Newsnotes 004 – October 1987

Notes On The News

by Madawc Williams


The Bitter Sea

The past few weeks and months have seen a series of dangerous confrontations in a body of water that the Arabs call the Arabian Gulf, and the Iranians call the Persian Gulf, and to which the British media attach the bland label “The Gulf”. The ancient Mesopotamians, the first people to leave written records about it, had a name for it that might seem very suitable. They called it “The Bitter Sea”!

[This was 1987, with the USA under Reagan saving Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from the consequences of the war he had launched against Iran.  They could probably have forced Saddam to step down as the price of their help, but at that time they seemed happy enough with him.  Happy even though torture, repression and the use of gas were exactly the same as they were in 1991, when tolerating him was declared morally unacceptable.]

The Bitter Sea has been getting ever more bitter recently, in part as a follow-on from the “Irangate” shambles. What happened there is a perfect argument for democratic control over foreign policy. Naturally, some things have to be done in secret. Spying has to be organised secretly. It was quite reasonable for Nixon to make secret contacts with Peking [Beijing], for instance, before publicly ending many years of bitter hostility. But Irangate was another matter. It was secret, mostly in order to stop Congress from restraining President Reagan’s wishes, even though Congress was fully within its rights in restraining him.

Success might have justified such double-dealing. But the whole idea was a basically stupid one. Reagan had said, publicly, that there were going to be no concessions to terrorists. And of course he was right. If someone has a just claim, you should concede it before they need to resort to terrorism. If the claim is not seen as just, then it is pointless and short-sighted to give into it.

Plane hijackings are a case in point. The first hijackers were given everything they asked for. So naturally, everybody started doing it. There are no limits to the number of armed groups who want world-wide attention to their cause. A far higher price in blood was paid – is still being paid – than if the first hijackers had been resisted and given nothing.

Reagan seemed to know all this. And then behind the scenes he started trading arms for hostages, making it clear that hostage-taking could be a highly profitable business. Naturally, the Iranians and their allies snatched as many more hostages as they could lay their hands on.

To make up for the arms for hostages deal, and after cunning diplomatic manoeuvring by Kuwait, the US sent its forces into the Gulf. This was a risky move. A small body of water like the Gulf was and is dangerous territory for a navy. It is particularly dangerous for the US Navy, which is mainly designed for fighting on the great oceans of the world, and which relies on allies for some basic elements like minesweepers.

Nevertheless, the manoeuvre seems to have worked. Partly, perhaps, because it was done openly and publicly. Those who didn’t like the idea were able to say so, through the normal political channels. And it became clear that the opposition was not so strong as to prevent President Reagan from acting.

(The US Constitution is set up with “checks and balances”, which mean in practice constant strife between the President and the different factions within Congress. The President is free to do almost anything he likes, provided only that he does it openly, and that his opponents cannot get it ruled unconstitutional or deprive it of funds. Neither of these things are likely to happen.)

Iran could have chosen to fight. But this would have been unwise. The US had built up huge naval and air power in the region. They could have hurt Iran very badly. They would certainly have been able to cut off Iran’s oil exports, on which it depends for its war against Iraq. Besides, for a time it seemed as if Iraq had stopped its attacks on tankers carrying Iranian oil. But these attacks have now resumed, and still Iran has made no major response.

At the time of writing, the drift seems to be towards peace. Iran is no longer demanding that the Iraq’s leadership be overthrown. They will settle for an official UN declaration that Iraq was the aggressor which began the war. The presence of the US naval forces means that the dream of a Shiite Fundamentalist revolution spreading into Arabia no longer seems practical. The Iranian leaders are neither mad nor evil; they simply operate from . a world view very different from anything you can find in Europe. Hopefully, a continuing war no longer looks worthwhile from the Iranian point of view.

[Peace was indeed made in August 1988.  But after the sudden decline in Soviet power in 1989, the USA may have decided it was a good idea to get rid of Saddam.  Just as they encouraged the removal of Ceausescu in Romania, Mobuto in Zaire / Congo and Suharto in Indonesia.  And hard evidence suddenly appeared about long-suspected criminal ties and corruption among Italy’s Christian Democrats, wrecking a party that had successfully made Italy strong.

[What is known is that Saddam was being pressed hard for debts he had run up for a war that had damaged Iranian, then seen as the main Islamic threat.  Also Kuwait was stealing oil from shared oil fields.  This was the context of his foolish invasion of Kuwait.

[Was he set up?  It is the sort of thing that happens in thriller films, and often presented as virtuous.

[What we know is that the invasion of Kuwait began a process of US intervention, with the Soviet Union no longer balancing it.  A pattern that is now seen as a disastrous failure by an increasing majority.  So if someone thought they were being clever, they were much less clever than they supposed themselves to be.]

Sri Lanka

In the West, we tend to think of Buddhism as a gentle and tolerant faith. The sight of Buddhist monks leading riots, as a protest against a peace agreement, must therefore seem very strange. But that is just what happened, when the long-running war in Sri Lanka was brought to an end.

Buddhism began in the north of the Indian sub-continent. For a time it became the ·dominant religion, eclipsing Hinduism. It spread to many other parts of Asia, notably China and Japan. But in India itself, it dwindled in the face of a revived Hinduism.

In Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), Buddhism held on. The Sinhalese population remains Buddhist, while the Tamils, immigrants from India over many centuries, are Hindus. In part, this may have been an expression of Sinhalese resistance to pressures from the much larger and stronger states of Southern India.

And so it continues to this day. The Tamils of Sri Lanka are a minority; but they are also an extension of the Tamils of Southern India, some 50 million strong, and of Hindu culture as a whole. The Sinhalese Sri Lankans fear domination by India. Buddhism is the clearest expression of their separate identity. ·

(Buddhism, of course, began as a pacifist creed. But then so did Christianity. Throughout history there have been many wars fought by Buddhists, often against other Buddhists. Most notable of these were the Japanese Samurai, almost all of whom were Buddhists.)

At the time of writing, the riots are over and the Tamil guerrillas have ceased to fight. And there are Indian troops in the Tamil areas, to help guarantee the peace. Time will tell if the peace will hold. But I wouldn’t foresee Buddhism doing much to prevent a new outbreak of rioting or fighting.

[In fact the war resumed, ending with complete defeat for the Tamil Tigers in 2009.

[Little has healed.  Sinhalese intolerance has even extended to the Muslim minority, which had never rebelled.  Which only became violent one attacked.]

Institutionalised Racism?

We are told that black children do badly in British schools because of “institutionalised racism”. If pupils from one background do worse than another, then clearly the schools or the teachers must be at fault. There must be “unconscious racism”, even among those who at a conscious level accept the doctrines of the “anti-racist” lobby.

I always had my doubts about such notions, and the results of a recent survey are definite proof that it is false. The Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) tried looking at the exam results of the various non-white immigrant groups, instead of lumping them all in together. The ranking was:

  • Indian
  • African-Asian
  • Pakistani
  • South-East Asian
  • English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish
  • Arab
  • Caribbean
  • Bangladeshi
  • Turkish.

The sharp difference between Bangladeshis and other Asians is the most striking result, because very few non-Asians could even tell the difference. Clearly, it is not the attitude of the teachers that is decisive. Pupils are not inert raw material that can be processed into anything the teachers want to make of them. The background culture is also very important.

There has been a great deal of talk about different performances by pupils from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. By contrast, the massive difference between

schooling in different parts of the country has been largely ignored. Pupils in Brent, say, are likely to do much better than pupils in Hackney.

There is a good reason for this silence. In the USA, demands for racial equality in education led to “bussing” of school children, often over very long distances, in order to provide an even ethnic mix in all schools. Just imagine trying to introduce something like that over here! The differences between two primary schools cause quite enough trouble. (Though just how does it happen that one school has an Asian majority, while another has hardly any Asians?)

Hamburger Hill

There has been a crop of films about Vietnam lately, as the United States finally starts to come to terms with its recent history. Hamburger Hill is the latest of these, and perhaps the best. It shows the battle for a single hill, which the US forces took only after very heavy losses. It doesn’t try to analyse what the war was, or why it was. You simply get a nightmare slice of the action.

Like most such films, Hamburger Hill is only concerned with what the war was like for the Americans who fought there. You get a recognition of just how tough the enemy are, and you get just one reminder that the enemy are human too. But in general, the Vietnamese view of things is almost ignored. Just as it was during the actual war, which is a major reason why America did not win it.

The conflict in Vietnam was between two forms of nationalism – a strong and well-organized Communist nationalism, and a weaker, younger and less definite pro-Western nationalism. America’s great mistake was to take over the fighting from the pro-Western nationalists (weak and corrupt though they were). The more it became a war between American and Vietnamese, the less it was possible for the Americans to win it. I wonder if there will ever be a Hollywood film that will recognise this (as some of the later westerns tried to recognise the Indian point of view)?

[All we got was the 1993 film Heaven & Earth, based on the memoirs of a Vietnamese woman initially helping the Viet Cong, but who fled to US control after being suspected of having become a spy.  The proper story of Vietnam’s American War remains to be told in film in English, the established global language.]

The “Front Line” moves on

Up until a few months ago, there was a flourishing community of drug-dealers in All Saints Road in West London, near to Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill. These illicit entrepreneurs responded to market forces in a way Margaret Thatcher could hardly have approved of.

At first it was mostly people selling marijuana; later dealers in more dangerous drugs moved in. Also some of the entrepreneurs used devious methods to improve their profit margins and enhance their cash flow. Customers were sold liquorice as “African Black” cannabis, crushed Anadin [headache] tablets as cocaine, “Grass” that really was grass. There were also numerous disputes between the different entrepreneurs. which tended to get sorted out with knives. or even with machetes. The whole scene was getting very nasty indeed. As a traditional poem put it.

“Lord, where be All Sinners
“If this be All Saints?”

Things got worse and worse.  For a long time the police left All Saints along. Presumably, they preferred to keep the problem in one area where they could keep an eye on it. But as things got worse, there was increasing pressure on them to stop turning a blind eye to lawbreaking. Eventually the police moved in in force, arresting or driving out the entrepreneurs. Since most of these individuals were black, a few silly journalists raised the cry of racism and police brutality. But not many – the whole thing had clearly got totally out of hand The local residents, black and white, were mostly glad to see these characters cleared out.

At the time of writing, the police presence is massive and highly visible. Time will tell if the change is permanent. But so far, it seems to be sticking. The Notting Hill Carnival was a critical test. There was violence, indeed – but very little of it was aimed at the police. A soft-drinks seller was murdered, a number of visitors were mugged and robbed. A few stones were thrown at the police. But nothing more.

[In a previous issue of the magazine, I had said that the Broadwater Farm riots were ‘Reformist Riots’.  That the Afro-Caribbean community was finding its place in Britain.[A]  And so it has proved, despite nasty Tory racism like the Windrush Scandal.]

Hess the Peacemaker

Hess’s suicide caused a few ripples around the world. But only a few. Nazism is basically a dead issue. Before 1939, Nazism was a major world ideology, in conflict with both Communism and Western-style Democracy. It came quite close to smashing both, but it failed. And since Nazism was a creed where the stronger were seen as morally superior to the weaker, there was no real future for Nazism after this defeat. Neo-Nazis are a nasty but unimportant remnant.

Things could have been very different. The critical factor was Britain’s Resistance after the fall of France. Hitler wanted to make peace with Britain. According to his racist ideology, Anglo-Saxons and Celts should have been the natural allies of Germans. He would have been quite willing to leave Britain alone, had Britain been willing to leave him alone. He didn’t want to conquer Britain, or to take away the British Empire. Moreover, the odds were now vastly against Britain. To fight on alone was unreasonable.

But Britain chose to be unreasonable. Britain in those days saw itself as a guarantor of civilized standards throughout the world. There was a great unwillingness to give up that role and let Hitler’s victories become permanent.

The lack of a peace with Britain was to prove fatal for Hitler and Nazism. He controlled Western and Central Europe – but Britain cut him off from the rest of the world. and from the oil and raw materials he needed. Had Britain made peace, it is utterly unlikely that the United States would ever have entered the war. And without the support that the Soviet Union got from Britain and America, it is doubtful that the Nazi invasion of Russia could ever have been thrown back.

Clearly, Hess must have had this in mind when he flew to Britain. We may never know just what he was planning, or what secret contacts he may have had. His journey occurred before Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, and it is uncertain if Hess knew that the invasion was being planned. But whether he knew or not, the advantages of a peace between Britain and Germany would have been obvious to him.

We may never know just what game Hess was playing. All we know for certain is that he failed. But there could have been a large number of politicians who were secretly ready to make peace, on reasonable terms. Britain was suffering, the future was uncertain. Peace would have meant abandoning millions to Nazi tyranny. Peace would have been a soft option. but an attractive one.

It is an odd fact that the politicians who appeased Hitler during the 1930s were very much the moderate wing of the Tory Party. Churchill was the leading figure of the Hard Right- much more substantial. and more popular, than those [like Oswald Mosley] who were actually pro-Hitler.

The Baldwin/Chamberlain tradition gets less credit than it deserves, because it failed to deal with Hitler. But on other matters, their instincts were certainly sound. They tried to grant Dominion status to India – and Churchill played a large part in preventing this. From the viewpoint of the 1980s, we may see a very big difference between appeasing Adolf Hitler and appeasing Mahatma Gandhi. But at the time, it was not so obvious.

Hess must have hoped that there were appeasers and moderates with whom he could talk, given the setbacks Britain had suffered. We don’t know quite whom he may have had in mind, nor if he had any solid basis for believing it. But if there had been a large body of politicians ready to do such a deal, there is good reason to think that the matter would have been hushed up. That’s the way the British ruling class works. Such men would not have been Quislings or traitors; simply honest men who misjudged the situation.

(It has even been suggested that Rab Butler might have been one of this group. It seems bizarre – his politics were miles away from Nazism. But then so were Chamberlain’s. And it is rather strange that he kept on being passed over for Leader of the Tory party.)

We’ll be lucky ever to know the truth. Hess is dead, and any secrets he had have died with him.

[Hess remains a mystery, with some people claiming he was not the real Hess.  Myself, I can’t see why a pretence should have been maintained long after it ceased to matter.

[I have done a study of what I think Hitler should have offered: ‘How Hitler Might Have Had a Victorious Peace’.[B]

[Harry Turtledove has an Alternate History series in which the World War starts in 1938 and Hess’s mission succeeds.[C]  But I found the later events improbable.]

Time Out of Mind

Time Out has been trying to start a campaign against Winston Silcott’ s conviction for the murder of PC Blakelock. They ran a few pages on the subject in their August 12-19 issue.

The campaign itself is silly, and utterly unlikely to succeed But some of the things they say are of interest. They give a description of the killing of Anthony Smith. (Silcott was charged with this killing, but not yet convicted. at the time of the Broadwater Farm riot. .According to Time Out, this was the culmination of a long-running feud, that began when a friend of Silcott was cheated over the sale of a stolen cheque book. There were a series of fights, culminating in the killing of Smith.

It also seems that Silcott had stood trial for murder once before, for allegedly killing a musician-cum- hospital worker called Leonard McIntosh. According to Time Out:

‘This gave a double lift to his reputation. To some of the young ones he became the man ‘who killed and got off the case’. To the police, for whom he always reserved his most fearsome profile, he became an object off ear and mistrust.”

Time Out seems to see nothing odd about the fact that a man acquitted of murder is widely assumed to have done it, whereas the same man once convicted of murder gets a campaign to proclaim his innocence.

[Silcott served 18 years.  Now free, he has had a couple of convictions for theft.[D]]


These newsnotes appeared in October 1987, in Issue 4 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.