Notes on the News
by Madawc Williams
- Disorder in Kensington
- Benn’s Blunder
- Leonid Who?
- Iran after the peace
- Heart to heart
- Jordan and the PLO
- A skyful of planets
- Salad Democrats
Every few months, someone points to the large percentage of the population who do not vote, and argue that this means that a lot of people have rejected British democracy.
Actually, it means just the opposite. It means that a great many people have such a complacent faith in British democracy that they don’t care who gets elected, assuming that nothing much can go wrong whoever gets in.
From time to time, people will campaign on the assumption that people are desperately seeking some alternative to the politics we have. In fact, hardly anyone is these days. A lot more of us were looking for alternatives in the 1960s and 1970s. But Labour wasted that opportunity, especially by ignoring the chance for workers’ control in the 1970s.
In the Kensington by-election, the radical alternative was offered by Class War, a small group of politically-motivated louts who claim to be anarchists. In the event, “Class War” got only one third of the votes obtained by a classy whore, Mrs Cynthia Payne. She got 193 votes; they got 60. Even Screaming Lord Sutch did better than “Class War”.
For better or worse, serious left-wing electoral politics does not exist outside the Labour Party. And even the Labour Party needs to shake itself up, if it is to have a hope of being elected. And Neil Kinnock, a lapsed leftist who does not know the difference between practicality and cynicism, is probably not the man to do it.
Political democracy in Britain was firmly established in 1688. At the time, of course, it was democracy within a limited class who were interested in running the country. Benn is correct to say that the franchise was “limited to a tiny percentage of rich men”. (The Independent, 7th July 1988).
But at the time, the broad mass of the population was not demanding a wider franchise. It was only in the late 18th century, with “Wilkes and Liberty”, that a major popular movement began arguing that ordinary people were fit to govern themselves. Parliament was not actually reformed at all until 1832 — and that reform reduced the franchise in some constituencies.
Mass democracy in 1688 would have been impossible. Only a few advanced radicals argued that it might be desirable. The mass of the population did not think itself fit to govern. Indeed, it is probable that they genuinely were not fit to govern even if the ruling class had wanted them to. A century later, the radical democratic movement led by John Wilkes was ruined by the Gordon Riots of 1780: mass protests against Catholic Emancipation. The ruling class felt that it was safe to treat the Catholic minority as equal citizens, rather than potential traitors. The bulk of the radical democrats of the time did not agree; they remained anti-Catholic bigots.
What 1688 created was a system that could start out as democracy for a tiny percentage of rich men, and be gradually extended to more and more people. It managed this without the destructive factionalism that ruined both the Greek city-states and the Roman Republic. Socialists should be making use of the system, not sneering at it.
The latest stage in glasnost seems to be a suppression of books by former Soviet leaders. According to The Independent,
“The writings of the late Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Konstantin Chernenko have been ordered to be removed from libraries …. librarians were also advised to remove materials about party congresses held under Leonid Brezhnev, and to tell readers that the documents had been borrowed” (17th August 1988).
This fits in with the whole way glasnost has been run. It is well known that part of the party hierarchy are against it. But no one is officially against it. The party line is for more openness, and let no one dare to be openly against this!
In 1917, Lenin was certain that Soviets and one-party rule would prove a much more democratic system than “bourgeois democracy”. And despite everything, there are still some people who believe this.
Lenin’s system excluded the idea of a “loyal opposition”. When there were two rival factions, the losers automatically became villains, scoundrels, traitors and spies. He assumed that since the Bolsheviks represented the working class, and were committed to bringing about a socialist utopia, opposition was of necessity treason.
In this context, it is interesting to note what the Communist Manifesto says about democracy. The Communist Manifesto says nothing at all about democracy. Even though it was written at a time when progressive left-wing thought was very much identified with the struggle for parliaments and constitutions, it keeps a judicious silence about such matters.
Under Lenin, and with Trotsky still very much part of the leadership, all rival forms of socialism and left-wing thought were rooted out. Russian anarchism and populism, which had survived the worst the Tsars could do, did not survive the Bolsheviks. There was also a small purge of Bolshevik dissidents, the Workers’ Opposition. The pattern was set well before Stalin became Number One, and would probably have been much the same if one of his rivals had won out instead.
Khrushchev did not really change this system, although he undermined its logic. Up until his denunciation of Stalin, loyal communists could believe that the harshness of the system was justified. This was no longer a possible view. When a leader called his predecessor a madman and criminal, it was obvious that at least one of them was unfit to rule.
In the Soviet Union, you never know what is going to happen yesterday. Bukharin et al. were heroes up until the 1930s, and then became criminal. Under Khrushchev, they almost got rehabilitated, but not quite. Under Brezhnev, everything stagnated. Now finally they are rehabilitated, and Brezhnev, “the best leader since Lenin” while he lived, is denounced as a corrupt old man who hung on for far too long.
If this were the judgement of the Soviet people, openly arrived at after free debate, one might. say that real democracy had arrived at last It is not. It is just the latest party line, from the current Number One. And who can say that it will never change again?
[I was correct in not taking Gorbachev seriously. Absolutely no one thought he was about to crash the system. But I did a fuller analysis recently, see Gorbachev: How to Wreck Everything and Be Loved by Your Country’s Enemies.]
In L&TUR 7, I said that Iran would soon have to accept that they’d made a mistake in thinking that God would grant them victory in the war against Iraq. Both sides had finally realised that the war was futile.
As W. H. Auden put it:
When statesmen gravely say “We must be realistic”
The chances are they’re weak and therefore pacifistic
But when they speak of Principles – look out – perhaps
Their Generals are already porin& over maps
Peace actually happened soon after the magazine was published. I was also not surprised that Iraq showed a reduced enthusiasm for peace, having just had some military success. The Iraqi regime is immoral, and the Iranian one operates on an unfamiliar and not very likeable system of morality.
The geo-political question has now stabilised. Iran is unlikely over the next few years to be able to carry its Islamic Revolution to the Arab states that lie west and south of it. The gamble of putting Western fleets into the Gulf has paid off.
On the other hand, they may hope that chances are opening up both to the east and to the north. I doubt if the Afghan guerrillas will be in Kabul all that soon; they are too factional. But a continuing war gives Iran the chance to go on building up its influence. And they need not stop with Afghanistan.
The USSR has its own Muslim minority, large and badly under-represented in the corridors of power. It is not impossible that they might one day revolt on an Islamic-fundamentalist basis, particularly if the retreat from Afghanistan comes to be seen as a defeat for the Soviet system. Iran can hope for this, anyway.
There is also Pakistan. The late President Zia was a devout Muslim who promoted a form of fundamentalism. But he also had it very much under his control; it was fundamentalism dependent on the state power of the President and his army. But this too could change. And even though the Pakistanis are mostly Sunni Muslims, Shiite Iran could play an important part if the country were to become unstable.
I would like to think that the end of the Gulf War would mean a pragmatic and non-missionary Iran. But I fear that this will not be the case. It is more likely that the Iranian leadership have been looking back to the defeats and strategic retreats in the career of the Prophet Mohammed. And that they have not yet lost hope of re-shaping the world according to their Islamic vision.
[At that time, Iran’s Shia Islam was the main radical force. Sunni extremists like Bin Laden were still fighting in Afghanistan, and being praised by the US media.
[People like Bin Laden insist that it was US misbehaviour after the Soviet collapse that made them enemies of the USA. In particular the USA inflicting vast sufferings on Iraq in an effort to get rid of Saddam Hussein while keeping his system intact. On this point, I believe them.]
Humans can live OK without eating meat. But meat eating is hardly likely to be forbidden. Thousands of lives could be saved by transplants from animals, if the technique should ever be perfected. But there is a danger that it may be banned.
Transplant surgery saves lives. But it depends on taking the organs of dead humans; usually after a sudden and tragic death. (Organs from the old or chronically sick are mostly not usable). There is therefore a chronic shortage of organs for transplants, even though the surgery keeps getting better.
Using animal organs would solve a lot of the problems. One would not have to upset grief-stricken relatives by asking if one could take a few bits out of the dear departed. Society already kills hundreds of thousands of pigs, cows, sheep etc. for food. To kill a few more for transplant organs should not offend any ethical principle.
The idea of putting animal organs into humans is an odd one, and a bit upsetting at first. But then so is the idea of taking bits of other humans for the same purpose. The human hand and brain are superior to those of the pig or cow; the other organs are very much the same.
Actually, the whole thing seems to have been a bit of a false alarm. The idea is still far from being proven or practical. And the surgeon who spoke to the press about it has now left the research programme. His colleagues were angry at him for generating so much unwelcome publicity without their knowledge or consent.
But I doubt if we have heard the last of it. It is almost certain that animal transplants will become possible, in due course. And I trust that those of us who eat meat will raise no objections to this life-saving possibility.
[It still could happen. But there is a legitimate fear that viruses that have merged with the pig genome could separate and become serious diseases if the tissue was moved to a human.]
At the start of the 20th century, the territories that are now Jordan, Syria, Israel and The Lebanon were all part of the Ottoman province of Greater Syria. Jordan exists because King Hussein’s grandfather swept in from Mecca and took that bit for himself. The Lebanon was created for the Lebanese
Christians, who did not want to be a tiny minority in an Arab state. And Israel was created by Jews who had good reason to think that they would only be safe in a state of their own.
Jordan was originally Transjordan. The West Bank was up for grabs when Israel took over the rest of the British mandate territory of Palestine. In a similar manner, the Egyptians took over the Gaza Strip.
The Gaza Strip remained as a left-over when Egypt and Israel finally agreed peace. Egypt did not want it; Israel was not going to let it go except as part of a wider peace. Their hope was always to be able to hand over Gaza and most of the West Bank to Jordan, since Jordan was willing to co-exist . with Israel. But the PLO and most of the other Arabs rejected such a solution, and as time went by many Israelis became unwilling to hand over the West Bank on any terms.
Jordan has now pulled out They are giving the PLO a chance to show what it can do. Perhaps King Hussein hopes that they will make a total mess and have to invite him back. Or perhaps he has just got tired of the stalemate.
What the Palestinians should do is to agree to co-exist with Israel, and then seek negotiations about the borders. Co-existence is what they should have opted for in 1948, when the UN partition plan would have given them far more land than they could hope for now. The Palestinians were foolish then; unwilling to see that both they and the Jews had a just claim to the land. There is little sign that time has made them any wiser.
[I supported the Oslo Agreement, which seemed to produce such a settlement. And I now hold Israel guilty of using every incident by a militant Palestinian minority opposed to compromise as an excuse for not allowing a real Palestinian state. See Zionism’s Suicidal Militancy.]
In the nineteenth century, it was thought that the earth and the other planets of the solar system were rare accidents. There might be life elsewhere in the Solar System, especially Mars. But the chances of planets around other stars seemed remote.
The old idea was that planets had been drawn out of the sun after a close encounter with another star, which would be a rare event indeed. But more modern theories suggest that stars and planets form at much the same time, condensing out of an original nebula. In this case, planets will be very common.
The trouble is, we do not know for sure. We see the other planets of our own solar system only because they are so very close to us, in astronomical terms. The outer three planets were not known about at all until the invention of the telescope. There may even be a tenth planet, too small and dim to have been found yet. And it would be a close neighbour, compared to even the closest of the stars. If they have planets, we would not be able to see them.
But the evidence looks quite good Astronomers have found clouds of dust and gas around a few young stars, just as the theory predicted. And other stars have “wobbles” in their motion; wobbles caused by something in orbit about them. The “something” could be a Brown Dwarf, a tiny and relatively cool star. Or it could be a large planet. Indeed, there may be no sharp distinction between large planets and Brown Dwarfs; the two classes of object merge into each other.
We still lack proof that there are planets like Earth round any other star in the galaxy. But it seems likely that such proof will be found over the next few years, especially when the Hubble Space Telescope is finally launched. (Being above the atmosphere, it will see far more clearly than anything we have now).
[The first confirmed exoplanet was found in 1992. Some of the older suspected cases were correct: others were not. Long-standing claims to have detected a planet round Barnard’s Star were wrong, but actual planets of an unexpected sort were later found.]
‘The centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. The anarchy is still very minor, mere fringe anarchy. But the centre ground of British politics is indeed failing to hold. A prolonged Civil War among centrists seems to have finally ended with David Owen as leader of a substantial SDP remnant and Paddy Ashdown in charge of something that calls itself the Social and Liberal Democrats for the present, but may very soon change its name again.
Political parties flourish to the degree that they can tolerate diversity and combine large numbers of people who are not entirely like-minded. At present, the Tories are much the most successful in doing this. Labour lost the SDP, and may lose more of its right wing after the TUC’s expulsion of the EETPU. The Liberals ended up splitting the SDP and absorbing the worse half. They have lost the chance for a strong centre party led by Dr Owen, the only centrist who ever looked like a future Prime Minister. But the Tories have avoided splits. When the National Front was flourishing, they managed to hang on to most of their right wing. When the SDP was formed, the Tory wets did not break away and join it.
The SLD, now nicknamed the Salads, are thinking of calling themselves the Democrats. They should take lessons from the US Democrats. Dukakis chose Benson as his running-mate, a conservative southerner to balance a semi-liberal northerner. Jackson spoke as if he were upset by the choice, but acted as if he knew it was the only way to put together a winning coalition.
Given an abstract choice between a Conservative, a Liberal and a Moderate, 41 % of Americans chose the Moderate, 40% the Conservative and only 13% the Liberal. (The Independent, 24th August 1988)
Electoral politics are not worth bothering with unless you follow policies that have some chance of winning elections. But neither the Salad Democrats nor the Labour Party seem to have grasped this simple point.
[The ‘Social and Liberal Democrats’ became Liberal Democrats in 1989, and increasingly asocial in their politics. David Owen’s alternative faded out and he became a Life Peer.
[As at September 2019, the Tories have lost a few members but not yet definitely split.]
With little publicity, and for no very obvious reason, Britain has become the number-two chess playing nation over the past few years. For the first time ever, Britain has a representative in the world semi-finals.
Everyone had been expecting that it would be Nigel Short. He is ranked as number three in the world. But unexpectedly, he lost the quarter-final match to fellow-Briton Jon Speelman, ranked number five.
The quarter-finals got little publicity; they were shown on television, but only after midnight. Let’s hope the semi-finals get a bit more attention.
These Newsnotes appeared in October 1988, in Issue 8 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. One of many old articles now on the web.