Issue 196 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review
When people vote for a Labour council they expect, at the very least, the council to be a cushion against some of the more harsh Tory attacks. This explains why labour controls the vast majority of councils in Britain--with fewer than two dozen under Tory control in England, and none in Scotland and Wales. But, with the introduction of the council tax this month, we are seeing Labour councils, under orders from Tory Blair, pursuing a ruthless assault on local jobs and services, and giving some indication of how New Labour win behave when it comes to power.The first blow for working class people will be felt with the size of the bill itself as the average council tax bill will rise by the equivalent of a 2p in the pound income tax rise. Labour says this is the result of Tory spending restrictions. But instead of launching a campaign of resistance against the Tories forcing them to increase spending, Labour has led an all out attack on local services.
Labour controlled Southwark council has imposed council tax rises between 24 and 82 percent. The council also told its workers that existing contracts will be thrown out. In east London, Tower Hamlets council plans a 13 percent council tax rise. And in a number of places such as Coventry, Camden and Lambeth, Labour councils have sacked workers, trying to force them to reapply for their jobs but on much worse contracts.
In Glasgow the proposed cuts will be so deep that 1,200 jobs will go while the council tax bills could rise by 36 percent. Edinburgh faces over £40 million of cuts while council rents, already the highest in Scotland, are due to rise by almost 9 percent. Both cities propose closing schools and sacking teachers.
The national Labour leadership is intent on ensuring local councils carry out the attacks. Members of the Labour group on Bedfordshire county council were forced to give loyalty oaths under threat of being 'reconstituted' by Labour officials. This followed a meeting of Labour councillors which decided to vote against an £11 million cuts package. Regional officials stepped in, under orders from Labour headquarters, and forced councillors to sign a declaration agreeing to abide by what party officials said.
The response of the union leaders to this has been to go along with many of the attacks for fear of upsetting the Blair bandwagon. In Coventry officials representing one section of the local government union Unison accepted the council's cuts, and in Southwark a planned official ballot for action is unlikely to go ahead after one section of the Unison branch accepted some of the cuts. Officials only ended up organising a strike ballot amongst housing workers when faced with the prospect of unofficial action.
Labour's attacks just give the Tories the green light to come back for more. In Tory controlled Brent council, they have launched a vicious attack against union recognition--the first time this has happened and which, if successful, could lead to further attacks by other councils. Yet Rodney Bickerstaffe, the Unison leader, has failed to coordinate national action in response.
Any campaign against the council tax would be popular because it shows many signs of the unfairness which marked the poll tax. For example, if every council in the country received the same government subsidy that Tory controlled Westminster and Wandsworth received, then 319 out of 339 councils would be able to pay people money back. Stoke-on-Trent, for example, would be able to give everyone a rebate of over £1,000.
Fortunately in some areas local people and council workers have reacted with anger. Scotland has seen its biggest protests since the poll tax. And in many councils workers have voted for action if the proposed sackings and redundancies go ahead, despite the reluctance of union officials.
If the introduction of the council tax has taught us anything it is that Labour can be as brutal and harsh as the Tories and will only back down when working class people organise themselves to resist.
The immediate reaction to the events in Dunblane is one of horror and disbelief. The killing of 16 young children and their teacher for seemingly random motives leads to a general feeling that nothing can be said or done to explain such things. The world just seems to becoming a worse place more violent and monstrous and far less easy to understand. The response then becomes on the one hand to see individuals who perpetrate these acts as 'monsters'--divorced from society like aliens from outer space--and on the other hand to search for measures which will prevent an exact repetition of the killings.
But even with people whose acts are as inexplicable and horrific as those of Thomas Hamilton, we should be able to locate his behaviour as the sick product of a society which in many ways fosters that sickness. This is not to say that we can have any simple psychological explanation of what made him act as he did. It is impossible to know.
However, we do know that Hamilton's life was not what is regarded by society as 'normal'--any family relationships seem to have broken down. He was a 'loner'. He was obsessed with young boys yet equally obsessed with 'proving' that he was not. He was brought up to look on his real mother as his aunt. This was a common fiction in the 1950s to hide illegitimacy or broken marriages and maybe his was a family which felt such a stigma. If it did, it would hardly be unique. Politicians who espouse 'family values' pretend that everything is happy within the four walls of the home. The statistics of violence and breakdown tell a different story.Most people, of course, do not respond like Hamilton, and often cope remarkably well. But there will always be some who cannot cope and--in the case of Hamilton--develop a grudge against the whole of society.
Many of these people could be helped by professionals if they were identified and reached in time. All too often this does not happen. The worsening of social services and continuing cuts make it harder for that help to reach people. But there is also the increasing brutalisation and atomisation of society as a whole. The whole philosophy under which we live is that 'there is no such thing as society', that individuals are responsible for their own failings and must take the consequences. Unemployment, poverty and living in the ghetto are all individual problems.
Most people--especially workers--react against the worst of these attitudes, with instincts of collective support and solidarity which are demonstrated every time there is a tragedy like this. At the same time, some of the same people respond by calling for greater controls to prevent further atrocities. So the calls for gun controls, banning violent videos or having security guards in schools are understandable responses but look to the symptoms of a sick society, not its cause.
There is no evidence that screen violence leads to actual violence; existing gun laws do not stop people obtaining and using guns; and schools in the US--which already have security guards--often have a high level of violence. And all these 'solutions' call for a strengthening of various state institutions which have been seen to fail time and again in cases like these. Their failure lies in their function: to put the lid on society's problems rather than to deal with their underlying causes.
Building a different society which is based on the needs of ordinary people, not on the drive for profit, would not automatically end such atrocities. But it would end the pretence about the sort of fake 'community' of which politicians are so fond, which is based on narrow groups of individuals all cut off from one another. Instead there would be a genuine attempt to deal with the sorts of problems which led to this disaster in a collective way.
China's recent military exercises off the coast of Taiwan have stepped up military tension in east Asia to the highest pitch since the Vietnam War, and even raised the possibility of a full scale invasion of Taiwan.
In reality, the possibility is remote. It was Bill Clinton who really stoked up this fear, by sending American nuclear submarines to shadow the Chinese fleet, a move which angered even many people in Taiwan who want independence.
China was primarily using the tests to show off its navy's power to neighbouring countries, as well as to underline its continuing claim to Taiwan. Both governments insist that Taiwan is an integral part of China, and they alone are the legitimate government of the whole of China. This is one of those diplomatic fictions which almost nobody really believes but everyone pays lip service to, and which becomes important when governments decide to beat the nationalist drum.
Taiwan is a sub-tropical island roughly half the size of Ireland, with a population of 21 million. Its separate status dates from the Chinese Revolution of 1949, when China's Nationalist government and its remaining armies fled there after losing the civil war. Taiwan soon attracted massive American military and economic aid. The Taiwanese straits came to be seen as one of the most important frontlines of the Cold War. The regime remained as vicious and corrupt as it had been on the mainland. In 1947 mass protests against police brutality were savagely repressed when Nationalist troops killed between 10,000 and 20,000 people. From the outset, the Nationalists behaved as an occupying army. Martial law was declared in early 1949, and only lifted at most 40 years later in 1987.
In theory it was a parliamentary democracy, but the parliament had been 'elected' in 1947, at the height of the civil war--on the Nationalists' own figures, less than 4 percent of China's population had voted--when no opposition party would have dared to stand. The parliament was--and is--a motley collection of ex-landlords, former army officers and other detritus of the old regime, most of whom couldn't have found the constituencies they claimed to represent on a map, and who simply served as a rubber stamp for the Nationalist dictator.
Taiwanese society changed out of all recognition in the boom. By the 1980s a substantial industrial working class had grown up, as had a large number of Taiwanese capitalists and middle class professionals, to whom the Nationalists' dream of one day occupying the whole of China was an utter irrelevance. Under the pressure of the growth of political opposition in the 1970s, and widespread strikes in the 1980s, the Nationalist regime was forced to offer serious political reforms. Opposition parties were legalised, local authorities elected, and Taiwanese representation in parliament increased.
As China re-entered the world economy in the early 1970s, most countries dropped diplomatic links with Taiwan in favour of China. Because the economy is heavily dependent on international trade, both for exports and most raw materials, the Nationalists were forced to accept this second class status. Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms in the 1970s and 1980s opened up both travel and trading opportunities with Taiwan. At a time when the rest of the world economy was still in recession, China offered Taiwanese capitalists both an enormous marketplace and investment opportunities. Taiwan is now China's fourth largest trading partner, which accounts for some 6 percent of foreign investment in Taiwan.
In practice the Taiwanese ruling class has had to operate as though it were a separate country for some time now. March's presidential election showed how far this process had gone. In theory the election was for president of all China, but there was no pretence that anyone except the Taiwanese would vote. Although the election took place after we went to press the broad outcome is not in doubt. The likely winner will be Lee Teng-hui, current president and the first native Taiwanese to hold high office. The middle class and openly pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party is expected to come second.
Most opinion polls in Taiwan show overwhelming support for the current set up, with only tiny minorities supporting either immediate reunification or immediate independence. But according to one socialist living in Taiwan, the vast majority of people want separation one day, without a confrontation with China.
For the Chinese ruling class, however, this is unacceptable. Ever since 1949 nationalism and the desire to re-unite China has been one of its main guiding principles. Now, facing a deep economic crisis, and the hatred of large sections of the population after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, nationalism is the only force it can use to combat its isolation.
Whatever the outcome of the immediate crisis, the military tensions are not going to go away. In the last few years China's navy has fought gun battles with both Vietnamese and Filipino gunboats in the uninhabited Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea, which all three countries (and Taiwan) lay claim to. This growing aggression will, after Hong Kong has been taken over, undoubtedly be turned on Taiwan.
What should socialists say? In the first place, we have to insist that China's claim to Taiwan is a colonialist one. We would oppose any Chinese invasion of Taiwan as an act of imperialist aggression. Equally we would have to oppose any American involvement in such a conflict as leading to an even bloodier and more widespread war. Reunification could only be supported if the majority of Taiwanese wished for it, and all the evidence is that they do not.
But beyond that, we also have to insist that the crisis shows that capitalist rivalry still leads to bloody military competition, just as it has always done. East Asia has been held up as the shining future for world capitalism. The growing military build up across the region shows that future to be as unstable and dangerous as ever.
The long term effects of last autumn's scare about the dangers of the contraceptive pill are beginning to emerge. A recent Nursing Times article describes a survey which shows that one in eight women stopped taking the pill immediately after the government announcement, while one doctor has seen the number of abortions at her local clinic double in the last few months.
At the time, doctors and family planning clinics were furious that the government had leaked, without warning or consultation, the results of a report which claimed that newer (and cheaper) brands of the pill were associated with increased risk of thrombosis. They warned that many women would simply stop taking the pill without advice from a doctor and the number of unplanned pregnancies would increase. This had been the case with previous pill scares.
Over 3 million women depend on the pill for contraception and it has enabled women to control their fertility in a way unimagined 50 years ago. Research over the years has enabled newer brands which are safer and which cause fewer side effects to be made available to women free as part of the National Health Service. The scare in the autumn was quickly shown to be little more than a cost cutting exercise by a government which has never had women's health at the top of its agenda. While the need for completely safe and efficient contraception has still not been realised. we have to defend the right of all women to have access to the best that is available.
Alex Callinicos answers questions on the European Union
What is the fuss about the Inter Governmental Conference?
What we are likely to see out of the Inter Governmental Conference--which is due to discuss the next stage of European integration--is a multi-speed Europe. States that are mostly committed to greater integration--crucially France and Germany--will press to increase their integration through economic and monetary union, and greater political cooperation over foreign policy, defence and so forth. The states who either don't want to be part of that--like the British--or who can't because of their relative economic weakness, like some of the south European states or the eastern and central European states, won't be integrated.
There is an irony in all this as it was the British under Major who pressed for a multi-speed Europe a few years ago as a way of preventing closer integration. Britain's opt out from the social chapter is an example of Major's efforts in this respect. Now the French, the Germans and the European Commission have all taken up the idea of a multi-speed Europe and a closer integrated core as a way of overcoming British resistance to integration. So the Germans and the French have called Major's bluff.
What are the convergence criteria for a single currency and what problems are they having meeting these?
The convergence criteria are the conditions which members of the EU will have to meet before they can participate in economic and monetary union--most specifically the setting up of a common currency. The most important is the requirement that the government deficit--what each government has to borrow in order to cover expenditure--cannot be higher than 3 percent of gross national product.
Currently virtually no state meets that figure. Reducing the deficit means major cuts in public spending and an assault on the welfare state. This obviously creates one problem for the governments of Europe--political resistance like we saw in France at the end of last year. But there are also economic problems with meeting the criteria because the effects of implementing the cuts to meet the deficit are deflationary--they slow down the rate at which the economy grows.
This leads to what has been called the 'growth paradox'. The effect of seeking to meet the target by cutting public spending will slow down the rate of economic growth, and GNP will grow more slowly relative to the government deficit. That means that by cutting spending to meet the target they are slowing economic growth which makes it even harder to meet the target. So it's like Alice in Wonderland--running to stay in the same place.
How severe will the attacks be on the European working class for this project to go ahead?
They are going to be very extensive. The Juppé Plan is a good example of the scale and the sort of cuts-the partial destruction of the pension system, the running down of the railway system and so on. The Tory right can actually make quite good points about how deflationary meeting the criteria for the Maastricht Treaty is going to be, but they are even more fanatically committed to the idea of cutting the government deficit and reducing government spending. Think of Newt Gingrich in the US wanting to get a balanced budget and eliminate the deficit, with people like John Redwood echoing him. This would also imply massive cuts. So what we are talking about is a general assault by the western ruling class on the welfare state to try and increase the rate of profit. In Europe that takes the form of the Maastricht Treaty and the convergence criteria, and even sections of the European ruling class who are opposed to greater integration support the cuts.
The size of the deficit problem varies from one country to the next. Even countries which will probably find it relatively easy to meet the deficit target, like Germany, will still go ahead with very substantial attacks on the welfare state. The German economy is slowing down. Sections of the German ruling class think they pay workers too much--they have too short working hours, too generous welfare payments--so all that, they believe, has to be dismantled. So we will see very substantial attacks taking place even in countries where the deficit is comparatively easy to resolve.
The introduction of a new currency--the Euro--by the year 2000, is designed to replace the pound, the franc, the mark. How will this work?
The plan is to move towards this through a succession of stages. Most EU currencies are already part of the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Monetary System. This essentially involves European currencies fluctuating against each other in certain limits around the Deutschmark. At a certain point they will fix the currencies at whatever the exchange rates are at that moment and then they will move to a fixed currency. Doing it this way has the potential for financial instability.
When the pound and the Italian lira were forced out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992 that involved the financial markets speculating on the weaker currencies and putting on massive pressure until they were driven out. I think we are likely to see with this step by step process similar massive pressuresthe speculators on the finance markets make big profits for themselves by pushing at the cracks within the system. One economist, Samuel Brittan of the Financial Times, argues that they shouldn't do it by this step by step process but that simply the Germans and the French should announce one day that they have merged their currencies and take the financial markets by surprise, although even that will generate immense chaos.
What about the pound which is not part of the EMS--is it to be included or will it just be on the sidelines?
This is where the splits in the Tory Party come in. Kenneth Clarke, for example, is in favour of going through with the whole process of preparation for a single currency. He says he wants to keep Britain's options open, but I think he represents that section of the British ruling class which would like to go in for a single currency because it sees its future in the EU. The rest of the cabinet are under enormous pressure from the anti-European right who essentially want to stay out of the single currency. What will actually happen is too much in the hands of politics to predict. I think it is one of those historic splits like that over the Corn Laws which drove the Tories out of office for a generation in the 1840s, or the split in the Liberal Party in the 1880s over Irish Home Rule, which can temporarily incapacitate a ruling class party.
Are socialists in favour of a single currency?
In principle I don't see why we should prefer a national currency to a federal currency or vice versa--we are not in the business of telling bosses how to run their system. But in the concrete context of a move to economic and monetary union, the project of the single currency is the project of Europewide deflation with tremendous attacks on working class living standards. Since this is part of the whole package, we have to be against the single currency. However, this does not mean we support the Tory right when they oppose the single currency essentially on a nationalist basis--little England against wicked Europe. For us little England and a British state separated from the rest of Europe aren't an alternative to the project of European integration.
There is a debate going on among the British ruling class about what is the best option. Is it better to throw its lot in with the rest of those who want European integration or is it better for Britain to be a larger Singapore? The viciousness of debate reflects the fact that some sections of British business have their interests in Europe while others have a much more global orientation. Either strategy implies attacks on the working class and we cannot support either side.
The grounding of The Sea Empress tanker off the Pembroke coast with the loss of 65,000 tonnes of crude oil could have been avoided. A new report by Environment Data Services reveals how the Department of Transport refused to implement many of the recommendations made following the grounding of the Braer tanker off the Scottish coast in 1993.
The EDS report says that the Department of Transport 'proved reluctant to upset the ports and shipping industries which it sponsors', and 'has succumbed to short term financial expediency'.
The sinking of the Braer showed that there was not sufficient tug capacity in UK waters--they were 'an endangered species'. In response the Department of Transport announced that there would be salvage tugs stationed in the Dover Strait and north west Scotland, but, crucially, there were to be none in the western approaches. The EDS report that the Donaldson Report into the Braer disaster clearly refers to 'three key areas' which needed tugs in case of an emergency, including the western approaches.
The Sea Empress disaster vvill cost tens of millions of pounds in clean up and compensation expenses, as well as causing significant ecological damage. The Tory government clearly ignored the warnings from Donaldson urging the government and the shipping companies to bear the full cost of tug cover. Instead 'financial considerations clearly played a part in the Department of Transport's actions on salvage tugs'. The Donaldson Report specifically stated that a levy should be imposed on the shipping companies to raise the £10 million a year needed to provide the salvage tugs. The government said, however, 'that unilateral action could adversely affect the competitiveness of UK ports and industry'.
One of the other main criticisms raised by Donaldson was that the government did not go far enough to protect environmentally sensitive areas. The Milford Haven area is a candidate for an 'area for special protection' under EC directives. However, in 1995 the Milford Haven port authority blocked the designation, objecting that it might interfere with the port's commercial viability. As EDS comments, 'This would have required the port authority to reach a... management agreement with conservation bodies to reconcile such interests as fisheries, recreation. wildlife add commercial traffic. Safety in shipping practices would have to be addressed in these discussions--as would the specific issue of why the practice of escorting laden tankers into the Haven with tugs was abandoned several years ago.'
There were a number of factors which did not help the Sea Empress salvage operation, including high winds and tides which kept much of the 65,000 tonnes of crude oil lost from the tanker inshore. But this was a disaster that could have been prevented if the interests of the environment had not been sacrificed in exchange for short term gain.
Israel's prime minister Shimon Peres is fighting for his political life, following the recent bus bombings there. The future of Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, also hangs in the balance along with the peace process that began with the accords signed in Oslo three years ago.
Peres faces an election on 29 May, brought forward to cash in on the public mood after the assassination of his predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, by a fanatical right wing Jewish settler. But bomb attacks by the Palestinian fundamentalist group Hamas have seen a 16 point opinion poll lead evaporate.
The bombs have also brought a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the right wing Likud. Netanyahu faced oblivion after Leah Rabin, widow of the assassinated prime minister, accused him of responsibility for creating the climate in which her husband was killed. Now Netanyahu has assembled an unprecedented alliance of Israel's right wing parties.
Peres' election gamble has foundered on the rocks of his second gamble--the reaction of Hamas to the assassination of a leading activist Yahya Ayyash. Allegedly a 'master bombmaker', Ayyash was assassinated by Israel's secret service. His murder ended an effective Hamas truce and the Palestinian group's revenge has exceeded all the Israeli government's calculations.
Peres has tried to recapture the initiative with a combination of vicious repression against the Palestinians and a series of stage managed diplomatic photo opportunities. Israel imposed a two week state of siege on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Israeli navy even imposed a blockade to stop fishing boats putting to sea from Gaza.
The Israelis also demanded and got Yasser Arafat to crack down on Hamas. Since signing the peace accords with Israel Arafat has tried with some success to divide Hamas and involve some sections of the organisation in his Palestinian Authority. A sign of his success was the contradictory statements from Hamas leaders after the car bombings in March. The Israeli authorities claimed the statements were a sign of the fundamentalist movement's bad faith. In reality they showed Hamas was split. One section wanted to be included in any deal agreed between Arafat and the Israeli authorities and the other, a desperate military wing, wanted to continue the fight.
Now the Israeli blockade of the occupied territories has undercut Arafat's strategy and sent support for Hamas soaring. Meanwhile Arafat's clampdown on the movement has further discredited the PLO leader among Palestinians.
The other track of Peres' strategy involved bringing US president Bill Clinton to Israel for his third visit in 18 months, and using last month's international conference on terrorism in Cairo to gain promises of still more US aid to Israel. Peres will receive another boost if Arafat keeps his promise to remove clauses in the Palestine National Charter calling for the destruction of Israel.
None of this may be enough to save the coalition, even though most Israelis still favour a peace treaty with the Palestinians. Netanyahu is astute enough to realise this and publicly has to say that he would not rip up, but insist on a strict implementation of, the accords already signed.
Although the Likud leader promises ,not to send Israeli tanks back into the towns of Gaza and the West Bank', his coalition colleagues are less measured.
Ariel Sharon, the defence minister who ordered the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, says the fight against Hamas must be conducted without any regard for any Oslo pact restrictions'. His rival Rafael Eitan was chief of staff during the Lebanon invasion, and the man found responsible for the brutal massacre in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps.
Likud promises to freeze the peace process and expand Israeli settlements, and hints at a new 'war against terror 'that will force thousands more Palestinians to flee their homes and become refugees in neighbouring Arab countries.
Labour promises to separate Israelis from Palestinians while using Arafat to control the West Bank and Gaza. Whoever wins the election, the outlook is grim.