29 December 2012


I've no desire to speak ill of the dead, but William Rees-Mogg, who has just died, was the Man Who Got Everything Wrong. He was a great modernising editor of the Times. More than anyone else, he turned it into a modern broadsheet paper between the late 1960s and early 1980s: it stopped being fuddy-duddy and dull and put on circulation.

But after he left the chair, is there anything he got right? His columns in the Independent and later in the Times were fuddy-duddy and dull and became a laughing-stock because of his enthusiasm for ill-informed predictions – Private Eye taunted him as "Mystic Mogg" – but they never went away. He was wrong about everything imaginable, from the state of the world economy and other geopolitical issues right down to the minutiae of arts policy, and was wrong so barmily and systematically that his column became a must-read for anyone with a taste for comedy. We need another chief establishment chump, and we need one now.

24 December 2012


Can you imagine what it's like to be in the bunker with Bashar Al-Assad? I can, but it's not journalism. As his regime crumbles – or does Russian military aid keep it going? – all the user-generated-content new-media palaver shows only that his regime is brutal and cynically prepared to do anything to stay in power. We've got more pictures than we're used to. Some of them are shocking. But are we any better informed about what is actually going than the outside world was in 1917 about the October revolution in Russia? We're not, and technology will never replace journalists on the ground. Where is the correspondent with Assad's ear?

19 December 2012


Aaaargh! Press, a new Brit alternative small press, is celebrating its birth with a party in London next month to mark the publication of its first titles, Reaching for my Gnu by Anna Chen (Kindle e-book and paperback) and The Guitar Geek Dossier by Charles Shaar Murray (Kindle e-book only for now).

Reaching for my Gnu, a collection of poems by British-Chinese poet and performer Anna Chen is available as a paperback here for £9.99 and as a Kindle e-book here for £1.99.

'Brilliant and dangerous ... one wild-ride roller-coaster that soars to altitudes of unfettered wit and then plunges with a startling and implacably knowing anger' MICK FARREN


'Charming, witty and sophisticated' SUNDAY TIMES
The Guitar Geek Dossier, an author's-choice collection of columns from Guitarist by legendary music journalist Charles Shaar Murray is available as a Kindle e-book here for £1.99.

'The Johnny Cash of rock journalism' PHIL CAMPBELL, MOTORHEAD

'The rock critic’s rock critic' Q MAGAZINE

'Front-line cultural warrior' INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY

Charles is author of Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix And Post-war Pop and Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century (both Canongate). His first novel, The Helhound Sample, was published by Head Press in 2011.

The details of the launch party, which will be something to remember, will be posted here and on the official Aaaargh! Press website very soon.

1 December 2012


A few points to add to what has already been said elsewhere:
  1. As everyone says, the Croydon North, Middlesbrough and Rotherham by-elections were good for Labour (as indeed were Cardiff South, Corby and Manchester Central earlier in the month) – but it wasn’t just because Labour won what had been safe seats. Most importantly, in Rotherham and Croydon North it saw off what ambushed it in Bradford West, a populist-left challenge from Respect, and it did so convincingly.
  2. Respect was written off by most commentators after the 2010 general election – but it sprang miraculously from the dead when George Galloway won Bradford West in March. It is not going to get a better shot at replicating that than Rotherham – a disgraced Labour MP, a large Muslim population, momentum from Bradford West. But it failed. Its performance (just over 8 per cent for Yvonne Ridley) was good for a far-left party historically (anything over 5 per cent is) but poor given everything that it thought was going in its favour. And 707 votes for Lee Jasper (and sixth place behind the Green) in Croydon North was risible. Respect is now nothing more than George Galloway’s personal political machine.
  3. UKIP did well, but the hype should be kept in perspective. New insurgent parties have actually won by-elections in the past rather than celebrate their best performance as coming a distant second with 22 per cent of the vote. UKIP has a long way to go before matching the Scottish National Party in Motherwell in 1945, let alone the Social Democratic Party in Crosby in 1981.
  4. The real danger from these by-elections is that they encourage Labour to adopt an even more opportunist populist approach to Europe and immigration than hitherto because that’s where the voters are. In Rotherham, more than one-third of those who voted chose candidates to the right of the Tories on Europe and immigration – and Labour’s focus groups are jammed with people moaning about bloody foreigners coming over here from eastern Europe, taking our jobs and houses and scrounging on the dole. The Labour leadership is of a generation that listens to the focus groups then works out what it believes – and Ed Miliband, despite his coherent though hardly inspiring speech in favour of remaining part of Europe the other week, has not broken the habit of telling people what the focus-group analysts think they want to hear. I’m afraid I expect a lot of Labour attempts to hijack UKIP themes over the next few months.
  5. It's utterly disgraceful that there was not a proper by-election news programme on the BBC last night or for the previous round of by-elections. If the public service remit of the BBC means anything, it is that it reports the proceedings of British democracy. Last night, the Croydon Advertiser's blogger beat the BBC to the Croydon North result (though he or she got a lot of the figures wrong) and the BBC didn't run a comprehensive report on the results until 40 minutes after the declaration. It was better by far in the good old days of Vincent Hanna and sing-songs round the piano with Larry Whitty.

30 November 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 30 November 2012

Management and unions at the Guardian and the Observer are set for an almighty confrontation after management this month announced the start of compulsory redundancy proceedings in order to get rid of 100 journalists out of 600-odd on staff.

Guardian News and Media management claims that it needs 100 to go to save £7 million a year – and that only 30 have offered themselves for voluntary severance. After years of job cuts that have seen some 250 editorial staff leave voluntarily, management says that GNM is losing £44 million a year.

GNM journalists say that the losses have nothing to do with editorial over-staffing and everything to do with a misguided commercial strategy. Rather than getting rid of journalists, they say that GNM needs to rethink its commitment to offering all content for free online and to reduce spending on exorbitant management salaries and expensive marketing gimmicks.

The Guardian is no stranger to financial crisis. Until the 1980s, it relied on a subsidy from its sister paper, the Manchester Evening News, to cover its losses – and in the 1960s its management got so jittery that they seriously considered a merger with the Times. Nothing came of it, the MEN continued to pay the bills, and the Guardian put on circulation and cornered the market in advertising for media and public-sector jobs. By the late 1980s, after production costs (and printers’ jobs) were slashed by the introduction of new technology, the Guardian was making money. For a good 15 years it enjoyed a commercial golden age. The Guardian Media Group bought the Observer in 1993 and took over Auto Trader, the profitable used car listing magazine, then in the mid-noughties paired up with a venture capitalist firm for a leveraged buy-out of the magazine company EMAP.

So what has gone wrong? The easy answer is the internet and recession. The internet allows us all to access what news we want online for free, so we don’t buy newspapers as much. It is also how we find out about jobs (and houses and cars) and increasingly how we buy consumer goods. All this means there’s less advertising for print publications. And in a recession advertisers cut back on spending and readers buy fewer newspapers.

This is a challenging environment for all newspapers. With print advertising and sales on the slide, they need to find new revenue streams. And that is what the Guardian has failed to do.

It embraced the internet early, and by 2000 its online audience was bigger than that of any newspaper in Britain – with the website attracting increasing traffic from the US. While other newspapers tried paywalls or limited access to their print versions, the Guardian made everything free to all. The hope was that before long the site would attract sufficient online ad revenues to make up for any fall in sales and print advertising.

But the online advertising has not materialised – or at least not in sufficient quantity. At which point, you might think, the old adage “If you’re in a hole, stop digging” might come into play. Not a bit of it. The Guardian management has stuck to plan A – pour money into online in the hope that web advertising comes to the rescue – with messianic zeal, declaring its strategy to be “digital first”, pouring cash into a new US office in an attempt to establish the Guardian as a genuinely global brand and embracing what editor Alan Rusbridger calls “open journalism”, roughly speaking the idea that the barrier between journalists and reader-contributors will be broken down by digital interactivity.

Its commitment was epitomised by its vastly expensive TV advertising campaign earlier this year, an animation showing a zippy online Guardian awash with user-generated content retelling the fairy story of the three little pigs. Much praised by the ad industry, it had no effect on print sales, but that didn’t stop the man behind it, David Pemsel, being taken on as GNM’s commercial supremo this autumn. Meanwhile, the message from the Guardian to advertisers remains that its online reach is stupendous – but advertisers just won’t pay very much for digital ads.

Of course, GNM needs to stop haemorrhaging money. But getting rid of journalists really isn’t the best way to do it. The work they produce is the main reason people buy the Guardian and Observer and visit the website – not the user-generated content or the dating agency or the coolness of the brand or the interactivity of the mobile apps. I’m not surprised that they’re up in arms and demanding a plan B.

17 November 2012


There are two big stories about the police and crime commissioner elections: the low turnout, and the success of 12 independents (out of 41 commissioners elected).

The low turnout is hardly surprising – but the success of the independents is, at least on first sight. Other than in local elections in some rural areas where "independent" means "Tory by another name", independents win UK elections only in freakish circumstances.

So why the 12 independent successes in the PCC elections? What's common to all of the independents is the pledge to keep politics out of policing. As any Marxist fule kno, that's a false prospectus, because  policing is intensely political: you can't take the politics out of decisions about how to police industrial disputes, demonstrations, civil disobedience, immigration, terrorism, hate speech, state secrets, drugs, business malpractice, domestic violence, prostitution, deviant sexualities, you name it. The problem, of course, is that most people aren't interested in this sort of stuff most of the time: they just want the cops to stop other people nicking and damaging their personal possessions and behaving in violent and threatening ways towards them. What could be political, let alone party-political about that?

So that's the appeal, and with very low turnout the independents tapped into the common sense of prioritising  stopping the stuff everyone wants stopped, with varying degrees of genuflection to social inclusivity and due process.

But the independents aren't really very independent. There's at least one former Tory and one actual Lib Dem among them, and nearly all have been cops, magistrates or members of police authorities. They are policing insiders to a man and woman – as indeed are most of the Labour and Tory PCCs elected on Thursday – and it's difficult to imagine them playing any roles other than cheerleading for their chief constables or populist showboating. Would any of them have stood up to denounce systemic corruption in the Met, or the Hillsborough cover-up, or Orgreave? If police accountability is the goal, this isn't the way to do it.

1 November 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 2 November 2012 

It is, I admit, difficult to feel sympathy for the Russell Group of elite universities. Its 24 members – Oxford, Cambridge, most of the University of London and a handful of other institutions, which between them scoop up more than 80 per cent of higher-education research funding – have a deserved reputation for special pleading. The Russell Group universities enthusiastically embraced Labour’s introduction of student loans and the current coalition government’s move to make higher education entirely student-debt-funded by hiking fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year for undergraduates.

We’ll be all right, they said, and sod the rest. But now, it seems, they’re starting to have second thoughts. Last week, the director of the Russell Group, Wendy Piatt, told a BBC Radio Four documentary that its members have taken a hit of £80 million in lost income because of the shortfall in student recruitment caused by the increase in student fees.

And if they’re hurting, just think of the non-elite universities. The Russell Group have been the main beneficiaries of the government’s decision to relax recruitment controls and allow higher education institutions to recruit as many students as they want with top A-level grades.

The recruitment figures for “post-1992” universities – the former polytechnics – are not yet available. But all the anecdotal evidence suggests a slump in numbers that threatens the viability of many courses and departments. Universities are in crisis as a consequence of a half-arsed government policy, even the posh ones. And last week, a projection by the Higher Education Policy Institute, a think tank, suggested that there is a £1 billion “black hole” in the government’s calculations of its likely income from the repayment of student loans because of ludicrous optimism about graduates’ pay in the future. They didn’t think this one through.

I’ve been teaching journalism at various higher education outfits for more than 20 years, and so far there is no sign of any collapse in demand for journalism courses – which is a relief for me but also a concern, because there aren’t many jobs in journalism right now.

Yes, there are opportunities for young journos with the right skills. I’m as committed as ever to getting talented working-class and ethnic-minority kids into the business. My students today are as good as any I’ve had. But I’m worried that the pell-mell expansion of HE journalism training over the past two decades – driven by an extraordinary boom in journalism employment from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s – has gone too far. I had a particularly brilliant group that finished a university course I ran two years ago that I thought would take over Fleet Street: they’ve done well, but they’re mostly not working in journalism. I wouldn’t go as far as a former colleague, who described the journalism training business as “a giant Ponzi scheme”, but we’re training too many journalists today, and that’s not responsible (even if it pays my mortgage).

It’s not quite as ridiculous as pathology, which, as a result of the popularity of TV crime dramas featuring forensic scientists, has seen an increase in the number qualifying as pathologists rising from five 10 years ago to more than 400 – prompting the vice-president of the Royal College of Patholgists, Suzy Lishman, to tell the Times the other week: “If all these young people want a job when they qualify, at least half will have to retrain as mass murderers.”

But the brutal fact is that it is senseless to organise higher education on front-end market demand: particularly with vocational courses, what seems sexy now won’t be so hot in three years. It’s essential to plan ahead with an eye on the employment market.

OK, there will always be a lag and some guesswork, but there is a role for the person in Whitehall who knows better than 18-year-olds who want to be Julian Assange or the star in a TV cop show.

That isn’t, however, the only problem. Just as idiotic as allowing the passing fancies of 18-year-olds to determine the shape of higher education, the way the worth of university teachers and courses is now assessed is a tick-box questionnaire that all undergraduates get before they do their finals, the National Student Survey. A bad NSS is higher-education death – even though it is usually the result of cock-ups and foibles: one lecturer is parachuted in and pitches the lectures too high or low for the students, another is a particularly tough marker, another has a cohort of students he or she fails to enthuse after a badly judged first lecture.

I’ve been all those, and I regret nothing apart from the stupidity of university managements who accept the tick-box questionnaire as the last word. I’ve never handed out over-generous marks to keep students quiet in the NSS, but I know plenty of lecturers that do. The NSS means grade inflation and falling standards.
And it doesn’t empower students a jot.

I know it’s old-fashioned, but what Britain’s universities need now is national planning, professional independence for lecturers and funding from general taxation. Marketisation has been a disaster. It privileges the stupid wannabe and the whinger above all others. Time for a change: politics back in command.

29 October 2012


It fits with the unpopularity of all things European among British voters, but the enthusiasm of Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander for cutting the EU budget is a mistake. Europe does need to cut  its subsidies for agriculture, but more importantly it needs a massive increase in it structural funds to develop the infrastructure of its poorest areas (some of which are in Britain). Europe-wide super-big-state top-down Keynesian infrastructure spending could work wonders in bringing the continent out of recession, and that's what Labour should be saying. I really get the sense that they've spent so much time looking at what focus groups are saying that they've completely lost the policy plot.

25 October 2012


It's hardly earth-shattering news, but the Orwell Prize has decided not to award a blogger next year. Its chair, Jean Seaton, explains in a piece on the Guardian's Comment is Free website here:
Blogging has evolved so rapidly over the past five years that it is no longer one thing. Many of our shortlisted bloggers have migrated to journalism, writing books and becoming (in ConservativeHome for example) political powers in the land. They have become insiders not outsiders. And as newspapers, periodicals, individual journalists and broadcasting have rapidly converged, everyone is a blogger now. As the press heads online, blogging is dissolving. While there is a community of independent blogging voices, their form has grown up. Blogging is no longer a thing but a glorious bouquet of things.
She's right about how blogging has become part of the mainstream media -- and I know how fraught the process of judging blogs has been for the Orwell Prize, a tiny outfit with minimal resources that puts on dazzling highbrow public events. (The most recent of them was last night's debate at the Frontline Club to launch the 2013 prize, which turned into a multi-expert and extraordinarily frank discussion of Muslim-Asian child sex abuse, though it was billed as being on policing.)

I'm sad, however, that the Orwell Prize has dropped its blog award. I don't have a dog in this race: I've been blogging 10 years but most of what I've posted for the past five is what I've written for dead-trees publications. I've been aware for rather a long time that blogging is firing out missives that will be read by very few people, even if you use Facebook and Twitter to publicise your efforts.

But ... self-publishing online is now established and important even if it ain't what we dreamed of in 2002. The best of it should be rewarded.

10 October 2012


I wasn't exactly waiting with bated breath for David Cameron's Tory conference speech today, but I was expecting something rather better than the boilerplate nonsense he delivered. I'm sure there are a couple of soundbites that can be retrieved for news programmes this evening, but it was a pedestrian performance aimed at the conference hall rather than the electorate, retelling old tales and repeating old tropes. If this was a relaunch, it never even got into orbit. How he can have managed at once to look less managerial than Boris Johnson and less charismatic than Ed Miliband is a source of wonder. Long may it continue.

9 October 2012


It's been back to the eighties at the Tory conference so far. The opinion polls and focus groups show middle-class swing voters angry about immigration, crime and scroungers -- so the Tories are targeting them with some extraordinarily crude messages, the most idiotic of which so far has been Chris Grayling's endorsement of the householder's right to shoot a burglar. This is utterly desperate stuff. "Kill the burglar!" might have made a line in a Smiths' song 30 years ago (it didn't, but it works very well in "Panic" instead of "Hang the DJ"), but it's so removed from everyday life as experienced by most Brits as to be ridiculous as a party policy. Boris Johnson was asinine, and if he's the Tories' best hope they should give up on general elections for 15 years. David Cameron has a big job to rescue this conference from disaster tomorrow.

7 October 2012


The story that Jimmy Savile was a paedophile was widespread even in the mid-1970s: I remember being told as a teenager by one of my schoolmates that he had a particular enthusiasm not for young girls but for paraplegic boys -- hence his enthusiastic support for Stoke Mandeville. None of my schoolmates had any media connections, as far as I'm aware, or any direct experience of Savile: the story had spread by word of mouth, and had been improved in the telling, no doubt, throughout teenage Britain. As such it was rumour, and no one could publish without evidence. But it was so pervasive that the failure of the newspapers or broadcasters to investigate -- or to publish or air after investigation -- is quite scandalous. I'm with Suzanne Moore: you can't claim it was simply a matter of different times and different mores. Savile's victims weren't groupies who wanted a piece of the action with the star -- which is maybe stupid and sad but at least consensual -- they were molested by a trusted children's TV presenter who bathed in the star's reflected glory, as Savile himself seems to have known. It's not quite the same as priests abusing kids, but it's in the same territory.

There are excellent pieces from my good comrades Padraig Reidy, Anna ChenSuzanne Moore, Nick Cohen, Charles Shaar Murray

6 October 2012


I'm late on this, because I've only just watched that Ed Miliband speech in full. But here we go:

  • It was very good as a performance, but the ability to memorise a speech and ad lib a little without notes is not that remarkable. Actors, stand-up comedians and teachers do it all the time.
  • There wasn't anything new in it. Not that there needed to be – the business of political communications is endless repetition –  and what Miliband had to do was prove he was a man of the people, or at least a man capable of communicating with the people, which he did.
  • The "One Nation" theme is at once inspired and dangerous. "One Nation Labour" is as good as "New Labour" in suggesting a fresh start, a break with a damaged reputation, and there's just about enough in the tag to give the impression that Labour is now with everyone but the super-rich, which is what it needs to do: it can't win unless it convinces people who see themselves as middle-class (even if they're actually wage-slaves). It's also a clever piece of political larceny: "One Nation" is a Tory slogan with its origins in Benjamin Disraeli's daring gamble that enfranchising a patriotic imperialist working class  –  or at least some of it  – would benefit his party. (I simplify, but that's the basic story.)
  • The problem is that it's as vulnerable as David Cameron's claim that "we're all in this together": unless it's fleshed out in credible policy, it's no more than warm words. And Labour is all over the place on what it wants to do. On one hand, the top rate of tax goes up if Labour wins (cheers from the left); on the the other, the welfare budget will be cut (cheers from the right). It would be idiotic to make firm promises this far from a general election, but Miliband's speech gave no one any idea even about the policy framework he'd be using as prime minister. There is a lot more work to be done.

4 October 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 5 October 2012

There was a time, not so long ago, when I was all in favour of co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. From the early 1990s until 2007, I couldn’t see fundamental ideological differences between the two parties – and thought that the Lib Dems’ enthusiasm for Europe, proportional representation and civil liberties, and their caution on foreign military adventures, might be good influences on Labour. I annoyed Tribune readers during the 2001 and 2005 general election campaigns by arguing for tactical voting against the Tories – which was, I admit, my intention.

Two things changed my mind: the refusal of the then leader of the Lib Dems, Menzies Campbell, to consider the offer of cabinet seats soon after Gordon Brown became prime minister in summer 2007; and the election of Nick Clegg as Lib Dem leader after Campbell resigned later that year.

Clegg was the real decider for me. He was an ambitious young politician – elected to parliament for the first time in 2005 – who had been one of the moving spirits behind the Orange Book, a collection of essays published in 2004 that marked a concerted attempt to shift the Lib Dems from the social-democratic ground they’d occupied since their creation into small-state free-market liberalism.

 I twigged that Clegg would go with the Tories pretty much from the start, though I was surprised at the alacrity with which he concluded the coalition deal in 2010 and initially almost as surprised at the concessions he appeared to have got from David Cameron.

 Today, it’s clear that the deal has gone horribly wrong for the Lib Dems. As Polly Toynbee and David Walker make clear in their scathing new book on the coalition, Dogma and Disarray, the one thing they got from the Tories that has actually come to pass, the raising of income-tax thresholds, isn’t particularly progressive, and every one of the Lib Dems’ much-vaunted political reforms – electoral reform for the House of Commons, a largely elected second chamber, reform of political funding – is dead.

Orange Book liberalism has turned the Lib Dems into foot-soldiers for the most right-wing government since 1945, a national coalition like that of the 1930s, making similar policy mistakes.

And now, well, the reckoning. Left-leaning voters have long-since abandoned the Lib Dems: the party has been on 10 per cent or thereabouts in the opinion polls for nearly two years and shows no sign of recovery. Last week’s Lib Dem conference in Brighton was a sorry spectacle, Clegg’s leader’s speech the worst at any conference since Iain Duncan Smith’s “quiet man” performance 10 years ago. There’s still talk about Clegg being usurped by Vince Cable, but Cable’s time has run out: he’ll be 73 by the time of the next election if it happens as planned in 2015. And otherwise the Lib Dems have the lovely Christopher Huhne – who is still embroiled in a ludicrous legal action with his ex-wife – and, er, that’s just about it. Paddy Ashdown might just give them some credibility, but he’s the same age as Cable. And as for Simon Hughes …

The desperation of the Lib Dems’ plight has given rise to merriment in Labour ranks, which I share to some extent. They got themselves into this mess, and it’s down to them to get themselves out of it.

But a few words of caution. First, a collapse of the Lib Dem vote will benefit the Tories more than Labour, even without boundary changes or a Tory-Lib Dem electoral pact. Except in a handful of seats they hold, Lib Dem MPs face Tories as their main challengers. If Ukip supporters vote Tory at a general election and the Lib Dems plunge, the Tories get a lot more seats.

Second, it’s still not impossible that the Tories and Lib Dems will agree a pact before the next general election. All the talk in the past couple of weeks has been about how the Lib Dems are differentiating themselves from the Tories and possibly preparing for life in a centre-left coalition – but that isn’t their only option by any means. The Tories and Lib Dems could still arrange a non-aggression agreement on sitting MPs, for example, and the temptation to do so will increase every month that the opinion polls show the Tories well below what they need to win an outright victory and the Lib Dems heading for a parliamentary party that can fit in the back of a London cab.

Labour has to keep open the option of co-operation with the Lib Dems after the next general election – and it would be sensible to have a plan for a possible coalition ready to roll if needs be in 2015. But it would be idiotic to cosy up to Clegg or Cable right now. Let them stew, and see how it goes.

2 October 2012


Tribune, 5 October 2012

Eric Hobsbawm, who has died at the age of 95, was the last survivor of an extraordinary generation of British Marxist historians who first developed their ideas in the late 1940s and early 1950s as members of the Communist Party Historians Group – among them Christopher Hill, Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Raphael Samuel. John Saville and George Rude. The group broke up after its majority left the Communist Party in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 – but Hobsbawm stuck to the CP to the very bitter end in 1991, and never apologised for his decision to do so.

Perhaps it had something to do with his experience as an adolescent. Born into a Jewish family in Egypt in 1917, he spent his early childhood in Vienna before his parents died and he moved to Berlin with an uncle – where he witnessed at first hand the violence of the Nazi party as it rose to power, escaping to Britain in 1933. The story is told well in his 2002 memoir, Interesting Times.

For Hobsbawm, until his death, the hopes of 1917 and the role of the Soviet Union in the defeat of fascism always still trumped the crimes of the Soviet regime, and there was little in 20th-century history (pre-1956 at least) on which he did not take a line that in the end was sympathetic to the official Soviet position at the time. He remained hostile to the anarchists in the Spanish civil war and the 1956 revolutionaries in Hungary and evasive about the Moscow show trials and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939-41 even in his most recent writing.

But he was much more than an apologist for Stalinism. In the CP after 1956, though hardly an active member, he took a reform-communist position, criticising the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 and then in the 1970s becoming the leading Anglophone advocate of the Eurocommunism of the Italian Communist Party. He and Stuart Hall played a crucial role in developing a left critique of the militant workerism of the traditional left in the Labour Party, the CP and the trade unions in the dying days of the 1974-79 Labour government, which in turn inspired both the Labour soft left and the Eurocommunist magazine Marxism Today in the 1980s – though the idea that he was somehow responsible for New Labour is quite ridiculous (and something he rejected).

What he will be remembered for above all are his books on world history, epic works of synthesis covering giant swaths of time and geography but never lacking in telling anecdotes. Whatever their lacunae, they are brilliant accounts of the growth and crises of global capitalism.

But just as thrilling are Hobsbawm’s more focused works, essays on small aspects of social history that are an utter delight to read even when they’re wrong.

Hobsbawm’s students remember him as kind and generous as a teacher, and he was indeed a lovely man. He will always be a subject of controversy because he never said sorry for being a communist. But he will be missed.

22 September 2012


Red Pepper, October-November 2012

Fifty years ago this October the world watched, seemingly powerless to do anything as a US-Soviet stand-off brought us close to nuclear Armageddon. PAUL ANDERSON looks at what has happened with nuclear disarmament in the half century since

On 14 October 1962, a US Air Force U-2 reconnaissance plane flew over Cuba taking photographs of the ground below. The next day, Central Intelligence Agency analysts examined the pictures – and concluded that they showed the construction of a launch site for Soviet missiles, confirming their suspicions that Moscow was creating a nuclear forward base in the Caribbean.

Thus began the Cuban missile crisis – a 13-day stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union that brought the world closer to all-out nuclear war than at any time before or since.

US president John F Kennedy spent the best part of a week working out how to respond. He was still smarting from the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs, the unsuccessful US-backed Cuban-exile invasion of the island in 1961 to overthrow Fidel Castro’s by then pro-Soviet revolutionary regime, and he resisted pressure from hawks to launch an immediate invasion. But the strategy he eventually adopted was high-risk. The US imposed a naval blockade on Cuba and promised not to invade if Moscow withdrew its missiles – but backed up the offer with a secret ultimatum threatening immediate invasion if it did not comply, with the only sweetener a secret promise to withdraw US nuclear missiles from Italy and Turkey.

Both superpowers put their military forces on full alert, and for a week it seemed to the whole world that nuclear Armageddon was imminent. Nikita Khrushchev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, denounced the naval blockade in fiery language; the United Nations security council met in emergency session and resolved nothing; a Soviet surface-to-air missile shot down an American U-2 over Cuba …

But then Khrushchev blinked. Out of the blue, he agreed to Kennedy’s deal: no Soviet missiles in Cuba, no American missiles in Turkey or Italy. At the time, because the US withdrawal of missiles from Turkey and Italy was not made public, it looked like a straightforward Soviet climbdown – and Khrushchev’s authority in domestic Soviet politics took a blow from which it never recovered: he was ousted two years later. Kennedy won, but he did not live long to savour his victory – he was assassinated in November 1963 – and the hubris that the successful resolution of the crisis instilled in the American establishment played a disastrous role in escalating US intervention in Vietnam.

Britain and CND

Britain was not an actor in the missile crisis. Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government was kept in the dark by the Kennedy administration in its early stages. Macmillan privately expressed polite concern to Kennedy that the US might be going too far in ratcheting up the confrontation with the Soviets – he was worried most of all by the implications for West Berlin, which he feared could be subjected to another Soviet blockade or even invasion – but in public he gave robust support to the Americans.

For the British people, the problem was not the future of Berlin but what appeared to be the strong possibility of nuclear war. Newspaper circulations soared as, day by day, tension mounted.

But the crisis didn’t benefit the movement for nuclear disarmament. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), founded in early 1958 with the support of the Labour left and its weekly papers, the New Statesman and Tribune, had enjoyed a spectacular political success in 1960, when its lobbying of trade unions and constituency Labour parties led to the Labour conference adopting a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, against the histrionic opposition of the party leader, Hugh Gaitskell. But Gaitskell and his allies had overturned unilateralism at the next year’s conference – and the CND leadership subsequently found itself without a viable political strategy and facing a barrage of criticism from activists for putting all its energies into Labour. By 1962, its influence was on the wane.

There was still life in the peace movement. CND’s Easter 1962 annual march from the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Research Establishment to London attracted 150,000 to its closing rally, its biggest ever crowd. But the impact of the Cuban crisis was demobilising. On one hand, it showed the futility of demonstrating – and on the other it showed that the leaders of the superpowers were not in the end prepared to launch a nuclear war. Activists drifted away from the movement; the nuclear powers agreed a Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963 that seemed to indicate there was hope of multilateral nuclear disarmament by negotiation; and by 1964, when Labour won a general election under Harold Wilson, the movement for British unilateral nuclear disarmament was part of the past. Its activists moved on, to housing campaigns, workplace militancy and opposition to the US war in Vietnam.

The second wave

CND kept going as a small pressure group with a few thousand members through the 1960s and 1970s, a forlorn survivor that few thought would again play a significant role. Meanwhile, international nuclear diplomacy ground on. The Partial Test-Ban Treaty was followed by the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty, which committed non-nuclear states to remaining non-nuclear and nuclear states to keeping nuclear know-how to themselves (though its impact was limited because India, Pakistan and Israel refused to sign and subsequently developed their own nuclear weapons). The two superpowers negotiated interminably, reaching significant agreements on limiting strategic nuclear forces and anti-ballistic missile systems in 1972 (SALT-1 and the ABM treaty) and a further agreement on strategic arms in 1979 (SALT-2), though it was not ratified by the US Congress.

But then everything changed. What had seemed to be an inexorable process of winding down the cold war – the 1970s saw not only nuclear arms agreements but also the Helsinki accords guaranteeing borders in Europe and respect for human rights – suddenly went into reverse. In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Days later, Nato announced that it would be deploying new American intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe – cruise and Pershing 2– if Moscow did not withdraw its own new-generation intermediate-range missiles from Europe. The Nato announcement thrust nuclear arms into the political limelight for the first time since the Cuba crisis. One man in particular made the running in Britain, the historian E P Thompson. He wrote a furious polemical piece for the New Statesman; followed it with a pamphlet for CND, Protest and Survive, excoriating the government’s asinine advice on how to cope with a nuclear war; then, with Ken Coates, Mary Kaldor and others, launched the European Nuclear Disarmament Appeal, a manifesto for a ‘nuclear-free Europe from Poland to Portugal’. By summer 1980 – when the Thatcher government announced that it would be replacing Britain’s ageing Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missiles with American Trident SLBMs – anti-nuclear protest groups had sprung up throughout Britain and CND was a mass movement again. Labour adopted a non-nuclear defence policy at its autumn 1980 conference; the next month Michael Foot, a founder member of CND, became Labour leader. In 1981, feminist pacifists established a peace camp outside the US base at Greenham Common in Berkshire, where the first batch of cruise missiles would be based.

For the next six years, the movement against nuclear arms was central to politics in Britain. It was huge: at its height in 1983-84, CND estimated that it had 100,000 national members and perhaps 250,000 in affiliated local groups, and its demonstrations were massive, with 300,000 turning out in London in 1983. The movement was also much more sophisticated than in its first wave: there was no serious argument between advocates of working through the Labour Party and proponents of direct action; and END provided it with leadership that could not easily be dismissed as pro-Soviet or hard-left (though the Tory government did its very best to persuade voters otherwise).

But Labour lost the 1983 election; cruise arrived in Britain in 1984; and work started on the Trident submarines. Meanwhile, Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader and soon made it clear that he wanted an end to the new cold war. Under Neil Kinnock, who succeeded Foot as Labour leader in 1983, Labour stuck to a non-nuclear defence policy through the mid-1980s – but after Labour lost again in 1987, with a new détente apparently in the air and the peace movement much less vocal, he wavered. Gorbachev and US president Ronald Reagan agreed a deal to remove all intermediate-range nuclear weapons from Europe, codified in the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in December 1987. Kinnock declared that the agreement changed everything and announced the abandonment of the non-nuclear defence policy. It took two attempts to get it through Labour conference, but by the time the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 Labour was fully signed up to retaining British nuclear arms to resist a threat that had ceased to exist. The dwindling band of peaceniks pointed at the emperor’s new clothes, but no one took any notice.

Disarmament stalls

The INF treaty was signed nearly 25 years ago, and it should have inaugurated an era of nuclear disarmament – particularly after the implosion of the Soviet bloc and Soviet communism between 1989 and 1991. At first it seemed to have done so. In 1991, the US and the Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-1), and the result, combined with the effect of the INF treaty, was a significant reduction of US and Soviet (after 1991, Soviet successor states’) stockpiles of nuclear warheads: the global total halved by 2000 from 70,000 in 1987.

But the disarmament momentum soon ran out. Russia balked at further reductions of its nuclear weaponry; the US cooled on the whole disarmament process; and the smaller nuclear powers – Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel – either refused to engage or made minimal gestures towards denuclearisation. START-1’s successor, START-2, was signed but not implemented and replaced by an interim Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT).

Meanwhile, it became clear that nuclear weapons were not central to the international crises of the time – Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the break-up of Yugoslavia, the bloody conflicts in Africa, the rise of al-Qaida, 9/11 and its aftermath – and that insofar as nuclear weapons were an issue the key problem was that the anti-proliferation regime was not working. Iran and North Korea were close to joining India, Pakistan and Israel as nuclear powers – and neither they nor the Indians, Pakistanis or Israelis were prepared to disarm.

US-Russian nuclear arms negotiations have continued: the START process was revived and concluded with a new treaty in 2010, when US president Barack Obama and Russian president Dimitry Medvedev agreed to deep cuts in strategic arsenals. Both Russia and the US have since reduced the number of actively deployed nuclear warheads to 2,000 apiece. But the stockpiles remain frighteningly large. According to the Stockholm Independent Peace Research Institute, the US retains in reserve nearly 6,000 and Russia more than 8,000. The total global warhead count in 2011 was around 20,000, not quite as many as at the time of the Cuba crisis, but not far off.

The nuclear threat now

British anti-nuclear-arms campaigners didn’t give up after 1987. Some went off to create think-tanks, others put their efforts into making CND an alternative foreign policy pressure group. During the 1991 Gulf war, the campaign formed the core of the anti-war movement. Almost simultaneously, however, came a calamitous collapse of membership and an austerity drive that closed down Sanity, its monthly magazine. The organisation never quite went under, but it returned to the margins. Whereas in 1991 it had set the agenda for opposition to the military intervention against Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, a decade later it was reduced to a minor supporting role in the organised opposition to the US and UK military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nuclear arms are still there, but the politics of nuclear arms has changed. The future of Britain’s own bomb is more at risk from government budget cuts than it ever was from CND-inspired Labour oppositions; and the threat of nuclear war no longer appears to come from a suicide pact between Washington and Moscow. For the past decade or more, the most likely sources of Armageddon have been India and Pakistan, Israel and Iran, and North and South Korea – all stand-offs that no one in Britain can realistically hope to influence. That Cuba feeling, that we’re powerless to effect change, is back again, and it’s difficult to see how we can get rid of it.

6 September 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 7 September 2012

The crisis at London Metropolitan University, which has had its right to educate non-EU foreign students withdrawn by the UK Border Authority, is by far the biggest faced by any UK higher education institution in living memory. According to its vice-chancellor, Malcolm Gillies, if the university’s legal appeal does not overturn the UKBA’s decision, it stands to lose nearly one-fifth of its income, more than £25 million.

If the UKBA decision is upheld by the courts, some 2,600 students and prospective students will be directly affected, of whom nearly 500 will be deported – with the rest given four weeks to find another course. Several courses with large numbers of non-EU foreign students will cease to be viable, with knock-on effects for UK and EU students and for staff.

It is difficult to imagine a more heavy-handed and ill-timed response to what the UKBA says is London Met’s problem – that it has admitted large numbers of students who are inadequately qualified or have the wrong visas, and has given places to people who aren’t students at all but are using student visas as a means of getting into the UK to work.

I’ve no idea whether London Met is guilty of any of these things – though if it has never recruited sub-standard overseas students in order to pocket their fees it is unique among British universities. But it has the means to weed out students who shouldn’t be there because they aren’t up to it or aren’t there because they registered at the start of the academic year and didn’t turn up again.

At the very latest, the useless and the bogus are caught when they fail or do not show either for their first-year exams or for the resits, at which point they are unceremoniously chucked out.

Of course, it might be that London Met’s assessment system is or has been slack and needs to be tighter. But that is not what it is being pulled up for. The UKBA’s complaint is that it has not been checking students’ visas with sufficient rigour and has failed to keep detailed records of student attendance – essentially, that it has failed in its duty of immigration control.

The implication is clearly that nothing short of regular inspections of students’ visas and registers in every lecture would suffice to persuade the UKBA that London Met deserves to be allowed to educate non-EU students.

This in itself represents a drastic curtailment of the university’s autonomy – and the idea that non-EU foreign students should be subjected to special status checks and attendance controls is insulting to them because it rests on the assumption that they are up to no good unless they prove otherwise.

But the UKBA didn’t just insist on the university adopting more intrusive surveillance of non-EU foreign students. It is demanding that it throws out all of its non-EU foreign students a few weeks before the start of the academic year. Even if all 500 of those slated by the UKBA for deportation had registered for a course at London Met purely as a scam for getting into the country and had never done a day’s study – and of course that isn’t the true picture – that still leaves more than 2,100 students and prospective students who have been expelled from a university where they were studying or hoping to study in good faith and at considerable expense.

The UKBA’s action has sent a message loud and clear to anyone outside the EU who might be thinking of coming to Britain to study: if you don’t want to risk being arbitrarily thrown off a course you’ve paid thousands of pounds to take, go elsewhere.


The question of whether there should be a statue of George Orwell placed outside the BBC headquarters at Broadcasting House briefly engaged the upmarket papers last month after Joan Bakewell said that outgoing BBC director-general Mark Thompson had dismissed the idea because Orwell was far too left-wing. I was annoyed that nearly everyone who expressed an opinion said either that Orwell wasn’t left-wing, which is simply untrue, or that he was but his politics are irrelevant to his enduring appeal, which I think is quite wrong.

What really got me, however, was that no one said that Broadcasting House is completely inappropriate as the site for an Orwell statue. True, he worked for the BBC broadcasting to India in 1942-43 – but he hated it, describing it as “two wasted years”, and left to join Tribune (which was then, as now, left-wing) and for the next four years contributed to it some of his best journalistic work. The best place for a central London statue would be close to Tribune’s then offices at 222 The Strand. There’s plenty of space opposite, on the pavement outside the Royal Courts of Justice.

4 September 2012


This is not a very exciting reshuffle. But:
  • Jeremy Hunt has been moved from culture to minimise the damage of Leveson.
  • Ken Clarke has been kicked upstairs to appease the Tory right.
  • Sayeeda Warsi has been shifted to a non-job under William Hague at the FCO because the experiment of having a Pakistani as national spokeswoman didn’t go down well with racist white voters.
  • The awful Justine Greening has been fired to teach Boris Johnson a lesson on airports
That's it.

31 August 2012


One thing has struck me as particularly odd about the London Met crisis: the gripe about "attendance problems" at university.

I'm not saying that it's OK to get a university place on false pretences and then go AWOL.

But the point of university used to be that it didn't matter how you did it as long as you delivered the goods in the end. That is how Oxbridge humanities worked in my day: two compulsory tutorials a week (with an essay at one of them) and no compulsory classes or lectures beyond that, but very good libraries and a great selection of lectures and classes you could go to as you chose. If you did well in the exams at the end, fine, if not, tough shit.

As an undergraduate, I did every essay on time and turned up to every tutorial enthusiastically, but I missed nearly all the undergraduate lectures in favour of time in the library and going to postgraduate seminars and political meetings. I think I did the right thing, and I don't think universities that discriminate against non-attenders -- at least in most subjects: for anything vocational like engineering or journalism or medicine it's different on the basic skills stuff -- are a good thing.

As a lecturer, I've found that students with dreadful attendance records and the worst attitudes to deadlines can do some of the best work even in practical journalism. Not that I'd encourage non-attendance, but ...

21 July 2012


I’m sorry to hear of the demise of Alexander Cockburn, who has died in Germany at the age of 71. The son of Claud Cockburn, the gadfly communist who edited and published The Week in the 1930s and inspired Private Eye’s founders, he had a long career as a left journalist in the US, notably for Village Voice, the Nation and, for the past 17 years, the newsletter CounterPunch, which he co-edited.

He was the main American correspondent of the New Statesman when I was its deputy editor in the 1990s, and I had the task of extracting copy from him. It was usually late and too often a hastily topped-and-tailed version of what had already appeared under his byline in the Nation: every time we had a slot booked for him we had to have a substitute ready in case his piece failed to show or was unusable. He could have filled several LPs with recordings of answer-phone variants on the theme: "For Christ's sake, Alex! Where's the fucking copy?" 

But he was worth forgiving for his best work, which was stunning, and unlike many others on the Statesman roster he was personally charming. He was a tremendously talented and likeable man who will be missed even by commissioning editors who couldn't stomach his crude Stalinist politics.

18 July 2012


On Monday the Buxton Festival hosted a reprise of the “Orwell versus Kipling” debate put on by the Orwell Prize at last year’s Oxford Literary Festival – and I did my bit for Orwell, along with the novelist Stuart Evers, with the distinguished Kipling biographers Charles Allen and Jan Montefiore supporting the other side and the former Labour MP Tony Wright in the chair. It was a daft exercise in many respects but great fun, and the audience was great. This is what I said:

Like many people here today, I’m sure, I first came across Kipling as a child – and I’ll never forget the immortal lines:
Now I'm the king of the swingers
Oh, the jungle VIP
I've reached the top and had to stop
And that's what botherin' me …
Yes, it was the 1967 Disney cartoon movie The Jungle Book, a global smash hit, which I went to see at the Purley Odeon with my dad and my sisters soon after it came out.

I wish I could report that it was the beginning of a lifelong enthusiasm for Kipling, but it wasn’t. I read The Jungle Book soon after I saw the film, but didn’t really like it: as Kipling enthusiasts said at the time, the film was not at all true to his stories, and, well, at the age of seven I wanted the lyrics of “Wanna Be Like You” and “Bare Necessities”, which weren’t there in the book. Kipling didn’t speak to me on my first encounter, and no one encouraged me to explore further. I read Kim after The Jungle Book, but didn’t quite understand it; and I came across “Gunga Din”, “Recessional”, “If” and “The White Man’s Burden” – Kipling’s greatest hits, if you like – in anthologies of poetry as a teenager.

But that was it. Kipling wasn’t on the secondary school English literature syllabus in the 1970s – thanks to F R Leavis and his followers in Cambridge, the only late 19th and early 20th century poets we were supposed to take seriously were Gerald Manley Hopkins, the first world war poets and of course the modernists, most importantly T S Eliot and Ezra Pound – and no one I knew recommended Kipling or explained why he mattered.

For years, I dismissed Kipling – largely unread – as old-fashioned and reactionary – both in his jingoistic politics and in his style of writing. It’s only in middle age that I’ve really got to know and appreciate Kipling’s work – and that has been as a by-product of my interest in the politics and popular culture of British imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

By contrast, I took to Orwell as soon as I discovered Animal Farm at the age of 12, on the recommendation of my grandfather, who had been a Tribune reader in the 1940s when Orwell was the paper’s literary editor. By the time I was 14, I’d worked my way through all his novels and books of reportage. I stopped exploring Orwell for a while when I went to university – Orwell was as absent from the reading list for Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford as Kipling had been from the syllabus for O- and A-level English – but I discovered his essays and journalism in my early 20s and have been a devotee ever since.

Now, I’m not claiming that my haphazard reading history teaches a general lesson. Everyone has missed key authors, and Kipling was by no means my only one. I’d never read Jonathan Swift or Daniel Defoe or Charles Dickens or George Eliot or George Gissing until my 20s. And everyone has their misplaced enthusiasms. Mine as a teenager were Aldous Huxley and George Bernard Shaw, both of whom I devoured – and neither of whom I can stand today.

But … you knew there was a “but” coming there … my own experience isn’t entirely irrelevant. It reflects the times in which I’ve lived. I was born in 1959, at the height of the cold war; and Orwell, though he died in 1950, was then, and remained through my early adult life, an author who addressed directly the most important political phenomenon of the time: the impact of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the degeneration of that revolution into a totalitarian police state. Kipling, by contrast, dealt with a world that had passed long ago: the era of aggressive imperialism when Britannia ruled the waves and – old joke – waived the rules.

Today, the context has changed. We’re more than 20 years on from the collapse of communism in east-central Europe, and the past 10 or 15 years have seen what on first sight appears to have been an extraordinary revitalisation of the imperialist spirit among the governments of the rich industrialised world. I don’t need to remind you about Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya, and as I speak the big powers are arguing about what to do about Syria and Iran. The White Man’s Burden is back big-time, in other words.

So – is it all over for Orwell and time for a Kipling revival? I don’t think so. I’ll accept that Kipling was a great populist and popular poet and short story writer who deserves a wide audience. And I’ll accept that the Bolshevik revolution and its aftermath no longer matter in the way that they did for 40 years after Orwell’s death. But I think that Orwell remains more relevant to our age.

The reason is that Orwell was – is – much more than a novelist of his time and a chronicler of social conditions and political events that are now largely of historical interest. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that his novels should be dismissed as anachronisms or that his great books of reportage – Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Catalonia – are quaint records of a lost world. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are much more than historically specific satires, and even the novels of the 1930s – although flawed and very dated in many respects – have worn rather better than most of the work of Orwell’s peers. The books of reportage remain models of how to do it.

But if all that Orwell had done was the novels and books of reportage – I say “all”, even though it’s a massively impressive body of work – I don’t think he’d have quite the current relevance. For me, it’s Orwell as essayist and columnist – Orwell the intellectual journalist – that matters most in the early 21st century.

Six years ago, I put together a collection of his “As I Please” columns for Tribune for a book to mark the paper’s 70th anniversary – something I’d been meaning to do since I worked as its reviews editor – Orwell’s old job – in the 1980s. I was familiar with the material and knew it would make a good book, but I was slightly worried that there would be too much that was obscure to today’s reader. My concerns evaporated as I worked on the editing: yes, Orwell’s columns needed footnotes, but for the most part they were as accessible and as fresh as the day they were written. His range of subject matter as a journalist – not just in his Tribune columns, but across the board, in his work for Horizon, Partisan Review, Polemic and a host of other little magazines as well as in the Observer and the Manchester Evening News – is extraordinary, his prose style precise and demotic. “Politics and the English Language”, “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad”, “Why I Write” … all will be read for as long as there are readers – in the way that Swift and Defoe and Milton will be read.

And Kipling? Well, he’s certainly fascinating, and he’s certainly important – and I’d agree with Orwell that he is a more complex and more honest writer than many of his left and liberal critics claim. But I’m also with Orwell when he says:
It is no use pretending that Kipling's view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilized person. It is no use claiming, for instance, that when Kipling describes a British soldier beating a 'nigger' with a cleaning rod in order to get money out of him, he is acting merely as a reporter and does not necessarily approve what he describes. There is not the slightest sign anywhere in Kipling's work that he disapproves of that kind of conduct – on the contrary, there is a definite strain of sadism in him, over and above the brutality which a writer of that type has to have. Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly…
I’m afraid that you can’t read Kipling except in the context of his time. Orwell again:
Kipling belongs very definitely to the period 1885-1902. The Great War and its aftermath embittered him, but he shows little sign of having learned anything from any event later than the Boer War.
It’s a brutal summation, but one I think is accurate.

13 July 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 13 July 2012

 If the crisis in the eurozone weren’t so serious, the way that David Cameron and George Osborne have tied themselves in knots over Europe would be funny.

They are both instinctive Eurosceptics who would like to disengage from Europe: as the 2010 Tory manifesto had it, “We will work to bring back key powers over legal rights, criminal justice and social and employment legislation to the UK.” They certainly don’t want Britain ever to join the euro; and they want no British part in the deeper fiscal and political union that is increasingly on the European Union agenda as the solution to the euro’s design flaws.

But they know that the eurozone is a crucial market for British goods and services and that its collapse, or indeed anything that impeded access to the European market, would be a disaster for Britain’s already stuttering economy. So they have been arguing for closer integration for the eurozone – from which Britain should be excluded, although it should remain in the EU. An increasingly federal Europe, it seems, is good for everyone else but not for us.

This position horrifies much of the right of their own party, who view the crisis in the eurozone with Schadenfreude, are sworn enemies of a federal Europe even without Britain and would simply like to get out of the EU. It is also unacceptable to most of Britain’s EU partners, who see it as Britain demanding free access to eurozone markets while escaping eurozone fiscal rules and retaining the right to devalue at will.

 To make matters even more complex, the Tory leadership remains committed to its manifesto pledge of a referendum on any treaty “that transferred areas of power or competences” to the EU – but it doesn’t want one on measures designed to rescue the euro, which might well require a treaty that transferred vast powers to the EU. Moreover, the idea of an “in or out” referendum on Europe sooner rather than later, as advocated by a large part of the Tory right, is anathema to Cameron and Osborne, but they can’t be too critical because they are fearful of defections of Tory voters (and, who knows, Tory MPs) to the ultra-Eurosceptic UK Independence Party. They also have to keep on board their pro-European Liberal Democrat coalition partners (whose last manifesto included a promise of an “in or out” referendum because they thought “in” would win, though how keen they are on it now is a moot point).

Europe looks as if it could well not only cause the Tories to implode, as it did in the 1990s, but also tear the coalition apart.

 With events moving quickly – and with a myriad plausible scenarios of how the eurozone crisis comes to be resolved (or not) – the temptation for Labour is to play a game of wait-and-see, saying little but reaping the benefits of the confusion and feuding in British government ranks. And that, by and large, is what it has done under Ed Miliband.

It won’t be long, however, before it has to declare its own Europe policy: the next nationwide elections, those to the European Parliament, are now less than two years away. Obviously, much of its detailed position will be determined by what happens next, which cannot be predicted, let alone influenced by Labour.

But the big question Labour has to answer is clear even now. It is how far Labour – for the past 25 years a pro-European party, if one that in power infuriated much of the EU with its stubborn resistance to further integration and its advocacy of free-market deregulationist policies – should adopt a more critical stance on Europe, and how it should do it.

 That it should take a more critical stance is hardly controversial. It is now clear that the euro as implemented without a fiscal union is fundamentally flawed – and it has always been clear that the EU’s political structures need reform to make them much more democratically accountable. But that is simply to state the problem. Should Labour rule out future membership of a reformed eurozone forever? Should it demand British opt-outs from EU policies, either present or future, that remove powers from the UK? Most importantly in terms of domestic politics, should it promise a referendum or referendums on Europe, and if so when and on what should they happen?

 On all this, the superficial attractions of anti-Europe populism are evident: public opinion is viscerally anti-European. But Labour should be careful not to offer hostages to fortune. A “never” on eurozone membership might look very foolish by 2020, and hasty offers of referendums often prove disastrous in the long run. Labour’s best bet is to ignore the allure of populist promises and offer a European policy of constructive engagement and radical democratic reform of the EU’s institutions.

27 June 2012


The American investigative journalist Greg Palast was on fine form last night launching his new book, Vulture's Picnic,  at an event at the University of London Union – he's a showman, and with a supporting cast of Warren Ellis, Laurie Penny, Nick Dearden and Anna Chen, he put on a great performance, full of stunning allegations and revelations – not the least of which was that it costs him $400,000 a year in donations to keep his investigative operation on the road.

I'm about 95 per cent with Palast overall: he's brilliant on the role of hedge-funds and giant corporations in subverting democracy, and his take on how the debt crisis has made tensions between established banks and hedge funds (speculating on the banks' failure) the major fault-line in politics is breathtaking. I'm not convinced that he's right about the Chicago School origins of the euro, but more on that later.

I'll always respect the man for the scoop that did more than anything else to expose New Labour's craven attitude to big business in the Observer in summer 1998. Funny how the same old names crop up. (I did a piece elaborating on it in the next issue of Red Pepperwhich is here, and, though hardly of the same import, still has some resonance, I think.)

21 June 2012


Michael Gove’s leaked plans for secondary education – if indeed they are actual plans rather than ideas towards a consultation document – have caused a minor storm, with Labour denouncing them as a means of creating a “two-tier” education system.

But it’s right to ask what’s gone wrong with British school education. As a university lecturer over the past 15 years, I’ve taught hundreds of students who are products of the British school system. Many have been brilliant; some have not. The best are hard-working, intellectually sophisticated, good writers and arguers. The worst, well, read what follows. It’s anecdotal rather than research-based, but:
  • Too many students who have excellent GCSE and A-level grades can’t write clear grammatical English or sustain an argument in writing. This is hardly new: I remember tutors moaning about standards of writing 30 years ago, and the complaint was a staple among critics of “progressive education” (remember that?) in the 1960s and early 1970s. Something is wrong about the way schools teach writing, and it has been wrong, perhaps in many different ways, for rather a long time. I think that old-fashioned grammar teaching with spelling tests and so on is part of the solution. But I would say that, because it worked for me. Then again, if I’m honest about my schooldays, I was also encouraged to take an over-scholastic and over-cautious approach to expressing opinion. (“You can’t say that the monarchy is a waste of money!” my politics teacher scrawled at the bottom of an essay in 1977, next to a 40 per cent mark, my worst in my A-level year.) And it didn’t work for everyone who went to school in the 1960s and 1970s, partly because of daft educational theories that meant it wasn't done – my sisters, who went to a different primary school, were not taught to spell but encouraged to express themselves any old way they chose – but also because it requires attention to individual pupils that was never possible when it was tried with 40-plus kids in a class (remember that too?). The problem is that no one has come up with anything better. Gove needs to do a lot more thinking here, and it can't be solved by going back to CSEs and O-levels: the inability to write coherently is all too common among the students that are supposedly the best, the A-level grade As.

  • As the internet has become a mass phenomenon, the teaching of careful reading and discrimination between reliable and unreliable sources has been catastrophically eroded at schools. Too many first-year university students haven’t got a clue about plagiarism – they copy and paste as a matter of course and act wounded when they’re found out and told off (or worse) – and too many use the most dubious websites as sources for essays. This makes a case for testing at school and university primarily by exam, but also for a much more rigorous approach to evidence in everyday school teaching. Then again, every teacher knows that Google is the weapon of first resort for us all today, and we can’t turn the clock back, or even wish to. Once more, this requires much more thought from Gove: the problem is endemic. The A-level grade As do it as much as anyone else when they think they can get away with it.

  • Most students’ grasp of the most elementary history is dire. Few students appear to have done basic British political history, and economic history is almost unknown. Again, the argument about what’s wrong with history teaching is nothing new, and part of the problem is that you simply can’t cover everything in school. I remember doing a very traditional history syllabus in my school years: start with the Stone Age in the first year of junior school, then the Romans, then the Dark Ages and 1066 – and at secondary school Medieval Britain, the Tudors and (bizarrely) 20th-century world history for O-level, then at A-level the Tudors again, the English Civil War as it was then known, the industrial revolution, 20th-century British political history, Stalin and Hitler. It was a lot better than doing Hitler and the Tudors repeatedly (with a little bit of phoney work on sources), and I had fantastic teachers, but there were massive omissions: to mention the most obvious to me now, Greece and Rome, ancient China, the rise of Islam, the story of European imperialism, 18th-century British politics, America and Germany in the 19th century, Latin America, the grisly end to the second world war. University filled in some of the gaps, but not all (though school and university taught me how to read). History was taken out of the compulsory part of the national curriculum some years ago:  I can’t see how Gove can sort it unless he drops his plans to abandon the national curriculum, makes history compulsory again and sets out a bold syllabus. (If he did, I'd be all in favour, as long as he included Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson as well as the awful Niall Ferguson – and I'd add geography too.) This is not an issue only for weaker students: some of the best of them struggle with the fundamentals. Magna Carta, I'm afraid, did die in vain.

  • Technical skills are not a problem. The bog-standard ICT syllabus is useless, but the idea that everyone should learn programming is plain daft, and maths teaching isn't bad. Every undergraduate can use Word and Google and Facebook and Twitter, and most know how to add up with the aid of a computer. Quite a few are au fait with elementary programming, too. Not a high priority.

  • The most important school failure is the cult of grades. Too many students arrive at university after years of being taught to the test. They expect spoon-feeding because that is what they have always had as the charges of teachers whose bosses (heads and – to a lesser extent in recent years – LEA big-wigs) are interested only in their schools’ place in the league tables. The assumption that it’s all about getting a good mark – which will of course help to get a good job – is now almost universal: any university tutor will tell you that the most persistent gripe from students is that they didn’t get a 2.1 for a substandard piece of work and would like to resubmit because without an overall 2.1 their degree will be worthless. The marketisation of higher education – with students being treated primarily as consumers and universities interested only in their ranking in the annual National Student Survey – is already undermining standards, sometimes comically but mostly by subjecting lecturers to the challenges of whingers who didn’t get the 2.1 they wanted and think it wasn’t their fault. A year of not-very-good finalists who complain can now wreck an academic career. Gove cannot do what he wants unless he reverses the transformation of higher education into a mechanism for satisfying "consumers" – which is precisely what his government has institutionalised, following New Labour.
What’s missing from anyone’s education policy right now is a sense that learning is worth it for its own sake. The idiotic philistine instrumentalism that has driven UK education policy for the past 30 years has done immense damage and will do more if it is not reversed.

20 June 2012


The Tory peer Guy Black (Baron Black of Brentwood, to give him his proper moniker) has come up with a proposal for a tougher regime for self-regulation of the press in his role as executive director of the Telegraph group and chair of the Press Standards Board of Finance.

His big idea is that publications and blogs that don’t sign up to a revamped Press Complaints Commission code of practice should be punished in various ways: by being struck off the Press Association subscription list, denied mainstream advertising and disallowed the right to issue press cards.

This is precisely what the media in Britain don’t need. Non-participation in the PCC is a right – exercised by some awful rotters (Richard Desmond’s Express titles) but also by some of the good guys (Private Eye, Tribune) – and the idea that blogs should be brought under its jurisdiction is laughable.

As for giving the PCC or some successor organisation a part in determining who gets a press card or who can take ads or PA feed, well, give me a break. If we’re going to preserve self-regulation of the media against the proponents of more stringent statutory controls, we’re going to have to do a lot better than this.

19 June 2012


Plenty of other people have pointed out that the Blarite think-tank-cum-pressure-group Progress hardly deserves to be compared with the Militant Tendency: it isn't a party within the Labour Party, which Militant was, and there are no grounds for proscribing it. Yes, it has an ideological agenda, yes it is bankrolled by a millionaire -- but then so was Tribune for much of its early life (in fact, there were at least three millionaires who kept it going).

What no one has said so far is that, for all its cash, Progress has been singularly useless at setting the political agenda. It's certainly a networking opportunity for the Labour right -- but in more than 15 years of existence it has produced almost nothing worth reading. Tribune and the Fabian Society might be going through hard times right now, but both have an intellectual confidence that puts Progress to shame, as indeed do Compass, the Labour soft-left think-tank-cum-pressure-group, and Policy Network, a European right-wing social democrat think-tank-cum-pressure-group. "Feeble group attacked by feeble union boss" isn't front-page stuff, but it's the truth.

And finally, I know it's off on a tangent, but I'm reminded of an old adage from the 1980s that was commonplace among anarchists, communists and the Labour soft left. "Rule number one: no bans or proscriptions! Rule number two: no Trots!"

17 June 2012


Like a lot of politics addicts, I’ve wasted a lot of time in recent weeks (well, months) watching the proceedings of the Leveson inquiry into the relationship between politicians and the media. And I mean wasted: hardly anything has emerged from the hours and hours of questions and answers that wasn’t already in the public sphere. Even the noteworthy moments – Rupert Murdoch’s casual statement in public for the first time that he dictates the political line of the Sun, John Major’s denial that Kelvin MacKenzie’s “bucket of shit” Black Wednesday story is true, Gordon Brown’s evasions about the activities of his spin doctors – have added little to the sum of knowledge.

Part of the problem is poor research. The inquiry has stuck to the bleeding obvious throughout, allowing key figures to perform well rehearsed set pieces. Major got away without a single question about his use of the libel law against the New Statesman; Brown and Tony Blair weren't asked to say anything about their roles in the takeover of the Statesman by Geoffrey Robinson in 1996; Brown was not questioned about his meeting with Murdoch after the Labour conference in 2007 (which the Sun had marked with a week of front pages demanding a referendum on Europe); Murdoch escaped any interrogation on his acquisition of sport broadcasting rights. And so on ad nauseam ...

To make matters much worse, there is a real danger that the whole show will come to an end – eventually – with a recommendation of statutory regulation of the press that goes well beyond limiting the share of the media one company can control. I can’t read Leveson’s mind, but we need more state interference in journalism as much as we need a dose of the clap.

15 June 2012


Paul Anderson, review of P O E M 2012, Queen Elizabeth Hall

There were 7,000 people at the International Poetry Incarnation at the Albert Hall on 11 June 1965, the high point of the 1960s alternative poetry scene in Britain, which featured – among others -- Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Alexander Trocchi. Adrian Mitchell and Christopher Logue. Around one-tenth of that number turned out last night for P O E M 2012 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for a line-up rather less star-laden, but the show demonstrated – in the end - that the spirit of 1965 still has some life in it.

What connects the two events is the poet and impresario Michael Horovitz, now in his late seventies: his contacts book was responsible for both. Horovitz, whose anthology Children of Albion, published in 1969, inspired a generation of writers and performers, fell over at the start of last night’s gig, and the first half of it was downbeat and flat, the highlight the Scottish performance poet Elvis McGonagall’s blisteringly funny demolition of David Cameron. The Liverpool veteran Brain Patten was good too, but he delivered four elegies in a row for lost comrades, which didn’t cheer anyone up. Otherwise, there was too much under-rehearsed low-energy whimsy that might just work in a pub but failed in a big auditorium.

After the interval, it got a lot better. Francesca Beard, John Hegley, Ayanna Witter-Johnson and Gwyneth Herbert delivered the goods with pzazz, and Steven Berkoff brought the house down with an extraordinary (if over-long) rant on the Queen’s jubilee. Horovitz hadn’t gathered everyone worth seeing on the performance poetry circuit by any reckoning – I’ve seen a lot better at Apples and Snakes and, particularly, Farrago – but his mojo and his contacts book are still just about working.


I've had enough of the internet free-for-all. From now, the Gauche comments policy is:
Comments are welcome, but I'm the editor, and I decide what is published. No comments will be published unless I think them worth publishing. Comments submitted anonymously or pseudonymously will be deleted unless I know the author's identity. Anything I consider racist, fatuous, boring, unoriginal, cretinous, abusive, cynical, otiose, weakly argued or irrelevant will not be published. In other words, this blog is edited for comments just like an old-fashioned newspaper letters page. If you want your comments published, they have to be succinct, well argued, grammatical and relevant. And they compete for publication with other comments. If you don't like it, you can go elsewhere.


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 15 June 2012

I’m giving up university lecturing after 12 years and going properly freelance again – possibly a stupid act in the middle of a recession, but I’ve had enough of the mind-numbing tedium that has come to pervade academic life, of which more anon – so I’ve spent the past couple of weeks putting together an online archive of what I’ve written over the past 30 years in the hope that it might help get me a few commissions. (It’s at pandersonjournalist.blogspot.co.uk.)

Most of the articles have been stored away in a filing cabinet for years – and I’ve just re-read them for the first time in ages while correcting the scans before posting them. They are from a variety of left-wing periodicals but particularly Tribune (where I was reviews editor 1986-91 and editor 1991-93, and have written this column since 1998) and the New Statesman (where I was deputy editor 1993-96).

Anyway, it’s odd being confronted afresh with what you wrote a long time ago. There are, of course, the embarrassingly wrong predictions – but, as I’ve written before, they are so seared in the memory that they don’t exactly come as a shock when you unearth them from the pile of yellowing cuttings, however much they still make you squirm. You get much more of a surprise from the articles you’d forgotten or half-forgotten, both good and bad.

Many of these are of course about issues that were once burning but have long ceased even to smoulder: the big row over US nuclear arms in Europe after the INF treaty of 1987, the expulsion of Trotskyists from the Labour Party in 1990-91, the export of live animals from UK ports in 1995 (and so I could go on). I wonder what we worry about today that will look irredeemably quaint in 20 years’ time?


One thing I’m not tempted by after this exercise is political nostalgia for the 1980s, which my old pieces remind me were a mean, dispiriting decade for anyone on the democratic left in Britain. Not so the eight authors who reminisce about their experience of life in the Communist Party of Great Britain in its era of terminal decline in a new book, After the Party: Reflections on life since the CPGB, edited by Andy Croft and published by Lawrence and Wishart.

I was never in the Communist Party but knew a lot of people who were (Including a couple of the book’s contributors) and remember it well from the late 1970s for its poisonous internal feuding and its impotence. By then, it was torn between pro-Soviet “Tankies” based around the Morning Star and modernising “Eurocommunists” around Marxism Today, and its influence – never great even at its height in the 1940s – had been reduced to holding positions in a few unions and pressure groups. The acrimonious internal battle ended with the Euros routing the Tankies, who kept the Star and created the Communist Party of Britain. The whole farce came to an ignominious end when, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Euros turned the CPGB into a new organisation, Democratic Left, that hardly anyone joined (though much later I got very involved in its organ New Times.)

All in all, a pretty grim time, you’d think – but for the most part Croft and his contributors, all from the last cohort of CPGB members who joined during its death throes, now in their fifties and sixties, look back with some fondness and sense of loss. Well, I suppose there were some decent people in the CPGB, and Marxism Today had its moments, but reading this book gave me a rather sad picture of people desperately asserting that they hadn’t wasted a large part of their lives.


A much more upbeat read is the investigative journalist Greg Palast’s latest book, Vultures’ Picnic (Constable), a rip-roaring account of the crimes and misdemeanours of big oil corporations and their friends in high finance and government. It’s written in a first-person style that owes something to cheap crime thrillers and something to Hunter S Thompson, and is a breath of fresh air: I read it in a single sitting. Palast is doing a launch event in London next Thursday (26 June, 7pm at The Venue, ULU, Malet Street) that promises to be a great deal of fun.

6 June 2012


I've now posted 600 old pieces on my archive site,  pandersonjournalist.blogspot.co.uk, which is proof (a) that I need some work pronto and (b) that I can churn it out. Still scanning 1990, but it's nearly done. I'm going backwards, so come 1989, I've got a decision to make about publicising some really embarrassing predictions ...

28 May 2012


I've not been posting on Gauche for the past couple of months because I've been using my screen time to put together my online archive of published pieces. It's now here  and proves definitively to everyone who doubted me that I was right all along about everything.

(Actually, this apparently obsessive project has been motivated by my need to find work and put a decent CV online – I'm going freelance full-time after losing my gig at City University – but never mind.)

The archive is almost complete for everything since 1991, though there are gaps (and it needs editing for style and OCR mistakes). The next step is to get the 1980s on to it.

I've deleted everything from before 1993 from this blog, because posting old stuff always felt like cheating and now there's no excuse. But everything I'd published here that's pre-1993 is on the new archive site.

18 May 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 18 May 2012

There can be no doubt that over the past few weeks Labour has enjoyed its best run for a long time – certainly since the surge of popularity that came with Gordon Brown taking over the premiership in 2007 (remember that?).

The opinion polls give Labour a massive lead over the Conservatives that would yield a comfortable parliamentary majority if translated into votes in a general election, even with the proposed reduction of the size of the Commons and redrawing of constituency boundaries. 

A fortnight ago, Labour did much better than anyone expected in the local elections, gaining more than 800 council seats across Great Britain. It took control of councils in the south-east and east of England where its parliamentary representation had been reduced to a handful by the 2010 general election. It emphatically reversed the drift away from Labour in local government in south Wales. And it at least stood up to the nationalist challenge in Scotland. Ken Livingstone losing in London was a disappointment, but Labour did better in the London Assembly election than ever before.

The coalition government, meanwhile, is facing troubles that it shows no sign of containing. George Osborne’s budget, giving money to the rich and taking it from the poor, was a public relations disaster that he will not easily live down. The economy is in the doldrums and shows no sign of recovery. And the Tories’ intimacy with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is slowly but surely being exposed to public view, text message by text message, email by email, at the Leveson inquiry.

The Tory right’s dissatisfaction with the compromises of coalition in general and with David Cameron in particular is palpable. So too is the Liberal Democrats’ fear that they face electoral disaster if they stay on their current course.

To top it all, Ed Miliband has been doing rather better than before as Labour leader. He still appears awkward a lot of the time, but he is now matching Cameron in parliament and seems to have seen off the sniping of Blairite nostalgics in his own party. Why, this week Ed Balls and Peter Mandelson even co-authored a piece for the Guardian’s comment pages declaring that they agreed on Europe (except on the small matter of whether Britain should join the euro).

It is, however, too early for Labour supporters to break open the champagne. We are three years from the next general election, and a lot could happen in that time. Mid-term local election successes on low voter turnouts are not reliable guides to subsequent general election results. As for the polls, it is only four months since the Tories and Labour were neck-and-neck, and a Tory recovery cannot be ruled out.

Everything depends on what now happens to the economy – or rather what is perceived by voters to be happening. So far, the coalition’s story that austerity is necessary to pay back the debt left by Labour’s irresponsible spending spree before 2010 has chimed remarkably well with the electorate: the big question over the next six months is whether Labour can get a hearing outside the political class for its moderately Keynesian alternative.

Here, Labour could do worse than emulate the thrust of Francois Hollande’s successful French presidential campaign – maybe not a 75 per cent tax on very high earners but something similarly symbolic of making the rich pay their fair share, along with a package to boost demand in the economy (through building council houses, say). That’s pretty much in line with what the shadow chancellor would like to make his message: Labour now needs Balls to do it with some élan.