Newsnotes 033 – January 1993

Notes on the News

by Madawc Williams

Britannia oils the waves

There is no necessity for a single drop of crude oil to travel by sea. If all refining had to be done in the country of origin, tankers would only need to carry refined oil products, which are much less polluting, tending either to sink or to evaporate. Only crude oil has the correct blend to stay afloat and create an appalling mess on the beaches.

Most of the world’s shipping is registered in either Liberia or Panama, neither of which are notable as maritime nations. Both are US creations – Panama was snipped off Columbia to give the US a free hand building a canal, and Liberia was invented as a dumping-place for freed Afro-Americans. Panama is chiefly noted for General Noriega, and Liberia at present has no all.

British merchant shipping has been undermined by market forces, cheap and risky ships flying flags of convenience. Tories may sing ‘Rule, Britannia’ with great gusto, but the practical result of their policies has been that Britannia rules sod all past her own coastline.

Even the possible benefits of this coastline are being ignored. Britain is naturally suited to wave power, but interesting possibilities just are not being developed properly. (New Scientist, 2nd Jan, p ll). Such research has always been under the thumb of the nuclear industry, which has a vested interest in not allowing it to succeed. (Especially now that the privatisation laws for electricity specify that a certain percentage must not come from fossil fuel, creating a niche that could be filled by either wave power or nuclear power.) Britain’s nuclear industry has been a loss-making mess, partly due to the risks and problems of the technology, and partly due to sheer incompetence. (France has a highly successful nuclear industry.)

Yet while useful public industries have been attacked, the nuclear industry seems to have some deep links with the Tory establishment, and has always been protected.

Thankfully, things are different in Norway, which is equally suited to wave power, and has a more sensible government. We are always being told that the Scandinavian social-democratic model has failed, but the figures suggest otherwise. According to The World in 1993 from The Economist Publications, the UK in 1992 had a GDP per head of $17,300; Italy $20,200; the USA $22,520; Germany $24,120; Norway $28,200, Sweden $29,600; Switzerland $35,000. You still believe in the ‘miracle of the market’?


Signing your life away

In the high old days of Thatcherism and strict monetarism, everyone was borrowing as much as they could. One particular chicken now coming home to roost is secondary lending. People used their houses as security to pay for double-glazing and the like, or even for mere spending money. Such lenders were generally much less scrupulous and less well-regulated than Building Societies· or banks. According to John Battle, Labour’s housing spokesman, such repossessions are now more common than those by building societies, and often done for fairly small sums.

When Labour raised the matter, the Tory criticised them for drawing attention to inconvenient facts at a time when the housing market might be recovering. Aren’t these the same people who said that markets always found their own proper level on the basis of the objective facts?

Credit can be as addictive as hard drugs, and consumers need to be protected. Thatcherism seemed to assume that everyone would think like an accountant, tot up profit and loss over the long run. A world in which everyone thought like an accountant would be a truly nightmarish prospect, and in any case it is not going to happen. People borrowed for immediate consumption, not worrying too much about the future. But the future has now arrived, and everyone is in a mess. Credit-based consumption has had to be squeezed out by high interest rates, which also hit responsible borrowers and businessmen needing capital to create new jobs and industries.

Labour should take note of the new public mood, and set itself up as the party of sensible credit controls. One simple rule would make a great difference: if the loan was beyond what the borrower could reasonably be expected to repay, give the circumstances at the time it was made, then it would be simply wiped out and be lost to the lender. That would cut out a lot of the crazy borrowing and fringe operators, while securing the position of those with a serious need for a loan they could expect to repay.



The Economist Publications’ The World in 1993 has more interesting facts besides just GNP per head. An article on Russia says “as weak companies go out of business, the raw materials they now use inefficiently will become available for export. This should mean Russia will be able to run a trade surplus next year. That would ease Russia’s difficulties with financing foreign debt… ” That is to say, Russia is to go back to being a supplier of raw materials, lose much of its industry and all of its economic sovereignty.

Another article by the same author (who is The Economist’s Moscow correspondent) says “the break-up of Russia, as geographically defined for the past year, cannot be ruled out.” Actually it can be. Regions like Tatarstan might like to break away. There are those in the West who dream of creating new Kuwaits out of those minority regions that have rich natural resources. But all of the minority regions are. tiny compared to Russia The largest of them have less than 4 million inhabitants, and there are large minorities of ethnic Russians. And Russia still has the Red Army and a nuclear arsenal that could wreck the world ten times over.

The USSR broke up because Yeltsin ruled Russia and didn’t care to take any more orders from Gorbachev. Also it was clearly impossible to retain the Ukraine without a major war. Moreover, the growth of Muslim populations in Central Asia would have made them dominant if the USSR had been turned into a democratic multi-party state. So Russian nationalists saw some merits in letting the Soviet Union break up. But Russia itself will remain whole.

Also, no one should be surprised by the success of ‘conservative’ forces within Russia. Market forces might dictate that they should dismantle their society and become suppliers of cheap labour and raw materials to the West.  Even America under Reagan repeatedly interfered with market forces when these seemed to be against US interests. Expect exactly the same behaviour from any future government of Russia.

[Russia held together, but the economic decline continued until Yeltsin realised he had been cheated and put Putin into power to fix it.

[Russia and Ukraine were getting on well as two independent states.  Only later did the ‘Orange Revolutions’ split the country between those who felt close to Russia and those who glorified Ukrainian nationalists who had been allies of Hitler whenever Hitler would allow it.]


Churchill and Toryism

It is hardly unusual for Tories to do dishonest and unprincipled things behind the scenes. But it took Alan Clark to express public regret at a lost opportunity to be dishonest and unprincipled.

All through the 1930s, Churchill was warning that Hitler was not someone who could be trusted or appeased. In this he was out of tune with most of the Conservative Party, which either admired Hitler or at least wanted to appease him. Churchill was a lone voice when Hitler was given everything be asked for with the Munich Agreement But when Hitler took still more, and then went on to threaten Poland, the Establishment finally realised that he had all along known what he was talking about.

Churchill was the perfect man to hold the nation together after Dunkirk – the only major right-wing politician with impeccable anti-fascist credentials. He was also a believer in democracy, and utterly refused a separate peace that would have delivered the future of the world to Nazi Germany, with Soviet Russia as the only serious alternative. Certainly there would have been no question of a US intervention if Britain had given up. There might have been a separate US – Japanese war, but that would not have helped Europe. And it would have left Hitler free to exterminate all the Jews in all the territories he controlled.

To see such an outcome as desirable implies a rather odd view of the world. But to come out and say it long after the event is even odder. Much of the residual pride in Britishness rests on that ‘finest hour’, when Britain stood alone against a really evil enemy, and went on to win against the odds. One starts to wonder how many Tories understand what Britishness once meant.


China genes

For some people, anything that involves or genetic engineering is impossibly dangerous and must be stopped at all costs. Such fears have been a great burden on the newly emerging biotechnology industry. Useful schemes for improving crops have been prevented in the West, even when the gene in question was essentially harmless.

It has now emerged that the whole battle was largely pointless. China, one quarter of mankind, is going ahead regardless. The local farmers want better crops, particularly those resistant to various viruses that reduce crop yield. Genetically altered crops are now being grown on such a wide scale over there that any possible dangers could hardly be avoided. (New Scientist, 2nd January.) The local people even dug up some transgenic tomatoes that the researchers had buried to stop the seeds spreading.

Don’t lose any sleep, though. Mother Nature has been performing genetic engineering on a mass scale ever since life began: that’s what evolution is all about. And plant breeders regularly mix genes from different plants and animals, in as far as normal breeding will allow them to do so. Genetic engineering simply makes things simpler – you can move the one gene you want, and whose effects you already understand.


Serbs and the prosperity of vice

When Tito took over Yugoslavia after World War Two, he deliberately redesigned it to balance the dominant Serbs against the various minority nations. The conscious intention was to so mix the nationalities that no succession could be either clean or easy. (Just as Stalin added a chunk of non-Rumanian territory to Moldavia, creating problems that have not yet been untangled, and may well lead to war.)

Croatia and Bosnia should have been forced to disgorge majority-Serb areas before they were allowed to set themselves up as sovereign states, with the Serbs in turn forced to give up Albanian Kosovo and other non-Serbian regions in the areas that they control. If Yugoslavia could not be preserved, that would have been the best and most humane solution. Just as the courts lay down a judgment about property and children when a marriage breaks up, so could international law have dealt with the disintegration of a multi-national state.

What we have actually seen is vice rewarded, at least in so far as it has been successful. Those areas the Serbs won from sovereign Croatia are under UN protection, likely to stabilise the borders where force of arms placed them. Much the same is true of the fragmentation of Bosnia, under the peace plan now being discussed. It is hardly likely that any international force is now going to conquer those regions and return them to effective rule by Croats or Bosnian Muslims. Quite apart from the cost in blood and money, those Serbs would then be massacred and expelled by their new masters, to the great embarrassment of the Western governments that had sponsored such a policy.

[I misread that.  The USA was able to build up Croat forces, who then expelled Serbs from regions they have lived in for centuries.  And having long been ignored, the Albanians of Kosovo were encouraged to rebel once peace in Bosnia was secured.  I had drawn attention to their plight well before most people,[1] but the way it was fixed was an abomination.]


Holy Croatia

As I write, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs has just agreed to the Decimal Solution for the disputed territories – three chunks for Serbs, three for Croats, three for Muslims and Sarajevo to be shared. Naturally, the Croats were for it from the start. It may well have been pretty much what Croat leaders were hoping for when they first joined with the Muslim minority to create an independent Bosnia with no special allowance for. the Serbs. (Remember also that the Serbs had been the majority in Bosnia before Croats and Muslims massacred them while serving Nazi Germany.)

Serb nationalism destroyed Yugoslavia, but it was Croat nationalism that ensured that the break-up would be long and bloody. Croats could have traded ‘land for peace’, given up strongly Serb regions in return for an agreed separation. But for extreme Croat nationalists, not only was it worth gambling for as much territory as possible, but the war also had the merit of sharply defining Croatia and separating it from its neighbours. The difference used not to be all that strong. There was a common language, Serbo-Croatian, as well as a single multi-ethnic state, and a common identity as Yugoslavians. The main differences were religious – Orthodox Serbs and Roman Catholic Croats.

During Christmas, the Pope said prayers for peace in several languages, including Croatian. Under the circumstances, there was nothing that would lead any Croat to believe that the peace he was praying for was not peace on Croatian terms. The local Roman Catholic Church was deeply implicated in the massacre of Serbs by Croats. And the Papacy maintained a judicious silence on the Nazi death-camps during World War Two, when speaking out might have done some good.

At a recent gathering to commemorate St Francis of Assisi, it was noted that there were far fewer representatives of both Judaism and Orthodox Christianity that had become customary on such occasions. On the face of it, St Francis would be an ideal representative of common religious feeling. But the actual behaviour of the Catholic hierarchy has led to a notable cooling of ecumenical feeling.

Oddly enough, there were also rather more Muslim representatives than had been seen on past occasions. Possibly this could be credited to St Francis personally. Muslims accept Christianity as a genuine faith, albeit inferior to theirs. And when Francis of Assisi went to preach to them during a Crusader siege of an Egyptian city, they treated him with respect as a genuine holy man.

On the other hand, in the fast-changing world we now have, no new alignment can definitely be ruled out. Muslims and Roman Catholics are not very much in competition any more, and a bloc between them would be formidable. Assuming that the leaders on both sides could carry their followers with them on such a matter, which would certainly not be easy.



These Newsnotes appeared in January 1993, in Issue 33 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at and