Saturday, April 30, 2011

May Day and memories of the "remarkable scenes in Bexley Square"

IT'S May Day, the International Workers' Day tomorrow, and there's a march in London assembling 12 noon at Clerkenwell Green and marching to a rally in Trafalgar Square. Despite the convenience of May 1st the traditional date falling on a Sunday this year. there've been variations either side, with a march in Newcastle today and Croydon holding an event at Ruskin House this evening.

Edinburgh has to wait till next Saturday for a people's festival. although the Scottish Socialist Party got in cheekily with a republican march down the Royal Mile yesterday, the same day Royalist half-wits and daft American tourists were watching that wedding, and the Metropolitan Police had locked up anyone here they suspected might fart during the ceremony.

Manchester also has a May Day march tomorrow, but in my home town Salford the trades union council, together with Salford Against the Cuts, is holding a May Day rally on Monday, in Bexley Square at 2pm, and also bringing forward the commemoration of a historic event whose 80th. anniversary falls later this year.

I first read about it in Walter Greenwood's novel 'Love On the Dole'.
It was the Battle of Bexley Square.

The background was the world slump ushered in by the Wall Street crash in October 1929. Then as now the reverberations crossed the Atlantic. By the end of 1930 Britain had 2.3 million registered unemployed. This did not cover the many women, for instance, who did not bother to sign on.

The Labour government stuck to capitalist economics, and the most conservative ones at that, and was persuaded to bring in stringent cuts in public expenditure. Unemployment Benefit was to be cut by ten percent and it was also recommended that Health Care, Maternity and Child Welfare grants should be reduced. But the Cabinet was divided and a split rapidly developed. On August, 23 1931, Ramsey MacDonald, Jimmy Thomas and Philip Snowden, determined to do what they thought necessary at the expense of their working class supporters, deserted the Labour Party, joining with Tories and Liberals to form a National Government.

In the 1929 General Election Labour polled over six and a half million votes and only returned fifty two members to Parliament. The Tories, standing on the policy of a National Government, with MacDonald as Prime Minister, received double the votes and won four hundred and seventy one seats.

Under Macdonald, the newly formed National Government cut the pay of civil servants, teachers and other public employees including the Armed Forces. When Sir Austin Chamberlain announced a shilling a day reduction in the pay of naval ratings there was a strike by sailors based in Scotland - the Invergordon mutiny. The government backed off, but pursued supposed ringleaders.

Unemployment Benefit was cut, however. A single man's benefit was reduced from 18/- (90p) a week to 15/3d (about 77p). In addition, the Means Test was brought in at the beginning of September. If someone in your family was still working, or if you possessed something that you should be able to sell - a piano or item of furniture - then you could be told you didn't need the dole. Thousands of people were struck off Benefit, causing bitter poverty in working class districts. There were many suicides, and many people suffered hunger and malnutrition. Working class women particularly often went without to feed their men.

Later, at the end of the 1930s when the country got ready for another war, army recruiting officers complained at the poor condition of potential recruits.

Even in times of full employment, many Salford workers were on low pay, and lived in deplorable conditions. Walter Greenwood described the smoke curling down from factory chimneys on " jungles of tiny houses cramped and huddled together, the cradles of generations of the future. Places where men and women are born, live, love and die and pay preposterous rents for the privilege of calling the grimy houses 'homes'."

In St Matthias Ward, which lies in the valley of the Irwell and climbs up to higher ground, the Medical Officer of Health in 1929 found that 525 out of 3,361 houses suffered from insufficient light and ventilation. Out of 950 houses in the ward in 1929 the following lacked normal amenities:

94 houses were without a yard 47 houses shared a yard
67 houses had to use a water tap outside 26 houses had to share a water tap
33 houses had no sink
152 houses had no boilers at all
28 houses had boilers which were unfit for use 15 houses had to share a boiler
129 houses had to share a water closet

In one group of eight houses, they were told 14 adults and their 23 children of all ages had to share two water closets.

In 1930, unemployment in .Salford had shot up to one in four being registered out of work. By 1931, it was almost one third of the adult population and conditions were grim.

The National Unemployed Workers' Movement had been formed in 1921. It was led by Wal Hannington, a toolmaker and communist. Branches were organised throughout the country and officers were trained to represent the members before Courts of Appeal and Boards of Assessors. Both local and national hunger marches were organised and deputations arranged to the authorities concerned with unemployment and relief Although many Trade Unions and the Labour Party leaders viewed the NUWM with disfavour, it won widespread support among the rank and file of the movement.

In 1931 the NUWM Salford branch was growing. Its speakers would address the dole queues outside the Labour Exchanges, or organised meetings on crofts. The NUWM branch itself met in the Workers Arts Club at Hyndman Hall. As well as what was happening to them, the members discussed the wider political picture, and the possibility of a different, socialist future. They resisted demoralisation, maintaining their solidarity and self-respect.

In 'Love on the Dole', Greenwood describes the shock of the Means Test, when a worker is refused dole, and demands to see the manager. The Manager ordered a clerk to look up the man's particulars; the clerk handed over some documents after a search in a filing cabinet. His superior, after perusing some notes written upon the forms, looked at the applicant and said: 'You've a couple of sons living with you who are working, haven't you?'

'Aye,' the man answered: 'One's earning twenty-five bob an't'other a couple 0' quid, when they work a full week. An' the eldest he's ... .'

'In view of this fact,' the manager interrupted: 'The public Assistance Committee have ruled your household's aggregate income sufficient for your needs; therefore your claim for transitional benefit is disallowed.' He turned from the man to glance interrogatively at Harry.

The man flushed: 'The swine,' he shouted: 'Th' eldest lad's gettin wed .... 'as 'e to keep me an' the old woman?' raising his fist: 'I'll ... .' But the attendant policeman collared him and propelled him outside, roughly, ignoring his loud protestations.

The Salford Branch of the NUWM decided to organise a demonstration on October 1, 1931. They wrote to the city councilors and the mayor announcing their intention of presenting their demands.

Jimmy Miller, a mechanic who was also involved, recalled:
"For the ten days before that we were out every night advertising the demo. Our publicity methods were cheap and effective. All we needed was a good supply of bluemould, the porous chalk-like substance which housewives used to brighten up their window sills and doorsteps. It is useful stuff for chalking slogans and announcements on walls." Miller became better known in later years as folk singer Ewan McColl. Although he moved from Salford he remembered it in his song "Dirty Old Town".

There was a good response from the unemployed. When October 1 arrived, "a dull grey day", a big crowd gathered on the croft outside Hyndman Hall, in Liverpool Street. They were bitter about the Means Test, and at the strong police presence, but elated as each new group arrived to swell their crowd. They cheered the speakers, roaring approval for their demands, and raising hands in support.

They set off for Bexley Square, where the council was meeting in Salford town hall. Police flanked them on either side.


At the cross roads there came the first brush the Police, who threw a cordon across the road to divert the march. Wilf Gray recalls: "We went through them like a knife through soft putty. I remember my head going down as if in a rugby scrum. With the pressure from our comrades behind, we pushed them to one side quite easily."

As they neared the town hall, the crowd grew thicker.
When the head of the demonstration was half way down Chapel Street there took place what the press described as:

"remarkable scenes in Bexley Square outside Salford Town Hall after a big demonstration numbering several thousands, organised by the National Unemployed Workers' Movement arrived to protest against the proposed cuts in poor law relief which the Council were considering."

Wilf Gray' says:

"It was a disciplined, well marshalled demonstration under complete control of the organisers .... Morale was high and at no time was there any reason for the brutal police attack on the marchers which took place when we reached Bexley Square. The deputation was in the process of presenting themselves when the deliberately planned attack took place. I remember hearing a shout and turning to look back I saw police charging with their batons. They had been lying in wait for our arrival. The whole thing had been planned."

Bexley Square had been cordoned off and when the deputation asked to be to gain access to the Town Hall, the policeman approached signed to the four constables and the inspector who had headed the procession. They turned their backs on the delegation and faced the Square.
"Orders passed. Mounted Police appeared at the trot, and, on a sudden, a swarm of plain-clothes men descended from nowhere and began to snatch the placards from the hands of the demonstrators, flinging them to the ground and trampling them underfoot."

Jimmy Miller remembered:

"All around was a crush of shouting, bellowing, screaming, angry and bewildered men and women. They were pushing, pulling, trying to avoid the swinging batons of the police and the terrifYing hooves of the horses. Some desperately tried to shove their way out of the ambush while others pushed forward."

Te Square became a battlefield:

"A note of fierce hatred, deep and vengeful" was heard as the marchers broke through the barricades. Alex Armstrong passed by holding his large brass bell above his head like a Town Crier. There was a lull for a few moments and then, from behind the Town Hall dozens of mounted police suddenly appeared followed by foot police brandishing their clubs. They charged and the first engagement was fierce. But when the police tasted blood, they started lashing out at anyone in their path."

After a moment or two, the fear of the horses vanished and the crowd began to fight back. "Here a mounted cop is pulled from his horse and there a constable is deprived of his baton." But training counted. The unemployed had no strategy for such an engagement. They fought as individuals, "unarmed individuals against a disciplined armed force trained to fight as a squad."

There was another factor which militated against the demonstrators. They were aware that the law of the land is on the side of the police who could bash people around and get away with it. But if anyone of the crowd was caught bashing one of them, they would "land up in the nick as surely as night follows day"

As the unemployed struggled-to-carry out their aim of breaching the barricades to enter Bexley Square, police horses loomed over "gigantic, eyes rolling, nostrils flared. The smell of the horse sweat mingled with the smell of our fear". A policeman leaned out of his saddle to give an impetus to the swing of his truncheon. The blow lands with a dull thud across the shoulders of a skinny man in an old raincoat." He crumbled and sank to the ground,

There was a sudden increase in the noise and many voices took up the cry, "The deputation! They've arrested the deputation'" On this news, there was a surge of activity and the crowd moved forward to the edge of the Square. By that time, squads of police were dragging arrested marchers across the Square towards the waiting riot wagons.

As the demonstrators fought back and the police plied their boots and truncheons, a cry went up, "Down with the cossacks'" A dozen men leapt over the barricade and raced towards the battling groups. Two of them were struck down by the mounted police and the others were surrounded by squads of foot police who forced them to the ground. One of the marchers was bleeding profusely from the head and appeared to be unconscious. A young policemen grabbed hold of him and started dragging him along the ground."

The demonstrators, having gone to protest against what they considered to be a gross injustice and to present a petition to their elected representatives, had found themselves forced to fight against a well-fed and trained army. The police, naturally, alleged that the marchers attacked them first. However the revolt of the unemployed in Salford was not an isolated event. Huge demonstrations took place throughout the country and the role of the police in repressing the workers assumed a similarity which pointed to a national policy.

I grew up in the Salford of the 1950s, when we thought mass unemployment was a thing of the past, though slum housing was still all too present. My parents, who had begun their courting when they met while signing on at the labour exchange, identified their young lives with Greenwood's Love on the Dole,
, which was made into a wartime film and a post-war radio play. They told me about the Means Test, just as they had told me about the Peterloo Massacre, but I don't remember them telling me about the battle of Bexley Square, even when my Dad took me for a work round that way. I guess like others of their generation they hoped we would never have to go through such things.

Now that we know better, when global economic crisis, cuts, unemployment and police violence are once again with us, I am glad to see the Salford trades union council and local anti-cuts activists taking responsibility for making sure a new generation can learn about this past.

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Wind of change brings a first result in Palestine

THE announcement that the two main Palestinian parties, Fatah and Hamas, have reached an agreement on sharing government and working together is excellent news for the Palestinian people, and for anyone who supports their cause, and for anyone who seriously wants to see a just peace in Israel-Palestine.

While there is understandable discussion in the Palestinian Diaspora and among supporters about just what the deal contains, and what it will bring, a contributor to the Electronic Intifada blog comments answered the doubters simply: "If Israel does not like this deal, it is an indication that it is a good one for our side. The goal of those who wanted to control the Middle East was always to keep the Arabs divided, fragmented and fighting each other".

lndeed, not only the Israeli government, but US and British agencies too, wanted nothing less than civil war between the Palestinian parties, and when neither their blockades nor Fatah actions could dislodge the elected Hamas government from Gaza, Mahmoud Abbas tacitly supported the Israeli 'Cast Lead' operation.

(Ironically, as those with memories know, the Israeli state had at one time encouraged the Islamicists in order to weaken and divide secular Palestinian nationalism and counter left-wing influences. And the CIA at times backed Hamas' parent body in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, to check Nasserism. Nor should we rule out the possibility of strange backing for the extremist Salafi thugs that have cropped up on Hamas' right flank).

But we have Abbas heading a 'Palestine Authority' in a divided and still largely occupied West Bank, unable to interfere with the expanding settlers, but detaining large numbers of Palestinian dissidents. Meanwhile in Gaza, Hamas retains a monopoly of power, and privilege, and represses those it dislikes, while sporadic missile attacks on Israel have only brought further Israeli aggression and Palestinian suffering, with neither the prospect of military success or peace talks.

People have been fed up with both sets of leaders. The initial reaction of the authorities in both the West Bank and Gaza was to suppress demonstrations in support of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Mass democratic movements are catching. But one result of the wind of change blowing through the Arab world was that people took to the streets demanding that Hamas and Fatah put and end to their differences and unite for the common cause of Palestinian freedom. (If for some there was an underlying tone of "plague on both your houses" that is by the way, for now). So this agreement, satisfactory or not, was a response to popular feeling. That is a result, if only a first one.

Netanyahu, ignoring indications from Hamas even before this that it would like to negotiate, and be prepared to accept a 'permanent ceasefire' , and state within 1967 borders if that is the will of the people, has said he cannot talk to "terrorists". But that is what previous Israeli governments used to say about the PLO and Fatah, and the same label the British once applied to those who became the governments of Israel.

A different response has come from Israeli peace campaigner Uri Avnery, himself in his youth a member of the terrorist Irgun:

"IN ONE word: Bravo!

The news about the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas is good for peace. If the final difficulties are ironed out and a full agreement is signed by the two leaders, it will be a huge step forward for the Palestinians – and for us.
There is no sense in making peace with half a people. Making peace with the entire Palestinian people may be more difficult, but will be infinitely more fruitful.

Therefore: Bravo!

Binyamin Netanyahu also says Bravo. Since the government of Israel has declared Hamas a terrorist organization with whom there will be no dealings whatsoever, Netanyahu can now put an end to any talk about peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. What, peace with a Palestinian government that includes terrorists? Never! End of discussion.

Two bravos, but such a difference.

THE ISRAELI debate about Arab unity goes back a long way. It already started in the early fifties, when the idea of pan-Arab unity raised its head. Gamal Abd-al-Nasser hoisted this banner in Egypt, and the pan-Arab Baath movement became a force in several countries (long before it degenerated into local Mafias in Iraq and Syria).

Nahum Goldman, President of the World Zionist Organization, argued that pan-Arab unity was good for Israel. He believed that peace was necessary for the existence of Israel, and that it would take all the Arab countries together to have the courage to make it.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s Prime Minister, thought that peace was bad for Israel, at least until Zionism had achieved all its (publicly undefined) goals. In a state of war, unity among Arabs was a danger that had to be prevented at all costs."

Avneri continues:

"Netanyahu and his band of peace saboteurs want to prevent Palestinian unity at all costs. They do not want peace, because peace would prevent Israel from achieving the Zionist goals, as they conceive them: a Jewish state in all of historical Palestine, from the sea to the Jordan River (at least). The conflict is going to last for a long, long time to come, and the more divided the enemy, the better.

"As a matter of fact, the very emergence of Hamas was influenced by this calculation. The Israeli occupation authorities deliberately encouraged the Islamic movement, which later became Hamas, as a counterweight to the secular nationalist Fatah, which was then conceived as the main enemy.

"Later, the Israeli government deliberately fostered the division between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip by violating the Oslo agreement and refusing to open the four “safe passages” between the two territories provided for in the agreement. Not one was open for a single day. The geographical separation brought about the political one.

"When Hamas won the January 2006 Palestinian elections, surprising everybody including itself, the Israeli government declared that it would have no dealings with any Palestinian government in which Hamas was represented. It ordered – there is no other word - the US and EU governments to follow suit. Thus the Palestinian Unity Government was brought down.

"The next step was an Israeli-American effort to install a strongman of their choosing as dictator of the Gaza Strip, the bulwark of Hamas. The chosen hero was Muhammad Dahlan, a local chieftain. It was not a very good choice – the Israeli security chief recently disclosed that Dahlan had collapsed sobbing into his arms. After a short battle, Hamas took direct control of the Gaza Strip.

"The Palestinian people, with all the odds against them, can hardly afford such a disaster. The split has generated intense mutual hatred between comrades who spent time in Israeli prison together. Hamas accused the Palestinian Authority – with some justification – of cooperating with the Israeli government against them, urging the Israelis and the Egyptians to tighten the brutal blockade against the Gaza Strip, even preventing a deal for the release of the Israeli prisoner-of-war, Gilad Shalit, in order to block the release of Hamas activists and their return to the West Bank. Many Hamas activists suffer in Palestinian prisons, and the lot of Fatah activists in the Gaza Strip is no more joyous.

"Yet both Fatah and Hamas are minorities in Palestine. The great mass of the Palestinian people desperately want unity and a joint struggle to end the occupation. If the final reconciliation agreement is signed by Mahmoud Abbas and Khalid Meshaal, Palestinians everywhere will be jubilant".

Avnery observes that Netanyahu may feel relieved. "He has been invited by the new Republican masters to address the US Congress next month and had nothing to say. Nor had he anything to offer the UN, which is about to recognize the State of Palestine this coming September. Now he has: peace is impossible, all Palestinians are terrorists who want to throw us into the sea. Ergo: no peace, no negotiations, no nothing".

But Avnery says this short-sightedness is stupid.
"IF ONE really wants peace, the message should of course be quite different".

Having ignored Obama's plea to curb settlements, and now benefiting by bigger than ever US military aid, Netanyahu may feel confident that he does not need peace, and does not even need to pretend that he wants peace - so long as America is happy, why worry about what the Palestinians or other Arabs think?

(on US military funding - a record estimated $3 billion - see Arming Israel on

But while Netanyahu may only be happy that he does not come under fire from Congress, or from his crazy far-right allies in the Knesset, some of those Israelis who do come under fire on the Gaza border have recently spoken with a different voice. (Voices from Sderot that deserve to be heard -

So have some of those Israeli military and security professionals whose job it is to try and understand what is happening in the Arab world, and to anticipate possible changes from Israel's allies".

The Fatah-Hamas agreement is only a first result, like a piece of paper blown on a wind that has not finished blowing. Avnery is optimistic:

"What made both sides more flexible? Both have lost their patrons – Fatah its Egyptian protector, Hosny Mubarak, and Hamas its Syrian protector, Bashar al-Assad, who cannot be relied upon anymore. That has brought both sides to face reality: Palestinians stand alone, so they had better unite.

"For peace-oriented Israelis, it will be a great relief to deal with a united Palestinian people and with a united Palestinian territory. Israel can do a lot to help this along: open at long last an exterritorial free passage between the West Bank and Gaza, put an end to the stupid and cruel blockade of the Gaza Strip (which has become even more idiotic with the elimination of the Egyptian collaborator), let the Gazans open their port, airport and borders. Israel must accept the fact that religious elements are now a part of the political scene all over the Arab world. They will become institutionalized and, probably, far more “moderate”. That is part of the new reality in the Arab world.

"The emergence of Palestinian unity should be welcomed by Israel, as well as by the European nations and the United States. They should get ready to recognize the State of Palestine within the 1967 borders. They should encourage the holding of free and democratic Palestinian elections and accept their results, whatever they may be.

The wind of the Arab Spring is blowing in Palestine too. Bravo!"

To which we can add that the Palestinian people, while welcoming the agreement, and wanting to see meaningful negotiations, are not depending on either, or on a declaration of statehood. Something new is awakening. Friends should neither ignore it nor let superficial symptoms detract us from strengthening our own efforts.

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Remember the Dead, and Fight for the Living!

CONSTRUCTION SAFETY CAMPAIGNERS meet with HSE staff, and (right) FAMILIES remember loved ones.

TODAY is International Workers Memorial Day, and there are events in various places, with slogans like "Remember the Dead, and Fight for the Living". I am off to Tothill Street Westminster, where there's to be a demonstration outside the Department of Work and Pensions.

Taking advantage of a media campaign treating health and safety as a big joke, the Con Dem government is cutting safety provisions and taking away inspections. I don't think the families in our picture find this a joke - they all lost loved ones in accidents at work. Will the future be brighter for the two children, whose father was electrocuted on a London site because someone had cut corners on the lighting? Or will it get worse, thanks to this government?

I am sure the family of Mark Wright don't see safety as a joke. He was burned to death in a horrific incident at a Chester scrap yard because of inadequate information and lack of precautions.

I've written about Mark's case in this blog before, but I am glad to see now that it has also been taken up by a better writer than me, and one who reaches a wider audience. That's Johann Hari in the Independent. After describing what happened and what it has done to Mark's family, Hari goes on to say:

"We know what prevents events like this, and what saves men like Mark. The evidence is plain, and overwhelming. Dr Courtney Davis at the University of Sussex produced the most detailed study. She found that where you have rigorous, unannounced health and safety inspections, the number of accidents and deaths falls by 22 per cent over the next three years.

"But David Cameron has decided to do precisely the opposite. He is cutting the budget for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) by 35 per cent, and it has been announced that from now on entire sectors of British industry – including some where the HSE admits the dangers are "significant" – will never get an unannounced knock on the door again. There will be no more proactive inspections of agriculture, quarrying, manufacturing, or paper mills, where there is a long history of people being crushed, and even the most high-risk areas will be checked much less.

"Virtually every public health expert in Britain says this makes it a certainty more people will be maimed and killed simply doing their job. Professor Rory O'Neill, of Stirling University calls Cameron's policies "a recipe for regulatory surrender," and points out that "places where you might be rundown by a forklift truck or have your hand sliced off by a cutting machine or a guillotine" will now "never see a Health and Safety inspector. But worse than that, your employer will know they will never see a Health and Safety Inspector." The Government has even cancelled the campaigns to inform construction workers about the dangers of being exposed to asbestos."

If you haven't seen Johann Hari's piece , it's worth reading in full at:


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Maybe the Met has just got it in for Alfie?

REMEMBER Alfie Meadows? The 20-year old Middlesex University student inadvertently became famous last December, not for doing anything special or outrageous, but for having it done to him. Alfie was a participant in the student fee protest on Thursday, December 9, and was caught up among a large group that had been “kettled” — corralled indiscriminately by the police.

He attempted to leave the kettle with some friends, philosophy lecturers, Nina Power, a colleague of his mothers at Roehampton University, and Peter Hallward, who teaches at Kingston University. A police officer batoned Alfie over the head. It was the hardest blow the young man had ever felt, but he did not realise at first how badly he had been injured.

Alfie tried to make his way home, but fell unconscious, and was taken to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, accompanied by his mother, who had been elsewhere in the crowd. On arriving at the hospital they were told that he could not be admitted, because they were treating injured police officers, and the police objected to demonstrators being brought in to the same hospital. It was only when the ambulance driver who had brought him in angrily protested at this that they agreed to admit Alfie. (The Metropolitan Police later denied that officers had objected to Alfie being treated).

Alfie, one of 44 demonstrators whom the ambulance service took for hospital treatement that night, was suffering from a head injury causing bleeding on the brain. He was later taken to Charing Cross hospital for an emergency brain operation, which lasted three hours. Fellow students mounted a vigil outside Charing Cross Hospital.

Fortunately, Alfie Meadows fully recovered.

The Police Complaints Commission was reported to be holding a investigation into why he was struck over the head. I don't know what has happened over this.

But today I heard from a friend of the Meadows family that police have brought forward bail dates and charged Alfie and others with 'violent disorder', and 'criminal damage', and banned them from central London for the whole weekend from the Royal Wedding through to May Day.

"Is there anything more unjust than charging people you've almost killed with bullshit charges?" she comments. "Will be all over press tomorrow no doubt..."

In fact I have been looking through the papers online editions tonight and can't find anything,

I don't know whether Alfie or other students were planning anything for the wedding day on Friday, but I think they would be welcome to join trades unionists and international workers on the May Day march on Sunday. I see there is to be a student activist on the platform, along with Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone among others.

If it is true that Alfie and friends have been barred from coming into town, that is something that I hope the speakers or chairpersons will mention.

London May Day March - Sunday May 1
Assemble 12 noon Clerkenwell Green, EC1 (nearest station Farringdon)

March to Rally in Trafalgar Square.

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Keep an eye on Saudi hand

NOT having been invited to next Friday's Royal nuptials, and spared the worry of purchasing a present (though I've had a tax increase to help cover the drinks bill), I had not been paying due attention to the guest list. So I'm grateful to a friend who notes that among those personally invited by HM the Queen are:

"The Crown Prince of Bahrain, The Sultan of Brunei and Raja Isteri Pengiran Anak Hajah Saleha, Sheikh Ahmad Hmoud Al-Sabah of Kuwait, Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq Al Said of Oman, The Emir of The State of Qatar and Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, Prince Mohamed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia and Princess Fadwa bint Khalid bin Abdullah bin Abdulrahman, The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi."

Good to see that our rulers are looking after Britain's arms customers, besides which the wedding will serve as a reunion for the Sandhurst old boys.

I was wondering back in March whether the Windsors would feel they had to invite Saif al Islam Gaddafi, who is said to have got along fine with Prince Andrew when they met a couple of years ago,
Saif and Andrew are, you might say, both interns, in the prince's case gaining work experience with the Department of Trade, so perhaps unfairly criticised for making friendship serve sales.

But the Gaddafi regime is a brutal dictatorship suppressing its own people, whereas the Crown Prince of Bahrain ...has let the Saudis in to help do that job. The use of helicopter gunships to shoot down unarmed demonstrators in Bahrain has not brought any 'no fly zone' to protect its people, nor resulted in the coverage given Libya, but it has been reported that the Crown Prince diplomatically declined his invitation to the wedding, to spare Prince William the embarrassment of demonstrations outside Buck House. Or worse ...? Still, the Saudis are coming.

By sending its tanks over the causeway into Bahrain, the Saudi regime has shown its hand, dispelling any notion its rulers are only interested in enjoying their oil wealth, or their armed forces merely a source of bribery-acquired contracts and backhanders for British Aerospace etc. The Bahraini monarch Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa was reported to have declined the offer of Saudi tanks at first, but now he has reportedly allowed the Saudis to virtually take over Bahrain's defence.The Saudi king's Sandhurst-trained son Prince Mutaib has been confirmed as commander of Saudi and Gulf Co-ordination Council forces sent into Bahrain.

The Israeli DEBKA-net website, a well-informed, presumably Mossad-run, source of disinformation claims the secret pact between Riyadh and Manama makes Bahrain the fourteenth province of Saudi Arabia, though its al-Khalifa family will remain nominally in charge, with the same privileges as a Saudi royal. It says the Saudis would acquire a naval base on the Bahraini coast, confronting Iran, though this would be duplicating the existing American base. We can guess that the Israelis want to stir up trouble between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but this antagonism is already there and needs little encouragement.

Iranian leaders have spoken out for the people being suppressed in Bahrain, where a Sh'ite majority has long been discriminated against by the Sunni rulers, though the recent demonstrations were not exclusively Sh'ite. The Saudi rulers are worried that the movement in Bahrain will encourage Saudi Arabia's two million strong Shi'ite minority to fight for their rights, undermining the Saudi throne.

The Saudi regime is not only Sunni, but Wahabbi, resting its authority on a form of Islam which is strictly conservative and militantly sectarian, treating other Muslims, let alone other faiths, as heretics and infidels. This has not prevented it providing bases and being an ally, if sometimes an awkward one, for the United States. When US forces were sent in during the first war with Iraq, the service personnel were advised to hide any crucifixes, stars of David or prayer books so as not to offend the guardians of the Holy Places. Western businessmen have managed alright with this strict regime, but Filipino migrant workers have been punished when caught celebrating Christmas.

So long as there is good money to be made from Saudi oil, and from supplying the Saudis with weapons, it is a fair guess the US and Britain will not have any plans yet for regime change in Saudi Arabia.

Whatever we may suspect about the piety or private lives of the Saudi rulers, they have large amounts of money for exporting the faith, patronising mosques and schools in other countries, and they don't stick to prayer and persuasion. That is a sword beneath the shahada, or declaration of faith, on the Saudi flag, even if it is meant to be the sword of "justice". It was Saudi money that backed the Taliban to take over Afghanistan, and while imperialist mouthpieces like Tony Blair were sternly accusing the Iranians of causing trouble in Iraq it was reported that most armed infiltrators were coming over the Saudi border. There followed a sectarian war the like of which Iraqis had not experienced, and there has been continued harassment and terror against Iraqi Christians.

The elusive Osama Bin Laden and al Qaida, with which so many terror attacks are linked by governments and media, started off from Saudi Arabia. Saudi money and backing, official or not (and it is hard to imagine the Saudi government liberally allowing independent political or religious groups to operate freely) has been behind jihadi groups making a nuisance of themselves in Bosnia, and indirectly (through Pakistani intelligence) in turning the Kashmiri freedom struggle into a murderous religious war. There has also been Saudi interference destabilising the country and stirring conflict in Yemen.

Against such background it does not take too much of an intuitive leap to wonder about a possible link between Saudi Wahhabis and the ideologically-linked Salafis who have turned up in Gaza, where they accuse Hamas of being too lax in imposing Islamic law, and have been held responsible for the murder of internationalist volunteer Vittorio Arrigoni.

Real though the mass insurgencies taking place through the Arab world are, there is also a scarcely hidden war going on beneath the surface between Saudi and Iranian influence. There is also a pact of sorts, however much they may hate and despise each other, between the Saudis and Israeli Zionists. Talking with an Iraqi friend some while back about who was to blame for some terror bombings in his country, he differed with some of his fellow-country people who blamed the occupiers. As he said, "the Americans don't have suicide bombers". He was probably right. "But the Saudis might do." I said. Similarly we can suspect that if Mossad, however devious, finds it hard to recruit deluded Muslim fanatics to fulfil its purposes, someone in Saudi intelligence may know just the men for the job.

On March 31 the Iranian majlis security and foreign affairs committee warned "Saudi Arabia knows better than any other country that playing with fire in the sensitive Persian Gulf region is not in their interests,"
On Saturday, April 2, Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki criticised US Middle East policy as discriminating among the popular movements in motion against different Arab regimes (obviously not counting his own): "Whatever decision is made on Libya should be applied to any government that suppresses its people with iron and fire," he said.

The following day the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council held a special foreign ministers' meeting. It passed a resolution which "severely condemned Iranian interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain in violation of international pacts."

Those who were counting on either the United States or Israel to go to war with Iran are now wondering whether Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah might be given the honour of at least kicking off. Saudi is nearer, and unlike an Israeli attack its action would be less likely to bring the Muslim world to the Iranian side. If the Saudis get into difficulty the Obama administration could always try Anthony Eden's ploy at Suez and claim it was going in to separate the "warring sides". '

King Abdullah is reported to have privately told visiting US officials that he felt the US had thrown Mubarak to the wolves, and was backing unrest in the Arab world. In public, of course, he and the GCC supported the so-called no-fly zone over Libya, to protect the rebels, and there is likely to be Saudi support for some of those opposing the regime in Syria, which has angered the Israeli government by welcoming two Iranian warships that had been allowed through Suez when Israel wanted them stopped.

On Monday, April 18, the GCC foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council, asked the UN Security Council to take action for stopping Iran's "provocative interference in their countries' domestic affairs," saying this "flagrant interference" posed a "grave security to, and risked flaring up sectarian strife, in the GCC countries." The resolution went on to state: "The GCC will not hesitate to adopt whatever measures and policies they deem necessary vis-à-vis the foreign interferences in their internal affairs."

That sounds like war.

Iran, meanwhile, which has the advantage of manpower, has used the Basijj volunteer corps to stage student demonstrations with stones and the odd firebomb at the Saudi embassy in Teheran. Iran's Foreign Ministry also summoned the Pakistani charge d'affaires on April 16 to warn against the recruitment of Pakistanis attracted more by good money than faith to serve in military operation in support of the Bahraini king.

On Monday, April 18, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa announced that Saudi and allied GCC troops would stay in the kingdom until Iran no longer poses a menace. "Gulf force is needed to counter a sustained campaign by Iran in Bahrain," he said.

While the Saudis and their allies are beset by fears of Shi'ite unrest and banned incoming flights to Bahrain from Lebanon and elsewhere, the Iranian regime is once again coping with national minorities in the only way it knows. It has had trouble with Baluchis and Kurds, and now it is the Arabs in Khuzestan, south-west Iran whom it has to fear. On April 11-12 there was trouble at Ahwaz and government forces killed at least 15 demonstrators before cutting off Ahwaz's links with the outside world. The Iranian regime accuses Saudi and United Arab Emirates agents of causing the trouble. It may be remembered that it was supposedly on behalf of the Khuzestan Arabs that Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, and the regime must fear the possibility of unrest and repression there undermining its good relations with the current regime in Iraq.

It was reported yesterday that the Iranian government is sealing its borders to counter "terrorist" infiltration in three regions.

Meanwhile on another front the Saudis and their allies in the Gulf have reportedly warned the US that the Iranian nuclear plant at Busheyr could be the site of an even bigger calamity than the Fukushima disaster in Japan, polluting several countries around it. That seems to step away from the argument over whether the plant has a military capability. But the Saudis are also reported to be shopping for missiles with a nuclear capacity.

Dr.Qaradawi says...

THESE are difficult times for anyone who tries to understand the Middle East in simple terms and wants to know which are the goodies and baddies, and whether all insurrections are the same. Watching some of the heated polemics between friends in a small corner of the British Left you'd fear the Libyan civil war was about to spread to our streets. Fortunately, my inside information is that it won't go beyond abusive words exchanged in the University of London Union bar and on Facebook.

Unfortunately though I've heard occasional reference to "the Libyan working class" as a theoretical concept, nobody either side of the argument has come up with a word from a Libyan worker.

Meanwhile, we may turn for possible guidance to a man of the cloth. A Dr.Qaradawi from Egypt says that the people who demonstrated in Bahrain, where the authorities are now cracking down on trade unions and sacking union members, deserve no backing because their movement is "sectarian" (he presumably means Shi'ite, though in fact the evidence is the struggle has support across the religious, if not the social divide).

But Dr.Qaradawi supports the rebels in Libya, and what's more, issued a fatwa calling for the assassination of Colonel Gaddafi. I don't know whether SAS or Green Beret forces sent in to Libya as "advisers" will be able to claim the prize. In any case, other Muslims, even those opposed to Gaddafi question what right Dr.Qaradawi has to go issuing fatwas.

I might have to ask Ken Livingstone, who once upon a time received a little Libyan help (via my old firm), but in his job as Mayor of London entertained Dr.Qaradawi to tea for his advice on matters theological. These are difficult times for testing our loyalties.

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Help get Panahi and Osanloo Out, Keep George Galloway Out, Out, Out !

IRANIAN film maker Jafar Panahi will receive yet another, rather special award next month, albeit in his absence. The Societe des Realisateurs de Films (SRF) is to award its Carrosse d'Or (or Golden Coach), to Panahi. The film rewards film-makers for their courage and independence of thought.

Panahi has been jailed for six years in Iran, and banned from film-making for twenty years, for allegedly making propaganda against the regime. He attended mourning for people killed during demonstrations over the last elections.

His 2005 film Offside, about a female football fan who disguised herself as a boy to try and see Iran play at home, and was arrested at the stadium, will be screened at Cannes on 12 May. Some of us have been fortunate enough to see the film in Britain thanks to Hands Off the Iranian People (HOPI), and to the director who authorised its screening for benefits.

Based on a true incident, the comedy pokes fun at outmoded attitudes and restrictions on women, but gives an exuberant and affectionate picture of the Iranian people. The day after it is shown at Cannes there will be a press conference to raise awareness of Panahi's situation. In this country left-wing MP John McDonnell has launched a campaign for Panahi's freedom, and that of all Iranian political prisoners.

Meanwhile another Iranian prisoner was honoured in his absence this month, when Len McCluskey, general secretary of my union, Unite, conferred honorary membership on Tehran bus drivers' union leader Mansour Osanloo. The Iranian trade unionist has been held in prison for some years, and subject to ill-treatment and an attempt on his life. He is reported seriously ill in hospital.

Len McCLuskey said: “Mansour Osanloo is an inspiration to us. Like his union, ours also includes bus drivers, and it is a pleasure to in some small way recognise the incredible work he has done for his members and for the cause of free trade unions across the globe. We will not stand-by as workers, their representatives and families face physical attack, imprisonment and even murder by some of world’s most repressive regimes”.

“We are delighted to make him an honorary member of the UK’s largest trade union. We only wish we could do it face to face and must continue to organise globally to ensure that one day soon we can.”

Bro.McCluskey made the presentation at a meeting of the executive board of the International Transport workers Federation(ITF) in London. Like Unite, Mansour Osanloo’s union, the Vahed Syndicate of Tehran bus drivers, is an ITF member, and the organisation has campaigned for his release.

Some Iraniau trade unionists have their doubts about Osanloo's political perspectives[, and we may wary about international trade union federations, but it is not easy to pick and choose friends or discuss policy when you are trapped in a prison hospital bed. I am sure no trade unionist, socialist or democrat will side with the Iranian regime and its incarceration of this trade unionist - whom I am now entitled to call Bro.Osanloo.

HOPI of course is for Iranian working people and their rights - against the Islamicist regime, and against sanctions and the threat of war by Western imperialism. In common with Iranian socialists, some of them in exile, we must reject the idea that if you are against imperialist interference and aggression you must surrender your own rights, and support any regime, however corrupt and reactionary.

There are Western liberals who selectively criticise lack of freedom in some countries to justify our own rulers imposing their will by war on the peoples. But there are also people here who claim to be internationalists and socialists, yet seem to regard any regime as good enough for less "advanced" nations, so long as it can be labelled "anti-imperialist". When they not only support these regimes and calumny their opponents, but appear to do so for gain, it does little for the reputation and standing of the Left, either among the workers here or those struggling for their rights in the oppressed nations.

With that in mind, I have added my name to this letter, along with some Iranian and other socialists:

On May 5th, George Galloway will be standing for election to Holyrood. The former Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow and Labour MP for Glasgow Kelvin is heading the George Galloway (Respect) – Coalition Against Cuts list. He has the backing of Solidarity, the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party in Scotland. On his election website, Galloway pledges to “oppose every cut to schools, hospitals and public services” and “fight for a parliament with the powers to tax the rich bankers and big business to help pay for jobs and decent public services.” It sounds fine, but there is no way those on the left can extend any level of support for George Galloway.

Galloway is a supporter of the Islamic Republic of Iran. When questioned at a recent public meeting, Galloway denied ever supporting President Ahmadinejad and even offered £1000 to anyone who could prove his support. However, while interviewing the Iranian President on his Press TV show, The Real Deal, last August Galloway stated that he requires “police protection in London from the Iranian opposition because of my support for your election campaign. I mention this so you know where I’m coming from.”

In fact, while Iran's 2009 election is widely accepted to have been rigged, Galloway has stated in his Daily Record blog that the electoral count “was awesome” and the million+ protesters took to the streets because “too MANY people were allowed to vote” (his emphasis).
The Iranian regime incarcerates, tortures and executes political opponents, including leftists, trades unionists and leaders of the radical students' movement. It does the same to those found guilty of “war against god”, a charge levelled at political dissidents. Confessions are extracted under torture and duress and at times broadcast on state TV channels, including Press TV.

Those found guilty of adultery and homosexuality can face the death penalty. Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani (called “the so-called stoning case” by Galloway on Press TV) was sentenced to death by stoning in a court speaking a language she didn't speak herself. George Galloway denies that homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran. On The Wright Show, Galloway stated that “the papers seem to imply that you get executed in Iran for being gay. That’s not true.” He then inferred that the boyfriend of gay Iranian asylum seeker, Mehdi Kazemi, had been executed for “sex crimes” against young boys and not for being gay.

It's unsurprising that Galloway publicly supports the Islamic Republic. He is an employee of Press TV, the Iranian state propaganda channel. While serving as a MP, Galloway was forced to declare his earnings from Press TV, which ranged from between £5000 and £20,000 for his various shows.

As pro-democracy protests engulf Syria, it's worth remembering that Galloway has previously heaped praise upon the Syrian regime and authoritarian ruler, Bashar al-Assad. Addressing Damascus University in late 2005, Galloway said: “For me he is the last Arab ruler, and Syria is the last Arab country. It is the fortress of the remaining dignity of the Arabs”. Galloway has expressed approval for other dictators too, once describing Parkistan's General Musharraf as “upright sort”. Far from a consistent democrat, after the 1999 coup brought Musharraf to power, Galloway told The Mail on Sunday that “Only the armed forces can really be counted on to hold such a country together... Democracy is a means, not an end in itself and it has a bad name on the streets of Karachi and Lahore.”

Galloway's Christian beliefs have influenced his views on abortion and stem cell research. He doesn't believe in evolution. In The Independent on Sunday in 2004 Galloway said "I'm strongly against abortion. I believe life begins at conception, and therefore unborn babies have rights. I think abortion is immoral". He was absent from all votes on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (which included attempts to reduce the abortion time limit in the UK). His notable absenteeism extends to many LGBT issues and euthanasia.

Then again, Galloway always had fairly lamentable levels of parliamentary participation. As a Respect MP, Galloway only participated in 98 out of 1288 votes. In 2006, he claimed more expenses than any other backbench MP in parliament.
Galloway's egoism has always been astounding. While most socialists consider it standard for workers' representatives to be elected on a workers' wage (not an impoverishing amount, but the salary of a skilled worker), Galloway has declared he couldn't possibly live on “three workers' wages”. And what else other than pure vanity can have driven an appearance on Big Brother, which discredited whole sections of the left?

Finally, it's worth remembering that Respect's own councillors in Tower Hamlets have voted through cuts to public services.
We call on socialists to offer no support for Galloway's election campaign.

For more on HOPI and struggles in Iran see:

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

The stuff they did not talk about!

Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq by Greg Muttitt
Hands Off Iraqi Oil

NOT *#$#%G MUCH!

HOW much part did interest in oil fields play in the US and British decision to invade Iraq?

If you believe some of the people most involved, thoughts about the black stuff in the ground did not cross their mind. The suggestion that oil had anything to do with it was a ridiculous idea.

Here's Tony Blair, on February 6, 2003: "Let me just deal with the oil thing because... the oil conspiracy theory is honestly one of the most absurd when you analyse it. The fact is that, if the oil that Iraq has were our concern, I mean we could probably cut a deal with Saddam tomorrow in relation to the oil. It's not the oil that is the issue, it is the weapons..."

Well, yes, except the weapons of mass destruction we were told were ready to fired were never found, whereas we know the oil is there. Not all of it being exploited yet. And now that Iraq has been liberated, so to speak, the big companies are obtaining new concessions, and the new regime is not being awkward about terms or pricing systems.

But here is what BP said on March 12, 2003: "We have no strategic interest in Iraq. If whoever comes to power wants Western involvement post the war, if there is a war, all we have ever said is that it should be on a level playing field. We are certainly not pushing for involvement."

Lord Browne, the then-BP chief executive, on the same day: "It is not in my or BP's opinion, a war about oil. Iraq is an important producer, but it must decide what to do with its patrimony and oil."

Shell said reports that it had discussed oil opportunities with Downing Street were 'highly inaccurate', adding: "We have neither sought nor attended meetings with officials in the UK Government on the subject of Iraq. The subject has only come up during conversations during normal meetings we attended".

In the eight years since the bombs began to fall on Baghdad oil seemed to be a taboo subject for politicians and press alike. Others may have suspected and smelt an oily conspiracy as a matter of routine. A few were prepared to look behind the scenes, find out what was really going on, and make an issue of it.

Greg Muttitt, who worked with the campaigning charity Platform researching the environmental and social effects of big oil, met up with people from Iraq Occupation Focus, part of the anti-war movement, who had made links with Iraqis like Hassan Juma'a, leader of the southern Iraqi oil workers union, bringing him over to meet trades unionists and campaigners here.One result was the campaign Hands Off Iraqi Oil. Now Greg has written to supporters:

Hi Friends,
I was one of the organisers of Hands Off Iraqi Oil in 2007-8. The last two years though, I've been writing a book, Fuel on the Fire - Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq, which tells the full story of the US/UK attempts to force a radical restructuring of Iraq's oil industry in favour of multinational companies, and of the inspirational struggle against them by Iraqi trade unions, oil experts and civil society groups.

You may have seen yesterday's front-page article in the Independent ..."

Secret memos expose link between oil firms and invasion of Iraq; ;Tuesday, 19 April 2011
By Paul Bignell

Plans to exploit Iraq's oil reserves were discussed by government ministers and the world's largest oil companies the year before Britain took a leading role in invading Iraq, government documents show.

The papers, revealed here for the first time, raise new questions over Britain's involvement in the war, which had divided Tony Blair's cabinet and was voted through only after his claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

The minutes of a series of meetings between ministers and senior oil executives are at odds with the public denials of self-interest from oil companies and Western governments at the time.

The documents were not offered as evidence in the ongoing Chilcot Inquiry into the UK's involvement in the Iraq war. In March 2003, just before Britain went to war, Shell denounced reports that it had held talks with Downing Street about Iraqi oil as "highly inaccurate". BP denied that it had any "strategic interest" in Iraq, while Tony Blair described "the oil conspiracy theory" as "the most absurd".

But documents from October and November the previous year paint a very different picture.

Five months before the March 2003 invasion, Baroness Symons, then the Trade Minister, told BP that the Government believed British energy firms should be given a share of Iraq's enormous oil and gas reserves as a reward for Tony Blair's military commitment to US plans for regime change.

The papers show that Lady Symons agreed to lobby the Bush administration on BP's behalf because the oil giant feared it was being "locked out" of deals that Washington was quietly striking with US, French and Russian governments and their energy firms.

Minutes of a meeting with BP, Shell and BG (formerly British Gas) on 31 October 2002 read: "Baroness Symons agreed that it would be difficult to justify British companies losing out in Iraq in that way if the UK had itself been a conspicuous supporter of the US government throughout the crisis."

The minister then promised to "report back to the companies before Christmas" on her lobbying efforts.

The Foreign Office invited BP in on 6 November 2002 to talk about opportunities in Iraq "post regime change". Its minutes state: "Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP is desperate to get in there and anxious that political deals should not deny them the opportunity."

After another meeting, this one in October 2002, the Foreign Office's Middle East director at the time, Edward Chaplin, noted: "Shell and BP could not afford not to have a stake in [Iraq] for the sake of their long-term future... We were determined to get a fair slice of the action for UK companies in a post-Saddam Iraq."

Whereas BP was insisting in public that it had "no strategic interest" in Iraq, in private it told the Foreign Office that Iraq was "more important than anything we've seen for a long time".

BP was concerned that if Washington allowed TotalFinaElf's existing contact with Saddam Hussein to stand after the invasion it would make the French conglomerate the world's leading oil company. BP told the Government it was willing to take "big risks" to get a share of the Iraqi reserves, the second largest in the world.

Over 1,000 documents were obtained under Freedom of Information over five years by the oil campaigner Greg Muttitt. They reveal that at least five meetings were held between civil servants, ministers and BP and Shell in late 2002.

The 20-year contracts signed in the wake of the invasion were the largest in the history of the oil industry. They covered half of Iraq's reserves – 60 billion barrels of oil, bought up by companies such as BP and CNPC (China National Petroleum Company), whose joint consortium alone stands to make £403m ($658m) profit per year from the Rumaila field in southern Iraq.

Last week, Iraq raised its oil output to the highest level for almost decade, 2.7 million barrels a day – seen as especially important at the moment given the regional volatility and loss of Libyan output. Many opponents of the war suspected that one of Washington's main ambitions in invading Iraq was to secure a cheap and plentiful source of oil.

Mr Muttitt, whose book Fuel on the Fire is published next week, said: "Before the war, the Government went to great lengths to insist it had no interest in Iraq's oil. These documents provide the evidence that give the lie to those claims.

"We see that oil was in fact one of the Government's most important strategic considerations, and it secretly colluded with oil companies to give them access to that huge prize."

Lady Symons, 59, later took up an advisory post with a UK merchant bank that cashed in on post-war Iraq reconstruction contracts. Last month she severed links as an unpaid adviser to Libya's National Economic Development Board after Colonel Gaddafi started firing on protesters. Last night, BP and Shell declined to comment.

Fuel on the Fire - Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq
By Greg Muttitt
Published 21 April 2011 by the Bodley Head, an imprint of Random House

Hands Off Iraqi Oil supporters were offered a discount on the book, and I see War on Want is doing the same, though you'd better rush before the deal expires.

You can also meet the author and get the book next month when he'll be talking to War on Want's executive director John Hilary, and answering questions.

The event is on May 23, at 6.30pm in the Khalili Theatre at SOAS, Thornhaugh Street, London WC1H 0XG, nearest tube Russel Square.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

From student 'red' to right-wing warmonger TAKING its title from Meyer's column in the right-wing National Review, this book deals with his part in the making of American Conservatism.

NEWLY-released documents from MI5 reveal the security apparatus' concern about writer Cyril Connolly, harmonica player Larry Adler, who had come to this country to get away from McCarthyism, and the popular scientist and TV broadcaster Dr.Jacob Bronowski - described as "a communist in all but name" in one early report.

Another person in their sights, perhaps less surprisingly, though less well known this side of the water, was Frank Strauss Meyer. Described by one Oxford University communist contemporary as 'The founder of the student Communist Party movement in the UK', Meyer, originally from Newark, New Jersey, was formerly a Princeton alumnus, though he found that American institution snobbish and antisemitic.

He arrived in the UK in August 1928 and enlisted at Balliol College, Oxford, in October 1929. On graduating he transferred to the London School of Economics (LSE) to read for a PhD, but as the National Archive blurb notes, he was "expelled from the LSE in March 1934 for selling copies of the 'Student Vanguard', a left-wing student newspaper he founded, and was subsequently deported in June 1934".

This is only part of the story, though it is interesting to note that at that supposed bastion of radicalism, while Sir William Beveridge was director and the Fabian 'Marxist' Harold Laski (who went on to help found the Left Book Club in 1937) was teaching politics, the Communist Party was banned from using meeting rooms, and Meyer could be expelled for selling his papers.

But there was a particular item in that paper that caused upset. It said that overseas students at British universities, particularly from "the colonies", were the subject of spying and reports about their political activities, and alleged that at LSE this job had been entrusted to a former Indian police inspector among the staff. Though it did not name names, his identity would not have been too difficult to guess.

Mind you, both the Iraqi Communist Party and the semi-Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party in Ceylon (Sri Lanka to be) owed their foundation in the 1930s at least partly to LSE graduates.

During his time in the UK Frank Meyer was founder and first President of the 'October Club', a committee member of the Oxford University Labour Club, and President of the Marxist Society and Students Union at LSE. It is said that John Cornford, who did much to establish student communism at Cambridge in the 1930s, was a protégé of his. Cornford was killed in action in Spain in December 1936, having just turned 21.

Frank Meyer, from his return to the USA in 1934 until 1945, remained active in student-related communist affairs. But turning against the authoritarianism of the Soviet Union, he was to become like the former CP-USA leader Jay Lovestone and the ex-Trotskyist James Burnham, a bitter enemy of communism, ready to support other kinds of authoritarianism, albeit in the name of libertarianism. He appeared as a witness before the Subversive Activities Control Board in 1952. In 1961, Meyer published The Moulding of Communists: The Training of the Communist Cadre in which he expounded the view that the communist movement was unlike any movement seen before.

In his review of the book, Murray Rothbard observed:

"Frank S. Meyer is by far the most intelligent, as well as the most libertarian-inclined, of all the National Review stable of editors and staff. …. But tragically, Meyer is also of the war-mongering crew of intellectuals on the Right, perhaps the most frankly and apocalyptically war-mongering of them all…. Meyer's libertarian inclinations are fatally warped by his all-consuming desire to incarcerate and incinerate all Communists, wherever they may be. Meyer is, therefore, an interesting example in microcosm of the swamping of any libertarian instincts on the current Right-wing by an all pervading passion for the Great Crusade to exterminate Communists everywhere."

Though the Hitler-Stalin Pact before the war had fuelled James Burnham and Max Schachtman's argument that they were confronting authoritarianism, and hence that American democracy was a lesser evil, the Cold War right would lend its support, in the name of "freedom", to any corrupt regime, colonial power or brutal dictator, so long as they appeared to protect American interests and stand up to the unprecedented evil that was totalitarian "communism".

Influenced by writings such as Friedrich A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, Meyer shifted his allegiance between 1945 and1952, from non-Communist left through Democrat and finally to Republican. Hayek, an Austrian who had joined LSE staff a couple of years before Stern was expelled, was an early exponent of the doctrinaire "free enterprise" views we have come to know as Thatcherism. He condemned the British Liberal Party for being prepared to form part of a Lib-Lab government under Callaghan. Ronald Reagan claimed him as a major source of ideas.

For the American Right, Frank S. Meyer is known less for his youthful escapade at LSE than as a pioneer thinker, who tried to bring together the opposites of conservative belief in order, often religious, and individualist libertarianism. This was "Fusionism". In his 1962 essay "The Twisted Tree of Liberty," Meyer asserted a "common source in the ethos of Western civilization," which included conservative and libertarian thought, caused the political discourse which created "the fusion that is contemporary American conservatism."

Every capitalist wants to impose order, on his own business and then if ambitious, on a whole industry, and in time of crisis at least, upon a world economy, while all the time resenting any "bureaucratic" interference with his own freedom. Similar contradictions can be seen between states, and among spokespersons for governments. But at an intellectual level, Meyer could advocate a symbiosis, conservatives and monetarists who admired Milton Friedman (who opposed the existence of the Federal Reserve) and supporters of Alan Greenspan (who has become head of it). Neo-conservatives like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz saw the light.

In the late 1960s Meyer did take up a fight against one Republican president, albeit a dead one, whom other Americans regardless of party might have treated as sacrosanct. In a debate over the role of Abraham Lincoln with conservative Harry V. Jaffa. Meyer argued that Lincoln's abuses of civil liberties and expansion of government power should make him anathema to conservatives, while Jaffa defended Lincoln as a continuation of the Founding Fathers.

Lincoln had after all to wage a war against the backward Southern plantocracy, who would not listen to reasoned appeals, and were only interested in staying in power and keeping America backward. This also required discipline on his own side, before the States could be united, free farmers and labour expand, and the slaves be freed from slavery. This could be an embarrassing piece of history to explain away when telling other people not to follow what America did, but only do what its leaders say.

All the same, though against the draft, the libertarian Meyer was in favour of war on China to free its people to do as they are told by America, and of a 'preventive' first use of nuclear weapons.

Here in Britain we might observe how some former Lefts and Tory Rights have been able to meet on the "libertarian" bridge, though so far the travel direction only seems to be one way . And interestingly it was Frank S. Meyer who first used the expression "There is no such thing as society" which Mrs.Thatcher thought such a clever epigram.

On his death bed, apparently, Meyer the libertarian made his peace with absolute authority, and converted to Catholicism. By then I suppose he had not much use for his freedom and thought he might need forgiveness.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Three Men Stopped the Train


ON the night of April 19, 1943, German forces entered the Warsaw ghetto to begin its liquidation, and came under fire. The Warsaw ghetto revolt had begun. This year sees April 19 fall into the Passover festival again as it did then, and no doubt at many a seder tonight people will remember the ghetto revolt as well as the exodus from Egypt which the festival is supposed to commemorate.

But on that same night, April 19, 1943 in another part of Europe, a smaller scale act of resistance took place which also deserves its place in history. On that night the twentieth train left Mechelin in Belgium carrying prisoners for the Nazi concentration camps. On board in sealed cattletrucks were 1631 Jewish men, women and children. They were guarded by an officer and fifteen German security police with sub-machine guns.

Waiting by the track between Boortmeerbeek and Haacht were three young men armed with one pistol, four pairs of pliars and a lantern covered with red paper to make it look like a railway danger lantern in the dark. Youra Livschitz, a Jewish doctor, had heard about some resisters and political workers escaping by jumping from previous trains. He had gone to the Resistance with a proposal that they organise such a break. But experienced partisan commanders did not think it would be practical, or they did not have enough men to carry out such a bold operation. So Youra turned to a couple of student pals, Robert Maistriau and Jean Frankelmann, who agreed to help in this crazy escapade.

Robert Maistriau remembers:

"At a certain moment, I received the order from Youra Livschitz to organise four pairs of pliars and a hurricane lamp. In a store, in the centre of Brussels, not far away from my working place with the company Fonofer, I found the necessary tools. I bought the pliars and also a lamp, from the German brand “Feuerhand”. In another shop, I bought glue and red silk paper. I glued the paper onto the glass of the lamp. From a distance, the hurricane lamp would look like a red signal.

"We used our bikes to travel to the place of the attack. My bag was filled with the hurricane lamp and those pliars. In fact, we were badly organised and prepared. I felt a mixture of a hunger for adventure and the will to inflict the Germans as much damage as possible. At that stage, nobody could have stopped me.

"Around 9h45 pm, we took our position besides the railway tracks in-between Haacht and Boortmeerbeek. We heard the whistle of the locomotive. Sounds were ringing in that quiet night … only after a few seconds, the train headed for the hurricane lamp. Because the lamp was on the railway tracks, at the end of a curve, the train driver saw the red signal only at the last moment. The driver slowed down the pace immediately, but the first wagons ran over the lamp. Finally, the train stopped.

"I completely froze. Then I headed for the first wagon I’d met. In my left-hand, I held a little torch and with my right-hand, I used the pliars.. I was very excited and I thought it took ages before I finally succeeded in cutting the wire that was used to secure the sliding door. Finally I could open the heavy door of the cattle wagon. I used my torch to illuminate the carriage. Pale and frightened faces stared at me. “Get out, get out”, I shouted and I urged them “schnell, schnell, fliehen sie!” (quick, quick, get out of here).Then, I tried to open the lock of the second wagon. I put the torch into my pants, so I could use both of my hands. That way, I could manipulate the tongs much better. But time was running out. Someone was shooting. I was an ideal target in the lunar light. I ran for the bushes, where a couple of refugees ware waiting for me. I shouted them that they had to hit the ground.

"After a while, all became quiet and the train continued his trip. When I saw the red tail lights disappear, I got up. I gave seven people a note of 50 francs. I urged them to disperse themselves. One woman embraced me with passion and she said she didn’t know how she could thank me. Somebody else asked me for my name and address, so they could send me a gift, after the war. I thought that was pretty naive. Names and addresses, that was the first lesson you learned as a young member of the resistance, were taboo."

Regine Krochmal, an 18 year old nurse and resistance member, was one of those who escaped from the train that night. She had been picked up by the Gestapo when they raided a flat where illegal leaflets were being stencilled. They took her to their HQ, and later to the Dossin barracks at Mechelen.where prisoners were held awaiting deportation.

"“Schweine Juden”, strokes with a stick, shouting, ... That’s how we were received in Mechelen. At our arrival, we were taken to a room, where there was a line of tables. Behind each table was a prisoner standing. One by one we had to give in all of our possessions: identity-papers, money, pictures, jewels, luggage, keys, ... Our identity was taken away from us. From that moment on, I was just n° 263.

"How we were afraid, on that April 19th, in 1943. Of course, we couldn’t sleep. The uncertainty of what was there to come, was too big. What was it going to be? Maybe work? Or worse than here? It was very much open to question.

"Early morning, the cattle-wagons were ready. Because I was a nurse, I was assigned to the infirmary-wagon, together with a young doctor. Before I could get in the train, Doctor Bach, a German Jew, responsible for the health of the prisoners, came right beside me and gave me stealthily a large knife. I just had the time to conceal it in my cloak, while he whispered in my ear: “Make sure you can escape. You and all those bunglers are destined to be gassed and burned.”

"More than ever, I was determined to try to escape. An SS-soldier gave me a little flag. I was supposed to hang it outside the window, to indicate every decease or attempt to escape. Immediately after the closing of the doors, I talked to the young doctor, who was also assigned to take care of the ill. I told him I was a member of the resistance and that I wanted to continue my task. I urged him to flee from the train. He refused. “As a medical doctor, it is my duty to assist the ill, not to escape from them.” He was still reasoning like it was peacetime. I no longer insisted on him trying to escape and started to saw the bars in front of the window with the knife I had got. Luckily the bars were only made of pinewood.

"The train slowed down, I jumped ... and the train stopped. Rattling from hand machineguns ... Savage roaring by the Germans. Probably there are other attempts to escape. I tried to hide close to -or is it in- the ground and I was loosing all notion of time. Without moving I laid down, I barely dared to breathe. Minutes passed by like they were hours. All of a sudden, the train started moving again.

"Cautiously I got up ... the knife in my hand. The little house of a crossing-guard is nearby. In that little house was a young man. I sneaked towards him and told him that I was Jewish, that I had jumped out of the train and that I needed help.

"Without saying anything, he put his finger on his mouth to make me clear I had to shut up. He took me by the arm and brought me to a meadow, right behind the station, where there were a couple of haystacks. He pushed me into one of the haystacks and covered me with hay. In great haste, he returned to his little house.

" I heard the Germans approaching with their dogs. My guardian angel gave them something to drink and assured them he hadn’t seen anything suspicious. The Germans didn’t seem to be in a rush, they were strolling around, drinking, smoking, and talking. Finally, they took off.

"When the coast was clear, the guard got me out of my hideout. He gave me something to eat and told me that a little further, a 20-minute walk, there was a tram stop. The tram could take me from Haacht to Brussels. I headed towards the terminus of the tram and so I reached the Rogierplein in Brussels".

Altogether 231 people were liberated that night. Some were recaptured and put on another convoy, others were killed, but 115 who succeeded in escaping. The youngest, Simon Gronowski, was only 11 years old. He remembers his mother hesitating to jump, saying the train was moving too fast. That was the last he saw of her or his sister as they were taken to Auschwitz. He ran away across the fields and reached a house where he was taken in.

Some years ago, attending a conference in Brussels organised by the Union des Progressistes Juive de Belge (UPJB), which has its roots in the wartime resistance and refugee work and links today with the Jewish Socialists' Group, I was put up overnight with an elderly couple of UPJB members. Next morning over breakfast I happened to talk about the war, and mention that I had heard about a train that had been stopped. They exchanged glances and smiled, whether amused by my lack of knowledge or my interest.
"She was on that train," said the husband (who I learned had left before the war and returned to liberate Brussels with the Canadian army, and met his wife).

"Yes, but there's something I must tell you," said the wife. "It was the resisters who liberated me. But the reason I survived those years was that an ordinary Belgian family, just working people, were prepared to take me, a Jewish girl, into their home."

In fact, there was more than one form of resistance, besides the acts of sabotage and armed actions. There were the post workers who intercepted mail to the Gestapo, and warned anyone who was being denounced to give them time to escape before the mail got through. There were the people who printed illicit newspapers and those who obtained the other kind of papers for those who needed them to get around. There was the social worker who returned to the Charleroi coalfields where she had been assisting Italian immigrants to settle before the war, this time to find people willing to shelter Jewish children in their homes.

And there were all those Belgians, whether in cottages or convents, who took the risk of providing refuge for the persecuted, so that as many as 50 per cent of those the Nazis wanted to deport and kill actually survived.

First hand accounts, Robert Maistriau, Regine Krochmal Somon Grosnowski et al:

There's a book to read by Marion Schreiber on the 20th train incident and its background, it's called 'Silent Rebels' and was published in English by Atlantic Books in 2000.

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