Newsnotes 018 – July 1990

Notes on the News

by Madawc Williams


Electoral struggles

With the collapse of the Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe, a new pattern is taking shape. Not so much a rejection of socialism, as a reassertion of national identity.

Romania and Bulgaria have been described as ‘out of line’, because they elected parties based on the old Communist parties. A lot of commentators have also been surprised at the way the party has kept popular support in Russia itself, and in those territories of the USSR that were in the Soviet Union before World War Two.

[The Russian Communists were to come first in the elections of 1995 and 1998, and have since always come second.  Meantime the pro-Western parties peaked in 1993 and from 1995 have been less than 10% – often much less.  But Western media avoid mentioning these off-message facts, or the awkward detail that the probably return of Communist government to Russia was only prevented by Putin taking over some of their policies.]

Nationalism seems to be the key. Bulgarian nationalism has never been particularly anti-Russian; the Turks were the big foes. Ceausescu, despite monstrous errors in his later years, was never a Russian puppet. Even in Czechoslovakia, a survival of socialist feeling has kept the Communist Party as the main opposition with a respectable 13% of the vote. (Slovak separatists did not do well the two parts of Czechoslovakia may go separate ways in the long run, but not just yet.)

[The Slovak Republic broke away in 1992.  The main cause was electoral deadlock, after Czechs chose a Centre-Right party and Slovaks chose Centre-Left.  A stable government for a unified Czechoslovakia would have been very hard, and unable to make necessary hard choices.

[The Communist Parties in the two halves failed to flourish and are now marginal.]

Further afield, the people of Peru have opted for a descendant of Japanese immigrants as president.  It is in part a bit of self-assertion by Peru’s Indians, to vote for someone who looks like them, but also has the prestigious association with rich and powerful Japan. Latin America has fallen far behind all the other parts of the world that were reshaped by Europeans, mainly because of a combination of Catholic power and a rather parasitical ruling class derived from Europe. It would be excellent if this pattern were now to break down.

Boris the Bad?

Every Soviet leader since Stalin has left the USSR with both less prestige and less relative power in its cold-war competition with World Capitalism. I never really expected Gorbachev to be an exception. But I have been surprised at the way he has turned a bad position into rapid and total defeat

Not everyone has yet noticed that the USSR has lost the Cold War. George Bush is being very polite about it, Western leaders in general are wise enough not to hold any victory parades. A die-hard faction in the USSR’s leadership might yet seize power and do a lot of damage – even cause World War Three just when everyone thinks the danger is totally gone. So the Soviet Empire is being dismantled with great tact and politeness. But dismantled it will be.

[The hard-line coup happened in August 1991.  Of course many people were expecting something of the sort.]

Gorbachev’s greatest error was the same as Khrushchev’s – to talk as if almost anything was possible, and at the same time to clamp down on most of what did occur. The signs are that he understands very little about politics outside the closed world of the Communist Party hierarchy. This too has been a feature of every Soviet leader since Stalin – a fatal weakness in the system that Lenin and Trotsky designed and that Stalin set on a solid basis. Western leaders learn their trade in competitions with rival would-be leaders for public support. If they are not good at it to begin with, they soon learn. They have a rough and ready idea of what large masses of ordinary people are likely to do, if left to themselves. The products of the Communist Party hierarchy seem to have no idea.

Except for Boris Yeltsin. He was tossed out of the hierarchy by Gorbachev, a misfortune that turned into an astounding piece of good luck. He was ideally placed, in the heart of Russia, known to the public but not a part of the hierarchy. He learned real politics. Yeltsin can see that the game is lost, as far as being a superpower is concerned. Also that the system of state planning is too corrupt and inefficient to be revived. What he seems to be aiming for is a peaceful integration of Russia with the world market, with the other nationalities of the USSR set free to do whatever they want, and with ordinary Russians protected against a squeeze in their already low living standard while the economy is reorganised.

It’s quite a come-down from what was once possible. But it’s the best prospect left, after several decades of bungling by the Soviet hierarchy. And once the world market has created a more or less peaceful and prosperous world, socialism can be put back on the agenda, East and West.

[It could have gone that way.  Sadly, Yeltsin was one of many fooled by the ‘Free Market’ nonsense of the New Right.  His time as Russia’s ruler was a disaster.  The only good choice he made was raising up Putin, who stopped the rot.  See ‘Yeltsin’s Final Election and the Near-Return of the Russian Communists’.

Israel & Palestine – a downward spiral

I sometimes wonder if Yasser Arafat isn’t secretly controlled by some hard-line Zionist faction. Certainly, he has a positive genius for throwing away real chances in the search for illusory victories.

Arafat had a unique chance to detach America from Israel. A young Israeli who seemed to have been fed up with life in general brutally murdered several inoffensive Palestinians at a bus stop. A hard-line right-wing government was shaping up in Israel. But what did he do? Posture at international conferences, where everyone else was happy to posture in ways that would lead to no concrete or definite result.  Dither over the issue of a planned terrorist attack on an Israeli holiday beach, so that Israel’s friends in the United States have a perfect pretext to drop peace negotiations at a time when Israel looked quite capable of spoiling things by rejecting some moderate proposal for land for peace.

The whole issue of Iraq’s alleged poison gas missiles or superguns shows just what a fool Arafat is. For a start, he should have realised and strongly pointed out that anything that lands on the territory of Israel will kill Palestinians as well as Jews. He could have gained some good public relations by declaring that such uncivilised weapons should never be used. He could and should have been able to work out that Iraq is not actually going to do anything to Israel, given that Israel could almost certainly hit back with nuclear weapons. Jn point of fact, Iraq has never done very much in any of the Middle Eastern wars. And the only possible ally in a war against Israel is Syria, Iraq’s most bitter enemy.

What will probably happen now is a brutal crushing of the Palestinian revolt, with the various Arab states saying much but doing little or nothing. Arafat will continue to posture at every available opportunity, and things will go from bad to worse.

[Arafat was certainly a fool.  But in his last years he did try to make peace under the Oslo agreement.  Sadly, Israel was impatient with his problems in controlling extremists.  And probably keen on taking land for Jewish settlements that would have been needed to make an independent Palestine viable.]


Early in June, the death occurred of Robert Noyce. You probably haven’t heard of him, but what he did had a big effect on the world – and was one of the reasons why the capitalist world market won out over Leninism.

Noyce was one of the electronic engineers hired by William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, to exploit the invention commercially. Deciding that Shockley didn’t understand how to succeed as a businessman, he and some of his colleagues left to found a company called Fairchild. He later left that company too, to found Intel, the company that invented the microprocessor and is still very important in the industry. In hiving off he was very typical of the electronic pioneers – indeed the companies founded by defectors from Fairchild have been very important, and people refer to them jokingly as the ‘fairchildren’.

Why should this matter, to anyone who isn’t an electronics buff? Because no similar process was allowed to happen in the USSR. There, the top experts thought that valves were the main things, that transistors would never be very important. And then when they did accept that the transistor had its points, they were too slow to adapt. Even though the USSR was interested in computers from the very beginning, its computer and consumer electronics industry fell far behind. And that messed everything else up.

There is no reason why a planned socialist system should not allow bright young people with innovative ideas to go out and try to do better than their elders. Indeed, under Stalin this was in some cases allowed. But under Brezhnev, the whole thing stagnated, with people sitting on top of their own bureaucratic hierarchy for decades and decades, stopping anything that didn’t fit their own idea of what was proper. Now, it’s too late.

Ancient light

The Hubble Space telescope is now in orbit, being fine-tuned for its serious work. Already, it’s been able to show that a particular blob of light that seemed to be one star is actually two. Other, more interesting discoveries should soon be made.

Hubble will be able to see objects that are very old and far away. Since light travels at a finite speed, the light from very distant objects is almost as old as the universe itself. Nothing was quite the same then; galaxies were still being formed. Many puzzles should be answered, many new questions raised.

Meanwhile, theorists are working on the notion that our universe might have ‘budded off from some much larger super-universe or multiverse. Also that our own universe might be creating baby universes even now, in some special regions of space. Such a process could not be directly observed, but Hubble might give us valuable clues, tell us if the truth is this or something even stranger.

[There turned out to be a flaw in the optics.  Once this was fixed, there were many remarkable results.  Including the Deep Field and Ultra-Deep-Field views, showing a swarm of small disorderly galaxies close to the Big Bang or Origin Event.  Which remains an enigma with many possible explanations.]

Racism in London

A late comment on the local elections back in May. The ‘Islamic Party’ totally failed to get large numbers of Muslim votes, thankfully. And a look at votes in multi-member wards in Hackney shows a small but consistent ‘racist vote’ of about 5% to 10%. That is to say, candidates whose name indicated that they were Black or Asian got that much less than colleagues in the same party. It’s much what I’d have expected – a small but persistent degree of prejudice in what is essentially a racially integrated borough.

An even more belated comment – back in March a survey by the now-abolished Inner London Education Authority showed some interesting figures for the school performance of various ethnic groups. It is normally assumed on the Left that differences are due to white racism. But there were profound differences between groups that most white people could barely tell apart and would be very unlikely to treat differently. Africans (excluding Arabs) did much better than children of Caribbean origin. Indians did better than any other ethnic group, and Pakistanis almost as well, but Bangladeshis had the lowest average score of all. The difference, most probably, is due to different cultures and attitudes to school.

Shopping in the Fourth Green Field

The Republic of Ireland is in breach of two separate international agreements in regard to its treatment of Northern Ireland. On the one hand, it is in breach of the Helsinki Agreement by not recognising the existing border as legitimate de jure as well as de facto. On the other, it restricts cross-border shopping, despite a ruling by the European Court of Justice.

The Helsinki Agreement tidied up the vexed question of European boundaries, some of which have changed five or six times during the 20th century, most of which are open to some sort of challenge. The rather arbitrary and partisan lines drawn by the USSR in Eastern Europe are accepted as final simply because the alternative is endless quarrels and quite possibly war. Yet the Republic of Ireland still keeps up the claim to Northern Ireland, the ‘fourth green field’, legitimising the objective of the IRA even while condemning its methods. Somehow ‘anti-imperialism’ justifies ignoring both international law and the wishes of the majority Protestant population. (And it isn’t even clear that a majority of Catholics want to be ruled from Dublin. They vote for the SDLP, which does want it, but if the question were put directly they might well vote no. In referenda they have mostly abstained.)

Given the claim to the North, you might have expected Dublin to welcome any and all cross-border links. But cross-border shopping costs the exchequer money, given that the Republic has a much higher rate of VAT. When it comes to putting their money where their mouth is, the Dublin politicians fall down.

The whole matter of the ‘fourth green field’ is a matter of hypocrisy, for everyone except the IRA, who are at least prepared to die for it. That’s why it was good to see the Tory Party put up a candidate in a recent Northern Ireland by-election. True, they didn’t get many votes – but at least voters got a chance to vote for or against the party that governs them. Labour, even though it will govern Northern Ireland if it wins the next election, still refuses to put up official Labour Party candidates or even to allow people living in Northern Ireland to join the party.

With extended postal voting, people all over the world will get the chance to vote for one of the two parties with a chance of forming a government. Except in Northern Ireland. And then politicians over here ask why people over there won’t be reasonable!

A good European?

Dull was it in that dawn to be alive“. That would be a more fitting comment on the first issue of Robert Maxwell’s The European than the Wordsworth original that they quoted in their editorial. And did the editorial writer not remember that Wordsworth’s feeling of bliss noticeably failed to last, so that within a decade he was backing Pitt in the war against France?

This time round, European unity has a much better chance – mainly because it is being done by a number of nations working in harmony, rather than one nation trying to impose its notion of a United Europe on everyone else. But I doubt if The European will have any large part in it

As a weekly in English, it is in competition with The Economist – which briefly ran a series of ads, saying things like “In the global village read the local paper.” They seem to have stopped bothering. The European has little of substance to say about anything, and anyone who wants to look beyond their own nation and region will want to know about more than just Europe.

[The European lost most of its purpose with Maxwell’s death and disgrace in 1992.  The paper carried on with many changes before ending in 1998.]


Another odd publishing phenomenon, and one more likely to last, is the vulgar comic magazine Viz. It seems to be selling more than 900,000 copies per issue – well ahead of the Beano, that came second with 400,000.

Viz has been described as a new phenomenon. Actually, it is a resurgence of a very old tradition of vulgar cartoons. Anyone who visited the British Museum’s exhibition on the French Revolution, or who knows the cartoons of that period from some other source, will realise just what a venerable tradition it is. English humour has been mainly scatological for at least the past 200 years. It’s dull and silly, but it shows no signs of going away.

[Viz is still around, but has declined greatly from its early 1990s peak.]

071 for the wings or a dove

You used to have to dial 01 for London if you lives outside it, and nothing at all if you lived in it. Now you have to dial 071 (sometimes), or 081 (sometimes) or for those living in London just the old code (sometimes) or 071 (sometimes) or 081 (sometimes).

What’s the logic behind all this?

London needed more numbers that were possible with the six digits following the old 01. There seem to have been sound technical reasons for splitting the existing code, rather than adding an extra digit The numbers have a logic, the first three for the exchange, the last three for the phone itself.

So why not split it by exchange number, say 071 for all exchanges up to and including 500, and 081 for the rest? Or maybe at some number higher or lower than 500, to keep an even split That would have meant one number to learn, from which all 01 numbers could be simply turned in to 071 or 081.

The actual system is a split between inner and outer London. Except that it isn’t The dividing line is arbitrary, and in some cases splits up single exchanges. And anyone living anywhere in London can get an 071 London, for just a small fee.

And that’s probably the reason for the whole thing. Play on the deep snobbery of the English. Also on the reasonable concern by shops and small businesses that an 081 code will be seen by customers as equivalent to dwelling in the outer darkness. Lots of fees. Much hassle for customers – but not for the sort of customers who might defect to Mercury, the only possible alternative. Nice for shareholders – and why should a privatised company care about anything else? They can even be sued for not making as much money as possible for shareholders, what they do to their customers is another matter.

[The system changed to 0171 and 0181 in 1995.  Was reunified as 020 in the year 2000.  All of this was before the rise of Mobile Phones as common items.]

Rail no-way

The Channel Tunnel was supposed to have been a showpiece for private enterprises, doing what would normally be the job of the state and doing it better. What a joke!

At every stage, it has been obvious that the Tunnel did not make sense in normal profit-making terms. It needed a great deal of government arm-twisting to keep it going. Almost certainly, it was sold at an absurdly low estimate of costs, just so that Mrs Thatcher could be fooled into thinking that something that was definitely socially necessary could also work in terms of private profit

But now the notion of a partly private and partly subsidised fast rail link has been dropped. As far as links to London go, normal public investments in the railway system will probably fill the gap. But the absence of a fast link to London also spoils the possibility of fast links on from London to the rest of the country. It will feed into the whole process whereby the South-East gets far more people and buildings than it wants or can cope with, while large parts of the rest of the country go downhill for the lack of such connections.

Thankfully, whatever else Labour gets wrong, we can trust that John Prescott as Minister of Transport will see that the fast links do get built.  Only much later than they should have been.



These Newsnotes appeared in July 1990, in Issue 18 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at