Newsnotes 005 – January 1988

Notes On The News

by Madawc Williams


The King’s Cross tragedy

There’s been some dispute about who should bear the guilt for the tragic fire at King’s Cross Underground. Some have blamed Thatcher and the Tory cuts. Others have blamed the way the system was run, regardless of cuts.

In fact, there is some truth in both these views. Cuts do put everyone under a greater strain. Given a government demand that they cut spending, it was unlikely that the management would take the precautions recommended after the last serious fire on the Underground.

The government demands that both British Rail and the London Underground should “pay for themselves”, that they should raise their cash from their passengers. But roads are provided as a public service, on the basis of social need. Therefore rail services become worse and more expensive. More commuters start to bring their cars into work, making the roads even more crowded. But the “miracle of the market” does not correct matters. Better and wider roads are provided, to try to meet the social need. Meanwhile British Rail and the Underground are told to “balance their books”, which means cutting back services and pushing even more commuters onto the roads.

Public transport is subsidised in almost all of the advanced industrialised countries. If you look at the full social cost, including road safety, noise and pollution, it is much cheaper to subsidise railways and buses than to try to let private cars do the job. But Tory governments tend to take a narrow view.

On the other hand, anyone who has used the Railways or Underground knows their weaknesses. Attitudes tend to be unfriendly and unhelpful. If there’s a delay, you often won’t be told why. The Underground is particularly bad; you’ll be kept waiting in a tunnel for ten or fifteen minutes, and given a vague explanation only when the train is ready to move again. Another case is the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow.

During early morning runs, it would stop at various District Line stations between Hammersmith and Acton Town. No warning was given of this odd behaviour – at least it wasn’t last time I travelled that way. You could easily think you were going the wrong way, or were on the wrong train. One gets the strong feeling that the people who run the system don’t give a damn what you think.

Public transport is supposed to be a public service. But the people who work on it often seem to view the system as a thing in itself, with passengers as an unwanted annoyance. It’s an easy mode of thinking to get into. Just keeping a complex transport system running is hard enough; to have consideration for those who use it, to remember that they too are human, is harder still. And, regrettably, there has never been any simple way of keeping public transport under effective public control.

The King’s Cross fire may have broken out because of shortage of funds and cutbacks in staff. But the fire became a massive tragedy only because it was handled wrongly. We won’t know the full facts until the Inquiry, which is likely to take some time. But it seems clear that there was a drastic misunderstanding of what was happening, and that passengers were actually sent up into the fire. Trains continued to run, which may have made things worse by providing an air-flow for the flames. But they were not used to evacuate anyone – they didn’t stop at all.

Thatcherism relies on private greed, and the hope that market forces will somehow enable social needs to be met. Traditional Labour Party policies have been to boost public spending and monopoly public enterprises – but without either workers’ control or effective social control. The sinking of the “Herald of Free Enterprise” was a dramatic example of the weaknesses of Thatcherism. The King’s Cross tragedy highlights the weaknesses of both systems, and the need for something better.


Lord Help Us

This year, as every year, the New Years’ Honours List is the usual mixed bag. Failed or retired politicians. Prominent businessmen – some of whom have been generous contributors to Tory party funds. A gentleman who was led by his sense of duty to be economical with the truth. And some genuinely worthy people and deserving cases – such as the heroes of the ferry disaster.

It’s an odd system, really. The titles derive from military chivalry and feudal land-holding, and were largely formalised during the Middle Ages. Some titles, such as Duke and Count, have their roots in the later stages of the Roman Empire. But such things have largely lost their meaning. I’m not sorry that society has developed past that stage. There was plenty of brutality, oppression and treachery, along with all the honour and chivalry. But the system certainly had its merits.

Knighthood used to be a serious matter, awarded after proof of courage in battle. And it did persuade warriors to behave rather better than they would have without the ethic of chivalry. It’s long since become an irrelevance. These days, you have “knights” who would be hard put to it to fight off an angry wasp! Though the military/chivalric tradition is not entirely dead, it is no longer very important. The armed forces have it, but as a tradition of their own. In general, titles and coats of arms have become a matter of snobbery. So much so that some quite intelligent observers have forgotten that they ever meant anything else.

(For instance, Evelyn Waugh in his “Sword of Honour” trilogy expresses much indignation about the “Sword of Stalingrad” – a ceremonial sword that the British gave to the City of Stalingrad in honour of its victory over the Nazis. This strikes me as showing a basic misunderstanding of what such things once meant. The military/chivalric tradition was quite prepared to honour courage and skill in arms as such, without regard for the context. Saladin, who drove the Crusaders out of the Holy Land, was widely admired by them. Even in 20th century Britain, out-and-out enemies could be highly regarded – Baron von Richthofen in World War One, and Rommel in World War Two, for instance. Thus there was nothing very odd about honouring a former and future enemy, who at that moment happened to be an ally. Not unless you see snobbery as being the main point of the matter, as Waugh almost certainly did.)

In so far as the military/chivalric tradition survives in British society, it is fairly far removed from the whole “honours system”. Mostly it is just a matter of silly snobbery, and ceremony that long ago lost its real context. It overlaps with real life only in one area – the House of Lords, which does have some real political functions. In the past, it has been a centre of resistance to the reforms of left-wing governments. At present, it is functioning as a small but definite check on Thatcherism.

It also provides a home for old politicians – and some of them continue to do useful work. With Life Peerages, its hereditary role has already been greatly reduced. It might seem logical to abolish it completely, and then replace it with some completely different sort of “upper house” that was chosen on a quite different basis. But British politics rarely works like that. The normal pattern is for old institutions to take on new functions, and to become something quite new under a venerable old name. Unless one is thinking of overthrowing the whole political system in a violent revolution, one might as well accept this fact and plan accordingly. A sensible reform would be to:

(a) exclude all hereditary members who have not been active in its legislative work, and prevent anyone else inheriting a place in future. (Since the Act of Union between England and Scotland, there have been plenty of old and genuine titles that did not confer membership of the House of Lords. So no really new principle would be involved).

(b) Make a title an optional extra for members. If they really wanted to call themselves Lord Wigan Pier or whatever, they could still do so. But more sensible individuals could avoid all such silly paraphernalia. They would simply be “Member of Parliament (House of Lords)”.

[Thirty years on, a limited reform has happened.]

Gulf Stalemate

Wars tend to have a momentum of their own. The Korean war had become a complete stalemate by 1951, and yet lasted until 1953. (Formally speaking, it continues till this day. But the actual fighting ended in 1953). It was clear by 1969 that the US could win no definite victory in Vietnam, yet it took till 1973 to secure a formal peace, and a further two years until the war ended with the collapse of the Saigon regime.

The Gulf war may prove to be a similar case. It will be hard for the Iranian leadership to make peace on the same sort of terms that they could have had years ago, precisely because they chose to push on and fight the war for those extra years.

The war started with a ruthless and unprincipled attempt by Iraq’s leadership to grab the Arab part of a seemingly weak Iran. But the Iranians held out, and recovered what they had lost. The Iraqis were willing to admit failure, and return to the status quo ante. But the Iranian leadership decided to carry on, and make the Iraqis pay. Morally speaking, they had a good case. The Iraqi leadership had indeed done wrong, and did deserve punishment. But the price of trying to enforce punishment is out of all proportion to the possible benefits of making a rather unpleasant bunch of Iraqi politicians pay the price for their misdeeds.

Or rather – from our point of view, the price seems out of all proportion. The trouble is, the Iranians treat religion as a matter of undeniable truth, rather than conventional piety. If the casualties of war really do go to Allah’s paradise, why should one hesitate to add to their numbers?

The war goes on, but seems to be getting nowhere. In L&TUR 4, I argued that the Iranians would not in fact dare fight the US fleet. I reckoned that their threats were mostly bluster – and so they have proved. The US fleet could do more damage in one day that all the world’s terrorists have done in the last 20 years, and the Iranians know it. Therefore, they stick to attacking those ships the US fleet is not protecting.

On land, Iran goes on trying to break through the Iraqi defensive lines. But to do this needs great military skill, or else vastly superior numbers. The signs are that the task is beyond them. Moreover, the other Arab states could send military aid if need be. Egypt has now been more-or-less forgiven for having made peace with Israel. Their army is probably quite as good as Iran’s or Iraq’s – it is only wars· against Israel that have made them look inferior. If Iraq were to start to collapse, Gulf State money and Egyptian manpower could be used to save it. But it is just as likely that Iraq will hold on by its own power. As for an end to the war – sad to say, that might be years away.

[The war did indeed end indecisively, with Saddam still cherished in the West.  It was only after the Soviet collapse in Eastern Europe that he was suddenly redefined as wicked by the Anglo powers – see ‘When Saddam Hussein Was a Western Hero]


Human life

If a woman’s womb were the size of an average room, how big would the fertilized egg be? As large as a football? As large as a ping-pong ball? As large as a marble?

In fact, the blastocyst is as small as 0.008 inches, and on this scale would be barely larger than a pinhead! The fertilized egg is human life, of a sort. So, indeed, are cancer cells. But it is a very long way from being a human being.

The government’s White Paper, Human Fertilization and Embryology: a Framework for Legislation tends to confuse matters. The earlier Warnock Report took a much more logical line. Up to the 14th day, a fertilized egg may give rise to a human being, or to two or more human beings, or to nothing at all. Fully half of them give rise to nothing at all.

In vitro fertilization, used mainly as a cure for infertility, tends to produce a surplus of fertilized eggs. Researchers tend to view such fertilized eggs as only one step up from the sperm and unfertilized eggs, which no one at all tries to treat as human. One or two of these fertilized eggs will be placed in the womb and, with luck, will develop into an embryo, a foetus and in due course a baby. The rest have no future.

The White Paper proposes that MPs be offered two alternatives; to allow the eggs with no future to be used for research; or to insist that they be left alone to perish (as they inevitably will). The government will give no guidance as to which of these two options should be preferred. And the danger is, MPs will be swayed by the arguments of small but determined pressure groups, and end up banning all research on fertilized eggs.

If this does happen, a lot of human beings are going to suffer as a result. Research on fertilized eggs could help reduce the tragedy of still-born, short-lived or hopelessly crippled babies. Such research might also be used to screen fertilized eggs from a couple who risk passing on some lethal or crippling malady. The fertilized eggs could be screened, and a perfectly healthy one placed in the womb; eliminating a lot of worry and avoiding the need for some late-stage abortions.

Ironically, it is some of the anti-abortion groups who are campaigning against research on fertilized eggs. (New Scientist, 3rd December 1987, p23). These groups claim to be pro-life. In fact they are nothing of the sort. They simply have a superstitious refusal to allow human knowledge to be used to protect human life. They claim that every fertilized egg has a human soul. One might speculate that a benevolent and all-knowing god would refrain from giving a soul to those fertilized eggs that he knew were not going to become human beings and have a chance to do good or evil. But that’s not how the “pro-life” people see it. Nor do they follow through the logic of their own arguments. Fully half of the fertilized eggs created in the natural way of things will fail to develop, and be lost in the monthly menstrual flow. Logically, these people should be insisting that every used sanitary towel should be baptised and given a religious burial. But logic is hardly their strong point.

It’s easy to laugh at the “pro-life” characters, and then do nothing at all to oppose them. Bills on abortion are certain to be the object of heavy lobbying from both sides. Bills on fertilization are more likely to be ignored by everyone except the religious nutters. It’s something to watch out for. If possible, write to your MP when the matter comes to be debated.


Lloyd of London

I’m not in the habit of reading the New Statesman. You usually know what it’s going to say without the expense of buying it, or the trouble of reading it. But recently I happened to see what John Lloyd, its departing editor, had to say about Enniskillen.

Now I knew John Lloyd when he was involved in serious politics. He was much less well known in those days, of course. But he was serious about his politics; trying to change the world, instead of making a career for himself. He grew fed up, when the world showed itself unwilling to change in the ways we hoped it would change. At the time, I felt this was fair enough. He’d served his time trying to change the world; if he’d lost confidence in what he was doing, it was better that he should get out rather than hang around moaning.

Regrettably, Lloyd seems to have been unable to make a clean break with his past. He was doing very well as a journalist on the Financial Times, giving an accurate account of events without pretending that he was trying to change them. But his activities as editor of the New Statesman have been really disgraceful.

As far as I can see, the New Statesman acts as an antidote to thought. So does Tribune, though in a different way and with a greater pretence of radicalism. They are there to maintain existing ideology, not to promote anything new. New ideas arc developed elsewhere, fight their way through to acceptance within the Labour movement, and are only then picked up and accepted in the Tribune or New Statesman view of things.

So what was Lloyd going to do as editor of the New Statesman? Unlike most of the people there, he was not a sincere believer in New Statesman ideology. In particular, he had been – and probably still is – a believer in the “Two Nations” view of Northern Ireland; rejecting not only IRA violence but also the whole notion of a United Ireland as either practical or desirable.

So what was he to do as editor?  The answer was, very little. he showed that he still had his beliefs, but lacked the guts to express them in a way that would be understood by anyone who didn’t already know them. He wrote editorials that could be seen as implying that Labour should organise in Northern Ireland. But they didn’t actually say that. Time after time, he would go half way and then stop.

In essence, Lloyd has carried on the New Statesman tradition of being an antidote to thought. The idea of Labour organising in Northern Ireland has been making some progress in Labour Party circles; therefore the New Statesman picks it up and tries to smother it with vagueness. Lloyd knows better, but does not act on his beliefs. Such behaviour is far too common in Labour Party circles. The Kinnockites have a more conventional left ideology, but are just as unwilling to stand up for what they believe in. But do they really think that the voters will be happy with people who don’t have the courage of their convictions?


These Newsnotes appeared in January 198, in Issue 5 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  One of many on the website.  See