Notes on the News
by Madawc Williams
- Thatcherism versus Capitalism?
- License to kill – Alan Bond
- No licence to kill – the Channel Tunnel
- It’s only words
- Prescott and publicity
- Baptising the disobedient
- Hobsbawm’s balm
- Turks and others
- Freed Nelson Mandela
- Whither the weather?
- Literati and the Call of the Wild
Mrs Thatcher likes to boast that she has single-handedly turned the tide against socialism and restored Britain to its proper Capitalist vigour. The truth is, a much deeper world-wide movement away from nation-slate centrally planned forms of socialism was already under way in 1979, when she came to power. She was simply lucky. Most of her decisions have been wrong, and have helped continue Britain’s decline among the capitalist democracies. Britain manufactures less than it did in 1979, and since a greater proportion of this is now owned and managed by foreign countries, British capitalism looks sick indeed.
Between the 1950s and the 1970s, socialism needed to go forward from central planning by technocrats to something much wider and more democratic. This didn’t happen. Orthodox socialist opinion very deliberately stopped it happening, by suppressing, excluding or diverting the minority who did want it. Meanwhile, the growing capitalist world market brought prosperity to countries that were able to cope with it. Countries like Japan and South Korea, and most of the nations of Western Europe. But not to Britain. Britain has continued to flounder about, losing the superior position it once held as the creator of the industrial revolution. North Sea Oil gave us a boost, but it can’t last for long.
Thatcherism was supposed to change this, and Thatcher certainly believes that she has. I used to think that she had – world capitalism was certainly doing fine, and I assumed that Britain would do O.K. as a part of it. But the vanity of Thatcherism – not just of Thatcher herself, though she is certainly vain enough – prevented Britain from being properly capitalist. Serious capitalists knew that some central planning was necessary, that education and training was essential in the long term, that industry must be protected by low interest rates and stable currencies, that major industries must be protected from cowboys who would make short-term profits for shareholders at the expense of long-term possibilities. Silly little Thatcherites, enthusiastically backing the ‘iron lady’ decided that we were much cleverer than the West Germans and Japanese. The best brains were encouraged to go into non-productive speculation. Education was cut back. Any group of managers who tried to plan for the future would be liable to be thrown out after a hostile takeover by wheeler-dealers who could promise shareholders bigger profits for a year or three.
Thatcherism is now gripped by problems from which it may not recover. Some model Thatcherites are going bankrupt. Others have the sense to swim with the tide. Like Nigel Lawson, who after losing control of the economy has gone laughing all the way to the bank, where he has been given a job and a truly enormous salary.
Australian entrepreneur Alan Bond is currently fighting for his financial life. The people he owes money to no longer trust him with it. They want to break up his empire, to recover what they can. As I write, they seem close to succeeding.
The nature of ‘entrepreneurship’ makes such ups and downs inevitable. Alan Bond used to be regarded as a business genius. Now he’s being presented as a wally who’s only real talent was for winning yacht races. But if he pulls through, in a few years’ time they might start calling him a genius again.
Meanwhile, West Germany, Japan and similar countries have a much more stable business climate. Firms build up their power over the years, not by playing financial poker but by making useful products that people want to buy. Anglo-American culture has never really liked doing things this way. Hence the decline of Britain, the impending decline of America, and the status of Australia as an exporter of raw materials.
The Channel Tunnel will definitely be built – too much of the government’s prestige is tied up with it. Even though it has been packaged as private capitalist enterprise, it is immune to the normal sort of business logic which would have led its backers to pull out. Having chickened out on student loans, the banks cannot fail her on another and much larger matter.
Worryingly, what’s being trimmed is safety. To keep up some pretence of future profits, comers are being cut. Someone may have calculated that it’s O.K. to kill as many people over the decades as might die taking the same trip by boat or aircraft. But we’re not being told.
A small apology, in response to a reader’s complaint. In the last issue I referred to ‘ambulance men’. Since not all of them are male, I should of course have said ‘ambulance workers’. (Though not ‘ambulance persons’. Nor will Newsnotes ever speak of Dustpersons, Conpersons or IRA Gunpersons.)
The L&TUR exists to get people thinking about the world. We accept the modem shift to gender-free language, since some people find it very important Personally, I think that too much fuss is made about it. People can learn the jargon easily enough, without necessarily changing their underlying attitude. Since such shifts come much more easily to the middle-class intelligentsia than to manual workers, too much emphasis on ‘sexist’ terminology can be used as an excuse to freeze ordinary working people out of what is supposed to be their party.
I would also say that jargon is at least as much of a problem as ‘sexist’ language. There is far too much of it around. It can sound very grand and learned to use lots of rare words. It can be useful to some people to drop in a baffling term like ‘oblomovism’ to cover a gap in the logic. But it doesn’t add meaning.
To say ‘In the absence of the feline predator the rodent scavengers can engage in recreational activity‘ is actually vaguer than saying ‘while the cat’s away, the mice can play’.
If you want to be understood, avoid sentences like ‘A repair implemented ai this point in time will yield a net saving of human resources of the order of 88.889 per cent’. It’s much better to say ‘A stitch in time saves nine‘. And it’s even non-sexist, it does not say who should do the stitching!
L&TUR has finally begun to be talked about in The Independent, on television programmes and even in the House of Commons. Not, unfortunately, for our general view of the world. But any publicity is a start, especially because it’s not for anything we regret.
I hope readers will remember the excellent interview with John Prescott that was in L&TUR No.IS. Most of it, naturally enough, was about transport policies, Mr Prescott’s area of responsibility. But this naturally had a trade union dimension, which led onto the question of the Tory laws. He expressed the view that Labour would have to repeal all the Tory laws.
The matter has gained such publicity because the Labour leadership has allowed an ambiguity to develop. Will the next Labour government do about the Tory legislation. The issue is a crucial one for Labour Party people, both as members of Trade Unions and as people whose lives might be disrupted by strikes. It needs to be debated and decided democratically.
If you live in England or Wales, you will be deemed to be a member of the Church of England, unless you positively assert that you are something else. Other churches and religious organisations have been built up by the dedication and self-sacrifice of their members. The C of E gained most of its very considerable wealth just by being the official and established religion of the kingdom.
There now seems to be a move to restrict the benefits of membership to ‘active members’ – people who will come on Sundays to be lectured at by the clergy. In particular, “parents who do not promise to attend church regularly could find it increasingly difficult to get their children baptised.” (The Independent. February 2nd 1990).
If the C of E wishes to turn itself into a sect, it can do so. But this would logically imply giving up such privileges as Bishops in the House of Lords, and possession of large numbers of interesting medieval buildings (not all of which have done well under the C of E’s stewardship.) In particular, it should in justice give up a huge chunk of the wealth that it was given on the assumption that it was a Church for everyone. Were the C of E to do this, it would obviously then be free to manage itself as it saw fit. But not otherwise.
Most Labour Party people have no personal need for such services as baptism. Neil Kinnock spoke for many when he said that his relationship with God was practically non-existent. But a lot of Labour voters do like to have the C of E as a church to provide ceremonials for life’s special occasions, even if they don’t otherwise go to church. If the C of E is seriously going to try to drop its obligation to the vaguely religious, while keeping all of its established privileges, Labour ought to raise an objection.
During all the decades when Marxist Socialism needed to renew itself, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm helped to ensure that it would not. He knew – he must have known – that Khrushchev had destroyed the logic of the Communist movement as it was under Stalin, and yet would not let it be reconstituted on some new basis. But he dithered and fudged.
He dredged up obscure facts to avoid coming to unpleasantly logical conclusions.
British Communism after 1956 had no idea what it wanted or where it was going. The one coherent thing it did was to hang onto, and even increase, its power in the Labour movement. But it had no idea of how to develop the Labour movement. Most of the things that were possible, it didn’t like and was able to stifle. As Brendan Clifford put it,
“The forward march of Labour was halted by the Communist Party and its offshoots more than by any other influence”. (L&TUR No. 10).
Hobsbawm was very much a part of this.
He’s still doing it. In the Independent of Sunday (February 4th), he has the nerve to say:
“For about half a century, from 1914 to the aftermath of the Second World War, the world passed through a period of cataclysm, producing all manner of freak results, of which the Russian Revolution is probably the most long-lasting. Sometime in the 1950s, for reasons which historians are still arguing about, the world system appeared to get back on an even keel.”
Actually, world capitalism was under very heavy pressure in the 1960s and 1970s (as indeed it had been before 1914). But it was Hobsbawm and his ilk, in Britain and throughout the world, who failed to take advantage and made a right-wing solution inevitable. Every serious alternative they messed up.
Ceausescu fell at just about the time our December issue came back from the printers. At this late date, there is little new to say. But there are some things that have not been given the prominence they deserve.
Ceausescu had been useful to the West for two reasons. He disrupted the Warsaw Pact, and he was paying back Romania’s foreign debts at the expense of his own people. But Gorbachev and the changes in Eastern Europe made Ceausescu no longer necessary. And he had paid back his debts by the time he was overthrown. East and West were agreed that he should go, and Romania was in no position to stand alone. Therefore the army took advantage of a spontaneous popular revolt and got rid of him.
Western democracies tend to get rid of their leaders every few years, and are the stronger for it. Thatcher is breaking records by having lasted since 1979, and she’s probably harming the Tory cause by hanging on. But Leninist parties can’t get rid of their leaders except by extraordinary means.
If Ceausescu could have been replaced after ten years, in the mid-1970s say, we might be looking back at him as quite a good and successful leader. He got Romania out of Moscow’s orbit, backed the Prague Spring but avoided getting his own country invaded. But then he hung on and on and on, getting ever more eccentric and out of touch, till in the end he had to be deposed and shot. All of the old East European leaders hung on for long enough to mess up any chance of an alternative socialist development in their countries. It’s all going to be drawn into the European Community. Which means that we in Britain must link up with other European socialists to make the new Europe as left as possible.
[I actually referenced Ceausescu’s fall to the ‘last issue’ in the printed version. I think what I write got delayed from the January issue.]
Speakers of Turkic languages have lived in various parts of Central Asia for as long as anyone can trace such things. One group came west, beat the Byzantine Roman Empire and established themselves in Asia Minor. This same group, as the Turkish Empire, later conquered large chunks of Europe, getting as far as the gates of Vienna until the Austrians and Poles stopped them. This same empire was gradually pushed back, losing territories where the majority did not regard themselves as Turks. Naturally, it was an untidy business, with minorities left behind in the modern nation- states.
[It was actually the Seljuk Empire in the 11th and 12th centuries (Latin-Christian calendar.) Followed by the Sultanate of Rum, and then from the 14th century the Ottoman Empire. All of these spoke some form of Turkish and were reckoned as Turks by Westerners, but also used Persian and had quite a complex cultural heritage. And of course they had assimilated many peoples into the Turkish Anatolian identity.]
Further east, other Turkic speakers were conquered by the Persian Empire, most of which was later taken over by the Tsars, and finally incorporated in the Soviet Union. Azeris were left partly in Iran and partly in the USSR. There are even some in Turkey, and these have expressed a wish to join an independent Azerbaijan if it should ever be established.
There are many different Turkic groups, and they do not necessarily like each other. Azeris are mostly Shi’ites, the rest are mostly Sunni. They have a more liberal understanding of Islam than the Shi’ite extremism favoured in Iran, and they will probably not be interested in joining in the Iranian ‘Islamic Revolution’, which in any case seems past its prime.
If this part of the world starts to untangle into nation-states, it is likely to be a bloody and prolonged process. The various Turkic peoples do not necessarily like each other, the Meshketian Turks were last year driven out in race riots by other rival Turkic peoples. A great variety of ethnic groups are scattered throughout the region, the proper boundaries for all · the possible nation-states could and would be disputed. There are the Christian Armenians and Georgians, the Muslim but non-Turkic Kurds. To talk of the ‘rights of nations’ is all very well, but each nation tends to see its rights as more important than those of its neighbours. Hindu India will not give up its chunk of Muslim Kashmir. Iran would not be happy to lose its Azeris and the Kurds would have to carve a nation for themselves out of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. None of these states are likely to quietly accept such a thing. I foresee decades of misery and warfare in that part of the world.
[I did not foresee the rise and spread of Sunni Islamism. Some of it fighting a global war with the West, and in a more moderate form the elected government of Turkey.]
South Africa has been deliberately destabilised by its government. The release of Nelson Mandela means either serious negotiations in which Mandela and the ANC play a major role, or else a drift to civil war.
South Africa is not Eastern Europe. The government has the support of the majority of the white population, plus an unknown portion of the non-white population. The number of non-whites with guns, working as part of the police or army, shows that it is not a simple matter of racial polarisation. Nor is the black African population homogeneous. There are bitter rivalries between nations with very different languages, customs and traditions.
This means – what? Definitely not a continuation of apartheid. Almost certainly, no solution that has not been endorsed by Mandela and the ANC. No one can be quite sure how strong or weak the ANC’s popular support is, but if a free election among blacks seemed likely to discredit them, the South African government would surely have contrived to hold one long ago. So whatever is patched up will have to be acceptable to the ANC. But it will probably not involve any immediate move to simple majority rule. The white population is not ready to accept it. They have both the will and the means – presumably including nuclear weapons – to prevent it happening.
Mandela seems well aware of the problem. Most of the rest of the world seems ready to write off the Afrikaners as a bunch of “laager louts”. Mandela and the ANC have (apparently) accepted the responsibility of trying to negotiate with them and take account of their fears, justified or not
Can some compromise be found? Quite possibly. Zimbabwe found a compromise, in which the black majority got political power and the white minority kept most of its wealth. What; emerges in South Africa is more likely to be something quite different. Assuming, that is, that some compromise can be found. Both sides are looking for one – but is there in fact any overlap between the worst that each side is ready to settle for? Time will tell.
[Compromise is of course what happened. But most Western sources were expecting race war and might be seen as hoping for it. There was an effort to set Xhosa against Zula: Mandela being an Xhosa. But under Mandela and his heirs, the ANC has so far managed to keep unity despite having a multi-party electoral system. The Inkatha Freedom Party promoted Zulu sectarianism, but ANC Zulus have proved more popular.]
With exceptional storms becoming much less exceptional than they used to be, a lot of people are asking if the world’s weather patterns have shifted. Also if it’s due to the Greenhouse Effect or something else.
l would say – possibly, and very probably. That’s to say, the storms in 1987 and this year might be just a run of bad luck, but are probably not. There is now solid evidence that there is much more Carbon Dioxide in the air than is normal.
Even as recently as ten years ago, there were grounds for legitimate scientific doubt. The possibility of a Greenhouse Effect has been known about for a long time, but no one was sure what the atmosphere had been like a hundred years ago. Now various tests have shown that it’s happening. The exact effects can’t be predicted. They are likely to be bad; they may turn out to be absolutely disastrous.
Meanwhile, Mrs Thatcher following the example of Dickens’s Mr Micawber. Maybe we can do nothing and get away with it. Something’s bound to turn up.
Except that it almost certainly won’t. We could have saved ourselves a lot of grief by acting 50 years ago, when the possibility of danger was known. Now that the danger is almost a certainty, urgent action is needed.
[Nearly thirty years on, everything is much clearer. But much too little was done. The threat of Global Warming and Climate Change was treated as one of many demands that politicians had to balance. Given far too little weight, at a time when money was anyway being directed towards a selfish Overclass.
[If we had exactly the same weather but 2 degrees centigrade warmer, we could live with that until the seas started rising thanks to melting ice. But it’s much worse than that. We have different weather and wilder weather. Forrest fires and Siberian Permafrost melting after a freeze of thousands of years. Vast releases of methane, a worse Greenhouse Gas than Carbon Dioxide. Almost everything has been worse than Climate Scientists were warning about back then.]
In Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, a dog that has had an easy life as the pet of a rich family is thrust unexpectedly into the harshness of Alaska. Ancestral instincts are awakened – the dog learns how to fight and how to survive, finally teaming up with a pack of wolves.
The Rushdie affair began as an incident in a conflict between two extreme forms of Islam. Supporters of the conservative version Sunni Islam favoured by Saudi Arabia were getting a lot of mileage out of protests against The Satanic Verses. They were calling for the book to be banned. Meanwhile the radical version of Shi’ite Islam dominant in Iran had suffered a setback after accepting that it could not crush secular-nationalist Iraq in the Gulf War. By calling for Rushdie to be killed, Khomeini scored a brief triumph. And since both sides are playing the game of ‘more-Islamic-than-thou’, neither can back down.
Rushdie is a worthless fool. He takes his understanding of the world from characters like Harold Pinter, who don’t understand it at all, and have evolved the view that not understanding anything is the highest form of wisdom. This is the tail-end of the scepticism of people like Voltaire – having rejected conventional social values, they are left with nothing at
But Islam has never had a Voltaire. Muslims have not had their world-view pounded end shaken by two centuries of secular scepticism. Westerners have treated Islam as a sort of funny peculiarity that some foreigners engaged in. In the more tolerant climate of the past 40 years, they learned to treat such peculiarities with politeness. People stopped using the term ‘Mohammedan’, because Muslims disliked it. The small number of books that subjected the Quran to critical scrutiny were allowed to go out of print.
Many Muslims were willing to be equally polite. There was a perfectly sound basis for Muslims expressing a distaste for Rushdie’s work and then ignoring him. It is recorded that Mohammed forgave various people who been grossly rude to him, who had even assaulted him or plotted to kill him. But the Muslim extremists were convinced that the West was weak and decadent, and would crack under a little pressure. Moreover, their own hard-line understanding of Islamic law would not allow them to be tolerant
Remarkably, most of the light-weight literati rose to the challenge. Like the dog in The Call of the Wild, they have recovered a few of their old fighting instincts. Now if someone would only shoot Pinter, a real revival of serious secularism might occur.
[Nothing important occurred. Shia Islam as led by Iran sensibly decided that the fight should be in Islamic territory. It has been the very different Sunni Islamic Extremism that has engaged in actual terrorism like 911. Done this in addition to being labelled ‘terrorist’ for fighting irregular wars on their own territories. And in all cases the inspiration is the extremist Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam that has been spread round the world by money from Saudi Arabia.]
These Newsnotes appeared in March 1990, in Issue 16 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.
 Somehow this appeared in print as “being Macaws”. Micawber is definitely what I meant