Issue 169 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1993 Copyright © Socialist Review
If the Tories thought that the right wing populism which dominated their recent conference could smooth over divisions within their ranks, then they were sorely mistaken.
The fallout from the Thatcher memoirs is only a hint of much deeper divisions. Huge cracks are appearing at every level of the Tory Party. Right wing 'bastards--Lilley, Portillo, Redmond--are slugging it out with their supposed 'left wing' colleagues--Clarke, Heseltine, Hurd. Political headaches face the government at every turn.
Rebellions and rows over VAT on fuel, rail privatisation, spending cuts and taxation (to name a few) are likely to worsen as the budget looms nearer. Already backbench Tories have lined up to demand compensation for the elderly in the face of increased fuel bills.
More importantly, at every stage the Tories risk stoking up greater public resentment at their policies. Major is still more unpopular than Thatcher ever was. Kenneth Clarke has to tread a precarious path in the coming budget. Measures being mooted such as an end to the zero rating of VAT on food, children's clothing or newspapers and books could become a political nightmare for him.
The Tories are hampered by, at best, a rocky and weak recovery and at worse by the prospect of a double dip recession. Central to their current problems is the mounting level of government borrowing. They are caught in a debt trap of huge dimensions. The current budget deficit is nearing 1 billion a week. The public sector borrowing requirement rose by £5.9 billion in September alone, and had reached £24.2 billion for the first half of the current financial year.
Attempts to scapegoat single parents and hit out at alleged social security fraud do not even begin to get to grips with the scale of the crisis facing them.
Hence one of Major's cabinet 'bastards', Michael Portillo, attempting to move the
|You're never too old to demonstrate|
debate onto new terrain with his hints at ending the universal right to state funded old age pensions. Future generations, he warned, could no longer rely on the state to protect them from the vagaries of old age:
'One of the things in the 21st century you cannot rely on the state to do is to sustain the standard of living that you have achieved, which I think by then will be very high, into your retirement.'
Accompanying his remarks on pensions, Portillo voiced the right's agenda for the NHS by saying that the government could not be 'dogmatic' about drawing a line between public and private health care provision. The state, he said, would find it impossible to keep up with 'infinite' demands for healthcare.
Public spending is a problem which plagues the rulers of all the advanced Western economies. Total government spending in the advanced OECD countries has risen from 28.1 percent of gross domestic product in 1960 to 43.8 percent in 1990--largely through increased costs in pensions, healthcare and unemployment and social security benefits. Social security payments have more than doubled in this 30 year period. The biggest single cost to most Western governments is pensions, which account for a quarter of the increase in spending. Governments in Germany and Italy have already suggested raising the pension age.
Average government debt in the advanced OECD countries has risen from 23 percent of GDP in 1979 to some 44 percent in 1992. Ageing populations and rising levels of unemployment have exacerbated the crisis for the bosses. According to a report in the Financial Times, drastic measures are needed:
'Significant cuts in benefit levels, for example, may be needed--including greater targeting of benefits on the most needy. User charges could become increasingly widespread, especially for the better off. They could rise to cover a much larger part of the costs of welfare services. And the demand put on the welfare state might be eased by encouraging more private provision of pensions and healthcare.'
It is these kind of Thatcherite proposals that Virginia Bottomley is already trying to force through in the NHS. But the Tories face narrowing options.
The huge deficit means they will be forced to slash into public spending on a greater scale. As Will Hutton in the Guardian commented:
'With the vast bulk of overall spending "non-discretionary", which means it is governed by legal commitments, and more than two-thirds in implicitly sensitive areas such as education, health and social security, the only way to make the sums add up is by further running down Britain's dilapidated public capital stock.
That means more run down schools, more decrepit hospitals, worsening service and an increasingly deficient transport system--all areas where the Tories face growing fury against their attacks.
Every new government measure raises a howl of outrage. The imposition of VAT on fuel has all the hallmarks of being a new political timebomb for the Tories--as potentially explosive as the poll tax. Pensioners have already staged militant protests against the tax in Scotland and outside the Tory Party conference.
Unfortunately the Labour Party has failed to capitalise on such anger. Although vocal in its opposition to VAT on fuel, it has refused to commit a future Labour government to repeal the extended tax.
But the anger of pensioners fighting VAT, of workers facing pressure on pay, and millions of people who face deteriorating healthcare and transport is not so easily placated. A monster turnout on the TUC demonstration in defence of the NHS on 20 November could galvanise and unite opposition to the Tories. Building this kind of opposition from below can force the Tories into retreat.
The huge demonstration to close down the BNP headquarters in Welling last month was an antidote to the fascists' election victory in the Isle of Dogs. It was a testament to the determination of tens of thousands to prevent the Nazis from getting any sort of hold, and to ensure they do not reach the size that they already have in France and Germany. And it put onto the agenda the growth of the Anti Nazi League into a real mass movement against the Nazis.
Up to 60,000 people journeyed to Welling from around the country.
The demonstration was noticeable for its youth, but there were also many older people, thousands of blacks and Asians and a large number of trade unionists. The mood of the march at the beginning was a celebration of its size and the unity achieved on it. But it was also a more political mood than that on, say, the Anti Nazi League carnivals of the late 1970s.
Fifteen years on, there is more sense of how serious the fascist threat is, and a much greater readiness to connect their rise with the other ills of capitalism. There is also a greater readiness to accept that the Nazis should be denied the right to propagate their views, which centre on the denial of free speech and movement for millions of others.
The government, press and police take a different view. They argue that, however repugnant the ideas of the fascists, they have to be allowed to propagate their lies from the Welling bunker. The argument is completely spurious, since free speech and democracy do not exist in a vacuum.
There have been more racial attacks in south east London than anywhere else in the capital because of the existence of the BNP headquarters. The murderous attack on Bengali Quddus Ali in Stepney took place while the BNP were canvassing nearby. Derek Beackon's 'democratic' credentials are based on the systematic intimidation of large numbers of Asians from the Isle of Dogs.
Police and government determination to allow the fascists their 'democratic' rights ignores these facts, as it ignores the signatures of thousands of local residents in Welling who have called for the BNP headquarters to be closed down.
Even worse, the action of the police against the Unity demonstration meant that they protected the fascists against the large numbers of people exercising their right to demonstrate against the BNP. The demonstration was denounced by the police as a riot days before it took place. On the day itself, even the police imposed route was blocked. Riot police waded into the crowd, cracking heads with truncheons and leaving dozens in hospital.
The violence was largely created and greatly exacerbated by the police, who were determined to teach a lesson to those who defied their advice and insisted on protesting at the BNP headquarters. Their message to the thousands who were on a demonstration for the first time was, don't come on another march. They were prepared to back this up with the most brutal force.
Fortunately, their message has been counterproductive. Despite the sombre faces of those whd had set out to march peacefully but found themselves batoned by police, the overwhelming mood of the demonstrators was to harden their resolve and to ensure that they increase their campaigning against the Nazis. The very large size of the demonstration also meant there were thousands who were capable of countering the press and police lies about the march in schools, colleges and workplaces throughout the country.
And lies there certainly were. The police initially claimed that everyone on the march had been bent on trouble and violence, which the early pictures of the march and rally (rarely shown on television) belied. The police grossly underestimated the numbers, claiming 15,000. This was a downscaling of their own previous estimates, and runs counter to the hard evidence: of trains to the area packed all day, of nearly 600 coaches from outside London, of papersellers who saw people still arriving at 4.30, two hours after the march set off.
The police and media were helped by sections of the left and the labour movement. The march against racism through central London called by the Anti Racist Alliance (who refused to join the Unity march) was a tiny rump compared to the Welling march, and was estimated at between one and two thousand by those who attended, but trumpeted by its organisers as up to 10,000 strong. This ludicrous figure was used by police to play up the march and play the size of the Welling march down, wrongly implying that there was a viable peaceful alternative of any size in central London.
Claims by march organisers that the Unity march was a 'diversion' from the fight against racism, and denunciations of violence to the media, only played into the hands of the police and all those who do not want to fight the fascists.
The whole point of the Unity demonstration was that it did present a united face against the fascists. It should not have been attacked by people supposedly on the same side, who sometimes seemed to put their greatest efforts not into fighting the right, but in trying to weaken the march.
The fact that much of the leadership of the trade unions and Labour party backed the central London march can have left them with little comfort. The Unity march attracted the support of large numbers of trade union branches, and some national unions, but it was built largely without the help of the official movement. As with the march against the poll tax three and a half years ago, tens of thousands were mobilised by the left and by rank and file activists.
The more intelligent trade union leaders should now be worrying about how it is that a march which they want to succeed remains tiny, while one which they do little to support, and sometimes actively oppose, can be so successful in mobilising. If they have any sense, they will try to help build a genuine mass movement against the Nazis, rather than indulging in the sort of splitting operation which benefits no one.
Whatever they choose to do, however, the signs are that the movement against the Nazis is growing very quickly. A successful Anti Nazi League carnival next Easter can be the springboard for a campaign to stop the BNP making any gains in next year's local and European elections, and so of turning the tide against them.
Letter from Haiti
For most of this century the Haitian people have had their necks under the boot of American imperialism. This year for a few short months they hoped things might change. George Bush had mouthed pious words about democracy and turned back the refugees. Bill Clinton promised that the US would restore the exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power.
The agreement was that Aristide would return and the military would step down. A joint mission of the UN and the Organisation of American States would be sent to monitor human rights, followed by police and military teams to oversee the 'professionalisation' of the armed forces. As part of the deal there was to be an amnesty for crimes committed since the coup which overthrew Aristide's government.
It was a pretty sick deal. The butchers of more than 2,000 Haitians were to be left unpunished. And as for professionalisation, many Haitians must have wondered who had been responsible for training the military in the first place? But it was the only deal on offer. Washington made it clear to Aristide that if he didn't accept it, they would wash their hands of him just as they had done with the refugees.
From the first it was clear that the military and the 'attachés'--the armed gangs who act on behalf of the profiteers and gangsters who run the country--would not accept even this rotten bargain. Threats were followed by murder. The most prominent of Aristide's supporters, Antoine Izmery, an Arab businessman and philanthropist, was dragged out of a church service by a group of attachés and forced to kneel in the street before being shot dead, right in front of the UN observers. In the days before the murder, he had repeatedly reported death threats to the UN mission. Everyone knew he was the number one target. The UN did nothing to protect him. One attaché allowed himself the remark: 'He was only a Palestinian'.
As the deadline for Aristide's return grew closer, the military grew bolder, encouraged by the ambiguous messages about Aristide coming from Washington. In private, and increasingly in public, the CIA and right wing Republicans cast doubt on Aristide's fitness to govern. After all he had only won 70 percent of the vote?
Night by night the attachés stepped up their terror campaign against the people. Dead bodies began to reappear in the rivers. Aristide's minister of justice was ambushed, both he and his aides were shot dead.
Finally, the US marines arrived--carrying sidearms and with strict instructions not to fire. Not surprisingly they were sent packing, giving the attachés all the excuse they needed to run riot in the streets of Port au Prince.
The American commitment to Aristide was always paper thin: now the US has imposed a blockade which is supposed to bring the military to heel But the previous blockade mainly resulted In the profiteers who run the military making a fortune. Goods were smuggled in from the Dominican Republic at a vast mark up. On the central plateau, rice was burned to the fields so the merchants could make a fortune from imports. Even If the military Is forced to negotiate, it will do so from a position of strength.
There are two stark lessons from Haiti. One is that US commitments to restore democracy are not worth the paper they are written on. The other is that the Haitian people can only rely on their own forces. One day they will rise, machetes in their hands, and chop their oppressors to pieces. Let us hope the reckoning comes soon.
The death and bloodshed caused by the Shankill Road bombing and the shooting of Catholic council workers has both strengthened the yearning for peace in Northern Ireland and made the conditions for achieving it all the more elusive.
With nine Protestant civilians, including young children, dead, hardline Unionists are getting a hearing for their anti-Catholic ranting. Many Catholics live in fear of leaving their front doors after a campaign of sectarian terror waged by the 'Ulster Freedom Fighters' which has seen over 30 Catholics murdered this year.
One recent attack on Catholic workers at Shorts' aircraft factory provoked a walkout by the mainly Protestant workforce--an inspiring example of cross community working class solidarity. Yet this revulsion at the violence can so easily be turned to reaction. For many of the thousands at Shorts' and their fellow workers at Harland and Woolf who marched up the Shankill protesting at the bombing, the talk was not just of wanting peace but of seeking bloody revenge. As has been seen so often before, working class unity is possible but the present level of violence does not encourage it.
To add insult to injury, Major spews his platitudes against the 'men of violence' from the comfortable distance of Cyprus (hardly the best place from which to extol the virtues of British rule), while British troops and the armed Protestant police force continue to prop up the rotten state that is Northern Ireland with all the military might Britain can muster. Even for the many Catholics dismayed at the killing of Protestants out shopping on Saturday, Major's words must ring hollow. For it is his government's complete denial of justice for the oppressed minority in the North that has ensured the IRA's continued support.
While it is public knowledge that army intelligence files on 'suspected' Republicans are passed on to Protestant paramilitary squads, no officer has faced trial for any leaks. Yet to find someone guilty is usually not difficult in a state where juries and the right to silence are history. The fact that police and army officers literally get away with murder means that any idea that justice can be obtained through the legal process holds no credibility.
It is little wonder then that the IRA's military struggle against the British state has sustained a level of support in the Catholic ghettos of Derry and Belfast.
How the forces compare
IRA 600 active soldiers estimated; INIA (Irish National Liberation Army) 100; UDA (Ulster Defence Association) 2000 overall; UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) 500 overall; Red Hand Commando 100; RUC full time 8,474; RUC reserve full time 3209, part time 1418. British Army 18000 including Royal Irish Regiment of 5600 full and part time.
Yet there are clearly differences amongst Republicans about the way forward. War weariness and the fear of suffering retaliation for IRA actions have created an atmosphere in which many hopes were placed on the talks taking place between Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and moderate Catholic SDLP MP John Hume. Clearly the sight of Sinn Fein cooperating with a mainstream party posed a threat to the Unionists. Yet, like any other 'initiative' which fails to address the discrimination built into the very structures of the state in Northern Ireland, these talks are fatally flawed.
Proposals apparently put forward include joint British and Irish sovereignty over the North--a plan which would further institutionalise sectarian division and is a far cry from Sinn Fein's professed goal of a united Ireland.
The Shankill Road bomb shows that Adams has not got the unanimous support of the Republican movement for his readiness to compromise over the talks, and it has undoubtedly been a setback for him.
Whether Adams could sustain a ceasefire remains to be seen--it seems doubtful he would win without a struggle. However, Major's refusal so far to even discuss terms means that this sort of deal is not an option for the immediate future. The deal the Tories struck with the Ulster Unionists in the House of Commons over Maastricht will also compromise Major's ability to respond.
Any aspirations Adams may have had in following in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela or Yasser Arafat with their peace deals in South Africa and Middle East were clearly premature. Although the sight of some Unionist politicians approving the peace talks with Sinn Fein may have given him encouragement, there will now undoubtedly be pressure on all Unionists to close ranks.
The prospects for peace look bleaker than ever and the RUC Chief Constable's assurances that Northern Ireland is not descending into an orgy of violence gives little comfort when taken alongside his calls for more police. If the 19,000 soldiers and over 11,000 RUC members cannot currently keep the peace in the tiny province, then it is obvious that repression is not the answer.
The only certainty is that many more families will bury their dead while the origins of the conflict continue to be ignored by a government whose policies only serve to increase the feelings of hopelessness and despair amongst the whole population. Only when the troops are removed from the province, and British rule is ended, can a solution begin to be found.
It is in the struggles of Catholic and Protestant workers to defeat government policies that we have seen glimpses of the potential that a united working class holds as a force for change. A strategy which develops this potential remains the only one capable of achieving peace and justice in Ireland.