Newsnotes 013 – September 1989

Notes on the News

by Madawc Williams


The Romance of the Moon

Twenty years ago, an ancient dream was fulfilled – people got to the moon. But, like many romances, the reality proved disappointing. The whole American space enterprise went into a decline from which it has not yet fully recovered.

It’s a sad fact that the high-technology dream of space travel came to be seen as hostile to other worthy dreams, such as social justice or an end to world hunger. The world has wealth enough for all of these things. The total cost of the space programme is dwarfed by various sorts of personal consumption that previous generations did not need. People in Western Europe and America are perhaps five times as wealthy as they were in 1900 (The Economist, August 12, 1989). Most people would be willing to live on a bit less, if they thought that good and useful things were happening in the world at large. By spreading cynicism about the dream of space travel, suggesting that it was somehow at the expense of the poor and needy, the would-be reformers created a general atmosphere of cynicism. Lots of people decided that they’d look after themselves and have fun. Space travel was wound down, but nothing much was done about social justice or world hunger.

There is still a romance about space – a realisation that our Earth is one very tiny part of an extremely large universe. Surveys have shown that a large percentage of the population would be interested in something like the discovery of a new galaxy. The Voyager spacecraft’s reports on the planet Neptune get a place in news bulletins. And news bulletins are among the most widely watched programmes, beaten only by the most popular of the soap operas. Radicals must learn to combine the different sorts of idealism and unselfish feeling. The slogan should be – for a better world and a better view of the rest of the universe.

[The moon remained neglected until the Chinese promised to send their own people, including perhaps the first woman on the moon.  The USA is officially aiming to be there by 2024, but most people expect it to take longer.]

The right to be foul

Down here on Earth, the problem at the moment is that the British government will not allow the institutions of the EEC to guard the British people from hazards and pollution. Thatcher & Co. want to ‘protect’ us from the clean beaches and pure water that the other peoples of Europe should soon be enjoying under the new regulations.

(Incidentally, it will be interesting to see if any criminal convictions result from the Herald of Free Enterprise business. It has been suggested that the whole Thatcherite ‘entrepreneurial’ spirit has led to cutting comers wherever it has been applied. Also that car ferries are basically unsafe, considering the risk of collisions in a crowded waterway like the Channel. And that the Department of Transport is not being allowed to publish research that proves this {Private Eye, August 18, 1989}.)

Can Thatcherism cope with the growing Green element in public opinion? To really cope with global pollution means more internationalism and more state regulation of industry – and Thatcher hates both of these things.

They have their own ‘green guru’, Professor David Pearce. But will they act on his ideas, or just use them as a pretext for doing nothing? And if Thatcher can’t make the transition, can the Conservatives manage to dump her and replace her with someone who could? Traditional Tories can be sincerely Green – because something that wrecks the world will clearly hurt the rich as well as the poor. But can traditional Toryism recover control of the Conservative Party?

[No one was convicted over the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster.  Laws on corporate manslaughter remain weak.  And Brexit is in part driven by the rich wanted to stop the European Union protecting ordinary people from the misdeeds of the rich.]

Shady Spots of Greenery

The matter of the plans to import polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) sounds like another bit of foolish Thatcherite ‘entrepreneurship’. In fact, the matter is nothing like that simple. There have been cowboy companies who take money for ‘safe disposal’ of waste, and then simply tip it down the drain. But this is something quite different.

Chemicals like PCBs can be dealt with and made safe by people with the right skills. Dangerous chemicals can be changed into chemicals that are safe. To refuse to let them across your frontiers is no solution – if they start to leak, they are quite capable of going all round the world and hurting everyone. The imported PCBs were due to go to a reputable company that could have cleaned them up correctly. But Greenpeace preferred to spread a panic about them. According to an editorial in the magazine New Scientist, which has a good reputation for publicising real threats to the environment:

“Where the Greenpeace stance is less praiseworthy is over the specific: question of PCBs…. Long term storage is, frankly, not a sensible answer.  Controlled, tightly regulated incineration in properly licensed and meticulously run incinerators is. In private, Greenpeace’s campaigners concede this.” (August 19 1989).

The world needs to learn how to think ecologically – to foresee the long-term and world-wide effects of every action. Spreading panics is not the best way to do this. The same dockers who refused to import the PCBs would also probably refuse to sit in the same room as someone who was IDV-positive, even though AIDS is not a disease that can be passed on by breathing the same air. The need is to educate people, not to frighten them.

Salad (yester)days

Ever since the Euro-elections, the Green Party have held their place as the third party in the land. The centre parties have not only failed to become credible parties of government – they are being displaced as the major parties of protest.

There is a definite possibility of a permanent re-alignment, with the Green Party absorbing much of the traditional Liberal protest vote and a large chunk of the Bennite left. They have the right qualifications – they are anti-nuclear and anti-EEC, and they make no pretence of being fond of the working class.

If this happened, the Social Democratic Party would probably return to Labour – with or without David Owen. And the Social and Liberal Democrats would have no future at all.

At present, the SLD are considering changing their name again. They may go back to calling themselves the Liberal Party, but they could not go back to being what they once were. The Liberals lost their position as a party of government in the first quarter of the twentieth century. They kept going thereafter as the nice centre party that you could vote for if you didn’t feel happy with either left or right. The Thorpe affair did them no good, and the bungling of the alliance with the SDP has probably finished them off.

If the SLD want a new name, I have a constructive suggestion. Let them be the Radical Alternative to Thatcherism and Socialism – RATS for short.

[The ‘Salads’ actually became the Liberal Democrats.  And British Greens declined again.]

God not on their side

When Genghis Khan’s Mongols conquered a huge chunk of Asia, they assumed that they had God on their side. So confident were they that they seriously considered destroying the whole population of North China to make way for their superior Mongol way of life. They dropped this plan only when it was pointed out to them that the North Chinese could yield them vast amounts of tribute if left alive. And they were no less ruthless with the Muslims in other parts of their Empire. Muslims found this very confusing – up until then they assumed that God was on their side. They had to conclude that it was divine punishment for their religious laxness – and since Genghis Khan’s descendants converted to Islam, the faith survived.

Oliver Cromwell was another man who was sure that God was on his side. A middle-aged politician with no military experience, he unexpectedly found that he had a knack of winning battles. He took this to be a sign of Divine Grace. He could be highly practical about the matter – when crossing a river, he told his men to “trust in God and keep your powder dry”. But he had a short and ruthless way with people like King Charles, or like the Catholic Irish, who had a different understanding of God’s will. Yet his brand of Puritanism collapsed shortly after his death, and no English leader since has been regarded as having reliable support from God.

At present, radical Islamists in Iran and the Lebanon are acting on the assumption that they have God on their side. Thankfully, they are not having the same sort of success as Genghis Khan or Oliver Cromwell. Iran was stopped in the Gulf War, in part thanks to the presence of the US Navy in the Gulf. (Readers of L&TUR will recall that I said at the time that it was the crucial issue. Success would strengthen Khomeini’s claim to speak for God, and failure would undermine it.)

Moreover, the Muslim Afghan guerrillas seem to be getting nowhere in their efforts to overthrow the secular Marxist Afghan government. Plenty of non-Muslims believed that they could do it. Britain pulled out its embassy as the Russian troops left, confident that the regime was doomed. Typical of today’s Foreign Office – a wise and knowing smile from people who later tum out to be stupid and ignorant, and too conceited to learn anything new.

[The USA could have stepped in and created a stable coalition government.  Instead they let things run, with the Marxists eventually overthrown.  This led onto massive mismanagement by Warlords.  Both the Taliban and al-Qaeda came out of the mismanagement of post-Soviet Afghanistan.] 

In the Lebanon, Hezbollah, the ‘party of God’, is being blamed for not ‘being reasonable’ and releasing the Western hostages. In fact, the Lebanese Shi’ites were very reasonable and modest people until the Lebanese state started to break up all around them. Flung into an unreasonable situation, it is hardly surprising that they developed politics based on their traditional religious . understanding of the world. Their brief success – in particular making the USA dance to their tune just because they held a few non-Lebanese hostages – may have encouraged them to think that they had God on their side. Set-backs like having one of their spiritual leaders kidnapped must have dented this belief.

I suspect that Hezbollah might be reasonable if they were given a reasonable overall perspective. The media have concentrated on the Lebanon mostly because of the Western hostages. The West would be quite content to leave the Lebanese to kill each other, provided that their own people are safe. There are plenty of Lebanese hostages held by rival Lebanese factions, but whoever mentions them?

Hezbollah continue to use the hostages to defend their own interests. In fact, the less confident they are that they have God on their side, the more they are likely to hang on to mundane sources of strength like Western hostages.

[Hezbollah has since gone from strength to strength.  Driving Israel out of South Lebanon, and saving the Assad government in the Syrian Civil War.]

A Lebanese solution?

As we go to press, the future of the Lebanon may be being settled by the fighting between the Syrians and the Christians under General Aoun. Then again, it may not. The battle is basically between three varieties of fascism – the Christian Phalange, and the Baathists of Syria and of Iraq. All are fascist in a substantial sense – violent and ruthless nationalists, who derived their ideology from European fascism in the 1930s. All are brutal and obnoxious, but the Iraqi Baath are probably the most effective of the three. They showed in the Gulf War that they had been able to unite the diverse peoples within their own territory (excluding only the Kurds, an ancient nation who were unlucky enough never to get their own nation-state).

It is the alliance between the Iraqi Baathists and General Aoun, (supported by the Christian Phalange, although he himself is not a Phalangist) that has pushed the Syrians into drastic military action. If the Syrian regime fails to crush Aoun, it may itself fall apart. There has in the past been talk of unity between Syria and Iraq – and Syria was for a short time united with Nasser’s Egypt. Given the chance, the Iraqi Baath might be able to take over Syria and the Lebanon as well. The main thing that makes this unlikely is the virtual certainty that the other Arab powers would block it.

The most viable solutions are either a smaller and very sectarian Christian Lebanon, with Syria taking over the rest, or a Syrian take-over of the whole of the Lebanon. Syria does not want the former, and Iraq does not want the latter. Iraq stands ready to stab Syria in the back if it tries to impose its own sort of ‘law-and-order’ on the warring factions.

Other powers also play their own game – although what it is, is less clear.

The stalemate may continue, because outside powers prefer stalemate to a settlement that would strengthen some rival power. The one thing that seems definite is that there can be no going back to the confessional power-sharing that once existed. It was not a long-term success – it generated pressures that led to civil war. And there has been a great deal of killing and bitterness since then, far too much for the rival factions ever to be serious partners in government again.

A nation once again?

As we go to press, Solidarity are about to form the next government of Poland. They have been Eastern Europe’s first successful opposition in the post-war period. I hope that they can go on to be a successful government.

Handling the Russians will be a problem. Poles and Russians have never liked each other. The division goes back to the rival Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox missionaries who converted the Slavs in the 8th and 9th centuries. The Poles tried to prevent the creation of a strong Russian state by the Tsars of Moscow, and that same state eventually joined with Austria and Prussia to partition and absorb Poland in the 18th century. After World War One, Lenin and Trotsky tried to conquer the revived Polish state, but instead lost a chunk of territory with non-Polish inhabitants. In 1939, Stalin grabbed it back while the Nazis took over the rest. After World War Two the Russians hung on to this territory, while putting their own people in charge in Poland. They did give the Poles a chunk of what was then ethnically German territory East Prussia, including Danzig, now known as Gdansk.

Despite all this, the Solidarity government in Poland will no doubt pretend to like the Russians, and the Russians will pretend to believe them. A much bigger problem is the economy. Something drastic needs to be done, but the people have never been willing to let the Communist Party government do it. Partly because it was painful, and partly because they didn’t either trust or respect them. The question is, can Solidarity get the ordinary Poles to accept the sort of austerity that they have always rejected before? Will Solidarity even try, given that it was opposition to such measures that created them? The danger is that Solidarity in Poland will be like the Trade Union movement in Britain in the 1970s – strong enough to stop anyone else governing, but unwilling to run the country properly. I hope that the leaders of Solidarity will be wiser, but I am far from certain that they will be.

[Everything changed with the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in November-December.

[Solidarity in government were fairly successful.  But Poland has since turned towards right-wing nationalism.  Interesting new ideas associated with Solidarity got nowhere.

[Lech Walesa has become the first President of Poland ever elected in a popular vote, but failed to get a second term.]

Thames Disaster

As I write, details are still emerging about the sinking of the ‘Marchioness’. But it does seem that neither captain was blatantly wrong when they both decided to go through the same arch of Southwark Bridge. Not according to present rules of river navigation.

It’s been claimed that it is quite common for boats on the river to save a little time and money by taking short cuts. And it’s hard to blame the captains who do it, when they’ re pressurised to cut costs and ‘be economic’. If rules are not strictly enforced – and the whole trend of Thatcherism has been for less rules and less enforcement – then people will take chances. They will do things that are only slightly dangerous, safe except in exceptional circumstances, things you get away with 99 times out of 100. Eventually, of course, someone finds the exception that proves the need for the rule.

[Here again, attempts to prosecute for Corporate Manslaughter failed.  Safety is said to have been improved.]


These Newsnotes appeared in September 1989, in Issue 13 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  For more from the era, see