25 December 2005


I’ve been an avid reader of Oliver Kamm’s weblog (click here) since he started it – and his new book, Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy, is as readable and as feisty as you’d expect it to be.

I also agree with its basic thesis, that at some point in the past half-century much of the left in Britain and America -- and elsewhere, though most of his examples are decidedly Anglo-Saxon – forgot a crucial lesson of the 1930s and 1940s, that opposition to totalitarianism should be at the very core of foreign policy in every democratic polity.

But when it comes to the detail, I’m afraid I part company. He’s got too much of his history horribly wrong.

Kamm starts well, identifying the failure of the most of the 1930s left (with hindsight quite extraordinary) to recognise either (a) that the rise of Hitler necessitated rearmament or (b) that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian power and at best an unreliable ally against Nazism.

After that, however, he loses the plot, starting with his account of the British left in the 1940s. He’s right that some of the left was sympathetic with Stalin then. But he lazily elides the outlook of the tiny group of Labour Soviet fellow-travellers with that of the “third force” left, the dominant Labour left faction – grouped around Tribune – which from 1945 until 1947-48 argued for a united democratic socialist Europe independent of both Washington and Moscow (a position most famously articulated in the pamphlet Keep Left). Both the fellow-travellers and the Keep Leftists, were, in Kamm’s view, equally gullible useful idiots for Moscow.

Yet that simply wasn’t the case. The “third force” left was never of one mind, but it included some of the most consistent left critics of Soviet society and Soviet foreign policy (among them George Orwell, Arthur Koestler and Franz Borkenau). And nearly all the “third force” left was driven by events – in particular the seizure of power in east-central Europe by communists backed by Soviet occupiers – to accept that an anti-totalitarian western European alliance with the United States, as advocated by Ernest Bevin, the Labour foreign secretary, was the only option for democratic socialists. By 1948, the Labour left was emphatically pro-Nato. But you don’t get a hint of it from Kamm.

More important, despite Kamm’s claims to the contrary, this remained the dominant perspective of the democratic left in the Labour Party for the next 50 years – regardless of its criticisms of US policy, regardless of its opposition to nuclear arms and regardless of regular outbreaks of wishful thinking about how the Soviet Union and its satellites might be on the brink of democratic reform.

There was always a tiny group of hardline pro-Soviet left-wingers in the Labour Party, including several MPs: Frank Allaun, Ron Brown and James Lamond spring to mind from the 1980s. They were fools and worse, and they should not have been tolerated as they were – but they were never the majority of the left, even during the left’s enthusiasms for the false dawns of Khruschev’s thaw or Gorbachev’s glasnost.

The overwhelming majority of Labour’s unilateral disarmers and critics of US foreign policy – from Nye Bevan to Robin Cook – remained committed to British membership of Nato; and some of them were the most outspoken critics of “actually existing socialism” in British politics.

In the Labour Party, it was the Realpolitiker crew on the right – with Denis Healey in the vanguard from the 1940s until the 1980s – that, after its initial cold-war enthusiasm for confronting communism, most consistently argued for accommodation with Khruschev, Brezhnev, Andropov et al and opposed any western action whenever Moscow clamped down.

Apologists for the Soviet Union did play a bigger role in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, at least in its 1980s manifestation, than in the Labour Party. But again they were not in the driving seat, contrary to Kamm’s suggestions. Throughout the 1980s, CND was dominated politically by supporters (mainly soft-left – Footite, Kinnnockite – Labour) of the European Nuclear Disarmament campaign, the group led by Edward Thompson that argued for disarmament by both superpowers in Europe and promoted dialogue with – and supported – dissidents in the Soviet bloc. I deputy-edited END’s magazine, and I can vouch for the fact that Vic Allen, the hardline Stalinist on the CND executive who, it recently emerged, spied for the Stasi, was as much our enemy as he was MI5’s.

END, along with various libertarian and Trotskisant leftists – Solidarity, Labour Focus on Eastern Europe – kept up a relentless critique of Soviet totalitarianism (though we rarely used the word) long after the Labour right had drifted into Kissingeresque Realpolitik. The demonstrations against the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981 were organised by expat Poles and the libertarian left outside the Labour Party, not by cold-war right-wing social democrats. And if you were looking for anti-totalitarianism in the mid-1980s, it wasn’t happening in the public pronouncements of John Gilbert or the rest of the Nato-loyal right-wing Labour establishment: the sound of freedom was END talking to Vaclav Havel.

There’s more than one way to be anti-totalitarian, in other words, and it’s not essential for anti-totalitarians always to adopt the most hawkish foreign policy stance available. The utility of confrontation or military intervention or negotiation and diplomacy has to be judged case by case. Kamm is right to emphasise the principle of anti-totalitarianism – but there’s no need for anti-totalitarianism to make you a neo-con.

22 November 2005


OK, I accept the last post was a bit crude in its conclusions (as several respondents have said) but it was supposed to be.

I don't think jihadism is entirely attributable to sexual frustration. But we do need to think through the crisis of Islam in terms of sexual politics: back to early Wilhelm Reich, of course, but also back to the socialist feminists of the 1970s who reinterpreted macho class politics through the prism of gender.

17 November 2005


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 18 November 2005

I’m not a religious believer and haven’t been for a very long time — I think I must have come to the conclusion that god doesn’t exist when I was 12 or 13, and nothing has happened since to make me change my mind.

It’s not a big thing in my family. Neither of my parents was at all religious, and the only serious believers among my close relations were my grandmother (who was married to an avowed militant atheist) and one aunt. My school was more of a problem: a minor public school, it insisted on compulsory chapel and RE, and during my early teenage years I was in regular small-scale trouble for talking during chapel (for which the penalty was cleaning the first XV’s rugby boots) and for being rude to teachers in RE lessons.

What the hell: by the time I was 15, the school had relaxed about compulsory chapel and RE and much else besides — in the sixth form one liberal teacher even put on a showing of Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film If ..., in which Malcolm McDowell leads an armed uprising in an authoritarian C of E boarding school — and since then the only times I’ve suffered for my unbelief have been those occasions when I’ve had to sit through religious ceremonies at weddings, funerals and the like.

The worst was when a single-mother friend persuaded me to endure two hours of happy-clappy nonsense at a Muswell Hill church because she wanted to get her daughter into the local C of E primary and needed a plausible male to act the devout husband in front of the vicar. Never again.

But plenty of people have a really tough time making their way in life as unbelievers. The most famous case in recent years is that of Salman Rushdie, against whom the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a sentence of death for apostasy after the publication of The Satanic Verses, but Rushdie is not alone. Professing atheism is apostasy in Islam and is traditionally punishable by execution — and in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and several other countries the punishment is still on the statute book or whatever the equivalent is. Unbelievers (and for all we know they could number millions) live in constant fear of their lives. Many other countries in the Islamic world do not enforce the death penalty for apostasy but nevertheless have severe blasphemy laws, among them Pakistan, where the penalty for blasphemy is life imprisonment and blasphemy actions are common.

Of course, in western Europe, blasphemy laws (in defence of Christianty) have fallen into disuse, though they still exist in several countries, among them Britain. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that people always have an easy time of it giving up religion. At least a dozen Brits I know have been disowned by their families for abandoning their faith — three of them were thrown out of their parental homes for it — and I know plenty of others who keep quiet about their faithlessness in front of their parents even though they have long since left home.


Now, I’m not quite sure what to make of this, but most of the people I know of my generation or older who have been dropped by their families for ditching their religion come from Christian backgrounds — and most of those of a younger generation are former Muslims.

This could just be coincidence. And it could be because few of my friends and colleagues of my own age or older are Muslims or ex-Muslims, whereas lots of my students and former students are. I certainly wouldn’t want to extrapolate too much from a handful of examples. But hunch tells me that it is probably the result of something bigger — that Islam in Britain is beginning to go through precisely the same process of decline in the face of disbelief that Christianity experienced in the course of the 20th century.

This view is, in the current climate, a bit heterodox. The cant of the day is that, for better or worse, Islam in Britain — as elsewhere in Europe — is on the march, and that the Muslim community is an increasingly important political actor. George Galloway and a large part of the far left see Muslims as allies in anti-imperialism. Since 7/7, the government has been desperately trying to find Muslims who can credibly persuade Muslim youth not to become jihadis. The Spectator rants about the threat to our existence posed by “Eurabia”.

But what if the rise of radical Islamism among Muslim youth in Europe is in fact a symptom of a crisis of belief? What if the young men who turn to jihadism do so for the most part because they can’t get laid — because the girls they think should be theirs are turning them down because they can’t stand the idea of life with a dickhead 20-something would-be patriarch and have given up the religion?

Sorry if it’s not PC, but I’m more and more convinced that this is the story. Muslims in Britain are losing their religion. A few loons are resisting, but in the long run we’ll all benefit.

16 November 2005


As advertised earlier, I've got a big project on at the moment: editing George Orwell's journalism in Tribune for a book coming out next year. Click here for the Orwell in Tribune blog where I'll be posting most of the next six months.

6 November 2005


Thanks to Slugger for drawing attention to this extraordianry interview with "Gorgeous" George on the BBC's Northern Ireland TV channel. Unless I've missed something, this is the first time Galloway has stated explicitly that he couldn't give a damn where the money came from to run his political campaigns.

2 November 2005


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 4 November 2005 *

I know that, in the grand scheme of things, whether or not you’re allowed a Marlboro with your pint of Adnams in the Horse and Groom or a nice Chilean cabernet with your meal in the restaurant car on the 20.30 from Liverpool Street doesn’t really matter that much. But for some reason — not just that I frequently enjoy a fag with my beer and once a week polish off a half-bottle of red with my dinner on the way home — I get hot under the collar when I read about government plans to ban smoking in pubs and drinking on public transport.

OK, I know that the pub smoking ban is now not likely to be complete, so I’ll still be able to light up in the two pubs I use most frequently, as long as I don’t do so at the bar — neither the aforementioned Horse and Groom (Woodbridge Road, Ipswich) nor the Prince Arthur in Charles Square, Hoxton, do food as long as you don’t count pork scratchings or cheese sandwiches.

And OK, I realise that the idea of banning booze on public transport is just an idea and is a long way from the statute book: it made the headlines last weekend because it was contained in a policy paper by Louise Casey, aka “Tony Blair’s anti-social behaviour tsar”, and was discussed at a meeting at Chequers.

Oh, all right, and I also know that I could live with a pub smoking ban or a public transport booze ban. I cope perfectly well with smoking bans imposed by my various workplaces, by cinemas, theatres, shops and public transport and, increasingly, by non-smoking friends in their homes. If smoking is banned in pubs and restaurants, I’ll just go outside for a snout if I want one. And I’m not such a hopeless alcoholic that I couldn’t survive a train journey without a little tipple.

My problem is that I don’t see why it’s the state’s business to interfere with these minutiae of my everyday life. I accept that tobacco smoke is unpleasant to many non-smokers and that it is bad for the health. I agree that no one should be forced to endure a smoky atmosphere against their will.

But, as things stand, coercion doesn’t come into it. People can choose whether or not to visit a pub or restaurant in which smoking is allowed — and they can choose whether or not to work in one, just as they can choose whether or not to work in an abattoir or as a motorcycle courier. It might be really stupid to opt for drinking, eating or working in a place that’s smoky; it’s certainly stupid to smoke. But if I choose to be stupid, it’s a decision that I’ve made, and it’s not up to the state to force me to change my mind.

Drinking on public transport is different in one respect: the apparent motive for the proposed ban is to prevent passengers who are the worse for wear from making life unpleasant for those that are not. I don’t have a problem with this motive, in that I’m all in favour of everyone being able to travel without being harassed by drunks.

But think about it. There are already all sorts of laws proscribing the sort of behaviour the ban is aimed at curtailing: the problem is that there is no way of enforcing them. In the interest of efficiency, conductors have been removed from buses and guards from trains, and the cops are too busy doing more important things to get involved.

The simple truth is that banning booze on public transport won’t make a blind bit of difference. It won’t stop anyone getting on a bus or a train steaming drunk and spoiling for a fight. And, unless it is accompanied by the reintroduction of conductors and guards, it will be no more enforceable than existing laws. Anyone who really wants to get pissed on the train or bus will buy a few tinnies or a bottle before embarking on their journey, then tell anyone who challenges their drinking to get lost. The sole effect of a ban will be to deny a harmless pleasure to passengers who pose no threat to anyone.

I know that complaints about the “nanny state” are a staple of the rightwing press — and that many of the complainants against drinking and smoking bans take rather a different position when it comes to sex and drugs. But I’m consistent. If you want to get totally Flintoffed or completely Cameroned, as far as I’m concerned you can do it whenever you like as long as you don’t sing tuneless Norwich City songs or bore me to tears with the story of your life while I’m trying to read the Economist on my way home on a Friday night. And if you wish to engage in whatever nefarious sexual pratice takes your fancy in private with another consenting adult — or indeed other consenting adults or none — that’s fine by me too. It’s none of my business.

And if it’s none of my business, it’s none of the state’s business either. There is a private sphere in which the state should have no role beyond advice — that smoking is bad for your health, that drinking too much and too often turns you into an alcoholic, that keed spills or that vigorous buggery without a condom spreads Aids. If people take notice, fine. If they don’t, and keep on shagging shamelessly without any protection after a night on the tiles drinking, smoking furiously and snorting coke, what the state needs is not new legislation but a new advertising agency.

* This column was not used — for the simple reason that I'd got the week wrong to deliver it and it was out of date by the time I was supposed to file. What a klutz.

2 October 2005


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 30 September 2005

I suppose it was inevitable that this week’s Labour Party conference would become the Gordon and Tony Show. Tony Blair declared earlier this year that he would be quitting as prime minister some time during the current parliament, and Gordon Brown is so strongly placed to succeed him that no one credible is likely to stand against him.

So it’s hardly surprising that many journalists have spent the week in Brighton desperately searching the texts of speeches, analysing body language and talking to “allies” of Blair and “friends” of Brown in the hope of finding out (a) when Tony will go and (b) how Gordon will be different.

Not that they’ve discovered anything very much about either. Blair didn’t announce his imminent departure, which means that he probably isn’t retiring this year but, er, we still can’t be quite sure. And Brown said nothing to indicate what he would do differently, though he did make it pretty clear that he wouldn’t be any friendlier to the trade unions or any less enthusiastic for free trade. So we’re still guessing what Brown would be like as PM, just as we were before.

For what it’s worth, my hunch is still that Blair will go this time next year or early in 2007 rather than hanging on until late 2007 or even 2008. The next general election does not need to be until 2010 but (unless the opinion polls turn against Labour, which is by no means impossible) it is more likely to be in spring 2009.

Because it makes sense for a new prime minister to have a good two years in charge before polling day — enough time to establish familiarity with the voters but not enough to start looking jaded — and because Labour’s leadership election process is rather long-winded, the feeling in my bones is that Blair will be gone by spring 2007.

As for how Brown would be different as prime minister, well, we’ll see. I’m sure he will be much growlier than Blair and much more serious. But I’m afraid I don’t buy the idea that he will change very much of substance.

It’s true that he has deeper roots in Labour politics than Blair — he was active in Scottish Labour politics years before Blair joined the party and is an assiduous networker — and that 30 years ago he was quite left-wing. But he abandoned his youthful lefttsm long ago, and during the past decade has (for better or worse) been at least as responsible as Blair for Labour policy.

The invention of “New Labour” was a joint Brown-Blair effort. It was Brown who embraced the private finance initiative, Brown who abandoned “tax and spend”, Brown who resisted calls for big increases in pensions. He is just as ardent an Atlanticist as Blair and has said and done nothing to indicate that he would take a different approach to foreign policy. There have been faint indications that he might be interested in reviving the process of constitutional reform, but otherwise everything suggests a Brown premiership will mean business as usual.


On a different subject entirely, I know that new releases from the National Archives rarely make the front pages. But I’m still just a bit surprised by how little coverage there has been this month of the publication of a massive collection of documents detailing the security state’s surveillance in the late Betty Reid, one-time witchfinder general of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The Guardian gave the released papers a cursory mention, the Times ran a story remarking on the banality of much of the material, and that was just about it.

Yet the documents — page after page of transcripts of tapped telephone calls, copies of intercepted correspondence and MI5 and Special Branch agents’ reports — are quite remarkable.

It’s no surprise that the spooks took an interest in Reid, who joined the Communist Party in the 1930s and rose to become head of its organisation department, responsible for enforcing party discipline. The Sunday Times revealed more than 20 years ago that her live-in nanny for many years, Betty Gordon, had been an MI5 agent.

But the newly released documents show in extraordinary detail precisely what the spooks’ interest entailed in the 1940s and 1950s. They followed her everywhere she went, recorded the identity of every person she met, listened to and transcribed every phone call she made and opened and copied every letter she was sent.

Of course, a lot of the documentation produced by this intensive surveillance is banal or incomprehensible. But the picture of the cold-war security state’s methods that emerges from them is fascinating. It’s clear that the spooks had the CP pretty much completely penetrated in this period.

Reid responed to the Sunday Times story about her MI5 nanny with the immortal words: “I’m afraid it makes me look rather silly.” This new material makes her and her comrades look even sillier.

16 September 2005


Council tax revaluation to go, according to the Guardian. Very brave, I don't think. It's all falling apart quicker than I'd imagined in my worst dreams.

12 September 2005


I worked on the first edition of the Berliner Guardian last night as a sub on the comment page and I am massively impressed by the redesign, which is stunning.

Typographically, it’s a peach. I’ve always thought straight-down-the-line slab-serif fonts were a bit late-1970s/early-1980s (remember when Rockwell Bold ruled OK?).

But the new Guardian’s Egyptian is flexible and quite exquisite. It’s back to Century Schoolbook and then on some. Very, very nice, an amazingly attractive reassertion of modernist typography. The only place it doesn’t quite work for me so far is the drop caps, which look rather like the default font when the computer is set to Courier . . .

As for layout and page design – wow. Great use of white space, restraint where it's needed, very few problems for subs trying to sort it out (mostly) – a triumph.

Well done comrades!

8 September 2005


Edvard Grieg! Henrik Ibsen! Edvard Munch! Roald Amudsen! Thor Heyerdahl! Can you hear me, Thor Heyerdahl ! Your boys took one hell of a beating! Your boys took one hell of a beating!

7 September 2005


There was a piece by Richard Norton-Taylor in the Guardian yesterday on the latest releases from the National Archives, which mentioned in passing some MI5 material on the late Betty Reid, the Communist Party apparatchik who from the 40s until the 70s was most responsible for rooting out deviationists from the CPGB. Norton-Taylor didn't make a lot of it, but to me it looks like the most comprehensive documentation yet made public of the security services' surveillance of the CP in the middle years of the 20th century. I've already spent two hours downloading and reading bits and bobs, and I've still got hours more fun to come. More on this anon.

25 August 2005


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 26 August 2005

There's nothing like the death of a prominent politician still in his or her fifties to remind you that, if a week is a long time in politics, a couple of decades can pass in the blink of an eye.

It seems only yesterday that Robin Cook and Mo Mowlam were 30-something rising stars of Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party, the brightest hopes of the soft left. I met them both in the mid-1980s through European Nuclear Disarmament (the bit of the 1980s peace movement that was most critical of Soviet nukes) and over the next 15 years saw a lot of them while I was working as a political journalist. They were both Tribune regulars in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I was on this paper, and both were valued sources of copy and talk when I was on the New Statesman and New Times.

As personalities, they were radically dissimilar except insofar as they were both irrepressible individualists, engaging and friendly. But in their politics they were remarkably close. They shared many of the same causes — Europe, proportional representation, civil liberties, environmentalism — as well as a political trajectory. Both threw in their lot first with Kinnock, then with John Smith and then with New Labour; both served in senior roles in Tony Blair’s Government; and both returned frustrated to the back benches after being frozen out by the Blair cabal (though in very different circumstances).

Mowlam died after a long illness and retirement from the Commons; Cook died suddenly when he still had every chance of returning to cabinet. But they will be missed in much the same way by their personal and political friends. Both were the life and soul of any gathering. And without them, it is difficult to think of anyone quite so charismatic who can carry the torch for the radical democratic Left politics they espoused.


But it’s not just the Left that should be worried by their deaths. Cook and Mowlam were members of a generation that remains the mainstay of the current government — and is not getting any younger.

No fewer than 19 of the 23 members of the cabinet today are, like Cook and Mowlam, in their fifties, born in the first postwar decade, brought up on the welfare state and the Beatles and the Stones and that revolution stuff. Perhaps most importantly they were formed politically by the implosion of the Labour Party in the wake of the 1979 defeat by Margaret Thatcher. Only two of the current cabinet, John Prescott and Margaret Beckett, are over 60; only two under 50, David Miliband and Ruth Kelly (40 and 37 respectively). (There’s also Douglas Alexander, 38, who goes to cabinet but isn’t actually a member.) By 2009, when the next election comes, a majority of current cabinet members will be eligible for bus passes within a couple of years if they haven’t got them already. And by 2014 — well, do the sums.

OK, by historical standards, they’re still young as a cabinet — and there’s nothing to rule out serving as a minister into your eighties. OK, there are a few junior ministers coming up who will make it to cabinet before too long. OK, you don’t win anything with kids.

But parties need to rejuvenate themselves, and Labour is going to find it difficult to do it, just as the Tories have since the late 1980s. Most of the PLP is of the same generation as the cabinet. There has been little turnover of personnel in the past couple of elections, and there are few undiscovered stars. A handful of old-stager MPs might retire next time just as they did in 2001 and 2005. But the party in the country is hardly brimming with enthusiastic activists in their twenties and thirties:the replacements for retiring MPs are likely to be uninspiring apparatchiks, just as they have been for the past decade or more.

Sorry if this sounds pessimistic, but I’ve got a hunch that a tired and ageing Labour will lose in 2014, then spend 15-20 years in the wilderness desperately searching for fresh blood, just like after 1979. And when we win again, I’ll be in my seventies.


On another subject entirely, I’ve just got back from a holiday in Scotland, during which I visited George Orwell’s old house at Barnhill on the island of Jura with my friend (and fellow Tribune contributor) Kevin Davey.

I knew Barnhill was remote, but I’d not quite got my head round how remote until we got there — after driving some 20 miles down a single-track road from Craighouse, the nearest village with a pub and a shop, then walking six miles from where the road ends. Orwell first visited almost exactly 60 years ago, in late summer 1945, and lived there during the summer of 1946 and for most of 1947 while writing Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Most of Orwell’s friends thought he was crazy to move there, and until last week I wondered what the attraction could have been. But now I think I know. Jura is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in Britain — rugged, wild, silent, wet. If it weren’t for the midges it would be a major tourist attraction. Long live the midges.

13 August 2005


I'm off for a week in Scotland, in the course of which I hope to visit George Orwell's old house in Jura. I'm looking forward to it the same way I looked forward to holidays when I was six.

10 August 2005

7/7 – 7

Not for the first time, Harry has posted before me on something I’ve been chewing over: the strange way in which, on Iraq and 7/7, a lot of the left has adopted a traditionally right-wing isolationist position – “The 7/7 perpetrators wouldn’t have done what they did if we’d not been in Iraq. So if we’d wanted to be left alone, we should never have got involved in Iraq in the first place. And if we want to be left alone now, we should now get out as soon as possible. What happens in faraway countries is none of our business.”

Harry suggests that this is a new phenomenon, but I’m not so sure. I first noticed something like it 25 years ago in that rather large part of the 1980s peace movement that opposed the deployment of cruise missiles in Britain mainly because they made us more of a target.

People who thought like that were particularly resistant to the idea that anything was wrong with the Soviet Union – not because they particularly admired “actually existing socialism” (they generally took no interest in it) but because they thought that censuring Soviet foreign or military policy or the absence of democratic rights in the Soviet bloc gave succour to the nuclear hawks of the west. This was bad because it made more likely the nuclear Armageddon they so feared – so it was “none of our business” if the Soviet Union jailed dissidents, was entirely undemocratic and terrorised Afghan villagers. Those on the left in Britain who sided publicly with Solidarnosc in 1980-81 and attacked the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan were a tiny minority.

Similarly, in the 1970s and 1980s, the “anti-imperialist” left in Britain often came perilously close in its propaganda to accepting the isolationist right’s argument that Britain should get out of Ireland because what a bunch of psychotic paddies got up to wasn’t worth the life of a single British squaddie.

And if you go back to the 1930s, there was a significant element of “none of our business” isolationist thinking on the left over British rearmament against Germany. Time and again in left-wing newspapers of the period you find opponents of rearmament arguing that, although Hitler was bad, Germany was a matter for the Germans to sort out (and they had been badly done by at Versailles). The last thing we want is to provoke an imperialist war in which we’d be the targets and thousands would die.

It was only after Munich that this mindset was seriously challenged, though it survived long enough to be exploited by the Communist Party between 1939 and 1941 during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact.

Left anti-imperialism and right isolationism have played footsie for rather a long time.

7 August 2005

ROBIN COOK 1946-2005 – 2

Two snippets from New Statesman and Society (as it then was) in 1994, one from a piece by Ian Aitken and one a leader I wrote while the boss was away:

Why Robin Cook should lead Labour
Ian Aitken, 3 June 1994

. . . Forget all that patronising guff in the newspapers comparing the shadow trade and industry secretary to a garden gnome, and recalling how he used to be referred to as "Yon wee Scottish health pixie" at the time when he was destroying a succession of Tory health secretaries with his withering tongue. Cook is, quite simply and without qualification of any kind, by far the most effective party warrior currently operating in the House of Commons.

Even if you do not entirely share his left-of-centre attitudes . . . it is sufficient in electoral terms to recognise that Robin Cook is the only frontbencher who regularly makes the eyes of Tory ministers water when he steps up to the despatch box. Most recently, he laid waste to none other than Michael "Tarzan" Heseltine over Post Office privatisation and the DTFs ludicrously over-hyped white paper on competition.

But as I learned the hard way during my first encounter with him, Cook is not just a parliamentary performer. The story is worth repeating, even though it happened 20 years ago. At the time, Cook was still only a prospective candidate, and he had been sent down to London with some other Scottish candidates to learn how to cope with television interviews.

Percy Clark, the then press officer at Transport House, had been let down by some television grandee, and he conscripted me at short notice to stand in as the interviewer. My instructions were to try to make them all cry, and I honestly believe that a few lips quivered as they reeled out of the make-believe studio one by one.

The very last candidate to be wheeled in was a small ginger youth. By now I was actually enjoying my role as a budding Robin Day, and I failed to notice the steely eyes and the belligerent jaw-line. When I gave him the full benefit of my scornful wit, which I had perfected on the others, I was astonished to find my supposed victim lashing back vigorously. Within minutes he had wiped the floor with me, and I was the one with the quivering lip.

I made a mental note, as I tottered into the green room for a restorative, that this was a young man who had leadership potential, and I have stuck to that judgment ever since. So when my ballot paper eventually arrives, I shall be marking it Cook 1, Prescott 2, Brown 3, Blair 4 — which is precisely the opposite of the order in which Fleet Street evidently wants me to vote.

No Cook, no contest (leader, 10 June 1994)
By the time most readers of NSS get this issue, voting in the European election will be over and the runners in the Labour leadership will have declared—as indeed will the non-runners. But as we go to press the only certainty is that Gordon Brown will not be putting his name forward. All the others who have been mentioned as possible contenders have kept their intentions to themselves as planned.

All the same, it is increasingly likely that the best person to lead Labour into the next election is not going to be in the race at all.

Robin Cook has this week apparently been swayed by his poor showing in opinion polls of Labour Party members and supporters not to go for the top job. Far and away the most intelligent and radical of all the would-be contenders – and easily the most effectively combative in the House of Commons and as a public speaker – he seems to have decided that standing would mean risking humiliation and subsequent demotion from his current job as Labour's trade and industry spokesperson.

Many of Cook's supporters will be disappointed, and with reason. He is the most able representative of Labour's libertarian left, a political tendency that deserves a voice in the leadership contest. Given that his economic policy differences with Tony Blair are nowhere near as big as those between Bryan Gould and John Smith, there is no reason to expect that he would have been given the Gould treatment in the event of a Blair victory.

As it is, however, if Cook sticks to his decision not to run, Tony Blair is now virtually unstoppable. The reason is simple. Put bluntly, there is no credible challenger apart from Cook. Of the two hopefuls who seem almost certain to run against Blair from the left, John Prescott cannot win and Margaret Beckett has even less chance. Both Prescott and Beckett are generally admired in the Labour Party, and each has undoubted qualities. Prescott is blunt, pugnacious and sharp-minded, and Beckett has an unrivalled head for detail.

But neither, unlike Cook, is widely considered to be leadership material. On the level of image, it is difficult to imagine Prescott living down his reputation as a loose cannon or Beckett suddenly acquiring a television manner that matches the warmth of her off-air personality.

More important, both are out of tune with the politics of the time. They are very much of the old left – Eurosceptic, against proportional representation for the House of Commons, lukewarm about green politics. Neither will get more than grudging support from the increasingly important part of the Labour left that is pro-Europe, pro-PR and environmentalist . . .

ROBIN COOK 1946-2005

The death of Robin Cook yesterday is a real shock. I knew him well when I was working as a political journalist – he was a member of European Nuclear Disarmament when I deputy-edited its magazine and was a Tribune columnist when I was the paper’s editor, and from the late 1980s until the mid-1990s I met him regularly to talk politics. In 1994, I kept the pages of the New Statesman open until the last minute for a Cook declaration of interest in the Labour leadership that never came. And in 1998 I spent six months helping to organise a big talkfest on Europe for the Foreign Office when he was foreign secretary. I didn’t see much of him after I moved from journalism to lecturing, but remained in fitful contact and was looking forward to seeing him again at Labour conference this autumn. I am, I suppose, a Cookite politically, though the label seems strange. But I also really liked him. It’s a very sad loss.

Cook was by a long chalk the most intellectually impressive figure among his generation of leading Labour politicians. My first vivid memory of him is of an END meeting in the mid-1980s at which I’d been put up to debate him on Labour defence policy. He made mincemeat of me – I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so comprehensively out-done in argument, though others may disagree – but he did it in a thoroughly civilised way. I ran into him a couple of weeks later and he greeted me warmly. I told him I thought he’d had me for breakfast: he raised his eyebrows, looked at me quizzically and informed me that I’d made a coherent case but that I needed a bit more practice.

He was never one to mince words if he disagreed with you – I remember him telling me in the most direct manner that Tribune or the New Statesman had taken idiotic positions on dozens of issues: industrial policy, the intentions of every Labour leader under whom he served, Europe and the euro (on which he was once much more sceptical than he became as foreign secretary), military intervention in the Balkans (which he opposed in the early 1990s) and much more besides. But, contrary to received wisdom, he was neither cold nor arrogant. He was friendly and chatty and personally kind. He always listened, always engaged – in itself unusual in the upper echelons of the modern Labour Party – and always gave the impression that he was open to changing his mind if he was persuaded by arguments and facts.

He had principles, of course: he never wavered in his civil libertarianism, his commitment to democratisation of the British state or his environmentalism. He was one of the first British politicians who articulated the concerns of the 1968 generation, on everything from gay rights to nuclear power. But he was no dogmatist. On Europe, he moved from outright anti-Europeanism in the 1970s through pragmatist acceptance of Britain’s membership of the European Community during the 1980s to out-and-out enthusiasm for British membership of the euro in the late 1990s – not from opportunism but from weighing up the arguments. He opposed western military intervention in Bosnia in the early 1990s but by the end of the decade was prepared to press Nato to act against Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo. Again, it was the arguments that counted.

As foreign secretary he rebuilt Britain’s damaged relationship with the EU and played a major part in dragging the FO into the modern age. He should never have been removed from the post: he fell victim to a combination of Tony Blair’s desire to woo George Bush and Gordon Brown’s antipathy to Cook’s backing for euro membership. After that, as leader of the House of Commons, he was frustrated by Blair on reform of the House of Lords – and then resigned over the Iraq war.

Whether or not he was right about Iraq – and I’m less convinced now than I was at the time of his resignation – quitting government on a matter of principle was brave and honourable. And the way he conducted himself after his resignation, writing trenchant articles criticising Blair yet also pitching in big-time during the election campaign this year to make it clear that the war was no excuse not to vote Labour, was exemplary. He was not a machine politician, but he knew that democratic politics requires machines – parties – to function.

He was 59: he should have been the voice of the reasonable libertarian Labour left for at least another decade and probably more. But it is not to be. RIP.

Denis MacShane has a touching piece in the Observer here.

3 August 2005

7/7 - 6

Norman Geras has an incisive pair of posts on apologists for the 7/7 outrages:

"There are those who say that terrorist bombing isn't justified but the whole emphasis of whose comment is either to minimize the responsibility of the perpetrators and their 'managers' and supporters, or to deflect the consideration of this responsibility on to other targets. Here are a couple of questions for such people.

"First . . . if understanding and not justifying or condoning is what it is really all about, why is this 'understanding' discourse never deployed by the same people when racist thugs, angry about immigration, carry out hate crimes? It might be said, well, because their anger is unjustified, whereas Muslim anger over Afghanistan and Iraq is justified. But it's understanding, remember, and not justification, that this has just been said to be about, so the fact that the anger of the racists is unjustified is neither here nor there. It could still be a contributory cause and in need of being understood as such. You don't, however, read hand-wringing pieces in the Guardian or the Independent about that. It suggests that the apostles of (apologetic) understanding are caught between two places. They don't want to say that terrorism is justified because ... they don't want to say it. But they do want to dwell on the anger which feeds it, not merely as cause, because they don't do this in pleading on behalf of white racists, or on behalf of those who, angered by acts of terrorism, attack Muslims. It looks like something else, both psychologically and in terms of subtextual meanings, must be going on - as if they felt that some of the justification for the anger might just seep over towards the act, even though they profess to believe that the act isn't justified.

"Second, most of those who opposed the Afghan and/or Iraq wars, though some amongst them did let us know how very angry they were, have not resorted to the bomb and the wrecking of other lives. The vast majority of them, in truth, haven't even engaged in civil disobedience over it. They have remained within the framework of democratic procedure: of protest, argument, use of their votes, and so on. Since these people do not invoke anger on their own behalf towards explaining why they might (one day) violate the usual democratic norms as well as other human beings, why are they so ready to indulge others with this type of understanding? If anger is not a sufficient cause in the way they themselves react, how do they judge it such a mammoth cause of what the bombers do?"

Read the lot here then here.

7/7 - 5

I’m late on this, but what the hell. On Monday, Peter Wilby, former editor of the New Statesman, had an extraordinary column in the Guardian’s Media section (click here) ruminating on the reasons some left-wing journalists fall out with the left consensus and adopt stances that most on the left consider right-wing. His particular target was his friend and one-time employee Nick Cohen, of whom he wrote:
What are we to make of Nick Cohen, the most uncompromising left-wing columnist in the British press for most of the past decade? How far right is he going? He cheered the Bush/Blair invasion of Iraq and, despite all that has happened and all that has been revealed since, continues to do so. He has also questioned harshly the motives of the anti-war movement.
Cohen, wrote Wilby, was following a similar path to Christopher Hitchens, “another jewel in the left-wing crown, who, since September 11 2001, has stood shoulder to shoulder with the American neocons”. Wilby went on:
What causes left-wing commentators to slip their moorings in their 40s? Perhaps some just follow the cliché that if you are not a socialist up to 40, you have no heart and, if you are still one after 40, you have no head. Others find that property ownership or parenthood make them right-wing. Others again get mugged or burgled. I suspect a good many just want more income; after all, there are only a few left-of-centre newspapers and magazines and most of them pay badly, or not at all.

But I fear there is another reason. Left-wing commentators get bored. The past 25 years have not been a fertile period for ideas on the left, and new Labour has induced further timidity, lest bold thinking reawaken Tory devils. Though it now shows signs of fading, the intellectual ferment of our age has been on the right — which, to take just one example, has given far more intelligent consideration to the legalisation of drugs. Leftwing writers and publications are often accused of being too predictable, and the charge has some justice to it.
Norman Geras had a go at this nonsense (click here), making some sound points with which I agree entirely:
[Wilby] gives not so much as a hint of any consciousness of a left broad enough to embrace more than one view about the Iraq war, foreign policy, bringing down oppressive tyrannies, ending genocides in progress, humanitarian intervention, that sort of thing. On the contrary, Wilby's left is delineated in terms of notions like 'betrayal' and 'deserting the cause'. He should look around him a bit. Beyond Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen — for all their deserved prominence — he will find there are quite a few people still on the left thinking differently from him, not because they're bored but just because they think, and because they didn't spend whatever time they did spend in acquiring left values in order to end up marching to the greater benefit of one foul dictatorship or another.
But I think Geras is wrong in one key respect. Wilby’s simplistic conception of “the left” as a monolithic entity with no room for dissenting views on the Iraq war, foreign policy and so on is not eccentric: it is the mindset of most people on the British left. If it is contested, it is only at the margins. The left consensus at present is precisely that capitalism and American imperialism are the root causes of all evils in the world, that the war to topple Saddam Hussein was simply criminal, that the Cohens and Hitchenses and Gerases are renegades.

There is of course reason to hope that this might change. The experience of 7/7 has rocked the consensus – even my most fervent Stop the War Coalition friends admit that the bombings were not simply the result of the Iraq war – and there is a minority on the left (Labour Friends of Iraq and so on) that has challenged the easy assumptions of Wilbyism. But there is still a very long way to go.

27 July 2005


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, July 29 2005

First it was George Galloway and the Socialist Workers Party. Then came Robin Cook and Chatham House, then a leak from the Joint Terrorist Analysis Centre — and this week even John Major joined the club.

Yes, they’ve all come to the conclusion that 7/7 was “linked to” the war in Iraq, something the government has spent the past three weeks vigorously denying.

And it seems that most Brits agree with them. A Populus poll for The Times published on Tuesday showed that nearly two-thirds of voters think that Tony Blair’s decision to take Britain to war in Iraq has “increased the risk of terrorist attacks like the ones this month in London”.

All of which has got the cretino-leftist tendency in the anti-war camp very excited. “The stoicism that was largely a media-political construct is already turning into frustration,” wrote John Kampfner, editor of the New Statesman, in the Guardian this week. “Watch it turn into anger as Blair refuses to acknowledge a link between Iraq and terrorism on our streets.”

Well, maybe — but I suspect it won’t work out as Kampfner and others like him expect and want. “Linked to” is one thing; “caused by” quite another. There’s a massive difference between believing the war in Iraq “increased the risks of terrorist attack” and believing it was the main reason the bombers did what they did. And most Brits (some 80 per cent according to a YouGov poll) don’t reckon it was the main reason.

I think they are right. There is no evidence of any direct connection between Iraq and the perpetrators of either 7/7 or the attempted repeat performance a fortnight later.

None of them, as far as we know, ever lived there or had family or friends killed or wounded in the war. As far as we know, the Iraq war could have been a factor in their actions only insofar as they were opposed to or angry about it.

And a decision to commit indiscriminate murder of civilians on the streets of a city does not flow easily (let alone automatically) from this — even if you see the war as an assault by infidels on your religion and your co-religionists.

Millions of people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, were or are angry about Iraq and have never even considered setting off bombs on public transport. (I am one of them.)

Something else is at least as important here as anger at the war, at minimum a belief that random terrorist murder is justifiable in certain circumstances. This could in theory be simply a matter of the bombers adopting a brutal utilitarian calculus related solely to Iraq — “If we let off bombs in London we will kill innocent people but will hasten withdrawal of the west from Iraq, which will result in fewer deaths in the long run” — but somehow I doubt it was as rational as that.

All the evidence suggests that the bombers were fanatical Islamist jihadists, committed to unremitting war by any means possible to secure a worldwide totalitarian Islamist state and convinced that their self-immolation would guarantee them the highest possible status in the afterlife. If we’re looking for the causes of or reasons for the London outrages, we can’t ignore or explain away this vile, narcissistic, fascist ideology.

The rise of jihadist Islamism long predates the Iraq war. And although jihadism has undoubtedly fed upon popular antipathy among Muslims towards what they see as US and British imperialism in league with (or indeed controlled by) the forces of Zionism, it is much more than a response to particular, in principle reversible, western policies.

The jihadists are not just sworn enemies of western intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan or elsewhere. They are also sworn enemies of tolerance, democracy and freedom to act autonomously in every area of everyday life, all of which they consider anti-Islamic.

They want to eliminate secularism, political pluralism and intellectual and sexual freedoms not just in historically Islamic societies but throughout the world. They think they have a God-given right to use any means to achieve their goal and they glory in dying for the cause.

It is wishful thinking to believe they would simply leave us alone if we got out of Iraq and disowned Ariel Sharon. We would still be targets.

So how do we deal with them? There is a superficially simple answer: we should relentlessly expose their ideology for what it is and oppose them wherever we find them, with force if necessary.

The problem is putting this into practice. No one really knows who they are or where they are.
Jihadism is not run by an Islamintern that could be disabled or at least significantly damaged by pin-point military strikes on some HQ in north-west Pakistan. As we have seen in the past three weeks, even in Britain, with its long experience of IRA terrorism, the domestic security state finds it hard to keep tabs on the jihadists. Even the bombers’ families were unaware of their plans.

This means that rooting out jihadism will be a long, slow, frustrating policing process with plenty of setbacks. But there really isn’t anyfeasible alternative.

16 July 2005

7/7 - 3

Ian Buruma has a characteristically insightful piece in the FT magazine today, taking on leftist attempts to pin the blame for the London bombings on Tony Blair and George Bush:
It would be foolish to deny that western powers have done many bad things, but the arrogant assumption that almost all the world’s ills, from African hunger to mass murder on the London Underground, can be laid at the door of western politicians is not only stupid, but deeply harmful to those who live outside the western world. It lets their own rulers, however murderous, off the hook, and prevents people from taking responsibility for their own societies. After all, if everything is the fault of Blair or Bush, or “neo-colonialism”, or “globalisation”, why bother?

The war in Iraq may not have been a sensible move. It probably did galvanise religious extremism. For the record, I was against it. But to claim that we should not have gone to war with Saddam Hussein because it puts us in the firing line of holy warriors seems a bad, and certainly cowardly argument. Britain would have been in their firing line anyway. Contrary to what Faisal Bodi says, jihadis do have an axe to grind with the western world. Long before Iraq was a gleam in Blair’s eyes, the west was in the holy warrior’s “sphere of hate”. Another false argument against action against Middle Eastern despots is that “we put them there”. Even if it is true that, say, Hussein or Osama bin Laden once had the support of Britain or the US, this is hardly a reason not to oppose them now. Should we have turned a blind eye to their crimes just because Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney once did business with them? This smacks of the same perverted logic which holds that an imperial past should prevent Europeans from condemning the bloody dictatorships that followed the independence of former colonies.
Read it all here.

12 July 2005

7/7 – 2

If the Metropolitan Police are right, 7/7 was the work of British subjects. The Met says that four rucksack-carrying men, three of them from West Yorkshire, were caught on CCTV at Kings Cross at around 8.30am last Thursday; that their personal effects have been discovered at three of the four murder sites; that all four are British-born; and that material associated with the bombings has been discovered at one of their addresses in West Yorkshire and in a car parked at Luton station.

The cops have been wrong before, and they could be wrong again. But hunch tells me that they are not making this up in desperation, as they did after the IRA’s Guildford and Birmingham bombings 30 years ago. Although the police are at present being studiously vague about the identities of the Yorkshiremen they suspect of murder, everything suggests they were jihadist Muslim suicide bombers. How people respond in the next few days will be critical in determining what sort of society we live in.

The nightmare scenario is a spate of attacks on mosques and on individual Muslims. I hope nothing will happen, I suspect there will be sporadic incidents, I fear it could get very nasty indeed. The fascists of the BNP are stoking up hatred – with a message that echoes in significant ways that of the Stop the War Coalition and Respect, condemning “Blair and his Labour regime which has committed British troops to a war in the Middle East” for the outrages – and there will be plenty of drunk racist bigots leaving pubs tonight and tomorrow and later in the week intent on “doing something”. The police will have to be particularly vigilant to stop them.

But the best way to counter any surge of anti-Muslim viciousness is to demonstrate our calm opposition to terror. Go to the TUC's gathering in Trafalgar Square on Thursday evening, or organise something similar in your own locality.

8 July 2005

7/7 – 1

I spent most of yesterday thinking I’d had a lucky escape. I overslept and missed the 7.21 train from Ipswich to London. If I’d caught it, I’d have arrived at Liverpool Street just as the first bomb exploded there. As it was, my train was stopped at Chelmsford and turned back. It was clear something major was up – and I suspected a terrorist attack even though the BBC’s WAP news service was telling me it was a power surge. Back home late in the morning, I switched on the TV and watched in horror as the full extent of the outrages became clear. For the next few hours I anxiously text-messaged and emailed friends and family to find out how they were and to reassure them I was alive and well.

I discovered when I woke up today that I wouldn’t have been harmed if I'd caught the 7.21. The bomb went off on a Circle Line train travelling into Liverpool Street underground from Aldgate. It wouldn’t have got me even if I’d decided to take the tube rather than my usual bus. And as far as I am aware, no one I know or love was killed or injured in any of the blasts, though five or six people had much closer shaves than I did.

I am of course pleased to be alive and relieved that my friends and family are OK. But this in no sense diminishes either my horror at what these evil murderers have done or my solidarity with those who were killed or mutilated or who lost loved ones. “Only” 50 (or maybe a few more) may have died, a death toll that is small by comparison with 9/11 or even Madrid. But precisely because, like millions of others, I know that with just the simplest twist of fate it could have been me or my family, my friends or my colleagues, I empathise completely with everyone whose luck ran out.

And I mean everyone. Ken Livingstone has been widely praised for his emotional condemnation of the attacks, in which he emphasised that the victims of the bombings were ordinary working-class Londoners going about their everyday business. I’m sure he didn’t mean to imply that the bombings would have been legitimate had the victims been stockbrokers travelling to their clubs in the West End – but I’m not so certain about others who have emphasised the humble origins of the dead and injured. The Socialist Workers Party in particular gives the impression that the main problem with the bombings was that they were directed at proletarian opponents of the war in Iraq rather than the G8 leaders in Gleneagles.

The SWP and the rest of the cretino-left that blames the bombings on the Iraq war – George Galloway, Tariq Ali et cetera – are beneath contempt. Their mealy-mouthed apologias for terrorist murder cannot be taken seriously and their take on the impact of the 7/7 outrages is risible. But they are not alone in failing to grasp what happened yesterday.

The Guardian’s comment pages today include – as well as a rant from Ali – pieces from Robin Cook, Polly Toynbee and Sher Khan arguing, respectively, that poverty is at the root of Islamist terror, that it doesn’t really matter much who was responsible for the outrages – “the minds of those who did it seem too remote to understand, too unknowable” – and that the bombings have nothing to do with Islam as a faith, which roundly condemns murder.

All three articles make valid points, but their common refusal to accept the religious motivation of the jihadists who appear to have been responsible for the bombings is extraordinary. If London is indeed the latest in the series of outrages that includes 9/11, Bali and Madrid – and I accept that it might not be, though like me all three writers assume it is – it is essential to take seriously the professed ideology of the perpetrators rather than dismiss or ignore it.

I have no desire to provoke anti-Muslim hysteria: the overwhelming majority of Muslims are people who would have no truck with the theory or practice of Osama bin Laden and his henchmen. But, as Amir Taheri makes clear in the Times, the unavoidable facts are that the jihadists are Muslims, of a particularly fanatical kind, and that they do what they do because they believe what they do. Their appeal to the dispossessed, the strangeness of their beliefs to everyone else and their antipathy to most Muslims are all important. But liberals and leftists need to grasp that even though Islam is not in itself the enemy, one strain in it very definitely is.

As Christopher Hitchens and others have made clear, there is a civil war going on in the Islamic world, and the jihadists are the enemies of tolerance, of democracy, of decency, of humanity – everything that most Muslims, and indeed most non-Muslims, hold dear. I think, after seeing the heroic efforts of the emergency services and the rock-solid determination of Londoners to carry on in defiance, that most Britons know which side they are on. I have never felt more proud to be British than in the past couple of days. And I'm not at all worried that, if we demonstrated against terror, the show would be hijacked by either the apologists for Islamofascism or by the racist right. We should get out on to the streets – and show the world that we will never surrender our tolerant secular society or our democracy to murderous religious bigots.

7 July 2005


The outrages in London are the work of enemies of humanity. There should be massive demonstrations throughout Britain this weekend to show our solidarity against them.

30 June 2005


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 1 July 2005

I know columnists are supposed to have trenchant opinions about everything, but I just can’t get myself worked up over identity cards. After weeks of reading all the arguments and chewing them over, I’ve come to an unpalatable conclusion: frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

An outrageous assault on all the liberties the freeborn Englishman has held dear since Magna Carta, as the civil liberties lobby would have it? Give us a break. We’re already under potentially constant surveillance from the state and from various commercial interests whose records it can access and co-ordinate with ease — and ID cards wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference.

In the past week, I’ve filed my tax return online and been paid by an employer whose records are sent as a matter of course to the Inland Revenue and to whomsoever it is these days that deals with National Insurance and pension contributions. Direct debits have gone out of my bank account to pay my council tax, mortgage, various utility bills and trade union and Labour Party subs. I’ve used a debit card to buy groceries from Sainsbury’s, a carpet from the Co-op, rail tickets, books and CDs, several rounds of drinks and a couple of meals. (And when I ordered online at Sainsbury’s I was reminded what I bought when I shopped there in the last three months.)

I need a swipe card to get into work, though I’ve no idea whether the machine that lets me in records my arrival. The computer in the local library retains the information on my borrowings. And I’m recorded on countless closed-circuit television cameras whenever I leave the house or the office.

OK, I use a firewall on my computer at home and regularly sweep my system for spyware — but it would be a piece of cake for the state to monitor my email and web surfing. The same goes for my mobile phone usage, right down to tracking where I am whenever my phone is on. Next time I go abroad the chances are that my passport details will be logged by some official at some point on the journey. Thank the Lord I’m not a driver burdened with licence records and congestion charge fines . . .

Sometimes, it’s true, I find this all rather intrusive. For Sainsbury’s to remind me that my “usual” includes 20-odd beers and half-a-dozen Italian red wines is, well, sobering. I’m sick of junk mail and spam churned out by companies and campaigns that have my details on their databases. And in my nightmares I worry that if it came to the crunch and the BNP or Respect won state power, it would be all too easy for the bastards to track me down.

But the bastards aren’t in power, and for the most part I’m not that bothered by the fact that my movements and habits are constantly recorded and stored. It’s one of those things about modern life you put up with in return for the convenience of getting goods when you need them and avoiding queues and form-filling.

My real gripe is that the system doesn’t work properly. Three years ago I was the victim of a crude attempt at identity theft. Someone had picked up something addressed to me at a flat (in a shared block) I’d left a couple of years before, and had applied for several credit cards in my name. The credit card companies did not issue the cards and reported the attempted fraud to the police — who did nothing — and to the companies that list people’s credit ratings. They promptly put me on a blacklist. Result: an all-round pain in the butt that took the best part of two years to sort out.

A state ID card would have been a help in all that: it would have made it clear that I was not the person applying for credit cards in my name. I’d be quite happy to spend £93, or even £200, to make sure it didn’t happen again.

But I was unlucky, and no one who has not been the subject of an attempted identity sting can see the insurance value of an ID card. It just looks like a massive waste of money.

As for the other supposed benefits — security against international terrorists, benefit fraudsters, health service tourists and illegal workers — I just don’t buy them. Al-Qaida could handle ID cards, no problem. The only impact on illegal immigrants would be to depress their wages. And I don’t believe the Daily Mail on the level of health service tourism and benefit fraud.

So this is one where I cop out, lacking all conviction. ID cards are not worth a fight one way or the other. They are neither a key political priority nor the enemy of all we hold dear. The government has all sorts of other things it should be getting on with — and civil libertarians who want to pick a fight with it should be concentrating their efforts on its outrageous plans to ban smoking in pubs.

5 June 2005


Has anyone come up yet with any position better than (genuine, aka no CAP or textile or steel protectionism) free trade? I only ask.

2 June 2005


I wouldn't quite endorse everything that Timothy Garton Ash has to say in the Guardian today, (read it here), but it's close to the truth:
Visions are invoked of Blair and Britain riding to the rescue of the European project, during our presidency of the union in the second half of this year, with a galvanising insistence that what Europe needs now, more than ever, is British-style economic and social reform. Only thus can we face up to the dragons of globalisation. The hour of London has come. Cry God for England, Tony and St George!

This analysis is both completely right and absolutely wrong. It's completely right to say that more reform is the only way the more developed countries in Europe will prevent jobs continuing to leach away, both to central and east European countries with cheap skilled labour and, on a larger scale, to Asia. With all its faults, Blairism - more accurately, Blair-Brown-ism - is the closest any European country has come to combining American-style enterprise with European-style solidarity . . .

At the same time, the analysis is absolutely wrong. For the surest way to ensure that Europe does not adopt this necessary programme is for the British prime minister to advocate it, in missionary mode, at this particular juncture. The French, and now also the Dutch, have just delivered a resounding no, both to the treaty and to what they see as a British Europe. The perfect moment, then, for a British prime minister to say: "So, mes amis, you have spoken, and I conclude that what you really need is a British Europe!"


Bob Woodward tells loads we didn't know about the Watergate story – the greatest scoop of the past century – in the Washington Post here.

1 June 2005


The Dutch have voted "no" too, which makes it pretty much inconceivable that the Brits will hold a referendum, which means that the European constitutional treaty is dead. Cue sighs of relief all round for Tony Blair and his government, crowing from Eurosceptic chumps et cetera – but what now for Europe's institutional arrangements?

It's clear that the French and Dutch referendum results were rejections of the institutional status quo as well as of the treaty's proposals (even if they were also about other things). And the key point that everyone sensible in the "no" camp was making was that the EU was insufficiently democratic and open.

So something needs to be done soon – if not tomorrow – to establish the EU's democratic legitimacy. Part of that must include opening up its workings more to the scrutiny of national parliaments. But in the end I can't see any solution other than increasing the credibility of the European Parliament. And that means massively augmenting its powers over the Commission and the Council of Ministers as well as clamping down ruthlessly on expenses scams.

In other words, the French and Dutch votes make the case for a democratic federal European polity stronger not weaker.

30 May 2005


And another thing . . . The French “no” shows that self-indulgence remains a powerful force on the left in France.

In 2002, left protest-voting for hopeless fringe-left candidates against Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin in the first round of the presidential election ensured that he came third behind the obnoxious fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen and was eliminated, leaving Jacques Chirac to walk the second round.

Yesterday, left voters convinced that “Another Europe is possible” joined Le Pen and the far right to vote “no”. The French Communist Party, the Trots and Laurent Fabius – the Mitterrand-era Socialist prime minister who revived his political career by coming out against the treaty – are congratulating themselves on a grand victory. But who will benefit? Not Chirac, whose star is now definitely on the wane. But not the left either. The crass opportunism of the left “no” camp severely damages the chances that the left will be able to find a candidate at the next presidential election who commands widespread support. Idiots utiles.


The “no” victory in the French referendum on the EU constitution cannot have come as much of a surprise to anyone, although the margin was rather bigger than I expected because I thought there would be a last-minute swing to “yes” that did not happen.

It’s hardly the end of civilisation as we know it, but it is depressing. The constitutional treaty is a long way short of perfect: it is for the most part aimed at making the existing intergovernmentalist EU structures work more efficiently and contains little to address the union’s democratic deficit. But if implemented it would create an institutional settlement that could be improved over time.

Now, however, it looks as if it won’t be implemented: it is difficult to see how the treaty can survive the French “no”, and it will be dead and buried if the Dutch reject it too.

It is even more difficult, however, to see how a better constitutional treaty can be negotiated, at least in the short term. Of course, it is possible that the European political class responds to the setback with the imagination, dynamism, flexibility and commitment to democratic principle that were so conspicuous by their absence in the horse-trading that created the constitutional treaty. But that’s rather unlikely. All the major players are in weak positions domestically. Jacques Chirac has been seriously damaged by yesterday’s vote. Germany faces a general election in autumn that is likely to lead to a change of government. Tony Blair in Britain has announced he will retire during this term. Silvio Berlusconi in Italy looks to be on the way out.

So the most plausible scenario is that the EU’s institutions muddle through for the next few years, adopting some of the measures in the constitutional treaty but failing to do anything to stem popular criticism of their democratic illegitimacy.

If Peter Mandelson’s take on the French referendum is anything to go by, the Blairites in Britain think that the solution is to change the subject from the EU’s institutional arrangements to economic reform, but my hunch is that this would only make matters worse. The French “no” was at least in part a protest against what many voters perceived as the threat to the welfare state and to working conditions from “Anglo-Saxon” “neo-liberalism” and globalisation – epitomised by French companies relocating in east-central Europe, Polish plumbers coming to work in France, Chinese white goods flooding the shops and so on.

I’ll accept that there is a case for market-oriented reform both of certain EU policies – not least the Common Agricultural Policy – and of certain aspects of the (national) labour-market and welfare-state regimes of “old Europe”. But telling continental Europe that the solution to all its ills is to become more like Britain is idiotic. It’s not only guaranteed to put backs up, it’s also at odds with key facts on the ground. Compare the West Coast main line with the TGV. Remember Germany’s remarkable export performance even with 12 per cent unemployment. And don’t forget Britain’s housing bubble and pensions crisis . . .

The comrades from Socialism in an Age of Waiting have a good post here.


Patrick Cockburn has a fascinating account of MI5’s surveillance of his father Claud in the Independent today, extracted from his memoir of his childhood, The Broken Boy. The extract makes much of the sheer scale of the spooks’ surveillance – but I wonder whether it really is so surprising. As editor of his newsletter The Week and in various roles on the Daily Worker during the 1930s and 1940s, Cockburn senior was the most prominent Stalinist journalist in the Anglophone world and a close associate of Otto Katz, a notorious fixer for the Soviet Union’s international propaganda network. If there was anyone MI5 had a prima facie case for watching, it was Claud Cockburn.

29 May 2005


Glyn Morgan has an excellent piece in the Independent on Sunday here saying what I thought had become the unsayable: what's wrong with the intergovernmentalist EU settlement on which France is voting today is precisely that it doesn't create a European super-state.

28 May 2005


With characteristic clarity, John Palmer puts the left case for a yes vote in the French and Dutch referendums on the European constitution in the Guardian here. And the paper's first leader reinforces the point here:
It defies logic to claim, as many in France have, to be pro-European and argue that a no will produce a better outcome.
Quite so.

27 May 2005


The emergency conference of the Association of University Teachers today voted by a large-ish majority – it wasn't a card vote, so no numbers – to reverse the policy of boycotting Israeli universities that its annual council had adopted earlier in the year. I was there throughout as a delegate and voted against the boycott, so I had something to do with the decision. But my attempt to make a telling intervention in the debate was utter crap: I got stage-fright big-time, froze and then gibbered incoherently. Complete panic. I need help.

24 May 2005


Blimey. Ann Clwyd has been narrowly elected chair of the parliamentary Labour Party (click here) – I thought she'd lose. Which goes to show that, er, I was wrong and (beyond that) that, er, anti-war sentiment isn't quite as big in the PLP as I thought, though it's pretty big, maybe? So could this be the point at which it became clear that, er . . . ?


The German Social Democrats’ defeat in the North Rhine-Westphalia Land election on Sunday was not unexpected, but its scale was – and now Germany is gearing up for an early general election after Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder decided that the only way out is to appeal for a new mandate.

Schroeder’s problem is the unpopularity of his liberalising economic reform programme among the SPD’s core supporters, who stayed away from the polls on Sunday in droves. The workers don’t see cutting welfare benefits, reducing workers’ rights at work and championing free trade as the way to reduce German unemployment, currently running at nearly five million (12 per cent of the workforce).

On the other hand, disillusioned working-class former-SPD supporters didn’t on the whole vote for the much-hyped leftist WASG (Electoral Alternative: Work and Social Justice) list. So Schroeder has flung down the gauntlet: it’s either vote for the SPD and get a managed transition to a less-generous welfare state or vote CDU/CSU and have much nastier market medicine forced down your throat.

So we’re going to witness the bizarre spectacle of an SPD campaign fought on hard class-solidarity rhetoric (there will be very little holding hands with the SPD’s Green coalition partners, on which click here) with the key message that it’s better to have your own lot being mean bastards than the conservatives.

But at risk of alienating all my German comrades, I’m afraid Schroeder is right. Martin Kettle’s piece in the Guardian today is seriously flawed in that it seems to claim that the choice between preserving a generous welfare state in western Europe and competing economically with the US and the far east is a zero-sum game. But Kettle's basic point is sound. Germany has to compete economically, and to do that it needs to change.


Time has passed since my last post on this (here) but I've not changed my mind, and now I'm going to the university lecturers' special conference as a delegate – not because my colleagues voted enthusiastically for my principled stance but because no one could be bothered too much.

At City University we had a big argument on email – but then came an inquorate Association of University Teachers' meeting, leaving the local AUT committee to decide what to do. Because the existing branch delegates couldn't make the special AUT council and because opinion among members was divided, the branch committee agreed (I think very sensibly) to appoint one pro-boycott delegate and one anti. I'm the anti.

23 May 2005


The Independent has an excellent interview with Dany Cohn-Bendit here in which the now 60-year-old former student revolutionary makes some telling points about the French European constitution referendum:
A French "no" will be the beginning of a period of confusion, or recrimination, of gradual unwinding of what we have already achieved in Europe. I fear that, for once, the right-wing press in Britain is right. A French "no" would be the prelude to an attempt to impose a purely economic vision of Europe, a market vision. Murdoch would jump for joy.

On the French left's no campaign he is withering:

No one has dared to tell them that we live in a world of market forces. That does not mean that you have to accept the extreme religion of Thatcherism or even Blairism. Market forces can be married with social responsibility, a social market. That's still not an argument that you can make with a large part of the left in France. They believe that you can still run France as if it were the 1960s.
The same is true of the British Labour anti-Europeans who have signed up for the no campaign here, who are without exception sentimentalist nationalists who believe in the better yesterday of social democracy in one country, Tony Benn, Peter Shore and the Alternative Economic Strategy.

20 May 2005


Mark Seddon, my illustrious successor as Tribune editor, has a piece in the Guardian today headlined "Eighteen months to save Labour" – a cause so urgent that he is about to decamp to New York as UN correspondent of al-Jazeera's English-language service.

19 May 2005


Yeah, I know there's lots of stuff going on, but I can't be bothered today. One reason only . . .

As we used to sing in the 1970s:
We can't read, we can't write –
But that don't really matter
We come down from Ipswich Town
Riding on our tractors
But these days we can't even beat the bloody Hammers.

18 May 2005


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 20 May 2005

Sure, it was great theatre, with a bravado performance from the leading actor. You certainly have to salute George Galloway’s courage, his strength and his indefategability after his appearance at the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on Tuesday. But did it actually change anything?

People who believe Galloway when he says he knew nothing of the business dealings of Fawaz Zureikat — a Jordanian businessman who was a major donor to and the chairman of Galloway’s campaign against sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Mariam Appeal — still reckon that Galloway has no case to answer over the allegations that he was the beneficiary of money obtained from the UN oil-for-food scheme.

And people who believe that Galloway knew a lot about the nature of Zureikat’s business — which included making substantial sums from oil-for-food — still think that Galloway’s claims that he is the victim of politically motivated forgery are no more than hot air and bluster.

In other words, this one is set to run and run until clear evidence emerges either for or against the Senate subcommittee’s conclusion that the documents it has retreived from Iraq (supplemented by various interviews) show Galloway or his campaign to have received oil-for-food vouchers.

Galloway’s supporters are pinning their hopes on proving that the documents are fake. The latest issue of Socialist Worker, the paper of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party that forms the core of Galloway’s Respect Unity Coalition, tries to do just that with one of them — albeit not very convincingly. If the Senate subcommittee’s allegations are to be taken seriously, it needs to demonstrate that the documents are genuine.

But even if it manages to do this, the show will be far from over. Just because a genuine document shows that someone was allocated oil-for-food vouchers does not mean he or she necessarily received them. I can imagine all sorts of scenarios in which corrupt officials siphoned them off.

Most importantly, though, suspicion of Galloway will not be laid to rest until he opens the books of the Mariam Appeal. He says that the Mariam Appeal was investigated by the Charity Commission in 2003-04 and completely cleared of any wrong-doing, but it’s a bit more complex than that (click here for original inquiry).

In fact, the Charity Commission didn’t have access to the Mariam Appeal’s books, which had been taken in 2001 to Jordan, where Zureikat lived.

As the commission put it in a press release this week: “By 2003, the appeal had been closed and the books and records had been sent to Jordan . . . Our inquiry therefore had to rely on details we were able to obtain from the appeal's bank accounts . . . We did not undertake a detailed review of sources of income to the appeal because the original concern prompting our inquiry was about the use to which funds had been put.”

Surely Galloway can prevail on Zureikat to put all the Mariam Appeal’s records in the public domain so that a “detailed review of sources of income to the appeal” can now take place? And if not, why not?


On a different matter entirely, I was amazed to read in The Times last week that the supposedly left-leaning Centre for a Social Europe, which is backed by several left-wing Labour MPs, has decided to throw in its lot with the xenophobes of the free-market right in a single campaign for a “no” vote in the forthcoming referendum on the European Union constitutional treaty.

It’s not just that I can’t see why these chumps think the EU constitutional treaty is so dreadful from their own point of view. Largely as a result of Britain's insistence during the protracted drafting negotiations, it is the nearest thing there could be to a plan for a European institutional settlement acceptable to sceptical opinion. It is intergovernmentalist rather than federalist in essence, with very little in the way of increased powers for the European Parliament. As an out-and-out federalist, I’m going to have to hold my nose to vote for it.

What I really can’t get my head around, however, is the sheer idiocy of left-wingers deciding to become a tiny, swamped minority in a campaign that will be (a) overwhelmingly dominated by the Tories and far-right loons who want to destroy the welfare state, reduce workers’ rights, send immigrants home and tell the frogs to hop off; and (b), if successful, a massive boost for the Tories’ next election campaign. What on earth is going through the left Europhobes’ minds?


Very busy, so considered thoughts on the Galloway hearing will have to wait until later. For now, though, I'm amazed that in this day and age the complete transcript of the hearing (including the bits where Galloway evades questions on Fawaz Zureikat) does not appear to be online. Please email me if you know where to find it!


This collection of documents suggests that the Warsaw Pact had a nuclear first-strike policy from the 1960s onwards. Funny, that's not what those nice people in the Soviet Peace Committee used to say . . .

16 May 2005


Oh blimey, Harry's done it again. I really should leave it to him.

15 May 2005


Not a lot in the Sundays on George Galloway apart from this in the Independent on Sunday – not bad in that some of the key issues are dealt with towards the end, but spoilt by leading on Galloway's bluster about McCarthyism and far too concerned with the side-issue of whether Galloway benefited personally from the oil-for-food scandal.

As I've said, as Harry has said (much more convincingly and at greater length), whether or not Galloway personally trousered the cash isn't what matters – it's whether his political campaigning for Saddam Hussein was financed directly or indirectly by Saddam Hussein.

As for Galloway's fate compared with the victims of Senator Joe McCarthy – well, give us all a break. McCarthy was a right-wing populist demagogue who had no evidence for his claims that there were 205 (or was it 57, or was it 81?) card-carrying members of the Communist Party in key positions in the US administration. He exploited fear about (real) Soviet espionage to create a climate of hysteria.

Galloway is accused specifically, on the basis of evidence that deserves, prima facie, to be taken seriously, of at least accepting and possibly procuring money from a murderous totalitarian regime that had failed to comply with UN resolutions after invading one of its neighbours. And he did so, the evidence suggests, to act as a propagandist for that regime. It's not McCarthyism to demand that he accounts for his actions.


Phil Edwards's post here on one of his peers is good fun.


So it's out with Peter Wilby and in with John Kampfner at the New Statesman – and Wilby was pushed. (On this the best so far is Sholto Byrnes in the Independent on Sunday here, though ignore the rubbish about how the circulation has gone up dramatically in the past 10 years: it hasn't.) Believe it or not, the Statesman could get even worse.


Robin Butley writes:

The sacked Europe minister, Denis MacShane, has a knockabout piece in the Observer here. I was particularly intrigued by his remarks on Labour's shameful history of anti-Europeanism:
Sadly, it was the Conservatives who were the European party between 1945 and 1990. Labour affected a patriotic British disdain for Europe: remember those speeches by Peter Shore, Michael Foot, Barbara Castle and their little helpers and researchers who kept Labour out of power for decades? Only in middle age did they come round to understanding that anti-Europeanism gets cheers and headlines from the Rothermere and Murdoch press but is not supported by the voters at the ballot box.
Now, who precisely were the "little helpers" to whom he refers? Could they include his former boss at the Foreign Office, Jack Straw, whose record as a Europhobe loon working for Barbara Castle and Peter Shore in the 1970s and early 1980s was remarkable?

MacShane, incidentally, is an old mate of Observer editor Roger Alton. He can't have been hired as a permanent replacement for David Aaronovitch, can he?

Paul Anderson adds: There's a good pre-election piece by MacShane on the European constitution on the Chartist website here. And remind yourselves of the list of current Labour Europhobes here.