Newsnotes 026 – November 1991

Notes on the News

by Madawc Williams

The old country

At the beginning of the 20th century Russia was a backward but militarily strong state on the fringes of Europe, eager to learn from its western neighbours. As the 20th century draws to a close, it has reverted to being almost exactly the same thing.

Between times, there were several decades in which Russia was merely the strongest single element in a potential world superstate – a state that had more in common with the rational World States of H. G. Wells’s novels than the original schemes of Karl Marx.

The great weakness of this superstate was its lack of democracy. Neither Marx nor Wells would have told the Soviet rulers that an actual functioning democracy was a necessity. Indeed, very few political theorists realised that no modern state could be healthy unless there was some practical constitutional means for ordinary people to get rid of unpopular rulers. The consensus was that the rulers of the USSR were much better placed than those in the West, who had to flatter and manipulate the ignorant opinions of the general public, and who on occasions would be replaced or displaced.

But the real world refused to behave as the ideologues expected it to behave. In the West, the rebels of the 1960s were in various ways incorporated into the system, enormously strengthening it in the process. But this was not the fruit of any deep-laid strategy – the rulers simply lacked the power to exclude those dissidents who chose to enter the system and try to change it.

Most left resistance to this process, based on false expectations of revolution and collapse, merely ensured that the new post-1960s society began to move away from socialism, reversing the trend of the previous few decades. None of this was inevitable. The bulk of the left might have supported Workers Control and supported a European Union on a socialist basis, rather than being obstructively opposed to both these trends. But we in the Bevin Society were almost alone in urging such developments. Meanwhile the Eastern Block, having successfully suppressed its own dissidents, began to fall apart.

Why talk about past failures and past defeats? Simply because they were avoidable. The ‘forward march of labour’ was halted because gurus like Edward Thompson gave out some really stupid and inept advice, and are now keen to blame almost anyone except themselves for what happened.

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but this need not be the fate of the left. The fall of Soviet Power in Russia and Eastern Europe has also solidly established workers’ power in the part of the world where it had not existed before. For the time being, it is bound to be anti-socialist and orientated towards the world market. For the time being, many old half-forgotten conflicts will be revived as the existing state structures break up. But the basic impulses that originally led to socialism remain the same and must in due course recover from the damage done by various forms of corrupt and decaying Leninism.

Great Serbs Without the Law

Last year the Serbs had a very good practical demonstration of how the world community defends oppressed minorities. Serbs imposed their power on the Albanians of Kosovo, a minority with a clear democratic right to autonomy, perhaps independence. And no one did anything of consequence. A vast military power was assembled for the sake of Kuwait, but few people really minded what happened to Albanians.

[This actually lasted till the end of the disastrous conflict in Bosnia.  It in 1998 it was then suddenly ‘discovered’ that the Kosovo Albanians had been treated monstrously.  They had begun fighting in 1995, probably assured they would get help eventually.]

This year, the Serbs of the Republic of Croatia saw the possibility of being in the same position as the Albanians of Kosovo. Or rather they foresaw a very much worse situation – the Serbs have never shown any signs of wanting to physically wipe out the Albanians within their state, but the Croats did just that in World War Two, and present-day Croat nationalism seems to be proud to claim continuity with such people. Naturally, this Serb minority had no wish to be left at the mercy of the Croat majority in a sovereign Croat state. They knew full well that all of the rhetoric about “protection of human rights” is just rhetoric. Sovereign states that massacre large numbers of their own citizens are liable to be told publicly that they’ve been very very naughty – that’s as far as it goes.

The Balkans are an area where power politics has always taken precedence over national rights and international law. Britain intentionally preserved the Turkish Ottoman Empire long after it was ready to fall, because the British Foreign Office felt that the “national interest” required it as a counter-weight to Russia. This policy was not only cynical and corrupt – it was also stupid and disastrous, in as much as in the First World War, Turkey was the enemy and Russia the ally.

No serious international law has ever been applied to the Balkans; everything has always been decided by violence and power. No one in the recent crisis has been willing to say either that the Serbs of Croatia have their own right to autonomy, or that they do not. The talk is all of ‘establishing peace’. But peace can only come when the basic points at issue have been resolved. Until the Serbian minority stop resisting Croatia, or until Croatia agrees to let them go, all talk of peace is empty rhetoric.

The rhetoric remains empty because no outside force is willing to use the sort of military power that might make one side or the other lose the will to defend what it sees as legitimate national rights. The Iraqis have yet to be convinced that they did anything wrong in grabbing Kuwait or building weapons of mass destruction, so why should Serbs or Croats be more compliant? And unlike the Iraqis, they are Christian, white and European – factors that would make no difference if international law actually existed, but do make a very big difference within the framework of corrupt power politics that we actually have. No one is likely to do anything very much, and we are likely to get another Cyprus or Kashmir, with cease-fire lines hardening into de facto frontiers. No doubt the British Foreign Office will see it as yet another bit of unreasonable behaviour by “lesser breeds without the law”.

Dep’t. of Public Prostitution

The Independent’s Saturday magazine cautiously floated the idea that it was police anger at the proposed prosecution of senior officers who worked the various “fixes” over the Guilford Four etc that led to the DPP getting nabbed for kerb-crawling. It’s an idea that makes a lot of sense. The police must know, even if everyone else has forgotten it, that they were required to catch someone in order to appease public anger at those attacks on innocent British people. The police were expected to find and convict people who might plausibly be presented as guilty, and they did what was expected of them.

It was both cruel and stupid of the politicians not to quietly release these innocents after they had served their political function, but to allow the whole thing to become a major public issue. It was decided to offer up some elderly retired policemen as fresh sops to public opinion. The DPP [Department of Public Prosecution] was very much bound up in all of this – and then the head of the DPP gets caught for kerb-crawling. What’s the betting that it will somehow now be found impossible to convict those policemen who did the politicians’ dirty work for them so many years ago?

It may also be that senior legal people are no longer as much a part of the establishment as they suppose themselves to be. Most of them went along enthusiastically with Thatcherite “rationalisation” and “modernisation”, not imagining that their own hallowed traditions might also be for the chop in the long run. But there is serious talk of a move to a European-style ‘inquisitorial’ system – a system where the main purpose is to get at the truth, rather than allowing lawyers to use various sorts of ingenious legal trickery against each other. It may come, and it should come.

We do not expect doctors to apply leeches and branding irons, nor teachers to use quill pens and know little beyond Latin, Greek and Hebrew, but lawyers have stuck fast to being essentially what they were in the 18th century. They were happy to help “rationalise” the rest of us. If it’s their tum now, how many friends will they have?

NHS – Not A Penny More?

To apply unproven remedies to people’s health is normally treated as a serious crime. But not in the case of the NHS trusts. It has yet to be shown that the existing trusts work even by the Tories’ own criteria for success, but the process goes on regardless. If in a few years time it is found that the trusts don’t work at all, they could always be ‘reformed’ again and fully privatised.

Britain has a remarkably cheap, cost-efficient Health Service. Its present difficulties are the product of its success – it has cures for many who would simply and inexpensively have died a few years ago. Thus it lacked the funds to meet actual human needs. NHS funding has grown ahead of inflation, but actual human needs have grown faster still.

The Tory answer to this was ‘reforms’ – actually a reversion to the irrational mix of private and public hospitals that existed before the NHS. But health is a highly unsuitable area for cash to be the deciding factor. If doctors were simply out to maximise their own incomes, then it would be rational for them to ignore the poor and concentrate on giving an unnecessarily high level of medical care to anyone who can pay. It is indeed noteworthy that America’s private health-care system does actually provide a greater number of certain operations and expensive drug therapies, without in fact doing any better at curing the sick.

The Tories assure us that things in Britain will never be like that: the NHS is ‘safe in their hands’. They would not allow things like pointless, but highly profitable, operations, would they? Readers of Jeffrey Archer’s Not a Penny More will not feel all that reassured. The basic plot of Archer’s silly best-seller is that four men who have been cheated into buying shares in a worthless oil company set out to get their money back. A very standard plot – except that the heroes use methods that are considerably dirtier than those of the man who swindled them. One is to embezzle a sum of money that the man is persuaded to donate to Oxford University. Another, even dirtier, is to slip the man a mild poison, persuade him he needs an urgent operation from a famous surgeon, and then charge him a huge sum of money for his ‘cure’.

Safe in their hands? Archer is no longer Tory Vice-Chairman, discredited on the wholly trivial grounds of having come under suspicion of having had sex with a prostitute. But the Tory party is still full of similar people, thinking much the same as Archer does but wise enough not to be so open about it.

Junk adverts

One extra drain on NHS resources is the ever growing number of drug addicts. The New Right has preferred to ignore the problem of drug-taking and concentrate instead on drug-smuggling. But it is not drug smugglers who are the main problem – they are a singularly nasty breed of criminals, but they exist only because individuals choose to take illicit drugs. In this matter, the New Right ignore their own rhetoric and assume that market forces will not operate.

In the long run, there are probably only two options – legalisation, or a different sort of society. Prohibition is not an impossibility – it may have failed in the USA, but many Muslim societies have carried it through quite successfully. But prohibition would not work in Western societies without a new social morality, which would inevitably take a more or less socialist form. On the other hand any attempt at legalisation would break up the New Right coalition of free-marketeers and religious right-wingers. Even the eminently logical system of giving a free supply to registered addicts is not allowed except on a very restricted scale. Britain used to have a much more extensive system of free supply: it was abolished and the problem got very much worse.

This article appeared in November 1991, in Issue 26 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at