Newsnotes 020 – November 1990

Notes on the News

by Madawc Williams

Dynamite Mike

I always had the feeling that Michael Gorbachev would balk at serious reform, no matter how much he might talk about it. What I was not expecting that his combination of talking much and doing little would demolish the shaky political structures of the Soviet Empire. Yet this is what has happened. And whether or not Gorbachev intended to free the world from the risk of World War Three by undermining the Superpower he was in charge of, he certainly deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for having done so.

There is a singular fitness in his getting a prize that was inaugurated by the inventor of dynamite. He has managed very effectively to demolish the system he was supposed to be saving. Not that it’s entirely his fault. The system really begin to go off the rails in the 1960s, when Brezhnev refused to allow the outworn one-party political structure to be changed or renewed.

It should be emphasised that it was not socialist state planning that failed The drift since Khrushchev has been towards market socialism. Combined with political democracy, this might perhaps have worked As things were, the whole society has been run by people who didn’t particularly believe in what they were doing, and who very easily went along with nepotism, cronyism and corruption. Naturally, the economy suffered as a result. Quick decisive action by Gorbachev might have turned things round – and a strong Soviet Union would still be confronting the United States, with the ever-present possibility of global nuclear war. Instead, Gorbachev dithered, wrecked the economy and won the Peace Prize. [1]

Read my lips – ‘I am a wimp’

In L&TUR No. 19, we said Bush was a disaster at a time when most other people were calling him a strong and successful president. The rest of the world now seems to have come into line with our view. Opinion in the United States is turning against him, especially after he and Congress managed to run the American budget system onto the rocks.

Bush had been elected by promising not to raise taxes, just as Reagan had before him. This refusal was popular with the voters, who missed the fact that a lot of the benefits went to the very rich. Democrats in Congress want to get rid of the infamous ‘bubble’, whereby the very rich pay a smaller proportion of their income in tax than the moderately well off. Bush has opposed this – he prefers that the budget gap be closed by taking money away from the poor and needy, who mostly vote Democrat anyway.

The American constitution was designed by people who were mostly anxious to prevent tyranny. Efficient modem government was not part of the future they envisaged, and they did their best to set different parts of the state machine against each other. The American government can not decide on a budget and then get it passed into law, as happens in Britain and in most other countries. Congress decides on a budget, and then the President has the option of vetoing it. Naturally, this leads to chaos. And with a division between a Congress that wants to raise taxes and a President who wants to cut welfare, the budget deficit shows few signs of going away.

I suspect that private doubts about Bush’s Gulf policy plays a part. It is now clear that a definite warning from the American government would have stopped Saddam Hussein from invading Iraq. He more or less asked the American ambassador if America would mind, and got an answer that seemed to say that they wouldn’t. Once the deed was done, Bush suddenly leapt into action and started treating Saddam Hussein as a mad aggressor who must be stopped at all costs. But the truth has been slowly emerging – it was all a matter of bad or inconsistent diplomacy. And while few members of Congress wanted to sound unpatriotic by opposing what American troops were trying to do, the budget was a good way of getting back at Bush.

[Sadly, the War Machine got over this slight hitch.  The deficit created under Bush Senior was cleared by Clinton, but promptly re-created by Bush Junior.]

Shadow of a Gunperson?

People in Britain may have heard vaguely that the Labour Conference discussed the possibility of organising in Northern Ireland, and decisively rejected it. The truth is less simple. A small debate was allowed on the last day, with the Trade Unions all briefed to use their block votes to crush it All that was needed – all that was in fact allowed – was a short debate. The proposer and seconder of the motion that the Labour Party should organise in Northern Ireland and put their case, and then Ted O’Brien spoke against it on behalf of the National Executive Committee. Given that all the important votes were already lined up, it should not have mattered what he said. The NEC could have put up a gorilla to oppose the motion, and might in fact have been wiser to do so. For poor Ted really dropped them in it

The NEC has been running out of arguments against organising in Northern Ireland. Labour policy is for a United Ireland by consent – but since no such consent is likely to be forthcoming for the foreseeable future, something should be done to allow Northern Ireland workers to take part in the politics of the state that runs their lives. Labour might not win any seats – but Labour fights seats that are never likely to go Labour, such as Eastbourne where Labour almost lost its deposit at the recent by-election. The Labour leadership is unwilling to admit that it was wrong on the matter, but finds it very hard to given reasons why it is not wrong.

Ted O’Brien tried a new one – that the entire trade union movement in Northern Ireland was opposed to Labour organising over there. Now this was untrue. A section of the trade union movement is against it, and within that section the largest and most influential group are members of the Communist Party of Ireland, who became prominent in Northern Irish trade unionism when they were the Communist Party of Northern Ireland and sounded vaguely unionist. Naturally these people do not want Labour politics on their ‘patch’. But in fact these people are no longer a majority – the last public statement by the NEC actually said that there seemed to be a slight majority among trade unionists for Labour organising over there.

Given that the man was telling lies, and given that there would be no chance to expose these lies since there would be no more speakers before the vote, there were naturally some angry protests from the conference hall. Ted could and should have ignored it – it is not that unusual to be heckled at Labour movement meetings, and the person with the microphone can afford to ignore it, especially when the debate is about to be cut short. Instead he reacted and said:

“And by the way when you’re shouting at me, you see, next you’ll throw your agenda paper and then you might start firing bullets. You see, that’s the sort of sectarian thing that we don’t have.”

Now we see the sort of thinking that guides the NEC. The Irish must be kept out of the Labour Party, because they are lunatics who might start firing bullets for no particular reason. Now this seems a strange notion, quite at variance with the facts. Ted’s own name would seem to bear witness to the major Irish contribution to the British Labour movement. People from both Southern and Northern Ireland blend in easily with the unions and Labour Party in this country. When you do get heckling and the like, it’s more usually with a middle-class English accent than an Irish one.

The motion was lost, but the issue is far from dead. A lot of people in the Labour Party are only just discovering that Labour refuses to try to represent people whose destiny any future Labour government will control. And Ted’s little outburst won some extra sympathy. I think that very few debaters have ever done so much good for the cause they were speaking against…

[The original ended with a call for action, which sadly did not happen.  And everything changed in 1994.]

I’ll be Zeebruggered if I’ll take the ferry

Judges are there to guide the jury on points of law. In the matter of the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, there was a serious possibility that a jury would have decided that top management were in some way responsible for a ferry setting sail with its doors open, and consequently capsizing. The risks of such disasters were far from unknown – they had happened before. And to cut staff and insist on fast tum-rounds, while leaving it to one overworked man to be sure that the doors were closed, might seem to be criminally negligent.

The learned Judge knew better. Judges still dress like 18th century gentlemen, even including a version of the powdered wigs that went out of fashion around the dawn of the 19th century. They and other lawyers have preserved many 18th century forms, even while other professions have moved with the times. Modem doctors no longer apply leaches or hot irons, modem teachers do teach other subjects besides Latin, Greek and Hebrew. But an 18th century lawyer brought forward into a 20th century court would not seem greatly out of place.

18th century gentry were mostly concerned with the protection of property, and its proper regulation. The victims of Zeebrugge were not deprived of any significant amounts of property, they simply lost their lives, and it was far from clear that the law should hold the ferry company responsible. And most of those on trial were the approximate modem equivalent of the 18th century gentry , while most of those who died were not.

Given a choice, Judges will almost always act in line with the principles of the 18th century gentry. Since the law did not definitely compel him to consider managers criminally negligent for doing nothing to stop ships sailing with their doors open, he used his authority to stop the case. This is very much in line with established English legal traditions.

There have now been calls for the law to be changed. Given careful drafting – Judges will interpret any ambiguity or uncertainty according to their own principles – it may finally be possible to bring the law on criminal negligence into line with what people other than lawyers would consider to be criminal negligence. Until then, and remembering that many ferry companies face an increasing threat from the Channel Tunnel, it might be wise to find some alternative. Aircraft, which can seem unsafe because very nearly every fatal accident gets reported, are actually much safer. And the laws that govern their safety are much more modem.

[Some changes were made.  But the law still allows top managers to overstress people and not be blamed for predictable accidents that then occur.]

Cut-price narcissism?

The Booker Prize is run by a section of the literary establishment that runs on almost pure narcissism. They don’t want to know about the past, the future, other societies or people different from themselves. Such things can be introduced only as a garnish to talking about the one and only truly significant subject – themselves.

Given this, should we care that the Dillons Group tried to sell the six novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize at 25% or more below the publisher’s recommended price? It depends what you want. Certainly, the end of Retail Price Maintenance for other sorts of goods led to lots of small shops going under, with big chains and supermarkets rising in importance. Both bookshops and publishing would be brought even more into line with the norms of modem capitalism, if Dillons get away with it. The same thing will be done for other sorts of books.

My own feeling is that there is no point in defending the old system. As a regular purchaser of books, I have never in fact found small bookshops very useful. Even for second hand books, you tend to get the best from the biggest. And the growing trend, at least in London, for newsagents to sell small numbers of cut-price paperback books has surely undermined the system already.

Anyway, it’s now a legal matter. Since it is a dispute between property owners, I have no idea what the law’s decision will be.

Remember, Remember

Every 5th of November, people in Britain take part in a rather odd public ceremony. Formally speaking, it commemorates the failure of English Catholic conspirator Guy Fawkes to blow up King James the First of England and his parliament back in 1605. But the matter has deeper roots than that, and wider ramifications.

Some sort of autumn festival, often involving fire, seems to have been part of British culture for a very long time. It was definitely one of the four seasonal feasts of the Celts, and may even go back before that It may reflect the simple fact that after summer growth it’s not a bad idea to burn up everything that isn’t needed for winter.

Coming to much more recent times there is the odd matter of ‘Pope Burnings’, where an effigy of the Pope was burnt as a demonstration of either Protestant power or Protestant protest. They became a key matter under the later Stewart kings. James the First was the only one of that dynasty to be solidly Protestant. Mary Queen of Scots was his mother – although she seems to have been more interested in power than religion, becoming a Catholic martyr only because her major rivals were Protestant. Charles the First married a Catholic princess and favoured moves that brought the Anglican church closer to Catholic practice. Charles the Second declared himself a Catholic on his death-bed, and his brother James the Second was a declared Catholic even before he became king. Pope Burnings were part of a protest against the apparent drift away from Protestantism. It was a displaced form of aggression against the royal dynasty.

Having thrown out King James in 1688, and survived serious attempts at a restoration in 1715 and 1745, opinions moderated. I don’t know just how far back the custom of burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on the 5th of November goes, but it seems reasonable that it took over and moderated the feelings that had been expressed by Pope Burnings – at least some of which occurred in November.

Burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes was a good way of satisfying popular Protestant and democratic feeling without causing too much offence to either Catholics or nostalgic Jacobites. After all, Guy Fawkes had been a political traitor who had attempted regicide – and attempted it against a member of the Stuart dynasty. Moreover, his target had been monarch, lords and commons – the very forces that went to war with each other later in the 17th century. Reconciliations happened in the later 18th century, especially after the last Stuart claimant became a Cardinal, ensuring that there would be no heirs to carry on the line and continue the quarrel.

These days, it is just an excuse to have a bonfire and let off a few fireworks. People can enjoy it no matter what they believe in. But it is still a part of British history.

[Burn a Banker might be a popular modern alternative.]

The new Star Trek

Unless you are one of those people who can’t stand any Science Fiction, you should take a look at Star Trek – The Next Generation. For reasons best known to itself, the BBC has chosen to put it in the ‘DEF’ slot, at 6 o’clock on Wednesday on BBC 2 – despite the series’ considerable success in the United States. It’s actually done much better than the original series, in terms of immediate success. The original Star Trek was killed off after three seasons, and only later became big business. This one starts with an existing core of fans.

There are some big improvements. Frankly, I never thought Jim Kirk fit to run a Starship. Captain Picard is much more convincing. And the program’s designers have wisely avoided the temptation to simply recreate successful characters – a weakness that was present in the film series. Elements of Spock have gone into three characters – an android who has some of Spock’s excessive logic, a half-human alien with special mind powers, and a Klingon who is a Starfleet officer yet still an outsider. Counting both Spock and the android as half-human, there has been a 300% increase in the number of non-humans in what is supposed to be a Starship from a multi-species culture.

The change is very welcome, as is the 300% increase in the number of women among the leading characters. Where it still falls down is in representing Earth human races or cultures other than the white American majority. Only the captain, a British actor playing a French character, is definitely non-American. In the first Star Trek, one character doubled for two ‘minorities’ by being black and female. In this one, the only visibly black character is also disabled, a blind man with special artificial sight As it happens, the Klingon is also played by a black actor. It wasn’t planned that way, but during auditions he showed the best understanding of the character. Quite possibly, this was because Klingons are a fictional projection of white American racial fears, of which he’d have had a lot of experience.

It’s a good entertainment, and it illustrates the progress that women have made in American society since the first series – a 300% increase in numbers represented, as I mentioned. But as far as accepting as equals the other cultures with which America shares the planet, there has been no progress at all.

[Star Trek – The Next Generation was a huge success, running to seven seasons and spawning more series and films.  But the ethnic mix remains much like the current USA.  The habit of having black people mostly as violent characters for a good cause has continued.

[Currently there are two complete seasons of Star Trek: Discovery, which caused rage among racists by having a non-white woman as the main character.  Star Trek: Picard, featuring the same actor as the same character in retirement, is soon out.  But sadly, neither will be on regular TV channels.  Both will be lures on ‘Streaming’ services, or eventually DVDs.]

The end of the Great Attractor

The largest single object in the universe has just vanished. This was the Great Attractor, the strange object that seemed to be so massive that our galaxy and many like it were being drawn towards it, in a definite movement superimposed on the general expansion that began with the Big Bang.

The movement was spotted a few years back. Our whole local group of galaxy was experiencing a small but definite gravitational attraction from a region of space where there seemed to be nothing very special. There was briefly a notion that it could be some sort of gravitational repulsion from the opposite direction – gravity is only definitely known as a force that attracts, but the opposite is not wholly impossible. But it turned out that groups of galaxies the other side of the region of space thought to contain the Great Attractor were also being pulled towards it So it seemed to be something like a truly supermassive black hole, or even a loop of Cosmic String, something strange and immensely dense left over from an earlier phase of the universe.

Sadly, though the gravitational tug from the region of the ‘Great Attractor’ is real enough, the ‘Great Attractor’ itself seems not to be. Detailed studies now imply not a single very special object, but merely an unusual concentration of clusters of galaxies. So it goes. But on the other hand, there is some good evidence accumulating for a strand of Cosmic String existing in a different part of the universe, and producing double or multiple images of distant galaxies by means of the strange but by now well-established process of ‘gravitational lensing’. Closer to home, the planet Saturn is acting oddly. A white spot has unexpectedly appeared. The Space Telescope is investigating. (It is far from being the wash-out that people first feared it might be.)

[The Great Attractor is now believed to be part of the Laniakea Supercluster, which incorporates the long-identified Virgo Supercluster and also our own galaxy and Local Group.

[The Hubble Space Telescope got some passable results before the 1993 repair.]


These newsnotes appeared in November 1990, in Issue 20 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at

[1] For a more recent view, see Gorbachev: How to Wreck Everything and Be Loved by Your Country’s Enemies.