Newsnotes 014 – November 1989.

Notes on the News

by Madawc Williams


The sliding economy

Persistence is a virtue only when the basic course of action is sound. Thatcher made her own sort of politics effective by refusing to back down in face of some initial economic troubles during. her first term of office. Now she hopes to ‘tough out’ the present difficulties. It looks less and less likely that she can.

At the time of the 1988 budget, I assumed that the Tories had got the economy under control. I still think that they could have kept things going their way by a few simple measures – credit controls, and probably membership of the EMS. Credit controls would clamp down specifically on consumer spending. Interest rates bear much more heavily on productive industry. Industrialists with shareholders to report to will react more swiftly to expensive money than the millions of moderately prosperous people who are spending their savings and running up as much debt as they can get away with. People with credit cards look at how close they are to their credit limit, not at the real rate of interest they are paying. The EMS, teaming up with the rest of Europe to defend exchange rates, would have put off the speculators. Since speculators do a lot more trading in the money markets than those who have a real need for any given currency, this might in itself have solved matters.

Thatcher resisted both these measures, because they went against her longer-term goals – further weakening of the state within Britain, and no diminution of British sovereignty in the wider world. But she has over-reached herself. Inflation now shows every sign of taking off and becoming self-sustaining. Trade unions are being pushed into larger wage demands by workers who have trouble meeting the mortgage repayments they took on during the Thatcher years. Thatcher is now hitting the very people who switched from Labour to Tory and put her into power in the first place. And the world market is adding to her troubles by going into another bout of share-panic.

The problem for Labour is that it can only hope to get back into power by attracting people who would have stuck with Thatcher had she been a bit wiser and more modest. There are no radical policies that Kinnock can propose that would not put off such people and give Thatcher a fourth term after all. Except, perhaps, for workers control.

Galileo on trial

In the 17th century, Galileo Galilei got into trouble because his observations – most notably of the moons of Jupiter – upset the Catholic Church’s view of the universe. His views were seen as heretical, upsetting their dogmas. Now a modern Galileo, a probe designed to study Jupiter and its moons, is in trouble with modern defenders of dogma.

To do its job, the Galileo probe is powered by two small plutonium reactors. There is little choice – solar power would not work as far out as Jupiter. The risk is minimal – very small compared to the risk of travelling on the same road as tankers full of highly inflammable petrol and other even more dangerous substances. But it’s radioactive, and therefore the modern dogmatists of the Green Movement put it in a special category all by itself. There were legal moves to stop the shuttle carrying the Galileo probe from taking off. Thankfully, these failed.

Remarkably enough, just a few weeks ago the Pope chose to state explicitly that the Catholic Church was wrong in its handling of the original Galileo. Resistance to Galileo’s ideas has long been abandoned, but the matter is still remembered and remarked upon. Is the timing of the Pope’s announcement just a coincidence?

[The mission was a grand success]

San Francisco Quake

Shortly after the space shuttle carrying the ‘dangerous’ Galileo probe took off, an earthquake of middling size caused disaster near San Francisco. Most of the deaths came when a section of a double-decker motorway collapsed.

We live on the outside of a planet with an active crust. Chunks of the planet are still moving about – slowly on the human timescale, but quite quickly in geological terms. Earthquakes are one small part of this process, that happen to intrude on human lives.

Hopes that earthquakes could be predicted proved too optimistic. No one knows when San Francisco will get its next big earthquake. And no one feels like leaving the city empty until it comes. What should be happening is building techniques that will minimise the damage.

A double-decker motorway in an earthquake zone seems an inherently foolish idea – though apparently it was supposed to be strong enough to survive a quake. But if even half the energy that has gone into the anti-nuclear movement had gone into checking possibly unsafe constructions, a lot more lives might have been saved. For that matter, both cars and roads could be made a lot less dangerous. A death in a car-crash may be less newsworthy than a death from radiation-induced cancer, but it is no less tragic.

Don’t send us your huddled masses …

In very ancient times – the Bronze Age and early Iron Age – travellers of all sorts were welcome, and there were laws of hospitality to make sure that they were looked after. Later, travellers got to be just too many. Hospitality broke down; it was replaced by paid lodgings or a thin and grudging charity.

A similar thing is happening with refugees. When they were only coming in small numbers, or from desired groups, they could be welcomed. But modern transportation means that millions of people can move round the globe in a very short time, and would do so if not prevented.

Prevention is a matter of local preference. East Germans – the most prosperous people in Eastern Europe – are welcomed in West Germany because they are seen as fellow Germans. The Social and Liberal Democrats would have us allow entry to some three million inhabitants of Hong Kong, among the most prosperous people in East Asia. Meanwhile, other people in much greater need are kept out. Chinese are kept out of Hong Kong, and Vietnamese who get there are being pushed back to where they came from.

The truth is, humanity is out-growing the nation-state. But politicians, rooted in the structures of the nation state, don’t want to admit it. A world state could undoubtedly solve most of the problems of poverty and war that create refugees in the first place. Socialists should be considering how a world state can be created on a fair and democratic basis. Instead most people on the left treat it as an abstract and impossible dream, while trying vainly to build socialism in their own small part of the planet.

German re-unification?

People talk with either fear or hope about re-unification of the two Germanies. They forget that there are in fact four Germanies. and that the peak of their unity was when Adolph Hitler ruled the territories of three of them.

Switzerland has the longest continuous history. It was an association of German-speaking peoples that later expanded to include some French-speakers and Italian-speakers. Switzerland has proved completely stable in the face of the nation-building that occurred in France, Germany and Italy. They were happy as they were, and even Hitler didn’t try to touch them.

Austria was carved out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War One. It was the German-speaking remnant of that Empire after everything else had been removed. Hitler took it over as the first step in his expansion. The Allies re-instituted it as a neutral state after World War Two. And it seems very happy to remain just that.

Those Germans who were neither part of Switzerland nor part of Austria were conquered by the Prussian state in the 19th century. For centuries before that, they had been a collection of small states with no particular urge to unity. Their existence as a single state lasted only a few decades, and led to them fighting and losing two world wars. They could function as a Great Power only at the expense of the other Great Powers, which not inclined to accept this passively. Since 1945 they have been split between East and West. Both halves originally had hopes of swallowing the other. Now the East German state is under pressure, while West Germany waxes stronger.

Changes in East Germany are evitable and desirable. Given that they have had a fairly successful planned economy, what they need is a change to democratic socialism. The alternative – absorption by West Germany – would probably be bad all round. The EEC has worked in large part because no one nation was strong enough to dominate it, or even looked strong enough to possibly be able to dominate it. A unified Germany might revive a great any fears and antagonisms in the rest of Europe.

[What actually happened was that East Germany was absorbed and abolished.  And many living in this absorbed land still resent it.  Two separate German states coexisting as Germany and Austria do might have worked better.]

Deadly uncertainties

Politicians have a way of plunging people into uncertainly about their future, and then blaming them when that certainty leads to violence. When Southern Ireland separated from the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland was left as a ‘maybe’. British political parties said that it was for the local people to decide their future, even though they knew that this was the one thing that the two communities could not possibly agree on. Violence might take Ulster into a United Ireland; violence might keep it in the U.K. So naturally there was violence between those who wanted the two rival solutions.

There have been other cases. Britain never had any clear policy over whether there was or was not to be a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The United Nations drew up a plan for partition as Britain was pulling out, but did nothing to enforce it. Israel survived by winning several wars against very heavy odds. Various bodies would say that they would guarantee Israel’s continued existence if Israel were to allow a Palestinian state to be established on some of the territory that Israel now holds. But no one at all would actually guarantee it, in the sense of doing anything effective if such a settlement did not hold.

In the USSR, the relaxation of Leninist central control has also led to violence in areas that are disputed between different nationalities. Nagorno-Karabakh is a territory inhabited by Armenians but surrounded by Azerbaijanis. Before Gorbachev, it was assumed that Stalin’s settlement, making it an autonomous part of Azerbaijan, was permanent and unalterable. But when the Armenians asked for this to be changed, Gorbachev dithered and let the matter become uncertain. It became a ‘maybe’ territory. Naturally, this led to outbreaks of violence between the two groups.

People do not arrange themselves neatly into nation states. Populations overlap. Nations do not take a detached and impartial view of their own claims, and therefore claims tend to conflict. The least damaging solution is usually to accept the status quo. This has more or less worked in Africa, where colonial boundaries are treated as sacrosanct. They are treated as sacrosanct because at least they exist and are definite. Trying to reshape the continent on more ‘natural’ lines would lead to warfare on an unprecedented scale, because ‘natural’ divisions can be and would be disputed. And if Gorbachev wants peace among the nations of the Soviet Union, he should say that all boundaries stay just as they are, even if they are not perfectly just.

Worse on Sunday

Businessmen tend to be Tories. So while newspapers are run as businesses, subject to normal business rules, it is only to be expected that the press will be more or less Tory. It was different in the days when the Liberals were the main opposition party; they had the wealth to run their own press. Labour party people tend not to have that sort of money.

Labour has never had any clear idea what to do about this situation. The correct answer would surely be some scheme whereby newspapers ceased to be businesses, and were controlled instead by their readers. There would still be Tory papers, of course, but only in proportion to the number of Tory readers. But this simple solution goes against the widespread feeling in the party that ordinary people can’t really be left to decide what’s best for them.

The Labour Left had one go at founding a national newspaper. News On Sunday was a tabloid run by people who didn’t . like tabloids, so naturally it failed. Meanwhile, a few new newspapers did manage to get established – most notably The Independent, which has taken over from the Times and the Financial Times as a newspaper of record, and one that can be read by people with widely differing political views. (But The Independent has started playing some strange games on a few matters which most of its readers wouldn’t know much about. This will be dealt with in a future issue of L&TUR.)

The latest addition is The Sunday Correspondent. It is hard to see it surviving – nor does it deserve to. It’s just another fat slab of stale Sunday news. It has run dire headlines like Bomb ‘lair’ combed by police, which made me think of a crowd of dedicated policemen taking out pocket combs to conduct a detailed search. It has even lost the support of Private Eye, which at first had supported it as part of their pointless feud with The Independent.

[The Independent was a much more serious newspaper back in 1989.]

Television news bulletins are the main forum for serious news these days. Newspapers are secondary – yet still important. The Tories plan to make television more like newspapers – run as businesses and dependent on advertising. The next Labour government should reverse the process. A simple law saying that no one may own more than 10% of any one daily newspaper might work wonders. Or are the Labour leadership more concerned about pleasing Robert Maxwell?

The hackers hacked

If you walk on someone’s front lawn, you are committing the crime of trespass. If you break one of their windows, you are guilty of criminal damage. But as the law stands, if you sneak into their computer system, pry about in their private files, or write a malicious little computer programme that will mess up work that they may have spent months or years on, you have broken no law at all.

The Law Commission has now put forward proposals to make ‘hacking’ and the writing of ‘viruses’ (malicious and damaging programmes) illegal. People who sneak into a computer system where they have no business to be could get up to three months. Those who go on to use this access to steal or do damage could get up to five years.

Some people have felt that these penalties are too severe. But they are only maximum sentences; it will be up to the courts to decide what penalties any actual hackers will suffer. People who actually work· with computers – and whose work could be destroyed or made useless by a hacker or virus – feel that such laws are long overdue. If people want to be clever with computers, there are plenty of useful and interesting things that they can do, without invading someone else’s privacy or destroying the fruits of their labour.

The Channel Tunnel – a modern fable

‘In a hole in the ground there lived a Thatcherite. But not the sort of hole in the ground where people live because they like it. No, this was a Thatcherite hole, and that means profit.

‘At least it was supposed to mean profit. The Thatcherite and all his friends and relations who had dug themselves into this hole were expecting to take more money out of it than they had put in. But the hole got more and more expensive, and they didn’t like that at all. They complained to She Who Must Be Obeyed, who told them that it was all part of Free Enterprise. But when they asked Her if that meant that they were free to quit their hole in the ground and try something else, She got very wrathful.’

The fact is, the Channel Tunnel is needed as a piece of infrastructure. It will be of great benefit in the long run, but only the long run. This country only got decent roads when the government took over from the privately run Turnpike Trusts. It has an irrational railway system, with several unconnected stations for London, because the network was built by competing private firms. A railway entrepreneur called Cook gave us the phrase ‘cooking the books’. Thatcherite ideas are failing all over the place, and nowhere more clearly than in the case of the tunnel. I just hope that it still gets completed, because it’s long overdue.

[It never was a commercial success, yet remains something very useful to us.]


These Newsnotes appeared in November 1989, in Issue 14 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  For more, see