Newsnotes 021 – January 1991

Notes on the News

by Madawc Williams

A lost opportunity

Back in the middle of 1989, L&TUR had an editorial entitled Can Labour keep the initiative? The answer turned out to be no.

Kinnock came within four votes of being put into Downing Street by the Tory Party. That was the margin by which Thatcher missed being returned on the first ballot. But in politics, a miss is as good as a mile. The Tories under John Major are successfully tapping the anti-Thatcher feelings that Kinnock hoped to use to win Labour the election. The exact events were not predictable. But the possibility was, and should have been guarded against.

“Kinnock’s achievement has been to enable Labour to benefit in the short term from the acute disarray into which Thatcherism in crisis has plunged the Conservative Party. But Labour will not benefit from this indefinitely. Thatcher’s Conservative critics will also benefit from the fact that her policies have at last become a palpable electoral liability as well as a practical failure in their own terms. The race for the succession is now on: will it be won · by a revived Labour Party or by a revived Toryism? The genuine Tories in the Conservative Party could still dump Thatcher and free their party from its association with her bankrupt dogmatism in time to win the next election. Labour must forestall such a development by actively exploiting the current disarray within the Conservative Party instead of passively enjoying the temporary electoral fruits of this disarray when they fall into its lap. To do this, Labour needs to pre-empt the revival of one-nation Toryism under Heseltine & Co. by seizing (and thereafter keeping) the initiative on the main policy issues, notably defence, Europe and the economy. ” (L&TUR No. 12).

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. That could be Labour’s fate unless Kinnock rapidly adapts to the new circumstances. So far, all we have seen is a repeat of old tactics that are no longer likely to succeed.

Major is not a Thatcherite. His family had known hard times, and he understands that telling people to ‘stand on their own two feet’ is not always a reasonable demand. Though I do not expect to hear him quoting St Francis of Assisi, he would have a better right to do so. Mrs Thatcher really believed the New Right dogma that giving money to the rich and taking it away from the poor and from public services would be best for everyone in the long run. Thus she could be sentimental at a personal level, while causing untold misery by her public policies. John Major presumably appealed to her sentimental side. He shows neither the cool Machiavellianism of Hurd nor the flashy ruthlessness of Heseltine. But, unlike Thatcher, Major does not uncritically accept New Right dogma. Pragmatically, he knows he must retreat from at least some aspects of Thatcherism. If his apparent social concern is real rather than feigned, he will retreat a long way.

He has already made a wise U-tum on the matter of haemophiliacs with AIDS. They were clearly a special case – none of the other groups suffering from the disease could have claimed to have been infected by Mrs Thatcher! It was her general hostility to public spending that created the atmosphere in which screening of blood products likely to contain the virus was unreasonably delayed.

All criticism of Major as a continuation of Thatcher is misconceived, and will prove ineffective. But how do you explain that to people who never understood Thatcher in the first place?

[Sadly, the misunderstanding continued.  After the 1992 election, John Smith succeeded the discredited Kinnock, but then died.  Tony Blair totally capitulated to Thatcherism on economic matters, while also pushing the socially liberal agenda that the New Right thinkers mostly privately believed in.]


Not in front of the public

The media were quite certain that the open political fights within the Tory Party would be very very bad for the public’s view of that party. Never mind that the whole media had been talking about the covert fights between those very same factions for most of the lifetime of the Thatcher government. The fact that the fights were no longer covert, were being expressed as an open struggle for the leadership, was supposed to diminish trust in Toryism.

Media people have a curious sort of double-think about the public. One the one hand, their whole status and importance derives from the fact that what they say is listened to or read by millions of people – by everyone who chooses to take an interest in such matters, in fact. At the same time, they think about politics in terms which seem to assume that there is some sort of ‘public’ out there that isn’t aware of the things that they’ve been discussing quite openly. No one was supposed to know that large parts of the Tory party were sharpening their knives, until the knives were actually out. And yet everyone had been told about it, repeatedly, on any TV news program they could be bothered to watch.

People knew that something was going to happen in the Tory party. When the long-expected row was resolved in what looked like a fairly sensible way, many floating voters came back to the new Toryism.

Effective plotting is plotting that the mass media do not notice, and that is therefore missed by most of the public. Mr Major seems to have been blessed with the wisest wisdom tooth in British politics. It kept him out of circulation just at the time when the cabinet was pushing Thatcher into standing down, while leaving him fit to launch his own campaign and sweep the board.

I’ve always felt that a lot of Thatcher’s success was due to sheer luck – her only real skill was to get herself a rich husband, and then be in the right places at the. right times. By contrast, John Major would not have made his way up from son of a trapeze artists to Tory minister, without being a pretty smart operator.

Major is also being smart, when he tells the media he has better things to do than stand around talking to them. Most of the public are wise to all the PR tricks and attention-grabbing stunts. In a world where everyone is hyping themselves all the time, an eminence gris suddenly starts looking superior, to the public if not to the media.


The Gulf : neither Munich nor Lady Macbeth

When The Economist starts talking about a Munich in the Gulf, as they do in their December 8th editorial, the chances of peace must be quite good. The Economist has been all in favour of destroying Iraq and Saddam Hussein – that is, they have been since the Cold War came to an end and a world of peaceful competition looked set to succeed it.  The Economist during 1989 had been looking for some new enemy for the West to fear and confront. The Middle East seemed the best place to find such a target: Saddam Hussein was already being set up even before he decided to grab Kuwait.

It was not as if The Economist hadn’t known just what sort of regime Saddam was running all through the 1980s. But in those days, the Cold War seemed in no danger of coming to an end. Both Gorbachev and Deng had been cheered on as they unleashed forces that were bound to disrupt the societies they were responsible for. With Deng discredited and Gorbachev faced with total disaster, there was a real danger of global peace breaking out. Peace, a world with far less fears and worries, would not at all suit The Economist’s tough-talking and moderately New Right view of the world. If people see that they can make a good live for themselves, why shouldn’t they do so, rather than carrying on with the sort of unending rat race that the New Right admire?

Munich was a disaster, because Hitler was given everything he asked for. Had it been the case that he had unexpectedly grabbed the whole of Czechoslovakia, and had he then been negotiated into giving up everything except the Sudetenland, that would have been something quite different.  Hitler’s claim to the Sudetenland was actually a good one. Munich led on to world war, because he was left with the impression that no one would stop him whatever he did.

Another difference was that Czechoslovakia was the best and most democratic state in East or Central Europe, while Germany under Hitler was the worst. This does not apply in the Gulf. Kuwaitis were greedy autocratic slave-owners. Saudis are so intolerant of other religions, that the very Western troops who are being asked to die for the Saudi princes could not be buried in their kingdom. Saudis have a very narrow interpretation of Islam. Unlike most Muslim countries, they will not tolerate private Christian or Jewish ceremonies, not even burial.

Iraq is very far from being the worst state in the Arab world. You could say that it was the most vicious and brutal to anyone who opposes it – though there are other states that run it pretty close. But Iraq is also a secular state, tolerant of religious and ethnic minorities, provided that they do not challenge state power. Like Franco’s Spain, it seems quite capable of evolving on western liberal lines – something that Saudi Arabia is very determined not to do.

While other journals on the left have talked about a ‘new imperialism’, L&TUR has held that what Bush and Thatcher was doing was stupid, against the long-term and even the medium-term interests of Western capitalism. This did not mean that there would be no war. There still could be. But it meant that Bush & Co. would face bitter opposition from people who would normally be their supporters.

With the fall of Thatcher, the potential Gulf tragedy has lost its Lady Macbeth. A woman who urges men to war and acts of violence is especially dangerous, because she can shame the men into acting out of a sense of pride. I don’t think Bush would have acted without her, and with her gone he seems to be looking for the first convenient excuse to call it all off.

Is there anyone else lurking in the background, urging Bush to be ‘bloody, bold and resolute’. If there is, I suggest that Mr Bush go see Macbeth again, and think carefully.

[Bush Senior made a bad choice.  Humiliated Secular Iraq, but  left it intact in the hope that Saddam would be replaced by someone similar but more obedient.  Then bent the rules when it looked like Saddam would be replaced by Religious Shia.  The very element that now dominated the weak official government of Iraq.

[Enormous suffering was inflicted on Iraq because of a pig-headed Western determination to replace Saddam by someone very like Saddam, but different enough to convince the Western public that this was a success for the West.  This suffering was part of what made al-Qaeda wage war on the Western powers that had nurtured them during their war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.]


A solid Catholic

The whole epoch of Leninist regimes in Eastern Europe was more or less an accident. None of them came to power by their own strength, all of them were simply creations of the Red Army. Only in Czechoslovakia did Communism have strong local roots, and the Red Army destroyed those in 1968.

Khrushchev’s Secret Speech of 1956 disrupted Communism as an ideology. He made it the Moscow line that what Stalin had done was not exactly right. And yet it wasn’t held to be exactly wrong either – few of Stalin’s deeds were specifically criticised, except for some of the later purges. The matter was not allowed to be debated publicly, so no one within the framework of official Communism was ever allowed to straighten out the matter.

Under Stalin, a large part of the working class had been drawn into the official ideology, and made enthusiastic for it The sort of sneaky evasions that were engaged in by the party and state bureaucracies after 1956 were hardly likely to keep this enthusiasm. You had the absurdity of regimes that claimed to represent the working class, but which the working class was alienated from.

People cannot exist without some sort of framework of ideas. If the Prague Spring had been allowed, some sort of Social Democratic development might have proved the alternative. But it wasn’t, and the long years of repression favoured ideologies that were uncompromisingly hostile to the corrupt Leninist states. In Poland, especially, a right-wing Catholic populism became the centre of resistance. Its nature was obscured by the diversity of allies it had in its struggle against the state, but now things are out in the open.

Lech Walesa is now President of Poland, and his main rival was an eccentric emigre and right-wing libertarian. So be it. After being repressed for so long, it is hardly strange that Poles are going back to older aspects of their culture – including anti-semitism, despite the tiny residual number of Polish Jews. Democratic politics have been established, and what has changed once can change again.

[Sadly, the worse aspects have been winning out over the last three decades.]


Flaky cost-savings

It now seems that the Hubble Space Telescope was maimed by “a fragment of synthetic film the size of a grain of sand” that “broke off a calibrating device during the making of the telescope’s primary mirror. As a result the mirror was ground too flat.” (New Scientist December 1st).

But why was this error never detected? Actually, it was. At least, another measuring instrument disagreed with the one that had gone wrong. But, with such fine detailed measurements, it was hard to know which of the two had got it right. There was pressure to complete the mirror on schedule – even though the later Challenger disaster was to delay it by years. There was a general mood of cost-cutting and hurry. Those responsible for the testing “missed the mistake because the company’s quality assurance team was understaffed and failed to enforce its double-checking procedure.”

The whole . problem with America’s space effort is that it is never given a fixed amount of money to spend over a given number of years. The American system of government means that from year to year it has no idea how much or how little it will get. Nothing is guaranteed. A lot of the trouble with the Space Shuttles is that they were done ‘on the cheap’; an original grand design being starved of funds in an unfavourable political climate.

Reagan backed the idea of a Space Station in a fit of enthusiasm, but could not guarantee it funds even while still in office. At present, it looks like a disaster in the making. The USSR runs a modest and successful space station, which works well despite troubles in the rest of the economy. The USA has plans for something much grander, but parts of its funding keep getting snipped away. If safely and usefulness do not suffer somewhere along the line, it will be a minor miracle.

[After the Soviet collapse later in 1991, the USA started funding and supporting what then became the Russian space program.  This included a large role in what became the International Space Station.  This was done mostly to prevent experts taking their expertise to developing countries – space and military missiles use much the same technology.  And when the Space Shuttle was finally abandoned following the 2003 Columbia disaster, the USA became dependent on Russian launch vehicles to take humans there.  As at October 2019, plans to replace these with a US-made vehicle remain incomplete.]

[There were some unfortunate failures with robot probes sent out into the wider solar system.  See ‘’Faster, cheaper, better’? Maybe not’.]


These Newsnotes appeared in January 1991, in Issue 21 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at