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This book was written in 1992 and is therefore completely out of date.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.