16 November 2003


Ian Williams, Tribune column, October 31 2003

In the bad old days of Stalin, lots of starry-eyed leftists went to Moscow and came away profoundly impressed – enough to overlook the gulags, the executions, the purges, and indeed the low living standards of most workers there.

Tribune at the time usually managed to avoid such intoxication with totalitarianism, and still does, which makes Steve Wilkinson’s shameless apology for dictatorship in Cuba (10 October) stand out even more.

The one point where he does touch on the truth is the irrational hatred of Washington for the Castro regime, and the pointlessness of the embargo. But the irrationality is mainly because Cuba is no threat. In the Caribbean, Castro is a folk hero for standing up to Uncle Sam – but even the desperate Haitian refugees head for Florida, or the Bahamas, not for Havana. I may as well add, that once, when he met me, he called me “El Vikingo”, which I rather appreciated, just as we all appreciate his tweaking the Eagle’s feathers.

Castro did add a fun Caribbean cultural element to grey east European totalitarianism. But his restrictions on the right to travel came straight from those wonderful people who built the Berlin Wall. In fact, while Wilkinson sings the praises of the socialist paradise, he does not really explain why, if it so heavenly there, so many people risk their lives to flee to the evil empire just across the straits.

It is difficult to know where to start with such a piece of uncritical rose-tinted propaganda, so we may well as begin with the immediately quantifiable lie. He says that Cuba has one doctor to 600 patients, “when Britain can only manage one for every 20,000”. This is an outright lie. Just think about it, he is claiming that cities like Liverpool or Sheffield only have a couple of dozen doctors each. Even after years of Thatcher, the NHS allows for some ten times that many doctors.

He says, “in many respects, Cuba outstrips Britain in the provision of health care and education”. Cojones, as they say on the island. Many of those doctors, and graduates, are working as cab drivers, in hotels, or even as prostitutes and escorts, because they cannot live on their Peso salary and need dollars, as indeed do those 600 patients he mentions. Every time I go to Cuba, I take a bagful of across-the-counter painkillers for friends there, because they are unavailable on the island. I not usually need to do that when I return to Britain from New York, but in Cuba, medicines are not available except for payments in dollars (or now, in euros).

As for Cuban unions, it would be enlightening to hear his account of the last strike Cuban workers dared to have, or in what way the “independent unions” negotiate with foreign employers – who, last time I checked, pay hard currency for the services of its citizens to the Cuban government which in turn pays them worthless Pesos at a ludicrous exchange rate. What makes it bearable, is a small dollar tip from a tourist is worth a week’s wages in pesos.

He says “some 95 per cent of the population participate in peaceful elections”. Of course the elections are peaceful: there are no opposition party candidates: they make a New Labour selection process seem open, since while Tony Blair’s team may rig the elections, they have not yet taken to arresting unapproved candidates. And of course there is high participation. Only the foolhardy will dare to skip in case they are labelled as dissidents and arrested like the 75 who were imprisoned last year.

Wilkinson accuses those of us protested this of “hypocrisy”. While noting that he does not mention the execution of three hijackers on whose behalf we were also protesting. I am willing to bet that he opposes the death penalty in the US. But 92 miles of water between Key West and Havana makes it bearable?

Cuba is not as repressive or dangerous as the old Latin American dictatorships. The Cuban people are indeed proud of their achievements. But the serious dissidents there are rightly concerned that by denying democracy and civil rights, Fidel Castro is paving the way for a complete Russian-style collapse on his death.

The ends never justify the means. The history of this century teaches us that the means shape the end. Even if Cuba’s progress were as good as Wilkinson claims, it would not justify the executions and imprisonments, nor could he prove that they were necessary.

But in any case, let us have a final examination of the claims of Cuba’s progress. Check out the UN’s Human Development Report. In almost every respect of social progress, education, health and prosperity, Barbados surpasses Cuba and indeed has a GDP per capita three times Cuba’s official figures – and does so without arresting dissidents, with a free press, free unions, and freedom of travel. Like most of the Caricom countries, it also defies the US on issues of principle such as the International Criminal Court – on which incidentally, Cuba agrees with the US. In fact, the Bahamas, Costa Rica and St Kitts also rank higher than Cuba – and none of them arrest dissidents either.

Democratic socialists such as those who founded Tribune have always realized that the regimes in eastern Europe brought the whole concept of socialism into disrepute and kept their distance from it. Shooting people for trying to flee paradise, and imprisoning those who try to change it, are not part of any socialist agenda that this newspaper has ever propounded. The fall of the wall freed socialists from the embarrassment of trying to apologize for or disavow the tyranny of “actually existing socialism.” We can oppose the Pentagon’s adventurism without being the fan clubs for vestigial forms of totalitarianism.

11 November 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, November 15 2003

Last week’s public spat between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair was about more than Brown’s displeasure at Blair’s refusal to give him a seat on Labour’s National Executive Committee — and it was about more than Brown’s opposition to identity cards or indeed his bizarre flirtation with Euroscepticism in the pages of the Daily Telegraph.

On this, everyone agrees. But how much more is difficult to judge. Was Brown merely asserting his status as the second-biggest beast in the Labour jungle after his return from paternity leave, with a view to (depending on your taste) grabbing a key role in writing Labour’s next manifesto, stopping Ken Livingstone’s return to Labour or stemming Peter Mandelson’s growing influence in Number Ten? Or was his display the start of an attempt to oust Blair as prime minister and take his place?

In common with every other commentator who has addressed these crucial questions, I can’t read Brown’s mind. But I suspect that he wasn’t going for broke.

However much he covets Blair’s job, it’s difficult to imagine circumstances before the next election in which he could mount a challenge. Blair’s standing inside the Labour Party is certainly at its lowest since he became leader in 1994. Brown is certainly the obvious alternative leader. But unless Blair is knocked down by the proverbial bus, discovered in flagrante with Prince Charles or branded an inveterate liar by Lord Hutton, the next ocassion on which he could be challenged for the Labour leadership is next year’s party conference — by which point Labour will be in pre-election mode.

Whatever else can be said about Brown, he is not stupid. So hunch says that last week’s shenanigans were less the start of an outright Brown bid for the leadership than a bit of opportunist self-promotion, a reminder to the world that the Chancellor remains the heir apparent, that he has ideas of his own that differ significantly from Blair’s — and that he is insistent on having a decisive influence on the manifesto, the career prospects of Red Ken and Mandy and anything else that crops up. In other words, it’s back to business as usual.

All the same, Brown did give the appearance of having lost patience with Blair, and it’s this, rather than any evidence that Brown is moving in for the kill, that has got everyone talking again about what Brown might be like as Prime Minister.

Here I have a confession to make. Ever since Blair became Labour leader in 1994, I’ve found it difficult to understand why a substantial number of Labour leftists — including the editor of Tribune and quite a few contributors — think that Brown would be significantly more sympathetic than Blair to their various causes.

Of course, Brown was, in the dim and distant past, very much of the left (though he was always a pragmatist too). And, unlike Blair, he is steeped in the traditions of This Great Movement of Ours. He speaks the lingo fluently and is rivalled as a glad-hander of trade union bureaucrats only by John Prescott.

Most important, Brown has so far been a successful Chancellor of the Exchequer in terms both of macroeconomic management (six-and-a-half years of reasonable growth, low unemployment and no currency crisis) and, to a lesser extent, of social democratic redistribution. Although his stealth strategy has done nothing to stop the increasing ineqaulity of British society, it has at least helped some of the worst-off.

But there is not a shred of evidence that Brown has been to the left of Blair in any substantive way since at least 1992. In opposition from 1992 to 1997, Brown and Blair were together responsible for the ultra-cautious, pro-business strategy that was branded “New Labour” after Blair became leader. In government, Brown has not only been the author of many keynote policies — the 1997-99 spending squeeze and 1999-2003 spending splurge, the expansion of the Private Finance Initative, the welfare-to-work programme, the five tests on British membership of the euro — but has been intimately involved in every area of policy that entails spending money. He has been as enthusiastic as Blair for labour market deregulation and private enterprise, as admiring of the American model of capitalism and as disparaging of the European model. Where Brown has differed with Blair, on the euro and on foundation hospitals for example, it has not been because he sees Blair’s position as too right-wing.

Brown has said nothing to disassociate himself from the authoritarian populism of the government’s crime and immigration policies, nothing to suggest that he supports further constitutional reform, and nothing to hint that he’d prefer a less pro-American foreign policy than Blair has pursued. The left is deluding itself if it sees Brown as the champion of anything other than Blairism with a scowling face.