I spent half the period of the General Election in my Linlithgow constituency and other Scottish seats, and half campaigning in some thirty English marginal seats. So much has been written on the North-South divide, and the fact that great cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow have no representative of the governing party, that I need not dwell on what is since 11 June familiar ground. I wonder, however, whether everyone in England understands the extent to which the result in Scotland was determined by the immediate prospect of the community charge, or as it is now known even in the most fastidious financial circles, the ‘poll tax’. It is one thing to have sentences about a rather obscure ‘community charge’ buried in the Manifesto. It is quite another to be an early guinea-pig on whom an experiment is about to be conducted. The Scottish poll-tax legislation was actually through Parliament, and on the statute book. What in England was perceived as scaremongering when I spoke about the poll-tax was received in Scotland – rightly – as an all-too-imminent reality.
Those who wonder why I attach such weight to it should ponder the Conservative defeat in genteel South Edinburgh, a seat they had held since the 19th-century Reform Bills, and the loss of its MP, one of the ministerial architects of the poll tax, Michael Ancram; or the fact that they came within the narrowest shave of losing their Defence Secretary George Younger, in Ayr – by general consent a good constituency MP, and a very possible successor to Mrs Thatcher. In crude terms, the Scots found the redistribution of wealth from the have-nots to the haves about as palatable as Wat Tyler and his followers did in 1380.
I don’t think this idea originated in the wicked will of the Conservative Party to gain financial advantage for its supporters – though that might be the effect. She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed made a rash promise to ‘do away with the rates’. Stuck with this promise, and hoist on the petard of rates abolition. Mrs Thatcher found that the arguments in the Layfield Committee against a local income tax were overwhelming. So, in desperation, Henry II-like, she exploded: ‘Who will do away with the rates?’ The result was that career-conscious Ministers, eager to please, came up with this barmy poll tax. So what should the Labour Party do?
I don’t think much will be achieved by endless economic argument, and an invoking of economists from Keynes to the present day. Rather we should invoke the memory of Sir Gerald Nabarro, who used ribaldry, anomalies and anachronisms to make people laugh – and once a measure has become the subject of laughter its days are numbered; How many canvassers will be required to keep the poll-tax register up to date? Answer: 70 in Lothian region alone. How many households will discover that even if the head of the household is present and register, his wife, son and two grown-up daughters have mysteriously gone elsewhere? As Jimmy Wray, the new MP for Glasgow’s Easterhouse Estate put it to the pre-session meeting of 50 Scottish Labour MPs: ‘At present, I have 43,000 constituents. If the poll tax comes into operation, in 1991 I’ll be lucky to have 10,000 constituents.’ The taxing of people rather than property gives endless scope for ribaldry. People are mobile. Property is static.
This brings me to the tasks facing the Labour Party on other fronts. Of course, we have to prepare for government in four years’ time. And now that Labour is seen as the undisputed Opposition, this is easier, in a way. The urgent task, however, is to be an effective Opposition. And this is where Parliamentary behaviour matters. Time and again, on doorsteps and at meetings, especially in the West Midlands and on the South Coast, I was rebuked for the House of Commons bear-garden – not that I myself ever shout or indulge in rudeness and animal noises. In one sense, the charge is unfair, since it is coloured by the broadcasting of Prime Minister’s Questions. Manners between 3.15 and 3.30 on tuesdays and thursdays deteriorate on account of the Open Question system, a relatively new development, under which the Prime Minister is open to any question in the political spectrum. Until the mid-Sixties, a prime minister would not accept any question that was not his identifiable responsibility. We should get back to that system. Only then can the Opposition do its job properly, and render the Prime Minister accountable.
One branch of government for which Mrs Thatcher is directly responsible is the Intelligence Service, and one of the most troubling revelations of recent weeks has been the news that Blowpipe missiles have been reaching Afghanistan through the agency of MI6 and the CIA. The question is: did Mrs Thatcher know about this or didn’t she? Or did she make it clear that she preferred not to be told? I have written to her asking her to let us know the facts of the matter, and I hope she will. If she did not know, then it would appear that MI6 has been engaged in the kind of unauthorised decision-making associated with the name of Colonel Oliver North. If, as I think unlikely in this instance, she preferred not to be told, that would be contemptible. If she did know, why was she ‘frit’ to come along to the House of Commons, and make a clear statement. Supplying sophisticated rockets to Afghans to shoot down Russian aircraft, whether justified or unjustified, is not a peripheral matter: on the contrary, it is a very important issue indeed, not least given the alacrity with which she prances off to Moscow to see Mr Gorbachev and achieve a photo-opportunity triumph.
In my book Misrule I blame all the Members of the 1979-83 and the 1983-87 Parliaments for allowing Mrs Thatcher to get away with so many lapses in proper standards of public behaviour. I have been a Parliamentary colleague of hers for twenty-five years, and her lack of candour on Blowpipe, and unwillingness to submit what she was up to in Afghanistan to the scrutiny of the House of Commons, is yet another example of what I have come to see as her persistent public misbehaviour. I doubt whether our first Parliament, 1959-1964, would have allowed a prime minister to give the House of Commons the kind of cavalier treatment on important matters of foreign policy that she dishes out. To be fair to her, I suspect that she is as appalled as I am at the idiotic yah-booh bear-garden that Prime Minister’s Question Time has become.
Shortly after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, I was one of my party’s delegation to the United Nations. Sir Anthony Parsons, then Ambassador arranged a meeting for us with his Russian counterpart, Oleg Tryanovsky. Forcefully and politely, I voiced to him the conventional wisdom in Britain on the subject of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and asked him if it was all to do with Moscow’s nervousness about Mother Russia’s Asian minorities. (I should say at this point that ever since I was given a Rupert Brooke Travel Award to go to Russia in 1956, I have had a deeply sympathetic attitude to the Russian people, despite being critical of many aspects of the Soviet regime. In 1961, I took a Scottish boys’ football team to play in Leningrad; and in 1964 I visited Russia as a member of a Labour Party science delegation. I mention this because I had not been to Russia for 23 years, and would rather not have my opinions dismissed on the grounds of Parliamentary jaunting.) Back to Tryanovsky. ‘Because I see you are seriously interested,’ he said, ‘I want you to come back tomorrow.’
The following day I went to the fortress which was the Russian United Nations headquarters in New York, and was taken in with an interpreter to see a youngish, whitish Chinese lady, who was the Deputy-Prime Minister of the Kirghizi Republic. After we had discussed her goats at home, the excellence of her walnuts, and the fact that her district grew the most tasty apricots in the world, she came to the point. Fourteen times, she told me, her fellow tribespeople on the other side of the Afghan border had asked for military help to protect them from being beaten up by ‘cut-throat elements’. Fourteen times, the Soviet Union had refused to get involved. It was all very difficult, ‘because people of my nationality were being cruelly treated, in a situation where government was chaotic, and confusion and lawlessness prevailed’. Only when some thirty Russian advisers had been tortured, executed and strung up at Kandahar was the Red Army sent in. ‘I hope you don’t think that the purpose of the Russian invasion was to extend our borders and conquer territory, because, with all our problems, it would not have been in our interest to do so, even if we had thought of embarking on conquest.’ I believed, and still believe, Madame Tashibekova.
As an MP who beseeched James Callaghan, Denis Healey and finally Harold Wilson not to send the troops – particularly the Scots regiments – into Northern Ireland in 1969, and and was told it was a matter ‘only of a few weeks’, I understand how the Russians may have felt. They thought they would ‘sort out’ the Afghans in a matter of a couple of months. Alas, Muscovites and Byelo-Russians can no more sort out the internecine complexities of Afghan tribal, family and personal history in a few weeks than English and Scots can settle the historic problems of Ireland in a few weeks. It is one thing to put an army into the mire of Ireland or Afghanistan: it’s a great deal more difficult to bring it out – as, in both instances, I foresaw and predicted at the time. If I’m boastful, it is because I have so often been charged with eccentricity and maverick views on subjects on which I have been proved to be too tragically right.
In sum, I believe that the border between Russia and Afghanistan is at many points ethnically and topographically artificial, and just as the Kirghizi straddle the frontier, so do Turkmen, Uzbeks and Tajiks. I believe that before the Soviet invasion these nationalities were suffering from the same chaos and cruelties as Madame Tashibekova’s Kirghizi. I also believe that if any one of us were a Russian leader, ruling from Moscow, we would be worried stiff at the prospect of an Islamic resurgence, as epitomised by the Ayatollahs in Iran, in our Central Asian Republics, and fearful of people in Afghanistan wanting to foment uncontainable trouble in these countries. Mrs Thatcher might be cock-a-hoop at what she would see as the break-up of the Russian Empire. I would regard such developments with anxiety, not being an admirer of unleashed Muslim fundamentalism. I am aware that only some 10 per cent of the Soviet Union’s 50 million Muslims are Shiites – most of them are Sunni, and do not regard Khomeini as a spiritual leader. Nevertheless, Russians have often given vent to their acute concern about what they see as a Muslim fundamentalist threat, made all the more real by the fact that about one-third of the men – not the officers – of the Red Army are now Muslims. Were Mrs Thatcher to summon to Downing Street those in the Foreign Office who understand Central Asia, they might tell her that, even before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan was a cruel place, like Partisan Yugoslavia in the Forties, and that the Russians needed to contain militant Islam.
I wonder how Mr Gorbachev, Mrs Thatcher’s General Election friend, feels when he hears that she, Geoffrey Howe and Lynda Chalker all implicitly approve of the Blowpipes finding their way to Afghanistan. I’ll hazard a guess. Just like Mrs Thatcher when she hears that Noraid, misguided Americans or whoever are supplying arms to kill British soldiers in Northern Ireland.
What about the task that faces the Alliance? Just after the 1979 General Election, as Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party Foreign Affairs Group, I went with colleagues to see Lord Carrington, Conservative Foreign Secretary, about the horrendous situation in Chile. The Foreign Secretary listened to us, gave a response, and a sensible discussion followed. As we returned to the Foreign Office waiting-room to collect our coats, Ron Hayward, the General Secretary of the Labour Party, said to me: ‘You know, we had a better reception from a Tory Foreign Secretary than we ever got from David Owen. It is galling that a Labour Foreign Secretary should treat us contemptuously, and that I, as General I Secretary of that Labour Party, should be forced to observe that we get a constructive reception from a Tory aristocrat.’ This woeful tale encapsulates a lot of the trouble in the Alliance at the present time. Politics – especially the politics of the Centre – is about personalities.
To be fair to David Owen, he does have Parliamentary presence. On certain issues, such as South Africa, he was courageous, and earned the respect of unlikely people such as Bob Hughes MP, a leading anti-Apartheid campaigner. But ever since he was catapulted by Jim Callaghan into the stratosphere of ministerial office, in order that an elderly-seeming prime minister could be seen to have I a young government, his innate intolerance of others has become insufferable. As a result of my experience of David Owen, in the days when we were fellow members of the old Select Committee on Science and Technology, 1966-1967, and Labour Party colleagues, I warned David Steel and Russell Johnston, when the Alliance was first formed, that they were getting into bed with a tiger, and rather them than me. They thought they could handle him. I thought I knew my David Owen better. Compromise and give-and-take are not in his nature.
In looking at political behaviour, furthermore, it is sensible to reflect on the influence of a person’s partner. There is a fact about the dominant Mrs Owen which is not irrelevant to past history or to the present situation: this American lady repeatedly refused to join the Labour Party – even when her husband was the Labour Foreign Secretary. It is not so much a question of cherchez la femme as of observing that British political history might have been different without her influence. If the Gang of Four had not eloped from the Labour Party, it is probable that a government could have come into being today which represented the 60 per cent who voted against Mrs Thatcher. I believe the SDP will end in a welter of recrimination: individuals will drift away, some out of politics altogether, others to the Liberals, others back to the Labour Party or into it for the first time. As for Dr and Mrs Owen, they will seek interests furth of public life, having created pandemonium on the left for a decade – from which the Left will recover.
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