Newsnotes 010 – March 1989

Notes on the News

by Madawc Williams

Arabs and Israelis

If Yassir Arafat does manage to get an independent Palestinian state it will be the first since…. the first since the dawn of time, actually. The territory disputed by the Israelis and Palestinian Arabs contained small kingdoms and city-states for as far back as anyone can tell; Jericho may be the oldest city in the world. But this territory has never operated as a separate state – unless one wants to count ancient Israel. For the rest of its history, it has usually been a province of some wider Empire. Or perhaps just part of a province; under the Turks it was just one part of Greater Syria.

Up until the Six-Day War, the West Bank and Gaza Strip were under Arab control. And no one ever seriously considered making them a Palestinian state. Jn those days, the Palestinians thought of themselves as part of a much larger “Arab Nation”, which was expected to sweep aside the divisions imposed on it by colonialism. The Jews might be allowed to exist as a minority within the Arab Nation; there was no question of their having a state of their own.

But in practice, the Arab states continue to act as separate nations. No two of them have ever successfully united; the various schemes have fallen apart very quickly. And the Palestinians, since they were not Jordanians, Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptians or Israelis, were forced to define themselves as a nation.

Had there been no Zionism, it is doubtful if there would have been a modem Palestine. The Gaza Strip accepted Egyptian control, the West Bank seemed quite content to be part of miscalculated and provoked a new round of Arab-Israeli warfare. Palestine became a nation more or less by default; no one else claimed them.

A nation by default is not a nation that can necessarily build a stable state. Arab states seem unable to achieve stability except under some sort of authoritarian rule. Not one has a political system that would in practice allow orderly transition between government and opposition. The most democratic – Sudan and Lebanon – are also the worst governed and the most prone to civil war and chaos.

If Yassir Arafat looked likely to be able to rule an independent Palestine, as a strong and effective leader, then it might be worth Israel trying to do a deal with him and trade “land for peace”. But it’s very hard to believe that he could. A much more likely outcome would be a Lebanese-style chaos – and it was the Palestinians who played a major role in disintegrating the old Lebanon, to the benefit of no one at all.

If the Israelis are looking for a way out of the occupied territories, they might consider trying to restore a very old pattern; a large number of mini-states. They could pull out of one little bit at a time, giving each its own administration and armed forces. Palestinian factionalism would probably guarantee that these mini-states would never be able · to get together into something dangerous.

[As it turned out, I was underestimating the Israeli ambition to take as much of the West Bank as possible.  Arafat did do a deal after the Soviet collapse, and might have made it acceptable to Arab and Muslim opinion.  But Israel kept weakening him, blaming him for failing to keep control of extreme elements.]

For Queen and Yankee

The film For Queen and Country is about a Black Briton who is a veteran of the Falklands, but who finds that people still discriminate against him and that even his citizenship is not secure. This could be the basis for a serious film, but it isn’t It’s the topping for a standard film about violence and killing, of a sort that is much more typical of the United States than Britain.

One oddity is having a Black American playing the Black British hero. Denzel Washington is a good actor, but he is very obviously not a Black Briton; his accent is all wrong.

The film protests about the way Black Britons are treated. And then it won’t employ one for the star role. As a social commentary, it’s a bad joke!

Little Satans

I have little regard for the fashionable literary establishment. Most of the works they cherish seem suitable for the highly advanced aesthetic technique of “existential appreciation”, which bears a superficial and mundane similarity to ignoring them completely. But giving Salman Rushdie a literary prize was a serious and worthwhile deed. If they do nothing else useful for the rest of this century, they will still have earned their keep

Salman Rushdie is an Indian Muslim.  “Salman” is an Islamic version of the ancient Hebrew name that we usually render as “Solomon”. And in Satanic Verses, he tries to sort out his feelings about Islam and its founder. Naturally, he has been attacked by those who want to make Islam crude and dogmatic – a way of hating people, rather than a means of making the world a better place.

Christianity lost its dogmatism in the 19th century. There are still fanatics who deny inconvenient facts, and who use religion as an outlet for their aggression. But they are a clear minority. The vast majority of Britons are either secular or moderate Christians.

Among Muslims, the position is much less clear. Most of them would not like Satanic Verses, but equally do not like the dogmatism of those who want him banned. (It has been other Muslims who have been the main victims of the “Islamic Revolution” in Iran.

Britain has a blasphemy law on its statute books, but it long ago ceased to be effective. The last successful use was against Gay News. A big factor in the success of that prosecution was the propaganda in favour of pederasty that Gay News had also been running. It should not have been relevant, but it was. Most of us would not expect to like any of the contents of Gay News, and are therefore not concerned with what it says about religion. But propaganda in favour of pederasty is another matter.

The general view is that the Lord God, if He exists at all, is well able to look after Himself. Therefore, there is no sense in enforcing the blasphemy laws, and juries had got into the habit of refusing to enforce them. But equally, children cannot be expected to look after themselves, and need protection. Gay News was convicted of blasphemy, to punish it for supporting pederasty; that is most probably how the jury saw it.

In any case, the left should be in favour of the abolition of the blasphemy law, not its extension. Yet feelings of “anti-imperialist” guilt have silenced some of the voices that should have spoken in favour of freedom of expression. One notable exception was Diane Abbott, Labour MP. for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. She has spoken clearly against any ban on Satanic Verses (see the Hackney Gazette February 3rd, page 8).

If it were left to some of the other Labour MPs, it might be a case of:

Salman Rushdie
Banned on Friday
Burned on Saturday
Shot on Sunday
That’s the end of Salman Rushdie!

Postscript on Rushdie

As we go to press, matters have taken a more serious turn, first with lethal riots, and then with the call for Rushdie’ s murder by the Ayatollah Khomeini.

It is time to ask, just how Islamic are these “Islamists” or “fundamentalists” anyway? Islam is usually more tolerant than these characters. An example was set by their founder. Mohammed was ill-treated and insulted for many many years by his rivals in Mecca; they plotted his death, and did torture and kill some of his followers. Yet when he finally triumphed and became ruler of Mecca, he forgave them.

If Khomeini has forgiven anyone, ·it has not made much of an impact on the news. And no one else in the 20th century has been responsible for the death of so many Muslims.

Just what Khomeini is up to is anybody’s guess. He is in effect treating Rushdie as a dangerous rival in the struggle for the soul of Islam. Had he just wanted Rushdie dead, he could have ordered it quietly. For that matter, why did anyone bother with a book that few Muslims would be likely to see, or to find worth reading even if they did see it?

The world-wide condemnation of Rushdie has made him stronger; given his book a potential that it would never otherwise have had. If the Ayatollah’s threat is carried through, this will make him stronger still, as a martyr for a different sort of Islam.

Memories of Japan

After a major war, it is normal for the victors to punish the vanquished. In the case of World War Two, this process was complicated by the fact that the vanquished really had done quite a few things that deserved punishment. The Germans had murdered millions of Jews and other non-combatants. And the Japanese had terribly ill-treated their war prisoners, many of whom died.

The victors did not really apply moral principals in punishing the vanquished, though they naturally pretended to. Useful villains were let off – like Klaus Barbie, or like the Japanese who conducted germ-warfare experiments.[1] Similar things were no doubt done by the Soviet Union, but Glasnost is unlikely ever to apply to such matters.

After World War One, there were calls to ”hang the Kaiser”. He was not hung; but his deposition, and that of the other German monarchs, left behind unfulfilled feelings that were eventually satisfied by Hitler. The Weimar Republic, even in its best days, was never regarded as legitimate by a large minority of Germans. A democratic state with a traditional monarch as figurehead might have stood a better chance. And this is more or less what has existed in Japan since 1945.

It should be understood that the Japanese emperors have seldom been real rulers. Someone else, usually a Shogun, has held the real power. Emperors were honoured but not obeyed.

The Meiji Restoration deposed a dynasty of Shoguns who had ruled Japan for centuries, and ruled it quite well. Japan in the 17th century had decided that it wanted nothing to do with European civilisation. They had cut themselves off, established internal peace, even abolished the use of firearms. Left alone, they might have remained in contented isolation for ever. But in 1854 the Americans sent Commodore Perry with a fleet of ironclads, to overawe the Japanese and force them to become part of the world civilization of the 19th century.

The Japanese realised that they had no choice. They could become a colony, or else they could industrialise and become a colonial power themselves. They chose the latter course; rejecting traditional forms (copied long before from China) in favour of the West. And as part of this re-adjustment, the Shoguns were deposed. This was done as a nominal restoration of the power of the emperor. But the substance of the matter was deposing the Shoguns. The emperors became more important, but they did not become autocrats.

There is no evidence that Hirohito knew anything about the ill-treatment of allied prisoners. Or, indeed, that most Japanese knew very much about it. The prison guards were mostly scum whom not even the army wanted.

It should also be remembered that Europe only gradually acquired the custom of humane treatment of prisoners, after centuries of warfare. In medieval times, common soldiers were usually killed. Prisoners were only kept if they were upper-class and had some ransom value – and even then, might be tortured or might stay for long years in grim dungeons. It was only slowly over the centuries that the “Geneva Conventions” became conventional.

Japan experienced no such process.  They were forced out of a pre-industrial society and into the modem world in a few short decades. And the European colonial powers gave them few good examples. The Japanese were treated with respect, because they were powerful. Other Asian peoples, often with much gentler and kindlier traditions, were treated with contempt.

Hirohito certainly knew that his country was preparing for war, and went along with it. In this, he was no different from most Japanese. The conquest of China was brutal, but no more brutal than the European colonialists had been in earlier times. And the attack on Pearl Harbour was a legitimate strike against a military target. Had the roles been reversed – had the Americans struck first and sunk most of the Japanese fleet – the matter would doubtless have been described in very different terms.

It was wise of the Americans to preserve the Emperor – given that they did not want a radical or Communist Japan. Hirohito legitimised the changeover to an American-style capitalist democracy. As socialists, we might wish they had instead disrupted the society by deposing him. But that would have led to a left-wing neutralist Japan, even a communist Japan, or else to a radical right-wing nationalism on the pattern of Nazism.

If the purpose was to integrate Japan with the capitalist democracies, then preserving Hirohito was unavoidable. He was not a war criminal in any serious sense of the term. He could have been punished for the crime of being head of state of a defeated power. Just as “Lord Haw-Haw” was hung, after some adjustments to the law of treason, for the crime of expressing his sincere belief in the Nazi cause. But a deal was made, and Hirohito certainly kept his side of it.

Britain went along with the deal between Hirohito and the Americans, and benefited from it. Given this, it would have been churlish not to have sent at least a second-rate royal to his funeral.

Science cuts

The government is reacting to the talk about possible bacterial contamination of processed foods. They are closing a food safety laboratory. (New Scientist 28th Jan, p25 – 26). They are also cutting funding to a research project that could protect poultry against salmonella. They think that it is ready to be taken up by some private company. But so far, no one has stepped forward.

Thatcher has presided over a decimation of British science – both pure research, and applied research that is too long-term and general for private funding. Some people have wondered how a science graduate could do such a thing. The truth is – she had no love for science, and would have gone on to become a barrister had she not succeeded in politics. She probably knows just enough to think she knows better than the experts.

British science has always been very good. Industry let the country down. They failed to back useful new inventions that foreign companies then made millions out of. But Thatcher can’t recognise that – not without admitting that the roots of industrial prosperity lie in science, where market forces are not relevant. So she has treated it as wasteful state expenditure. The results will be felt over the next 20, 30 or 40 years.


Kings Cross Fire

One of the managers who resigned after the inquiry over the Kings Cross tube disaster has now got a job with the Channel Tunnel company. Someone remarked· that it was rather like making Klaus Barbie an Ombudsman!


For many months now, people have been campaigning against the deportation of Viraj Mendis. He had no particular right to be here, except that it was said that he faced death if he was returned to Sri Lanka.

He was returned; at the time of writing he is still very much alive. Instead of condemning him and his supporters, for setting a bad example that will surely be used against other would-be refugees, the Defence Campaign is now holding a march to demand that he be let back in. Full marks for persistence, at least.

Fredrick Forsyth and The Devil

On the front of a paperback book, I saw the following:

Fredrick Forsyth

The Master Storyteller The Devil’s Alternative.

We all know what they were trying to say, but still…

[‘The Devil’s Alternative’ was about Ukrainian nationalists as terrorists.  This never happened in the real world.  But after the Soviet collapse, the people of Ukraine managed to give themselves ‘The Devil’s Alternative’ by voting in a series of incompetent leaders.  See]


Fed up with people who send you letters, promising you all sorts of wonderful gifts, except they’re actually just trying to make money out of you?

Cut their profit margin a little, by sending back their Freepost envelope – empty!

Television Magazines

Tired of having to buy two very thick dull magazines, in order to see what’s going to be on Television next week? It seems we won’t have to for much longer. The Brussels Bureaucrats have ruled that BBC and ITV have no right to prevent other publications from giving programme details more than one day in advance. This silly monopoly, maintained by British law, is due to be demolished by EEC law.

John Smith, the Labour spokesman who’s much less bland than his name, is back in action after a few months of heart trouble. And he has gone straight to the point in criticising Lawson. Instead of an indirect squeeze on everyone, via higher interest rates, there should be a specific squeeze on buying consumer goods on credit. Only free-market dogmatism has prevented Lawson from taking this easy alternative.

Satellite television is supposed to give us more freedom of choice. Except that more than half of them will be owned by Murdoch, who already has huge power in the newspaper world. Labour could so easily have passed a strict law forbidding anyone to own more than one newspaper, or more than one of any of the other means of mass communication. The way things are going, satellite television will probably end up giving us an interesting choice between Murdoch and Maxwell!

[This reform happened – magazines including Radio Times now have everything.  And most people have forgotten it.  I never saw it mentioned as a benefit the European Union had brought.]

Judging the IRA

The IRA has “stood down” its Donegal unit, on the grounds that it was killing too many of the wrong sort of people. Oddly enough, no one is demanding that the IRA hold a public inquiry into just how this situation came about.


These Newsnotes appeared in March 1989, in Issue 10 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  For more, see

[1] See for details