Issue 220 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

NOTES OF THE MONTH

Editorial, Stephen Lawrence, Ireland, the debt crisis

Editorial

'We would find anything between 3.50 and 3.60 acceptable,' said CBI president Sir Colin Marshall (232 an hour) on hearing that the recommended figure for the national minimum wage was 3.60 an hour. You bet they would. The figure is at the lower end of most expectations and well below the demands of the trade unions, who wanted anything from 4 to 4.61 an hour, and is certainly well below what could be categorised as a decent living wage. Those aged 18-21 fare even worse at 3.20 an hour, with no minimum for under 18s.

According to the Financial Times, the level is even below what would have been paid under the old wages council system, established to ensure a minimum wage in low paid industries and which was abolished by the Tories. The 3.60 level is around 6.5 percent lower than the average rate of the wages councils in 1993. It will provide little difficulty for most employers, as it will require them to pay their employees the princely sum of 7,000 a year. This is half what it costs to run Sir Colin Marshall's chauffeur driven Jaguar in a year. It is estimated that a minimum wage at this level will only affect 1.5 million people a small proportion of the workforce.

No wonder that on the day that the figure came out Britain's top bosses, gathered at a CBI dinner addressed by Tony Blair in London's Grosvenor House Hotel, were quite contented. What was astonishing was the sight of John Monks, John Edmonds and other trade union leaders scurrying into the hotel desperately trying to find some compromise on the figure. Their only argument appears to be that Britain should have a higher minimum wage because it wants to be a high productivity, high investment economy, and that such a low wage forces Britain to compete with even lower paid countries.

They do not put forward the basic arguments that everyone has the right to a decent wage that around a third of those officially living in poverty are in work, and that the profits of most companies have grown in recent years out of all proportion to workers' wage increases.

The bosses are claiming that to set the wage any higher would mean losing jobs. There is little evidence for this. Indeed, some studies have shown that the minimum wage has no effect or can even lead to an increase in jobs. The bosses are only concerned about a rise in the minimum wage cutting into their profits. But most could certainly afford to lose some profits and still not notice. Most low pay employers are not small corner shops but giant companies. The retail sector is largely made up of huge conglomerates and supermarket chains; most pubs and hotels are owned by big business; and the agricultural sector, heavily subsidised by the taxpayer and itself a big business, is one of the worst low wage payers despite massive productivity gains.

Behind this low level of minimum wage is the same old agenda. The bosses resist any attempt by workers to improve their conditions and they do everything to maximise their profits. They had 18 years of Tory government when nearly all their demands were met and where workers suffered defeat after defeat. They now have a Labour government which is bending over backwards to appease Rupert Murdoch, the CBI and all those who have made life so miserable for workers over the past two decades

It is a scandal that the trade union leaders, who should be standing up for their members, are so weak over this issue and that they believe Blair is too strong to be taken on. The truth is that Blair has created a great deal of discontent inside the working class movement and there are signs of people organising despite the inertia at the top of the movement. The election of left winger Dave Rix as leader of the train drivers' union Aslef was a symbol of this.

The Financial Times editorial (28 May) wrote that 'this is a figure most of industry can live with'. Workers throughout industry both the low paid and those who are already above this threshold should make it absolutely clear that they are not prepared to do the same.


Stephen Lawrence

Regrets are not enough

Many thought that the public inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence might reveal little new evidence and so be no more than a formality. Instead daily revelations have made this case dynamite.

The early evidence showed that, as Stephen bled to death on the pavement in Eltham, south east London, no first aid was given and there were no efforts to stem the flow of blood or resuscitate him as he gradually became unconscious. Offers of assistance from passers-by who were trained first aiders were never taken up.

The testimony of Stephen's friend, Duwayne Brooks, was read out to the inquiry. He told how a gang of white boys attacked them shouting, '"What, what, nigger", and then stabbed Stephen with a huge blade.' When the police arrived Duwayne said one of them 'asked me if I had any weapons on me. She was treating me like she was suspicious of me, not like she wanted to help.' He was not allowed to travel in the ambulance with his dying friend and was instead left to sit alone in a police car in the hospital car park.

Such evidence was shocking enough but it was only the beginning. Under questioning Detective Superintendent Brian Weeden, who was appointed to the original police inquiry three days after the murder and had 30 years experience, admitted to everyone's astonishment that he did not realise he had the power to arrest the main suspects straight away. When Michael Mansfield QC asked, 'Do you find it is rather disturbing that it has taken you all this time to recognise a basic tenet of criminal law?', Weeden replied, 'I think it is regrettable.'

As the Independent on Sunday reported (24 May 1998), 'Lawyers for the Lawrence family, led by Michael Mansfield QC, believe that the conduct of the police investigation was so deeply flawed that it cannot be explained by mere incompetence. Darker forces racism, or corruption must have been at play, they argue.'

For example, the Independent on Sunday reports that less than 24 hours after Stephen's murder a young man walked into Eltham police station saying he had information for the inquiry. He went on to give a detective detailed descriptions of five men he said were Stephen's attackers, including names, addresses and an account of their history of violent attacks. The detective went up to the incident room to report what should have been seen as a dramatic breakthrough, but the second in command of the murder inquiry, Detective Inspector Bullock, 'was less than interested in it'. Bullock denies this, saying, 'at this time I was up to my eyeballs in other things.' The informer left the police station and wasn't seen again for four days.

Detective Superintendent Ian Crampton, the inspector in charge of the inquiry in these early days, now says he regrets not making early arrests of the five suspects. Forensic evidence could have been gathered at their homes and identity parades could have been set up. Instead a police surveillance team watched as two of the suspects carried full bin liners out of their house. They could have contained clothes but the officers say they could do nothing as they weren't equipped with radios or phones. More astonishing still is the fact that a car carrying men connected to the murder of Rolan Adams passed the scene minutes after the attack. They jeered from the car but were not stopped by the police.

The scandal being revealed at the Lawrence inquiry is now being linked with the investigation of the racist murder of Rolan Adams. The attitude of the local police to the murders of Rolan Adams and Rohit Duggal fuelled allegations of police racism. In both the Lawrence and the Adams cases key witnesses Duwayne Brooks and Rolan's 14 year old brother, Nathan were arrested some time after the incidents on separate charges which never resulted in convictions. Both these arrests were made by the same arresting officer.

In the inquiry a team sits in judgement of the two sides the Lawrence family and their lawyers on one side and the police on the other. The police made it clear they were going to fight a vicious fight to protect their record from the beginning. They have refused to accept any criticisms of their handling of the case in terms of racism. They continue to claim that apart from a few areas which they could have handled better with more resources and so on they did everything in their power to catch the killers and treated the Lawrence family with sensitivity and consideration.

The police stated that their investigations were met with a wall of silence by the local community even though it transpires that they received 39 pieces of information from 28 named and anonymous sources. Even worse, Imran Khan, the solicitor for the Lawrence family is being accused of delaying the case because of his requests for information. He is even being called by the police to give evidence as they accuse him of obstructing their efforts to help.

On several occasions the inquiry has been halted to enable the police more time to consult with their lawyers because Mike Mansfield has dared to make accusations against them. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Condon has spoken out claiming that 'hectoring' his officers is damaging relations between the police and the black community. But for those in the black community who come to listen to the inquiry taking place in south London, relations are already badly damaged. Some officers refer to Stephen as the 'coloured' lad and a succession of police officers still maintain that Stephen's murder was not a racist attack.

The accusations are piling up and there may be much that will never be discovered. One thing is clear. Condon should be forced to resign and the officers involved sacked and if necessary brought to justice. But conveniently all but one of the senior officers involved in the case has taken early retirement on a full police pension. Meanwhile the five men accused of the murder are still fighting to avoid being questioned by the inquiry. It is unlikely that any of them will be jailed.


The name Clifford Norris is now a familiar one to regular attenders at the inquiry. He is a notorious south London criminal and the father of one of the murder suspects in the Lawrence case. Currently serving eight years, Norris has long been at the centre of allegations of frightening off witnesses in other cases. He was once charged with murder himself although the charges were later dropped. His son was once acquitted of attempted murder at an earlier trial amidst allegations that the jury had been nobbled.

Mike Mansfield has stated in the inquiry that 'an officer somewhere must have known the Norrisses. The Norris family are capable of corruption and that is beyond dispute.' No proof has yet been uncovered to uphold the allegations of corruption or collusion.

There are suspicions about why key witnesses were unwilling to give evidence. In the Lawrence case one witness saw Stephen attacked and could describe the attackers but was too frightened to attend an identification parade. Another was too scared to sign a statement about witnessing the attackers stripped to the waist with wet hair in a state of panic only minutes after the murder. The delay in talking to these witnesses one was not seen by detectives for nine days may have increased their reluctance to give statements.


Stephen Lawrence

Justice in black and white

The anger and controversy surrounding the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence refuses to go away over five years after his death. This is due to the determination of the Lawrence family to fight hostility, racism and bureaucratic inertia to ensure that the truth about their son's terrible death comes out. Stephen's murder was the latest in a series of racist murders which took place in the south east London area also the site of the fascist BNP 'bookshop' headquarters.

Over the past 25 years there have been a whole string of racist murders which have increasingly attracted political campaigns around them; there have also been many deaths of black people in police custody which have come about as a result of brutality or undue force against the victim. It is hardly surprising then that the level of scepticism among black people, and increasingly among large numbers of white people, has grown over the years.

The Lawrence case has touched a nerve. Petitions have been circulated around the country and protests have grown as more and more evidence is revealed. Partly this is because people are justifiably horrified at this racist murder and its outcome; but partly it has also become symbolic of much that people want to fight against, such as racism and injustice.

With the election of a Labour government just over a year ago, it was hoped that such issues would be confronted in a way that they were not under the Tories. But little has changed. Black people face widescale discrimination from the police, the prison system and the courts. Conversely, when blacks feel the need for help from this system they all too often find it lacking.

Labour, with Tony Blair and Jack Straw vying with one another to prove their law and order credentials, has done nothing to alter the basic inequality in the system. Labour leaders stress repeatedly that any grievances in this and other cases must be dealt with by the due process of the law. Yet the process has shown itself to be totally inadequate to deal with these cases properly. And in many instances there seems to be an official disdain or lack of interest in finding the truth. This is because the whole system is not designed to provide truth and justice for ordinary people.

In the past, campaigns have had to rely on their own strength and organisation in order to win their demands. Those fighting for justice for Stephen Lawrence are finding that out today. But they are also finding a wide body of support. Many of those who expected much from Labour are coming to the conclusion that they will have to fight over a wide range of issues if they are to win real change and they see justice for Stephen Lawrence as part of that fight. It also raises wider questions. Why, with a massive Labour majority headed by a government which supposedly sympathises with the Lawrence family, and when we live in a society where there is a long established and relatively sophisticated judicial system, are the murderers still walking free only a few miles from parliament? How is it that a young boy can be stabbed at a bus stop just because of the colour of his skin? The answers tell us a lot about the values and priorities of those at the top of society and why we need much more thorough change if we are to end these racist attacks.

Feature compiled by Claire Dissington and Judith Orr


Ireland

Standing on Derry's Walls overlooking the Bogside just four days before the referendum vote, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble urged wavering party supporters to put their doubts to one side and vote 'Yes'.

'It's a pro-Union deal,' he said. 'It means that the Bogside has accepted that it is British.' In the streets below him Nationalist leaders, too, were calling for a 'Yes' vote on the grounds that the agreement meant Mr Trimble had to accept the area's Irishness.

Amidst the dizzy euphoria which greeted the referendum 'Yes' result of 71 percent to 29 it's been considered inappropriate to draw attention to contradictions of this sort. What matters is that the agreement has been passed. For the first time a majority of Catholics and a majority of Protestants have backed a plan for running Northern Ireland and the people of the South have supported it, too, by a majority of Albanian proportions.

Surely this lays the basis for a peaceful future? The alternative is to go back to the gun.

This is the argument which proved decisive. The question was posed as demanding a 'Yes' or 'No' to war, and hardly anybody wanted war. But the contradiction between Trimble's view and the view from the Bogside remains, and highlights the extent to which the agreement represents, not a radical realignment away from sectarian conflict, but a continuation of sectarian conflict by other means.

The agreement implicitly accepts that the conflict was wholly 'internal'. It attributes no responsibility, much less blame, to the British state. Blair was able to present himself as a high minded peacemaker bridging and brokering between two recalcitrant factions, rather than as the political leader of the oppressive power mainly responsible for the conflict in the first place. The fact that the Republicans went along with this implicit basis for the talks is a measure of how far they've shifted away from revolutionary nationalism towards conventional constitutional politics.

Supporters of the agreement have been unembarrassed at Unionists and Nationalists presenting it as meaning entirely different things. Therein lies its subtlety, they say. Had it not been capable of these separate interpretations, it couldn't have won endorsement from both Trimble and the Bogside...

In this view, there's nothing much can be done about sectarianism except con it, cajole it, jolly it along, provide for its peaceful expression and hope that it will fade gradually away. We cannot conquer history, and so must continue it. Sectarianism is 'natural', spurting from deep within the Northern psyche like spring water poisoned by the dank earth in which it has nestled for aeons. The best that ethical folk can do to repair the political environment is to try to ensure that neither of the contaminated tribes will have opportunity or excuse in future to savage the other.

Many who take this view fancy themselves as having long ago risen above sectarianism. But they fear that the brute masses of the Shankill and the Falls are incapable of such urbane elevation.

It's by no means guaranteed that the settlement will succeed in even this limited objective. Every member entering the new Assembly will have to register as Unionist, Nationalist or 'other'. But when it comes to designated 'key' decisions (including on cross-border and budgetary matters) 'parallel consensus' is needed essentially, majority support from both Unionists and Nationalists. The category of 'others' is dropped from the text in this section of the agreement.

This is the context in which Paisley can plausibly argue that, if he wins 50 percent plus one of Assembly members who designate themselves Unionist, he'll be able and will have the 'right' to thwart the entire arrangement. At this stage, he doesn't seem likely to reach that level of support. But Trimble's 'Yes' Unionists will be glancing nervously over their shoulders at every stage to ensure they stay ahead.

All this makes it likely, to say the least, that competition between the Catholic and Protestant communities will continue as the main dynamic of politics within the structures established by the agreement. It will be in the direct interest of the leaderships of Nationalist and Unionist parties continuously to reinforce communal loyalty as the basis of political allegiance. Within each community, parties will offer themselves as the most forthright and uncompromising advocates of 'our' interests as against 'theirs'.

The possibility of abrasion at the interfaces generating new conflagration will be a permanent feature of the system. Each section of the working class will have representatives, clearly registered as 'Unionist' or 'Nationalist', watching like hawks to see that the other section doesn't gain an inch. Social justice will be defined as fair competition for scarce resources.

Small wonder that fat cats North and South are purring with pleasure at this prospect.

Coverage of the referendum result has been such as to suggest that the entire journalistic profession on these islands has ODed on happy pills. But while celebrating the supposed prospect of sectarianism fading away, there has been a reluctance to look back at those occasions when plain Protestants and ordinary Catholics did slough off sectarianism in sizeable numbers, not so as to confront one another 'peacefully', but to make common cause, to join together to fight together. It's always been in the course of class struggle.

It's never happened through the power of moral persuasion or the putting in place of institutions intended to replace unequal violent conflict with fair and peaceful competition.

One of the sub-texts of the agreement, and one of the major reasons for the huge sigh of relief exhaled by the ruling class across the islands as the size of the 'Yes' majority was confirmed, is that they see at last the possibility of the angry proles of Northern Ireland dampening down their ire. What's distressed them most about clashes over Orange marches, for example, has not been the caricature picture of working class people fighting one another, but the fact of working class people on the streets at all and fighting. Powerful people everywhere always want the common people passive.

That's the big prize they think they're well on the way to winning. And the 'business community' is already explaining how it wants the prize money spent. Spokespersons for both the CBI and the Chambers of Commerce have demanded new tax breaks for business so as to 'encourage investment' and 'copperfasten the peace'. The CBI in Belfast heard earlier this year that cuts in capital gains tax were necessary so as to put a peaceful North on an equal footing with the South as far as incentives to invest and create jobs were concerned. The speaker was Gerry Adams.

'Peace' in this context means peace on the class front too.

Readers of this magazine will be well aware that there's another perspective. This is one in which anger is a precious thing, for what's been mainly wrong with the wrath fuelling violence in Northern Ireland has been the courses along which it's been channelled.

The poorer you are here, the more likely you live a 'serrated' life. At the beginning of the 1990s more than half the population was housed in areas either 90 percent plus Protestant or 95 percent plus Catholic. The statistics are even more bleak today, after population shifts in north and west Belfast, Armagh, Tyrone and elsewhere. In the leafy glades of south Belfast or behind the picture windows glinting around the 'gold coast' of north Down, people can be relatively at ease with whoever's living on the next street. What little anger at life arises won't be expressed in a brick though the back window of a house in the next street. The more reason for rage, then, the more likely it is to burn with enclosed sectarian intensity.

In the socialist perspective, what's important now is to draw attention to the phoney nature of the settlement from the working class point of view. It lets the British state entirely off the hook. Far from confronting the causes of sectarianism, it leaves them in place in the vague hope that the new conditions will render them biodegradable.

Socialists must also argue for, and show in practice, that it is in the mobilisation of workers across the divide that real hope can be magnified, that it is in the course of class struggle that the question of the community we 'belong' to becomes marginal.

Eamonn McCann


The debt crisis

When 50,000 people demonstrated in Birmingham at the summit of the world's richest nations they were calling attention not just to world poverty but to the crippling effect of the burden of debt.

Third World countries were told that borrowing from the international banking system would make their economies prosper. Reality has proved horribly different. The cost of debt servicing (as the jargon goes) locks them into a spiral of decline. More and more of the value of what they produce has to be paid to international bankers.

So a massive 94 percent of the annual economic output of the world's poorest countries goes to repaying debt. For the most heavily indebted poor countries (HIPC) that figure stands at 125 percent a figure so shocking that even the leaders of the world's richest nations have been forced to recognise that some debt relief must be made. But there are other countries, which supposedly don't fall into this category, where the debt burden is nearly as high. 'Middle income' Jamaica, for example, had a ratio of debt to gross national product of 102 percent between 1994 and 1996.

Last year 'developing' countries shelled out $270 billion in payments an increase of $110 billion compared with 1990. That amounts to $60 for every man, woman and child. In human terms the consequences are horrible. Because of debt 21 million children will die in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the world's poorest region. In 1996 it paid the developed world $13.4 billion with $9.5 billion coming from new loans and $2.6 billion from the aid it received. So simply to repay debts almost a quarter of the entire aid going to Africa found its way back to the rich nations. These figures contrast shockingly with money spent on things like health. Jamaica spends 165 per head on repaying debt, but only 30 per head on health. Malawi spends 6 and 2 respectively. Neither qualifies for any debt relief under HIPC because they do not owe enough.

The scale of debt seems enormous. But it is chickenfeed compared with the amount of wealth sloshing around the world. Bill Gates's Microsoft empire makes in a day what sub-Saharan Africa pays in a day by way of debt service: 20 million. The wealth of the 1,000 richest people in Britain 98 billion is more than the entire 87 billion debt of the whole of South Asia. The queen could pay the debt of Azerbaijan or Estonia out of her personal fortune of 230 million. Rupert Murdoch's estimated wealth of around 2.5 billion could wipe out Lebanon's debt and Lord Sainsbury, the richest man in Britain at just over 3 billion, could do the same for the Congo.

But these figures do not give us the whole picture. Only a small proportion of the money borrowed goes directly to things like hospitals or clean water supplies. Much of the money is intimately tied into projects aimed at reinforcing the power base of local rulers. Some of these, such as loans to create transport and communication networks, have a more general benefit; but others have to do with prestige projects, such as palaces, and, more significantly, the supply of armaments.

Take Britain for example. It is the sixth largest lender to the most heavily debt laden poor countries. Direct aid amounts to about 1.5 billion. Only 2 percent of that is owed to the International Development Department run by Clare Short. The rest is owed to the Export Credits Guarantee Department, whose main purpose is to underwrite arms sales (Britain is the world's third largest exporter of weapons). In fact, more than a quarter of Britain's debts come from supplying arms. Defence contractors in the last three years have claimed 290 million out of the total 953 million owed.

Something else is half hidden in the figures about debt. The average spending per head masks massive class inequalities. It is the rulers who do the borrowing, little of which trickles down to the mass of the population. The local military and economic elites, having enriched themselves, can safely transfer their wealth abroad when the debt crisis begins to hit their country. The World Bank reckons that the flight of capital out of Venezuela in 1987 was 40 percent greater than its foreign debt. So those who borrowed were able to dump the problem on the rest.

Why won't the leaders of the world's most powerful countries cancel the debt? After all, if forcing countries to repay debts impoverishes them still further, then the debts will never be repaid. It makes better sense to write them off. And it is not as if writing off the debts of large companies which threaten or actually go into bankruptcy does not happen all the time. Historically, too, there are precedents. In the 1930s France, Britain and Italy all defaulted on debts to the US. After the Second World War Germany was forgiven its debts.

The difference is, of course, such forgiveness suited the world system, since the alternative was even worse. The world's leaders do not give a damn about the world's poor. They only bail out a country's dodgy loans if instability threatens to bring down a significant section of the world economy or its local protector. Luckily, as Indonesia shows, though the poor may always pay the price of debt, they can also fight. And fighting by all the world's dispossessed, whether in Indonesia or Britain, is the way in which the obscenity of the system that produces the debt crisis will be ended once and for all.

Gareth Jenkins


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