Thursday, January 31, 2013

Acting the Part



WHEN one door closes, another door opens, so they say, whoever they are, and having lived in some drafty places in my time I can relate to that. But with the news on TV that theatres in many towns may face the loss of subsidies due to councils making cuts, new hope has appeared from another direction for Thespians seeking roles.   

"IS THIS BRITAIN'S MOST IRRESPONSIBLE PARENT?" asked the headline in the Daily Mail the other day.

A party-loving mother has admitted giving her daughter alcohol from the age of three so that she would be able to 'drink properly' as a teenager.
Doctors have condemned 35-year-old Shannon Burrows after her startling confession that she gave daughter Jamie Lee, now 20, her first taste of alcohol as a small child.

The youngster was drinking cans of Fosters every weekend and had a bottle of vodka to share with a friend to mark her 15th birthday.

Shannon, from Doncaster, south Yorkshire, pays for her heavy drinking partly with money earned by her landscape gardener husband John, 50, and her £180 per month child benefit.

Husband John looks after their other children - two sons aged 12 and a daughter of nine - while she goes out drinking with unemployed Jamie Lee once a week.

Read more:

It was just the thing to set Mail  readers tut-tutting about these dreadful people (no not MPs and bankers) living it up at public expense, irresponsible and unfit parents paid over-generous benefits, who are to blame for the state the country is in....Just the thing to take attention away from moves to cut benefits and services.

But was Shannon all she seemed? The Mail had pix of mother and daughter in their finery and on the booze, but was either shy or forgetful about mentioning her occupation.  It was left to sceptical blogger Tom Pride to tell us that Shannon, aka Carolyn Burrows, is an actress, complete with her own casting page:

You would think an aspiring star would want to mention it in any publicity she receives. But maybe that wasn't part of the deal.

This was not the first such case that Pride and other bloggers have been looking at. 

Both Murdoch's Sun and the Mail had stories earlier this month about a so-called immigrant single-mother from Lithuania called NATALIJA BELOVA who was claiming £279 a week in benefits but who actually turned out to be a working actress. Here is the story here as told by the excellent PoliticsUK:


For the Sun it was front-page news.  Well, two favourite targets in one, benefits scroungers and immigrants. If World War II had broken out (and let's face it there are some smaller wars going on) it would have had to wait for a space.
But according to Pride, the papers may have missed a real story behind the blonde Belova. 

"Some people are saying that the Sun’s so-called foreign benefit scrounger is in fact the widow of a Russian billionaire oligarch. Five years ago, Leonid Rozhetskin, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, vanished from his £1 million home just outside the Latvian capital Riga.

Just last year, Mr Rozhetskin’s body was found by police in Latvia who say he was most probably murdered. His widow – who is said to be still living in the UK – is a former actress and model also by the name of NATALIJA BELOVA".

Meanwhile, the Mail today has a cautionary tale against anyone thinking that making it as a newspaper story can only be the start of a brilliant career. It features Antonia Sancha, the actress whom it says was paid £30,000 for her amusing vignette back in the 1990s about spanking and toe sucking fun with Tory David Mellor, in his blue Chelsea shirt. The report says she has since admitted making these details up. Still it was enough to make "Minister for Fun" Mellor on his downward slide.

"But approached outside her shabby, one-bedroom flat in nearby Willesden Green, North West London yesterday the woman who was seldom far from the headlines in 1992 was not keen to talk.
She gruffly barked: ‘I don’t want to speak to any journalists,’ before slamming her front door."
Oh dear. I've got friends who live in Willesden Green. It's not all that bad. But as my friends would agree, it is not quite Sunset Boulevard.


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Analysing BP Gulf Disaster

 EXPLOSION on April 20, 2010 killed 11 workers. Well was not finally capped until September 19.
Meanwhile oil kept flowing, killing marine life amd polluting coastline.  By 9 July 2011, roughly 491 miles (790 km) of coastline in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida remained contaminated by oil. US government blames BP, and relatives of dead men say drilling company ignored warnings.

A LEADING British scholar who investigated the Piper Alpha oil disaster has published an analysis of the Gulf of Mexico disaster examinining what BP should have known and could have done about the causes.

The author is Professor Charles Woolfson, formerly of the University of Glasgow, and co-author of the landmark study of offshore oil industry safety, Paying for the Piper detailing the reasons for the loss of 167 lives in the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster off the shores of Scotland.

Professor Woolfson's name was a surprise find uncovered when the files of the blacklisting Consulting Association were opened, showing the extent of blacklisting of workers in the building industry. It suggested that oil companies might try to put pressure on the University to cut his tenure short, possibly leading to other academic institutions closing their doors too for fear of losing funding.

Evidently Charles Woolfson has not let this frighten him from taking on the oil giants again. He examines the reasons for BP's safety failures in the Gulf of Mexico in a new publication in current issue of New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy.

Says Woolfson, "What's really startling and wholly depressing are the similarities not the differences in the basic causes underlying the two disasters, Piper Alpha and Deepwater Horizon. Although these events are separated by over twenty years, the global industry was supposed to have learned important safety lessons in the interim. Yet a major British oil multinational, BP, was seemingly oblivious to this previous catastrophic safety failure in 1988, to date the world's worst offshore disaster, occurring on its own doorstep."

Key among these similarities are attempts to create a business-friendly regulatory regime offshore, weak inspection and enforcement procedures, prioritization of commercial considerations over the safety and well-being of personnel and the wider environment.

"It's only when you look at the forensic detail of how a bad company operates in the real world that you see the true picture emerging. Then you can begin to ask questions about how this kind of disaster could happen, what can be done to prevent it happening again and, not least, who is to blame" said Woolfson.

BP faces new litigation in the Spring of 2013 following its guilty plea to US Justice Department charges which resulted in the largest criminal fine in US history. ,

The article, Preventable Disasters In The Offshore Oil Industry: FromPiper Alpha To Deepwater Horizon by Charles Woolfson, can be downloaded at the New Solutions web site:
New Solutions, Vol. 22(4), 2013 

   A professor on the blacklist. See:

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Pseudo-Science and Selection

This item appears today in the English-language edition of the Israeli daily Ha'aretz:

Israel admits Ethiopian women were given birth control shots

Health Minister director general instructs all gynecologists in Israel's four health maintenance organizations not to inject women with long-acting contraceptive Depo-Provera if they do not understand ramifications of treatment.  
By | Jan.27, 2013 |
A government official has for the first time acknowledged the practice of injecting women of Ethiopian origin with the long-acting contraceptive Depo-Provera.

Health Ministry Director General Prof. Ron Gamzu has instructed the four health maintenance organizations to stop the practice as a matter of course.
The ministry and other state agencies had previously denied knowledge or responsibility for the practice, which was first reported five years ago.
Gamzu’s letter instructs all gynecologists in the HMOs "not to renew prescriptions for Depo-Provera for women of Ethiopian origin if for any reason there is concern that they might not understand the ramifications of the treatment.”
He also instructed physicians to avail themselves of translators if need be.

Gamzu’s letter came in response to a letter from Sharona Eliahu-Chai of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, representing several women’s rights and Ethiopian immigrants’ groups. The letter demanded the injections cease immediately and that an investigation be launched into the practice.

About six weeks ago, on an Educational Television program journalist Gal Gabbay revealed the results of interviews with 35 Ethiopian immigrants. The women’s testimony could help explain the almost 50-percent decline over the past 10 years in the birth rate of Israel’s Ethiopian community. According to the program, while the women were still in transit camps in Ethiopia they were sometimes intimidated or threatened into taking the injection. “They told us they are inoculations,” said one of the women interviewed. “They told us people who frequently give birth suffer. We took it every three months. We said we didn’t want to.”

Coming as it did on what has been designated Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the Red Army's liberation of Auschwitz, it brought to mind for some people comparisons with the Nazis, who as we know carried out dubious "medical" experiments on human beings, and were keen to eliminate those they considered inferior stock, though they went a bit further than administering birth control injections. But without going into the general subject of why people fall so easily into such comparisons, which can be from ignorance as much as malevolence, or simply because people have no other words to express their horror, the allusion to Nazism is unnecessary.

What we may have in mind, apart from the all-too common habit some professionals and people in authority have of disregarding the views and feelings of lesser mortals they treat, and then covering up what they have done, is the echo of a movement called eugenics. Its idea was that social problems can be solved, and the human race improved, by selective breeding, and that means discouraging or preventing some inferior people, whether individuals or supposed "races" from having offspring. While the Nazis took their "scientific" racism further by murdering disabled people before moving on to entire racial categories such as Jews and Gypsies, they were not unique in the adoption of such ideas.

The precedents for the Holocaust lay in the German militarist and colonial experience, first in South West Africa (present day Namibia) against the Herero and other peoples who resisted them, and then directing the Turkish armed forces in the onslaught on the Armenians (the first time the word 'Holocaust' was used in its modern sense). 

 But before this eugenics had already become fashionable among many Western thinkers who liked to believe they had a rational and "scientific" answer to problems, such as the Fabians. It was none other than Winston Churchill who, as a minister in a Liberal government, sought to introduce measures for sterilising "the feeble-minded". But it was in the 'Land of the Free' , the United States, that such ideas really caught on in practice. Forget about "the melting pot" and "All men being created equal". (never mind women!). By the beginning of the 20th century upper class Americans were not just worried how to keep Blacks down, and restrict the number of Jews and Italians arriving, they wanted some way of dealing with inferior, anti-social and "degenerated" white trash too. And a "science" which sought to improve the racial stock by laws seemed just the thing.

Here's American writer Edwin Black:

In 1909, California became the third state to adopt such laws. Ultimately, eugenics practitioners coercively sterilized some 60,000 Americans, barred the marriage of thousands, forcibly segregated thousands in "colonies," and persecuted untold numbers in ways we are just learning. Before World War II, nearly half of coercive sterilizations were done in California, and even after the war, the state accounted for a third of all such surgeries.

Eugenics would have been so much bizarre parlor talk had it not been for extensive financing by corporate philanthropies, specifically the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune. They were all in league with some of America's most respected scientists hailing from such prestigious universities as Stamford, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. These academicians espoused race theory and race science, and then faked and twisted data to serve eugenics' racist aims.

Stanford president David Starr Jordan originated the notion of "race and blood" in his 1902 racial epistle "Blood of a Nation," in which the university scholar declared that human qualities and conditions such as talent and poverty were passed through the blood.

In 1904, the Carnegie Institution established a laboratory complex at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island that stockpiled millions of index cards on ordinary Americans, as researchers carefully plotted the removal of families, bloodlines and whole peoples. From Cold Spring Harbor, eugenics advocates agitated in the legislatures of America, as well as the nation's social service agencies and associations.

The Harriman railroad fortune paid local charities, such as the New York Bureau of Industries and Immigration, to seek out Jewish, Italian and other immigrants in New York and other crowded cities and subject them to deportation, trumped up confinement or forced sterilization.

The Rockefeller Foundation helped found the German eugenics program and even funded the program that Josef Mengele worked in before he went to Auschwitz.

Upon returning from Germany in 1934, where more than 5,000 people per month were being forcibly sterilized, the California eugenics leader C. M. Goethe bragged to a colleague:
"You will be interested to know that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program. Everywhere I sensed that their opinions have been tremendously stimulated by American thought . . . I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of your life, that you have really jolted into action a great government of 60 million people."[6]

After the Second World War, when the extent and horror of Nazi inhumanity became known, eugenics became not so fashionable, and the way British and American ideas and practice had influenced the Nazis was not something anyone would boast about. In 1948, the same year that the State of Israel was born in blood and fire, and Palestinians experienced the Nakba, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution defining the crime of genocide: 
...any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article 2[3]
Note Article 2d my emphasis.

But the UN resolution was no more able to stop the practice than it put an end to pogroms, wars and massacres. It did perhaps mean that those carrying out measures like forced sterilisation were less open about what they did, and governments did not proclaim it as their policy.

Nevertheless, it went on, and the victims in Europe were the Roma, or Gypsies, as though Hitler had not succeeded in doing enough to reduce their numbers. Reports came in of Gypsy women being sterilised against their will or without their knowledge in Czechoslovakia, under both "Communist" and "democratic" regimes, and in social democratic Sweden.

As for the United States, nothing could be finer and more free than Carolina...

Thirty-one other states had eugenics programs. Virginia and California each sterilized more people than North Carolina. But no program was more aggressive.
Only North Carolina gave social workers the power to designate people for sterilization. They often relied on I.Q. tests like those done on Mr. Holt, whose scores reached 73. But for some victims who often spent more time picking cotton than in school, the I.Q. tests at the time were not necessarily accurate predictors of capability. For example, as an adult Mr. Holt held down three jobs at once, delivering newspapers, working at a grocery store and doing maintenance for a small city.
Wealthy businessmen, among them James Hanes, the hosiery magnate, and Dr. Clarence Gamble, heir to the Procter & Gamble fortune, drove the eugenics movement. They helped form the Human Betterment League of North Carolina in 1947, and found a sympathetic bureaucrat in Wallace Kuralt, the father of the television journalist Charles Kuralt.
A proponent of birth control in all forms, Mr. Kuralt used the program extensively when he was director of the Mecklenburg County welfare department from 1945 to 1972. That county had more sterilizations than any other in the state.
Over all, about 70 percent of the North Carolina operations took place after 1945, and many of them were on poor young women and racial minorities. Nonwhite minorities made up about 40 percent of those sterilized, and girls and women about 85 percent.
The program, while not specifically devised to target racial minorities, affected black Americans disproportionately because they were more often poor and uneducated and from large rural families. 

In the Czech Republic a report in 2006 said:
...the Czech government’s independent ombudsman, Otakar Motejl, released a detailed report last year charging that “potentially problematic” sterilizations of Roma women have been public knowledge for more than 15 years.
In the report, Motejl identified dozens of cases of coercive sterilization between 1979 and 2001, and called for criminal investigations and possible prosecution against several health care workers and administrators.

It will be no consolation for Ethiopian Jewish women in Israel to know that having been brought to Israel by authorities who then had second thoughts about their presence, they were no worse treated than other people considered a "problem" in other lands. But we might ask why, if those administering Depo Provera (a drug about whose adverse side effects there are conflicting views) felt they were doing this for the women's own good, they had to rely on coercion or deceit to do it, and then tried to keep quiet about what they had done? I am a bit rusty about the Hippocratic Oath, but I suppose that is open to interpretation.

As for eugenics, it might have almost crawled underground for a time, but it has not gone away. And with society in a mess right now, and looking for ways to blame its victims or have them blame each other for the problems, we should be on our guard against a comeback for this pseudo-science, as for racism and antisemitism.   As Hegel put it cynically, "The one thing History teaches is that men and women learn nothing from history". We have to try and prove him wrong.

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Israel: Could have been worse, but yet to get better

ISRAELI elections on Tuesday have produced little change and few surprises, but they could have gone a darn sight worse. Mercifully the parties of the meshugge Right that had competed to offer the most belligerent and racist policies did not do well.

Nor did Binyamin Netanyahu do as well as expected.

Likud Beitenu 31; Jewish Home 12, Shas 12; United Torah Judaism 7; Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid) 19, Kadima 2, Hatnuah (Livni) 6; Labor 15; Meretz 6. Hadash 4; United Arab List 4; Balad 3

'Bibi'  had united his Likud list with that of coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman, adjusting it accordingly. The two parties, Likud and Yisrael Beitanu had 42 seats in the outgoing Knesset, and the experts said this time it would rise to 45.

Netanyahu had campaigned on the ominous slogan "A strong leader. A strong Israel". Hardly had the polls closed, with almost 67 per cent of Israelis voting, than he was making his victory speech on the strength of the exit polls. But he ended up with a mere 31 seats – losing a quarter of his strength. If Lieberman's crew are taken away,-and he still faces fraud charges that might lead to a bar from office - Likud is left with just 20 seats, only one more than its nearest rival.

 That is not Labour, which formed Israeli governments for the first two decades and was in and out of government later, but a surprise newcomer to the fray, Yesh Atid ('There is a Future') led by Yair Lapid, a former TV anchorman. Only formed last year, and now Knesset's second largest faction, Yesh Atid appeals, as its name suggests, to younger Israelis who want some change, even if they are a bit vague about what kind of change they want.

In some ways Lapid's party recalls that of his father "Tommy" Lapid, Shinui, which meant "Change", and was formed by professionals and military men appealing to the middle class by  promising clean, effective and secular government. But whereas that could propose overdue changes such as instituting civil marriage, the best that Yair Lapid could come up with in these more critical times was a demand that all Israelis be liable for military service. (Yeshiva students are exempt, as well as Arab citizens).
Lapid campaigned on vague platitudes, but was definte about one thing:"I do not think that the Arabs want peace, I want to be rid of them and put a tall fence between us and them, to maintain a Jewish majority in the Land of Israel." 

Lapid has been just as definite about keeping a barrier against Arabs who are inside Israel, and in the Knesset. He said there was no way he would head or take part in a government that included Haneen Zouabi. Haneen, who took part in the Mavi Marmara convoy to Gaza has been reviled as a "traitor"(!) by Israelis, and violently attacked in the Knesset, but she beat off attempts to ban her from standing in this election, and her Balad party has three seats.

Those who are grateful for small mercies (including veteran peace campaigner Uri Avnery) are glad that at least Lapid and his "centre" party gained more votes and therefore knesset seats than the other newcomer, the unashamedly far Right Naftali Bennett. Though both campaigned for the young, and secular vote, with visits to clubs and photo opportunities, Bennett was clearly and outspokenly on Netanyahu's right, supporting the settler fanatics, demanding that Israel reconquer the entire West Bank and finish talk of two-states, and denouncing the Supreme Court for upholding rights within Israel. Lapid got 19 seats, Bennett just 12, though that is 12 too many.    

Don't mention the war

And Labour, under its new leader Shelly Yachimovich? "She was absolutely certain that her rejuvenated Labor Party would become the second largest faction in the Knesset. She even presented herself as a possible replacement for Netanyahu, " says Uri Avnery. "Both she and Lapid profited from the huge social protest of the summer of 2011, which pushed war and the occupation off the agenda. Even Netanyahu did not dare to bring up the attack on Iran and the extension of the settlements. But in the end, Lapid profited more than Shelly".

Older voters might have remembered that Labour once purported to stand for the working people and social welfare, but being the Establishment, let them down. Within more recent times Amir Peretz, coming from the Histadrut unions and a development town (Sderot!) fooled a lot of people (including this blogger) that he was going to change Labour for the better, but instead high office changed him, and he became Defence Minister in time for the Lebanon war, only to lose out afterwards to Ehud Barak, This time, having lost the Labour Party to onetime protege Yachimovich, Peretz surprised supporters by switching to HaTnua (The Movement), a list formed by Tzipi Livni, arguing that Yachimovich was avoiding the peace issue. 

Former Foreign Minister Livni only entered the election two months ago, after a lot of hesitation, and according to Avnery "Her concentration on the “political arrangement” with the Palestinians – not “peace”, God forbid – ran against the trend".  

"People who really want peace voted (like me) for Meretz, who can boast a resounding achievement, doubling their strength from 3 to 6. That is also a striking feature of this election.It appears also that quite a number of Jews gave their vote to the mainly-Arab communist Hadash party, which was also strengthened".

To the left of Hadash, Da'am the Workers Party, fairly new on the scene, and led by Asma Aghbarieh, increased its vote but not enough it seems to gain any knesset seats. Not this time. 

On the far Right, the Kahanists did not do so well, either. But then electoral politics are only a sideline for them.

Meretz, originally formed by the Left Zionist United Workers Party merging with Shulamit Aloni's Civil Rights list and part of Shinui, has roughly approximated to the "Peace Now" position in politics, wavering between a genuine commitment to a just peace, and Zionist respectability and consensus in times of war. This position has become harder to maintain as the Zionist state has veered to the Right, with less room for either belief in two states or democratic dissent. That Meretz has made something of a comeback, doing relatively better than Labour, and gaining as many seats as Tzipi, does suggest a small awakening against the Right.   

One commentator observed that President Obama has had more influence on the Israeli Jewish voters than Netanyahu succeeded in having on American Jewish voters.

Leaving that in passing here is Avnery's take: 
The right-religious bloc lost the election, but the “center-left” did not win it,  because they could not put forward a credible candidate for prime minister, nor a credible alternative governing party with a solid, comprehensive blueprint for the solution of Israel’s basic problems.

To create such a new force, it is absolutely vital to integrate the Arab citizens in the political process as full-fledged partners. By keeping the Arabs out, the Left is castrating itself. A new Jewish-Arab left, a community of outlook, political language and interests, must be created – and this act of creation must start right now.

The battle for Israel is not lost. Israel’s “move to the right” has been blocked and is far from inevitable. We Israelis are not as crazy as we look. This battle has ended in a draw. The next round can be won. It depends on us.
With his 90th birthday coming up this year, Uri can be excused a bit of optimism. Netanyahu may not have mentioned Iran in his campaign but now he says it will be his priority in government. All the same we can share Uri's satisfaction that the march of the Right has had to pause at the lights.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Mary Seacole Must Stay!

Sir W. H Russell, Crimean War correspondent for The Times, said of Seacole: "Let England not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead."

IT sometimes seems as though I'm asked to sign new online petitions every day, on subjects of varying importance, sometimes relying on one's general goodwill to say things which don't necessary follow, or offering background information that's either insufficient or suspect. Life is too short to bother with them all.  

When I first read that "The Government is proposing to remove Mary Seacole from the National Curriculum", I was half inclined to doubt it, though with that Michael Gove in charge of Education, and this government taking away other things we might have thought sacrosanct...Anyway,  I signed as a matter of principle, to say "We are opposed to this and wish to see Mary Seacole retained so that current and future generations can appreciate this important historical person".

 It seemed only yesterday that I was asked to sign something, not online but in person, calling for  Mary Seacole's recognition, and I have the badge to prove it. But now there is a vicious campaign against this woman, and something worse behind it.

Mary Seacole, a Jamaican woman, who became a heroine for nursing troops in the Crimean War, was used to facing prejudice in her time. Though some now say that on account of her Scottish and Creole ancestry, she "wasn't really Black", as though racists carry a colour chart, she was dark enough to have been refused passage on an American ship, and to be rebuffed by the War Office when she turned up with letters of recommendation from doctors in Jamaica and Panama.    

Hundreds of soldiers were dying in the Crimea from diseases like cholera, more than from enemy action. They were ill-clothed and poorly fed. The hospitals were insanitary and understaffed. Though Florence Nightinngale was sent out with volunteers to improve things,Mary Seacole had to raise her own resources to go out and set up her "British Hotel" to treat sick and wounded, and cater for convalescents.

The Special Correspondent of The Times newspaper wrote approvingly of her work: "...Mrs. Seacole...doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battle-field to aid the wounded, and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessings."

On her return to Britain in Mary was recognised as a heroine by the army and the public, and thousands of people attended a fundraising benefit in her honour in 1857. It seems to have only been in later years that her name faded, while that of Florence Nightingale was elevated to the national pantheon,  As imperialism reached its hight racial assumptions became the norm, and in the history we were taught there was no place for black people.  

 Not until modern times, when women and black people began challenging assumptions and reopening the books, revealing the inadequacy or downright bias of what we were taught, did things start to change. Immigration produced a new generation of black schoolkids and students to wonder where they and families came into the story. People watching the fight for civil rights and equality in the United States began to realise we in Britain had no right to feel smugly superior. Teachers and educationalists felt emboldened to rebel against passing on prejudice.

In 2005, Boris Johnson (now Mayor of London, then editor of The Spectator) wrote of learning about Seacole from his daughter's school pageant and speculated: "I find myself facing the grim possibility that it was my own education that was blinkered."

Mary Seacole's inclusion on the National Curriculum came as a result of a tireless campaigning to recognise someone who had become a forgotten figure in modern times. The war nurse, voted the greatest of Black Britons in a 2004 poll, was put in to the curriculum in 2007 She is the only black figure unconnected with slavery or civil rights to be included. Her name only appears in an appendix to the Key Stage 2 National Curriculum, as an example of a significant Victorian historical figure. There is no requirement that teachers include Seacole in their lessons.[110]

But even this limited recognition is too much for today's reactionaries. It was reported at the end of last year that Mary Seacole was to be removed from the National Curriculum. We might note incidentally that the more Tories like Gove talk of "free schools" and local initiaves, the more they want to dictate what is taught, and how it is taught, and as in this case, what our children should be kept ignorant about.

As the petitioners for this black heroine say: "Her proposed removal can only be attributed to a recent backlash against Mary Seacole as a symbol of 'political correctness' by Right-wing media and commentators".  And that is putting it mildly.

In the forefront of the campaign against Mary Seacole, perhaps appropriately for a newspaper whose own history wasn't of supporting blacks but of supporting Blackshirts, is the Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens. If you believe him, the Crimean war nurse was only conjured up by "multiculture fanatics" out to do down the reputation of white Florence Nightingale and the British Empire. We are responsible it seems not only for poor history education but declining nursing standards. And in case you are in doubt, Hitchens slips in a reference to "our rulers", implying that Con Dem government or not, rightwingers like him are bravely resisting the dictatorship of lefties and liberals who are running our schools, and brainwashing kids, by rewriting history. 

It is a familiar trick from Goebbels through to other far Rightists, and America's "Tea Party" and Gun Lobby. And Hitchens' hate screed is good enough reason to sign this petition and take this issue seriously.
As the petitioners say, "to remove Mary Seacole from the National Curriculum is tantamount to rewriting history to fit a worldview hostile to Britain's historical diversity".  They argue that "the teaching of Black historical figures is widely recognised to be beneficial to the success of Black pupils and in closing the GCSE achievement gap. Indeed it is to advantage of pupils from all backgrounds in our increasingly diverse schools and society".

And to the advantage of the public, who might otherwise have to depend on bigoted newspapers.

See petition:

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

When IRIS eyes were spying...

MANY years ago, browsing in the basement of a Manchester department store, I chanced upon a stack of remaindered copies of a booklet called "The Communist Solar System", and bought a copy for 6d. It was not a manifesto from Juan Posadas, nor an early example of socialist science fiction, but a publication from Industrial Research and Information Services (IRIS) Ltd, designed to warn us about the dangers of Communist "front" organisations.

There was a foreword by Herbert Morrison, and a handy list at the back of organisations proscribed by the Labour Party. Besides such obviously suspect outfits as the British-Soviet Friendship Society, British-Bulgarian Friendship Society and so forth, there were groups like Musicians for Peace, and Artists for Peace - that last word was bound to alert any social democrat, coming at the end of a decade when a Labour government had rushed to develop nuclear weapons and been the first in Britain to maintain conscription in er..."peacetime". (which had been anything but peacetime in Greece, Palestine, Malaya and Korea).

Less obvious, perhaps, the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and the Labour Research Department received a mention apiece as, if not on the list, nevertheless organisations you'd best avoid, or keep at arms length, if you knew what was good for your career in the Labour Party. 

 So was Industrial Research and Information Services (IRIS) a part of the Labour and trade union movement, albeit anti-communist, or was it warning against the influence of a "foreign" tyrrany, from a position of political independence then?

Well, not quite. It was reported recently that Tory prime minsiter Harold Macmillan authorised covert government expenditure to support IRIS, as government files now made public under the 30-year rule reveal.

"Lord Shawcross, a former Labour Attorney-General, first introduced him to the organisation, Industrial Research and Information Ltd (IRIS), towards the end of 1962. It was secretly funded by employers, including Ford and Shell, through a private trust of which he was a trustee, the Prime Minister was told. According to Lord Shawcross, unions with a strong Communist presence included the ETU electricians' union, the Draughtsmen's Union, and several more representing white-collar workers. He also claimd the BBC and several television companies were infiltrated. With more money, anti-Communist trade unionists could be supported, and information about known Communists passed on.

"Macmillan was immediately interested, and after arranging a meeting to find out more about how the Communists organised strikes and infiltrated organisations, the Prime Minister promised to talk to the Home Secretary, Henry Brooke, about raising money from the Secret Fund, which also funded MI5. Sir Burke Trend, the Cabinet Secretary, assured Mr Macmillan's private secretary Sir Tim Bligh that the Secret Fund could manage £40,000 a year."

Macmillan wanted to keep all this quiet, restricting information to a small circle. But he assured  Lord Shawcross he had not forgotten the matter. Mr Brooke in turn met Lord Shawcross in February, and offered in principle to fund the Shawcross organisation.

Mr Brooke wrote to Mr Macmillan after the meeting saying IRIS would be a useful way to use information on Communists uncovered by MI5. "The outcome, if all goes well, is that there will exist not only an effective channel for giving wider currency to facts of public interest which we know about certain individuals from secret sources, but also a more powerful instrument for mobilising effort within the trade unions against the determined attempts by the Communist Party to get control of key positions inthe unions nationally and locally."

Henry Brooke, MP for Hampstead, whom Macmillan promoted to Home Secretary that year, was no stranger to the business of working with information from secret sources or backing publications to target people. Before the war he worked at the Conservative Research Department where Sir Joseph Ball, ex of MI5 was a guiding influence - the Hidden Hand, so to speak. It was Ball who was behind the notorious "Zinoviev Letter" that was used against Labour in 1924. But it was Henry Brooke who became chairman of the Truth Publishing Company. (Though this fact was missing from his Who's Who entry. The magazine Truth was used to support a pro-Nazi Appeasement policy and in 1940 to smear Leslie Hore-Belisha so he could be removed as War Minister.

That was how the Tories dealt with a coalition partner. But now while gaining a reputation as one of the worst ever Home Secretaries, Brooke was also looking after funding to covert efforts inside the trade unions and Labour party. 

In this he evidently acted with Labour's Baron Shawcross. Hartley Shawcross QC had been British prosecutor at Nuremburg, and also tried William Joyce ('Lord Haw Haw") but in later life he was one of those in the House of Lords who opposed efforts to pursue alleged war criminals in Britain, possibly because he remembered who had brought them in. By then, having once been dubbed "Shortly Floorcoss" by other Labour MPs, he had eventually crossed to the Social Democratic Party. He had also served as head of the Press Council, and though critical of unscrupulous editors, he ridiculed the idea of democracy in the press, saying it would lead to control by van drivers and other trades unionists.

In July 1964 Shawcross wrote to the new Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, saying: "The help we obtained from official sources was of the greatest assistance in tiding things over, but it does not seem there should be any need to seek further subventions." IRIS had now raised £35,000 of private funding, and did not need more. Sir Alec replied he was delighted that the Government had been able to help.

Although IRIS was funded by the Tories and business and backed by the security services, it did have its people in the labour movement. One who seems as interesting as Shawcross if not so eminent or well-known was Charles A.Smith, who at one time had been a Trotskyist of sorts, and became quite prominent in the Independent Labour Party. Smith left the ILP for the Common Wealth party towards the end of the war, perhaps repelled equally by Hitler and Stalin, and after the war he also became pro-Zionist (though this was not uncommon among Labour Lefts at the time).
But after leaving Common Wealth (which had mostly dissolved into Labour), Smith joined forces with an assortment of anti-communists including Jack Tanner of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, who had been a militant shop steward and Communist Party member himself at one time; and the Duchess of Atholl, who though a Tory had opposed Franco (her book Searchlight on Spain was publisjhed by Gollancz' Left Book Club) but was now founder of the British League for European Freedom, opposing Soviet dominance in eastern Europe. They founded Common Cause, which aimed to combat communism in the unions, in 1951, and Smith became its genral secretary. Common Cause dissolved itself into Industrial Research and Information Services, of which Jack Tanner became an official, in 1956.

Ironically 1956-7 was to be the year in which the Communist Party suffered its greatest crisis, not through the efforts of people like IRIS, but because of the publication of Khruschev's secret speech, and the military suppression of the revolt in Hungary.

Ironically too, in 1957 the Communist Party's remaining influence in trade unions like the ETU was used to support Nye Bevan, Labour's shadow foreign secretary, when he rejected calls for the unilateral renunciation of nuclear weapons. ("I cannot go naked into the conference chamber"). In the hope of Summit talks, the Young Communist League waa to produce a Christmas card which people were urged to send to "Mac"millan asking him to act for peace, a couple of years before "Mac" decided to authorise funding for IRIS to combat communists.

There have been lots of changes since then, both in Britain and in the international scene. First the security services had to turn from concentrating on the CP to dealing with other kinds of "Reds", and then with the Soviet Union's collapse they can no longer pretend the pusuit of industrial militants is due to them assisting foreign tyrrany.

But though the context and organisations change, still it goes on, not just surveillance but interference, the most common form being in the state assisting employers in blacklisting. And not just the state. For the Blacklist Support Group whose Facebook page drew my attention to that item on Macmillan and IRIS has also been looking at some of the blacklisting files uncovered on which there frequently appear against someone's name the words "NOT RECOMMENDED BY AMICUS". Amicus, which absorbed the old right-wing EEPTU electricians union, is now part of Unite, whose officers previously reported they had found no evidence of collaboration with blacklisting. There is plainly more here for trade unionists to investigate.

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Did "Deep State" order Kurdish women's murder?

WERE three Kurdish women murdered in Paris victims of a rogue Turkish state organisation out to sabotage peace talks with the Kurds and possibly bring down the Turkish government itself?

Sakine Cansiz, 55, a founder member of the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) living in Europe;  Fidan Dogan, 28, president of a Kurdish lobby group, based in Strasbourg; and Leyla Soylemez, a young Kurdish activist, living in Germany, were killed on Wednesday, . None of the three women lived full time in Paris, but were visiting a Kurdish information centre near the Gare du Nord when they were killed.

It was reported yesterday that each of them had been shot several times in the head, which suggests a professional killer. They had their outdoor coats on, indicating they had either just entered the building or were about to leave. This also counters suggestions that they must have opened the door to their killer or that the assassin had to know the door entry code to gain access. It is possible they had been followed and/or that the killer was waiting for them to leave.

It has echoes of the murder in 1976 of Egyptian communist Henri Curiel at his home in Paris. Curiel, who was under secret state surveillance at the time, was about to step from the lift on his way out when gunmen who had entered the foyer. No one was ever caught for this murder.

The three Kurdish women were murdered on the same day that the Turkish press reported the government had reached an outline agreement with the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan,  to end the 30 years old conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in the south east of the country, which has cost an estimated 40,000 lives.

Kurdish leaders have rejected suggestions from either French or Turkish sources that the killing was the result of an  “internal split” among Kurdish militants. They blame the “deep state”, as both they and Turkish leaders have called it, a network of Turkish officials and senior army officers who distrust the elected government and are opposed to any concessions to minorities or form of Kurdish autonomy.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has himself referred to this "deep state" before, and whether it would allow him to govern. But Erdogan has been casting around this past week, claiming the murder in Paris must be part of a struggle among Kurds, and making diversionary accusations. 

Complaining that France's President Francois Hollande had spoken with Sakine Cansiz, Erdogan said that Cansiz, one of the foundrts of the PKK, had been placed in custody in Germany in 2007, but was released soon after."We notified French Interpol just two months ago," Erdogan said. "France didn't do anything about it. The French head of state must explain why he was seeing these terrorists,"

But reports in the Turkish press say Cansiz was in favour of the PKK ending its armed struggle, and had been involved in negotiations in Oslo between the Turkish state and the PKK. She reportedly met with members of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) in recent months.

According to the conservative daily Yeni Safak it was Sakine Cansaz's job to communicate to factions in European countries once she received information from Abdullah Ocalan.

The French police were initially reported investigating the possibility that the attack was a robbery or a dispute about money. There are reportedly a number of investigations into political fundraising from Kurds in France. But the women's handbags had not been touched.Police found a neatly packed suitcase in offices of the Kurdish Information Centre, which is on the first floor of a residential building in the Rue Lafayette..

After it was revealed that the women had been shot several times in the head, and that the gunman had used a silencer,  the view was strengthened that this was a professional killing.  French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said the slayings were "without doubt an execution."

Those who suspect this was the work of conspirators within the Turkish state remembered the murder of  newspaper editor Hrant Dink on 19 January 2007 outside the office of his journal Agos. Dink was an ethnic Armenian, and had campaigned for recognition of the 1915 masacre of Armenians in Turkey. A juvenile killer Ogün Samast was arrested, but many people refused to believe he acted alone, or without encouragement. A video clip was released showing him posing with two police officers. A suspect accused of helping Samast was linked to right-wing nationalists, and had been a staff member of the Gendarmerie intelligence service, JITEM.

Some 20,000 people marched through Istanbul last year on the fifth anniversary of Hrant Dink's murder, both to honour the murdered journalist  and demand that the authorities conduct a full investigation into those behind the murder.

Hundreds of Kurds have been demonstrating outside Turkish embassies in Paris and London over the murder of the three Kurdish women. Joining demonstrators in London on Friday, I ventured to one of the organisers that it was difficult to know exactly who might be behind this killing. "It is difficult," he agreed. "But we know the Turkish prime minister himself was talking recently about the 'deep state', and whether they would let him govern. We think it is the 'Turkish Gladio'" (a reference to the right-wing secret armies established in NATO countries during Cold War years).  France is a funny country...We know there were also Turkish threats against the Armenians there". 


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Friday, January 11, 2013

Is the Party really over?

THE late Tony Cliff came to Lancaster once, back in about 1971.. Speaking to a lunchtime meeting at the university about developments in industry, he said the new system of Measured Day Work (MDW) being introduced to replace payment-by-results would be accepted by workers, despite its adverse affect on conditions and pay bargaining.

When I suggested that where there was a proper lead from shop stewards, MDW could be opposed, Cliff countered by telling us that it had just been accepted at British Leyland's Cowley factory. "They don't tell you everything in the WRP!", he added, to the amusement of his audience. Someone must have told him about my affiliations back then.

After the meeting, a knot of people including Cliff's supporters were having a laugh about it, out in the precinct. One of them explained to me that Cliff had made up his exclusive news flash about Leyland. "Still, it was a good debating trick, wasn't it?", he said.

Cliff, born Ygael Gluckstein in Mandatory Palestine, founder and leader of the breakaway from Trotskyism which became the Socialist Workers' Party, had shown he was cleverer than me, but most people including me already knew that, so it was hardly necessary for him to travel all that way to prove it. There could have been a philosophical germ in what he had said, demonstrating the inadequacy of trumping each other with "examples"; but it seemed a rum way of introducing students to the struggles in industry.

Or of setting an example to his members of valuing the truth.

I next heard Tony Cliff speak many years later at a much larger meeting, a rally (probably part of what have became the annual "Marxism" jamborees) in the Alexandra Palace. I was outside the hall helping on a literature stall, but the doors were open. I could hear the speaker, and see a claque at the centre of the audience rise to their feet each time he paused, wave their arms in clenched fist salutes, and chant "The workers united will never be defeated!". These weren't over-enthusiastic teenagers, mind, but adults - I recognised one as a teacher I knew from Wandsworth. Had I been inside the hall I would have found it embarrassing, from outside it looked distasteful if amusing.

Whatever Cliff's faults, and those of his "state capitalism" theory, the movement he inspired and taught became the most successful of the competing left groups, attracting not only students and names like Paul Foot, but some serious trade unionists for a time, looking for an alternative to the Communist Party. It went on to lead the Stop the War Coalition, presiding ove the biggest demonstrations Britain  had seen for many decades, and its annual "Marxism" events have been the biggest of their kind.

Only now the SWP is in trouble. Having already left behind a number of its activists in the ill-fated "Respect"  adventure, and shed the two leading lights of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsay German and John Rees (who have found a new home in the Coalition of Resistance), it then had to depose its national secretary Martin Smith for reasons that were not widely advertised.  Chris Banberry, one of the few people in the leadership to have worked with Tony Cliff, quit in 2011, and took a number of people with him north of the Border. Four people were expelled before Xmas for allegedly forming a "secret faction", and a far bigger number responded by forming an open faction demanding "democracy"; and it has not stopped there.

One result of all this upheaval has been that an internal report has come out on investigations into complaints by a woman member about the alleged conduct of a certain "Comrade Delta". A transcript was published on the 'Socialist Unity' site, which respected the SWP leadership's attempt at concealing names, and then in the Communist Party of Great Britain's "Weekly Worker", which does not.  I dare say the Special Branch and MI5 could have worked out the names as easily as I did, but I am not sure what justification can be given for naming names, either of a person who faced serious allegations or members of the committee, particularly in view of the sensitive matters they were asked to investigate, and bearing in mind these are lay members with daytime jobs to go to, not full-time apparatchniks.

 If I am not mistaken three of them were people who had already faced witch-hunts at work long before this business came up. Perhaps such mundane considerations don't occur to comrades whose involvement in workplace activity is limited, but I wonder how much of the "openness" they recommend for others extends to their own organisations, and those who hide behind pen names?

Whether the woman who alleged rape got any kind of justice, or whether they could expect it, is another matter.  One person of undoubted left-wing persuasion told me the matter "should have gone to the police", and not the disputes committee. Perhaps he was unaware of the number of women and young people who do not go to the police, fearing the trauma of interrogation and a court case? Or those who loyally keep things "in the family"?  Suppose the woman had gone to the police, only for them to decide there was insufficient evidence for a rape charge, and that her remaining allegations of harassment and ill-treatment were not really a police matter? (we will leave out the other possibility that the police would use an investigation as pretext to go storming through the SWP and its members' affairs with maximum disruption and misery all round and scant regard or result for the woman herself. Such things have been known.) Where would this have left her?

Surely a member of an organisation which aims to change the world for the oppressed is entitled to hope for better treatment from her own comrades, and that it would require higher standards from a leading member? In other words, justice.  Well here is that report:  .  

What about those who while not members of the SWP have tried working with it, in the Socialist Alliance (RIP) or Stop the War Coalition?  Mike Marqusee speaks from bitter eperience:
After twenty years hard graft in the Labour Party I resigned in 2000 and became active in the Socialist Alliance campaign for the London Assembly. A year later, I was joined in the SA by my partner, Liz Davies, who had been a Labour councillor and an elected member of the party's National Executive. Liz was elected chair of the SA national executive in late 2001. As such she was made one of the signatories for the Socialist Alliance's (meagre) bank account.

In autumn of 2002, we discovered that Liz's signature was being forged on Socialist Alliance cheques. The forging was being done by people in the SA office, members of the SWP whom we knew to be in daily contact with the SWP leadership. When Liz raised the discovery with the SWP leadership, she was met with hostility. None of this was to be discussed by anybody. That was not acceptable to her. She brought the matter to the SA Executive. In the course of the discussion there it became apparent to Liz that there was a comprehensive refusal to grasp the seriousness of the offence or to take any meaningful measures in response. That was articulated by one SWPer at the meeting who said it would have been wrong not to forge the signature since the money was needed to get placards on a demo. Liz resigned in disgust and I followed soon after.

It shouldn't be necessary to say but for those with doubts: by forging the signatures, these people were making unauthorised use of the dues paid to the SA by its members. They did it not once but repeatedly, and were only found out by accident. This was a sustained, furtive, and calculated violation of democracy and basic standards of probity. It was a flagrantly high handed abuse of power, displaying contempt for the SA and its members.

Sadly not only the SWP but also most of the other groups involved in the SA could not grasp this. It suited them all for various reasons to downplay the whole thing. For some it served as an excuse to marginalise strong unaffiliated voices within the SA.

In the wake of our departure from the SA, SWP leaders put it about that we were going to go to the police about the matter – an allegation that said more about their own petty mentality than it did about us. We were dismissed as “Labourists” or “reformists” preoccupied with “formalistic bourgeois morality”.

In fact, because of the political situation in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, we kept our counsel: it was obvious that this incident could be used to attack the Stop the War Coalition. Nonetheless we were treated by the SWP as persona non-grata at meetings of various kinds, our every intervention met with suspicion.

Some months after the invasion had turned into a long-term occupation, and the anti-war movement was taking stock, I wrote a piece critical of the SWP's methods – it mentioned no names, no personal references of any kind, and it referred once only in passing to the cheque forgery incident, without giving details. In response, an article penned by the leaders of the Stop the War Coalition appeared in both the Morning Star and Socialist Review attacking me by name, lumping me in with Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch as an enemy of the Coalition, stating that I had played no role in the movement for the last year – which the authors of the piece knew to be untrue – and dismissing my concerns as the result of “personal bitterness”. There was no attempt at all to respond to what I'd actually said in the original article.

So I have to say that many features of the SWP's current internal dispute seem bitterly familiar to me: treatment of whistle-blowers, smearing of critics, blaming victims, the unaccountability of leading cadre. When I see SWP members valiantly insisting that the recent dispute is nobody's business but their own, I have to demur.

Some years later, when John Rees at al departed the SWP, SWP members approached me to say that we must be pleased with this development and suggesting that all could be forgotten now. But I saw and see no evidence of the SWP examining itself with the seriousness required. The question was and is: how was it that a socialist organisation that claims to be democratic could allow people with a coarse disregard for accountability in all spheres run their organisation unchecked for years? How was it that the SWP leadership's obviously contrived and incomplete account of their rupture with us (described by them as a dispute over “administrative procedures” to which we as bourgeois formalists had over-reacted) went unquestioned by the vast majority of members, including the scores with whom we had worked amicably and constructively? Only three individuals (two of them now long gone from the party) were even willing to talk about the matter with us.

Shortly after I first learned about the forgeries, I made an effort to talk about it confidentially with three long standing SWP activists with whom I felt I had a personal relationship. Not one of them was prepared to accept that there could be any truth in what they referred to as”these allegations”. It spoke to me of a party culture of denial and solipsism.

I should say that I heard of a case in another organisation where someone's signature had to be forged on a cheque. But this was in exceptional circumstances, the signatory appointed some time before was unavailable, and the organisation urgently needed to access its own funds to pay bills and wages.  None of this applied in the Socialist Alliance, where there was no emergency.  Liz Davies was going into the office, unaware that her name was being forged, or where the money was going. As a friend of mine commented, "They did it because they could do it".  As Mike says, the Socialist Alliance had meagre funds. How would these characters behave if entrusted with much larger funds, in a trade union say?

 As for Mike's work in the anti-war movement, he not only continued  taking part while quite rightly critical of the leadership, but founded Iraq Occupation Focus, which boxed well above its weight in educating people about what was happening in Iraq, from depleted uranium and death squads to the plans of Western oil companies, and provided a platform for Iraqi comrades who seldom got to speak in Coalition events. It was Iraq Occupation Focus which brought Iraqi oilworkers' leader Hassan Jumaa over to speak in Britain.

I had my own experience in the Socialist Alliance. Having worked with SWP members (some very decent and hard working comrades I might add) and others in the Alliance in my area, I attended conference, and some friends nominated me to something resembling a Disputes Committee (I forget whether that was its title). They handed in a nomination slip with my name, but when the nominations were posted up on a board on stage  my name was missing. My friends called out to ask what about me, and got the eventual reply that  "Charlie Pottins is not part of the slate for this committee. If Charlie Pottins wanted to stand he should have put up an alternative slate."

In my naivety I had thought I was simply offering to join others on this committee, which would be asked to hear complaints and adjudicate impartially between members. It never occurred to me that such a committee would be stuffed with placemen, who knew what was expected of them, and that if you wanted to stand you must be mounting a challenge and have a complete slate with you.

Had we elected a proper committee to handle disputes and ensure fair play, such as I thought I was being nominated to, someone like Liz Davies could have come to it. What use a rigged committee would be,  I don't know.

As for me, I had to laugh at what was going down. What else could I do, complain to the disputes committee?

Notwithstanding my longstanding differences and criticism of the SWP, I don't share the schadenfreude  some people are showing at its present difficulties. There are these decent, hard-working comrades in my area who have endured its twists and turns while not losing sight of socialist goals or duty to the wider workers' movement. I don't want to see them demoralised. And though we can all agree that a real socialist party needs genuine democracy, calls for democracy will not in themselves deliver the kind of party or unions that we really need.    


Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Leave Some History Standing!


 PALACE OF INDUSTRY, Wembley. And Britain's first ever commemorative stamps.

ONE of the places where I worked when I first came to London was a factory at the back of the Wembley stadium and the old Exhibition Grounds. Coming out of Wembley Park tube station on the way to work you could cross Empire Way and pass a variety of buildings which, including the famous Twin-Towered stadium, were remnants of the 1924-5 British Empire Exhibition. 

In front of the stadium were the remains of a Chinese-style bridge which had stood over an ornamental pond in a garden. I knew this because I'd been able to pick up a set of sepia postcards of the Exhibition from a second hand bookshop in Harlesden. 

Other parts of the exhibition had been built to last, and were in use.  Her Majesty's Stationery Office had a warehouse in one vast hall on Olympic Way, but across the road an even bigger and more imposing building was in use by GEC, who also had laboratories and a bigger factory at North Wembley, and a smaller place near Hanger Lane. I believe their place on the Exhibition grounds was the Palace of Industry. This was half a century ago. Later, during the post-Thatcher years of industrial decline it became a warehouse for imported rugs and carpets I believe. Then that too went.

You could recognise some of these buildings by the recurrent lion motif, and some country's pavilions had their name engraved in stone, but others were very distinctive in their architecture. I remember one charming little half-domed building near Wembley Hill, I think it was the Cyprus (or Malta) pavilion, and I was pleased to recognise it again from the top of a bus passing by, about ten years ago.  Behind it a young fox was crossing a patch of waste ground. Since then that ground has been built on, though with nothing as memorable as the pavilion 

Nowadays the former Exhibition Grounds estate is owned by a company called Quintains, Wembley stadium's highly visible arch has replaced the twin towers as its landmark, and Brent council's new civic centre is among the latest additions to the area. We've commented before on whether this multi-million pound development was what people wanted their money spent on, but we're stuck with it now, and the extras.

 Which brings us to a guest posting by Philip Grant of the Wembley History Society, in Martin Francis' Wembley Matters blog:  
Your recent item on Quintain’s planning application for a 1,350 space temporary car park near the new Civic Centre attracted my attention. When I looked at the details online, I found in the “small print” that it also involved demolishing the remaining part of the Palace of Industry, Wembley’s last remaining building from the 1924/25 British Empire Exhibition (“BEE”). As its “Listed Building” status was removed about ten years ago, this is no longer regarded as a “heritage asset” which requires special consent before it can be demolished, but I believe its external walls should be allowed to remain in place for a little longer.

My reason for this is that 2014 will see the 90th anniversary of the exhibition, for which the Palace of Industry was built as part of the world’s “First City of Concrete”. The BEE was one of the most important events in Wembley’s history, giving us the stadium and bringing millions of visitors to the area, which promoted its rapid suburban growth over the following ten years. One of the main aims of the exhibition was ‘... to enable all who owe allegiance to the British flag to meet on common ground and learn to know each other’, and on an international level the BEE was an important stepping stone on the path from the old Empire to the modern Commonwealth of independent nations. To discover more about the BEE, and many other local history subjects, visit the Brent Archives online Learning and Resources collection at LINK

Since 2010 I have been involved, as a volunteer, in discussions with Brent Museum and Archives about an exhibition and other events in 2014 to mark the BEE’s 90th anniversary. More recently the Arts team for the new Civic Centre (currently nearing completion at the southern end of the Palace of Industry site) have become involved, and although no final plans have yet been drawn up it is likely that these events will take place. It would be a great pity if these walls, which illustrate the scale and architecture of this great exhibition, were to be lost unnecessarily just before that anniversary, when they could be enjoyed by visitors to Wembley during the summer of 2014, probably for the final time.
Looking at the plans, it would not be necessary to demolish the remaining outside walls on the north and east sides of the Palace of Industry building to facilitate the access, lighting and all of the car parking spaces which Quintain are seeking. Only a small part of the outside walls at the north-west corner would need to be demolished, to allow access from Fulton Road. I have therefore written to Quintain and their planning agent, asking them to amend their plans so that these historic walls remain standing to their full height until they are ready to construct the proposed shopping centre which is planned for a later phase of the Wembley City redevelopment.

If you would like to add your support for the walls (not physically, as their ferro-concrete construction means that they can stand up by themselves!) please go to the Brent Planning website at: LINK  then use the "Comment on this Planning Application" link.  Alternatively, please send an email, quoting the reference number 12/3361, to David Glover, the Brent Case Officer dealing with the application, at: . Thank you.
You may think I am getting sentimental in my old age, but much as I've been happy to see the back of the British Empire, I would regret seeing the erasure of any trace of the British Empire Exhibition. It represented something in terms of wide world horizons, trade and the development of industry. Apparently the Palace of Industry even housed a working bread factory, showing off mass production and industrialised baking when it seemed the "greatest thing since sliced bread" was er...more sliced bread,

For young people growing up in Brent those ferro-concrete walls are a history lesson of an empire that seemed designed to last, and of the wealth their ancestors produced, whether here in London, in Britain, or the far corners of that empire. That's heritage.

Besides, the council planning documents I have seen speak optimistically of making Wembley a centre for cultural events and tourism. And I can't see tourist buses pulling up just so visitors can look at the car park.

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Friday, January 04, 2013

The Best of the East End


VIC TURNER - in triumph (above)"it was the trade union movement that got us out" . 
and retrospective . (below) at 2007 'Pentonville Five' commemoration, with Steve Hart of Unite, and chairman, Martin Gould of Southern and Eastern Region TUC.

THE year ended with sad news of the death of a real East Ender. Not one of  the less than lovable mockney losers and wide boys in a TV soap, but a man who starred in some real dramas, remained modest about his own role, and never changed from what he was, a champion of the working class.

Vic Turner was born in Custom House, an area of Newham which took its name from the custom house of the Royal Victoria Dock, in 1927. He was the youngest of five boys and two girls. His father William Turner was a docker, and so were his brothers, and that was where Vic went to work.

  He married Jean (nee Agass) in February 1951. She died in 1973.

From an industry where workers were expected to scrap for a day's work, the dockers fight for regular work and decent conditions and pay had produced a strong union tradition of sticking together with your mates and standing firm against the employer.

Vic was told to join the union the day he started work, and he went on to become a shop steward in the Royal Group, and eventually a leading figure in the national ports shop stewards committee. This brought together members of the Transport and General Workers Union ( like Vic Turner and the National Association of Stevadores and Dockers (NASD), the "blue " union (so called from the colour of its membership card). But Vic and Royal group colleague Jack Dash faced opposition from their own union at first, because though they had both been elected enthusiastically by the dockers, they came up against the TGWU's ban on Communists holding office. Fellow stewards refused to leave them out, and the union had to get rid of the ban.

 It was four years later however that the dockers' struggle propelled Vic Turner into headlines. Both Tories and Labour had tried to tame the unons with White Papers and legislation. But workers were in a fighting mood, and learning their strength in new ways, from the shipyard workers who occupied UCS to the miners and engineering workers who combined to close Saltley gates.

Vic Turner had helped raise support for the UCS workers and the miners. But the dockers now faced their own battle as employers used containerisation to take away dockers' jobs and undermine union strength, and wages and conditions.  The dockers picketed container depors. The employers used the new National Industrial Relations to get injunctions against picketing, and hired private detectives to spy on dockers meetings and pickets, so that individuals could be singled out for prosecution.

In July 1972 five shop stewards - Vic Turner, Bernie Steer, Tony Merrick, Derek Watkins and Connie Clancy - were arrested. Most were lifted in the Railway Tavern at Stratford, though hearing that he was "wanted", Vic Turner went and presentd himself for arrest. They were sent to Pentonville prison.

 While they sat in Pentonville, fellow trade unionists were not idle.  A demonstration was called outside the prison, and many workers left work to attend. Printers occupying their own plant in a separate dispute produced posters in support of the jailed dockers. Dockers who had come out on strike sent a deputation to Fleet Street to persuade trade unionists there to join them.  They won support there and at other places - there was talk that Heathrow airport might stop. There were strikes around the country, affecting docks, engineering factories and building sites.

  Meanwhile Jack Jones of the TGWU had gone to the TUC for support. The General Council issued a statement saying that unless the dockers were released, a one day general strike would be called. It was scheduled for Monday, 31 July.  But now something remarkable happened. A figure called the Official Solicitor appeared, applying to the Court of Appeal for the men to be released, on the grounds that the National Industrial Relations Court had no right to have them locked up, and the evidence from private detectives was insuffient.

On July 26, after less than a week's incarceration, the gates flew open, and the amazed five dockers walked free to a joyous reception.    

The dockers' struggle was not over. Vic Turner continued to play a part in it. With fellow stewards he argued that they were not against modernisation, quite the contrary, but it should not come at the expense of jobs and workers' rights.  They proposed incorporating technical changes, employing dockers, meeting environmental concerns by using river transport and using gains in available dockland space for ordinary Londoners.

Vic Turner had to take redundancy when the Royal Group of docks closed down. He started working for Newham council.He stood as a Labour councillor and was elected for Beamerside ward in 1984. In 1977 he became mayor of Newham.But he never let this honour take him away from ordinary working people, his fellow dockers, or the defence of union rights.

In 1998 Vic was elected president of the United Campaign for the Repeal of Anti-union Laws, a post in which he remained. It was the Labour government's retention of these restrictions, which the Tories now want to reinforce, that helped prevent solidarity with the Liverpool dockers, thus further sapping trade unionism in the docks, as well as later penalising airport workers who wanted to support the Gate Gourmet workers. Had the TGWU, and its successor Unite, not to mention the TUC and the other unions, not retreated from taking on these attacks, we would be in a far better position to fight back against what this government is doing.

Happily, the young workers taking part in the new wave of struggle such as threw back the big electrical employers last year seem not to have heard of the laws with which the bureaucrats excused their timidity, and treat the bosses and the authorities with the disrespect they deserve. This has even started to infect some of us old 'uns. And to give credit where due, Unite under new management seems to be going along with some change.   

 Vic Turner was always willing to talk to young trade unionists and took a keen interest in political developments. I heard him speak on the anniversary of the Penrtonville 5 battle in 2007, and again last July on the 40th anniversary, when he spoke alongside Tony Merrick and Derek Watkins at a rally on the Isle of Dogs. Already the recipient of the TGWU's gold medal Vic was presented with a silver "docker's tanner", which commemorates the famous 1889 strike - demanding 6d an hour - which established trade unionism on the London docks.

Among those who came to the event was Jimmy Nolan, leader of the Liverpool dockers fight. And besides assorted old codgers like myself there were some younger people, including a couple of guys who came along from the anti-Olympic demo that had been taking place that day, to discuss what can be done.. 

 Leaving it to others to reminisce about the events of 1972, Vic Turner spoke about what he had learned over the years, about working class tradition, and about passing it on, for the future. 
He said: "It's a fight we have to continue. It doesn't depend on any individuals - it's about all of us."

Vic Turner's funeral is on the 18th January at 2.45 at the City of London crematorium.

Some sources, and tributes from Roger Sutton, of Greater London Association of Trades Union Councils, who organised the 40th anniversary event, and Bob Crow of the RMT

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