8 January 2004

SADDAM'S ADMIRERS ON THE BRITISH LEFT - 4

I missed this in the holiday hiatus: a letter from Charlie Pottins to the Weekly Worker website on the Workers' Revolutionary Party's relationship to Saddam Hussein (for full version click here and scroll down).

"When I joined News Line [the WRP daily] at its launch in 1976, it was no secret that our leader, Gerry Healy, was soliciting funds from the Middle East, but we didn’t realise how far this would go. Under the guise of supporting the Arab peoples against imperialism and Zionism, Healy insisted on slavishly following the line of Arab regimes and leaders - not always easy when they were competing with each other to betray their peoples and pretended cause!

"To my shame, I accepted a report that the Ba’athist regime was conceding autonomy to the Kurds, but I was shocked when Healy denied the Kurds were a nation entitled to rights . . . Then in November 1977 I made the mistake of ‘prematurely’ criticising the Egyptian leader, Anwar Sadat, or suggesting the PLO had done so. I was removed from News Line’s foreign desk and sent to the Midlands to cover the firefighters’ strike. After the strike I was sacked.

"Hostilities between Iraqi intelligence services and the PLO put the News Line in a spot, as did the later outbreak of war between Iraq and Iran, but, when Saddam Hussein was attacking his own people, Healy had no problem deciding whom to support. This one-time ‘revolutionary’ had enjoyed VIP treatment and a motorcycle escort on his trip to Baghdad.

"The WRP came up with excuses for the execution of Iraqi Communist Party members, even calling a mass meeting to back the Iraqi regime. But that was not all. News Line photographers took pictures of a student demonstration outside the Iraqi embassy, probably assuming it was just a normal reporting task. But, when Healy asked them to make blow-ups to deliver to the embassy, one at least had the temerity to refuse, and she quit.

"In 1985 the WRP blew apart, and that’s when the truth about the leadership’s corruption came out. Unable to face the music, Healy and his loyal acolytes took off, with as many documents, etc as they could grab. One they forgot, left in Alex Mitchell’s desk, was a secret report on a visit to the Gulf states, during which Healy and Vanessa Redgrave had an audience with the Emir of Kuwait, but refused to meet Kuwaiti oppositionists, reporting their approach to the authorities instead.

"The ordinary members of the WRP had known none of this, and even the central committee had little idea what had been going on. But inexcusably, some of those who should have known refused to believe or admit anything when the truth began to come out. These are leading the present rump WRP and publishing News Line with money from I don’t know where. Sheila Torrance, until recently its general secretary, told people in 1985 that she could not see why they were making a fuss over 'a few Iraqi Stalinists' getting killed."

TROTS INTO CAPITALISTS - 3

I'm agnostic about genetic modification of crops myself, but the people at GM Watch have done an excellent job tracing the cadre of the Revolutionary Communist Party/Living Marxism/LM/Spiked!/Institute of Ideas gang. Click here and follow the links.

7 January 2004

EUROFIGHTER: WHAT A WASTE OF MONEY

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, January 9 2004

Journalists at the BBC are understandably nervous that their managers will react to expected criticism in the Hutton report by putting the dampers on critical and politically sensitive journalism. But they haven’t done so yet, as an excellent current affairs documentary on Radio Four, Eurofighter: The Plane Truth, presented by David Lomax, demonstrated this week (for audio click here).

The Eurofighter is one of the greatest unsung scandals of contemporary Britain — an aircraft designed to do something that is no longer necessary, which does not work properly and has cost billions of taxpayers’ money. Lomax’s documentary, made with only the most minimal co-operation from either BAe Systems, the main British Eurofighter contractor, or the Ministry of Defence, was a stunning expose of the whole farce.

Eurofighter made a certain amount of military sense when the plans that transmuted into the project were conceived in Britain in the late 1970s. The Cold War was at its height, and the Soviet Union had developed advanced fighters capable of outperforming anything the RAF possessed. A new fighter capable of matching these aircraft in high-altitude dog-fighting seemed a high priority. And, given the costs of developing advanced military aircraft and the perceived need not to rely wholly on the US for military procurement, it made economic and political sense to opt for a European collaborative effort to design and build it.

Even before the programme was actually started, however, the military rationale had all but disappeared. Dog-fighting fighters were effectively rendered obsolete by the development of smart air-to-air missiles in the early 1980s. But the then Conservative Government, under pressure from the RAF and, more importantly, from defence manufacturers desperate for big contracts, particularly British Aerospace, decided to go ahead; and, with Michael Heseltine as Secretary of State for Defence, the project soon evolved into a flagship for West European military-industrial co-operation between Britain and Germany, with Italy and Spain as junior partners. (France had initially been Britain’s major partner but withdrew at an early stage and built its own fighter, the Dassault Rafaele.)

Since then, as Lomax made clear, the story of the Eurofighter has been one of technical hitches, international squabbles, delays and ever-spiralling costs. The original plan was for it to enter service in 1992, but it is only now that the first few aircraft have been delivered (and they can hardly be described as operational because of technical problems). The estimated likely cost of the programme to the British taxpayer, £6 billion in the late 1980s, has risen to £20 billion.

And all this money has been spent on a piece of equipment that is of extremely limited military use. It became clear early on in the project’s life that the highly manoeuvrable dog-fighting aircraft originally envisaged was not what was required, and the plane was rejigged (at great expense) as an air-to-air missile platform. But this role itself became effectively obsolete as soon as the Cold War came to an end. Suddenly, there was no potential enemy against whom an advanced air-to-air combat aircraft might be useful.

This was an obvious point to cancel the whole project. Instead, although the Germans came close to pulling the plug, Eurofighter was rejigged again as a ground-attack aircraft — a role for which it is not really suited, which is reflected in the amazing fact that the ground-attack version might not be ready for squadron service for more than another decade.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the whole story — though this was barely touched upon by Lomax — is the cross-party support that this white elephant has enjoyed since the late 1980s. Labour originally opposed the project, but this stance, like nuclear disarmament, was one of the casualties of Neil Kinnock’s policy review, and by the mid-1990s Labour was an out-and-out enthusiast. David Clark, then the party’s defence spokesman, kept a model Eurofighter on his desk, and Tony Blair enthisastically endorsed the plane as “the cornerstone of the RAF’s capability as we enter the next century”.

Of course, Labour didn’t want to look soft on defence — and of course there are quite a few British jobs in the Eurofighter (its supporters claim 14,000), many of them in marginal Labour constituencies in the north-west of England.

But £20 billion, the bill for the Eurofighter, would generate substantial employment however it were spent — and there’s absolutely no reason it couldn’t have been put towards something useful: railway infrastructure, hospitals, schools, military helicopters or whatever. As it is, it’s difficult to disagree with the verdict of John Nott, the Tories’ Secretary of State for Defence in the early 1980s, who gave the scheme the initial go-ahead. “It was my biggest mistake,” he told Lomax, “a complete waste of money.”

28 December 2003

BOSNIA AND THE LEFT - 2

I've been meaning to link to Attila Hoare on the British far left and Bosnia for ages, but haven't. But here it is in all its brilliance.

TROTS INTO CAPITALISTS - 2

A University of Kent alumnus from the 1980s writes:

The activities of the Revolutinary Communist Tendency were one of the weirdest aspects of student politics at Kent.

Anti-nuclear meetings were routinely packed with RCT members who would denounce CND and call for the invention and immediate use of what was referred to as "the worker's bomb" which would wipe out in one stroke the entire world's bourgeoisie.

The group had all the hallmarks of a cult. The RCT had a particularly strange attitude towards sexual relations among its members. Sex between members was regulated by the group's central committee. Recruitment to the group was undertaken by means of what is known among religious cult watchers as "flirty fishing".

The RCT appeared to follow the line of Bolshevik commissar of social welfare Alexandra Kollontai who peddled a materialist view of sex as a physical impulse: "You make love just as you drink a glass of water."

Though this is ancient history it is possible to trace the present day concerns of the Insitute of Ideas crowd, Furedi et al, especially as regarding childhood, the family, abortion, cloning, genetic experiments with their previous crude materalism and anti-humanism.

OBITUARY: WALTER KENDALL

I hear via the grapevine that the historian Walter Kendall has died. As reviews editor of Tribune in the 1980s and early 1990s I commissioned him to write whenever he could because I was in awe of his history of the left in the early years of the last century, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21: The Origins of British Communism, published in 1969. It still stands as the most comprehensive and politically nuanced account of the debilitating effect of the Bolshevik revolution on the British left, and I'm still in awe. RIP.

17 December 2003

TROTS INTO CAPITALISTS - 1

I’m late on this one, but what the hell. George Monbiot had an almost-fascinating column in the Guardian last week (for which click here) on the strange phenomenon formerly known as the Revolutionary Communist Party, which transmuted into Living Marxism magazine (later plain LM), which in turn spawned (inter alia) the Spiked! website (click here) and the Institute of Ideas think-tank (click here).

There are several very weird things about the former-RCP. The most obvious is its ideological trajectory. The RCP had its origins in an ultra-orthodox-Leninist faction inside the International Socialists, the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party, in the early 1970s, which became the Revolutionary Communist Group. To cut a long story short, the RCG expelled a group that became the Revolutionary Communist Tendency, later the Revolutionary Communist Party, which established itself by the early 1980s as an independent Leninist revolutionary sect. It was a lot more cerebral and fashion-conscious than the SWP – for its internal culture click here and here -- but otherwise unremarkable, though in a moment of lucidity it did call for a ballot during the 1984-85 miners' strike. The RCT/RCP had a well-produced agitational paper, the next step. Otherwise, it was notable mainly for its quixotic front organisations, in particular East London Workers Against Racism (ELWAR), a squaddist fight-the-fash outfit, and, notoriously, the Red Front, a disastrously ineffective general election intervention in 1987.

But in 1988, the RCP turned the next step into a monthly magazine, Living Marxism. And in the next few years, its leading lights – particularly Frank Furedi (party name Frank Richards), the chief ideologist of the sect, and Mick Hume, the editor of the next step and subsequently Living Marxism – started to delight in taking political positions at odds with leftist orthodoxy. The RCP was formally dissolved in 1996, Living Marxism became LM, and it ruffled feathers by coming out against censorship of pornography, against moral panics on child sexual abuse, against environmentalist doom-mongering and so on.

Controversialism can make for zippy journalism, and some of this was a welcome (though hardly original) assault on a lot of leftist cant of the day. But some was taking unpopular positions for the sake of it, and some was vile nonsense – most notoriously the “stand” taken by LM (as Living Marxism had become) against reports of Serb atrocities in Bosnia, the result of which was a (wholly justified) libel action by journalists it had traduced that resulted in its closure in 2000 and the creation of Spiked! (on this, click here)

Whatever, by the time Spiked took over from LM, the former-RCP had apparently ditched just about all the leftist baggage it once carried. The output of Spiked and the Institute of Ideas has been superficially indistinguishable from the free-market libertarian right in the political positions it has taken up – and as Monbiot shows, the former-RCP has not been averse to getting into bed with people that no self-respecting RCPer in the 1980s would have touched with a barge-pole.

But the ideological journey is not the whole story. One thing that makes it particularly remarkable is that the core of the group has remained together throughout – and that its members have been almost incredibly successful in terms both of their own careers and in establishing credibility for their front organisations: they’re in there with most broadsheet newspapers, the Institute for Contemporary Arts, the Royal Society and all the rest.

How have they done it? Well, money has had a lot to do with it. The RCP in the 1980s was never very large, but it was big enough to produce the next step by exacting a tithe on its members, the standard Leninist practice. With Living Marxism /LM, however, the show went up a notch just at the time that the RCP became invisible on the activist left: colour printing, WH Smith distribution et cetera. Rumours started doing the rounds about mysterious funders – and given Living Marxism /LM’s editorial line, pro-Serb and anti-environmentalist, quite a lot of the rumours were about dodgy cash from Slobodan Milosevic, corporations desperate to buy some left credibility or even the spooks. Monbiot’s piece in the Guardian is just the latest to insinuate that the former-RCP is in receipt of money from the forces of darkness.

My intelligence suggests a different explanation of the group’s affluence: the success of some of its key members as entrepreneurs, in particular one Keith Teare (party name Keith Tompson, website here), onetime sociologist at the University of Kent with Frank Furedi, founder of Easynet and the Cyberia internet café chain and now a Silicon Valley guru, who has made a multi-million-dollar packet in the past 10 years. Even now, Cyberia’s CEO is Phil Mullan, former RCP, Living Marxism and LM stalwart . . . Well, it beats running a general print shop as every other leftist outfit does.

TOP-UP FEES ARE NOT SUCH A BAD IDEA

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, December 12 2003

I'm not sure whether, in the current climate, this will get me fired as a Tribune columnist — but in the past couple of weeks I’ve been coming round to the idea that top-up fees are not such a bad thing.

My main job, these days, is as a lecturer in City University’s journalism department, and I know from personal experience that higher education needs more money and needs it at once.

My department deservedly has a very good reputation. Most of its graduates get decent jobs when they qualify, and the majority go on to pursue successful careers in journalism — a tribute both to the quality of our students and to the expertise, commitment and hard work of my colleagues.

But, despite its success and reputation, journalism at City is seriously short of cash. The space we occupy is cramped, overcrowded and decrepit; we don’t have enough computers and other equipment; and the salaries of lecturers have been falling behind those of journalists on newspapers and magazines and in the broadcasting media (from among whom we necessarily recruit our teaching staff) for years.

I’m sure the department can survive for some time yet making up for lack of resources with enthusiasm and hard work. But eventually it will reach breaking point — most likely, I reckon, when it becomes impossible to recruit lecturers to replace those that leave or retire or impossible to afford industry-standard technology.

The picture in other university departments is much, much bleaker. After more than a decade of relentless expansion of student numbers with little or no increase in funding, they are at breaking point already. Unless they get an influx of cash, and quick, they will not be able to continue to function.

So what should be done to relieve the university funding crisis? The Tories reckon that the answer is not to find any more money but to slash the number of students in higher education — a position echoed in last week’s Tribune by Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham who is a prominent top-up fees rebel, with his contention that on current trends, “a serious over-supply of graduates ... will be competing for a limited supply of graduate jobs”.

I’m sceptical about this line of argument for two reasons. First, I hold the old-fashioned socialist view that a university education is a good thing in itself, and that a civilised society should aspire to make one available to everyone capable of benefiting from one — which in my opinion means at very least the 50 per cent of 18- to 30-year-olds the government wants in higher education. And second, it’s plain nonsense to think that we are anwhere near the limit of the economy’s ability to provide employment for graduates. There will always, of course, be a demand for plumbers and brickies and cleaners and so forth — but Britain’s only hope for prosperity in the globalised economy is an increasingly educated and skilled workforce.

So the universities need more cash. Where should it come from? General taxation is an option, and the Liberal Democrats have a coherent plan for bailing out higher education with a new top rate of income tax. One problem here, of course, is that overtly raising general taxation is anathema to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown: it just won’t happen. Another is that a simple increase in general taxation would not guarantee a continuing income stream to the universities: it would have to be hypothecated to prevent the Treasury diverting it elsewhere at some point in the future when university funding is not the flavour of the month.

A graduate tax (which would also have to be hypothecated) would be less of a problem politically. But it wouldn’t raise any money for years unless it were imposed on everyone who has ever taken a degree — a great idea in principle, though it immediately runs into the insurmountableproblem that the Inland Revenue has no way of identifying which taxpayers are graduates and which are not.

The upshot of all this is that I’ve been driven reluctantly to the conclusion that top-up fees have three serious advantages over the other options that have been floated. First, they are politically feasible: they do not offend against New Labour’s antipathy to overt increases in taxation, and there is no obvious practical obstacle to their implementation. Second, they deliver money at onceto the universities. And third, they will continue to deliver money to the universities regardless of future Treasury whims.

This is not to say that top-up fees are perfect. The government’s current plans might evolve towards allowing universities to charge what they like, which would genuinely create a two-tier higher education system in which elite institutions effectively exclude debt-averse working-class students. As the scheme now stands, however, the debts involved will be small, interest-free and repayable only when graduates are reasonably well-off. I’m sorry, but as a way of getting money into the universities, it’s rather neat.