Newsnotes 017 – May 1990

Notes on the News

by Madawc Williams

Lithuania – carefully trodden on

Back in L&TUR No. 9, I said that the small nations of the USSR had very little chance of becoming nation-states again. Not because of any of any reasons of abstract justice or morality, but because “the Great Russians dominate the existing set-up, and would probably start a nuclear war before they would agree to let go of the non-Russian territories.”

Since then, the Russian domination of Eastern Europe has collapsed. It collapsed after Gorbachev made it clear that Moscow no longer supported the hard-liners then in power. It collapsed with a thoroughness that must scare any Great-Russian politician looking at the possibilities of a break-up of the USSR. Had they let go two decades ago, instead of invading Czechoslovakia, power in Eastern Europe would probably have passed to the left or centre-left. As things are, it has passed to the centre-right, and no one can be sure what will happen next.

Lithuania seems to have acted naively. They expected the world to react on the basis of abstract United Nations slogans about justice and legality. The world never actually has worked like that – morality is invoked only when it happens to coincide with expediency.

On March 28th, The Independent carried the headline “West treads carefully on Lithuania“. It was a headline that expressed more truth than The Independent could have intended. The West in effect told the Lithuanians that they were Moscow’s possession, unless and until Moscow chose to let them go. No one can force the Red Army out without starting a nuclear war, and not even the most rabid Cold Warrior has the least intention of doing that. They are content to sit back and let the USSR look bad. The realities of the matter are undoubted well understood at the British Foreign Office, and Foreign Office views tend to be obliquely but faithfully reflected by The Independent. (It’s a highly appropriate relationship the Foreign Office often seems to be independent of the rest of the country.)

[Lithuania had declared itself independent on 11th March.  There was an economic boycott.  The country only gained clear independence after the failed coup against Gorbachev in 1991. and Yeltsin’s later decision to collapse the Soviet Union by withdrawing Russia from it.]

There are indeed real perils in a possible break-up of the USSR. If Armenia and Azerbaijan were two sovereign states, they would undoubtedly be fighting a war with each other.

[They did – and it remains unresolved.]

Various other possible claims and counter-claims could have been stirred up, if Lithuania had been allowed to act unilaterally. And the force that would have to deal with this would be the Red Army, which prefers to nip the process in the bud. Gorbachev may not be fully in control of what the Red Army is doing, indeed. The Red Army has since Stalin’s death been the final court of appeal in struggles within the party. The generals have no apparent wish for direct military rule, but they can and do use their influence to decide to who stays in power and who falls from grace.

Lithuania may be able to negotiate its way out of the USSR. But in trying to act unilaterally, the Lithuanian leaders may have been naive. And then again, maybe not. They have the example of Finland, that established its independence by being willing to fight for it against much stronger powers. And the example of what is being done in their country is showing the rest of Europe that Moscow can still be a dangerous neighbour.

Tsar Mikhail?

Thinking about Lithuania makes me wonder just what Gorbachev is after. The state he rules has always contained an ambiguity – its official name is the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but unofficially everyone calls it Russia.

Is Gorbachev a simple Russian nationalist, with no internationalist or imperialist ambitions? It seems to me that he could be. He recognised that Russia was losing the long cold-war struggle with the United States, and that meanwhile other powers were rising – most notably Japan and the European Community. So he changes the rules of the game. He let go of Eastern Europe. He let Russia’s Jews leave without let or hindrance, without any strong sign that he regrets their departure or opposes the popular anti-semitism that is causing them to go. (The Arabs hate him for it, but since Russia has its own oil he needn’t let that concern him.) He does not exclude the possibility of letting non-Russian parts of the USSR go their own way as well, provided that Russian national interests are looked after. And while Western Ukraine has elected nationalist separatists, the part of Ukraine that was in the USSR before World War Two seems to accept the status quo.

It is the European Community that must concern him the most. Moscow has for centuries seen itself as the Third Rome’, in succession to Byzantium, the New Rome of the Emperor Constantine. Part of this view is that there shall be no ‘Fourth Rome’ – yet Brussels is showing signs of becoming one. Moreover, the ‘Fourth Rome’ rules a voluntary association of nations, an association that many neighbouring nations are eager to join. Even as it now is, the European Community is stronger economically than the USSR. And Eastern Europe is gravitating to it, neutrals powers may wish to join.

What can he do about it? Perhaps nothing. He probably will get the 35-power conference he has been calling for – but someone might suggest that Lithuania should also be invited, which would spoil the whole show.

Memories of Stalin

ITV recently had a big documentary about Joseph Stalin. It followed the normal line attributing everything to his personality, and almost nothing to the nature of the Russian Empire or the events in the rest of the world during the 1920s and 1930s.

Lenin took power in 1917, convinced that capitalism was close to break-up. He was able to take power because he struck a chord with the mass of the population in the disintegrating Russian Empire. They knew that capitalism was something that had been imposed on them· by foreigners, and by a ruling class that prided itself on copying foreign ways. But a strictly reactionary development didn’t seem either likely or desirable. They were too westernised to wish for a return to old Russian ways, but also different enough to wish for something of their very own.

Schemes for world revolution failed to come off – but what was the alternative? Not a lot of people wanted democratic capitalism, and anyway there was good reason in the 1920s and 1930s to think that the epoch of democratic capitalism was over. ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ seemed the real choice. Rather, what developed was a ‘barbarous socialism’ that was never the less seen as the main hope of a darkening world. And it was an unlikely alliance of democratic capitalism and barbarous socialism that broke the power of Fascism.

Up until the early 1970s, the two rival world systems seemed to be very much equal competitors. But there ..was a crucial difference. In the West, the ruling elite has taken account of the social upheaval of the 1960s, and allowed greater openness and restructuring. In Eastern Europe and the USSR, nothing was allowed to change. In China, Mao tried to use the energies of the young to revitalise the revolution. This was a gamble for high stakes, and had it come off the world today would be a very different place. Sadly, he failed, producing chaos and leaving socialist idealism badly undermined.

As we enter the 1990s, world capitalism has done many of the things that socialists were demanding it do, or were assuming that it could not do. But socialism as a political movement is back to about its 1920s level of strength. What was built up over three decades, by Stalin in Russia and by Bevin and Attlee in Britain, was frittered away and lost over the next four decades.

I am not suggesting that what Stalin did should ever be repeated. I do say that he was successful, and that the failures were those of his successors.

Belgium – monarchical manoeuvres

Belgium has just been through an extraordinary constitutional manoeuvre. They have a set-up similar to the British one – parliament passes laws, but they also need the Royal Assent. This normally presents no problems – but in the case of a law permitting abortion, King Baudouin had ethical objections.

The solution was both simple and ingenious. The monarch stepped down for a brief period, to allow the law to be passed without him. No doubt something similar would be arranged over here, should such an impasse ever arise.

An Irish joke

Once again, Irish judges have used a legal loophole to stop suspected IRA men being extradited The only surprising thing about this is that people in Britain still find it surprising.

The Irish Republic only exists because the IRA was willing to take on the British state, in 1916 and in the War of Independence. It’s true that the Free State then suppressed the IRA in the Irish Civil War, using much more brutality than the British Army had ever used. But the Free State itself was run by a former faction of the IRA & Sinn Fein, the political ancestors of Fine Gael, the second largest party in the present-day state. The largest party, the present ruling party, is of course Fianna Fail, ‘Soldiers of Destiny’, the part of the defeated Republican movement that was willing to work within the Free State structure. The part that was not so willing carried on and gave rise, among other groups, to the modern Provisional IRA.

The Irish Constitution – introduced by Fianna Fail after they won elections within the Free State political structures – asserts that Northern Ireland should legitimately be ruled from Dublin. But if the Provisional IRA were to stop fighting, this claim would go into the dustbin of history, along with such things as the German claims to much of what is now Poland. So don’t be surprised if Irish judges bend over backwards to find ways of not extraditing IRA men.

(Incidentally, with all the talk about the Birmingham Six, little attention has been given to the fact that the men now said to be the real bombers were suspected, were in some cases arrested and interrogated, but were in fact released for lack of evidence.)

Stars above

As I write, the Hubble Space Telescope has not yet been safely put into orbit. Big satellites can always go wrong, and even if everything goes perfectly it will be some months before the telescope starts giving good results. But when it does, they will be really good.

[It was launched in April.  To everyone’s astonishment, there was a flaw in the optics.  This was fixed by a Space Shuttle mission , and later results were indeed amazing.]File:Hs-2009-25-e-full.jpg

The problem for most telescopes is air. Just as distant mountains look vague and hazy, the air spoils the image and hides some of the most interesting objects. A great deal has been seen by ground-based telescopes, thanks to a great deal of technical ingenuity. But the Space Telescope should show more. With luck, it should be able to see planets going round other suns – not something as small as the Earth, but perhaps something the size of Jupiter. More definitely, it will see very faint objects. Some of these will be totally knew and unexpected. Others will be very distant and very very old, very close in time to the ‘Big Bang’ that began the known universe, some 10,000,000,000 or more years ago.

Whatever happens to the space telescope, other projects will tell us more about the really interesting parts of the Solar System. The Inner Solar System turned out to be fairly dull – the Moon, Mars and Venus were much less interesting than the speculations that we used to have about them. But the Outer Solar System – everything from Jupiter outwards – turns out to be much stranger and more beautiful than anyone had expected. They went well beyond what anyone had ever imagined – one more proof, incidentally, that the universe has an existence quite independent of our view of it.

Amusingly, most of the planets turned out to be quite different from the gods and goddesses they had been named after. But two that fitted rather well were two that were only named in modem times. Uranus seems to have suffered some quite drastic misfortune at some time in the past – this was suspected even before Voyager II got a look at it, because of the strangeness of its axis of rotation. But Neptune, quite against expectations, turned out to be remarkably stormy!

The Galileo probe is on its way to Jupiter. The Space Telescope may be safely in orbit by the time you read this. And as I write, an intense search for a tenth planet in our solar system has narrowed down to one small patch of sky. Interesting times, indeed.

[The possible Tenth Planet was not found.  Pluto was downgraded to the status of Dwarf Planet when several similar objects were found beyond Neptune.  But a new idea for a Ninth Planet has been advanced on the basis of the odd orbit of Sedna and similar objects beyond Neptune.]

Riots – it’s all the rage.

The real trouble with prisons is that they are full of criminals. Full of people who have failed to make one or other of the basic adjustments necessary to living in society. Not everyone in prison is like that, but most of them are. And they are governed and controlled by prison warders, mostly men who like the simplicities and hierarchies of rank and uniform.

British prisons put people under far too much pressure. Strangeways had a very high suicide rate. Sending men there is hardly likely to make them better people, or even to make them contented with life in prison. Britain is out of line with the rest of Europe, in terms of the numbers in prison. But the government seems happy to carry on, meanwhile saving money that is essential to the proper running of the present system.

Prisoners know that they are being unjustly treated, in terms of the generally accepted standards of society. It is probably no accident that the riot started the day after Thatcher’s crazy poll tax policies had provoked a major and well-publicised riot in central London.

The loyal vultures

Back in L&TUR No. 15, I said that Mrs Thatcher should “beware the ides of March”. (Coincidentally, The Independent had a cartoon on just this theme on the 8th March.)

My feeling now is that Thatcher will actually be allowed to carry on and lose the next election. She has refused to go quietly, and to throw her out would do great long-term damage to the party. People in the Tory hierarchy may have decided that they want no Tory equivalent of the German myth of the ‘stab in the back’ – the notion, so useful to Hitler in his rise to power, that Germany was not in fact on the verge of defeat when it surrendered in World War One. To dump Thatcher would leave a · legacy of bitterness and accusations of betrayal. A minority would hold that Thatcher could have won back the lost ground, if only the party had stayed loyal. And the Tories would quite likely lose anyway. Far wiser, from a Tory point of view, to let Thatcher organise her own Gotterdammerung. They are not expecting Labour under Kinnock to make a big success or to last for more than one term. We at L&TUR hope that Labour will prove them wrong – but this must be a matter of hope, not reasonable expectation.

The Tories are certainly in a mess.  Poll tax alone would not have done it, had the economy not been visibly going wrong. Labour councils cannot be blamed for high inflation and high interest rates. Thatcher should either have let Lawson run things his way, or else replaced him much earlier. But poll tax has been a culmination of the Thatcherite way of doing things. If it loses the Tories the next election – as seems likely – she alone will bear the blame.

(Incidentally, Private Eye (April 13th) had a piece about Lord Rothschild’s role in promoting poll tax, originally floated by right-wing think-tanks but widely rejected within Tory circles. Rothschild, going against what one might have expected from him, played a big part in getting the idea accepted. Private Eye does not say it explicitly, but perhaps this is the best reason so far discovered for thinking that Rothschild really was the ‘fifth man’, cleverer and more effective than even Philby.)

My expectation is that there will be another challenge to Thatcher this autumn, but that it will do little better than the previous one. Heseltine and other ‘loyal vultures’ will stay fairly quiet, and let events work themselves out. Thatcherism will be allowed to self-destruct. After that – who knows?

[This was one of my poorer forecasts, of course.  Yet Thatcher only lost by a very small margin.  She had a clear majority, but to win outright she would have needed a majority of 56, and got only 52.  To her surprise, she was then pressured into withdrawing, and John Major replaced her.

[It was said that had she bothered to talk to some of her discontented back-benchers, she would have got enough extra votes to survive.]



These Newsnotes appeared in May 1990, in Issue 17 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at