The most unforgettable person I’ve ever met in my life

Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time by Ian Birchall (Bookmarks, £16.99)

Well, hello again. (Waves uncertainly at passing tumbleweed.) Yes, I know, the real world has been keeping me away from online tomfoolery, but I’m not going to pass up the chance to reflect a little (or, more likely, at infinitely tedious length) on the book of the year. If you neither know nor care who Tony Cliff was, feel free to skip this, because much of it will be incomprehensible.

Moreover, I suppose there’s a question of why anyone outside of the organisation founded by Cliff should be remotely interested in his life story. Most political biographies, after all, are about politicians who’ve actually done something quantifiable in the real world. A man who spent sixty-plus years beavering away in the world of hard-left sects – and quite a lot of that time spent on writing about the sociology of the USSR, rather than practical activity – might not seem terribly promising material. All I can tell you, and I hope this will come through, is that Cliff was important to me. I could make an argument that Mike Kidron, or particularly Chris Harman, informed me more in the sphere of ideas, but they made their bricks from Cliff’s straw, and the personality of Cliff was such that he couldn’t fail to make an impact on anyone who crossed his path. You could say that I went to Cliff’s kheyder, and I’m grateful to him for what I learned there, even those things I no longer agree with. He was a unique figure – capable of being genuinely inspiring one moment, and an incredible pain in the hole the next – whose like we shall not see again.

There’s been a gap I’ve felt for quite a while that Ian Birchall’s lovingly crafted biography goes to fill. I was terribly disappointed by Cliff’s posthumously published autobiography, A World to Win. Granted that the old fellow was seriously ill at the time and was writing from memory rather than a researched work: all the same, I was unimpressed by Cliff’s assertion of his own unfailing correctness, even when he was patently wrong; even less impressed by his serial failure to give credit to the contributions of anyone other than himself; and worst of all, it didn’t really capture what Cliff was like. Maybe it would have been better had Bookmarks released it as an audiobook.

But that was one thing about Cliff that was always striking. Ian remarks towards the end of the book that those who know Cliff from his writings only half know him. This is true. Not even Cliff’s admirers would claim him to have been a great literary stylist. Credit must go to his indefatigable wife, Chanie Rosenberg, who long had the thankless task of not only doing the typing but of turning Cliff’s manuscripts (often in an idiosyncratic mixture of bad English and Hebrew) into something resembling idiomatic English. No, there was none of the literary panache of LD Trotsky or Isaac Deutscher to be found here; there was functional prose which served the purpose of getting Cliff’s ideas across, and such appeal as it had was down to the strength of the ideas.

I read Cliff’s book on state capitalism (in a battered old second-hand copy) some considerable time before I ever saw him in person. It was a hell of a shock. Though the writing didn’t suggest an image of the author, the pseudonym “Tony Cliff” did call to mind a suave 1950s crooner of the Dean Martin or Andy Williams variety. Had I known to expect Ygael Gluckstein from Zikhron Yaakov, the shock would have been much less. The great man turned out to be short, elderly, bespectacled, with a hairstyle best described as mad scientist chic, and – let’s not put too fine a point on this – dressed like a tramp. When he spoke, it was in a very strong Russian-Hebrew accent that took a minute to get your ears around. He was a grumpy bastard, incapable of normal social pleasantries, but when he got up to speak…

…the Cliff meeting, of course, was a performance. Offstage, Cliff was extremely reserved, and perhaps the willpower needed to perform gave his speaking its force.[1] The arm-waving, the wisecracking, the obligatory reference to Eric Hobsbawm’s latest pronouncement as a lot of bloody rrrubbish, these were the easily satirised visible elements. On a more basic level, he was trying to explain often quite complicated ideas in accessible language – so the humour, the performance aspects, were the spoonful of sugar. On more than one occasion I sat through a 45-minute talk on the theory of the Permanent Arms Economy[2] and actually enjoyed it. That’s how good Cliff was when he was on good form.

Even Cliff’s dodgy grasp of the language could be turned to good effect. His idiosyncratic approach to English syntax and his mixed metaphors added a lot to the humour. Then there were the characteristic mispronunciations, as seen in Ian’s account of a meeting on racism where Cliff informed a bemused audience that in the 1930s the working class had been prejudiced against the yetis. (Disappointingly, it turned out that he meant the Eyeties; thus, Italian immigrant workers rather than abominable snowmen.) All that went towards getting an audience chuckling, and there’s no better way to lighten up what threatens to be a boring topic.

One thing that was immediately apparent about Cliff, lifelong atheist and anti-Zionist though he was, was how profoundly Jewish he was. You got this from the very cadences of his speech. There was a broad streak of the Borscht Belt comedian in there (if I heard the joke about the rabbi and the goat once, I heard it a dozen times); one could also, if one closed one’s eyes, imagine Cliff bearded and wearing a shtrayml, in the role of a Hasidic rebbe expounding his mystical interpretation of the Toyre to his fanatical band of followers. But it’s a broader cultural thing. If I say Cliff was a Talmudist, I don’t mean that as an insult. You all know, of course, that the Talmud is a codification of halokhe, of Jewish religious law, but that’s far from all it is. The Talmud is also five thousand or so pages of rabbinic sages scoring off each other using not only halokhic erudition, but also puns, insults, bad jokes, gossip and anecdotes of dubious relevance. Sound familiar? Put Cliff two millennia in the past and have him speaking Aramaic, and he’d have fit right in.

One thing that’s long intrigued me was the detail of Cliff’s youth in the old Mandate of Palestine – Cliff himself rarely said much about it, though he wrote a little in A World to Win. Gaps still remain, not least because most of the people who might remember are now dead, but immense credit goes to Ian Birchall for giving us a sense of what Cliff’s background was like. I’ll get onto the politics at a later stage, but there are suggestive hints about Cliff’s formative influences, and in particular his parents. From his mother, Esther, he seems to have got his intellectual curiosity and occasionally frail health. But his father, Akiva Gluckstein, seems to have been a most appealing character:

Gluckstein was a handsome, jovial man, greatly liked by those who knew him. He was a born actor; he loved to tell jokes, and though he constantly told the same stories, he always varied them. In later life he joined a Yiddish theatre company and travelled around the country with it. He retained his curiosity and zest for life into old age.

Well, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

What else comes to mind? Cliff’s legendary single-mindedness, which had a couple of aspects to it. Some of us used to jokingly call Chris Harman the Renaissance Man, which was a bit scurrilous but also paid tribute to the breadth of his interests, the way no aspect of human life was safe from Chris trying to analyse it. Cliff didn’t really have any interests outside of the organisation, and even then he would have a very narrow focus on the issue in hand. Sometimes that would stand you in good stead; sometimes it would tip over into a lack of perspective. And it could also feed his impatience with those who didn’t see the needs of the moment as clearly as he felt he did. Cliff could deploy a formidable amount of charm when he had to, but if he felt he needed to read you the reproof, you wouldn’t soon forget it:

In John Molyneux’s words an argument with him could be like a “benign hurricane”. On one occasion Cliff was having a heated argument with Molyneux when Molyneux’s four-year-old son intervened: “Don’t argue, Dad; can’t you see he’s just a little old man?”

Some people who in their time had been subjected to an eight-hour Cliff harangue may want to quibble with John about the “benign” bit, but not with the “hurricane”. Cliff himself used to have a good joke about this single-mindedness, which was that of his four children only one, his younger son Danny, had inherited his fanatical temperament. The punchline was that Danny was the only one of the kids never to join the SWP; his fanaticism was directed into his music. Moreover, Cliff himself had zero interest in music, though he was always very encouraging towards Danny.

I realise I’m in danger here of simply repeating favourite Cliff anecdotes, but there is a purpose. Cliff’s organisation can’t be understood separately from Cliff the man; organisations have their own cultures and personalities, and small organisations with a dominant founder tend to reflect the founder’s personality. The late Jim Higgins quipped that Gerry Healy’s group had been paranoid and thuggish, Ted Grant’s group had been stultifying boring, and Cliff’s group had been hyperactive and overexcitable – and that this was not an accident. This is to simplify matters somewhat, but it’s not untrue.

On the other hand, to cast the modern SWP as a triumph of Cliff’s will just won’t do. Cliff could have been as brilliant as anything, and it would have meant naught had he not had people around him. This is where the great strength of Ian’s book lies, in the hundred-plus interviews, what saves it from being a simple story of Cliff writing this and then doing that and then speaking on something else, which would be of little interest to anyone other than historians of Trotskyism. This is where we get to hear the voices of those whose paths crossed Cliff’s, who give their impressions of him and his impact on them. And while we see some very pertinent points made about his failings, it’s also apparent how much warmth and loyalty he was capable of inspiring.

The quotes are where it comes alive, whether it’s from a miner telling you about hearing Cliff speak in the 1984-5 strike, or from Alex Callinicos being remarkably candid about old arguments on the Central Committee (and filling in the detail on a couple of things I only half-knew), or from Cliff’s family, to whom he was ferociously devoted, telling us what he meant to them. A particular favourite is from Anna Gluckstein, on being asked in primary school what her dad did for a living. Unwilling to say he was a professional revolutionary, she replied that he was a writer who wrote children’s books about a wizard called Lenin. For some reason, this pleases me immensely.

And with that, I’ll sign off, though with the confirmed intention (I know, I know) of coming back to ruminate on this some more. But, just as a taster of the old fellow’s style, here’s a Cliff meeting on a wizard called Lenin. The animation captures the spirit quite well, I think.

[1] This may also have been true of Chris Harman, though not to the same extent.

[2] If you don’t know what the Permanent Arms Economy was, don’t worry. Life’s too short.

The Hitch talks about his book

It’s the good Hitchens brother, as my old mucker Peter talks about his spanking new book, The Rage Against God. I’m halfway through it at the moment, very enjoyable it is too, and there will be a review to follow. Anyway, give this a watch. Peter’s engaging as ever here, and gives a few fascinating insights into his background and thinking. Very nice pictures of the author as a young boy, alongside the future drink-soaked popinjay.

Stranger than fiction

Here’s a vignette from our local scandal that you may have missed. Well, I laughed:

A best selling crime writer has appealed for people to stop emailing him about the Northern Ireland Robinson scandal.

Last week it emerged that Iris Robinson, the wife of First Minister Peter Robinson, and an MP herself, had cheated on him and tried to take her own life.

She also obtained £50,000 from two developers so her lover could set himself up in business, which she failed to declare to a parliamentary authorities.

There has been phenomenal interest in the story, which Yorkshire author Peter Robinson has found himself distantly connected to.

More used to writing about the adventures of Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks on the streets of the fictional town of Eastvale, Mr Robinson has been sent condolences about his wife’s behaviour.

And I’m sure the bestselling crime author appreciates the sentiment?

Writing on his website Mr Robinson, the pen behind the Inspector Banks novels, thanked people for the offers of sympathy, before stating the obvious.

“I must stress that I AM NOT Peter Robinson the politician, Northern Ireland’s First Minister,” he wrote.

“I would have thought would be the first clue, as would even the most cursory glance at the site, but I guess people who send rude and insulting emails or push religion at the vulnerable were not, alas, at the front of the queue when the brains were handed out.

“Please, cease and desist!”

One can empathise with his position. Indeed, it’s an occupational hazard for the Norn Iron fan of crime fiction to carry around a Peter Robinson novel, because you have to keep explaining that, no, the first minister hasn’t developed another string to his bow. Even people you might have expected to know the Inspector Banks stories get confused:

Mr Robinson is not a stranger to Northern Ireland and has appeared at the Belfast crime bookshop No Alibis.

Owner David Torrans said that there had been confusion among some clientele when he visited then.

“He was here 18 months ago and he is the only crime author we have had to include a photograph of on the flyer.

“People were phoning to ask if Big Ian (Reverend Ian Paisley) was appearing as well.”

It doesn’t help, either, when your books have titles like this:

Anyway, it’s a common name. I wonder if this guy is getting any similar mileage out of it.

The fall of the House of Paisley


“I have a sentimental weakness for my children, and I spoil them as you can see; they talk when they should listen.”
Don Corleone in The Godfather

At the moment, you can’t see the big hole in Cromac Square where the road has collapsed. The Roads Service have it cordoned off until it can be repaired. But this flags up an uncomfortable truth for us. There’s a sort of historical myth that the industrial development of Belfast was down to the natural harbour. Fact is, even though the city lies at the head of the lough and it became a busy port, there was no natural harbour – the city was built on reclaimed land. So an awful lot of those impressive-looking big buildings in the city centre are resting on wooden frames which in turn are resting on silt, and are sinking infinitesimally year on year. What the Cromac Square event shows us is how quickly something that looks permanent can be hit by subsidence.

Which brings me nicely to the book of the moment, David Gordon’s The Fall of the House of Paisley. Readers of the Belfast Telegraph will of course be familiar with David as the investigative reporter who is a dab hand with the old Freedom of Information request. He had more than a walk-on part in the downfall of the Paisley dynasty, so it’s only fitting that he’s providing the narrative here. And quite a narrative it is.

What we don’t have here is a replication of what’s already been done. The extensive biographical background in Ed Moloney’s Paisley: From Demagogue to Democrat is not rehashed. Nor is the in-depth theological deconstruction in Dennis Cooke’s wonderful Persecuting Zeal, still for my money the toughest critique of Big Ian because it hits him where it’s most important. What we do have is a most entertaining run through the events that shook the House of Paisley over the last three years or so. This takes us from Papa Doc’s coronation as First Minister in 2007 to his abrupt resignation as DUP leader and Executive head a year later, not to mention his enforced departure as boss of the Free Presbyterian Church, the fundamentalist denomination he had founded all the way back in 1951 and been permanent moderator of for as long as anyone could remember.

What happened, then? There were several interlocking features, including unrest in the DUP’s voter base (although the party itself remained remarkably disciplined), unrest in the Church, the eagerness of Peter Robinson after thirty long years as deputy leader to ease the octogenarian leader into retirement – and, running through this like lettering through a stick of rock, the Junior Problem. The rebellion of the base against a man they had for decades regarded quite literally as God’s anointed leader would be a story worth telling in itself, but the antics of Ian Jnr add just that note of low farce that your humble scribe enjoys.

There are a number of things we don’t know for sure. We don’t know exactly why Paisley did the deal with the Provos in the first place; and we don’t know the exact process of his resignation. The DUP maintains a strict omertà when it comes to such issues, so the best we have to go on is informed speculation. Several things are clear, however. The groundwork for the deal can be seen in the DUP’s decision in 1998 not to go into opposition in the Assembly, but to nominate semi-detached ministers who would run their departments but not attend Executive meetings. Some while later, it became clear that the Robinson faction wanted to cut a deal – Jim Allister, not an unbiased witness admittedly, dates this no later than 2000. There was a transparent strategy of first destroying the Official Unionists and then, once the DUP was in the driving seat, cutting a deal that was more amenable to the DUP’s concerns.

So much we can say with confidence. It was also the case that, if the DUP could be brought on board, it could be a much more reliable coalition partner than the OUP, simply because David Trimble always had around half of his anarchic party openly scheming against him. The DUP’s fierce internal discipline – including making candidates sign undated resignation letters in case they went off message – was a whole different kettle of fish. But to make it work, you needed Paisley, and his unique personal authority. A Robinson-led DUP would have suffered a much bigger schism; as it was, the loss of only Jim Allister and a dozen or so councillors must have looked very manageable at the outset.

So the trick was to get Paisley to sign up. Since it’s unlikely the man himself will ever provide a cogent account, we aren’t sure why Dr No suddenly became Dr Yes, and a number of interviewees proffer their own theories. One theme is the serious illness, its nature still a closely guarded secret, that Paisley suffered in 2004. It is suggested that, realising his own mortality, he wanted to bow out on a positive note, having built something up rather than tearing it down. Others point to his not inconsiderable ego, which Tony Blair took great care to flatter. Certainly, the idea of being prime minister appealed mightily to him. It’s also interesting that Robinson became very nervous of letting Paisley negotiate one-on-one with Blair, such was his tendency to go off script. It’s likely to be quite a while before we know the details.

What isn’t in dispute is that the DUP didn’t prepare its base for a deal, which was a key difference between it and PSF. The Provo base is willing to buy whatever Gerry is selling, but he still has to make the sale. The DUP, as Robinson has subsequently acknowledged, didn’t make the sale. They came out of the St Andrews talks sounding very non-commital about a deal; they went into the 2007 Stormont election still sounding non-commital. Even when they struck the deal, they promised a battle a day in the Executive. And what did the DUP base get? They got the Chuckle Brothers.

Personal chemistry is an odd thing. Although Paisley has a justified name as a fierce polemicist, in person he’s often absolutely charming. Up in North Antrim, stories of his personal warmth and kindness abound, including from people who consider him a totally destructive force politically. Martin McGuinness is also a very likeable and gregarious chap. Compared to the previous Stormont double act of the congenitally spiky David Trimble and the rather grumpy Séamus Mallon, maybe it wasn’t that surprising that the odd couple would hit it off on a personal level. But it still looked really weird in political terms. Nor did it make any sense at all to the DUP base. They had been told that their party was entering government purely to ward off the threat of joint sovereignty, and they were going to get their battle a day. They surely didn’t expect their leader to actually enjoy sharing power with the enemies of Ulster.

Initially, however, Papa Doc faced more trouble in his church than in his party, which is itself instructive. The thing to remember is that, though Paisley is by far the most prominent churchman in the north, and it was largely his polemics that forced the largest Protestant denomination, the Irish Presbyterian Church, into its current passive and pietist stance, the FPC has never really broken out of the fringes. It currently has around 12,000 members in the north, which is about as big as it’s ever been. And yet, the FPC has an importance in that many of the core DUP cadre are church members (though by no means all – Peter Robinson and Sammy Wilson are Elim Pentecostalists, while more recent defectors from the OUP mostly belong to mainstream denominations). For people with this overlapping membership, Paisley was therefore both their political and spiritual leader. Outside of Iran, and possibly the haredi parties in Israel, this is a unique position.

But if heading the government was difficult to square for the leader of a historically rejectionist party, it was multiply so for someone who remained the head of a small, fundamentalist, highly ascetic denomination. The disconnect between the DUP’s mass support base and the Wee Free cadre – more stark in Belfast than amongst the country ‘n’ western element – was already apparent before entry into government, and massively increased after it. This may not be apparent to people who are unfamiliar with the Wee Free mindset. For instance, one of the first internal controversies was around the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure funding Belfast’s Gay Pride parade. DCAL minister Edwin Poots, a DUP member and Free Presbyterian, made a pragmatic argument that the previous Direct Rule minister had approved the funding, and there was no point in him dragging the department into a court case he couldn’t possibly win. This cut little ice.

But when this sort of thing touched the leader, it was far more powerful. Shortly after the Poots affair, it became known that the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister was funding LGBT groups to the tune of £180,000. Paisley could have made the Poots argument; he could also have said that stopping the funding would have required the agreement of his co-premier Martin McGuinness; instead he chose to blow smoke around the issue. This cut even less ice with the Wee Frees, for many of whom Paisley disbursing public money to the sodomites was much more hurtful than him going into government with unrepentant gunmen. Tears were shed and voices raised on the issue. And even the feelgood announcements the OFMDFM loved got the big man into trouble with his flock. So he might open the swanky Victoria Square shopping centre, a complex that trades on the Sabbath and contains outlets selling alcohol. So he might announce an initiative for young musicians, lightly sidestepping his years of condemning rock music as evil, and compound the offence by giving the musicians money from the sinful National Lottery. And then there was the Stormont book launch he hosted for Dana, where he was incautious enough to praise the singer turned politician’s strong faith – that is to say, her Catholic faith.

These are attitudes that seem quaint to the Belfast media class, and are probably shocking to British readers. But a Free Presbyterian in somewhere like Ballymoney would think very differently. These are the attitudes of the traditional Paisleyite movement, and the leader could do himself no good by stepping outside them. His former close friend and chief ecclesiastical critic, the redoubtable Rev Ivan Foster, harried him relentlessly along these lines, going so far as to denounce Paisley from the pulpit. So it was that Paisley found his church divided, and had to agree to step down rather than face an open schism and possible defeat.

The old man’s troubles were compounded no end by Baby Doc. There is no doubt that Wee Ian is the apple of his father’s eye, and the elderly leader, now suffering senior moments in the Assembly, came to rely on having his son by his side as OFMDFM junior minister. But Junior has never been very popular in the DUP – you hear him being openly described in such terms as “brash” or “charmless” or “buck eejit”. Apropos of Simon Mann being released from Equatorial Guinea, I was having a bit of a reread of Adam Roberts’ The Wonga Coup, in which Roberts wonderfully describes Mark Thatcher, another living example of the law of diminishing returns, as attracting trouble like a man wielding a golf club in a thunderstorm. Ian Jnr is very much like that.

A lot of the trouble centred around the north’s only World Heritage Site, the Giant’s Causeway, which falls within the North Antrim constituency represented by the Paisleys. Scientists reckon the polygonal basalt columns, famous from the sleeve of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, were formed by volcanic activity some 60 million years ago. Many DUP members reckon they were formed 5000 years ago as a result of Noah’s Flood. But that’s as may be. The salient point is that this is where property developer Seymour Sweeney comes in.

Seymour had a plan to build a visitors’ centre, and preferably other facilities too, at the Causeway. He has spent years, and lots of money, acquiring land in the area. This was opposed by Moyle District Council and the National Trust, who were agitating for a public-sector facility. It was also opposed by officials in the Planning Service. The Causeway’s World Heritage Site status also brought in the DCMS in London and UNESCO, neither of which were dying about Seymour’s big idea. But this did not fly with the Developers’ Unionist Party, and environment minister Arlene Foster announced that she was “minded” to overrule her officials and give Seymour the concession. Then Stephen Nolan, having been in receipt of a tip-off, asked Baby Doc on the radio whether he knew Seymour. “I know of him,” said Junior, which was a typically smartass Junior answer. And then all hell broke loose.

The resultant storm was mainly to the credit of a fairly small number of journalists, notably David Gordon, who asked the right questions, made the FOI requests and went where the evidence took them. There was also input from a few public representatives in the North Antrim area – from Declan O’Loan, from Daithí McKay and, perhaps most deadly, from Jim Allister, who doesn’t play fair and knows an Achilles’ heel when he sees one. It transpired that Seymour was a DUP member, that he knew both Paisleys well enough to have been lobster fishing with Junior, and that Junior had something of a history of energetic lobbying for Seymour.

This went well beyond the Causeway, incidentally. It included a housing development just fornenst the Causeway, where both Junior and his in-laws subsequently bought holiday cottages. It included a lucrative land deal outside Ballymena. All the Sweeney-related material is in the book. Nobody is suggesting actual corruption, of course – it’s just that the extent of Junior’s lobbying began to make him look like Seymour’s personal shopper, and created a serious perception of cronyism.

And it just got worse. It transpired that, at the St Andrews negotiations, Junior had approached NIO ministers with a shopping list of constituency projects, a couple of them Sweeney-related, that he wanted facilitated. Senior DUP figures were openly scathing about a member of the negotiating team seeking private side deals on things like funding for the North West 200. Then it came out that, although he was an Assembly member and devolved minister, he was also receiving public money to the tune of ten grand a year as a parliamentary researcher for daddy.

What turned the tide was the council by-election in Dromore. This was an area that should have been a walkover for the DUP – indeed, they should have taken it on the first count – and the party put a lot of effort in. Local MP Jeffrey Donaldson was in charge of the campaign, and the DUP relished the opportunity to humiliate the newly-formed Traditional Unionist Voice. But they didn’t. Around a third of the DUP vote switched to the TUV, and the majority of TUV transfers went to the OUP, who won the seat. The transfers were especially ominous, demonstrating that lots of voters wanted badly to poke the DUP in the eye. This was just recently repeated in the Euro-election.

Moreover, the DUP didn’t get – and still don’t – how to deal with the TUV. This is the result of Paisley’s traditional strategy of making certain he couldn’t ever be outflanked on the right. The first rule of unionism is not to give anyone the opportunity to call you a Lundy. When Jim Allister got up and said, in effect, “Big Ian, you’re a Lundy”, the DUP didn’t have a clue how to respond.

It was a stroke of bad luck that Dromore coincided with a row over MLAs’ constituency office expenses, which have been basically unregulated. Billy Armstrong (OUP, Mid Ulster) built a prefab office on his farm at taxpayers’ expense, and only afterwards got round to applying for planning permission. Michelle O’Neill (PSF, Mid Ulster) managed to claim £18,000 for an office in the tiny South Derry village of Gulladuff. That was the second most expensive office. The most expensive cost three times as much, and was an enormous party office in Ballymena, occupied jointly by Rev Ian Paisley and Ian Paisley Jnr. What added spice to this was that the building was purchased by a holding company in which one Seymour Sweeney acted as guarantor.

And so, with the constant stream of embarrassing stories about Junior, he was forced to walk the plank, though still insisting – with daddy’s support – that he had done nothing wrong and this was all a conspiracy got up against Big Ian. What is unarguable, however, is that Junior’s departure from government left the old man seriously exposed, and this helped the Robinson camarilla bounce him into retirement.

It’s a good story well told, and David ends up with some sober reflections on what passes for government under the New Dispensation. The half-baked economic strategy, based on the Brits forking out endless subventions and lots of US investment, looks a lot less convincing given the global economic crisis. Education is still bogged down in the 11-plus debate, with Caitríona Ruane attempting to apply bright ideas from the Queens education department while unionist MLAs, with the sole exception of Dawn Purvis, are so in thrall to the grammar school lobby that they don’t seem to register the massive educational underachievement in the Protestant working class. And then there was Sammy Wilson, the environment minister who didn’t believe in global warming. (Sammy has since been promoted to finance. His replacement at environment is Edwin Poots, who does believe in global warming but doesn’t believe in evolution.) Not to mention the DUP-run culture department, which takes up less than 1% of the Executive budget but around 75% of hot air in the Assembly.

However, the current Stormont system, though prone to sectarian friction, is more or less stable for the medium term. David goes into some detail about how the funding system helps incumbents, and about the unlikelihood of new players breaking the mould. (He is sceptical about the Tory-Unionist UCUNF boondoggle, and rightly so in my opinion.) In the last analysis, he reckons, the system is likely to hold because nobody involved has anywhere else to go. What was the big difference between Sunningdale and the GFA and St Andrews? Different players, same basic deal. Very few people are actually nostalgic for the Troubles – whether the peace process can provide worthwhile government is a whole different question.

Some preliminary thoughts on The Lost Revolution, and a bit of a rant on historiography


Getting back to the grindstone – it’s been work, not laziness, that accounts for a little sparsity in these parts of late – it’s past time to take a look at the year’s publishing sensation. No, not Amanda Brunker’s Champagne Babes, which I haven’t got round to looking at yet, but The Lost Revolution, which just about everyone on the Irish left seems to either have read or be reading. (And if they aren’t, they should.) And this is as it should be, because its story – that of the Official IRA, the Workers Party and their associated groups – is an important one, dealing with a movement that used to be very big and had a serious impact on Irish politics, and dealing with it in a wealth of detail that hadn’t previously been available.

I admit to having enjoyed it immensely, and would go so far as to use the Belfast colloquialism, stickin’ out. It’s a breeze block of a book, with a good 600 pages of text, and obviously quite a lot that still was abbreviated, and yet it’s a compulsive page turner. I finished reading my copy maybe nine or ten days ago, and yet still keep flicking through it, revisiting episodes and making notes. There is a fair old bit in there that I didn’t know. There is a lot that I used to know but had either forgotten or remembered wrongly. There’s that weird feeling you get when reading a history book that’s dealing with quite familiar figures. And the engaging narrative style is not just a bonus but a part of the whole.

It’s been said, including by the authors themselves, that this is not an analytical work but a narrative. I don’t have a problem with that, in general. I do like polemics (hence my fondness for the written works of Caoimhín Ó Beoláin), but a polemical approach would maybe have curtailed the authors’ access, and more importantly, the straight narrative does have a valuable place in historical writing. It does mean there are some odd disjunctures, when a leading figure says something and then a few years later says something exactly opposite. But even assuming the authors could have agreed on an analytical approach, it would be difficult to fit a close study of the movement’s ideological development in the narrative. (I’m currently having a reread of Seán Swan’s book, which is more bounded in time, more focused on the ideology, and geared more towards the enthusiast than the general reader. It works reasonably well as a complement.) What I think The Lost Revolution does achieve is to establish itself as a primary source, not unlike what The Secret Army did for the pre-1969 IRA, and some more interpretive approaches in the future will doubtless have to take it into account.

There is something else that is very important in terms of the book, and that is the extraordinary number of interviews that the authors have carried out to supplement the documentary record. It’s what lends the book a lot of its flavour, as Richard English was saying at the Belfast launch. It’s in the quotes from the interviews that you get a sense of the movement through the eyes of the people who were in it, their experiences, memories and impressions. You also come to form quite a vivid picture of the leading individuals. So you have Goulding, a character who, had he not existed, his friend Brendan Behan would have had to invent him – there’s certainly a sense of what an attractive figure Goulding was, as well as what a pain in the ass he could occasionally be. You have Mac Giolla as the cautious conciliator, always anxious to avoid unnecessary division, yet resolute once he had picked his side. You have Costello the dynamic, sometimes arrogant hotshot – he almost swaggers off the page – impatient with those who hadn’t caught up with his latest brainstorm, and with a fatal tendency to choose drastic action as the first resort. And there’s the enigmatic figure of Garland, who may have liked to be the self-effacing behind-the-scenes operator, but whose presence makes itself felt even when he isn’t there.

The characters come to life, and so do the settings. Mary McMahon’s sometimes caustic recollections of the Sticks in West Belfast ring absolutely true. To take it somewhere else, I’ve never had the pleasure of sitting through a Des O’Hagan lecture on dialectical materialism, but I’ve been in closely analogous situations and can well imagine what it was like.

There is in all this some danger of getting too close to your subject, but that’s a danger I can live with. We’ve had lots of books on the Provos that treat the Officials as a more or less interesting footnote, and it’s a movement that has really demanded to be considered as a thing in itself. What is more, you need to bring out the subjective factor. I hope readers will excuse me here as I go off on a bit of a ramble about a couple of historiographical bugbears, which you find in republican writing with its well-defined hagiographies and demonologies, but also in a modulated form in leftist writing. This will take us quite some way from the subject matter, so bear with me.

The first issue can perhaps be dealt with by starting with Leo Strauss’s distinction between a historical account and a historicist account. Strauss was specifically talking about his specialised area of classical philosophy, and how modern understanding of classical philosophy tended to be filtered through a Christian understanding of, say, Plato, rather than how Plato would have understood his own work. It’s debatable whether a pure historical account can ever be achieved, but you get the point. And Marxist writing has a particularly bad case of this, often dressed up as historical materialism, which dismisses the subjective aspect of history in favour of some modern-day schema.

I’m not just talking about anachronisms like interpreting the English or French Revolutions in terms of the Russian Revolution. (Trotsky using the categories of Thermidor and Bonapartism to try and analyse Stalinism was one thing; retrospectively interpreting Robespierre and Bonaparte as Lenin and Stalin avant la lettre is something else entirely.) There’s also the idea that if we have a convenient category – bourgeois/proletarian or reformist/revolutionary – then we can bypass the subjective factor. If you say that Cromwell led a bourgeois revolution, that tells you something in a general sociological sense, but if you want to understand Cromwell’s actions in any detail, you have to go into the very un-Leninist territory of the Puritan religion that was central to his thinking, and the conflict between duty to God and duty to King. Likewise, while the Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène may be a little self-serving, it’s easy enough to determine what Robespierre or Bonaparte thought they were trying to do, rather than looking at them through the prism of events in Russia 120 years later.

I don’t mean that the subjective obliterates the objective, just that the two need to be taken in tandem, and unintended consequences also need to be factored in. You might look, for instance, at Jonathan Neale’s little book on the Vietnam War, which more or less explicitly says the NLF was fighting to build state capitalism. No it wasn’t. If you adhere to the Cliff theory of Stalinism you can say that state capitalism was what issued, but as far as the NLF was concerned it was fighting for national independence and socialism. Its actions can’t be explained otherwise, and if it didn’t achieve its highest ideals, that’s where unintended consequences come into play. And this is quite important in terms of Official Republicanism, because it used to be a byword that, while the Provos were relatively easy to figure out – any change that Gerry wanted to make would be signposted well in advance – you never knew what the Sticks would come out with next. Actually, much that at first glance seemed unbelievable, bizarre or unprecedented would be perfectly explicable in terms of the WP’s own discourse. This, of all movements, needs to be looked at in its own terms, if we can discard the idea that by sticking on a label of “reformist” or “Stalinist” we have thereby explained the movement.

My other point – and I know this is getting a bit prolix already – is about hindsight, and a sort of telescoped causality. You get a lot of this in writing about the Provos, which often assumes Gerry to be a superhuman genius or a uniquely malevolent figure (sometimes both) who is doing exactly what he wanted to do and moreover had everything planned out well in advance. My favourite example is Billy McKee’s argument that he’d always thought Adams to be basically a Stick. I’m not accusing Billy of being dishonest about his opinion, and I don’t want to dismiss it on the basis of his personal relations with Adams, which varied between the prickly and the poisonous. We can take his dislike and distrust towards Gerry as read, but there is actually a case that could be made along those lines. You could note that the young Adams was an enthusiast for the civil rights strategy, and was close to those in the Belfast leadership who went with the Officials in the split, being a particular protégé of Liam McMillen and Jim Sullivan. You could note Billy’s opposition to this strategy from a traditionalist republican standpoint, which is in continuity with his later opposition to Adams’ innovations within the Provos, which to a traditionalist would make Gerry look rather like a Stick on time delay. You could also note (as Sullivan pointed out in 1986) that Adams had attended the 1970 Ard Fheis, where he neither spoke nor walked out, and that his unit in Ballymurphy had been the last in Belfast to side with the Provos in the split. Those things are known, and to a particular way of thinking will indicate something of particular significance.

However, I don’t think this argument holds water, at least in those stark terms. For one thing, the thesis that Gerry was a Stick all along involves believing that he spent about 25 years pretending to be a Provo. Occam’s Razor would err on the side of him actually having been a Provo, but having ended up somewhere he didn’t anticipate. Besides, I’ve never believed that Gerry has spent twenty years or more assiduously working towards something like the present New Dispensation at Stormont. It makes more sense of the peace process if we assume Gerry to have spent much of his time navigating without a map or compass, in circumstances largely (though not entirely) beyond his control, chancing his arm in negotiations, and not always being fully conscious of what he was doing. Aspects of his character or preconceptions, which may have been apparent at earlier stages, will have informed whatever decisions he’s made, but beyond that I’m reluctant to go. It’s like taking de Rossa’s actions in 1992 and reading them back into something he said in 1982 or 1972. For that matter, although the de Rossa of today might try and say that he has always followed a consistent line (this of course is a normal human trait), I don’t think the de Rossa of 1992 was secretly aiming to move towards the positions he holds in 2009. It’s bad causality.

So, to take us (finally!) back to the matter at hand, you have to have the subjective aspect, and the contemporaneous aspect. You have to look at the Officials in terms of what they thought they were doing when they were doing it. You have to take into account the pressures they were under, internal and external. You have to take into account the tendency of radical movements to take positions based on considerations of tactics or expediency, then harden them into ideological stances, painting themselves into corners. Often people do the wrong thing for the right reasons, and only later does it become clear it was the wrong thing. Such are the confusions of real movements. Context, context and always context.

Well, that was just a bit of an extended rant about historical writing. Let me reiterate, I found the book most enjoyable and I think it’s mostly avoided the pitfalls I’ve been griping about. I’ll be returning to the book at length in the next wee while, looking at various themes that have leapt out at me. In the meantime, there are further considerations here, here and here.

Belfast launch for The Lost Revolution


Last night, I did something that in years past I would have thought twice about, maybe three times, then thought better of. I went into an enclosed space with a lot of Sticks.

The occasion for this was the Belfast launch for The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers Party by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar. Many readers will already be beating their way through their copies, and having nearly finished the book, I can well recommend it. I’ll get back to the book and the questions it raises at greater length, but just a few comments on the launch itself.

A good wee crowd in Queens Bookshop for it, and many copies being shifted. A lot of familiar faces, some of whom I couldn’t put names to, some that I hadn’t seen in years and who were looking noticeably greyer. It was the sort of event where you nod at someone in passing and then you think “Jesus! That was X! I wondered what had happened to him!” What was encouraging to me was the diversity – lots of people were either members or former members of the WP, but there were people there with backgrounds in just about all the republican groups, some of which would have clashed violently with the Officials in years gone by. And a rather hale Brian Feeney, who used to be one of the WP’s most rambunctious critics, caught my eye.

There was an element, then, of an old-timers’ reunion, but it wasn’t all like that. There were quite a few people there below pensionable age, and even some young folks. I’m not sure whether they were students, or people interested in what their parents used to do, but it did at least mean it wasn’t an entirely “the socialists will be seventy” affair.

Richard English gave the introduction, ably plugging the book. He remarked, and this would be a bit of a running theme, that the Official Republicans had been poorly served by history, not only by their factional opponents but also by their friends and supporters, and how important it was to give an account of them that recorded the facts and did so in an unpartisan way. He also flagged up the heavy use of interviews to capture the flavour of the period, and read out some pithy quotations to emphasise that even amongst all the grimness of the story, there was a lot of grit and even humour to be found.

Richard also talked about how, although the Officials hadn’t achieved what they set out to achieve, their interventions in Irish politics were important nonetheless. And he returned to something that was a little predictable from his own discussions of republicanism, that the departures of the Officials – the renunciation of armed struggle and the engagement with unionism specifically – were ahead of their time, and others had since followed in that path. I don’t entirely buy that, because it decontextualises the development of two very different processes. But it’s not irrelevant in that it’s also the WP’s understanding of its own history, as in Mac Giolla’s famous quote that “we were right too early; Adams is right too late; and Ó Brádaigh will never be right.”

Brian Hanley then took the stage, looking very much like the academic he now is. Brian spoke generally on the importance of telling this story, and about the work that had gone into the book. He especially talked about all those interviews, and paid tribute to the people who had welcomed him and Scott into their homes and relived often painful memories, on the basis that this was a story that needed to be told. He also spoke about his initial scepticism that this was a book that could be written, and the challenge of doing so since he and Scott had disagreed on just about everything. But he was proud of their achievement, and I think rightly so.

Finally, Scott Millar, who I didn’t know at all, spoke, and gave a very interesting little talk revolving around a number of themes. Firstly, he talked about how, as a young man in Dublin, the influence of the Workers Party had been pervasive, and he had canvassed for Proinsias de Rossa. (Perhaps, he quipped, not something that would be universally popular with his audience.) The WP had in its time played a very significant role in Irish politics, and on many issues been ahead of its time, but hadn’t got its due in historical writing, much of which, where Official Republicanism was concerned, was just mired in polemic either for or against.

Scott also remarked on the decision to be up front about the party’s unorthodox methods of fundraising. To be fair, I don’t see how a historical treatment of the Workers Party, unless it was an in-house hagiography, could avoid mention the various enterprises that Group B was involved in. Yet, as Scott pointed out, whatever you thought of Fenian and Bolshevik methods of fundraising, as employed by the Officials, it was remarkable that this was the first history of an Irish political movement to give such prominence to the money question. Left republicans had made waves forty years ago by attacking Taca, the then fundraising arm of Fianna Fáil; had accounts of FF paid more attention to the money men, the Irish taxpayer might not now be having to bail out the successors of Taca.

Finally, Scott mentioned something I’ve noticed about the book myself and heard said, that it’s a narrative history but light on the analysis. As per Scott, it was a deliberate decision not to build a big analytical structure, but rather to let events speak for themselves and allow readers to draw their own conclusions. I can see that, in that it’s a work for the general reader, whereas Seán Swan’s Official Irish Republicanism 1962-1972 is a book for the specialist; I can also see that the authors of a polemical work might not have got the extraordinary access that provides such a huge part of the book’s material. But Scott also remarked, and it was nice to hear this, that left republicanism was not the property of a single party or organisation, and he emphasised the broad spectrum of people for whom the thought of Wolfe Tone was still relevant. A polemical work, one which sought to either claim the Official tradition as the sole repository of true republicanism or simply to dismiss it as an alien Stalinist aberration in Irish politics (and we’ve seen writings along these lines) wouldn’t serve much purpose to those who want to gain a rounded understanding, the better to inform ourselves for the future.

So, that was well worth going to. WorldbyStorm has already written up on the Dublin launch, and some more thoughts on the book itself will be forthcoming presently.

Aaro’s Voodoo Histories, and a few words on conspiratology


Right, it’s been a while since I’ve done any book reviews, so it’s a good enough time to start an overview of the summer’s reading. And where better to start than with Dave Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories, which has become quite the talking point. In fact, Decent Dave has now established himself as the commentariat’s conspiracy theory man, in the same way as his mate Francis Wheen became the mumbo-jumbo man. This is not necessarily a good thing, for reasons I’ll get into presently.

The book itself has been sharply dissected elsewhere, so I’ll keep my remarks on the text fairly brief before moving onto some more general political and methodological points. Firstly, what’s right with it is that it’s not badly written – certainly it’s not a scattergun rant like What’s Left?, but then Aaro doesn’t really do rant. And while he doesn’t know enough about the key issues like the JFK assassination to convince experienced conspiratologists, they aren’t the audience. There’s enough there for the general reader – Aaro is particularly good on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which he’s evidently studied in detail – and most of his judgements are sensible. He even cites Chomsky positively, which is usually treif for Decents.

So that’s what’s right about Voodoo Histories, which is by no means an unenjoyable read. Now for what’s wrong with it. First is the question of what a conspiracy theory actually is, something that Lobster magazine has never been able to definitively answer. Yet, Aaro has succeeded in making an exact science of conspiratology. He defines a conspiracy theory quite simply and precisely as an explanation of events that seems unlikely to David Aaronovitch. Having set up his plausibility threshold, Aaro doesn’t even need to examine the evidence to dismiss a conspiracy theory. What’s the matter with this? I quote from Robin Ramsay’s review:

What is wrong with most conspiracy theorists is not what they think but the way they think. The basic premise of conspiracy theorists is the bastards are lying to us. This is not only demonstrably true sometimes, since 1945 and the wartime experience of disinforming the Germans, lying to the population became an official policy of this state, as well as the normal behaviour of the British ruling class and its civil servants who had been in power for most of the preceding centuries.

Aaronovitch’s ‘plausibility threshold’ is set too high and does not correspond with reality. Because his knowledge of recent history is limited, his ‘plausibility threshold’ falsely categories events as beyond plausibility – ‘conspiracy theories’. There’s no mystery here: he hasn’t read the evidence. Nor, as a mainstream journalist and broadcaster, can he afford to do so. And so his account of the Kennedy assassination (and other assassinations) here is inadequate; as is his account of the Israeli assault on the USS Liberty in 1967, as is his account of America’s entry into World War 2, as is…. I can’t be bothered going through the whole thing in that kind of detail.

Robin makes his case well, and there is good reason why Aaro’s reliance on the test of plausibility is not good enough. Aaro’s dismissal of 9/11 conspiracy theories, for instance, is based on the idea that it is wildly implausible that the US government could have brought down the Twin Towers. Yet if nineteen jihadis with limited resources could bring down the Twin Towers, why is it inherently implausible that the US government, with all its resources, could do so? Want to fake a moon landing? Give me a couple of actors, some convincing-looking props, a movie camera and put me in Iceland’s volcanic desert and I can give you footage of a moon landing. Now you want to tell me it’s inherently implausible that NASA could have done it?

Let me digress a little. Many readers will have seen and enjoyed the movie Conspiracy Theory. You will recall the basic dramatic device, which is that the Mel Gibson character – and this may not have been too much of a stretch for Mel – believes just about every far-fetched conspiracy theory going. However, his researches rattle some bad guys, and soon it turns out that, even though Mel is deeply paranoid, they really are out to get him. The problem Mel faces, given his demonstrated paranoia, is convincing people that he isn’t talking rubbish. It works pretty well as a metaphor for conspiratology.

Look, when it comes to 9/11, my position is that al-Qaeda did it, because they said they did it, and the evidence points in that direction. In terms of the 7/7 London bombings, it’s fairly clear that Mohammad Sidique Khan and his mates did it, because they said they did it, and the evidence points in that direction. Which is not to say that there aren’t unanswered questions that the powers that be would prefer not to talk about – at the very least in terms of the security services’ failure to see what was coming – and that conspiracy theorists, whatever about their faulty frameworks, may not turn up some interesting things. Aaro’s approach – to engage in shameless nutpicking of the most outlandish conspiracy theories and then to huff that the spooks couldn’t possibly have had the ability to do it – is about as unconvincing as you can get.

(Parenthetically, the Decents’ Occam’s razor seems to malfunction when it comes to 7/7. We have a fair idea why Mohammad Sidique Khan did what he did, because he told us in his suicide video. Mostly, he spoke about Iraq. Yet the standard Decent line on radicalisation of young Muslims is that this has nothing to do with British foreign policy, but is entirely due to the works of Sayyid Qutb being available in some mosque bookshops, and the government not giving enough money to Ed Husain.)

At this point, the reader will probably be thinking of Aaro’s previous as a WMD Truther, and the author of That Bloody Prediction. But this is just the flip side of Aaro’s plausibility threshold. Aaro’s complaint – and you can see here the influence of Birt’s Mission to Explain – is that conspiratism takes hold because the broad masses are systematically mistrustful of their rulers. The trouble is that Aaro systematically gives our rulers the benefit of the doubt. It was inherently implausible that Mr Tony Blair, a pretty straight guy after all, would lie his head off to take Britain into a war of aggression. And what of the revelations that have emerged since? The US and Britain playing silly buggers with the UN weapons inspectors so as to provide a pretext for war? The escalation of bombing raids over Iraq in the second half of 2002, aimed at provoking Saddam into hostilities? These things pass Aaro by – they are beneath his notice, and if we pay attention to them, that’s just a sign of our own moral delinquency.

There are a couple of other points I’d like to make. The most obvious one is that there is a difference between Conspiracy and conspiracies. Aaro actually illustrates this in his opening chapters – The Protocols of the Elders of Zion invented a spurious conspiracy, but there was certainly a conspiracy to circulate the document. As for the Moscow show trials, well, it was clear the great Trotsky-fascist saboteur conspiracy didn’t exist, but the Stalin government conspired to create a mountain of forged evidence to prove that it did. (And managed to convince lots of British Fabians, who took a never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width approach to the evidence.) The appeal of the Grand Conspiracy Theory – that a cabal of Masons or Jews or Illuminati or Communists are secretly pulling all our strings – is that it gives us an easy framework for understanding the world, and a defined group to either blame or join.

But while the Grand Conspiracy doesn’t exist, there are plenty of conspiracies about, and some of them are pretty big. Aaro would no doubt find it inherently implausible that a Masonic lodge could take over the secret service, police, military and judicial infrastructure of a major European country, or that in the same country a secret army of state-sponsored neo-Nazi terrorists would carry out false-flag bombings which the state would then blame on the left. Yet this did happen, and is very well documented. To bring things closer to home, there are lots and lots of conspiracies in the north of Ireland. This can lead one to a generalised conspiratism – this guy is an entertaining example – but it would be foolish in the extreme to say that, for instance, it is inherently improbable that Robin Jackson and Billy Wright were British agents of long standing. There are certainly persistent stories pointing in that direction, although it’s unlikely that we’ll ever have unimpeachable documentary evidence.

On a more prosaic level, as any political scientist since Machiavelli can tell you, all politics is conspiracy – as long as you’re prepared to have a flexible definition of conspiracy. If you ever go to a meeting of the Socialist Workers Party, you might think that a dozen people meeting in a room above a pub to discuss how to overthrow the government is pretty conspiratorial, even if it appears to be on the Mickey Mouse scale. I direct readers to Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers by Annie Machon, who surveilled the SWP on behalf of MI5 (a conspiratorial organisation itself):

It was a moot point whether the SWP had ever posed a realistic threat to the state. But after I’d carried out months of painstaking research, I was in no doubt. Although individual members of the party were committed, the SWP was small, relatively poor, and their politics fell outside MI5’s criteria for investigation – they neither had links to a foreign power, like the communists, nor did they practice entryism, like [Militant]. Their policies advocated educating people so that they could take part in a democratic movement to replace the existing political system. This was hardly the stuff of revolutionary nightmare.

Which kind of calls into question why the organisation just described has an internal regime that would be more suited to operating illegally under a military dictatorship, but I suppose if that’s the regime you want, fair enough. Militant of course spent decades pretending not to exist, constructing an elaborate fiction whereby the party was simply a paper, the members were “readers”, the Central Committee was the “editorial board”, and the annual conference was a “readers’ rally”. The CPGB, with which Aaro had some acquaintance, had lots of secrets, many of which Andrew Rothstein and Reuben Falber took to their graves.

Let’s take it out of the further left and into the political mainstream. Here is Peter Hitchens, in his entertaining new book The Broken Compass, on collaboration between the political and media classes:

The word ‘conspiracy’ suggests conclaves of sinister armed men in great cloaks and Guy Fawkes hats whispering in taverns by rushlight, with their hands on the hilt of daggers – a scene which seems ridiculously far removed from our world. How can anyone suggest that such things happen in our time? Actually it is this antiquated picture which is ridiculous, and misleading. The confidential co-operation of which I speak is far less picturesque, and a good deal more effective, than anything Guy Fawkes ever did. Those engaged in it wear well-tailored suits, sit in modish, well-lit London restaurants and carry BlackBerries, not daggers. Even so, they do not like others to know what they are up to and are careful to conceal it from the great mass of people who are unaware that it is going on.

The Hitch goes on to explain, mainly by reference to the mysterious bonding ritual known as “lunch”, how politicians, journalists and spin doctors collaborate in matters ranging from the artifice of a PR stunt to the spinning of a policy announcement to (perhaps the most important) the way in which certain politicians get a much better press than others. In The Triumph of the Political Class Peter Oborne details how, when the Tory leadership fell vacant, the press began to talk up Alan Duncan as a realistic contender. Eventually Duncan withdrew after failing to secure the support of even one fellow Tory MP. How was this? Well, Duncan was known for giving very good lunches, he assiduously courted and was courted by the press, and had his original support base extended beyond himself, that could have taken him a long way.

It’s conspiracy, yes, if you are prepared to leave the cloaks and funny hats aside and accept a more prosaic type of conspiracy. How, for instance, are we to explain the last fifteen years of Labour Party history if not in terms of the Blair and Brown factions conspiring against each other, the factional warfare all the more rancorous for the lack of policy differences. This is why, if I’m interested in the machinations of Labour insiders, I turn to Jackie Ashley in the op-ed pages, because Jackie has some feel for the actual Labour Party and is cynical enough to know factional conspiring when she sees it. Polly Toynbee is still waiting for New Labour to turn into the SDP in her head, and holds to a quaint idea of public-spirited politicians who just aren’t selling their policies well enough. Aaro, with his toxic mix of Eurocommunism and Birtism, wants us to accept policies devised by our benevolent rulers that we don’t like but will be good for us anyway.

And here’s the final irony about Voodoo Histories. Aaro gives us his usual matey style, setting himself up as the fearless wielder of Occam’s razor, the tribune of common sense. (I must admit, in my jaundiced way, that Aaro’s record with common sense is not self-evidently brilliant enough for me to find this wholly convincing. And his curt dismissal of Iraq is a bit too much like the way Wheen chortles about chiropractors and crystal healers without mentioning Sound Science.) But the strange thing is that the Decents, as a group, do see themselves as Illuminati, Dave more than most. They believe themselves an enlightened vanguard preaching the truth to the befuddled masses. They have their own revealed truths that make little or no sense to outsiders. (Aaro’s favourite blog, Harry’s Place, is full of puffs for Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia thesis, aka The Protocols of the Elders of Islam.) They see things that ordinary people can’t see, such as the horrific levels of anti-Semitism at those Islington dinner parties that Nick Cohen keeps getting invited to. They delight in uncovering webs of sinister associations amongst their enemies, most of which associations don’t even exist. Rather often, they manifest some of the same traits of group psychology as, well, conspiracy theorists.

And now, here is Decent Dave popping up all over the place, assuring us that things are basically for the best, and we need to trust the powers that be, and any narratives that he finds implausible are conspiracy theories and therefore inherently absurd, and anyone putting such narratives forward must be a paranoid crank. If Aaro didn’t exist, some propagandist would have had to invent him.

Summer reading: The Abi Titmuss diaries

Back to books of the summer, and if you’re looking for a change of pace from Mark Steel, another entertaining volume is The Secret Diaries of Abigail Titmuss. Sadly, this is a book that I feel is unlikely to find its audience. Abi Titmuss’ image is such that I imagine many buyers will be priapic lads looking for a one-handed read. These guys are going to be sorely disappointed if they expect the book to be wall-to-wall shagging. On the other hand, I can’t see the book being a big hit amongst feminists, who might actually be interested in it. Because we’re not talking about Inside Linda Lovelace here, what we actually have is quite a sharp treatment of celebrity culture and in particular society’s expectations of women.

You already know the outlines of the story. We have here a respectable nurse, with ambitions of becoming an actress, who meets a bloke off the telly and winds up in a relationship with him. Things are going reasonably well, until he’s accused of rape. And, although he’s exonerated in court, he ends up becoming unemployable. Meanwhile, his photogenic girlfriend suddenly gets propelled into the media spotlight, for no apparent reason other than being photogenic and in the news. And so we have the birth of an unlikely celebrity, one of the type who you could only really have in our postmodern age where “fame” is a commodity in itself, divorced from actual accomplishments.

It’s to Abi’s credit that she’s aware of the absurdity of her own position. You get this at an early stage where she’s asked to take part in Hell’s Kitchen alongside established entertainers, and feels a keen sense of her pointlessness, dreading anyone asking her what she actually does. She’s dependent for her celebrity on the tabloids, yet they still keep printing shit about her. Soft-porn red-tops denounce her as “sleazy” for, er, having sex with her long-term boyfriend, but at the same time clamour to run saucy pictures of her, trading on her image as a bit of a goer. The papers are full of columns wondering why she’s in the papers all the time. She hires photographers to take “candid” snaps that she’ll profit from, gazumping the paparazzi. (This, by the way, is quite a common tactic in Celeb World. Liz Hurley does it all the time.) She hopes her raised profile might get her acting work, but it’s offset by a total lack of credibility. And so on. Baudrillard would have loved this – we really are talking about the simulacrum raised above reality.

Of course, with the meteoric rise goes the downward spiral. I remember Debee Ashby talking about this quite a few years back, apropos of so many Page Three girls going off the rails that there was talk of a curse. Nonsense, said Debs. You take young women and throw them suddenly into an environment of fame and wealth, of swanky nightclubs and free booze (these days, one might add free coke) and it’s no wonder that some of them went off the rails. I might add that, if a smart woman like Debs could go a little off the rails, it could happen to anybody.

And so it is with Abi. She’s caught in this strange celebrity bubble where you can’t trust anyone, where everyone has an agenda. You can’t form relationships – it’s difficult even to form friendships with anyone, there are so many agendas flying around. She develops an obvious drink problem. More interesting, perhaps, is the body image issue, where the pinup of millions can’t see herself as attractive. In fact, you’ve got a woman weighing less than ten stone constantly worrying about whether her photos make her look fat. This isn’t helped by female pundits calling her fat all the time. (A particular offender is the ghastly Carole Malone, who’s built quite a career out of deploying the f-word against women half her age and half her size.) And this all serves to humanise someone who you might not have expected to find sympathetic.

And, naturally, following the downward spiral hitting rock bottom, we have the redemption. This is where Abi rediscovers the things she puts real value on – family and girlfriends – while knocking the booze on the head and getting out of the crazy celeb bubble. And she even gets some theatre work, which is all she really wanted in the first place. Which forms a nice postlude.

A most enjoyable read, I must say. You’ve got a classic narrative arc as your structure, yes, but you’ve also got some acute observation, a fair amount of wit and an engaging authorial voice. The absurdity runs right through the book, to the point of creating its own pathos. And it works pretty well as a dissection of media-celebrity culture. This is a book that needs to be put on the Media Studies curriculum immediately. And handed out to any young woman who thinks that “being famous” is a viable ambition.

Summer reading: Mark Steel asks, “What’s going on?”

So I’ve just finished the left’s smash hit book of the summer, Mark Steel’s new tome What’s Going On? Regulars can rest assured that a wider selection of summer reading will be reviewed, but Mark is as good a place to start as any.

If you know Mark’s material, there is a fair amount here that will not be surprising. That is, we get lots of comedic ruminations about the state of the world. The antiwar movement is covered here, along with Mark’s thoughts on the changing composition of the working class, the British education system, the homogenisation of town centres, the entertainment industry and celebrity culture, and much more besides, all delivered in the patented Mark Steel style. Which, it’s true, can sometimes be a little annoying in that what works in performance doesn’t always translate to the written page. Mark can be a little shouty, and he’s still very much addicted to the “it’s as if…” or “I was expecting him to say…” clause. But, at his best, reading Mark is like listening to a mate tell you brilliant rambling stories, and often he is at his best here.

What lends this book a little piquancy is that Mark is forced to deal with being middle-aged. This must be doubly painful for someone who likes to be down with the kids – I know little of this “hip hop” of which Mark speaks, but I can well imagine that a fortysomething man might feel a little out of place in the mosh pit. Parenthood also looms large here, notably the socialist parent’s dilemma of how to get your kids to be sceptical of all authority except yours. There’s the issue of how advancing age makes you more sensible. And there’s also an underlying theme of mortality. Mark finally meets his idol Joe Strummer, then a few weeks later Joe dies. Mark strikes up an unlikely friendship with Bob Monkhouse, started surreally by Bob approaching Mark in the Television Centre car park and saying how much he loved Reasons to be Cheerful, which he’d got as a 75th birthday present from Jeremy Beadle. But by this point Bob has terminal cancer, and soon he dies. The seemingly indestructible Paul Foot dies. Hovering over this, unspoken, is the premature death of Mark’s close friend Linda Smith. Unspoken, I assume, because Mark must have been terribly upset. I know I was upset, and I’d never even met her.

The background to all this is Mark’s two divorces, first a painful split from his long-term partner, then the end of his thirty-year association with the Socialist Workers Party. To begin with the former, this is a shame. I always thought Mark was a good bloke, and Bindy was nice, and human. These are qualities you value on the left, instead of taking them for granted, which might tell you something about the actually existing left. After all, the reason Linda Smith inspired so much affection was that she wasn’t just extremely funny and on the right side, she was a real person.

But to get back to Mark’s situation, he does get genuinely poignant here. He’s self-critical and, I think, emotionally honest, which is all we can expect of him. After all, it isn’t really anybody’s fault. Mark could mention his partner’s bursts of bad temper, or the trials of living with a comic, whose first instinct is to look for the punchline rather than the soothing word. But, really, what we’ve got here is the common phenomenon whereby two people fall out of love, and do it gradually, almost without noticing, before realising one day that they just don’t like each other very much. And even then you find that sentiment, or hope springing eternal, or concern for the kids, or sheer bloodymindedness, keeps you together much longer than is wise.

Then there is the settee phase. I have been there, and can absolutely vouch for Mark’s accuracy. Because the settee is bloody uncomfortable, and there is no way you can fit your body into it painlessly, you end up lying half-awake through the small hours, gazing in fascination-cum-bemusement at all those channels. The question of how shopping channel hosts can be so enthusiastic at selling shit; the jaw-dropping GOD Channel; weird esoterica on the Open University – this is the nightly fare of the settee-bound. Although I didn’t become addicted to Icelandic buggy racing as Mark did, preferring to watch repeats of Herman’s Head. And tied in to this is the horniness of the settee-bound, as you become more obsessed with sex the less you’re getting any. And, then there’s the fact that the 40-year-old libido is much less predictable than its 20-year-old oppo. In any case, it’s one thing to get aroused watching some soft-porn show, or a Nigella Lawson cookery show (a fine distinction I’ll grant you), where the whole point is to achieve arousal in the viewer. But you know you’re in a bad state when you’re watching Newsnight and you suddenly realise that a 20-minute discussion of the American economy has completely passed you by because your brain has been running scenarios of all the ways you’d like to bone Kirsty Wark.

And after all this, with your aching back and your head full of the 700 Club and Icelandic buggy racing, after all the times you’ve tried to get off the settee, it’s actually a bloody relief when it’s all over.

Then there’s Mark’s parting of the ways with the SWP, an organisation he joined at 18 and was remarkably loyal to for a very long time. On this I’ll give Mark two cheers and a rap over the knuckles, as will become clear. The background to this is the decline of the left’s traditional environment. The trade unions are not quite a hollow shell, but they aren’t far off. You’re more likely to find a supporter of the Iraq war in the Labour Party than in the population at large. There is a culture of protest among youth, but these youth are really cut off from older traditions and are apt to ask you, “Socialism, what’s that then?” in the manner of a teenager showing mild curiosity in his dad’s James Last albums. And, not surprisingly, the far left hasn’t a clue how to respond to all this. The left’s responses have veered between ignoring what the kids are doing, outright hostility and intervening in such a cack-handed way as to put the kids off the left for life. That’s why you meet so many kids on demos in Dublin who are vehemently “anti-Leninist” – it’s not that they’ve considered Lenin’s politics and decided to reject them, it’s based on their concrete experience of groups claiming to be Leninist. It doesn’t help, either, that much of the left is deeply incestuous, with cliquish habits and elaborate systems of etiquette that might almost be designed to put young people off.

So Mark becomes impressed by the disconnect between the shoots of resistance he sees, and the organisation he belongs to. You have here an organisation in obvious decline, but which goes on making grandiose proclamations about the fantastic opportunities ahead. There are two possible responses to this – denial or questioning. Unfortunately for Mark, while the SWP is a great place to get questions on abstruse doctrinal issues answered, it isn’t a very welcoming place if you want to ask open-ended questions, and especially not if the question you really want to ask is, “Have we just gone mad, or were we always like this?”

Since Mark is good enough to ask “Or is it me?”, I can set his mind at rest by informing him that some of the harebrained organisational wheezes he complains about have roots in a time prior to his membership. For instance, there was the time in the 1970s when Cliff became convinced that the group’s slow growth was a function of other people’s lack of enthusiasm, or as he put it that “the organisers have got to start pulling their socks”. Cliff then set an enormously damaging precedent by appointing himself membership secretary, getting the district organisers to submit recruitment tallies, and regaling the monthly NC with a league table showing the red-hot recruiters at the top and the deadbeats at the bottom. Needless to say, the organisers quickly became wise to Cliff’s game, so that by Month 3 the only thing measured in the league table was who was the most brazen liar. (Usually this was Roger Rosewell, a particular favourite of Cliff’s at the time.) As if to prove this wasn’t an isolated lapse, Cliff followed this up with the Leading Areas plan, according to which an area that was doing well (say, Manchester) would be identified extra resources. Of course, the organisation’s limited resources meant that this penalised areas that were already struggling. Cliff gave us to understand that, such would be the shining example set by the Leading Areas, that struggling areas would be inspired to redouble their efforts and would therefore benefit from a kind of trickle-down process. And that worked as well as might be expected. Cliff had lots of good ideas, but he was also prone to daft brainstorms, and the trick lay in knowing just how seriously to take him at any given time.

Since Mark was one of Cliff’s golden boys, it may be too much to expect him to bring this stuff up. But, that aside, Mark is very good at skewering the pretensions of the post-Cliff regime, and particularly of Kim Jong Rees, whom he seems unable to mention by name. Which is fair enough, as since Cliff’s death the leadership cabal have staggered from one disaster to another. One example Mark deals with is the SWP’s claim to have 10,000 members, which was clearly an enormous exaggeration and one that only became more enormous as time went by. But considerations of face meant the CC couldn’t admit a declining membership, which they would need to on the basis of the old definition that a member was someone who paid subs, attended meetings and sold the paper. Instead, we got the immortal line that “We have to redefine the definition of membership.” Which meant, of course, membership lists packed full of names of people who weren’t members. At this point Mark writes:

It was as if the aim was to maintain a steady amount of enthusiasm, but because there was around one-fifth of the number there used to be, everyone had to be five times as enthusiastic to keep things even. Some people, unable to bridge the gap between the rhetoric and the reality, would drift away. And then the enthusiasm demanded of the remainder would become even greater. I had a vision that at the end of this process there’d be one person left, standing at the top of a mountain yelling, ‘IT’S MAGNIFICENT!!!’

Quite so, and Mark is good on how an organisation that used to pride itself on its realism and modesty, Cliff’s occasional brainstorms aside, became mired in denial and self-deception – or, to quote Duncan Hallas’s immortal description of the WRP, “bluff, bluster and bullshit.”

Mark reaches the end of the road with the SWP around the time of the Respect split. And on this he’s quite strong, because Mark is far from being an uncritical groupie of George Galloway. In fact, Mark’s position is similar to my own, that, while George has unique and probably indispensable strengths, he can also very often be a pain in the hole, and sometimes he’s an outright menace. But when George made his very measured criticisms of Rees – criticisms that would seem pretty commonplace to anyone who’s ever dealt with Rees – the reaction of the SWP leadership was simply crazy. To listen to these guys, grovelling in front of Saddam Hussein and making cat noises on Big Brother were things any of us might do in a moment of weakness, but criticising John Rees was the absolute frozen limit. At one meeting, Mark recounts, a speaker compared Galloway’s criticism of Rees with the 1973 coup in Chile. This completely bonkers analogy was supported by most of the people in the room, including one J Rees. And at this point Mark started to wonder whether he had any place in this crazy organisation.

Right, so far I am with Mark. But, and I have to make this point as a small criticism, Mark may be a good bloke but he’s also a little bit of an asshole. What I mean by that is, the history of the SWP, and other left organisations, is full of people in privileged positions who have known all about the organisational skulduggery that goes on, and haven’t said a word until they have been targeted themselves. I think there is a particular responsibility on people like Mark Steel or Paul Foot or Eamonn McCann, who function as a human face of their organisation and make people feel good about being in it, and who could function as a sort of conscience of the organisation. But normally they don’t. Paul Foot, who I miss a lot, was a lovely man, a brilliant journalist and one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard. But it must be said that, when confronted with the SWP leadership and with Cliff in particular, Paul could be the most awful creep. Eamonn has gone along with all sorts of hair-raising stuff, as long as he’s been allowed to plough his own furrow in Derry. And so on.

Now, Mark has to his credit that he did in fact discover a backbone. But there’s a whole lot of people who came before him and got it in the neck good. For example, on the issue of the inflated membership lists, I know that Mark knew about this years ago, because a mutual acquaintance of ours blew the whistle on the membership figures, and could have done with a little moral support. I suppose what I’m getting at is, it can be a little aggravating for Mark to be recounting stories of leftist craziness and tailing it with “I felt like saying…” No, but you didn’t, Mark. No doubt you had your reasons, but a little acknowledgement of this point wouldn’t go amiss.

This may seem like a bit of a negative note to end on, but it’s just a small point that needs to be made. Overwhelmingly, I really enjoyed What’s Going On?, finding it to be probably the best thing Mark has written. It’s funny, of course, poignant in parts, angry in others and genuinely insightful. I’ve thought for some years that Philip Roth’s bitter divorce was the best thing that could have happened to him as a writer. Perhaps we can say the same of Mark.

Where is Tom Lehrer when you need him?


As I note the shortlist for this year’s Orwell Prize. The most high-profile entry is Ed Husain’s The Islamist, which may be the people’s choice, but I am tickled to see Nasty Nick’s What’s Left? get a nod.

If you want a little wager, I suspect Nick might be worth a punt. The OP judges have in the past shown themselves quite partial to the tribunes of Decency. Aaro (so light, so fluffy) is a past winner. So is Wheen. So, saints preserve us, is Mad Mel. And, if you prefer to go upmarket, both Ignatieff and Timothy Wishbone Ash are past recipients.

And so a book that has a terminological inexactitude on just about every page gets put up for an award for political writing named after the author of “Politics and the English Language”. I’d like to think old George would have a little chuckle over that.

« Older entries