Notes on the News
by Madawc Williams
- Gulf war • forgotten lies
- Popes and Godfathers
- Undemocratic left-overs
- The Poll Tax and the Hesel-tax
World capitalism is based on an arbitrary and accidental division of wealth. Kuwaitis by their own efforts would have remained as poor as Yemenis or Sri Lankans – perhaps even poorer, since they had fewer marketable skills. But because there was oil under their own little patch of desert, they suddenly became rich. Without oil, Britain would have allowed the miniature Gulf states to go the way of the Princely states of India – most of which were much larger and more serious affairs. The miniature Gulf states have served to keep oil wealth separated from the Muslim and Arab poor. Most oil revenues come right back to the West, one way or another.
In the seven months from August 1990 to February 1991, the governments of Britain and America followed policies that inevitably led to suffering and death for huge numbers of Iraqi and Kuwaiti Arabs. At no point were they interested in reducing such sufferings. Most Iraqi government brutality to Kuwaitis was due to the reasonable belief that the West was going to use its full power against them no matter what they did.
When the Iraqis failed to do anything sufficiently nasty, extra deeds could always be invented and paraded as facts by the media. Remember the shocking matter of the Iraqis stealing incubators from babies. This never happened: it is a complete lie. The Guardian (March 2nd) carried a report by David Beresford, who investigated the matter in the place where it was supposed to have happened, and found that no one there knew anything about the matter.
“I left the guided tour and went in search of the ‘incubator story’. probably the most famous of the Kuwait atrocity tales, given credence by President Bush himself: that Iraqis had thrown newborn babies out of incubators, which they then stole, leaving them to die.
“The incident is meant to have happened at the al-Sabah maternity hospital.: the Iraqis had not dumped any babies, or stolen incubators, and the staff had no idea where the story had originated. The only baby she personally had lost to the war had been a boy who died when a bomb destroyed the local power station: the chief surgeon pointed out that he, too, had suffered from the war, his wife having been killed in an allied rocket attack on the hostel block for doctors and nurses.”
Where did the story come from, and why did Bush give it credibility? The Kuwaiti exiles certainly issued a number of stories that were almost immediately exposed as false. Iraqi deserters in helicopters. Paratroopers freeing Kuwait City, long before any real Allied troops got there. Most of these stories were ignored by the American authorities, and in the long run even the press learned not to trust them. Yet President Bush used the story of the Kuwaiti babies robbed of their incubators, promoting a total fiction as if it was an incontrovertible truth. US Presidents are uniquely well-placed to be well informed, and all of their public statements are the product of very careful preparation. It is inconceivable that Bush did not know that the story was, at the very least, unproven. In view of his other actions, it is all too probable that he was happy to use the case of fictitious dead babies to start a process in which many real babies were to die.
The non-fictitious slaughter by Iraqis of Kuwaiti suspects and opponents in the last days of the occupation was avoidable. Iraqis could have been allowed to withdraw peacefully under neutral supervision, under the Soviet peace plan that Iraq accepted and America rejected.
“The Americans skilfully transmuted a negotiable Soviet proposal into an ultimatum Iraq could not accept.”
These words come, not from a Bevin Society publication, but from that most intelligent of establishment publications, The Economist. (March 2nd, p 21). In the same issue they also say
“Mr Hussein must have known last August that he would not get away with his invasion without some sort of international reprimand. But, brimming with oil and armed to the hilt, he had reason enough to suppose that the world would eventually swallow its disapproval and accept a f ait accompli” (page 15).
“Britain’s bill for the Gulf war now looks like being remarkably small: it could even turn into a ‘profit.: Assuming the February 28th cease-fire holds, the human cost has been mercifully limited, too” (page 30).
There are still no very certain figures for total Arab deaths. The Saudis reckoned 85,000 Iraqi soldiers dead. The Kuwaitis, who have a Jong history of lying, reckoned 33,000 of their own people dead or missing or prisoners. An unknown number of Iraqi civilians died in the bombing of Iraqi cities.
When The Economist says that “the human cost has been mercifully limited, too“, it reveals its actual feelings about Arabs. Nowhere in its whole assessment of the Gulf Campaign, a brilliant success for policies that The Economist had been supporting for the previous few months, is there anything said about the appalling human cost of the war to the Iraqi and Kuwaiti Arabs. This is entirely consistent with a whole line of Anglo-American feeling. Retrospectives on the Vietnam War almost all concentrate on the cost to America. The vastly higher price paid by the Vietnamese, both enemies who were bombed and burnt and ‘friends’ who were ruthlessly abandoned in the final collapse, is hardly ever taken into account.
In the rest of the media, a more humane line needs to be taken. Greedy, cold-blooded thinking is to be encouraged among the ‘top people’, the people The Economist tries to cater for. The rest are supposed to act rather more emotionally. The very real sufferings of some Kuwaitis were paraded to mask the much greater suffering of very large numbers of Iraqis. And no one was allowed to realise that both sets of suffering were due to Bush and Thatcher deciding to invent and enforce a new set of rules back in August 1990.
British troops were heroic in the Falklands: they fought on a civilised basis, suffered losses, killed no Argentinean civilians and bombed no cities. The Falklands War was a proper war, where enemy lives were treated as being of some value. The ‘war’ against Iraq was much more like a massacre, most of it carried out by US aircraft who attacked almost everything that moved, including in one case a British military vehicle.
Histories of the Gulf war are quite noticeably not rolling off the presses, in the way that did after the Falklands victory. And serious analysis would stir up too many forgotten lies, lies that the whole of the mainstream media were involved in propagating.
The Godfather Part III has been disliked by the critics, perhaps because it stresses a theme that was a fairly minor one in the two previous films – the lack of any clear line between gangsterism and the ‘respectable’ world of business, politics and the church hierarchy. Indeed, ‘Godfather’ Michael Corleone runs into trouble when he tries to move completely into ‘respectable’ business and finds that the people he is dealing with are worse crooks than he is.
The fictional situation intentionally copies the ‘Vatican Bank’ scandal, which has not yet been fully cleared up, and may very well never be resolved while the Vatican Archives remain closed.
The Vatican, in its history, has generally been much more a continuation of the Roman Empire than a continuation of the original gatherings of Greek-speaking and Aramaic-speaking members of the powerless underclass in the Roman world. The original Christians had no notion of politics, because they had no power and because they were in any case expecting the world to end quite soon. When the Latin-speaking half of the Roman Empire vanished, the Church was left behind as the most substantial remnant of that world, which continued a modified form of its politics. This continued up to, and beyond, the organisation of the rest of Europe into either nation-states or strong centralised Empires. And the poor Italians had their national development spoiled by the presence and interference of the Papacy. When an Italian state was finally created, there was a long cold war between it and the Papacy. This conflict was finally resolved by Mussolini, who established Church-State relationships in Italy on a basis that continues down to the present day.
Sicily was a particular victim of Papal policies. There was a time when it was the most advanced and cultured part of Italy. It was blighted by a parasitic aristocracy which the Papacy backed. The original Mafia existed as a sort of rudimentary middle class between the aristocracy and the exploited peasantry. Mussolini tried to get rid of them as obstacles to progress. The United States helped them recover and rise to unprecedented power, by making use of them, as a matter of short-term convenience, during the invasion of Sicily and Southern Italy in World War Two. The United States also helped perpetuate the unbroken run of Christian Democratic power in Italy since then, using all of its power to keep the Communist Party of Italy out of any share in government,
The Mafia were a minor part of this power-structure, dependent on political friends. Some parts of the Mafia seem to have got too greedy and ambitious, as well as getting very deeply involved in the destructive trade of drug-trafficking. Possibly they supposed themselves to be the sort of autonomous force that most gangster films portray them as – the Godfather films being an exception by insisting on the ties between the underworld and the rich and powerful. Ironically, this group were called the Corleonasi, very similar to the fictional Corleones of the Godfather films. Their behaviour was very different – the Corleonasi took on the Italian state, and have naturally been hammered. But it is very probable that Italian politicians still have many links with parts of the Mafia whose ambitions are modest and acceptable.
[The Corleonasi were to lose some of their leaders to prison, but remain strong.
[Italy’s Christian Democrats suffered damage from 1992 and dissolved in 1994. But Italian politics actually got worse with them removed.]
The Communist Party of Great Britain, with a singular lack of judgment, has decided to vanish by renaming itself the Democratic Left. Anyone who has had dealings with the CP over the years will know what a total joke that name is. Back in the days before Khrushchev the CP were the local representative of the crude, repressive but often highly effective World State that Stalin & Co. were trying to build. There was a real popular link between this growing World State and large numbers of working people, as well as any number of disaffected intellectuals. It was a democracy of sorts, and one that looked set to remake the world along the lines originally envisaged by Lenin.
Khrushchev destroyed this democracy in 1956. He created as much confusion among Communists as the Pope would create among Catholics if he were to say that Jesus was not after all the Son of God. In no sense did Khrushchev encourage the rank and file of World Communism to start thinking seriously about their own past. Some people mistakenly saw him as meaning this – the Hungarians, for instance, whom he crushed with tanks later on in I 956. The reality was that Khrushchev threw the movement into chaos by arbitrarily changing the beliefs that millions of ordinary people had built their lives around.
After 1956, there was no logical reason for the Communist Party of Great Britain to go on existing. It had based itself on the notion that correct ideas came from Moscow. Changes of line like the Nazi-Soviet pact had caused problems, but they could be understood as cunning manoeuvres that had ended up both saving the Soviet Union and enormously expanding its power. But for Moscow in 1956 to suddenly say that it had been telling a complete pack of lies for the past 30 or more years created an intolerable dilemma for believers in the Moscow Line. Some True Believers went on considering all of this as another subtle manoeuvre which would be justified by history. But events were to prove them wrong. 1956 was actually the peak of World Communism’s power. Successes like the first ventures into space and the Cuban Revolution could not make up for the realisation that truth was whatever the ruling clique in Moscow might choose to consider truth, without either traditions or popular will counting for anything.
Other options were open in the 1950s. Instead of trying to cosy up to the Pope and to the United States, the post-Stalin leadership could have tried seriously to heal the split between Communists and Socialists that Lenin had created. I’m not suggesting that Lenin should have been denounced, although a move away from Lenin-idolisation would have been a good idea. In any case, a lot of the success of Western European socialists was based on the visible and menacing presence of the Communist alternative that led serious conservatives to see reforms as unavoidable. It could simply have been said that the conflict had been ‘superseded’ and that the two political traditions could now reunite.
Sadly, both Khrushchev and the various CPs throughout the world preferred to condemn their own history but hang on to everything that had been accumulated during the Stalin era. It was bound to end badly. Left politics since 1956 have been blighted by the power and presence of a confused and disintegrating Communist movement. Hopefully, the ‘Democratic Left’ now lacks the power to do any more blighting.
[‘Democratic Left‘ dissolved in 1998. It is separate from the Morning Star, the former party newspaper that was previously the Daily Worker. Morning Star remains a useful left-wing paper published from Monday to Saturday]
After Thatcher’s downfall, Heseltine was put in charge of looking into Poll Tax and replacing it with something. At the end of several months, he stood up in the House of Commons and said that it was indeed to be replaced with something. Only he couldn’t say exactly what son of something, Poll Tax is to be replace by an indefinable something – Louis Althusser might have called it a Constituted B tank. As I write, a precise definition of the something has been promised but not yet deli veered. But since this indefinable something is absolutely central to the future of local government, it needs a clear label. So let’s just call it the Hesel-tax.
Imagine two families. The Smith household – a married couple with two grown-up children who can’t yet afford to leave home – live in a flat costing £30,000. The Jones household arc much richer – they live in a £120,000 house. Assuming that they live in the same borough, and that rateable values are roughly in line with property prices, the Jones household would have paid four times as much in Rates as the
Smith household. Under the Poll Tax, there would have been a drastic shift from poor to rich – the Smith household would be paying twice as much.
Under the Hesel-tax, we have – what? We have a mix of personal and property taxation, but what sort of mix? If it ends up with the Jones household paying three times as much as the Smith household, it is very nearly ‘son of rates’. If it ends up with the Smith household paying 50% more than the Jones household, then it is ‘son of poll tax’. If they were to end up paying the same, then it would be a blend that was closer to Poll Tax than Rates, and if the Jones paid twice as much as their impoverished neighbours it would be closer to Rates than to Poll Tax.
The voters want something that is more or less Rates. The majority of the Tory MPs and activists want Poll Tax and will settle for something that is almost the same. Major was in no position to defy either the voters or the hard core of his own support. Thus we got the Hesel-tax. Heseltine must know he has come up with an absurdity. There is good reason to suppose that he wanted to be rid of the Poll Tax principle completely. He has however gone along with the fudge, and therefore the Hesel-tax can only bear his name,
Labour ridicules the Hesel-tax, which is indeed ridiculous. Sadly, the Hesel-tax also bears an uncanny resemblance to the hybrid tax that is currently the official Labour alternative to Poll Tax. Labour should have stuck with supporting the Rates, as the least bad local taxation system. For that matter, it is not yet too late. Kinnock, in the debate, did call for a return to rates. But how much more impressive Labour’s front bench would have looked if they had all along been saying that rates were the least painful form of local taxation and needed only minor reforms.
L&TUR No. 5 had a front-page article by Jack Lane that said just that, back at the start of 1988 when most politicians refused to consider the notion. Possibly if we raised our price to £50 an issue and called ourselves a think-tank, Labour’s front bench might then deign to notice us.
[The actual replacement is known as the Council Tax. The Wiki says of it:
[“At the bottom and middle end of the market, Council Tax is a progressive tax based on the value of the property; the higher the value of the property, the higher the amount of tax levied irrespective of the number of inhabitants at the property (except the reduction allowed for single tenancy). However, there is only one band for properties valued (in 1991) above £320,000 and so the tax stops increasing after this point. Therefore, the tax has been criticised for being disproportionate, with those in more expensive houses not paying as much as those in smaller houses as a proportion of the value of the house and has therefore been called a “new poll tax for the poor”.]
These Newsnotes appeared in May 1991, in Issue 23 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.