathing for Nazism. (As did Churchill, the leading right-wing Tory of his era.) But she has done the same job in the 1980s that Hitler did in the 1930s; she has broken the power of the Left and made right-wing ideas look like “the wave of the future”. Moreover, she has done it without setting up a totalitarian system and without any drift towards world war. And most people on the Left find it baffling. They should have looked more closely at Hitler as he actually was!

Who fears to speak to IRA?

When a jury reaches a split decision about a group of foreigners who came to their home town for the undoubted purpose of blowing up some of their fellow-citizens, then it is reasonable to suppose that the death of the said foreigners was pretty fishy. This is the only sensible conclusion to draw from the Gibraltar inquest.

The trouble is that the IRA is never treated as being what it actually is: an army engaged in a war against the British state. Recognising them as a hostile army would give the British authorities freedom to arrest them whenever they found them, and to hold them for as long as the war continued. While this is not the case, it is not surprising that soldiers are reluctant to risk their lives to take prisoners who may then walk free on some legal technicality.

Successive British governments have confused the issue by trying to pretend to treat the IRA as a bunch of criminals. There is some overlap, of course. But there is probably just as much overlap between the British Army and the British Underworld. The Kray twins got a lot of their ideas during a brief period of National Service. Had there been a suitable war to send them to, they might have ended up as heroes and medal winners.

The British government has accepted the basic idea of Irish Catholic Nationalism: that the Ulster Protestants have no right to reject a “United Ireland”. They insist that it can not happen without consent. But they do not say that the obvious lack of consent makes Dublin’s claims unjust. As far as Thatcher is concerned, Ulster can sit in limbo until consent is finally given. She won’t even allow them to vote for her; Northern Ireland residents are not allowed to join the Tory Party, or any of the other major parties.

Thatcher has tried to silence the IRA, because she has no answer to their basic argument. Unless and until she says that Dublin’s claim is unjust, she has no answer to people who put their lives at risk in order to enforce the claim.

Anglo-Irish Blarney

Once again, the Irish judicial system is somehow failing to extradite known Republicans to Britain. And Mrs Thatcher just doesn’t understand why this should be. She can’t understand why a state founded by the IRA, dominated by two parties that are both offshoots of the IRA, and sharing the IRA’s basic aim of wanting to get Britain out of the “fourth green field”, should be less than 100% keen about extraditing people who are wanted for their activities as IRA volunteers.

The Dublin Government does not support terrorism; perish the thought! On the other hand, they have good reason to like some of the results of terrorism. Were it not for the IRA, Stormont would very probably still be governing Northern Ireland. (It had the support of the majority, after all.) And had the IRA decided to call off their campaign some time in the early 1980s, there would have been no Anglo-Irish Agreement.

The British media never seem to think of these things, when they discuss the latest case where some extraordinary legal difficulty has yet again frustrated the Irish in their attempts to extradite patriots who are trying to achieve an aim set down in the Irish constitution. They also .never mention the Arms Trials.

To refresh the memory – since no one else is likely to do it – the Provisional IRA had been set up with more than a little support from people in Southern Ireland. Mr Haughey himself was accused of being involved; was put on trial and was acquitted.  But some of the people working for him were convicted.

It’s always seemed odd that the shrewdest man in Irish politics should have been unaware of what his subordinates were up to. But in Ireland, as in Britain, guilt has to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

[I was quite mistaken on this.  Arms supplies were a secret official policy, which the Irish government later denied.  Haughey showed it was so, and so was not convicted.]

Dublin and London are agreed that the best long-term solution would be a United Ireland- though only ”by consent”, of course. Therefore, the Province is left in political limbo until such consent shall be forthcoming. But surveys of opinion reveal that a United Ireland is favoured by only a minority of the Catholics – and by practically none of the Protestants. It also turns out that a majority of both communities would favour British political parties organising in Northern Ireland – which they have always refused to do, and which they still refuse to do.

Nothing much new is likely to happen in 1989. I confidently predict that there will be several more cases in which wanted republicans will somehow or other prove impossible to extradite. Northern Ireland will be excluded from normal politics, and then blamed for being abnormal. And so on and on and on.

Means Test Blues

Have the Tories suddenly grown concerned that they are giving away too much to the rich? It certainly sounded that way, when they were trying to justify charges for eye tests and dental tests. The same thing has been said about child benefits. It has even been said – and then hastily denied – about old age pensions.

Should hard-headed socialists decide that, whatever the Tory motives, it is a sound principle that benefits should go only to those who need them? It does indeed seem weird that people with plenty of money can scoop up free benefits, when resources are short to help the really badly off.

The problem is, where do you draw the line? More importantly, how do you draw the line? Any sort of ”payment by need” must of necessity involve a lot of complicated form-filling, which will put people off, and deprive them of benefits they are supposed to be getting. This has happened with the previous set of Tory welfare changes: the “take-up” has been much less than predicted, which means that the number of losers has been even greater than the critics had expected.

The Tories are trying to establish a stingy principle: you get nothing at all unless you pay for it. The hopelessly poor will be looked after, but only very reluctantly. Meanwhile the well-off and the rich, while no longer receiving free benefits, will pay a lot less tax and be free to spend money on chocolates or dental checks, exactly as they choose. And in due course, assuming that public opinion continues to drift to the right, a really tough system of means-testing can be introduced.

What can Labour say? The fact is, Labour has no coherent alternative principle. Labour governments failed to stick to the simple idea that social needs are met from a social fund that is raised by income tax, according to the ability to pay. Labour was happy to have the poor and needy supervised by an intrusive bureaucracy. It was under Labour that the notion of “targeting” was established. Labour under Kinnock seems to offer only a softer and less coherent version of Thatcherism.

The socialist answer would be: lots of free testing, since catching faults in the early stage saves money in the long run, plus a simpler system like a negative income tax, removing the absurdities of the “poverty trap”.

Loan-shark PhD

Educated young people are a basic national resource. A few people can successfully educate themselves, but not many. Skills on a mass scale can only be produced by education, and a well-educated population is essential for a strong economy.

No one should ever be made to pay for their education. It is not a selfish luxury; it is the life-blood of the economy. And if having a degree improves one’s future income – as it probably does – then income tax should take care of the matter.

Unfortunately, this principle has never been fully established. There was – and still is – a silly system whereby students with well-off parents got smaller grants. They were supposed to get the rest from their parents, who in tum could claim it back off their income tax. It does not always work out that way; some students from well-off homes end up having less to live on than if their parents had been poor. All in all, it was a system of pointless discrimination that persisted because it had always been done that way. (Precedent and tradition mean everything to Civil Servants.)

Now the Tories are changing things – but from bad to worse. Instead of grants, there will be loans. Small loans at first, but they are intended to get bigger and bigger, until eventually there is nothing but a loan. Students are expected to pay back these loans out of their future earnings.

Students who get grants are likely to feel that they owe something to the rest of society. Those who get loans will feel an urgent need to gouge out the money from the rest of society; they will tum their attention to things that are profitable to them, regardless of who else it hurts. No doubt this is just what the Tories want. But what can Labour set against it, except a bad and silly bureaucracy?

Curried Eggs

“Factory Farming” is not really anything new. Humans have been imposing an wmatural life on plants and animals since agriculture began. None of our farm animals have much resemblance to their wild ancestors.

By and large, modern food is also much healthier than what our ancestors would have eaten. Food that we would now class as unfit for human consumption would have been seen as much better than average in the Middle Ages.

However, farming is a highly competitive business. This means that farmers will do whatever they can get away with to make a profit or just to stay in business. Health regulations are supposed to limit what they do. But it had become notorious among those in the know that the egg industry had problems with Salmonella, and that too little was being done about it

It has been claimed that very few people are made ill by infected eggs. But Salmonella is not easy to detect, and its effects can easily be confused with other sorts of illness. The truth is, no one knows how much damage Salmonella is doing. We only know that it can be dangerous.

Enter Edwina Currie. She did no more than repeat what had been said before by various experts – that Salmonella bacteria were widespread, and that no egg could be considered safe unless it was thoroughly cooked.

For no good reason, except that Edwina had already established herself as newsworthy, the tabloids took the matter up. This spread a sudden panic about eggs, and sales suddenly dropped. The mass of the public realised for the first time that eggs might not be safe.

A friend of mine who runs a health shop reported that her sales of eggs actually went up. They were free-range eggs, of course, and also tested for Salmonella. But there was no certainty that they were safe, and with commendable honesty she told them so. And people bought the eggs anyway; presumably thinking that anything from a health store must be healthy.

(People sometimes poison themselves with overdoses of vitamins on the same principle; the “recommended maximum dose” is based on careful research and should be respected.)

In any case, the enraged egg producers raised a storm of protest, and eventually forced Edwina Currie’s resignation. Part of the reason for this was the attitude of the Opposition; Labour joined in the attack on a m1mster who had highlighted a real threat to public health.

Why was this done? On the basis of principle, Labour should have defended the interests of consumers against profitable but risky agricultural practices. Even on a purely pragmatic basis, they should have seen that Thatcher was in a weak position; letting things drift for a couple of weeks while ministers disagreed with each other. Instead, they went along with the notion that it was a gaffe by Edwina Currie, for which she should be punished. Thatcher was therefore able to save face by getting rid of her. And an issue that might have split the different groups of Tory supporters has been allowed to die down.

The trouble with the “pragmatism” of Labour’s leaders is that it sacrifices principle even when it would be to their advantage to uphold it!


These Newsnotes appeared in January 1989, in Issue 9 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  One of many old articles now on the web.