Newsnotes 019 – September 1990.

Notes on the News

By Gwydion M. Williams

The repossessed

In a system of free competition, there will always be winners and losers. Bui no one expects that they will be numbered among the losers, until it actually happens to them.

Pushing very large numbers of people into home ownership has proved a cruel trap for many of them. People were given larger mortgages than they could handle, the normal rule of two and a half or at most three times annual income was ignored.

This has now led to trouble, as it was bound to do. Britain’s economic policy was messed up by Thatcher and Lawson between them: they had two incompatible ideas of the best way forward, and so ran into problems at a time when the world economy was doing fine. The end of it was inflation and increased interest rates, an impossible extra burden on over-extended borrowers. And since our legal system looks after money and property at the expense of people’s needs, more than 14,000 homeowners have had their homes repossessed between January and June of this year.

Do the Tories care? Of course not.  Small property owners suffer from the delusion that the Tories will look after them. They fantasise about being numbered among the really rich and secure – a status that a few of them will achieve, but only a few. The majority stay where they are, the unwise or unlucky go under.

It must be time to put socialist housing policies back on the agenda.


High-speed hopes

As the Channel Tunnel gets closer to being finished, the Tories continue to dither about how to tie it in with Britain’s rail network. Thatcher does not like trains. She would probably like to see the rail network destroyed, as it was destroyed in the United States. Failing this, she would like 10 privatise it and let it go smash all on its own. She is certainly not going to help it adapt and modernise. Least of all will she let it develop as a part of a West European network of high-speed trains.

That’s why it is good to see John Prescott’s scheme for a modem rail network in Britain become official Labour policy. Labour will not win the next election on the strength of negatives – not just by being non-Thatcherite, non-Militant, non-Bennite, not wanting to get rid of nuclear weapons, not wanting to undo privatisation etc. Some positive policies are needed. Transport is the best to dale.


Should Bevin be forgot?

The 1945 Labour government led by Attlee and Bevin was the only really successful Labour government we’ve had to date. The Labour movement has never been short of fine rhetoric and fine ideals. Success at actually achieving those ideals has been much rarer, and Labour has let the memory of how it was done slide from the general consciousness.

The Tories still seem to remember. At least, it is noticeable that the Tory borough of Wandsworth took advantage of a school reorganisation to rename the Ernest Bevin school as the Wandsworth Boys’ School. They still care – but Labour doesn’t

The prosperity and unity of Western Europe owes more to Ernest Bevin as post-war Foreign Secretary than to any other single individual. But who on the Labour side reminds people of this? The success of West Germany is allowed to be held up by Tories as a triumph for capitalism and the free market. The fact that West Germany rebuilt itself on a framework largely laid down by the British Labour Party gets overlooked. Likewise the fact that Japan was rebuilt by American New Dealers.

Too many people on the British Left have dreamed vain dreams of socialism being built in the Warsaw Pact countries, or in the Third World. They forgot their own successes, even condemned them. It should now be obvious that it’s up to us: Western Europe will have to lead the rest of the world to socialism, if it is to be done at all in the foreseeable future. But a depressingly large number of people still don’t seem to see it that way. Old and failed dreams still have a fatal attraction.


A green and pleasant greenhouse?

The Earth, Mars and Venus may have started out as very much the same. The most favoured theory is that Mars was just a little bit too cold, lost its ‘greenhouse gases’ and its oceans, and became very much colder. Exactly the reverse happened on Venus – it had too much of a Greenhouse Effect, so that the temperature became hot enough to melt lead. Only on Earth was the balance just right – or at least has been up until now.

This neat theory may not be quite right. Something else may have happened on Venus – the Magellan Probe that the American have just put into orbit round the planet should clear the matter up. Even our ideas about Mars could be wrong: spacecraft due to go there over the next few years should settle the matter.

What should not be doubted any longer is that the Greenhouse Effect operates on Earth, and is critical to our weather. The vast quantity of Greenhouse gases dumped into the atmosphere over the past few centuries have almost certainly produced a large and unpredictable shift in the patterns. Things may not be as bad as the forecasts say, but equally they may be worse. And it’s long past time to stop changing something we depend on and don’t understand very well.

Talking about spacecraft – the Hubble space telescope may not be the wash-out that the first depressing news of its bad focus seemed to indicate. It seems that someone made a ludicrous error that led to the mirror being very precisely ground to a slightly wrong curvature. But all is not lost. Useful results will be produced – indeed one has just been produced. An object called 30 Doradus,  that had looked like a single enormous star, turns out be a cluster of some 60 massive hot stars instead. It was suspected that it might be, but it took the Hubble telescope to prove it.

Another salvaged mission has been Hipparcos,  a satellite that got stuck in the wrong orbit. It was put up to make precise measurements of the positions of stars, and it now seems that it will do all that was originally planned for it.

Still on science, though away from astronomy. I expect a lot of readers will have heard of the discovery of the ‘sex gene’, the key gene that controls the choice between male and female in the developing mammalian embryo. But how many of you realise that it is similar to a gene for mating types in certain yeasts? Something passed down from a common ancestor we share with the yeasts, no doubt. Different types of life on earth are not so very different!


Revolting Muslims

A lot of the star-names used in European astronomy came from the Muslim world. It was only part of the very large body of knowledge that the Muslim world either created or preserved from the Greeks, while Latin Western Europe went through its dark age.

I’m not going to talk here about Iran and Kuwait – it’s moving too fast for a bi-monthly magazine, and is anyway covered elsewhere in this issue. But it might make for better relations if people in Britain and in Europe generally understood that the Islamic world had a flourishing civilisation when Europe was only just above the level of barbarism, and that Europe borrowed a great deal from it. (It might then also be pointed out that the Muslim world wasted its advantage by not allowing enough room for unorthodox ideas. But that’s another matter.)

Given that Britain has a large Muslim minority, steps should have been taken to explain to them the sort of society they were living in and should adapt to. But little was done along these lines, and much of that was wrong. The whole Rushdie affair was sparked off by Muslims in Britain, who had been advised that if they didn’t like the book they should campaign for it to be banned. In fact British Jaw does not allow books to be banned except for obscenity, libel against living persons or blasphemy against the beliefs of the Church of England. Since none of these applied to Satanic Verses, Muslims in Britain were encouraged to <1,Sk for something that no British government could give them. Banning books just because someone in government dislikes them is normal in many other countries, but not here. The protest was bound to spark off something bad. The Iranians had simply denounced the book as blasphemous and then moved on to other matters, but when it became a big issue they were bound to do something.

The banned film International Guerrillas is another source of friction. Again, who has bothered to explain what the law is? Muhammed, being dead, can be libelled with impunity under British Jaw. Rushdie, being alive, cannot. Of course if some terrorist were to succeed in killing him, the risk of libel would be removed and the film that advocated his killing could be freely shown!

(The ban on the film has now been dropped on appeal – just when the British government urgently needed to win Muslim support in the Gulf crisis. Who says justice is blind?)

The Assassination of Ian Gow

In killing Ian Gow, the IRA has achieved an outstanding success. It has achieved an outstanding success because hardly anyone has chosen to mention the probable reason that the IRA picked on him rather than some other Tory MP.

Gow was a right-wing Tory, an enemy of socialism. But although sections of the IRA will pose as leftist for the benefit of the British left, his general politics had nothing to do with the matter. People just as right-wing can be found among the members and supporters of -the IRA – especially the Irish Americans, the main source of IRA funds.

In their statement after Gow’s killing, various things that Gow did while in government were mentioned. But these were many years ago, and Gow was no longer part of the government. The real reason was something else, something the IRA were careful not to talk about in case publicity should help it.

Gow was ‘killed because he was a prominent supporter of the Tory Party in Northern Ireland. The IRA know that once Northern Ireland has political parties that bridge the sectarian divide, once both Catholics and Protestants can get involved in issues other than Unionism or Nationalism and Republicanism, their cause is lost.

Gow was a particular danger because he was considering converting to Catholicism. He was doing it for reasons of personal belief – he was a devout man – but it would have made him even more effective in bridging the sectarian divide.

As it was, his role in promoting Tory candidates in Northern Ireland was mostly ignored. The IRA got just what they wanted, though naturally they won’t be saying so.



These Newsnotes appeared in September 1990, in Issue 19 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at