Interviewed by Martin Eady on 9th and 11th August 2012
I happened to have been born on the 24th May 1922 which is actually quite significant for my life because 24th May, as you may or may not know, is Empire Day, or used to be. That’s quite significant because in later life my attention was drawn to Imperialism, because my parents were quite keen on the Empire and it was suggested to me at some point I should try and find out something about the Empire, which I did, which turned me against Imperialism from then on. That was actually when I was still at school; I can’t remember what year. And before that I’d been turned off religion because when I was a kid I was sent to both Sunday School and afternoon church service, and I soon got fed up with this. I think I must have been about nine or ten, so I was set against this because naturally I wanted to play with the other kids instead of going to Sunday School and Church, which gave me a good subjective reason to reject religion. So I got off to quite a good start really. Oh, the other thing about 1922, it was the year Lenin had his final stroke and was virtually out of politics from then on. I don’t know whether it would ever have made any difference to what happened to the Soviet Union, I suspect not, but still it was quite significant.
I was born in London, Holborn I think, and the first few years we lived in Brixton, and then, as my father was a teacher in the City of London Freemans school, which was a boarding school, we had to move near there, and that was a place called Ashstead which is next to Epsom, and my parents had a cottage more or less in the grounds of the school until I was nine years old, when my father retired. So we had to move and we moved to Ashford Middlesex (the county no longer exists of course). That’s all I can remember about my early life.
I remember a few things about being in school. I went to what used to be called a secondary school when I was eleven, and I suppose these days it would be called a grammar school. Later I did a three year course on the History of Philosophy and one of the things that struck me ever since is that while I was at school the kids used to discuss, out of curiosity, fairly fundamental topical questions, like do you see green like I see green, does the world really exist or do you only think it does. Because I think children have insatiable curiosity and if they’re not too trammeled with things they’re supposed to do or have got to do I think the curiosity of kids is great, and it’s a pity when it gets stifled, which it does these days. What’s more, people’s and kid’s brains are steered by the radio and TV, which on the whole doesn’t do them much good at all. I wasn’t considered bright enough to be entered into what was the equivalent of A levels, so I left school at fifteen or sixteen and went to work. I was very keen on science. One thing I can say about my education in those days, I was largely turned off things I later came to appreciate, because quite frankly the science teachers were no good although I was very interested in science. I used to read the science magazines that were quite prominent in those days. The one teacher I had who was magic was my history teacher, which started me on an interest in and love of history. Had it been possible to put me off science I would have been put off science by the teachers. Now I love Shakespeare and literature but they put me off it. My parents put me off music, which now I am very fond of and will listen to Beethoven quartets until the cows come home. Because their idea of classical music was something like excerpts from the Grenadier Guards Band, which does not encourage you to like classical music. I did try it one time, but I never actually played any music. I was too clumsy, I think. Compared to my son or Priscilla (partner) I’m not very adept with my fingers.
After I left school I also did evening classes in the history of art and architecture. I got the idea of the relationship of music to politics. These days, if they’re doing a Mozart opera like the Marriage of Figaro they relate it instantly to the conditions, because the Marriage of Figaro was written two years before the French revolution and you can hear certain aspects of the French revolution in the opera. I was introduced to classical music by somebody, a woman, who was a Union member when we were trying to build the Union. She happened to be in a choir and her husband was a very good amateur pianist, and they introduced me to music, then I went on by myself. I was too clumsy to play an instrument, or maybe I was too lazy, and I was doing other things like politics. People came to appreciate music during the war because it was a time of national danger.
But later on I became an electronics engineer and you have to be able to manipulate things, but there you are. When I left school, which was 1937 or 1938, I went to work in the research department of EMI. I was very anxious to get into something that had to do with radio; I was hooked on radio in those days and I think my father managed to somehow wangle me into a job at EMI in Hayes (Middx). Which meant that subsequently I spent the war there. It was a reserved occupation. It was extremely hard work, even if you tried, to get out. I remember one bloke who was a draughtsman who sat at his drawing board for about four years and didn’t draw a stroke, he refused to do anything because he wanted to go in the technical branch of the Army. And you earned a great deal more than if you worked in industry, two or three times as much. If you worked in the sort of place that I did I think when I started work I was being paid about 17/6 (87p) a week and at the end of the war I was still only getting about £2 a week. You were not supposed to get paid much when you were still learning, you were considered to be a sort of apprentice, which I was. I must say that the apprentice side of this was quite useful because you had to go to night school. If I had got matriculation, which was the equivalent of O levels I may have gone to University but it’s difficult to say what may have happened. I went in and you were obliged to do a course, and I did electronics which was really very valuable. By the way, I did my night classes in Southall, and you never saw a black face; there were riots against the Welsh. The guy who knew about that died last year, the Town Hall Union guy, Chris Morey. The great thing about the courses I did, you had to learn things that were quite interesting. You had to be fairly good at arithmetic and you had to learn how to calculate compound interest. If you understand compound interest you know why all the occupational pension schemes collapsed, because they depended on a decent rate of compound interest.
Two other things, there was the general theory of feedback, which dominated electronics for all my working life (I retired in 1982). If you understand feedback you can understand a lot more, biology for instance, how organisms react on each other. It’s also now very important because you can understand how things get out of control, which they are now to a certain degree. It’s terribly important, particularly now, because there is this question of whether or not the intervention in the planet may cause it to go into a runaway state and make it impossible for human beings to live in it. I don’t find it at all hard to grasp because electronics engineers in a way play God, which is not a very good way way of putting it but a conventional one. Way back, what happened when people were learning about feedback and how it applied, you could do something with an accoustic or audio amplifier and you applied a feedback to it. One of the things that could happen was that the system would suddenly uncontrollably go into a mode and destroy itself. It would take all the power that was available to it and burn out. People had to learn how to make devices that wouldn’t do that, to restrict the amount of power a machine would use. If production goes on increasing to feed increasing numbers of people, because the increase in the number of people is exponential, geometric, you could suddenly go into a state where a growing number of people, at the bottom, in the colonial countries, are starving and carbon levels are rising. If you don’t stop it before it gets out of control you really are in trouble. You could get the planet to a state where the process is irreversible.
One other subject, you had to learn about the basic theory of statistics, which is very important politically. If you can’t understand these things you’re handicapped understanding what the capitalist world is all about.
I got chucked out of EMI in I think 1947. It was the year we had the coal crisis and people couldn’t get to work and a lot of industry shut down. I used to go to work on a bike from Ashford seven miles. To some extent I played it – I didn’t want to go to work through those conditions. I fell off my bike twice and I thought that was enough. Everything was very slippery. It was a real crisis. I expect my bolshie attitude did not recommend me to the managers at the place where I worked, so they had an excuse to sack me and I was sacked. By this time I had joined the Communist Party. I can’t remember for sure exactly which year I joined or what year I left. But during the war for reasons which will be familiar to lots of people lots of other workers joined the Communist Party. It was quite a long time before I could see the error of my ways. For instance, during the Kenya crisis I was quite proud of being in the Communist Party because the Daily Worker, more than anything else, exposed the scandal of the Mau-Mau (freedom fighters). There was a picture of a soldier holding up the severed head of a Kenyan and I felt very strongly about this. Afterwards one of the people who had exposed the Communist Party in Europe I knew quite well and he helped me change my mind. Because of my relationship with Peter Fryer I came to think seriously was all the stuff that was being said about the Soviet Union in the Observer true? The Soviet Union wasn’t a workers paradise and other countries which had had a revolution weren’t either. I didn’t go to the Soviet Union but I went to Hungary and Yugoslavia.
After the events in Hungary, Rakosi who was the head of the CP in Hungary was more or less exposed and I couldn’t really believe it at first, But Peter Fryer, who took a leading part, I knew quite well. He lived quite close to me, in fact I used to collect his CP dues, and I didn’t think he was the sort of person who would lie. He was sufficiently persuasive that I began to doubt what was going on, especially in Eastern Europe. I don’t know what happened to him – he seemed to have disappeared. (Interviewers note: Peter Fryer, was a staff writer on the Daily Worker who had covered the show trial of Laszlo Rajk in Hungary in 1949, who was executed and then rehabilitated in 1956. Fryer covered the 1956 uprising in Hungary and had not forgotten what happened to Rajk but his report was censored by the Daily Worker. He had it published in New Statesman and was expelled from the CP as a result, becoming editor of Trotskyist Gery Healy’s The Newsletter and later a founding member of the Socialist Labour League, forerunner of today’s Workers Revolutionaty Party (WRP). He later split with Healy, and died in 2006. Quite a serious job for Hugh to collect his dues!) You have to remember in those days nobody knew what Trotsky was about. You didn’t encounter any of them, they were very tiny and nobody liked them, capitalists or communists, so Trotskyists were virtually repressed.
The Hungary events of 1956 must have had some influence, though not at the time. I happened to run into Hungarians; we used to sell Daily Workers down Portobello Road and we certainly had some Hungarian refugees. The nationalist leader Nagy, I never thought much of him but I changed my mind about it later on. It was seen as an attack on the Soviet Union. As far as you could see, with things you knew about if you were active in the movement, the critics, the right wing, the people who left the CP, nearly all of them never did anything.
Some attacks on the Soviet Union were difficult to see through. The Observer used to run a whole series of anti–Soviet stuff. One or two famous authors who were sympathetic to Trotskyism (Interviewer’s note: Isaac Deutscher was one) wrote articles for the Observer about the dreadful things going on in the Soviet Union. The reason you tended not to believe them, the Observer also wrote the most atrocious rubbish about the Labour movement in Britain. They were totally against the Trade Unions. If you were a Trade Unionist you knew most of what the Observer said about it was lies, so you went on to assume that the paper that writes lies about what you know about is also writing lies about what you don’t know about.
I think about that time I began to read Trotsky; the first thing I read of Trotsky’s was his Essays on Literature and Art, which were a revelation, still are. So I wondered about what to do. I didn’t ever take this view that everything and everybody about the CP was totally corrupt and bad; I think most of it was but there were plenty of good people in the CP who, like me, did their jobs as Party members, selling Daily Workers, and had to put up with the grind. Plus the fact there were a certain number of publications, including from the guy who taught me the history of philosophy, whose name was John Lewis. He produced a theoretical journal called Modern Quarterly, but he more or less disappeared from the scene (Note: John Lewis, well known Marxist philosopher edited Modern Quarterly 1946-1953). He was the husband of Betty Lewis who was the treasurer of the CP. He was a very good scholar. I then really didn’t know what to do next, I sat and looked around at the SWP and the WRP, their predecessors. I met one or two people in both organisations who were honest and hard working and didn’t put on airs. I still keep meeting one or two of them, I met one only three weeks ago, he’s been a member of the WRP for God knows how long. I went to political meetings and hung around on the edges, they weren’t much of a guide to what we should do in the broader movement, the Trade Union movement, what they thought the TU’s ought to do was wrong anyway.
I decided that the IMG (International Marxist Group, then British section of the Trotskyist Fourth International) was the only left wing group I saw had a future. I joined in about 1971 (Interviewer’s note: I recruited him!), partly because of my contact with members of the GIM (Gruppe Internationale Marxisten, German section of the Fourth International, sister organisation of the IMG). It was a personal contact with a small number of people in Tuebingen, Germany. I greatly respected their ability to grasp Hegel, more difficult if you’re English because of the language. Hegel is about the process of change more than anything else.. If you remember, Marx said that Hegel’s philosophy had to be turned on its head. Hegel had got the theory of how things change isolated from the real world. Prioritising the process of change seemed to me to be very important. A lot of other people have taken that up including CLR James. At the end of his life he wrote books devoting a lot of attention to the process of change – the Rendezvous of Victory is one of them. And I thought James was right about this but quite wrong about certain other things, and his disciples even more. It seemed to me that the IMG was bringing back into consideration the process of change as well as the materialism. But at some point the IMG brought in this idea of the turn to industry, which I didn’t agree with. By this time Mandel was dead (Note: Mandel died 20.07.95 so Hugh’s chronology may not be quite right). Mandel had illuminated things about the importance of social services, he made a big thing of it in books I have. Also he keeps hold of the idea of revolution in the Lenin sense, which I’m now not so sure about because revolutions have gone bad.
People were really beginning to join unions during and after the war, the Labour movement was growing and increasing in power. I was in the Association of Scientific Workers, which became ASTMS (Associatioin of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staff). It’s leadership were definitely Communist Party. Working where I did we didn’t have much in the way of strikes – research departments are not hotbeds of revolution or dark Satanic mills. It was a period when the establishment here wanted to get technical and scientific workers on its side, though not in the USA. There, there was an underground thing culminating in the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (on 19th June 1953). McCarthyism existed in the States but not here.
After I got thrown out of EMI I worked in a small radio firm in Willesden for about two years, which wasn’t very exciting and I didn’t do anything. I was active in the Communist Party but not in the Union. Then I got fed up because it was all very dull. Working for EMI was quite interesting politically technically and scientifically because during the war there were a lot of German, Polish and other refugees who worked there. I got educated. I must have shocked them with my dreadful prejudices because I didn’t know anything. There were a lot of Trotskyists in the Soviet Union. Lenin encouraged scientific work and attitudes whereas Stalin didn’t at all. Some were still there in World War II. They had an institute in Leningrad in charge of the big seed bank during the siege. They defended it against all comers, disciples of Varilov, Lenin’s agricultural chief removed by Stalin. This got mixed up with the Stalinist notion which Lysenko was involved in which was going on when I was in the CP, and I was on the wrong side of that. Some of the scientists who had been members of the CP broke from it over that because they thought the stance taken up by Stalin was totally wrong scientifically. Professor Haldane was one of them. In the 40’s or early 50’s there was a tremendous argument about the nature of inheritance and Lysenko said that you could improve crops in all sorts of funny ways, that you could teach crops genetically to be more productive. It was a nonsensical theory but it didn’t sound so at the time. This is part of the background. I didn’t do much political work when I worked at EMI though I did a lot of local work in the local CP when its bad ideology meant it was losing a lot of members.
Then came the 1945 election, and I worked in that on the basis of Bevan’s proposals for the Health Service. I never trusted the Labour Party. I wasn’t involved in the CP campaign in Hayes where their candidate came close to being elected – I did some canvassing in the East End.
Medical Research Council
Then I managed to get a job in the Medical Research Council, which strangely enough although I went from industry to academic more or less doubled my salary. The guy whose department I went to work in as an electronics engineer was a bloke called Veal who had during the war worked in Canada on the Heavy Water project which was related to the Atomic bomb. By that time (1948) the cold war was really going and all sorts of people who had been part of the Atomic bomb project were under suspicion, even including the guy who had run the whole project who eventually got thrown out and went to Switzerland. He was suspected of being a communist which he certainly wasn’t. This didn’t affect me very much but going to work at the MRC was sort of a revelation because it was really very interesting. From then on in the whole of my working life I was very interesting and I enjoyed going to work because there was always something interesting going on. The other thing that made a difference to my later life is that in my job as an electronics engineer I worked in various departments and came across a lot of things that were going on in biological science at the time. For instance, why do things get old; and a background of people doing research into cancer, as well as Alzheimers, which is a very difficult thing to deal with for various reasons. There was a period when a very peculiar thing turned up. People who lived in a remote part of Asia, South Sea Islands I think, started dying of a disease called Kuru. It turned out that they were descendants of people who in the recent past had practised cannibalism, not as an outcome of war but because they were very short of food. This started all kinds of theories about things like long term viruses (later blown out of the water). The other thing is the discovery of DNA in 1952. This was fascinating, still is, though we know a lot more about it and how it’s related to evolution. The discovery of DNA was another hammer blow for Darwinism because it fitted with all Darwin’s theories. He didn’t know how things reproduced, nobody knew how the mechanics of this worked until DNA was discovered. I can remember one of the two people who got the Nobel prize for it coming down and giving a lecture which I went to. I didn’t understand all of it because my understanding of chemistry is not very good. But it’s better than it used to be because my son now works with DNA.
The other bit is political. I was in the Union when I worked for the MRC and I got invited to be Chairperson of the staff side of the negotiating committee nationally; to be honest I don’t think anybody else wanted to do it. What I was into scientifically at that time was dull so I agreed to do it. What I wanted to know was the answer to a question like how much should you spend on doing research in a society – an important technical question. I didn’t find out because they didn’t know either but the real point is the bosses at the MRC and the establishment didn’t want to know. All sorts of funny things went on, like for instance I once met Shirley Williams. At one point there was a proposal to orient the MRC, to alter it to a different system. Basically that proposal was put forward by Rothschild, who had been the Government’s head of spies. He was put in there to do this restructuring of the MRC and what it amounted to was cuts basically. Shirley Williams was in the Government, she was minister of health, and she came down and the TU side challenged what was happening. In those days you could do that. I was among the delegation that went to meet her and I must say that she was very very good at mastering a brief. But all sorts of things were going on under all sorts of disguises which were just cuts, which are bereft of any thought or justification, that’s just one thing I remember.
I was the delegate to the London District Committee for many years, firstly ASCW which became ASTMS and is now Unite via MSF. I suppose the most exciting period was when Clive Jenkins was General Secretary. He was the bureaucrat par excellence in many ways. He had only two advantages as far as I was concerned, of which the main one was that when Union members, encouraged by reading the capitalist press, wanted their Union to negotiate private medical insurance Jenkins turned round and said NO, absolutely not. He sent out a letter to all the officers of the Union saying you’ll not have anything to do with this. This is one thing in his favour. Also, Jenkins did not understand what the Unions were doing about the pension system, that private pensions, which they spent a lot of time negotiating, were going to fail, and they did fail. Jenkins wrote this book called White Collar Trade Unionism, which I’ve never read, which said what were regarded as middle class workers should have a Union to negotiate their rights.
Use or profit
Mike Cooley was very interesting. He came at a time when a number of takeovers were going on and he was an engineer at Lucas. He broke from this idea that the only thing about Trade Unionism is to negotiate wages for the members. He took a much wider view and said production should be for use, when profit was basically what it was all about. He and his cohorts made one important turn at Lucas. Lucas was in danger of going down, made bankrupt. Basically, Cooley said Lucas could operate without making a loss on the basis of satisfying demand using engineering skills, which of course was clearly possible. What is very much more questionable is would they have gone bankrupt because management are interested in making a profit. So what they try and do is produce stuff that is marketable and makes a profit, not to make something socially useful, even if they break even. One of the people in the Lucas Shop Stewards Committee was Richard Minns. He dealt with the workers pension scheme. I think he was wrong but he changed his tune and later on he wrote a very valuable book called “The cold war in welfare – stock markets and pensions”. This was basically a critique of the idea of saving for a pension. I subsequently got to know him quite well.
But what I did learn about, like almost everybody else then and today I never really thought about pensions. We had a pension system like most people, academic workers in the Universities and so on and in a lot of private industry, occupational pension schemes. My predecessor, who was actually a member of the CP, had been in the middle of negotiating the MRC’s new occupational pension scheme. But what I discovered, I had no idea this was happening like most other people, was that there were five research councils. Some had final salary pension schemes and some had civil service pension schemes and the two were quite different. I didn’t realise that we had all these different pension schemes scattered all over the place. To this day lots of people don’t know and this was not really exposed until Lord Turner wrote the investigation into pensions in 2005 I think it was.
Turner’s conclusion was that Britain has the meanest state pensions in the whole of the EU and is the most complicated in the developed world. He later came out to say that Final Salary Occupational Pension schemes are not sustainable, because the level of return on the investments is far too low. The schemes depended on everybody paying their contributions and lots of employers took contribution holidays. They depended on the ageing of the population as a whole but most of all they depended on the return which the pension funds could get. This was not true of the civil service because public sector pensions have no funds, they’re just an agreement between worker and employer, including the state. So it was quite obvious after a bit what was going to happen. The private occupational pension schemes would collapse, which they have done. Then the Government would argue why should the public sector have better pensions than the the private sector. The occupational pension schemes seemed very nice, too good to be true, and I gradually got to see more and more. This didn’t dawn on me until I was about 57 or 58, that there was this multiple system, and that I was not typical, I was special because only a small proportion of the workforce had occupational final salary pensions. There was a time back then when the private occupational pension was better than the people who had public sector pensions. The TUC never understood it, you can’t possibly win on that basis. The state pension has been totally neglected by the TU movement.
When I retired the first thing I did was become Chair of London Health Emergency, and LHE still exists with John Lister. Those were the days when Ken Livingstone was running the Greater London Council. The Voluntary and TU sector had got grants which allowed them to employ people, and we employed John Lister and Geoff Martin as technical workers in a sense, and John Lister has come to dominate it. But LHE doesn’t have the thrust of the TU movement. It makes cogent criticisms of what’s going on, it can help to inspire the fightback, but there’s no doubt about it unless there’s mass support from the TU movement we’re not going to win. The circumstances may arise and maybe we will win because people will be so outraged. We can get people on the streets, our problem is we can’t get health workers on the streets. The first thing that particularly attracted my attention, one of the first things the cuts did was to shut down the ring of mental hospitals around the North and South of London and chuck people out of them. This nonsense about community care, which might work if you were prepared to fund them to the same degree, but of course the whole point was not to do that. It’s all the lies that have been told about how you can fund services for older people, particularly near home, or that people can come into your home for support and social care.
Care of elderly
The other thing is that from 1948 the funding of social care and health care was under two entirely different concepts, run by two different ministries; social care was given to local authorities. More and more social care was more and more means tested. The NHS is being privatised and they’re going to cut it and that’s what it’s all about. Actually, being in the pensioners movement as well as my own age I can see that a large amount of suffering is going to be imposed on people because of social care deficiencies. Things like Alzheimers, which is not curable therefore is no business of the NHS, therefore the funding has to come from local authorities mainly, and families too. So if you ask an average person what’s their main concern it’s looking after their parents who are getting terribly old and can’t look after themselves any more. Alternatively their children; you’ve probably heard quite a lot on news bulletins about child care and closure of facilities.
I was on London Health Emergency for quite a while and I slid over to being the Chair of Ealing Borough Senior Citizens Action Committee. In the meantime, we had the whole question about the destruction of the Health and Social Services system, particularly the NHS. One of the things LHE did was the question of mental health services which were at one time supported by taxation and by the NHS, and they closed all these mental hospitals. These had been built up originally by the Victorians, and the impression was given that people had gone into these hospitals and stayed there for a long period, which wasn’t true because most of the people who were in these hospitals were already old when they went there. Lots of them had Alzheimers and various forms of dementia. We know a lot more now than about what sort of disabilities and illnesses people had. I knew a bit more than many people simply because the MRC at Northwick Park, which was where I worked, had a psychology unit and they had a connection with Shenley and Claybury which were hospitals mainly for elderly mentally disabled people, many of whom had Alzheimers and other forms of dementia. And they were basically chucked out into the community.
When this had happened the whole thing about community care arose; a lot of it was social care not health care, so responsibility moved from the NHS to Local Authorities. The Labour Party was very largely responsible for undermining the campaign about this.
The Griffiths report.
Margaret Thatcher had taken on a supermarket manager called Griffiths to write all this stuff about community care, and it was a money saving exercise. We tried to run a campaign to make people see that the community care programme was a trick to suggest to people that going to hospital wasn’t a good idea, that they should be taken care of in their own houses and in private mental hospitals not under the NHS. The Labour Party was supporting the community care programme and I can remember the fury here in Ealing when Ealing Council along with others set out to advertise this community care programme. The intention in the Griffiths report was to make people pay for their care. It may have worked if you didn’t try to make it a money saving device which is what they did. When Ealing did the advertising meeting for this you had no less a person than Robin Cook. We knew it was means tested and the response of Robin Cook, who was supposed to be a leftie, his answer to our question about paying for services was “have you read any good books lately”. The Labour Party refused to stand up and say this was only a way of saving money. LHE wrote a critique of this, I think I wrote it (shows copy). There were quite a few Trade Unionists, including full time officers, who did understand what was happening, that you couldn’t care for people with these sort of mental illnesses in their own homes.
Ealing Borough Senior Citizens Action Committee.
The next thing that happened was we started EBSCAG. The first meeting we had 400 people turn up, and we thought this is a good basis, and some other people, including Tony Maugham, who was good and on the right side politically, got involved. I switched from concentrating on health issues to pensions and joined the Greater London Pensioners Association, partly from despair because we were constantly being beaten on the health issue; the big battle we lost was over the elderly hospitals. So I had a year or two when I didn’t do very much, but then I worked on the GLPA, up to now. I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t despaired that we couldn’t get the Trade Unions and health workers to oppose the privatisation and do something effective to maintain these quite valuable hospitals for the elderly, because that’s what they were. I have been tied up with the GLPA and the London branch of the National Pensioners Convention, and there’s a certain amount of friction between the two, though I was always friendly with both. EBSCAG started off very positively but dropped off fairly quickly. I was secretary of that and I produced its monthly bulletin and concentrated on getting the committee to have discussions about the whole question of pensions, which people were quite reluctant to do. EBSCAG didn’t collapse but my view was that we should now and again turn up on the steps of the town hall and protest at what was going on, and draw more people in but it didn’t work. The difficulty comes when the initial period of people getting fired up by the attacks ends and they realise they’re going to have to do some work. So I gave up being chair of EBSCAG. I couldn’t get people to turn up in huge numbers outside the Town Hall or something of the sort. There were a number of people who had previously been CP members who didn’t do anything very much and there were only a few activists.
I spent quite a lot of time in Scotland and when I came back to London the GLPA and the London branch of the NPC had developed in a pretty undesirable way. They should have been one organisation; there was a certain amount of bitterness. I used to go to both as a delegate from my branch, and I knew the secretary, Dot Gibson.
There were a whole lot of pensioners organisations all over the country and very few of them were very successful. I think they were derailed by the whole idea of voluntary sector work and this sort of thing, rather than a class conflict into which the Trade Union movement should join. The NPC which Jack Jones headed for a while, he was a very firm supporter of the National Insurance State Pension but he felt what they ought to do was get TU representatives at a national level to be part of the NPC, which is what happened. But the snag is the TU’s were concentrating on occupational pensions not the state pension. Dot Gibson wanted to concentrate on the state pension – we all did – and we have been proved right and we might have won. There is enormous poverty among pensioners which they try and pretend doesn’t exist. But among pensioners there’s a lot of disagreement about what’s the most important thing. If you go into Morrisons and see people reading papers like the Mail talking about people saving up pensions, we know this can’t work because the return on savings was far too low. Interestingly enough, Greece had probably the best pension as a proportion of national income of any European country. The reason was we now can see the Greek government was pressured by a strong TU movement on the welfare state and especially pensions. The rich in Greece didn’t pay any taxes and that sums the situation up.
In the early years of the EU there was a bloke called Jacques Delors who was mocked by Margaret Thatcher, and he was an upholder of the Social Chapter. All the EU countries except Britain accepted this so there was a certain level of social provision, health services, pensions etc all over the EU. And Britain fell behind except in the NHS, which had its principles laid down after the war, and reaction has found it very difficult to break it. Plenty of studies from the 1960’s on show that to provide health services in this way was the most efficient way. It meant not only that the poorest got a health service but the middle classes got health care cheaper than anywhere else in the world, and this is one of the reasons why we still have quite a mobilisation against cutting it.
I went on holiday to Yugoslavia for about twenty years. As far as I could tell Yugoslavia was getting on OK up until the onset of the civil war, which I still regard as a civil war. Their problem was they were they weren’t really a socialist country, whatever that may mean, but they were deeply in debt, and when Tito was still there they tried to get it back by raising taxes. The big problem was the part to which tourists went all down the Croatian coast had been built up by national taxes. Tito and company wanted to put the money the tourists brought in into the central government, which the Croatians didn’t like. Nobody was faultless but they had a debt. Tito got older and was unable to exert very much authority and some of the people who succeeded him were nationalists, had not been cured of their nationalism. Tito wasn’t like that at all and he used to say when they were dividing up Yugoslavia, never mind where you draw the lines between areas, they were never separate republics – it’s all Yugoslavia.
The real problem for working class people and for Marxists is why haven’t revolutions succeeded, because they haven’t. Trotskyists said if Lenin hadn’t died and Trotsky hadn’t been in the South somewhere the revolution might have pulled through. Well, I’m not sure that’s true. I think one of the things Lenin said at the very end of his active life was ‘we must have more and more democracy’. He wrote this book called State and Revolution which in some ways is like the Big Society concept – he said we must have the Dictatorship of the Proletariat until the population gets educated politically and then we don’t need that any more, but he never returned to that subject. You can’t look at any revolution that has happened and say it’s been a big success from the point of view of the working class and democracy. The nearest to it is Cuba; we don’t know what’s going to happen to Venezuela but it’s a very worrying problem. It’s no good saying there may have been unfavourable international circumstances, for instance Lenin died just five years after the revolution. It’s pointless to speculate if he hadn’t died things might have been different, maybe they wouldn’t have been different. There have been a number of other revolutions since then and they’ve all gone bad. The Chinese one is probably the most successful but we now know the dreadful things Mao did to the peasants. I was writing something for the pensioners magazine a couple of weeks ago more or less praising the enlightenment; because the enlightenment, unlike revolutions, has lived up to its promise by and large. A lot of it depended on colonialism and so on but the enlightenment did not disappoint; but that’s only a sideline.
I’ve thought more and more that the way to go was that more and more production should be turned into forms of social insurance or tax funded systems. I once had the experience of somebody I used to work for, a Nobel prizewinner for penicillin, who I hated because he was a Zionist, who said that the greatest thing that had happened was the introduction of taxation. I thought this was very crude and nonsensical , but I’ve more and more come to realise how important taxation is. I think people assumed ever since the 20’s that if you had a social service, NHS or pensions or education that the Government raised the money to pay for it. We’ve found out that they haven’t been doing that, which is the basis of the present crisis. We were quite wrong in Europe to to think stable societies were being created, with increasingly civilised social systems, when they were doing it all on borrowed money. All the middle classes in the industrial world got carried in with it, this idea that somehow or other you could always buy things on tick. You can’t and it’s no more complicated than that. Some left wing explanations are far too complicated. You can’t go on living in an Alice in Wonderland economy (quotes Financial Times journalist). The bankers were lending money to people who could never possibly pay it back. There are a lot of corollaries to that – growth is not going to solve the problem, growth is going to create a lot more problems; it’s very difficult to see how this is going to work out in the long run.
But what I’ve been trying to get is what are we ultimately trying to get? I don’t go about saying Socialism because there are so many definitions of socialism. Thinking about democracy, socialism and the state, joining the IMG was part of the process. Mandel was head and shoulders above everybody else theoretically, and he was also very sceptical about the loss of democracy. I remember very well when Tariq Ali was leading the struggles in the ’60’s, I was working with the MRC but at Imperial College then. The assembly point for one of the demonstrations was under my building and some people thought it was going to be the final thing, but it passed off very peacefully. It was based on the campaign against the Vietnam war. Must have been 1965, something like that. I was very impressed with Tariq Ali.
Shop Stewards Convention.
We went along to the annual Shop Stewards Convention, which is very SWP dominated. They all had these occupational pension schemes, like the Liverpool dockers, and they clearly didn’t realise they couldn’t win. They were making all sorts of revolutionary speeches about it but they didn’t seem to realise that Marx said capitalism’s rate of return has a tendency to diminish and there’s plenty of evidence that that is true.
The high point of our society, before Thatcher got in, has been unrolled, and it’s very discouraging and lots of people dropped out of activity. Emotionally they thought we’re not getting anywhere. There have been very few people internationally who could develop a real contrary politics. Stiglitz has gone a certain way but he has really backed down or was defeated. So things have still got to turn. I have believed for a very long time that what we needed was equality. You can’t consume at the levels which for instance the American middle class consume at with the level of unemployment we have – physically the planet can’t stand it. It’s hard to know, democratic governments haven’t stood up to the bankers.
When things get as bad as they are and are going to get worse, one thing capitalists hate more than anything else is instability. The consequences of what is happening at the moment, of taxpayer funded things, are going to be quite unstable. You see the left wing organisation in Greece nearly won an election. It’s not predictable. Maybe the whole world will just turn into chaos. If the working class backs down it will be reduced to the most terrible conditions even in the developed world. One of the most important things is the collapse of the cyber economy. More and more economists are beginning to realise this. If you go on recompensing the bankers for their stupid mistakes, it can only be done at the expense of workers, and the middle class as well. The thing to do is to see what can be done to restore the economy based on a far greater degree of equality, based on the concept of not going for ever increasing consumption. Our Labour movement talks about growth not equality. As long as the financial powers are not fundamentally defeated it won’t be possible to do that. Even the mobilisation against what they’re doing to the NHS is nothing like enough. The mass of the labour movement isn’t anywhere near the concept we need. We expect the Trade Unions to lead the fight. If they don’t do it and the Labour Party hasn’t got a different concept of the economy to the Tories do we need a different form of organisation?
Workers of the World Unite is the slogan we really need.