18 December 2007

Taser Torture in Britain

Today we can read in the Guardian that a totally innocent car driver, Mr Sylvester, was stopped on the street in London by armed police. When he got out of the car, he was ‘tasered’ several times and collapsed onto the street breaking a front tooth. His car was searched while he writhed in agony in his blood and urine.

While a case can be made for tasers – i.e. that they are a usually non-lethal alternative to a firearm – they are in fact often deployed as instruments of on the spot torture without the bruises. Two thirds of those tasered in London were black, so we can now update the old saying, ‘the only good nigger is a well tasered one.’ The sole defence a police officer need give, it would seem, is that the victim was, or in Mr Sylvester’s case might become, aggressive.

In 2005 police officers followed a suspect (in this case again a completely innocent one) from the street into the London Underground and, without attempting to arrest him, assassinated him on the spot. When the result of that incident is that the police are not to blame and only a few operational procedures need adjustment, what real hope is there that victims of taser torture will receive justice.

12 December 2007

Open Borders

At midnight on 20 December Hungarian border guards will pack up their bags on the frontiers with Austria, Slovakia and Slovenia and thereafter anyone can pass without let or hindrance. Hungary along with Malta, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and the Baltic states will join the Schengen agreement making possible unimpeded land travel across most of the EU plus Norway and Iceland. (Romania, Bulgaria, Switzerland and Cyprus will join Schengen later.)

All of this contrasts sharply with the control freaks in London. Last summer witnessing the ‘border’ with France at Ashford international railway station, I was reminded of Berlin’s former Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse. Not only will border controls be maintained, but they will be reinforced with details kept of everybody entering and leaving the UK. Ireland, to retain its travel free arrangements with Britain, is effectively debarred from Schengen.

One could argue that this British paranoia is driven by its island geography, except for the fact that Iceland, Malta and Cyprus are Schengen members or candidates. Much more of a factor is the cynical motive of the London government to stress the ‘threat to Britain’ and then to be seen to be ‘tough’ by imposing stricter border controls. Gordon Brown hopes that this kind of jingoism will garner his failing New Labour government popular support.

6 December 2007

CONQUEST, Robert - Lenin

Fontana 1972

Read October 2007

This short book is clear and insightful. Though written in an age when the legacy of Lenin was still widely honoured throughout the world, the book seems to have avoided irrelevance in the post 1989 epoch. Lenin’s thought is set against the Russian social and intellectual context of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Conquest also binds in Lenin’s own distinctive personality into the analysis of his success and legacy. In structure, the book deals chronologically with the development of Lenin’s political thought and activities, with clearly defined chapters on specific topics, e.g. the revolutionary party, the state, etc.

Many on the left will be rightly sceptical of Conquest. His history as Communist Party member turned Washington-approved anti-Soviet academic raises suspicions that his motive is more to discredit the left than to evaluate Lenin. While, of course, Conquest’s criticisms of Lenin are nowhere hidden in the book, they are accompanied by articulate evidence from which the reader can draw his or her own judgments. But often, it must be admitted, Conquest’s judgments resonate with those on the left who see in Lenin, not only a tactical genius, but also the man who was primarily responsible for killing the marriage between history’s two good guys: socialism and liberalism.

Only at one point did I feel that Conquest’s exposition had gone beyond the borders of intellectual honesty. His almost flippant rejection of Lenin’s account of imperialism - through the true, but irrelevant, presentation of investment figures - marred what was otherwise an unfavourable but honest assessment of his topic.

Throughout, the book is written in a sharp, crisp literary style, which makes the text both enjoyable and easy to read. Despite the passage of time since its authorship, I recommend this book as a valuable addition to the analysis of twentieth century political thought.

26 November 2007

David Irving & Nick Griffin

David Irving and Nick Griffin have been invited to address the Oxford University debating society. Two more odious characters are hard to imagine. The former is a Nazi sympathiser and a denier of the gravest collective crime in modern European history. The latter is a vicious inculcator of racist filth into Britain fragile ethnic social fabric.

Argument has become centred on whether these two men should have the right to speak to Oxford University students. This discussion, however, misses the main point; the key issue is not whether these men speak or not because, after all, their views are widely known, but rather what should be done to counter the influence of their ideas in society. Building organisations, media and other forums to defend internationalism, anti-racism and human rights will do far more than sweeping the problem under the carpet by silencing Irving and Griffin.

14 November 2007

Social Class in Britain

One almost axiomatic claim of New Labour, which is endorsed by the wider political establishment, is that social classes have disappeared in Britain. This is indeed a strange assumption when juxtaposed with the facts.

First, while during Labour’s second term there might have been some levelling around the middle of the income range, overall social inequality is greater today than at any point since 1945. At the top, the income and wealth of the super rich is accelerating while a new layer of impoverished East European workers is formed at the bottom. Second, following the American model social mobility is slowing down. Schooling is becoming ever more selective, university ever more expensive and communities ever more divided. Third, it would not seem, unlike the US, that class consciousness has not fallen away with the proportions of people calling themselves ‘working’ and ‘middle’ class hardly changing over the New Labour decade.

So the only real change is not in the social topography of Britain, but in the abandonment of reference to social class in British politics.

29 October 2007

Miscellaneous Matters

This blog entry contains a number of remarks on a mixed bag of matters.

Inquiry into torture

A serious enquiry, i.e. one not run by by a security insider with his hands tied, would almost certainly reveal a great deal about the Blair and Brown governments' involvement in torture.

Yet, it seems to me that there is already sufficient evidence in the public domain to put Blair and Straw on trial for their involvement in torture. But the call to "lets find out more" seems to substitute for actually doing anything..

How can we even take today's Labour Party seriously when it is still happy to accommodate Blair and Straw in its ranks?

British rendition to Libya

To me it is inconceivable that the British security services could send people for torture to a "politically controversial" country like Libya without ministerial approval, or indeed without primeministerial approval.

The claims by Blair, Straw and some others that they did not facilitate torture have been fully disproved. It's time The Guardian stopped pulling its punches.

Scottish Tories

If the Scottish Tories become a separate party, its effect in Westminster terms will be minimal with one MP.

More of interest is whether such a move would put pressure on Labour to break up along national lines. It would be hard to imagine a future Labour government in London not needing the participation of their junior coalition partner, Scottish Labour.

The attraction to Scottish Labour of acquiring such enhanced influence must be tempting indeed.

Britain as a property owning democracy

It is wrong to believe that after 1979 the Tories were attempting to build a property owning democracy.

The "right to buy" policy was mostly a populist sledgehammer to smash Britain's would-be social democratic state. The same point could be made with the myth of a share owning democracy resulting from the Thatcherite privatisations.

What is unfortunate is that it has taken three decades of mounting public and private debt for these points to receive public recognition.

Middle-Class Homelessness

What is this nonsense about middle class homelessness? Homelessness is homelessness whoever is suffering from it.

The right to a roof over your head (granted even to prisoners) is a fundamental human right. That a country as rich as Britain can’t even guarantee that minimum to its citizens amply shows the dysfunctionality of the political and economic system in the UK.

Banning marches

What can be more short-sighted than the left asking the coalition government to shut down political freedom as a means of curtailing the EDL?

A better example of cutting off your nose to spite your face you will not find.

Politicians Britain

Most politicians today in Britain are self-serving careerists who willingly change their hats according to the weather. The dominant climate is established by money, corporate interests, the Murdochs, the policies of the US government, etc; and politicians accommodate themselves accordingly,

The only two skills modern politicians seem to need is to be sound-bite apologists for the interests of the rich and powerful – and, if in office, to be bureaucratic trouble-shooters without principles.

scrapping GCSEs

First, GCSE’s are a first rung on the exam ladder. Take them away and the A-level stress, already massive, only becomes worse.

Second, sixteen-year-olds are old enough to decide to leave school, and rightly so. No sixth form benefits from having young people there who don’t want to be there. Without GCSE’s many sixteen year olds would have no qualifications at all.

And finally for mid-teens you need an exam to check that they can do basic maths and English before giving these subjects up.

Injustice after the riots

Zoe Williams writes a piece which describes how two pathetic people received injustice at the hands of the British state for minor misdemeanours.

The first comment is from mikeeverset who writes:

Five dead. Shops burned to the ground. Homes burned to the ground. Dozens jobless. Dozens homeless. Dozens mugged. Dozens beaten. Thousands terrified.
Who speaks for them?

His comments defy sense. How do injustices of the type described by Williams do anything to help victims of riots?

Hitherto, the threats of terrorism and paedophilia were the pretexts for restricting justice and building a police state. To those we can now add the prevention of riots and the need for the exemplary punishment of rioters.

School uniforms

It is really hard to believe that we are reading this kind of nonsense about school uniform in 2011.

The ideology of the age is that the right of individual to make choices for him or herself is paramount. Yet all of that is junked with this plethora of petty rules about uniform and dress codes. They serve no educational function, but merely seek to humiliate the young.It is very seldom that I ever feel proud or patriotic towards England. The reason is that at least from Thatcher to Brown, Britain has invariably been on the wrong side of most international disagreements (ranging from the invasion of Iraq to opposing a convention of human rights for the EU). Added to that, the internal politics of Britain has been characterised – a least compared with our continental neighbours – by more pro-capitalist policies and by more hostility to civil liberties and freedom.

Pride in Britain

The only time I do feel a tingling of pride is on the very rare occasion when Britain is in dispute with the US over a matter of principle. The norm, though, is for London to play a reflexive sycophantic role to Washington. Nowhere was that more obvious than the detention yesterday of Shahid Malik the British minister for International Development at a US airport. Had one of Her Majesty’s Ministers been detained and searched by say Russia – or indeed by any EU country – there would have been an outcry of protest at such a breach of diplomatic protocol from London. As the breach was committed by the Americans, respectful silence is the order of the day.

Britain, Libya, Bahrain

British foreign policy is formed according to the needs of Britain, not foreign countries. And in Britain the most powerful interests are those of business, which are reflected in foreign policy decisions.

When the balance of advantage lay with coopering with Gaddafi, arming him sending people to his torture chambers, then that is when happened. When the opportunity arose to back one side in a civil war and establish a totally pro-Western government, in Libya that option was pursued.

In Bahrain it has always been in Britain’s interest to support the repressive ruling family.

There is total consistency in Britain foreign policy.

When Blair, Brown and Cameron spoke about promoting human rights, it was a means legitimising the military action, never an end in itself.

Liberal Education

The only way humanistic education can be “saved” is to maintain a clear distinction between education and training; the latter being about teaching someone how to do something. In terms of this distinction, TEFL is 90% about training.

Actually training interests me far less than does education.

I do not dissent from the purpose of education being the self-realisation of the student. What has always disturbed me is how “totalitarian” are some of the methods of allegedly bringing that about. When teachers “personalise” and delve in the psychological space of their students (all with supposed purpose of teaching them to learn as individuals) in their striving for student autonomy they are in fact removing it.

It has often struck me as ironic that the old mug-and-jug approach, teacher talks and students listen, in fact gives the student the power to listen or ignore.

I do not wish to restore traditional education at all, but merely want to suggest that we should be critical of the assumptions that lie behind some allegedly liberal education techniques.

Pantomime opposition

One of the features of the market fundamentalism which has ruled for the last three decades through different governments is that it has coincided with the near total collapse of the political left.

Today, market fundamentalism rightly suffers from a crisis of legitimacy, but there is no opposition which involves or connects with the mass of ordinary working people in the struggle for meaningful social reform. Instead, we have pantomime opposition which is good therapy for those involved. The most it can achieve is to bring about is a small rise in public consciousness.

20 October 2007

Tony Blair and the Middle East

Last week at a formal dinner party hosted by his American backers, Tony Blair, now reincarnated as (sic) Middle East Peace Coordinator, said something quite significant. In relation to Iran, he challenged the often implicit assumption of many people in Britain and elsewhere that if ‘we’ (the western countries) left Iran alone they would leave us alone.

This widely held view – quite correctly - maintains that the west, as an aggressor and exploiter, has invaded, intervened in and overrun the Middle East either directly or through its surrogate, Israel. This correct understanding further sees that however revolting the regime in Teheran, the conflict is widely at the instigation of Washington and London. Blair’s intention was to undermine the majority view.

Blair instead wanted to tell us that even if Israel were able to achieve a comprehensive peace settlement, and if the west were to leave the Middle East to its own devices, Iran would nonetheless seek conflict with the overwhelming more powerful western countries. The implication of this judgment is that a war with Iran is both inevitable and desirable. It is a farce to have someone who is merely a pawn and apologist for US imperialism as a peace coordinator.

18 October 2007


The property market in England has turned. No more it would seem can house owners have an asset which ‘makes money’ while they set back and do nothing.

So that is bad news for buy-to-let entrepreneurs who in the last decade have borrowed money at low rates to buy a portfolio of houses which they can subdivide if necessary and then rent to the poor and the young. The rent income more than covered the costs of the mortgages and maintenance, while the fixed asset, the houses, increased in value. Indeed, this form of profiteering was almost self-perpetuating as the demand from buy-to-let spivs helped drive up house prices forcing those who could not buy property into the private rented sector.

New Labour in the past decade has been quite happy to allow the buy-to-let entrepreneurs cream off the wages of the young and the poor. Many middle class people saw the purchase of a second or third house as a short cut to pension provision. But now with house prices and rents falling they are starting to lose money. New Labour’s first instinct, however - as demonstrated over inheritance tax and the twenty percent tax rate- is always to pander to the needs of ‘middle England’. So when repairs and maintenance don’t get done and the supply of private rented housing dries up, the victims need not turn to Gordon Brown for help.

17 October 2007

APPELFELD, Aharon - To the Land of the Reeds

Quartet 1994

Read September 2007

This dream-like short novel is typical of Appelfeld’s style, and contains yet again the themes that characterise his work.

The story features a Jewish mother from Ruthenia who defied her parents to marry a gentile from Vienna. The husband turns out (as we would expect from Appelfeld) to be a violent alcoholic and the relationship breaks down. The woman is left with a son, and survives through a series of relationships with rich men, one of whom bequeaths her his property and she acquires financial independence.

The body of the story follows a several-year long journey by mother and now adolescent son from Vienna to Ruthenia back to the parents’ home. Along the way, as is typical in Appelfeld’s oeuvre, they meet kind and cultured Jewish people and vulgar, cruel and anti-Semitic Ruthenian peasants. The boy faces an inner struggle of identity between the gentile and Jewish, but ends up – after having been separated from his mother – with a young pious Jewish girl. The novel ends with the young couple among a community of Jews from a village sharing stories and food as they wait for a train which will deport them.

8 October 2007

No Election in Britain

So Britain will not, Gordon Brown has decided, have a General Election a mere two years after the previous one. Though opinion polls suggested that New Labour’s vote might be up from the 35 percent trough of 2005, many marginals in the Midlands and South could fall to the Tories. Higher numbers of working class people in the cities and in the north voting Labour are of minimal value to Brown in Britain’s democracy.

Brown’s dithering is met by the rank hypocrisy of the Tories. For Brown to call an election after two years with a working majority, Malcolm Rifkind tells us, would be a constitutional outrage. Cameron meanwhile says the decision not to call an election is cowardice and a fraud on the electorate.

There is a principle here. Just as the system of voting (first past the post, proportional representation) is not switched backwards and forwards to suit the whim of the Prime Minister, so the timing of an election should be free of immediate political calculation. Citizens should have a right to expect an election at regular fixed intervals, not when it suits those in power to hold them.

1 October 2007

You now need to be eighteen to buy cigarettes

Youngers should not smoke, but sixteen-year-olds should make that decision for themselves.

I am a strong supporter of the prohibition of smoking in public enclosed spaces across Britain and Ireland. It seems obvious to me that nobody has a right to pollute my air; and workers have the right to a smoke-free environment at their place of work. The law commands overwhelming public support, and it is one of the few things the New Labour Parliaments have got right.

Today under secondary legislation brought about by the same act and new law came into force across Britain rising the minimum age for the purchase of cigarettes from sixteen to eighteen. Now of course I believe that it is unwise for young people to smoke, but I disagree with the new law for several reasons.

First, young people who are sixteen and seventeen have a right to decide whether they want to smoke or not. The whole point of freedom and moving along the road to full adulthood is the acquisition of choice with regard to one’s own life and well-being – not having that freedom taken away as this law undoubtedly does.

Second, smoking is a vicious addictive drug. Tell an addicted forty-five year olds that they must now stop smoking and the cry would be simple, ‘Well even if I want to, I can’t.’ Most people accept this, but why should it be different for a seventeen year old who is perhaps going through one of the most stressful periods of his or her life?

And that takes me to my third point. Young people who want to smoke will continue to smoke, and the law will be by-passed by crooked corner-shops and by intermediaries re-selling cigarettes. One question that should always be asked about a new law is: can it be meaningfully enforced. If the answer is no, don’t introduce it.

This law fits easily into the pattern of New Labour legislating merely for its ‘spin effect.’ And at the moment we are going through a period where ‘clamping down’ on the young is the fashion of the day.

25 September 2007

Will Gordon brown call a General Election?

There is much talk around about whether Gordon Brown will call a general election. It is far from clear that it matters much; he could at the worst hand over government to Cameron this year in 2007, 2010 (the longest the Parliament can run) or by 2112, if he wins an election this year.

Of course in a head-to-head with the Tories I would hope for New Labour to come out on top – just as I wanted Chirac to defeat Le Pen in 2002 and Kerry to win over Bush in 2004. In all these cases one’s vote or wish is essentially negative; i.e. to prevent the gratuitous nastiness of the Right, while having little affinity for the ‘left’ side in these Twiddle-Dum Twiddle-Dee battles.

In 2005 Blair romped home with a safe overall majority of over sixty seats on around 35 percent of the votes, and Brown’s chances of doing the same depends less on how many votes Labour receives than where they are cast. Stacking up votes - from working people who think Gordon is ‘more Labour’ than Tony - in Labour’s heartlands of the north and in the cities counts for nothing. Brown needs to retain votes in the marginals in the South, Midlands and suburbs while hoping for a high Liberal Democratic vote.

So not only does the outcome of the election not count for very much, but the idea of one voter with one vote of one value determining the result reveals itself as a meaningless deception.

24 September 2007


Reading is something we all do; in fact it is oxygen of life, for without it our brains would simply dry up or become polluted by the mind-rotting junk spewed out every day by our television sets. Yet, though the books we have read can be counted in the thousand, they disappear into the ever-more-difficult-to-access recesses of the brain.

One task I find useful to keep reading in focus is to write a short ‘review’ of each book that I finish. My rule is to spend no more than five minutes on this task, so my ‘reviews’ are hardly intellectual comments, but they do form a point a reference long after the book is back on the shelf. I also find myself mentally composing my comments as I read the book.

Here is my comment for the following book.

WILSON, A. N. – After the Victorians

Arrow 2006

Read September 2007

This book is a hefty read and an interesting one. In this extremely well written book Wilson sets out to examine key themes in British society and politics in the years from the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 up to the coronation of Elizabeth in 1953. The subtitle of the work is ‘the world our parents knew’

Wilson’s choice of topics is eclectic – in fact, the book could almost be seen as a collection of essays - but it is always interesting. The dominant theme of the work is the loss of empire which gives the book a superficial right-wing feel, especially when you learn that his father was a special constable during the 1926 General Strike. Yet, Wilson comes across very much as a ‘neutral;’ he takes a vast array of evidence of sustain or dismiss the prevailing ideas of the twentieth century.

His approach is to take a contemporary story (e.g. Laurel and Hardy in the case of Churchill’s relations with Roosevelt) extract a point and then consolidate the point with historical facts and anecdotes.

WILSON, A. N. – After the Victorians

Arrow 2006

Read September 2007

This book is a hefty read and an interesting one. In this extremely well written book Wilson sets out to examine key themes in British society and politics in the years from the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 up to the coronation of Elizabeth in 1953. The subtitle of the work is ‘the world our parents knew’

Wilson’s choice of topics is eclectic – in fact, the book could almost be seen as a collection of essays - but it is always interesting. The dominant theme of the work is the loss of empire which gives the book a superficial right-wing feel, especially when you learn that his father was a special constable during the 1926 General Strike. Yet, Wilson comes across very much as a ‘neutral;’ he takes a vast array of evidence of sustain or dismiss the prevailing ideas of the twentieth century.

His approach is to take a contemporary story (e.g. Laurel and Hardy in the case of Churchill’s relations with Roosevelt) extract a point and then consolidate the point with historical facts and anecdotes.

BERNDOTTE, Folke – La Fino

Societo Esperanto, Stockholm 1945

Read September 2007

This book is a translation into Esperanto from Swedish, and is essentially the memoirs of a well-meaning, well-connected and well-off Swedish Red Cross Official who visited Germany in the last days of the Third Reich in an attempt (mostly successful) to free Norwegian and Danish prisoners.

The book provides a limited account of life in Germany at that time, but focuses mainly on the author's meetings with Himmler, Ribbentrop and Schellenberg. These Nazi officials' main interest in the author is to open up a line of communication with the Swedish government in an attempt to negotiate a separate piece with the Western Allies. Germany at this time is all but defeated and the author recoginses this as the vane that it is to cluch at straws.

The author makes clear his disapproval and horror of the Nazi project, and yet this contrasts with his all too human interactions with these leading Nazis.

Overall, this short book is an interesting, if somewhat dated and limited, read about the period, and is written in simple and easy to read Esperanto.

20 September 2007

Some Reflections on Happiness

Happiness is rarely in the present and dissolves if we achieve it.

In most people's minds our purpose in life is to be happy. I am not thinking here of whether that involves being selfish or altruistic, but of happiness in a broad sense in which we do things to make ourselves, or others, happier. When we act we have the purpose in our head of making ourselves happier. What constitutes greater happiness varies from person to person, time to time and from one social group to another. Happiness may consist of possessing a new car, a walk in the countryside, giving a child an ice cream or having a leg amputated. Yet all of the above examples are the same in one fundamental way; we desire to move from our current situation (A) to a new situation (B); and that new situation (B) gives us more happiness than if we had done nothing. If the analysis were left like this, the world would, other things being equal, become progressively happier. Unfortunately, two factors work against this conclusion.

First, it is extremely difficult to reach a state of happiness because often the happiness we strive for lies in the future, and like tomorrow we are never there. In other words, most of us are walking along what we hope is the road to happiness, rather than actually being there; or to quote a popular adage, 'Tis better to travel hopefully than to arrive.' We execute acts not for their own sake but in order to attain a purpose that always lies in the future. We acquire money, not because we want the money for itself, but because we know that other people want our money and will give us things or do things for us in return for our money. We buy a ticket not, not for the sake of buying a ticket, but in order to travel, in order to reach our destination, etc. The holiday refreshes us so that we can get back to our normal lives in a better state, so that, etc. We often have as much difficulty attaining that future state of happiness as we do jumping over our own shadow.

Second, any given state of happiness that we might reach is subject to decay. For instance, the other day I decided to have a warm bath; I poured myself some wine, put on some jazz and relaxed in the warm water. I had attained a state of sensual happiness, but it was a happiness that started to decay. The jazz began to irritate me after a while; the water started to get cold and I got fed up with the wine. I had to destroy my previous source of happiness by getting out of the bath and switching off the music. The notion of the inevitable decay of happiness could equally be applied to sex, food, holidays and everything else that we strive for. The pleasure peaks and then decays, which of course can be devastating. Once a friend wrote to me and said he was completely happy in every aspect of his life. I wrote back to say how sorry I was, as from thereon his life could only deteriorate. Happiness then is merely a temporary prelude to its diminution. Total happiness is therefore to stand at the gate of depression, decline and failure.

In conclusion, we can see that, although we have the freedom to make choices in our lives, our ability to attain happiness is cruelly limited. Happiness too often lies in a future which never comes and when it does, it proves to be temporary and subject to instant and inevitable decay. How is it then that human life and action revolve around the pursuit of something which is so intangible and ephemeral? Quite simply, we pursue that evasive happiness simply because we have no other choice.

19 September 2007

Social Inequaity in Britain

Social inequality is a factor which contributes to many social ills such as poverty, crime, homelessness and educational under achievement. And though a recent opinion poll found that over ninety percent of Labour and Liberal Democratic voters (i.e. the majority of voters) thought inequality was too great in Britain, the New Labour decade has seen social inequality rise rather than fall.

Inequality can arises from several causes (e.g. luck, effort, talent, choice, etc), but the payment received by the owners of capital and those at the top of commercial organisations - which is hundreds of times that earned by ordinary workers - has nothing to do with these factors. It has everything to do with the systematic extraction of surplus value from workers in Britain and abroad – i.e. exploitation.

Peter Mandelson, early guru of New Labour, once said he was content with the ‘filthy rich’ but what Mandelson means is that he is happy both with the exploitation of workers to create such inequality and with a society founded on massive social class divisions.

Two points should be made here. First that the political left is nothing unless it embraces policies to reduce social inequality and exploitation. Second, there is a consensus among voters for the left on this issue, but the popular consensus does not extend to the leaders of New Labour.

17 September 2007

Brown-nosing to Thatcher

A couple of days ago the octogenarian Margaret Thatcher visited Gordon Brown in 10 Downing Street for tea. The prime minister complimented his guest saying that she, like him but unlike the current leader of the Tory Party, was a conviction politician. We do not see, however, two politicians steeled in their convictions on either side of a class divide, but rather two co-ideologists both committed to burying social democracy distinguished only by a gap of twenty years.

Mrs Thatcher’s election victory in May 1979 was a turning point in British politics in that it established as the dominant twin principles of British politics: the commercialisation of every aspect of economic activity and an authoritarian state. New Labour, of which Brown was the twin architect, was a continuation of that policy under new urbane management. So when Brown imposed PFI on the Tube and hospitals, and when he backs ninety-day detentions, his ideological progenitor is not Labourism as it was until the mid 1980s, but Mrs Thatcher.

Mrs Thatcher was a ‘great’ Prime Minister because she defeated the left and brought about a political ‘opposition’ in her own image consisting of men like Blair and Brown.

11 September 2007

Measure to help the poor

Gordon Brown seems to want to present himself as a champion of rights for the low paid while running an aggressive form American capitalism in Britain. Yet three fisco-legislative measures would do much to help worst off relative to the rich.

First, increase both the threshold at which income tax is paid and the rate. Thus on say the first GBP 10 000 of income a year, the tax rate could be nothing. Why take money from the poorest people at all? On incomes over that amount the standard rate of tax could be 25 percent – hardly a high rate by European comparisons.

Second, the minimum wage should be increased to seven or eight pounds per hour. This would go some way to end the scandal of people in full time employment and living in poverty.

Third, tax the property of the rich. Whereas income can always be hidden, property cannot. All persons owning land valued at over GBP 400 000 would be required to pay say one percent of the property’s value in tax. Similar rules could apply to four-wheel-drives, yachts, etc.

Of course in reality Brown will do none of these things. While paying lip service to the poor, his loyalty remains not just to American style capitalism for Britain, but also to the rich who benefit from it.

4 September 2007

A Peeping Tom

Minor crime is dramatised and excessively punished in Britain for propaganda effect.

The BBC’s website yesterday carried a story – mainly for amusement it would seem - about a fumbling peeing Tom. The facts seemed pretty simple: a man was on roof of a sun tanning establishment and peeped through at a woman lying naked on her back on a sun bed. The clumsy idiot, however, was spotted by the woman underneath.

Quite obviously the woman had a right to privacy, and the man had no right to peep. In so far as a matter of this kind had to come before the courts, one would have thought that a small fine and an apology would suffice. (If the fellow were a headcase and repeatedly doing things of this kind, mental health measures might be in order.)

In actual fact the whole matter went before a crown court and the man was sentenced to three months in prison suspended for two years. True, he wasn’t actually imprisoned, but by a hair’s breadth he avoided becoming one over 80 000 now incarcerated in Brown’s Britain - a life ruined and a person consigned to social marginalisation and poverty for life.

This absurd case has no direct political meaning, but it does illustrate the state-led lust for authoritarianism which is so evident in Britain, from the ubiquitous CCTV cameras, anti- terror laws and zero-tolerance of whatever grabs a headline for government.


21 June 2007

ROTH, Philip - The Dying Animal

Vintage 2002

Read May 2007

The novel is short and is structurally quite simple. The protagonist (i.e. the dying animal) is an ageing sixties-generation literary critic and teacher. Some years ago he left his wife for sexual freedom and now spends his time seducing young women students. He develops a passionate and jealous love affair with a young Cuban woman with the protagonist developing a fixation on the woman’s breasts. The relationship, as the reader expects, comes to an end, but a year or so afterwards the woman contacts the ageing professor to tell him that she has breast cancer. Prior to surgery he photographs her, but later against the background of New Year heralding in the new millennium we understand the operation was not successful.

For me this novel is not Roth at his best but it is a short interesting read.

20 June 2007

MARR, Andrew - The Battle for Scotland

Penguin 1992

Read May 2007

This book was written in 1992 and is therefore completely out of date. It was finished against the background of John Major winning the 1992 election and slightly improving the Tories performance in Scotland.

The book was written at the beginning of the period of the progressive anti-Tory alliance (absolutely dominant in Scotland) in which matters like constitutional reform, de-centralisation and proportional representation were in vogue. Of course that is history now. New Labour’s victory in 1997 saw, despite Blair reservations, the establishment of the Scottish Parliament – but this in fact represented the high-water mark of Labour’s progressive constitutionalism.

Marr’s book is well written and gives an excellent insight into the period from the campaign for Home Rule at the end of the nineteenth century to the botched devolution movement in the 1970s. For me the book filled a gap in my reading as I was little aware of the role of Scottish nationalism prior to the SNP’s by-election victory in 1967.

CERCAS, Javier - Soldiers of Salamis

Bloomsbury 2003

Read June 2007

This is a strange novel and contains just about enough movement to keep to keep you reading to the end.

The novel is structured through the narrator (a journalist and part time novelist) who is researching in order to write a historical account of a Spanish Falangist. The story is in two parts.

The first part covers the Falangist and his early attraction to fascism in Spain. In the final days of the Civil War in 1939 he is captured by the Republican forces and is sentenced to death. He is a member of a group of prisoners to be shot in a mass execution in the forest, but he manages to dodge the bullets and escape into the forest. A Republican solder finds him hiding in a ditch but just walks away. He survives with the help of locals and goes on to play a leading role in the Franco regime.

The second part concerns the narrators tracking down a now geriatric former Republican soldier who was part of the firing squad. He finds him in a retirement home in France. In an anticlimax the old man tells the narrator that it was not he who spared the Falangist’s life.

The book is an interesting read, but is far from a masterpiece.

14 June 2007

Blair’s right-wing friends abroad

Few things symbolise more clearly Tony’s Blair’s acceleration rightwards from centre left politics than his infatuation with the political right abroad. His sycophantic identification with Bush is the most notorious, but his early love affair with Athnar and Berlusconi in Spain and Italy only fell apart when both these right wing politicians were defeated in elections by Labour’s ‘fraternal parties,’ much to Tony’s distress. Blair then went on to Back Angela Merkl against the SPD in Germany, and most recently he has boiled over in pleasure to see Nicolas Sarkozy defeat the French socialists.

Throughout this treachery (for how else could the continental centre left see Blair), the straightjacketed Labour Party remained silent – just as it did as New Labour increased capitalist inequalities, rolled back civil liberties and promoted aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan. New Labour’s politics also shattered the intellectual topography of left wing political thinkers in Britain. In the 1980s and 1990s two models guided the British Left: the residue of Bennism (Labour as a radical transforming party) and Hobsbawmism (build a progressive alliance with the Liberal Democrats and others for democracy and social change). Now both of those currents are dead. With Brown set to continue in Blair’s footsteps any connection between Labour and Progress – let alone left wing politics – is long gone.

13 June 2007

Gordon Brown and Labour Party Democracy

Under the leadership of Tony Blair the Labour Party has become a thoroughly non-democratic institution. Policy and appointments are made from the top with meetings and conferences reduced choreographed photo events. The accompanying heavy-handed authoritarianism led in 2005 to the unedifying spectacle of an octogenarian member being forcefully ejected from the Party Conference for shouting ‘rubbish’ - and then arrested under the anti-terrorism legislation. Throughout the country Labour Party membership has haemorrhaged leaving little more than a thin layer of councillors and other municipal careerists in moribund constituencies.

It is against this background that Gordon Brown – who ensured that his own assumption of leadership was not subject to party-wide election – has, according to The Guardian, plans which ‘include establishing policy forums in every constituency, as well as regular questionnaires to members, and "citizens' forums" designed to improve Labour's campaigning edge and engage local people outside the party.’

All of this, of course, gives citizens and the rank and file a say while the leadership gets its way. It does not include one single element of voting or democracy. In the 1980s the Labour right wing championed one-member-one-vote (OMOV) inside the Party as a means of bypassing the left of centre constituency parties; now the idea of Labour members electing a body, which decided Party policy by means of OMOV, would be dangerous and radical.

Yesterday, the six candidates (all Brown backers) in the almost meaningless Labour deputy leadership election debated religious matters. According to a Guardian commentator, Hain, Cruddas and Harman took a more secular view while Blears, Benn and Johnson took the Christian promotional view. Though I find it absurd that a left of centre party is having this debate at all, it does suggest that perhaps there are nuances of difference among the candidates, though it is not clear what if any power Brown’s party deputy will have. But how much better it would be if ordinary Labour Party members (if there are any left) could directly elect candidates to a body which actually decided the policy of the Party, but such a policy is, of course, far too radical for Gordon Brown.

8 June 2007

Unemployment in Britain

In 1979 election perhaps the most effective piece of Tory propaganda was the poster of the meandering dole queue with its double entendre slogan “Labour Isn’t Working.’ Allied to the alleged ‘crisis of ungovernability,’ the Tories cynically used the scandal of the then historically high rate of 4.7% unemployment to argue for capitalist economic therapy. Today after Thatcher, Major and a decade of New Labour unemployment stands at 5.5%.

Of course the meaning of the ‘crisis’ of the late 1970s was not how ordinary people were affected (the Thatcher government, after all, went on to double unemployment), but that the high rate of unionisation and labour unrest were threatening business interests and profits. The 1979 election (when the Tories won 44% of the vote) saw the zenith of Tory ability to convince workers (particularly better paid ones) that market solutions alone would solve economic problems. But for most of the twenty-eight years since then unemployment has exceeded the 1979 figure. Yet today when capitalist power is secure and politically unquestioned the amount and misery of unemployment can be safely forgotten.

4 June 2007

Civil Liberties in Britain

Gordon Brown is now promising a new set of laws in the fight against terrorism. These new criminal offences will supplement the three thousand or so new crimes that have been created since 1997. We can be sure that there is no end in sight to the diminution of civil liberties and the forward march of authoritarianism in Britain. Two processes are at work here.

First, it is necessary to understand that the vast majority of people in Britain today have never engaged in protest against anything. They have little imagination as to how anything could be fundamentally different; all struggle is individual and lonely as people try to improve the lot of themselves and their family on their own. Protesters are perceived as a strange brand of people who disrupt the well-known rhythms of life under capitalism. Thus a heckler or someone reading out the names of the Iraqi war-dead is perceived as a nuisance and an oddball – and the idea of protesters having rights to interrupt and be a nuisance is less and less understood. The role of authority in this view is to deal with such disruptions and require citizens to respect authority.

Second, for all its faults Labour was historically a protector of civil liberties. New Labour, by contrast, has pursued a policy of outflanking the Tories on ‘law and order’, which has led to a galloping authoritarianism without serious opposition. (Interestingly, it was the Tories that prevented Blair’s ninety-day detention proposal). The threat of terrorism – grossly exaggerated and largely a result of Blair Iraq adventure – has provided the pretext, so that even hecklers at the Labour Party conference can be arrested under anti-terrorism measures.

Britain is more and more becoming a controlled society: ubiquitous CCTV cameras (some even linked to public address systems) with whole groups of people stigmatised: asylum seekers, Muslims, the young. Utterly unprincipled politicians such as John Reid offer frightened and socially isolated people more and more control in the name of security.

23 May 2007

British Party Politics

This short piece is a snapshot of the political situation following the municipal and Celtic assembly elections in May 2007. In some ways it has proved prophetic, but in other ways not.

The assumption of office of the minority SNP administration in Scotland and the likely rainbow coalition in Wales of Plaid, Tories and the Liberal Democrats (very damaging for Plaid in my view) creates a strange set up across Britain: Labour out of office in Edinburgh and Cardiff, but still holding the fort in London.

Labour’s position is contradictory and precarious. In the local election in May its vote fell to 27 percent (less than for Foot in the 1983 general election). New Labour for all its centre right polices was driven back to its urban heartlands north of the Severn Walsh line. Middle England for whom New Labour was designed wasn’t voting for it. In the so-called ‘sink estates’ whose interests Labour has abandoned, it wasn’t socialists who were chipping away at Labour, but the fascist BNP.

Cameron, now dressing up Toryism as an up-market version of Blairism, did well in the south and rural England, but made no headway in the English cities or in the Celtic countries. He may win in 2010 but only with difficulty. The fragmentation and ghetoisation of British party politics, which has accelerated since the 1980s (masked by Labour landslides in 1997 and 2003,) is very much evident, all of which makes the outcome of Westminster first-past-the-post elections somewhat arbitrary. But with the Liberal Democrats moving rightwards and jettisoning affinity with Labour, and with Celtic nationalism strengthening, the long term prospects for Gordon Brown’s Party geared towards the interests of people who don’t vote for it appears more and more precarious.

N. B. The rainbow coalition in Wales did not happen.

17 May 2007

Brown replaces Blair

The replacement of Tony Blair by Gordon Brown illustrates New Labour’s hegemony within the party, as well as Labour’s internal democratic deficit. Around ninety percent of the Parliamentary Labour Party have nominated Brown in the leadership ‘election,’ and it would seem that not to do so is an act of treachery to Gordon Brown, to the party, and to any future careers Labour MPs imagined for themselves. John McDonnell, who has been making the case for the left, has achieved only twenty-nine nominations, sixteen less than he needs to enter the race.

The transfer of power from Brown to Blair is one of style not substance. Gordon Brown is joint author of the New Labour Project: supporter of the Iraq War, Trident, religious city academies, PFI, etc. With around ninety percent of the PLP prepared to freely back him, there is no serious opposition to New Labour among Labour MPs. Outside Parliament the trade unions and constituencies are confirmed in their irrelevance: they won’t even have a say.

There is however one sop to democracy: a meaningless five - or perhaps six - way contest for the symbolic post of deputy leadership. All the candidates are Brown supporters, and all but one were or are ministers in Blair’s cabinet. The outcome hardly matters.

What should Labour Party socialists do? First, they should abstain in the deputy leadership election and not dignify the farce. Second, they should urge the twenty-nine McDonnell supporters to coalesce and act directly as a party within a party. Believing that the monolith of New Labourism can be modified rather than challenged is now a myth.

7 May 2007

Nothing Serious To the Left of the British Labour Party

As New Labour abandons social democracy, no serious force to the Left has emerged.

The last thirteen years of Blair and New Labour have seen the disappearance from British elections of a social democratic option on ballot papers. One issue for discussion is why Blair has been able to divorce the Labour Party so fully from social democracy (i.e. policies centring on redistribution and welfare universalism). The other – my concern today - is to focus on Labour’s challenge from the Left.

Three attempts at setting up left parties have been made since the 1990s: Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (1996), Tommy Sheridan’s Scottish Socialist Party (1998) and George Galloway’s Respect (2004). Each one was set up by a charismatic and dominant leader, garnered a small devoted following, but soon fell to sectarianism leading to decline or implosion.

The two English left parties have been the least successful. Scargill’s party, based on authoritarian nostalgia, soon fizzled out into nothing. Respect retains a minor role thanks to its embedding in the Islamic community and support from the enduring SWP. The first-past-the-post electoral system (with the exception of elections for the Greater London Authority) has also hampered electoral prospects.

Scotland in 2003, though, was different. The SSP in the Scottish Assembly elections enjoyed a PR system that awarded seats to parties with approximately 5-6 percent of the votes. The SSP won six seats in five of the eight electoral regions. A start had been made. Yet within a few years the party had managed to split over a libel action about Sheridan participating in sex parties. In 2007 the Scottish electorate showed its contempt by wiping out the party from the assembly.

Setting up a new party is not easy even with PR. Convincing people that you are serious, and winning their trust, is hard. A successful party would need intelligent broad-minded socialists who can set up street stalls, campaign around local issues and get elected to local councils. Sadly in Britain the gap between New Labour and sectarian cultism has not been filled.

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

The nightmare of young children defending for themselves alone in 1970s Britain is imagined in this novel.

This is a short well-written tale of four children left alone after their mother's death. Their parents bequeathed them social isolation and ignorance. In the long hot summer of 1976 they attempt to live by themselves in their uncleared-up filth and incestuous psychological confusion. As with all McEwan’s novels there is a deeply sinister event; in this novel it is the encasement of their mother, after her death from cancer, in concrete in the basement of their house.

The story is narrated by the teenage boy of the household and is a powerful examination of the themes of adolescence.


The number of people viewing this post - now running into the hundreds - is a complete mystery to me. I read this book a few years ago, found it mildly of interest and made a few mediocre comments.

McEWAN, Ian - The Cement Garden, Vintage 2006 (first published 1978)


WALTERS, E. Garrison - Eastern Europe to 1945

Dorset 1988

Read March 2007

This is a well-written and well-set out account of the history of Eastern Europe from the end of the nineteenth century until the end of the Second World War.

The book has a somewhat encyclopaedic approach and is wide ranging in that it does not ignore geography of economics. Yet throughout the book has the feeling of giving of giving a useful overview rather than a detailed account of any specific period of history.

The premise on which the book is based is that there is a separate geographical and socio-economic entity of Eastern Europe as distinct from the western part of the continent. The author admits that he is retrospectively affected by the Cold War Divide and by the convenience of the ethnic line formed by the eastern borders of the German and Italian speaking world. This approach, of course, incorporates the Czech lands into the East whereas by many indicators they are more part of the West.

Overall the book is an excellent background text for understanding the background to the region.


ROTH, Philip - Everyman

Vintage 2006

Read April 2007

This excellent short novel starts at the end – the funeral of the protagonist. As with ‘American Pastoral’ it is a tale of a man of immigrant Jewish parents who grows up in post-war America, but in ‘Everyman’ the structure of the story is simpler and more accessible.

Essentially the protagonist is an egotistical character who is plagued by ill health and failing marriages. In old age he experiences the death of those around him as he is inevitably driven to his own end. The book is in many ways a simple tale whose brilliance lies in the detailed description and Roth’s slow build-up of the protagonist’s psychological make-up.


March 2007 Comments

House of Lords 2007.03.07
Unfortunately, the simplest and most democratic option for the House of Lords is not currently on the political agenda - abolition. If people are worried about the unrepresentative nature of the House of Commons, the obvious step is to elect it by proportional representation.

Against the existence of God 2007.03.07
The arguments people employ to sidestep reason and evidence in issues of divinity are never original. The problem for the scientific minded believer is however that religion does make statements about how the world is; and such propositions can be analysed in the same way as any other proposition. If religious people replace reason and evidence with faith, then of course it is - by virtue of that very reason - impossible to have a reasonable discussion with them. One issue is the argument about the origin of the universe which is, of course, the standard argument of the American creationists - now parading as intelligent design theory. Their argument is that for the universe to exist God would have had to have created it is weak. Why couldn't matter always have exited? If a creator is required, then the creationalist argument falls on its own assumptions, because who created the creator? And anyway even if the universe were created, science tells us that it didn't happen in the way the bible said it happened. Another argument is that the evidence for the existence of God is no weaker than that for the proposition that 'history is a history of class struggles.' I disagree, but the issue is irrelevant; for however weak the evidence may be for Marxism, it does nothing to strengthen the evidence for the existence of God. Believers then bizarrely introduce purported evidence for the existence of God, i.e. 'beauty of creation' - but the subjective aesthetic judgment of an object by people, however great the number, hardly creates evidence for the existence of another object; i.e. God. (If people changed their opinion would God then cease to exist?) It is indeed a fact that people believe in values (ought statements) and strive to change the world both for themselves and others. It is true that there is much we don't understand. None of this, however, implies that we should become agnostic in our beliefs, which would suggest that the evidence for and against the existence of God is either too complex or too equally balanced for us to make a decision.

Northern Ireland 2007.03.09
Commentary on Northern Ireland seems fixated on one issue: will the veteran Protestant and Unionist bigot, Ian Paisley, join a coalition with Sinn Fein to run the devolved province. What is not adequately noticed is that the ground on which Paisley is standing is washing away. Wednesday's provincial elections gave the unionist parties a five percent lead over the combined vote of Sinn Fein and the SDLP. Demography is against the unionists. Catholic population growth, however, is not the main factor. For seventy years, though poor, the north was a beacon of prosperity when set against the impoverished South. Today the centre of gravity is Dublin, and waves of prosperity pull the North - and in particular the Catholic border areas of the North - into the Southern economy. The Unionist power system has cracked, and Britain does not care.The next step, beyond devolved power sharing within a British ruled province, is power sharing the sovereignty of the province itself. The North should become a condominium of Britain and the Republic, using the Euro and adopting the Irish tax regime.

Northern England 2007.03.10
One thing is certain; the other is not sure. What is not sure yet is whether David Cameron's Conservatives will win the next General Election, but what is certain is that Labour will be the leading party in the north and will take a majority of its seats. The north of England, containing about a quarter of England's population, is actually a reasonably well defined area stretching from the historic counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire to the Scottish border. Though Cheshire and the countryside are conservative and prosperous, the vast majority of the population lives in economically impoverished former industrial towns. The northeast region, for instance, has a mere 60 percent of the average income per head of the UK; and none of the three regions comprising the north exceeds the national UK average.The dominant party of northern England, Labour, is internally undemocratic and is choreographed from London. Electoral success for Labour nationally does not depend on the north of England, leaving the north with neither collective identity in the minds of its people nor effective representation. While Wales should enjoy the same powers as Scotland, the north as one province in the UK should inherit the powers that Wales currently possesses: provincial identity, an elected assembly plus administration within the framework of devolved powers from London.

Britain's nuclear weapons 2007.03.13
With Tory support, it is almost certain that the motion in the House of Commons today to endorse the upgrading of Britain's nuclear weapons of mass destruction will be successful. Labour Party critics make two mistakes. First, they claim that having such weapons makes no sense. They are wrong: the possession of such weapons is just about Britain's only claim to be a world power. Second, they argue that having nuclear weapons sets a bad example to Iran and others. There is an insular arrogance here in believing that the rest of the world sees Britain as a moral example.Hopefully Britain's soon-to-be upgraded nuclear weapons will be as useless in the next half century as they have been in the past one. The case against them is that they are a massive waste of money, bind Britain's defence establishment into that of the US and make Britain a target for other people's nuclear weapons.

Abolishing prisons for women 2007.03.14
By all means highlight women's specific problems, but when or if the law is changed the rules must as far as possible be universal not gender specific. It is utterly unacceptable to have two entirely different codes of law - one for women and one for men.

Central European Language Salad 2007.03.19
March 15th (commemorating the Hungarian failed bid for independence in 1848) was a holiday in Hungary; and as it fell on a Thursday, the Friday was also free. Thus Hungarians were given a four-day break in the middle of March. We decided to travel abroad and leave the pompous official celebrations and the neo-fascist demonstrators behind. We went to Piestany (I can't type diacritic marks, but it is pronounced pi-esh-tyarni) which is a spa town in western Slovakia. I do speak a very little Slovak, but very soon I run into difficulties. Often, the solution, especially with younger people, is to switch to English, a language that I know well. But this is not always successful, particularly as 'taking the waters' is not so popular amongst the English. Instead, the regionally dominant language, German, exerts considerable pull as a majority of the tourists are German speakers. But if English and German fail what then? Of course the whole of Slovakia used to the Upper Hungary, and the imperial past combined with a significant Hungarian speaking minority mean that the Magyar tongue may well be understood. So in this situation we usually manage.You can mock, but I did not try Esperanto. Perhaps some of the people we met know it, but I will never know. Instead, I relied on imperialism to communicate - of the Habsburgs, Magyars and of US globalism.

School Uniform 2007.03.20
Today the Department of Education in England is issuing guidelines, which support schools which ban full-face veils on the somewhat common sense grounds that teachers otherwise wouldn't even know who was behind a particular veil. Yet, Education Minister, Knight, wants schools to consult with parents about religious sensitivities in school uniform policy.Britain, however, stands out from most other European countries in that most of its school children are forced to wear uniform. It seems to me a form of collective humiliation to impose these weird clothes onto the young. As an exception to the ethos of the age, the intention is to suppress individuality and to de-sexualise teenagers. Yet, the opposite appears to be the case: sexual fantasy is displaced onto school uniforms, as any quick survey of sex websites located in the UK will reveal. Aside from the ban on full-face veils, derogations in school uniform seem only to be granted on religious grounds, not individual choice. If a student wishes to wear a headscarf because a religious norm requires it, that is acceptable. If another wishes to wear one out of individual choice, it is not. We've reached a fine pass when a so-called centre left government upholds religious norms, but not those of individual freedom. Surely the socialist position on all this is simple: school pupils should be allowed to wear what they want to school (religious or not) unless what they are wearing impedes teaching and learning.

Blair's arrogance 2007.03.22
What turns the stomach about Tony Blair is not just his branch of neo-con policies and his humiliation of everything that Labourism ever stood for, but the sheer egocentric arrogance of the man. Here is a man who says of his job that he is stepping down, but disdains to say when. If anyone else in employment announced they were leaving within the next sixth months, but wouldn't say when, they'd get their marching orders immediately. Yet, that raises the question, just to whom is Blair accountable? In Britain's archaic constitutional system his employer is Elizabeth II. But according to convention (non-justiciable law), he is in office because a majority of the House of Commons (i.e. Labour MPs) acknowledge him as leader of the Labour party - a post he has held without election since 1994. It is the flavour of the democratic deficit that the ranks of hapless MPs and a hobbled Party outside Parliament stand idly by while Blair reduces the Labour Party to irrelevance.Two reforms are in order. First, different people should hold the post of leader of a political party and that of Prime Minister. Second, both should be subject to regular elections; the former by party members, and the latter by MPs.

Crimes and Misdemeanours 2007.03.23
The state promotion and funding of faith schools is a policy that runs counter to both socialist and liberal norms. Opposition is, therefore, correctly directed at the British government, which promotes this policy, and at the centre-left Labour Party, which perpetuates this betrayal of principle. However wrong this policy is, though, there is no sense in which it is illegal, nor that its proponents should face personal sanctions, other than progressive votes being cast against them in democratic elections. Blair's decision to order the British military to collaborate with the US in the invasion of Iraq is of a different order. This action, which to date has led to the loss of over half a million human lives, lacked any legal authority. The claim that Britain was acting in self-defence against the preparation of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was false. Even if Blair didn't know that Saddam lacked such weapons, he certainly had little credible evidence for believing that he possessed them - and in any event Blair had agreed on the invasion with George Bush months before. As the UN failed to sanction the invasion, and as the defence of self-defence fails, the invasion should be seen for what it was: an act of military aggression. Military aggression (something less than crimes against humanity) is nonetheless a serious crime, which means that Blair should stand trial. And if convicted, as I think he would be, he should spend the rest of his days, not travelling around the US lecture circuit garnering huge fees, but sitting inside a British jail. However far-fetched the scenario, that is what ought to be the case, and people on the left should say so.

Stephen Cambone 2007.03.26
It is outrageous that a man such Stephen Cambone should be given an official welcome to Exeter University. His role, as a former assistant of Donald Rumsfeld, in organising prisoner abuse and torture should have sent him to Exeter jail not Exeter University. There he could have awaited extradition to Germany. (In November 2006 the German Federal Government announced that it had decided to permit the war crimes prosecution of Cambone for his alleged role in condoning the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison during his tenure from 2001 to 2003 as U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence.) Imagine the response if in 1979 a senior planner of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and an aid to Brezhenev, had been ceremonially driven to the University in the Vice Chancellor's car. If members of the Exeter University Politics Department ingratiated themselves to this man, they reveal themselves as brown-nosed apologists of torture for whom academic truth and human rights mean nothing.

Britain's three strata 2007.03.28
Is Britain now - following in the American tradition - a country of three strata: i.e. the society of thirds. In writing of three strata, I don't mean that they are equal in size, or that the boundaries between them are clear and defined, but that three types of social group can be clearly identified. The top third, centred on owners of capital and the upper professionals, live securely and with all their material needs adequately met, holidaying in France in summer and skiing in the Alps in winter. The middle third - the so-called middle England - are the mass of people with mortgages to pay and worries about paying for retirement, sickness, their kids education. They are people who are under the constant threat of redundancy in the flexible job market. Though well off by historical standards, they are nonetheless chronically financially insecure, worried about taxes (seen transfers to the bottom third), crime (attacks by the bottom third) and downward social mobility (entering the bottom third). The bottom third encompasses the low paid, marginally employed, disadvantaged ethnic minorities, people without their own homes, single parents, the mentally ill, criminals etc. Since 1979 both their relative and absolute standard of living has declined. Thatcher, Major and Blair have followed mostly the same policy agenda of promoting social inequality through commercialisation, deregulation and benefit cuts; along with along with a philosophy of victimising the poor for the effects of their poverty. Labour, however, distinguished itself by attempting to push the unemployed into low paying work (e.g. the minimum wage, the New Deal) and by increasing expenditure on education (offset for the poor by greater selection) and on health (offset by PFI schemes), as well as introducing a system of tax credits for the working poor with children. However, all this - when set against the effects of the market - has done nothing to dent inequality as recent reports and statistics indicate. As a result the working class in Britain has seldom been more divided, chronically insecure and de-politicised. The bottom stratum is an electoral minority even if it could be bothered to vote. For the political right the disadvantage of Thatcherism was that it produced opposition reaching well into the middle stratum; the great victory of New Labour is to tie the middle strata into political conservatism or apathy, thus destroying any prospect of social reform in Britain.

Monato 2007.03.30
Towards the end of each month my copy of Monato drops through the letterbox. Monato, as the name suggests, is a monthly magazine; it is published in Antwerp and is made up of original material in the Esperanto language. While it claims to be a politically independent review, the thrust of its content is left-wing (I doubt whether I would subscribe to it otherwise) Though the magazine contributors are heavily concentrated in Europe, the magazine does have writers based around the world in such places as Israel and Madagascar, but especially in Russia, China and Japan. Monato manages to provide something that left-wing English periodicals cannot. Community magazines, which consist of news and opinion pieces on events and issues, are imprisoned within their language communities. There is no reason why a German speaker would write up local news and opinion in English (why should they?) and for it to be read by - for example - French speakers. Few ordinary people around the world speak English well enough to feel confident of writing articles in that language, anyway. Do you know about the cost to Japanese pensioners of removing snow from the their houses, or what Belgians think of the Iraq war? Professional journalists and translators will tell you if there is money to be made, but this does not thrust the pen into the hands of ordinary people; this is where Esperanto and magazines like Monato come into their own.

25 April 2007

The Labour Party Leader

One of the key campaigns of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy in the 1970s was for the constituent units of the Labour Party (constituencies, trades unions and MPs) rather than the Parliamentary Party to elect the leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party. In the thirteen years from 1981 to 1994, the electoral college was used five times: 1981 Healey (as deputy leader against Benn), 1983 Kinnock, 1987 Kinnock, 1992 Smith and 1994 Blair. In the thirteen years since 1994 there have been no elections. In 2007, if Brown gets his way, he will be crowned without opposition from either a Blair acolyte or the hapless John McDonnell from the left.

Of course every institution of the Labour Party (Conference, NEC) has been de-democratised marginalised or both, so an election per se would assume significance, which is precisely why Brown is out to scupper it.

Vladimir Derer and his colleagues from the CLPD intended the electoral college as a means of empowering the rank and file, but instead the new system has had two negative effects. First, following the 1987 Benn/Heffer challenge to Kinnock, the rules were tightened to require 12,5% of Labour MPs to nominate a candidate rather than the previous five percent; thus without a large-scale coordinated rebellion among Labour MPs an election is impossible. Secondly, the non-regular use of the electoral college means that a leadership election would hit the Labour Party like an earthquake, destabilising Labour whether in opposition or in government. Thus, in practice, the effect of the electoral college system has been the opposite of what was intended; it has led to the strengthening of the leader. It was easier for the Tories to remove Thatcher than for Labour MPs to kick out Blair.

I would suggest three reforms, which would be required by law. First, the positions of leader of Party, leader of the Parliamentary Party and the post of Prime Minister (or prime minister designate) should be separated. Second there should be regular mandated elections for all three positions. Third, there should be time limitations on holding these offices. We don’t want a cult of personality of Blair, Brown, Cameron or anybody else.


21 April 2007

Defeatism and New Labour

Several writers recently (e.g. Ross McKibben LRB, Martin Jacques The Guardian) have elaborated the defeatism thesis to explain the failings of New Labour. In essence, the argument is that Labour’s fourth election defeat in 1992 propelled the leadership (after John Smith’s death in 1994) to replace social democracy with Daily Mail policies: no tax and spend, further commercialisation and a repressive agenda on crime – i.e. remoralising the poor through punishment. All this was intended to garner and retain the votes of so-called Middle England, and thus secure the repeated election of Labour governments.

The defeatism thesis contains more than a grain of truth. Yet it is hard to explain the right-wing Blairite New Labour agenda merely as the policies of electoral opportunism. The sycophantic relationship with George Bush and the Iraq war never had middle class backing. Middle England makes use of, but has never fallen in love with, faith schools. PFI is widely seen as the financial swizz that it indeed is. The repressive agenda (from identity cards to speaking CCTV cameras) goes way beyond assuaging middle class security concerns.

Defeatism didn’t simply involve Labour throwing policies overboard so it could reach port; defeatism enabled an new authoritarian captain to take on new cargo, turn the ship around and sail backwards.


The defeatism thesis that McKibben, Jacques and others are putting forward is the belief in the Labour Party leadership by the early nineties that any Laborite reformism, however moderate, could not win an election for Labour. Hence the invention of New Labour and the choice of Tony Blair as leader in 1994.

I basically agree with this argument, but I go on to make the point that many of Blair’s policies, e.g. Iraq, are governed not by electoral calculation (as the defeatism thesis would suggest) but by a specific policy agenda adopted by Blair et. al. to move politically rightwards, irrespective of public opinion.

In essence, what was a first a compromise or tactic of moving rightwards became a raison d’etre for New Labour.

18 April 2007

Comfort and Violence in Britain

I have just spent five days in England visiting Surrey, West Sussex and Hampshire; and apart from the security rigmarole at the airports, everything seemed orderly and comfortable. Yet of course the BMWs on the leafy lanes is only one side of the coin in Europe’s most socially unequal society, which also boasts the continent’s highest per capita prison population.

Interior Minister Reid is fearful that the House of Lords may throw out provisions in his bill to turn over discipline in private prisons to security companies (Meccas for sadists and bullies); he also expects opposition to his plans to privatise probation work. At the same time The Guardian newspaper carried a photograph of the Basra hotel worker who was tortured to death by British forces. No soldiers could be convicted because of their veil of silence over the issue. While rank and file solidarity might be expected, the fact that their commanders are not at the very least expelled from the army is a telling indicator of the government’s attitude.

11 April 2007

The House of Lords - The simple solution

Unfortunately, the simplest and most democratic option for the House of Lords is not currently on the political agenda – abolition. If people are worried about the unrepresentative nature of the House of Commons, the obvious step is to elect it by proportional representation.

5 March 2007

February 2007 Comments

Britishness 2007.02.01

In the on-going debate about ethnic diversity in Britain, the Blair government has resorted to a chauvinistic assimilations stance (‘They should become like us. ‘Britishness’ is good’) in an attempt to garner support among the white Anglophone majority. Opponents of the government rally around two polls: universal liberalism and policy multiculturalism. The first, universal liberalism, has two demands: first the establishment of a fully secular state which does nothing either to uphold or to penalise religious belief; and second, an modus operandi that individuals, not ethnic communities and their traditions, are right-holders in society. This is the tradition of individual liberty and equality. The alternative is 'policy multiculturalism' in which ethnic groups are encouraged by the state to live according to their traditional norms and other groups are required to 'respect' those cultural norms. If a film, for instance, offends the sensitivities of one ethnic group then there is a case for banning or restricting it. On this view the job of the state is not to uphold individual rights, but the integrity of ethnic communities. My preference is for universal liberalism.

Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia 2007.02.02

Some people want to compare traditional anti-Semitism in Europe with the current, politically generated, moral panic against Muslims. As with any comparison there are points of similarity and points of difference.The major area of similarity is the chauvinistic desire of the political elite to deploy ideological misnomers like 'the clash of civilisations' and 'alien threat' to drum up support among the ethnic majority in favour state power. One key difference, though, is this: the ideas which Jews played a role in promoting (socialism, internationalism) were not Jewish per se and were addressed to the wider human community. Sadly one feature of the Muslim community in britain today is that it has not thrown up new radical ideas that are addressed to the wider world, but instead much of its thinking is concerned with with 'going backwards' to religious dogmas.

Not all Jews are Zionists 2007.02.05

Brian Klug has written an excellent article in the Guardian today.Mr Klug rightly points out that because one is ethnically Jewish it does not mean that one is committed to defending the actions of the state of Israel. Not all Jews are Zionists, and not all Zionists (e.g. George Bush) are Jews.Jewish people have made valuable contributions to the history of humanity, not because they were Jews, but because they addressed their concerns to humanity in general. Examples abound: Marx, Freud, Zamenhof (Esperanto), Chomsky, and Kelsen (law). Many of the actions of the state of Israel are criminal, and one such crime is the government of Israel's attempt to make Jewish people around the world accessories to those crimes.

In defence of liberalism 2007.02.05

From a liberal socialist viewpoint, I argue that an ethnic group (majority or minority) should make no demand on the democratic polity for recognition as a group - at least in so far as the determination of legislation and state policy is concerned. Before the state, citizens stand as individuals. Associations of Christians, Muslims, Jews or whatever are voluntary civic organisations which have no legal demand on the state, nor should they have legal power over citizens who are their members (or indeed non-members). This principle can be broken down into three parts. First, ethnic groups have no right to demand a legal right to respect for their culture, religion or practices from other individuals society. That, for example, many Muslims find the depiction of the prophet Mohammed offensive is irrelevant from a legal point of view. Equally, Christians have no complaint against the art exhibition depicting the crucifix in a glass of urine, nor of a play portraying the buggery of Christ on the cross. In short, the right of free speech is not restrained by ethnic sensitivity.Second, ethnic groups have no right to exemption from universal legal norms. If it is held, for example, that ritualised slaughter is contrary to the norm of minimal suffering in animal butchery, then the fact that orthodox Jews and Muslims demand it is irrelevant. If schools can demand a uniform, then it is legitimate to exclude veils form that uniform. If people can wear what they want in a college, then it is illegitimate to ban students from wearing veils.Third, in the exercise of its powers the state should not recognise ethnic groups, except in one clearly defined circumstance. In so far as an ethnically defined group of citizens faces economic discrimination, social exclusion and/or attack, it is legitimate to recognise the groups in order to remedy the state of affairs. The struggle against racism, bigotry and discrimination is, however, the property of the whole society, not just of group concerned.

On Blair, Brown and Hain 2007.02.07

The current cabinet is full of moral bankrupts (i.e. people who are quite prepared support a war that they didn't believe it). However, I think none of that displaces Blair as the main criminal; i.e. the man who used every lever of his office to ensure that a war took place.

Cuba 2007.02.08

Let me start with this comment: 'a truth suppressed among friends is the readiest weapon of an enemy.' The truth is that Cuba is not a democracy and does violate political and civil rights. Having said that, Cuba has nevertheless achieved many social rights for its people particularly in health and education and has thus been a 'shining path' in Latin America. We should support Cuban socialism against US imperialism because if Washington gained the upper hand in Cuba, globalised capital would return the Cuban working class to poverty and penury. So socialism yes; human rights yes.

North Korea 2007.02.14

The US that was in a corner and was forced to deal with North Korea, thus denting US unilateralism and unconditionalism in foreign policy. The reason is clear: nobody outside a lunatic asylum could contemplate initiating a nuclear conflagration in Asia involving Korea, China, Japan, Russia and, of course the US.This tells us something about Iraq, too. The US attacked Iraq, not because it had weapons of mass destruction, but because it did not. The point has been well understood by Iran. Everyone should realise that American unilateral belligerence, backed to the hilt by Blair, is the major impetus for world nuclear proliferation.

The limits of historical materialism 2007.02.21

The social science part of Marxism, as opposed to its politics, is known as historical materialism. What historical materialism studies, i.e. what its subject matter is (in philosophy called its ‘object’) is the history of human society which is conceived as the history of social humanity's production of the means to life from nature. In other words, how we humans made our society from nature over history explains how our society works. The object of historical materialism is wide indeed. Quite obviously, this raw formulation, though, leaves many questions to probe as we move from such abstract considerations to the analyses of any actually existing society, e.g. Britain in 2007. But one question to ask is this: are all the concepts for analysing social reality reducible to, or deducible from, historical materialism? If the answer is yes, then historical materialism occupies the whole 'cognitive' space and we don't need to look for explanations outside historical materialism. If, as I believe, the answer is no, then two questions arise. First, what are those theoretical sources required for understanding society apart from historical materialism? And second, what are the boundaries between historical materialism and other sources of knowledge?

Two uses of the term multiculturalism 2007.02.2007

I have to say that I wasn't so impressed with Terry Eagleton's article in The Guardian today I think he was making an easy point which all the contributors to this discussion would endorse. Blair, and his New-Labour acolytes seek to confront multi-culturalism because they construct it as a dilution of Britishness (which they equate with all that is good). The issue, they say, is for other ethnic groups to be educated in Britishness and change their ways. This discourse is merely intended to appeal to the base prejudices of the white Anglophone majority. Two uses of the term 'multiculturalism' need to be distinguished. The first use is to describe a sociological result, i.e. to say that we live in a multicultural society. This is a statement of fact, and I have no objection to that being so. The second is a policy, i.e. to use the state to bring about and sustain multiculturalism through the adoption of collective rights or otherwise. I do not agree with this. (One ideological contortion of New Labour is that they promote multiculturalism through certain policies, e.g. support for faith schools, and then bemoan the consequences)

The oxymoron of militant secularism 2007.02.26

I have read Stuart Jeffery's muddled article in the Guardian (26 February 2007) and would like to make the following points. It is helpful to distinguish the sociological fact from comments about what ought to be done or not done. The sociological fact is this: after many years of gradual secularisation in England, religious practice and identification is rising, albeit at the margins. There are two sources fuelling the revival: one is Christian fundamentalism crossing the Atlantic; the other is Muslim fundamentalism driven by the economic and other failures of Islamic countries and the attacks on them by the West. Religion has also been given an unexpected and unwelcome boost by the Blair government's perverse decision to embrace faith schools. In reaction, a somewhat exaggerated sense of fear that religion might pose a threat to science and individual rights has led some (one particularly thinks of Richard Dawkins) to proclaim and write about the case for atheism.The term 'fundamentalist (i.e. militant) secularism' as a policy is an oxymoron and a deliberate red herring in the debate. Secular state institutions are agnostic: they do not take any view on faith matters. Put simply, they expel religion to the private sphere where it belongs; and fail to recognise religion as a criterion for public policy. It is certainly not the job of such institutions (e.g. schools, legal systems) to promote atheism any more than it is to endorse religious belief. So to argue that secularists are as fundamentalist as religious bigots is either a mistake or a deliberate attempt to muddy the water. Atheism should not be seen as a fundamentalist doctrine in the sense that Christianity or Islam might be. All atheism means is a denial of the existence of God; beyond that atheists have no agreed doctrine and are as varied as the stones on a beach. In a free society atheists have as much right to stridently put their case as religious believers do. And of course I and, I hope you, would support them.

Does God Exist? 2007.02.27

The point has been made that I can no more prove the non-existence of God than believers can prove His existence. It is implied from this statement that the case for and the case against the existence of God are somehow equally balanced. This, however is pure casuistry. Indeed, it is true that I can no more disprove the existence of God than I can disprove the existence of demons, fairies, goblins and ghosts. As the proposition, 'God exists' is neither necessary nor impossible, it has the capacity for either truth or falsehood (i.e. it is contingent). That tells us nothing, however, about whether the statement is actually true. As with any other proposition, its truth depends on the evidence for the statement. If someone posits that something exists, he is under an obligation to furnish evidence. I say, for instance, 'there is a coffee cup in front of me on the desk right now.' Well, what is the evidence? The evidence is my testimony based on my direct observation. It may not be conclusive (I could be lying or be having an optical illusion), but my statement about the coffee cup is as strong as the evidence that supports it. Now when we turn to the proposition 'God exists,' religious believers support the proposition by saying that its truth is based on faith. But why should we accept that faith proves the existence of God when this criterion of truth (i.e. faith) supports no other proposition. For example it would be absurd for me to support the proposition, 'A socialist revolution will occur in Britain' on the basis that I have faith that it will happen (though, of course 'religious-like' Marxist do just this). In fact, it is only by the removal of faith as a criterion of truth that truth can be established; e.g. proving that the Earth is spherical against faith which said it was not. As there is no credible evidence for the existence of God, so I tend to believe that He does not exist outside of man's imagination. God as the creation of man's social being certainly does exist but that is another matter.

19 February 2007

Collective Rights: A Retrograde Step?

Most formulations of human rights are drafted in such a way as to apply equally to citizens and do not increase, decrease or qualitatively alter the content of those rights on account of the citizen's membership of an ethnic group. Collective rights, by contrast, are not solely based on the citizen-state interface, but legally interpose the ethnic group between the state and the citizen. Thus citizens, either through choice or by compulsory designation, receive legal rights and duties not universally and equally, but according to the ethnic group of which they are members.

Historical Examples

In the Roman Empire, for example, Jews possessed a special status and as such enjoyed specific rights as Jews, e.g. the right not to work on the Sabbath, or to recognise the divinity of the Emperor. Such rights were granted to the Jewish collective and thus to the individual Jew of the Empire by virtue of being Jewish so that the Jew was distinct from the Greek or Syrian or Celt in the Empire. The Ottoman Empire was governed so that each ethnic group in the Empire was defined on the basis of its religious community. Thus, people living in the same town but belonging to different faiths had different rights and obligations on account of their group membership. The British Empire too made effective use of collective rights: colonials were dealt with according to British justice, whereas in many cases tribal or customary law tried locals.

In Europe, though, under the influence of Enlightenment thought, which focused on human rights as applying universally to all human beings, the system of "collective" rights began to break down. In 1856 the Ottoman Empire introduced a constitution guaranteeing (in theory) equal rights and treatment for all its subjects regardless of national origin or religious affiliation. Likewise, in Europe, the movement for Jewish emancipation, based on the Jewish Enlightenment, predicated its calls for equal treatment for Jews on the grounds of a single universal standard of rights and that each person deserved equal treatment as an individual. (It is interesting to note (i) that the state of Israel is based a concept of collective rights for Jews, and (ii) that fundamentalist Muslim thought in the West today is moving towards an advocacy of collective rights for Muslims in secular societies.)

The implications of collective rights in contemporary society

Collective rights are rooted in an understanding of the human being as an individual, but also as a member of an ethnic community. The theory denies that all people should be treated equally as citizens and that people should be associated with the ethnic groups to which they belong with its specific system or rights and obligations.

Arend Lijphart coined the term "consociationalism" to describe the sharing of power between segments of society joined together by a common citizenship but divided by ethnicity. In a democracy collective rights would assume that each ethnic group has an elected body; e.g. Jewish Council, Muslim Parliament which would legislate for the ethnic group. Many questions are left floating around, however.

Is membership of an ethnic group determined by birth of by choice?

Can citizens be members of more than one ethnic group?

Can citizens change the ethnic group of which they are members?

What is the position of citizens who don't belong (or don't want to belong) to any of the groups?

Are there limits on the powers of ethnic groups? (e.g. can a group freely determine its laws)

What happens when the laws of one group impinge on those of another?

A personal opinion

I personally see the introduction of ethno-religious collective rights as a state of affairs where the national state is managing a group of Bantustans. The state could never be neutral between addressing what it saw as individual needs and the demands of the ethnic group councils. Establishing Christian ethnic councils would be have little support among the white majority in Britain and, in so far as such measures were adopted, the result would be less to provide collective rights to Christians than a means of excluding Muslims from institutions’ i.e. legitimising racism. For minorities, even if adults could ‘opt out’ of their Bantustan children and young people would be subject to state supported traditional authority which would deny them the rights and choices of the white majority.

In a liberal society there is nothing to stop two people in dispute going to a religious court to sort out their problem, and if both parties accept the solution that is fine. However the idea that the state, through recognition of collective rights, would enforce a non-universal religious based judgment on the parties is unacceptable to me.

For me if the political left strives to move away from humanist universalism and endorses state sponsorship of religion and segregation (either in principle or as part of a strategy of moving towards ‘revolution’) then in my view such people are no longer left-wing in any meaningful sense. Hatred of the injustices of capitalism is good politics, hating capitalism so that any enemy of capitalism becomes an ally is the politics of ideological bankruptcy.

February 2007