Issue 209 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1997 Copyright Socialist Review


A load of bankers

Gordon Brown's decision to give an unelected committee of the Bank of England power over setting interest rates produced the most astonishing outburst of praise in the editorials of every mainstream paper. Virtually every economic commentator Phillip Stephens and William Keegan were notable exceptions endorsed the 'bold' and 'exciting' move as a prelude to permanently lower inflation and interest rates.

Perhaps the most surprising backing for Brown's move came from Observer editor Will Hutton, whose latest book, The State to Come, Alex Callinicos reviewed (May SR).

Alex pointed out how Hutton located the crisis facing the British economy in the unrestrained dominance of a market system which, far from leading to efficient and equitable outcomes, produces frenetic booms and slumps and widening inequality.

In Hutton's earlier book, The State We're In, he spelled out in greater detail his explanation for Britain's century long economic decline relative to its major competitors. According to Hutton, short-termism was built into British capitalism. The key institutions which led to placing short term returns to shareholders over long term investment were: the archaic political structure symbolised by the House of Lords; the City and company laws which favoured making a fast buck; and...the Bank of England!

In fact, over 20 pages are spent criticising the role of the Bank of England in propping up what Hutton called 'gentlemanly capitalism' at the expense of the kind of modern, investment led economy he believes exists in Germany and Japan.

Of course, one glance at the worldwide crisis which three times in the last 20 years has hit economies as diverse as Japan and the US, Germany and Britain, South Korea and Mexico, suggests Gordon Brown and Tony Blair face much deeper problems than the 19th century customs Hutton says dominate British capitalism. But at least Hutton's analysis pointed to deeper problems than those identified by Gordon Brown and his economic advisers. His recipe for reforms was woefully inadequate in taking on the vested interests of the rich and powerful, but it was more radical than anything the Labour front bench proposes.

Now Hutton has moderated many of his criticisms of New Labour and supported the government in giving more power to one of the very institutions he holds responsible for 'the state we are in'.

In fact, according to Hutton's analysis, Labour has increased the power of the short-termists since none of the wider changes he has proposed, principally taxing the well off and increasing spending, show any sign of being implemented by the Labour government.

The other reason for Hutton's shift is his belief that global markets are too powerful for governments to rely on the kind of direct state intervention in the economy which accompanied the long boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Labour economic adviser Meghnad Desai put this view more bluntly in a recent Tribune article. He said making the Bank of England independent made very little difference as it always behaved as if it was independent in responding to international currency speculation under previous Labour governments anyway.

This all adds up to a remarkable defeatism intellectuals, traditionally to the left of the Labour leadership, acknowledging that little can be done with the biggest Labour majority in history. Hutton is left applauding as Labour introduces one element of his programme for renewal in such a way as to deepen the problem he had identified.

Kevin Ovenden


Blues night at the club

I much appreciated your election special issue (May SR). It is the most convincing I have read or heard. I did wonder how all these public school and Oxbridge educated Tories failed to remember what they were taught about hubris and nemesis, or that the English are slow to anger but beware once they do so.

But the works of P G Wodehouse are not works of fantasy, rather those of caricature by an author of comic genius. What is the mood in the Drones' Club tonight?

Alan Crabtree

Isle of Man

One eye to the future

For several years Britain's Nazis have pinned their hopes on an electoral breakthrough. They certainly didn't achieve any breakthrough in the general election. And they remain irrelevant against the broad picture of a huge Labour landslide.

Outside London there were over 30 BNP candidates, and most polled under 1 percent of the vote. Two fascist candidates did, however, receive a larger vote. In Dewsbury the BNP obtained 2,232 votes (5 percent). In West Bromwich the National Democrats gained 4,181 votes (11 percent). This second vote should be seen as a fluke: this was speaker Betty Boothroyd's constituency, and none of the main parties stood against her. The fascists did poll a high vote, but it was far less than the 8,546 votes won by an independent socialist candidate.

Inside London the BNP stood in 21 seats and scored an average of 2 percent of the vote. The fascists did, however, do well in the East End. In Bethnal Green they polled 3,350 votes (7.5 percent), and in Poplar 2,849 votes (7.3 percent).

Because the BNP stood in over 50 constituencies, its literature was distributed by post and it was given a party political broadcast. The BNP broadcast was openly racist and ended with the promise to repatriate 'foreigners'. Afterwards the BBC was flooded with protests according to the BBC there were 'several hundred' complaints.

Individual postal workers in east London refused to deliver fascist mailings. Around 500 BBC workers signed a petition against the BNP broadcast. Faced with the possibility of strike action, managers did not ask a single worker to show the broadcast, but actually put it out themselves. Channel 4 refused to show the Nazi broadcast.

There are two ways to look at the election results. On the one hand, they are very low, and far lower than the votes that the BNP was regularly hitting in local elections in 1993 and 1994. On the other hand, in east London they are far higher than the votes the Nazis won in the 1992 election.

Millions of people hope and expect Labour to deliver. The BNP sees opportunities of growth when people become disillusioned with Labour, as they did in the 1970s.

For now, the Nazis remain tiny and insignificant. Future disillusionment with Blair could swing to the left as well as right. When Labour fails, millions of people will want an alternative. Provided that socialists can fill that vacuum, our side could be strong enough not only to stop the Nazis, but also to take on the system which enables the fascists to grow.

Dave Renton

East London

Corruption free

Nick Grant, in his review of III Effects: The Media/Violence Debate (May SR), counters the case for censorship on the grounds that this involves establishing a group of moral guardians who are superior to the mass of people since they are not themselves corrupted by seeing television or video violence in the way they imagine other, ordinary people will be.

Yes, but doesn't this argument equally apply to censorship of the BNP and its views? Once again, the assumption is there that while anti-fascists are not corrupted by reading or listening to BNP material the mass of people will be. I saw the BNP election broadcast and wasn't corrupted by it. Was anybody?

Adam Buick


Where size matters

New Labour's fault line between what voters expect of them and what they can deliver is most gaping on education. Despite the charm offensive of David Blunkett at press conferences and in his letter sent to all teachers announcing a new relationship with government, they are on course to shoot themselves spectacularly in both feet.

Every voter has some detailed connection with education, as a student, parent, education worker or as relatives of those involved in education. Every voter knows about teachers' workloads and pay, their class sizes and the conditions of buildings we work in. Poll after poll has shown voters' willingness to pay increased taxes for better education services.

Blunkett's pitch that standards rather than funding are the key just will not convince most voters. The ideological attack on teaching methods is too weak to blind voters to material reality.

Whatever method of teaching is used, class sizes make the biggest difference.

That means you have to have more staff in schools, not less. It also means making the pay, conditions and status of teachers attractive enough to avoid the impending staffing crisis. Put bluntly, without serious money in education very quickly, Blunkett is going to have to go in and do some teaching himself. One of the reasons the Tories with Labour support blocked off the opportunities for early retirement, was that the flow of new teachers was not keeping up with the outflow of older staff.

Yet far from funding educational improvements, New Labour is about to preside over the biggest round of cuts there has ever been. The Teacher Training Agency budget has been cut by a third, and real money available to local education authorities to pass on to schools is set to decrease. For example, the London borough of Ealing is looking at a cut of 4.4 million for 1998-99 equivalent to the whole budget of two of the 12 high schools or about 150 teachers. This is in the context of a rising number of kids as well, requiring the opening of another high school.

On Channel 4 news John Prescott was already warning critics that teacher redundancies will be an unavoidable legacy of Tory rule. But we all have the right to ask a government with such a massive mandate to take the steps necessary to seek compensation from the beneficiaries of that Tory rule. The fat cats, the arms merchants, the super rich and the corporate fraudsters could be taxed to provide the required funding.

The longer New Labour prevaricates over this dilemma, the more widespread will oppositional voices grow.

Nick Grant


The appliance of science

Nuno Pessoa Barradas's letter (May SR) seems to reflect the hidden anger and desire for change that must exist in many people's minds today. However, there is a real pessimism that he shows that I feel must be countered.

Scientists are no longer a specialised group living in ivory towers that are aloof from the everyday realities of other workers. Rather, they now find themselves in exactly the same position as millions of others competing for limited jobs and limited resources while at the same time facing pay cuts, job insecurity and longer hours. This is nothing new, simply capitalism attacking the people who create the profits so that business can make even more money.

Whether you are a physicist, biologist, teacher, bank worker or lecturer, you will have experienced the same process over the last couple of decades. But it is this process that drives people into conflict with the very system they live under on a daily basis. In his original article, John Parrington (March SR) argued that this process was partly responsible for the radicalisation of so many scientists in the 1930s. It is also why groups of workers who used to be seen as privileged have in recent years been at the forefront of strikes over pay and conditions.

As I write this Tony Blair has been in office just over a week. The massive landslide victory shows that people in Britain want real change. This is true whatever industry you work in. However, very quickly people are going to realise that Blair isn't going to deliver this change. Thus the role of socialists in every workplace has to be to argue that things can be different but more importantly, how we fight to get that change.

Nuno says in his letter that maybe none of his work will be useful within his lifetime. What better way to argue with his colleagues for a different society one where the role of scientists is not to further the short term profit making of the bosses but to work for the long term benefit of everybody.

Martin Empson


Once more on the Chartists

John Saville makes a number of points against my account of the revolutionary year of 1848 which need to be addressed (May SR).

His first point is that the Chartist leaders did not intend the Kennington Common gathering of 10 April to be anything more than a demonstration. This really depends on which Chartist leaders you choose to look at, and at what point, in the build up to the day itself. Many of the Chartist leaders, including the national leaders, spoke in strong and determined terms of a decisive confrontation with the forces of the state. In the period preceding 10 April and against the background of widespread economic distress, the physical forces wing of the movement had been in the ascendant for some time.

Only in the last few days before the gathering did the nerve of the leaders such as Feargus O'Connor and Ernest Jones begin to fail. The accounts of O'Connor's speech to the convention immediately before the demonstration convey the sense of amazed disappointment on the part of the delegates. It was not just the delegates who were to be disappointed, however, but also those workers from the major industrial areas who had been busy manufacturing pikes in preparation for the 'bust up'.

Certainly there was unease amongst the troops at the role they might be called upon to play in putting down the Chartists. Anecdotal reports of troops swearing to fire over the heads of the demonstrators and of sympathising with the Chartists were numerous in the days before the march. There were reports also of soldiers signing the Charter.

Certainly there was enough interest in the attitude of the troops for the Northern Star to appeal to the soldiers directly not to shoot against the demonstrators.

John Saville refers to this in his book on 1848. The point is not really the evidence, it is that John regards it as trivial. In the end the troops were not used against the Chartists precisely because of the unpredictability of such a strategy and so we will never really know if refusals or even defections would have occurred. But I would rather accept the anecdotal evidence of the Chartists than that of the Earl of Malmsbury who declared that the troops were completely loyal to the state and indeed that they were 'furious' at the Chartists' attempts to disturb the peace.

Historians have acknowledged the revolutionary potential of the summer months of that year. The major confrontations that occurred between the authorities and workers in London and Bradford caused widespread alarm.

But can we really separate the build up to 10 April from the events which occurred only a few weeks later?. The key question is what was the consciousness of the working class at the time?

The mood of excitement and expectation in Britain after the news of the February revolution in France is clear when you consider the way in which the ranks of the Chartists swelled under its impact and the fact that mass gatherings began to occur for the first time in years. The working class was ready for something far more serious than one more demonstration. Objectively, too, in terms of size and concentration the working class in Britain was in an altogether different league from that of any other European country.

The missing element in the equation was exactly one of a leadership ready and able to take the movement one step further rather than falling back. John Charlton, in his book The Chartists, does talk about the failure of the 'mass platform' that is the combination of English radicalism and French Jacobinism which characterised much of the thinking of the Chartist movement. With a different outlook on the possibilities of 1848 on the part of a different kind of local and national leadership, 10 April could have been the opening shot in a British revolution.

John Saville in his dismissal of the possibility of a moment of workers' power in the Britain of 1848 displays an impressive certainty. It is a certainty, however, I regret to have to say, that the participants in the events of 1848 would not have understood.

Mark O'Brien


Stormy weather

I congratulate Pat Stack on his sentiments and condemnation of fascism in 'The laws of history' (April SR). He correctly argues that no laws or constitution will prevent fascism or protect societies from fascists, because if the same sentiments that conceived the Public Order Act (1936) were to pass new legislation, the same result would occur the left would again be the targets of state sanctions. However, Stack fails to acknowledge the futility and inherently intellectually damaging nature of legislation that dictates the truth and lies of historical research and investigation.

Stack's unnamed example of research that argues that the American Revolution hinged on the weather may illustrate that the research oversimplified the process and formation of revolution, or may be an oversimplification of the research itself. However, no historian (or commentator) can ignore the potentially decisive nature of luck or the weather; the early Russian snows that ended Nazi chances of military victory being just one example.

Certainly, politically motivated historical research adds nothing to an understanding of the past. Nationalists, Nazi apologists, or positivist capitalist historians have all conceived flawed research based on faulty methodologies, but their combined efforts should not receive the legislative censorship of government injunctions. The example of Jean-Marie Le Pen's dismissal of the Nazi atrocities and the Holocaust deaths gives the false impression that political, cultural, economic, socio-economic or class motivations can be easily discerned; the opposite is in fact the case. As Nietzsche observed, historians are unable to obtain and maintain objectivity in historical research, thereby creating a relativism school of thought. However, relativism does not hold the answers once expected of it (the Holocaust examples illustrating that), thus giving objectivity a foothold against intellectually fudging under the guise of relativism or postmodernism.

There has been a cost to objectivity for the foothold, with the simple causality and authoritative pronouncements of historians giving way to an acknowledgement that history may result in nothing more than unenlightened shadows cast over the past. The completeness (and, therefore, objectivity) of the theory or historical work can only be judged against the prevailing theory and other works; including works that partially or substantially disagree with the theory.

Returning to the earlier example, had the Nazi soldiers escaped the early Russian snows and taken Moscow, then Stalin would now be considered a failure for his continued (tactical) retreat before the Nazis. Not being well acquainted with the American Revolution, I cannot think of similar examples that illustrated the decisiveness of the weather on the battlefield.

The point is not that invading forces should not winter in Russia, but that complete historical theories require both sides of an argument to give balance and the semblance of objectivity. Stack's tacit acceptance of the legislation of historical research ('By all means pass laws against lies and against the shameful "history"') denies the thrust and counter-thrust essential for the defence of theories and the gaining of objectivity.

If capitalist historians were in the ascendancy, arguing that selfishness and greed (that is, capitalism) are the natural and unavoidable systems of human interaction, would Stack as readily advocate government sanctions against historical research the 'lies' he so easily condemns?

Grant McKenna


I am replying to the letter by Nuno Pessoa Barradas (May SR). He makes an important point where he points to decreasing scientific independence as another pressure on scientists today. He then talks about what he sees among his colleagues as 'the normal lack of political consciousness'.

I am a PhD student in atmospheric chemistry and I do not see a complete lack of political consciousness amongst my colleagues. Some have signed the open letter to Blair to reinstate the Liverpool dockers and almost all were delighted to see the end of the Tories. I also believe that more scientists will have voted Labour in the last election than ever before. It is not only amongst scientists, however, that there is a lack of political consciousness for much of the time. The society in which we live encourages us to think of politics as something politicians do.

Where I think Nuno makes his biggest mistake, however, is when he says that technological progress serves almost no good purpose anymore and is no longer necessary. Tell that to someone who is dying of Aids! Science is hamstrung by capitalism 15 billion is wasted on the Eurofighter that could be much better spent on medical research but it does still have a progressive element.

He says that he is an objective instrument of capitalism. Welcome to the working class! The surplus of physicists he mentions is a side effect of capitalism in crisis. This crisis is not yet reflected in a mass move towards socialist ideas in society but it does mean that the prospects are good.

He writes, 'If we get better pay etc, most of us will be perfectly happy doing what we are told to.' The point is the system can no longer afford to do this. Working for the multinationals, as many scientists are forced to, shows that you cannot escape capitalism you can only smash it. He seems to feel guilty about enjoying his work which is a capitulation to the idea that we don't have a right to a good job. Enjoy doing your work but always be aware that for science to escape the shackles it is currently in it will mean destroying capitalism and replacing it with socialism.

As John Parrington says, this requires a revolutionary party but also the 'determination of individual socialists who work in science to lay the foundations for the future.' My final point is a question what should I as an individual socialist who works in science be doing? Is it only being a socialist at work (as every other comrade should be) or should I be trying in addition to apply the Marxist method to science to spread these ideas more widely?

Nick Savage


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