by Martin Odoni

FOREWORD: Today is the 16th of August 2019, and it is the bi-centenary of a notorious atrocity committed by the British Government against its own people in Manchester. A peaceful pro-democracy rally at St. Peter’s Field (very roughly the site of St. Peter’s Square and the surrounding streets today) was broken up by British armed troops on horseback, indiscriminately attacking the crowd with sabres. At least fifteen people were killed, probably more, and over six hundred were injured.

Given that the slaughter happened just four years after the great British victory at The Battle of Waterloo, and reflecting the fact that some of the protesters had served in the armies that fought Napoleon, this infamous act of state ruthlessness was rapidly named, with grim humour, ‘The Peterloo Massacre‘.

Last year, Mike Leigh directed a film chronicling the events that led to the Massacre. I saw the film shortly after its release, and wrote the following review of it on social media. I now reproduce it here to mark the bi-centenary.


All-in-all, certainly not a bad film. The Peterloo Massacre was a critical turning point in British urban history, even more so in the history of Manchester (my adopted hometown), and with the bi-centenary now just months away, this is an appropriate tribute.

As an historical account, it’s reasonably accurate (at least by the dismal standards of cinematic historicals), with the known order-of-events broadly presented correctly – potato hurled at the Prince Regent notwithstanding. (The event that’s based on happened around two years before this.) The script does a very correct and skilled job tying in the terrible events of August 1819 with the backdrop of the Battle of Waterloo just four years earlier. As the film explains through the story of a soldier with shell-shock called Joseph, the rise of political radicalism at the time was largely fuelled by the return from the war of tens of thousands of British soldiers. They had fought long and hard in the Napoleonic Wars, but found when they got home that the economy had become so heavily-geared towards supporting the war-effort that there were now no jobs for all these extra workers. The Government of the era cared not a jot, and the only gratitude they felt for the wartime exploits was directed solely at the Duke Of Wellington. Poverty and deprivation became widespread across Britain, problems that are perhaps described more than portrayed here, but nevertheless accurately so. That poverty led to a growing radicalist movement, demanding suffrage for all working men (women, alas, would have to wait another century, although it is to the film’s credit that it makes clear that women played a very substantial role in the post-Napoleonic radical movement), relief from the high price of bread caused by the Corn Laws, and a fairer wage for workers. This all led to the remarkable mass public meeting at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester in August 1819, with tens of thousands arriving from all over Lancashire.

So the film more or less succeeds as a history lesson. It further has fine visuals, and a feel that is very authentic, with both costumes and scenery that convince that this really is Manchester in the Hanoverian era, and not Lincoln in 2018 (which is where and when it was really filmed).

However, it does less well in other departments. It is a little over-long, with the early stages meandering and cumbersome at times. Several scenes could easily have been cut away with no real loss. And the characterisation as performed on screen is questionable.

The magistrates in Manchester, who gave the order to attack the demonstrators, would be difficult people to feel much sympathy for, but they are so pompous, venal, officious and degenerate here that it almost dehumanises them, to the extent of offering the wrong lesson; the sorts of leaders who order the deaths of innocents are, whether we like it or not, as human as you or I. But the Dickensian-bully stereotype here would have us believe that only caricatures would behave in such a fashion, potentially catching us off-guard in the real world. In particular, Victor McGuire (the guy who played Jack Boswell in Bread) is really quite absurdly over-the-top as Detective Chief Constable Nadin, almost turning him into a Dirty-Harry-with-a-Scouse-accent bad-cop.

Equally, there is little doubt that the real Henry Hunt did let his popularity go to his head. But the way Rory Kinnear portrays him here, he is so vain and so contemptuous of other campaigners that he almost seems like a prima donna celebrity from the 1990s. Samuel Bamford comes across as a likeable buffoon rather than a formidable campaigner in his own right. We can’t say this characterisation is exactly ‘wrong’ because no one alive today would ever have met him, and therefore no one can say for sure that he was all that different from the merry loudmouth seen here. But it doesn’t altogether tally with what we know of him, which suggests something more akin to Wolfie Smith.

Even allowing for the very dark subject matter, the film lacks a degree of humour. There are a couple of mild moments of comic relief, such as the maid, Bessie, apparently thinking the painting of portraits works like a camera would today, and some of the crowd, unable to hear the speeches, grumbling about it like it’s the start of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian. But in a film lasting two-and-a-half hours, it gives the sad and very wrong impression that jokes weren’t invented until the 20th Century. It doesn’t need to be treated as a comedy film of course, far from it, but when the grimness is as unrelenting as this in a film as long as this, it starts to tire the audience.

I like Tim McInnerny being cast as the indolent Prince Regent, a role he performs to perfection, and there is a lovely irony to it. He of course found fame back in the mid-1980s in the first two seasons of Blackadder, playing the Percies of the Wars of the Roses and then Tudor eras. When the third season, set in the Regency period, was being planned, McInnerny was expected to be cast in it as Prince George, performed as another Percy-type figure. But scared of becoming typecast, while also becoming increasingly bored of the character, McInnerny decided to drop out, and so Hugh Laurie was brought in to replace him, playing the Prince in a very different style. Playing the Prince now, and in a style completely removed either from Percy or from Laurie’s George IV, seems to have filled a ‘What-if…?’ gap in McInnerny’s CV rather beautifully.

The portrayal of the Massacre itself is harrowing and haunting, and had me shaking with quiet anger as I watched, clearly what the director intended. Horribly, the notorious – and very real – moment when a baby was trampled to death by a horse is included, although thankfully it is not made graphic, with the baby shown to be wrapped up in a blanket, and so we can’t make him out.

The true death-toll that day at St. Peter’s Field will never be known. It’s officially always been set at fifteen, with over six hundred injuries, but my suspicion after studying the event in school has always been that it was quite a lot higher. The indiscriminate aggression with which the Yeomanry ploughed into the crowd suggests that the minimum death-toll would have to be closer to fifty. It should be remembered that the hundreds of injuries, many with stab wounds from Yeoman rapiers, were just as terrible as the summary deaths, in an era before real hospitals were available to provide effective treatment.

Today, the site of St. Peter’s Field has become St. Peter’s Square and its surrounds. A plaque hangs on a wall of the Radisson Hotel on neighbouring Peter Street as a tribute to those who died or suffered injuries, although sadly, it gets the name of the site slightly wrong. The Square today is a frequent venue for political protests.

The red plaque commemorating Peterloo

A few dozen metres down Peter Street from St. Peter’s Square, this memorial plaque can be seen on the wall of the Radisson Hotel. Note that it wrongly pluralises the name of the site of the Massacre as “St. Peter’s Fields”. There was an earlier version of the plaque, which included the same mistake.

The name ‘Peterloo’ is of course a very dark joke, made in the aftermath of the tragedy, to drum home twin points. Firstly, that some of the victims of the Massacre were themselves soldiers who had fought for their country at Waterloo, and that country, which by any standard should have been taking care of them after they had given so much to protect it, had instead turned swords on them on St. Peter’s Field. Secondly, that after the British Army had been glorified in the four years since Napoleon’s defeat, the soldiers of the Yeomanry had sullied that Army’s name irredeemably thereafter by using the same militaristic approach on a peaceful crowd of protesters – all of them fellow Britons.

The outcry that followed the Peterloo Massacre started a kind of domino effect across the country over the next decade or so, with resistance to Government and industrial oppression becoming angrier, sterner and more pro-active. It ultimately led to the Great Reform Act of 1832, the first in a slow but unstoppable series of electoral reforms that would, by 1969, create suffrage for all British adults over the age of 18. Even now, it is not yet sufficient for what I would call a ‘democracy’, but half a loaf is still better than no bread.

The relevance of Peterloo to modern Britain perhaps needs underlining, but the film fails to join those particular dots. It’s not just that many of our social and political rights today were won partly through the blood of those who fell fighting for suffrage, and that they deserve to be remembered. It’s also that these sorts of crimes of the British state against its own people have never entirely stopped happening. The Bloody Sunday/Bogside Massacre in Derry, in which British soldiers ruthlessly took fourteen lives during a largely-peaceful protest, was less than fifty years ago, and still in the memories of many people alive today. The Battle Of Orgreave, in which the South Yorkshire Police on horseback violently attacked picketing miners and then tried to falsify evidence in order to convict their victims, was as recent as 1984. The strength of Trade Unions was almost completely destroyed in the years that followed. Right now, we have a Government that is trying to sweep away workers’ rights almost entirely. Years of malicious, toxic Government Austerity have crushed many of the working poor into increased poverty and destitution, leaving them in a situation not entirely dissimilar to the one Wellington’s soldiers returned home to two hundred years ago.

We are in danger, as a country, of sleepwalking into the same kind of situation, where we will have to fight the same battle once again that led to the Peterloo Massacre. If we want to prevent it happening again, we have to stop the surrender of our rights now, before we become as vulnerable as the people of Manchester were on 16th August 1819.


by Martin Odoni

Neo-Tories v Arnold Rimmer, to rule a fake meritocracy

The Conservative Leadership contest is down to a binary choice between two real-life caricatures. In the blue corner, we have Boris Johnson, the epitome of ageing 1930’s neo-Toryism. And in the other blue corner, we have Jeremy Hunt, the Arnold Rimmer of Secretaries of State for Health.

Jeremy Hunt & Arnold Rimmer - separated at birth?

One is an authoritarian, lying, conniving, incompetent, self-serving weasel with ideas far above his station. And the other is senior technician aboard the mining ship Red Dwarf.

The suggestion that these two pathological liar-buffoons are the outstanding legislative talent of modern Britain is beneath contempt. That they are the two Prime-Ministers-elect, and that there is no other possible winner of the keys to 10 Downing Street from the current contest kills once and for all the notion of modern Britain being a ‘meritocracy’. That imbeciles like ‘BoJob’ and Rimmer could even get into Parliament would have seemed startling back in the 1970’s. Now they are jostling for the highest office?

How has the United Kingdom fallen to this level?! A country that has had such masterminds governing it as Walpole, Pitt, Peel, Gladstone, Disraeli, Attlee, Macmillan, Wilson… now a smirking ninny like Jeremy Hunt could be following in their footsteps?

Oh well.

Differences between May and Johnson

For all that I have no sympathy for Theresa May, and am not at all sorry to be seeing the back of her, I did know and continue to despair that what was likely to follow her would be even worse. Most likely successor, it seems, is Johnson, probably the most appalling option of the lot.

Boris-and-May - the old lunatic and the new one

The Tory Leadership Contest is entirely an exercise in establishing the precise degree to which things are going to get even worse.

One of the problems with Johnson is he lacks the few good qualities that May did possess. Most particularly, as Prime Minister, she did try at least to maintain some air of restraint in her conduct – sometimes failing as evidenced by her policy towards Syria – whereas Johnson is impulsiveness personified. His head is often ruled by startling adrenaline rushes, which will doubtless make him the most unpredictable Prime Minister of all time. His stewardship will absolutely reek of destabilising habits, from his notoriously lazy inattention-to-detail, his arrogant brusqueness, his incredibly unthinking and crass – often downright racist and sexist – public remarks that seem the product of a World War I aristocracy, his insufferable contempt for accountability, and his mind-twisting sympathy for the rich and powerful supposedly having a ‘hard time’ (which he is far louder about than, say, the growing numbers of people living on the streets, whom he therefore presumably does not think are having as hard a time). Johnson is physically bullying, childishly impatient to the point of having an attention-deficit disorder, and so absent-minded that if the ‘nuclear button’ literally existed, he could wind up pressing it while idly drumming his fingers on the tabletop. Thankfully, it does not literally exist, but that alone is what might save the world from being ‘BoJobbed’ to death.

The abandonment of Darroch

More than this though, what might make Johnson even more of a damning failure in the role is the mix of qualities he has that he shares with May. That suggestion may surprise readers. Despite both being very obviously Austerity-loving, right-wing Conservatives, the overlap between the two would seem to carry no further than that. But study Johnson’s behaviour throughout the Leadership Contest, and, especially when comparing it to May’s conduct as Prime Minister, the resemblance is in fact stronger than that. Johnson is making a lot of the same silly mistakes May did.

The biggest example comes from this very week. The ‘Kim Darroch’ controversy, in which private communications by the UK Ambassador to the US, where Mr Darroch rightly criticised Donald Trump and his circus of an administration in Washington DC as ‘inept’, were leaked to the media. Darroch described Trump as a man who “radiates insecurity” and “will never look competent”.

Darroch’s words were just objective statements-of-fact; the USA is currently run by one of the most incompetent, unstable, and narcissistic man-children ever to see power in a democratic country. (In that regard, Britain seems to be trying to emulate the US by putting Johnson into Downing Street. I have long regarded Trump and Johnson as being almost disturbingly similar men, in both general demeanour, physical appearance, self-absorption, and mental condition. They were even both born in the same city.) But the key thing was that the communications in which Darroch made the criticisms were not public statements. They were necessary words of warning to fellow British civil servants about the type of people they were going to have to deal with while trying to negotiation a new UK trade agreement with the USA after leaving the European Union. These sorts of descriptions will seldom be pleasant, but negotiators need to know, especially when trying to formulate a negotiating strategy, and so Darroch really was just doing his job by informing his colleagues of what they were up against.

Darth Satsuma - Dark Lord of the Pith

USA – this is your President? This? THIS is YOUR President? THIS?!?

Trump, AKA Darth Satsuma, Dark Lord of the Pith, was having none of it. While being possibly the single most wildly abusive public figure in northern hemisphere politics, his skin is so notoriously wafer-thin that any slight or criticism always provokes a sharp, humourless and vengeful retort. Trump, continuing his sophisticated method of Government-by-Twitter-feed, tweeted that Darroch was a “wacky ambassador” and “a very stupid guy”. In the process, Trump of course allowed himself to – er, how can I put this succinctly? Oh, I know! – Trump allowed himself to radiate insecurity, insisting that he and his people would “no longer deal with” Darroch.

On Tuesday evening, Johnson and Hunt were doing a televised debate as part of the Leadership Contest. Hunt, to his credit, spoke up in defence of Darroch. Johnson, rather blabbing around the discussion, did not.

Johnson has shown he will not stand up to Trump

Whether one feels that Darroch has been hard-done-by or not, it was noticeably cowardly of Johnson to offer zero pushback against Trump’s pettiness, even as it was proving Darroch’s very point. Britain’s hopes of getting a decent trade deal out of the USA after Brexit demands the best, most experienced negotiators. Losing perhaps their very best is a terrible blow, and a prospective Prime Minister needs to fight for his nation’s own reasonable interests, rather than cave in to the egomania of a puerile septuagenarian. But also, it was chillingly reminiscent of May’s repeated inability to tell Trump that his nationalist-extremist policies were completely unacceptable. Let us recall May’s lily-livered dodging of the issue of Trump’s ban on refugees from Muslim countries early in 2017. And a few months later, May’s chicken-like non-reaction to Trump arrogantly pulling the USA out of the Paris Accord on Climate Change. These two bits of recent history ‘rhyme’ with events this week, yes?

Given Jeremy Corbyn is always being smeared as a man who would ‘sell out’ Britain if he became Prime Minister, it is quite noteworthy that, even before reaching Downing Street, Johnson is already selling out one of Britain’s most able civil servants in order to curry favour with a foreign President. The patriotic right, eh?

Boris Johnson sells out Kim Darroch

Johnson sells out one of Britain’s finest diplomats to please an American man-baby, but Jeremy Corbyn is the politician who is unpatriotic?

In the event, Corbyn’s response to the matter has been considerably more strident.

The invisible Prime Minister

Around the time that Trump was raising two fingers to the critical struggle against Climate Change, there was of course a General Election going on. May had called it, and has clearly regretted doing so every day ever since. One of the problems with May’s decision was her whole approach to the campaign. It was, again, incredibly cowardly. Most particular was her now-legendary tendency to respond to almost any question she was asked with the declaration that,

“We need strong and stable Government”

and that the election of Jeremy Corbyn would create,

“A coalition of chaos.”

May seemed incapable of saying anything that had not been pre-scripted, and every answer was a robotic soundbite, almost always irrelevant to the questions she was asked. It soon began to drive the British public up the wall. But another failure lay therein; she seemed unable to realise that, by refusing to offer the slightest flexibility, she was doing her chances more harm than good. She refused to take the tiniest chance with anything. It made her look timid, deceitful and evasive, and that is because she was, and is.

This evasive timidity extended to May vetting the media before letting them attend press conferences. On one occasion, a number of non-approved journalists were actually locked in a room, (which was almost certainly illegal) to keep them away from May while she was speaking to reporters who had been granted her approval.

Most pertinent to the Johnson comparison though, May refused to attend all-but-one of the televised debates arranged between party leaders. The only one she went to was an interview/Q-&-A session opposite Jeremy Corbyn, but even that was not a debate or head-to-head. So shocking was May’s courage-shortfall that she even sent Amber Rudd, still reeling from the death of her father at the start of that week, to stand in for her at one of the debates.

The invisible blob

Throughout the present Leadership Contest, Boris Johnson has been displaying the same, er, shall we call it shyness? Or perhaps ‘displaying’ is the wrong word. Not wishing to body-shame anyone (and being very far from a shining specimen of physical fitness myself) I have to say Johnson is a difficult figure to miss, and yet he has been very much the invisible blob for long stretches of this Leadership Contest. He refused to take part in any TV debates until after the second ballot. The reason he gave for that was that these sorts of debates are usually over-crowded, which is a good point, but probably not his real reason. In reality, he knew that, as the early front-runner, he would be targeted by opponents the most, and clearly had more to lose than to gain by taking part.

Such negative tactics can be seen as a wise strategy for the candidate who is quickest out-of-the-traps. But the thing is, it was precisely that same thinking behind May’s negative approach to the General Election in 2017, and the Tories ended up losing seats after being tipped to win a landslide. There were other reasons why the campaign failed, including some dreadfully ham-fisted moments among May’s Cabinet colleagues. But even so, there is little doubt that there was also a growing feeling across the country of, “Would we be electing a scared little wimp if we voted for her?” which allowed a comparatively vibrant and positive Labour campaign to come surging back in almost no time at all. There is a danger for Johnson that his own approach has rather surrendered the initiative to Hunt, whose campaign, while nothing worthy of a standing ovation, has been more positive and kept him more consistently in the public eye.

U-turn if Johnson wants to

One of the greatest and most self-destructive mistakes May made during the 2017 Election though was a policy that was put into the Conservative Manifesto. Nicknamed The Dementia Tax, it was a typically-Tory attempt to increase the burden, admittedly somewhat more mildly than many people realised, of social care for sufferers of dementia onto the very people who need the care. The reaction to the policy was almost universally hostile, including among many Tory supporters, a large proportion of whom are themselves elderly. May suddenly realised that promising to make elderly people pay more money was a silly Election pledge to make when many of those elderly people were among the support she was counting on.

May panicked at the general expressions of disgust nationwide, and in an unprecedentedly-quick U-turn – the first ever Manifesto pledge to be formally rescinded before the Election had even arrived – she substantially altered the policy. She then compounded this flavourful mixture of policy dull-wittery and easy timidity by trying to pretend that she had not changed anything, insulting the intelligence of the British people.

Now, Boris Johnson had made a somewhat vague commitment to hold an inquiry into the ongoing scourge of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party – a far bigger and much more dangerous problem than the wildly-exaggerated anti-Semitism in the Labour Party furore.

Within a couple of weeks, Johnson had retreated from this, and, copying May’s conduct almost exactly, altered the policy before the Contest was even done, now saying he favoured a ‘general investigation’ into prejudice. Why did he do this? He says he was influenced by the thoughts of Saj Javid. More likely, Johnson realised that an inquiry into Islamophobia in an Islamophobic party is a silly Election pledge to make when many of the Islamophobes in question were among the support he was counting on.

A Johnson premiership would be a gift to Labour

May’s penny-pinching Manifesto was uncosted.

Johnson is promising a juicy bushel of tax cuts that are uncosted.

In an act of flagrant anti-constitutionalism, May tried to by-pass Parliament to activate Article-50.

In a proposal of flagrant anti-constitutionalism, Johnson is threatening to shut down Parliament in order to force through a No-Deal Brexit.

As I said earlier, Johnson is probably the single worst current MP who could become Prime Minister. Yes, worse even than Jacob Rees-Mogg, or the medieval demons in the Democratic Unionist Party. But curiously, Johnson is despised by many in the Parliamentary Conservative Party, especially among Remainer MP’s. Were there a Motion Of No Confidence in his Government, there is a serious danger that enough Tories would rebel for the Motion to pass.

So paradoxically, Johnson’s election may be the greatest chance of an imminent Labour Government.

by Martin Odoni

Hopefully everyone recalls in early-April last year that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad was accused of launching a chemical weapons attack against the city of Douma, as part of the Syrian Civil War. An airstrike by bombers of the Syrian Air Force on the city threw up clouds of smoke and dust that triggered an apparent allergic response in the local population on the ground. Photographs and video of those affected went around the world, including of children choking and foaming at the mouth, and were taken as evidence that there had been chlorine gas in the warheads.

However, early investigation by Robert Fisk of the Independent, when he arrived in Douma a few days later, raised severe doubts about the use of chemical weapons in the attack. Conversations with local medical professionals led him to conclude that the supposed ‘allergic reaction’ was probably not chemical poisoning, but hypoxia i.e. the victims had been breathing in too much smoke and brick dust, which had been thrown up into the air by explosions brought on by ordinary conventional warheads.

By this point, Western Governments, namely the USA, the UK, and France, had carried out retaliatory airstrikes that had not been authorised by the United Nations. The legality of these strikes was already highly doubtful, but with the possibility that the pretext behind them – deterring further use of chemical weapons – was false, any legal ambiguity would be gone. It was highly debatable whether the reckless airstrikes were even necessary, especially as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had sent in investigators to check for evidence of any illegal weapons. The airstrikes, if anything, were bound to hamper any such investigation, raising the unsettling possibility that they were carried out for precisely that purpose, in the hopes of preventing Assad from being cleared of such a crime.

Early investigation did find traces of chlorine at the site of the airstrikes, although did not establish whether it was military-grade chlorine gas. The OPCW investigators found two gas cylinders in the area, and there was a strong possibility that the detected chlorine may have been stored in them – perhaps for industrial purposes, perhaps for more nefarious reasons – and was released from them during the bombardment, perhaps due to the damage inflicted.

One of the gas cylinders was on the top floor patio/terrace of an apartment block.

The second was found lying on a bed in a top floor apartment of a separate building. At first glance, it appeared it was originally stored in the roof above the room, but there was a massive hole in the roof that might have caused it to fall through. The hole was originally thought to have possibly been caused by the airstrikes.

In the last few days, a 15-page report from the OPCW, drafted in February this year, has been leaked online, with the findings of analysis of the cylinders, and their surroundings. Study of the report leaves the reader in no doubt as to why Donald Trump, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron have not made any attempt to draw attention to it.

The draft report, written by Ian Henderson, an OPCW engineer of some twenty years’ standing, concluded from a lot of complex analysis that,

The dimensions, characteristics and appearance of the cylinders and the surrounding scene of the incidents, were inconsistent with what would have been expected in the case of either cylinder having been delivered from an aircraft. In each case the alternative hypothesis [that the cylinders were of a standard design used for liquefied chlorine storage and had been manually placed in the locations where they were later found] produced the only plausible explanation for observations at the scene… Observations at the scene of the two locations, together with subsequent analysis, suggest that there is a higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed at those two locations rather than being delivered from aircraft.

[Emphasis added.]

Conclusions of OPCW investigation in Douma

Screenshot from page 8 of the OPCW report

The report was published this week by the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (WGSPM). They said of it that it establishes

beyond reasonable doubt that the alleged chemical attack in Douma on 7 April 2018 was staged. [Emphasis added.]

Now, if we go back almost exactly another year, we should remember a similarly ugly story at the town of Khan Sheikhoun, in which it was alleged that the Assad regime had again launched chemical weapons during an airstrike in April 2017. The ‘evidence’ to this effect was a small crater in the middle of the main road of the city, which appeared to have some kind of ruptured gas canister at its trough. Professor Ted Postol, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published a comprehensive report explaining why he had concluded that the evidence was inconsistent with the use of air-to-ground chemical weapons, and why the damage to the canister in the crater was inconsistent with a launch from the air. (Screenshots of the report can be seen at the foot of this article.) He went as far as to accuse a report accusing Assad of chemical-weapon-use published by the White House in Washington DC of being ‘fabricated’.

This week, Professor Postol has also assessed the leaked OPCW report from Douma; –

Evidence collected by the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM)… indicates two analyzed chlorine cylinder attacks were staged in April 2018 in Douma. The holes in the reinforced concrete roofs that were supposedly produced by high-speed impacts (impact at speeds of perhaps 100 m/s or more, 250 mph) of industrial chlorine canisters dropped from helicopters were instead created by earlier explosions of either artillery rockets or mortar shells. In one event a chlorine canister that was damaged on another occasion was placed on the roof with its head inserted into an existing crater hole, and in the other case a damaged chlorine cylinder was placed on a bed supposedly after it penetrated the building roof and bounced from its original trajectory into a bed. In both cases the damage to the chlorine cylinders was incompatible with the damage to the surroundings that was allegedly caused by the cylinder impacts. As such, 35 deaths that were originally attributed to these staged chlorine events cannot be explained and it cannot be ruled out that these people were murdered as part of the staging effort.” [Emphasis added.]

This all should have been headline news before the start of March. Instead, it appears to have been buried, not just by the Governments of the US, UK and France, but also by the world media, and by the OPCW itself, which made no mention of these findings in its report to the UN.

The OPCW has confirmed that the document is the genuine article, and has stated that it is investigating the leak. That is all well and good, but the Organisation has nothing to say about the scandal of the document being kept secret in the first place.

The unbearable stink of political corruption can be smelt coming from all angles of this latest chapter. That a crime was committed by the US, UK and France when they launched the ‘punitive’ airstrikes is difficult to argue with, but there was always a likelihood that people would largely shrug their shoulders about it in the event that it was established that Assad really was using chemical weapons. The probable refrain would have been, “We haven’t got the time for legal niceties to be sorted out, people are being gassed in the most horrific way devised by Man.”

But now, with strong evidence that the whole ‘gas attack’ angle was staged to make a conventional attack look like an explicit violation of International Law, the responding violation of International Law by the three Western Governments becomes as unnecessary as it is illegal. And that makes it an act of corruption too.

Add in events in Eastern Ghouta in 2013, where significant doubts also linger about Assad’s supposed use of chemical weapons, and again the aforementioned events in Khan Sheikhoun in 2017, and the pattern that stands out is not the brutality of Assad. It is the relentless desperation of his opponents both in Syria and in the West to convince everyone of his brutality. That Assad has at times been a bloody dictator is impossible to dispute, but the crimes he, and his father before him, have truly committed (Hafez al-Assad was probably one of the leading minds behind the Lockerbie Bombing of 1988, for instance, even though the atrocity has always been officially blamed on the then-dictator of Libya, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi) should be enough to condemn the regime; there should be no need to keep trying to invent other crimes that simply do not leave behind the evidence that they would.

Map of the Middle East

The Western determination to bring down the Syrian Government always has US/European strategic interests at its heart. Yes, there are some politicians who support the efforts for genuine humanitarian reasons, but it is long past time that everybody recognised that what Governments want from intervention is entirely self-serving. In this case, the US, the UK and France are concerned about Syria’s close ties to Russia, as well as its alliance with Iran. Preventing Russia from expanding its sphere of influence along old ‘Soviet-Union’ lines is seen as an end in itself. Meanwhile, the USA in particular wishes to bring down the Iranian regime, which already exercises a powerful influence over neighbouring Iraq, and is extending its reach into Syria. Iran and its old enemy, Saudi Arabia, are using Syria as a proxy war-zone in much the same way they are also exploiting the Yemeni Civil War. (The Shi-ite Republic has been a thorn in the flesh of American and British oil interests in the region since it began in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Arguably, the Iranian problems went back to the time its secular Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, tried to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951, leading to an Anglo-American coup, which removed him from power two years later.)

External interference in Yemen's Civil War explained

Turkey and Israel are key allies of the West, as they spare the British and the Americans the enormous practical difficulty of having to station their own armies and navies in huge numbers in the region to patrol the eastern Mediterranean and guard its oil shipping routes. Turkey and Israel also fear Iran’s growing power in Syria; Turkey in particular as it shares a long border with Syria, and the lands around it are almost ungovernable as it is due to rebellions by Kurdish freedom fighters. The thought of that border coming under the control of Iranian sympathisers frightens the Government in Ankara. Israel also shares a border, albeit a much shorter one, with Syria, and is almost paranoid in its fear of the reach of Iran, and so is eager to see Assad fall as well.

All of which explains the real reasons why Governments in Europe and North America keep trying to stitch up Assad, and co-operating in stitch-ups created by Assad’s wartime enemies. Some of these enemies, I cannot reiterate enough, make Assad, brutal though he may be, look almost philanthropic, especially the former ‘al-Nusra Front‘.

So we understand why Trump, May and Macron co-operated with the staged ‘chemical attack’ in Douma. What we now need to know is how. Or to put that more precisely, how much did their Governments know in advance about the stitch-up? Were they aware beforehand that the evidence was going to be faked? Or were they just being opportunistic? More disturbingly still, did they assist in some way in the faking of the evidence to begin with? That seems unlikely on the face of it, given the local rebel groups probably would not need help with it, but it cannot be discounted.

In any event, the Governments of the USA, the UK, and France, have all committed a war-crime, and one that can no longer be extenuated on the grounds of it being an ‘essential intervention’ to prevent chemical weapon use against civilians, because that use was not happening. That the mainstream media in the West have kept completely silent about this demonstrates once more how hollow the term ‘Freedom of the press‘ continues to ring.

Just like Tony Blair before her – albeit for less extreme reasons – Theresa May is a British Prime Minister who must be made to stand in the dock in the Hague, for violating International Law.

While the media keep their lips zipped about this, there is zero chance of that happening.


Professor Ted Postol’s Report from 2017 on the Khan Sheikhoun Attack; –


by Martin Odoni

I had planned to resist the temptation to write – in considerable amusement – about one of this week’s lighter bits of news; Jonathan Hoffman, perhaps the most limited and narrow-minded Zionist bigot in Britain, is in trouble with the law. The former Chairman of the Zionist Federation of Britain and Ireland (ugh, so vainglorious) and I have crossed swords over social media a few times over the last couple of years, and he is one of the most bullying people I have ever encountered online – worse even than Christopher Whittle. So it was difficult to resist having a written gloat at his troubles. Too difficult, as it turns out, because I have seen a statement about it he put up on his Facebook timeline, and I have to let everyone have a quick laugh at it.

To explain, Hoffman and his fellow anti-Palestinian intimidation artist, Damian Lenszner, are facing charges of common assault and the use of threatening words and behaviour. Lenszner faces an additional charge of assault by beating. The two defendants were due to appear in court this week, but both ‘mysteriously’ failed to turn up. Warrants were therefore issued for their arrest. (Subsequently withdrawn when they both reported in of their own volition, I must emphasise.)

Now, Hoffman has put up his version of the events of his O.J.-Simpson-like flight from the long-arm of the law on Facebook, as I say, linked to an article in the Jewish Chronicle about the episode. and here is a screencap of it; –

Hoffman on the run from the law!

Jonathan Hoffman makes his excuse for missing court

Before I get to the guts of my response, is it not hilarious to see a Zionist-imperialist like Hoffman complaining about his coverage in a Zionist-imperialist rag like the Jewish Chronicle? That would not be entirely unlike Donald Trump complaining about Fox News Channel being really harsh on him.

But I digress. Let us have a quick, snigger-saturated breakdown of Hoffman’s whines; –

“The reason I failed to appear is bcos[sic] I never got the letter.”

Oh yes, original one there, Mr Heffalump, we can be confident no one has ever heard that one before. Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt, it does not explain why Lenszner failed to show up either. Did he ‘not receive his letter’ either? Wow, courier services in this country have really gone downhill since the Royal Mail was privatised by Hoffman’s beloved Conservatives.

“The journalist knows this . Why has she not printed it? This is a trumped up charge with zero evidence.”

Urrrggghhhh, apologies for the delay there, I just had to go and be violently sick.

Is Hufflepuff kidding?! 

He must be, right? This is Jonathan Hoffman complaining about ‘trumped-up charges with zero evidence’?! I mean, seriously – Jonathan Huffing-and-Puffing is complaining about trumped-up charges, with his history of McCarthyite dirty behaviour? He is upset about someone supposedly manipulating legal mechanisms against him, when he reports Labour members to the party’s compliance unit so frequently that he has their phone number on speed-dial?

Once again, anyone trying to prove Jeremy Corbyn is one hundred per cent right about Zionists and their total lack of any sense of irony would be wasting effort. Zionists themselves make it absolutely self-evident every day!

“I will fight it strenuously. How appalling that we are charged for opposing Israel Hate”

No, Jimmy Hoffa, you have not been charged for ‘opposing Israel hate’. Opposing hatred of Israel is not a crime – although it could be argued that it should be, given what Israel does to the Palestinians; the Land Day Massacre was a year ago today, and you still try to blame the victims. You have been charged for – or rather with – physical assault and general threatening behaviour. Now, whether you are guilty or not, those are actually against the law in their own right, no matter which ideology – if any – they are carried out in order to advance.

If you are innocent of assaulting and threatening people, you will probably be cleared. If you are guilty of assaulting and threatening people, you will probably be convicted. Israel does not enter into this. It is that simple. Having said that, it is a little difficult to believe you are innocent, given your thuggish past, and your loving associations with hard-right fringe groups like the EDL and Kach Party supporters.

David Hoffman picture of Hoffman, Garfield and Roberta Moore

Jonathan Hoffman proving that British Zionists have nothing to do with neo-Nazi groups, by marching with Roberta Moore of the EDL and the Kach Party.

In any event, the wish to see you behind bars is less to do with your opposition to hatred of Israel, and more to do with your bloody-minded and racist enthusiasm for hatred of Palestinians.

“but Nazim Ali – who said that Zionists were responsible for the Grenfell tragedy – has not been charged.”

Okay, I will treat this bit semi-seriously. Nazim Ali’s remarks about Zionism and the Grenfell Tower Fire were foolish and irresponsible, and he definitely should not have said them. However, there are two problems with Jonathan Hissyfit raising them in this context; –

1) They are utterly irrelevant to the matter of Hoffman apparently committing a physical assault. Hoffman raising them appears to be just the flailing, hapless ‘whataboutery’ of a short-tempered, aggressive old man who knows he is in big trouble and is angling for sympathy about a supposed ‘double-standard’. But there is no double-standard, as what Ali said is not comparable to what Hoffman allegedly did. If Hoffman did assault someone – and it would hardly be out-of-character if he did – then he has committed a crime for he which he must be prosecuted. That is true irrespective of any controversial public remarks someone else made on a different matter.

2) If you study his words, Ali was talking about corporations being responsible for the appallingly shoddy safety standards at Grenfell. That he associated them with Zionism was a non-sequitur, and made his statement sound a little idiotic by their obvious inference, but they were not inaccurate as such. So what does Hoffman think Ali can be charged with exactly? It cannot be slander, given nothing Ali said was inaccurate, even if the inferred conclusion was. It cannot be racial hatred, due to Zionism not being the same as Judaism or Jewry, and definitely not being a racial group.

(Many Jews, like me, are not Zionists, and many Zionists are not Jews. Indeed, an awful lot of non-Jewish Zionists are anti-Semites. Having a Jewish State in the world is very handy for political anti-Semitism, as it means there is somewhere to which Jews can be sent away.)

You see? Hoffman is trying to claim that two quite separate incidents effectively carry equal weight, and they simply do not.

Jonathan Hoffman bullies, smears, threatens and lies so routinely and so instinctively that he no longer notices doing any of it. This is why, when he finally gets taken to task, he is convinced that he is a ‘victim’. Because he has simply stopped noticing the reasons why he is not.

In that regard, Hoffman resembles Tommy Robinson, only even less intelligent.

And yes, Hoffman, you can quote me on that.

by Martin Odoni

“Eleven years ago, we rescued Britain from the parlous state to which socialism had brought it.” – Margaret Thatcher, 1990.

The 1970s have almost become a calendar-shaped bogeyman in modern political discourse. They are considered in some quarters to be the greatest trough in British day-to-day life. A hell-on-Earth era of unmanageable misery and chaos, the nation’s survival of which should be seen as a miracle of Biblical proportions. The escape from this era of mind-numbing bleakness and despair is one for which we should supposedly drop to our knees and praise the highest power. And return to the way everything was done in the 1970s, we are warned, must be avoided at absolutely any cost! “Anything,” we are told, “has to be better than that!”

The problems of the 1970s are, in short, seemingly regarded in some circles as worse than the Blitz, the Norman Conquest, the Black Death, and the cholera epidemic of the 1830s. The very term, “We don’t want to go back to the 1970s!” has almost become the real world equivalent of the pigs from Animal Farm warning, “Surely, comrades, you don’t want Jones back, do you?”

Now, I do not wish to make light of the issues of the 1970s. There were indeed serious industrial and economic problems during that era in the United Kingdom, by which successive Governments were brought to their knees in their struggles to solve. Nonetheless, life in that decade was not exactly the perpetual living purgatory of which we are often told. Having been born in 1975, my own memories of the decade are scant, but I have enough knowledge to say that what is often described as ‘misery’ was more just ‘inconvenience’. Inconvenience, what is more, that was both intermittent and far less widespread than the media, at the time and subsequently, liked to claim. More importantly, there is a tendency to blame these problems on the wrong causes.

The problems of the 70s had roots much earlier

The problems that came to a head in the 1970s had in fact been simmering for decades beforehand. British industry in particular had been struggling since the Second World War. Thanks to the Blitz, a significant amount of the country’s industrial base had been damaged or destroyed, while the strain of trying to supply the war effort had left the surviving remnant rather worn out by the return of peace in 1945. It was also somewhat obsolete, and smaller in capacity by far than the two industrial ‘super-powers’ of the new era, the United States of America and the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics.

With this decline, the British were no longer able to maintain control of their Empire, meaning that the act of procuring imported resources from abroad now had the added inconvenience of actually having to pay for all of them. Therefore, the British Government had to start paying attention to bothersome details like balance-of-trade i.e. making sure that the value of imports did not consistently outweigh the value of exports. The Conservative Governments of the 1950s, led by economic third-raters such as Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, frequently failed in this endeavour.

The Bretton Woods financial system

The ‘Bretton Woods‘ system of international finance, designed and implemented in the 1940s, introduced fixed exchange rates, where the values of all other currencies in the agreement were ‘pegged’ to the value of the US dollar, which was in turn pegged to the price of gold – 35 dollars to the ounce. This made sense, as the US held most of the gold in the world at that time. The value of a currency would be kept roughly the same by buying and selling reserves of it. For instance, if the British pound became too weak, the Bank of England would start buying reserves of sterling on global markets, in exchange for other currencies it held in its reserves, reducing the supply of pounds overseas while upping demand for them. This exerted an upwards pressure on the pound’s international value. By the same measure, any time the pound was starting to get too strong and was in danger of increasing its value above the agreed exchange rate, the Bank of England would print more money and put it into overseas markets in exchange for foreign reserves, increasing the international supply of sterling to match demand, and exerting a downward pressure on its value.

Bretton Woods also introduced the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These played a priceless role. They would lend reserves of foreign monies to countries whose own native currencies were depreciating, and which did not have sufficient overseas reserves of their own with which to buy back their own money from global markets. Once enough of a country’s native currency had been bought back to ease the pressure, the country then had to concentrate on repaying the IMF.

This system was very, very effective at stabilising international finance, and preventing the economic chaos of the 1930s that had led to the Second World War. Bretton Woods carried on barely-challenged for over twenty years.

The first devaluation crisis

Even so, during these two decades, the UK had twice run into severe difficulties, due to the exchange rate of sterling being pegged too high. At the outset the exchange rate the pound had been pegged to was $4.03 – clearly much too high to maintain given the war-exhaustion of British industry at that point. Clement Attlee’s Labour Government had correctly accepted a loan from the USA to fund a comprehensive rebuilding program, but carelessly accepted a condition that the pound should become freely-exchangeable with the US dollar on open markets, starting from 1947-8. With US industry booming and British industry still struggling to find its feet again, once the condition of free exchange kicked in, holders of sterling inevitably started dumping the pound and buying up dollars in a mad rush. The pound immediately started sliding in value, violating within hours the pegged exchange rate the Government had committed to. In a desperate bid to stop the run-on-the-pound, Attlee was forced to impose a massive 30% devaluation of sterling, dropping its ‘pegged’ rate to just $2.80. With the pound now exchanging for considerably less in dollars than it had previously, holders of sterling no longer had as much to gain by selling, and the slide in the pound’s value came to a halt.

This new exchange rate was maintained through to the late-1960s, but it was under another Labour Government, that of Harold Wilson, that economic and industrial problems finally became so pressing that another devaluation was unavoidable.

Tory profligacy

After the Conservative Government of Harold MacMillan had made the questionable decision to make the pound fully convertible with all other currencies in 1958, its value had become a lot more vulnerable to international pressures. With unimpressive British economic performance in the early 1960s, investors started selling the pound, again weakening its value. The UK borrowed foreign reserves from the IMF with which to buy back sterling from overseas markets, re-stabilising its value. But foreign reserves were soon exhausted, and the British Government needed to pay the IMF back.

To add to difficulties, the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, Reginald Maudling, unveiled a large package of fresh public spending. This package was officially called Run For Growth, but was effectively an attempt at ‘buying’ extra votes at the 1964 General Election, with the aim of keeping a tiring Conservative administration in power a bit longer. Maudling’s gambit failed, and Wilson won with a majority of just four seats to form the first Labour Government in thirteen years. The effect this spending did have was to up aggregate demand at a time when industry was too sluggish to meet it, causing inflation to rise.

Harold Wilson becomes Prime Minister

Therefore, Wilson, who had an ambitious program of technology-based reforms planned for the economy, inherited a very uncomfortable economic situation that was to keep hampering his attempts to implement his plans. The country still had to find sufficient foreign capital to repay the IMF, while inflation was rising. In order to stabilise the pound’s value and increase foreign reserves, Wilson wanted to increase exports while deterring demand for imported goods on the domestic market. Fewer imports would mean fewer foreign reserves being spent, and higher exports might create a surplus that could be used to buy up stocks of foreign currency and use it to pay back the IMF. An increase in exports would also help to ‘anchor’ the value of the pound, as purchases of British exports would require pounds to begin with, meaning demand for sterling was rising.

It would have been most effective to devalue the pound again in 1965. That would again have deterred investors from selling pounds if they were to get less in return for them, while also making imported goods more expensive on the domestic market; importers would have to spend a higher number of pounds to import the same amount of goods from abroad, and increase prices they charged for them to compensate, making them less attractive to British consumers. At the same time, British export goods would become more competitive overseas; a cheaper pound would mean importers in other countries could buy up British goods more cheaply. Britain’s balance-of-trade would immediately have improved.

Wilson was reluctant to devalue though, partly on grounds of sterling being a reserve currency held in large amounts by developing countries that might be hurt by the sudden decline in worth of their holdings. Even more though, he was unwilling to make the move while he had such a slim majority in Parliament. In the 1960s, a silly, romantic notion of the pound’s value being a ‘patriotic virtue’ was still dominant around the country, especially among people with little economic knowledge – which was the great majority. So Wilson held fire.

Fortunately for Labour, the Tories were in considerable disarray. With their popularity hitting rock-bottom in 1966, Wilson called another General Election, and this time won by a near-landslide. Having secured an emphatic majority of 97 in the House of Commons, Wilson was now in an ideal position to devalue, and still have plenty of years ahead to recover from any political damage it caused, but again he was unwilling to risk it.

Wilson finally accepts the inevitable and devalues

It was only when 1967 proved to be a particularly bad year for British trade that Wilson finally relented. The Six-Day War between Israel and its neighbours had badly disrupted the oil market in the Middle East, causing fuel prices to rise. The UK therefore had to spend more on importing oil, causing its import costs to go up. Growth worldwide was affected by the same pressures, reducing global spending power, and British exports were going down accordingly. Unemployment started rising due to sluggish domestic demand, while a dock-workers’ strike hampered British exports further. The pound was back under heavy pressure, and Wilson at last accepted the inevitable on the 19th of November. He devalued the pound from $2.80 to $2.40, a sizeable 14% reduction, and delivered a televised speech to the country in which he attempted to reassure the British populace that “the pound here in Britain, in your pocket or purse or in your bank, has [not] been devalued”.

This was not intended as a lie, as there would indeed be no direct effect on the value of the pound on domestic markets, at least not for some months. And what effect it did have on prices would largely be confined to imported goods. But there was an enormous furore in the media and in Parliament against Wilson, who was derided as incompetent for failing to maintain the pound’s value, and deceitful for claiming that the pound had not lost any domestic value. In the modern era, we are well used to contrived Tory outrage of course, but this was another example of it from an earlier time.

In spite of remaining the dominant figure in British politics for most of the next nine years, Wilson’s reputation, fairly or otherwise, never entirely recovered from the devaluation ‘crisis’. Although the performance of the economy did improve somewhat over the next three years, and the balance-of-trade figures generally moved back into the positive for most of that time, it did not prove enough for Labour. The party’s performance in the opinion polls had improved in 1969-70, enough for Wilson to risk calling another Election one year early. But the balance-of-trade figures were published a few days before the country went to the polls, and they were in deficit for the first time in months. That did for Labour’s hopes.

Labour lost over seventy seats, while the Tories gained sixty-nine, and won with a modest but workable majority of thirty-one.

The rise of Edward Heath – and all hell breaks loose

Edward ‘Ted’ Heath, who had become Tory leader in 1965, had for the most part had a miserable time as Leader of the Opposition. He and Wilson famously despised each other, and up until devaluation, Wilson had largely swatted Heath around at the despatch box of the House of Commons with merry ease.

Harold Wilson and Edward Heath

Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, two notoriously bitter rivals who dominated British politics from 1964 to 1976.

After 1967, in which Heath had made as much political capital as he could out of Wilson’s devaluation predicament, the Tory leader’s fortunes had improved somewhat, and he had even enjoyed a couple of years ahead in the polls. Even so, it came as a shock when Heath won the 1970 Election, especially given that Wilson had risked calling it a year early.

1970 was a tremendous vindication for Heath, after years of being undermined by many in his own party. He was the first ever leader of the Tories who had emerged from a working class background – even if his ‘BBC accent’ might have given the reverse impression – and that meant he was unlikely ever to be given much patience by the aristocratic and plutocratic ‘blue-bloods’ who still dominated the Conservative Party. Now, if he so wished, Heath could have thumbed his nose at his pompous critics, as he stood on the front steps of the most powerful office in the land. To his credit, he did no such thing. However, given what was to happen over the next four years, it might have been better for his posterity if he had never made it to 10 Downing Street.

Heath was a Prime Minister for whom it is possible to feel genuine sympathy, as he did suffer a lot of very bad luck during his time in office. But at the same time, he also made some terribly naive mistakes, for which he really had no one to blame but himself.

Heath got his first stroke of bad luck as Prime Minister just over one month after winning the Election. Iain MacLeod, his newly-appointed Chancellor, and rated by many as the ablest man in the Conservative Parliamentary Party of the time – certainly one of the most experienced – suddenly died of a heart attack. Personally, it was a sad loss for Heath, for whom MacLeod was a respected old friend. Politically, it was a disaster for him. Not only was MacLeod a very sharp and capable minister and debater, he was also one of Heath’s closest and most-trusted advisors. Moreover, he was probably the most capable economic mind in the entire Cabinet. Had he not died, it is just possible that at least some of the chaos of the 1970s would have been avoided.

Heath had run his Election campaign on a platform of widescale withdrawal of Government from running or intervening in British industry. He had come to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that the policy encouraged by John Maynard-Keynes of investing state money into industry during recessions to re-stimulate the economy had started to cause stagnation. Failing businesses would often be bailed out by Government grants so they could carry on trading, and not have to lay off staff, and so slow down rises in unemployment. The down side, as Heath saw it, was that failing businesses, knowing that they could probably get a bail-out, no longer had the same incentives to reform or improve their practices or strive for greater efficiency.

Heath therefore agreed to give industries far more freedom of action, while at the same time, making it clear to them that he would not come running when misfiring firms got into trouble. This strategy was broadly in line with the new ‘Monetarist‘ thinking of Milton Friedman (even though Heath had never really been terribly taken with Friedman’s ideas). Heath anticipated a whirlwind of initiative and activity from business leaders, freed from the ‘shackles’ of state interference.

Sadly for Heath’s hypothesis, his first two years in office did not produce much good economic news at all. Again, bad luck played a role. In the USA, President Richard Nixon, struggling to control growing inflation problems caused by the demands of the unending Vietnam War, suddenly abandoned the Bretton Woods System. He had initially tried to devalue the dollar against the value of gold to stop its slide, but this simply caused holders of ‘greenbacks’ to exchange money for gold, causing the dollar’s value to slide even further. Therefore Nixon decided to unpeg the dollar from the price of gold entirely, effectively ending the whole post-war system – although the UK did not officially ‘unpeg’ the pound’s exchange rate for several more years. Exchange rates around the world suddenly had no central ‘anchor’, and began fluctuating wildly, exercising an inflationary pressure on many currencies, including sterling.

British businesses continued to struggle, and those that were in the worst trouble, without hope of rescue by the state, now went to the wall. Those that survived often did so by laying off staff and reducing wage bills. Unemployment was therefore continuing to rise, and by 1972, it went past one million.

Heath removes lending caps

For Heath, rising unemployment was intolerable, it went against his principles. (This again raises the question of his naivety; higher unemployment was more or less an inevitable upshot of abandoning Keynesian ideas in the first place.) Furthermore, his frustration at the general inertia of industrial leaders now gave way to despair. This was the point where MacLeod’s lost influence was to be most keenly felt, as he would almost certainly have nipped Heath’s response in the bud, or at least refined it so that the bad ideas in it were filtered out. One particular idea in Heath’s response strategy was to prove a complete fiasco; –

Heath and his new Chancellor, Anthony Barber, near the end of the previous year, had unknowingly dropped an absolute clanger in their attempts to infuse more life into industry, in the shape of the Competition & Credit Control Proposals (C&CC). These were a variety of distinctly Tory reform policies for the British banking industry. They altered a number of small details, but the overall ‘big’ purpose of the changes was to remove all state-imposed caps on lending by the Banking sector. This included allowing banks to sell mortgages, which had previously been the sole preserve of Building Societies.

Heath and Barber had hoped that these C&CC measures would lead to largescale credit-investment by banks directly into industry. It would match the culture they had witnessed in France and West Germany, where banks were closely tied into the way businesses were funded.

Instead, the British banking sector, well aware that there was generally less risk investing in consumers than in businesses, started shovelling out personal loans by the dustbin-load to private individuals and families, while largely ignoring business customers.

With this surge in private credit, consumers, not businesses, had a massive boost in spending power, and they started using it, causing an almighty spike in demand at a time when British industry was still too weak to meet it. Inevitably, prices for goods that were scarcer than the demand for them began to climb. With industry unable to keep up with demand, exports dropped away as the domestic market absorbed most of the manufacturing sector’s output, while imports massively increased in response to the new weight of demand too. Balance of trade thus tilted heavily into deficit.

Had Heath modified the lending caps – say by raising them by a margin that had to be filled with industrial investments only – instead of removing them altogether, it might well have been a wonderful move. As it was, his move was a little like using a scythe to trim one’s toenails, and metaphorically-speaking, he cut the feet off of British industry.

The ‘U-Turn’

Not fully realising the enormity of what they had done, Heath and Barber also announced a huge package of state spending programs to invest in industry, alongside tax cuts to encourage even more consumer spending. Going by the familiar-sounding name Dash For Growth, this program was a breathtaking one hundred-and-eighty-degree about-face by Heath, one that bewildered the whole country. He had gone, in the space of less than two years, from a policy platform that today we would recognise as overwhelmingly ‘Thatcherite‘, to a Keynesian social democratic platform that almost exactly matched most of the ideas that Harold Wilson had been trying with limited success to implement through the mid-to-late 1960s. It was the origin in British culture of the expression U-Turn to describe a total reversal of Government policy. After years in opposition of repeatedly carping at Wilson’s technocratic approach to economic management, Heath in Government had suddenly adopted it almost wholesale.

No one was more astonished at this development than Wilson himself, who is quoted as responding when he heard of it,

“That Ted Heath? He’s just a socialist!”

This meant the ultimate in ‘worst-of-both-worlds’ approaches, as Heath was pursuing growth through private lending at the same time as there was a massive boost in state spending.

It should come as no great surprise that inflation flew up to almost 10%.

Heath might have ordered an increase in interest rates to encourage a ‘cool-down’; higher interest rates encourage people to save up and stop spending, while also making it more expensive to borrow. But when the idea was suggested to him by the National Economic Development Council, Heath refused. “I am determined to swim through the whirlpool,” he told them defiantly.

It was not all bad news for Heath at this time. He got a major boost in the form of a political breakthrough at the end of 1972, when he finally secured agreement to take the country into the European Common Market, as successive Prime Ministers had been attempting since Harold MacMillan had applied in 1961. It was a big moment of triumph both professionally and personally for Heath, and whatever one’s view of the European Community/European Union, it was the undeniable high point of his entire career.

It did have an unfortunate economic side-effect though. Once within the Single Market, ailing British industries now found themselves brought into direct competition with other, healthier industries on the European mainland. Inevitably, the healthier competitors won, and with British goods looking increasingly second-best, demand for them dropped. Inflation gathered pace.

Then, all too soon, Heath made another foolish mistake; taking a shrug-of-the-shoulders attitude to seeing the demise of Bretton Woods, he finally decided to unhook sterling from the US dollar, and floated the pound. With the only remnant of its post-war ‘anchor’ removed, the pound was now completely at the mercy of the whims of global markets.

Cometh the hour, cometh the Oil Shock

Then more bad luck hit. Yet another war broke out between Israel and an alliance of Egypt and Syria – the Yom Kippur War. Egypt and Syria were backed by most of their oil-producing neighbours, whereas Israel was backed by most Western Governments, who provided substantial money and arms to Jerusalem. The war was fairly indecisive, albeit with Israel arguably getting slightly the better of it. The exasperated oil-producing countries therefore retaliated by economic means. They cut oil production by five percent, and declared that they would not restore production to full capacity until Israel withdrew from lands it had occupied since the Six-Day War of 1967.

This cut in oil production caused what became known as the ‘OPEC Oil Shock’. Suddenly, oil was in short supply globally, significantly short of meeting demand. The price of oil had soon nearly doubled, and a few months later, it had nearly doubled again.

One of the most critical power sources for British industry was now scarce and expensive, making production more expensive too, and industries had no alternative other than to increase prices still further to cover the costs. Inflation was soon nearing 20%. The UK was in its first year-plus-length recession since the 1940s, and one that would last two years.

The Miners’ Strikes

The Trade Unions had been suspicious of the Dash For Growth program, even though it had been intended – honestly enough – to include them as part of a tripartite ‘federation’ with Government and business leaders to manage domestic industry. Far from welcoming this proposed inclusion, the Unions feared it was a trick to take away their independence; an understandable worry, after Heath had pushed The Industrial Relations Act through Parliament in 1971, reducing protection for workers and placing new limitations on actions that Trade Unions could carry out. The unions therefore rebelled. As early as February 1972, miners had gone on strike, picketing the coke depot at Saltley Gate in Birmingham, and actually forced it to close for a time.

The sudden surge in oil prices in 1973 therefore could not have come at a worse time for Heath. With oil now in short supply, the importance of Britain’s native coal industry was re-doubled, as coal-fired power stations were now the country’s only major source of electricity. The National Union of Miners therefore knew that they had the Government over a barrel. They announced they would go on strike again if they did not receive a large increase in wages to keep pace with price rises. The NUM Congress were angling for a 35% increase. Heath offered them a much more modest 7%. The NUM voted against the offer in a ballot, and also voted to suspend all overtime work, a move that, thanks to the huge increase in coal demand created by the Oil Shock, immediately caused a shortfall in coal stocks. Heath came back with an improved offer of 16.5%. The NUM rejected it again, and on the 24th on January, the miners voted for a full strike. Coal, and by extension electricity, were now in such short supply that Heath had to order the notorious ‘Three-Day-Working-Week‘ in order to reduce power consumption. Day-to-day life in Britain was getting very ragged, dark, cold and austere. Christmas 1973 had been a rather depressing experience for most Britons.

One of Heath’s problems at this point was that he could ill-afford to allow any pay increases at all. The inflation problem was already uncontrollable, and in such an overheated market, handing more purchasing power to members of the public, even a relatively small number of them, would only accelerate the depreciation of the pound. Therefore, he had tried to introduce pay-freezes in the hope of applying some kind of brake on sterling’s slide in value. But this had had to be abandoned quickly in the face of the NUM’s near-militant resistance. The miners had already seen, with the Dash For Growth program, that Heath could be scared into performing gigantic, fundamental U-Turns, and that had encouraged them to stiffen their resistance. And sure enough, they had forced him to offer fresh pay increases. They now decided to hold out even longer, and see if they could force him to grant them the full amount they demanded.

The year of two General Elections

Heath was now completely stuck. With British industries operating just three days each week, manufacturing output was now so slow and intermittent, and trade was therefore becoming so badly imbalanced, that the economy was on the brink of an outright collapse. In despair at the NUM’s rejection of his offer, Heath asked one of his Private Secretaries, Robin Butler, what he should do next. Butler suggested that one possible path out of the logjam – possible but not certain – was to go to the country. If Heath could win another General Election in the midst of a crisis like this, then any democratic legitimacy in the miners’ actions would be seen to be gone, and it might just be enough to get them to reconsider the Government’s offer.

The full strike got under way on the 5th of February, and just two days later, Heath announced the dissolution of Parliament and a new General Election. He painted the whole process as a choice between the Government and the Trade Unions. His slogan was Who Governs Britain? and a vote against him, as far as he was concerned, was a vote for the Unions.

Heath addressed the nation; –

“This time, the strife has got to stop – only you can stop it. It’s time for you to speak, with your vote. It is time for you to say to the extremists, the militants, and the plain and simple misguided, ‘We’ve had enough!’ ”

Unfortunately for Heath, the message the electorate gave was a good deal more mixed than that.

With all the discontent that had built up over the previous few years, it was perhaps inevitable that the Tories lost quite a few seats. Enough to drop below 300 in the House of Commons. Labour’s performance, given they were up against an incumbent Government teetering on the ropes, was not madly impressive either. They gained 13 seats (net compared with 1970), just enough to take them ahead of the Tories, and up to 301. With the Liberal Party securing a total of 14 seats, and the other parties taking a combined 23, neither of the two big parties had anywhere near enough MPs to form a workable majority.

Oddly, the Conservatives had in fact got over 200,000 more votes than Labour. But all Heath had accomplished by calling the Election was to add a political problem to top off all the economic and industrial ones – the UK’s first Hung Parliament since 1929. Still, as the incumbent Prime Minister, and with the greater share of the popular vote, he felt he had enough of a mandate to get first shot at forming a Government. For several days, he negotiated with the Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe – he of subsequent attempted murder infamy – to see if it was possible to build a coalition. Thorpe, dissatisfied with the offer Heath made to him, walked out, declaring to the press, not altogether fairly, that Heath, “won’t give us anything!”

With the failure of these negotiations, the game was up for Edward Heath. He needed at least two other parties, one of them having to be the Liberals, to form some kind of workable coalition. As soon as talks with Thorpe broke down, there was simply no chance of getting to the ‘winning post’ of the time of 318 seats in the Commons. On the 4th of March, Heath went to the Queen to tender his resignation as Prime Minister.

The miners had successfully brought down a Government.

Harold Wilson returns

Harold Wilson decided he was able to form a minority Labour Government, and returned to 10 Downing Street. His first act in his second tour-of-duty as Prime Minister was to end the miners’ strike. After carrying out a pay review, he gave the NUM the full 35% pay rise they had been demanding, and the industrial action came to an end. Many people around the country were uneasy at this submission, but Wilson, aware of how perilous Britain’s industrial situation had become, had had little choice; even with the Three-Day-Week, there was a real likelihood that coal stocks would run out completely by the end of March, at which point essential services like hospitals would run out of power. Wilson simply had to get the miners back to work and get the wheels of industry turning again. He also began work on repealing The Industrial Relations Act, a task completed in July that year.

The resumption of something resembling ‘normal’ industrial activity soothed the anger and frustrations that had been boiling over. So after a few months of carefully treading water in a minority Government, Wilson judged that his relative success at placating the miners had won Labour enough support around the country for him to chance another General Election. With his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, falsely claiming that he had reduced inflation to 8.4%, when it was nearly double that, Wilson managed to gain a 2% swing from the Tories. It was not as much as he had hoped, but it was enough to establish a Labour majority in the Commons, albeit of just three seats.

Wilson had won three General Elections outright, and partly won another. Heath had lost three, and his sole victory had led to one of the most chaotic Governments of the Twentieth Century. The Conservative Party finally ran out of patience with him. Within a few months, he was overthrown, to be replaced by the first woman ever to lead a major political party in the United Kingdom – Margaret Thatcher.

The Social Contract

Wilson did not have much opportunity to enjoy the downfall of his old rival. As with ten years before, he had inherited from a crumbling Conservative Government a very unenviable economic situation. Within a couple of months of the Autumn General Election, ongoing high inflation meant that the miners’ real-terms income had fallen some way behind prices again. Wilson, determined not to let the strike start up again, awarded the miners another pay rise of 35%, a decision that was met with deep disapproval at the Treasury, due to the worry that it would simply add impetus to the very problem it was intended to alleviate. In particular, it might encourage workers in other industries to demand higher pay too, which, if agreed to, was thought certain to fuel yet more inflation.

Inflation was very much what Wilson needed to combat, and by this point, he and other members of his Cabinet were starting to see wage-suppression as the most viable weapon. Evidence from the decade that followed would suggest that this was not nearly as pragmatic as they imagined, but for want of a confident alternative, Wilson put together a plan for ‘voluntary wage restraint’. This was to be called ‘The Social Contract’, and would be a binding agreement between workers and the state. In return for heavily reducing the amount of industrial unrest happening around the country, the Trade Unions Congress would receive minimum guarantees of welfare state spending in support of the poor, and – more importantly – a renewed commitment to Labour’s traditional full employment program. The TUC were not happy with the low level that the minimum benefits were set at, or the restrictions on what industrial action individual workers could take when they felt they were being mistreated by employers, but accepted the terms.

Throughout 1975-77, in his role as Chancellor, Denis Healey carried out a startlingly ruthless program of expenditure cuts. In the space of less than three years, he removed over £7 billion from the public budget – well over £49 billion in today’s money – in his quest to reduce demand and to slow down inflation. At a time when unemployment was up to 1.4 million, the program was met with astonishment and outrage from the left wing of the Labour Party, including Cabinet ministers like the Industry Secretary, Tony Benn, and even some on the Labour Right, such as the new Foreign Secretary, Tony Crosland, expressed growing unhappiness with the program as time passed.

Wilson resigns, and the IMF is brought in

In among all this, Harold Wilson, clearly suffering severe exhaustion and possibly the early onset of the Alzheimer’s Disease that would destroy his mental faculties throughout his declining years, stepped down as Prime Minister in 1976. He was succeeded after a tersely-fought leadership election by James Callaghan. Callaghan had had the distinction of serving in all three of the most powerful departments in British Government since 1964. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1964 to 1967, then Home Secretary from 1967 to 1970. From 1974 to 1976, he had been Foreign Secretary. In this light, it seems entirely natural that he would be the next Prime Minister. He had a long and close friendship with the Trade Union movement, and so many on the party’s left were optimistic about his appointment.

However, at the Party Conference in 1976, Callaghan and Healey delivered speeches that effectively started the ‘Labour Civil War’ that was to blight the party’s existence for more than a decade to follow. Trade Unions were furious when Healey declared that he was going to persist with and add to the spending cuts of the previous year. He was in the middle of negotiating a new loan with the IMF, which he hoped to use to purchase sterling from overseas markets and to bolster the currency’s value. As part of the terms of the loan, the IMF insisted the UK cut spending much further and much deeper than had so far happened, and Healey had acquiesced.

Callaghan, meanwhile, delivered an even more notorious speech, one that has lived down the decades since, in which he claimed that during the era of Keynesian economics, policies only worked,

“on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of infla­tion into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step. Higher inflation followed by higher unemployment.”

This claim was completely untrue. As Robin Ramsay commented in 2012 on The New Left Project,

“This was just nonsense. In 1956, the beginning of the 20 year period offered… (through Callaghan), inflation was 5% on average over the year; for most of the Labour governments of 1966-70 it was less than that; and it was 5% in January 1970. By contrast, for almost all of the 1980-1997 period of Conservative governments which were ostensibly primarily focused on keeping inflation under control by ‘controlling the money supply’, inflation was above 5%.”

In other words, the rises in inflation during the era of post-war British industrial decline did not correlate in any recognisable way with bursts of state investment in the economy to correct recessionary activity.

There can be no doubt that Callaghan was aware of all that. He was simply lying.

Labour misses the North Sea Oil trick

In truth, by this time, the use for a fresh loan from the IMF was negligible anyway. North Sea Oil had been discovered in the late-1960s, and by the mid-1970s, it was finally starting to arrive ashore in substantial amounts. If Callaghan’s Government had handled it cleverly and with more courage, they could have used this resource to mitigate all manner of difficulties. For one thing, it gave them a native alternative to coal, lessening the danger posed by any more Miners’ Strikes. For another, it reduced the amount of oil the UK needed to import from the Middle East, lessening the danger of inflationary impacts from any future oil shocks.

But perhaps most of all, the Callaghan Government could possibly have used the oil to ‘anchor’ the value of the pound far more effectively, without having to introduce anywhere near such brutal spending cuts. Had they had the nerve to defy the ‘Petro-dollar System‘ introduced by Nixon a couple of years earlier – the international trading rule that all oil transactions around the world had to be paid in US dollars (which, as every country in the world needed constant supplies of oil, drummed up enormous demand for dollars, protecting their value) – then they could immediately have raised substantial demand for sterling by insisting that British oil had to be purchased in UK pounds. It would certainly not have been anything like as effective as the Petro-dollar of course, but it would still have had a substantial effect.

Moreover, the revenues from selling the oil, argued Tony Benn – who by now was the Energy Secretary – could have been used to create what is now called a ‘Sovereign Wealth Fund’, to pay for a proper program of industrial renewal. The idea was rejected in Cabinet; the majority of Ministers wanted to use the revenues simply as a substitute for taxation, just like the Thatcher Government would throughout the 1980s.

(Tragically, the Tories came to a particularly cynical conclusion over the potential power of the pound as a ‘petro-currency’. They realised that if British imports remained much the same, oil exports would lead to a new trade surplus. That surplus would mean that the pound would rise in value to such an extent that exports of all other British goods could become much more expensive on foreign markets, such that they would cease to be competitive. Thus, the Thatcher Government removed all exchange controls in 1980, so that wealth going out of the country could offset the oil wealth coming in. And of course, they let native British manufacturing go to the wall on the doubtful grounds that they “could not save it anyway”. Meanwhile, the new powers given to the financial sector went far beyond even what Heath’s C&CC measures had granted it.)

Labour in effect just handed the decision on how to make use of the oil over to the Tories at the end of the 1970s, choosing not to risk rocking the boat with the USA. They missed so much potential in the ideas of the oil fund, and in using demand for oil to help anchor the value of the pound.

The Trade Unions burn with anger

The Trade Unions simmered with resentment, feeling that they had been double-crossed. Their view, rightly or wrongly, was that Callaghan’s Government was breaching its commitments under its own Social Contract. Having delivered their side of the deal, and reined in industrial action to a dramatic degree, TUC leaders were expecting a new Prime Minister with close ties to the Unions now to increase investment once more and work on creating more jobs, as the Social Contract promised. Instead, Callaghan and Healey were telling them that there would be even more cuts, and the ongoing rise in unemployment was going to be left unchecked – perhaps following the Monetarist idea that full employment is itself a cause of inflation.

Although Healey’s cutting program, it must be conceded, did see inflation decline to below 10% once more by early 1978, how much that was down to the cuts themselves, and not to the growing international interest in British oil, is open to debate. Worse, it was causing unemployment to rise, in direct contravention of the terms of the Social Contract.

As for the IMF loan, half of it went completely unused, so unnecessary was it, and it was all paid back very quietly and comfortably, without incident, and on time. It had been a huge, painful effort to obtain funds for which the country had had little use, and the strain of gaining which had been borne solely by the poorest.

The Labour Government of Jim Callaghan, in short, was not behaving like a leftist administration at all. It was in fact being significantly more conservative in its program than Ted Heath’s Government had in its final two years.

Even though inflation had fallen, it was still very high from a modern perspective. Statutory incomes policy had capped wage increases for public sector workers at no higher than 5% per annum, and with inflation still near the 10% mark, it meant that rises for the poorest workers were still much too low to keep pace with prices. Resentment finally hit boiling point in the autumn and winter of 1978 – ironically, the coldest winter to hit the country in many years.

The Winter of Discontent

Renewed industrial action started in September. The car manufacturer, Ford of Britain, had had a very good year, and could afford to give its workers a substantial pay increase. But as some of its work was done as a Government contractor, it chose to impose the 5% cap. The Ford workforce were furious, and came out on strike. The Transport & General Workers Union formally joined the strike early in October, increasing the number of participants to almost sixty thousand. Ford backed down and offered a new rise of 17%, and Callaghan responded by announcing that there would be a sanction for both Ford and over two hundred other firms that had broken the 5% cap. It was a mistake.

Left wing Trade Unions now demanded that the Government stop intervening in wage negotiations, while the Confederation of British Industry threatened to take the Government to court over the sanctions, on the grounds that they may have been illegal. A vote in Parliament overturned the sanctions on the 13th of December, thus establishing legal precedent that the Government did not have the authority to impose penalties on firms that chose to ignore Government pay-restraint policies. This, of course, was the green flag for other Trade Unions who felt that they had been hoodwinked. Realising there were no legal repercussions that the Government could now inflict on any company that co-operated with wage demands, and knowing how many of their members were struggling with the growing cost of living, Trade Unions went into full-on revolt once more.

A strike by lorry drivers soon began, one that once more threatened fuel supplies. The Government wanted to bring the army in to carry out the task of shipping oil while the lorry drivers were unavailable, but in order to do so, they needed to declare a formal State-of-Emergency, and to commandeer the facilities of oil firms. The overtones of such a decision would be almost totalitarian, and Callaghan resisted the idea. Eventually, the oil companies settled on a 15% pay rise. With the 5% cap having no legal power behind it, there was nothing Callaghan could do to stop it.

Worse, this rise only affected drivers shipping oil. Other transport workers had received nothing, and in mid-January, the transport Unions declared more official strikes. Most essential goods were shipped around the country by road-haulage, so serious shortages began to set in, and during a period of painfully cold weather, the wider public were starting to suffer again as they had during the Three-Day Week.

Strike action spreads

Through January, industrial action spread to the Railwaymen’s Union, while the Royal College of Nursing demanded a 25% increase to bring real-terms pay for nurses back into line with where it had been in 1974. Binmen famously went on strike, and there were occasional piles of uncollected rubbish piling up on street corners here and there. (No worse than happens today, mind, when Austerity forces local councils to make rubbish collections more intermittently than previously.)

Perhaps most notorious of all – although also most overblown of all – was a gravediggers’ strike that started in Liverpool and Manchester. It remains, to this day, very useful material for anti-leftist scaremongering by right wing politicians and media. Some eighty cemetery workers on Merseyside and in Tameside went on strike for roughly a fortnight, causing distressing but ultimately quite minor delays to burials of the dead. Liverpool city council hired a warehouse to serve as a temporary ‘back-up’ mortuary, and at one stage the total number of corpses stored up reached over one hundred and fifty.

This was all very unpleasant, especially for grieving relatives, but in truth, the strike was very isolated and brief – the gravediggers accepted a rise of 14% in short enough order. However, the right wing media were looking for any dirty trick they could find to force Labour out of Government. Derek Jameson, then the editor of the Daily Express, cheerfully admitted as much in the late-1990s. The Express and other rags therefore tried to find ways of giving the impression that the dead were going unburied, and rubbish was piled up on every street, in every tower and hamlet across the UK, with no end to the chaos in sight. In truth, the problems were intermittent and usually localised. For all that life had turned unpleasant again, most of the problems were more matters of inconvenience than of outright deprivation.

The ‘Sea-Change’

The industrial unrest cooled as the spring arrived, but the damage was done. The beleaguered Labour Government had been almost helpless to stem the tide of unrest, which, thanks to shameless media exaggeration, seemed a lot worse to people than it probably really was. The public were now as furious with Callaghan as they had been with Heath five years earlier.

Labour’s position in Parliament had been weak since winning the Elections in 1974. The tiny majority Wilson had secured in the Autumn election that year had already vanished due to lost by-elections by the time he resigned. From spring 1977 to mid-1978, a ‘Lib-Lab pact’ with the Liberals had given the Government a small-but-workable majority in the House of Commons to keep its head above water – the pact had allowed Callaghan to survive a Motion Of No Confidence tabled by Margaret Thatcher. But the Liberal leader, David Steel, had called an end to the arrangement after not much more than a year, and with the misery of the winter just past, Labour’s poll ratings were looking pretty hopeless by the spring of 1979. (Back in the autumn of 1978, Callaghan had been expected to call an Election while Labour were somewhat ahead in the polls. But fearing that he would wind up with another wafer-thin majority that would make it difficult to govern once again, he decided to wait until the following year, and see if he could increase his lead in the meantime – another mistake.)

Thatcher tabled another Motion Of No Confidence in the Callaghan Government on 28th of March. This time, without the Liberals on-side to prop them up, the Government lost the Motion by a single vote, and Callaghan was forced to call a General Election for early May. No one was surprised at all when the Conservatives won to form a new Government, with a modest but solid majority of 43. For better or worse, the infamous age of Thatcherism had begun.

On losing, Callaghan is quoted as saying that a ‘Sea Change’ had happened in British politics, and that the social democratic consensus since the war was no longer accepted by the country. Therefore, he felt that he had to accept it and go with it; whether he liked it or not, the free market was where the country wanted to go now, due to exhaustion with Trade Union disruption. He also complained to his dying day that his old friends in the Unions had betrayed him.

This was, on both counts, pretty hypocritical, for Callaghan was bemoaning developments of his own creation. He had carried the country away from the social democratic consensus himself, and in so doing, he had broken the word of the Social Contract his party had signed up to, and therefore he was the one who had betrayed the Unions, not the other way around.

Thatcher’s arrival was historic. She was the first woman to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and she effectively spent ten years formalising a new consensus of what Wilson, Callaghan and Healey had set in motion. A consensus of free market power and monetarist economics.

The chaos would not end there though. Far from it, the 1980s would continue to be a period of serious industrial and social unrest, and the economic problems of high inflation and recession would never go away for the entirety of Thatcher’s reign; deep recessions occurred at either end of her premiership, and inflation, brought down in the early-to-mid-1980s only by artificial recessionary policies, would fly out of control again late in the decade. For much of the 1980s, unemployment, which had already seemed startlingly high at just over 1.5 million under Callaghan, surged up to above 3 million.

Thatcherism, really just an expansion of Callaghan’s economic program, did not solve anything, and many of the problems we are now enduring – created by the financial sector’s abuse of the power Thatcher handed it – have their origins in the choppy waters of the ‘Sea Change’ Callaghan described.

The causes of chaos that everyone gets wrong

The real aggravation for myself when listening to the general discourse about the disarray of the 1970s is that the majority opinion appears to be, “Socialism caused everything to go wrong.” Does that even come close to describing the realities of what happened? Surely not.

Firstly, the UK, even in the 1960s and 1970s, has never been a ‘socialist’ country by any realistic description at all. Social democratic, yes, but not socialist. It did not have industries run by workers’ collectives, for instance, while even co-operatives were very much the exception rather than the rule.

Secondly, the problems stemmed from obsolescence, not from redistribution. An exhausted, out-of-date industrial base, having received insufficient new investment over a period of thirty years, had not been renewed to anywhere near the standard needed to compete in the age of superpowers.

Thirdly, the moment when economic troubles finally flew out of control was under a Conservative Government – Edward Heath’s – not a Labour one; it was the removal of lending caps for banks that started the Great Inflation.

Fourthly, when you look for the trigger moments, the key decisions that caused the spells of havoc, and analyse them closely, you discover that most of them were recognisably right-leaning in nature, not left-leaning. Think about them; –

  • Ted Heath, as mentioned above, had removed the caps on lending, moving the financial sector into the free market.
  • Heath had floated the pound.
  • Harold Wilson created a ‘Social Contract’ that in effect reduced state support for the poor, while demanding more from workers for less.
  • Both Wilson and Jim Callaghan promised the Trade Unions that if they curtailed their industrial action, spending cuts would be temporary, but then went back on their word, thus defying the rights of workers.
  • Both Wilson and Callaghan chose to stop the state from making use of North Sea Oil to support the value of sterling, or to fund the renewal of British industries, aiming to use the proceeds of selling oil to fund tax cuts – just like Thatcher after them.
  • Denis Healey, very taken with the free market Monetarist ideas of Milton Friedman and other right-wing economists, imposed such a comprehensive range of spending cuts that his Austerity regime, when adjusted for inflation, was as deep and as ruthless as that of George Osborne. It led to widespread disgruntlement and unrest, culminating in the ‘Winter Of Discontent’.

None of these is left wing, or even particularly centrist, politics. They were all firmly Torified moves, strongly resembling many Conservative policies of subsequent decades.

It was free market conservatism that triggered the problems of the Three-Day-Week, and then the ‘Winter Of Discontent’. The absurdity of the 1980s was that Margaret Thatcher was unshakably convinced that the cure for the illness was even more free market conservatism. Far from reversing Callaghan’s program, as the modern myth assumes, she actually picked it up and ran with it at double the speed, and as mentioned above, that led to even more unrest through the 1980s, with riots in Toxteth and Brixton, and a particularly bitter resumption of the Miners’ Strikes.

So when you hear semi-informed Tory voters warning, “Don’t vote Labour! See what a mess they made of things in the 70s!” point out to them that the mess was passed down to them by Conservatives. But more important, also point out to them that when chaos set in as a result of Labour’s mistakes, the biggest mistake of all that they were making was to govern like the Conservatives.

As for the mechanical warning that we must avoid a return to the 1970s like the plague, I can only retort with contempt. The warning is usually voiced to deter voting for Jeremy Corbyn, but it is an empty warning. Not just because the social and industrial structures of the time are not what the Labour left are aiming for today, but because, quite honestly, the 1970s were no worse than what is happening right now. Truly.

There were only a little over two-and-a-half years in total time during that decade when life was genuinely all that unpleasant – 1972-74 and a few months in 1978-79. Whereas in the modern era, nine years of totally needless and poisonous Austerity have literally killed thousands of people, caused outrageous mass-poverty, and largely prevented a full, balanced recovery from the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-9. The 1970s were a time of confusion, but the modern era is a time, quite literally, of death.

Confusion alone is better than state-sanctioned murder, so after all this, a return to the 1970s, for all the confusion it might cause, would be a sizeable step up.

Sixth Doctor - voting Labour can hardly make things worse

Just look at the last ten years in Britain, and ask yourself, honestly, could a Real Left Labour Government simply trying to implement a Scandinavian-style social democracy really make things any worse?

by Martin Odoni

The idea that the ‘Old Labour‘ of the years before Tony Blair became its leader was a hard-left political party is, as I have pointed out before, quite a stretch. That Blair took the party to the right is irrefutable, but it was never left-wing under predecessors like Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson or James Callaghan either. (Callaghan’s Government, thanks to the harsh expenditure-cutting program of Denis Healey as his Chancellor of the Exchequer, was really an Austerity Government, arguably even more so than David Cameron’s.)

Similarly, the Democratic Party in the USA has never had a noticeable history of Marxism or socialism, even though it has, since the 1930s, tended towards business regulation, a welfare state, and support for Trade Unions. (Bizarrely, up until that point, the Democrats were actually the right-wing party in US politics, and generally less liberal than the Republican Party.) The Democratic Party was effectively a coalition of liberals predominantly in the north-east of the USA, and moderate conservatives south of the old ‘Mason-Dixon line‘ (the boundary between the northern Federalist and southern Confederate territories in the era of the US Civil War).

With the ascendancy of Bill Clinton in the 1990s, the Democrats also moved away from the left, in an attempt to appeal to moderate Republican voters. As President, Clinton cut spending programs, continued Ronald Reagan’s agenda of deregulation in banking (thus playing a major role in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008), restored religious protections attractive to the Christian Radical Right, and took an increasing ‘no-tolerance’ approach to law enforcement.

The response of leading Republicans to this encroachment onto ‘their’ territory by their archenemies was interesting. The task of opposing Clintonite policy without contradicting many of their own policy positions proved confusing, while co-operating with the Democrats was too much for many of them to stomach. The Republicans thus pushed even further to the right, with uncompromising conservative fanatics like Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, adopting such harsh positions of intransigence that they forced several totally unnecessary Government shutdowns.

Similarly, in the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party struggled in the late-1990s to find a way of combating the success of ‘New Labour’. William Hague, the Tory leader from 1997 to 2001, found he could offer little policy appeal beyond crude appeals to jingoism. Hague’s notorious and completely contrived Save The Pound campaign was frequently embarrassing, and noticeably right-wing in its appeal to blatant xenophobia. While it probably was for the best that the UK did not join the Single European Currency, for reasons of controlling the Public Sector Debt, those were not the grounds on which Hague was arguing. Instead, it was largely just silly hostility to ‘outsiders’. It was hard-right, irresponsible, and racist-in-all-but-name.

With all this movement to the right in both Britain and the USA, with several right-leaning mainstream parties now treading on ground quite extreme and borderline-racist as a matter of course, while the left now deserted its old social democratic/Keynesian position, the ‘Overton Window’ shifted a long way to the right. Its left edge slid almost entirely out of the left half of the political/economic spectrum, while its right edge also crept deeper into the right wing. Ideas that had become unacceptable since the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust became (somewhat) tolerable again.

This was in part because the extreme right no longer seemed that far-removed from what was now thought of as the ‘moderate’ left, giving the half-conscious impression therefore that it was not all that extreme after all. Even though the identity politics of the Clintonite/Blairite philosophy were held in higher regard, and fought for with more passion, than ever before, the economic ideas of the two ‘wings’ of politics were now a lot harder to distinguish. The Democrats and the Labour Party were both now passionate about the free market, and maintained close, friendly ties with big business power-brokers that were usually devoted to the Republicans and the Conservative Party. Although ‘New Labour’ did make creditable efforts to strengthen the safety nets for the poor at the bottom of society’s pyramid, their leaders were no longer prepared to make the slightest effort to reduce inequality. On the contrary, income at the top of UK society surged upwards dramatically under Tony Blair, especially after 2001.

Income growth at the top

Income growth in UK society since the turn-of-the-1990s. Note that wealth increased for the richest far MORE under Tony Blair’s Labour, prior to the Credit Crunch, than it did under John Major’s Conservative Party.

‘Insane extremism’ became a pet-label for post-war social democracy, which was now routinely and very wrongly presented as inseparable from Marxian Stalinism. Any ideas from further to the left than the Social Democratic Party of the 1980s was now treated as being as intolerable as Nazism. Selfish, egomaniacal career-MPs like Dr David Owen were, as centrists, being treated as preferable to kinder-hearted altruists like Tony Benn or Jeremy Corbyn. Again, as a careerist politician is liable to bear more of a resemblance to a hard-right member of extremist parties like the UK Independence Party, or even the British National Party, than a doctrinaire socialist will, this gave the extreme-right an extra grain of legitimacy.

This taste for right-wing reactionism was made all-too-obvious by the dire extremism of ‘New Labour’ Home Secretaries, Jack Straw, David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and John Reid. All four of them adopted very aggressive, hard-line, intolerant attitudes to law-and-order issues, viewing punishment and arrests as ends in themselves, and prisons as blunt objects to beat prospective criminals over the heads with, instead of as places of rehabilitation. They were behaving, in short, exactly as Conservative Home Secretaries had done for decades beyond counting.

In the USA, the Republican moves to the extreme right were driven in large part by a growing alliance between the neoconservative movement and the Church, begun under Reagan. Unable to combat Bill Clinton on economic grounds, extreme social conservatism became the Republicans’ only outlet, demanding a return to the very obsolete moral standards in day-to-day life of the post-war age. This led to the much-mocked ‘Monica Lewinsky Scandal’ of the late-1990s, in which Clinton was found to have had an affair with a young White House intern. It caused much embarrassment, and put considerable strain on Clinton’s family life, with the Republicans attempting to have Clinton impeached over his spurious denials of the affair ever happening. But by and large, at least so long as the economy continued functioning fairly smoothly, there was a recognition among the wider US public that Clinton’s private life really was none of their business. Impeachment attempts failed dismally. Social conservatism did not have enough appeal on its own. It was in the late-2000’s that the Republican leaders drifted into open racial conservatism too, and found that, far from being unacceptable, it was now an attitude that was popular again with many Americans.

With the Global Financial Crisis from 2007-9, partly caused by President George W Bush’s deregulation of the banking industry, Democrat Barack Obama was elected the first non-white President, on a platform of reforming the banking sector and bringing it properly to account. There was considerable hostility to Obama, usually on scarcely-concealed racial grounds. The popular accusation against him was that he was really a Kenyan Muslim – as a non-American by birth that would have de-legitimised his right to be President – and was accompanied by absurd claims that his Birth Certificate was fake. Those who made these silly assertions, led by the present President, Donald Trump, became known as ‘The Birther Movement‘. It was part of a wider network of growing right-wing activist groups, the largest of which was effectively a Republican party fringe organisation calling itself, ‘The Tea Party‘. (It was named in tribute to the so-called ‘Boston Tea Party‘, in which rebels in the then-British colonies stole over three hundred chests of tea imported by the East India Company, and hurled them all into the sea off Boston Harbor, foreshadowing the start of the US War of Independence two years later.) The Tea Party was a large pressure group of small-government-low-taxation-libertarian reactionaries dedicated to removing Obama and attacking Government expenditure. Much of its support however came from racists who interpreted Obama’s every move in the worst possible way, even when his policies and actions were little-distinguishable from those of other Presidents before him, who never drew such nasty responses.

Racism, even if the name was not acceptable, had become a mainstream attitude again. It became commonplace to express racist views while denying they were racist. As long as the label did not stick, extreme-right xenophobic language became easier to express than it had been since the 1970s.

This has granted legitimacy to such disturbing horrors as Donald Trump – a psychopathic narcissist and white supremacist – becoming US President, and the UK Government embarking on a scandalous policy program that deported the Windrush Generation.

The role that the severe recession of the late 2000’s played in feeding modern right-wing reactionism must not be overlooked, but the role that ‘Third Way politics’ played in pushing popular discourse to the right is not often considered. By pushing to the right, Clinton, Blair, and others normalised hard-right conservatism, by reducing the distance society could move away from it, while also taking up so much traditional conservative ground that rival parties had nowhere else to retreat to bar the extremes, if they wished to offer an alternative. This was always a risk, because if the time ever came that the ‘Third Way’ failed, people were bound to look for alternatives, even extreme ones. If the only extremes available were the extreme right, than those were the ones that would be adopted.

And the ‘Third Way’ did fail. Both the Clinton and Blair/Gordon Brown administrations chose to co-operate with the same neoliberal, unchecked market power that their conservative opponents had usually favoured. Deregulation of banks in both countries played the central role in the financial crisis that gave rise to reactionism. Both Clintonites and Bush-ites in the USA, and Tories and ‘New Labour’ in the UK, endorsed that same program and helped advance it.

That the watered-down left gets the blame for the crisis in both countries is not altogether unfair. That the right wing parties get so little of the blame is a gross injustice, but be that as it may, it is difficult to argue that the Clintonites or the Blairites deserve much better. No one should under-estimate the consequences of the ‘Third Way’ being experienced today. The ultra-aggressive hostility to the poor, to women, to immigrants, to the sick and to the disabled was made almost inevitable by the rightward moves of the Democrats and the Labour Party. By becoming ‘centrist’ the parties were so similar to the conservatives on so many levels that their willingness actually to oppose conservative policies became intermittent and half-hearted, which only increased the legitimacy of conservative extremism; if the traditional opponents of these ideas no longer oppose them, became the unconscious reasoning, obviously they are accepting that they have lost the argument. And if even they accepted that, then it must have been true, right?

In the UK, the left wing of the Labour Party has re-emerged in the form of old campaigner Jeremy Corbyn, and is struggling to re-take control of the whole movement from a party-right that is far more concerned with suppressing them than it is with fighting Tory malice – underlining the above point. In the USA, the usually-independent Bernie Sanders has taken up the mantle of leading a new left in the Democratic Party. Young left wing talents on both sides of the Atlantic are joining both parties, so there is hope for the future of consolidating a real and much-needed move to the left.

But the damage of a quarter-century of queasy-conscience neoliberalism will take a long, long time to repair, and far more work lies ahead of them than is already behind them. Not only do the bitter battles for the souls of their parties continue, but the harm inflicted on the populace by the extremist right wing Governments of both countries is grinding them into the dirt to such an extent that it is becoming increasingly difficult for popular discontent to mobilise.

Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and various other architects of ‘Third Way’ politics have very much to answer for directly. But the worst crime they have to answer for indirectly is making it okay to be an extreme right-wing hatemonger all over again – because they made it unacceptable to be the opposite.

by Martin Odoni

Drowning on dry land

It is the thirty-fourth anniversary of the world’s deadliest industrial disaster. It happened in December 1984, in the region of Madhya Pradesh, in the heart of India. A factory owned by the Union Carbide Corporation, and located in the industrial city of Bhopal, was producing a pesticide called Sevin (real name ‘Carbaryl’). One of the ingredients in this pesticide was one of the most toxic compounds ever discovered on Earth – methyl isocyanate, or MIC.


The Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, before the site had to be abandoned due to the 1984 gas tragedy.

Not long after midnight on Monday 3rd December, gas was detected leaking from the complex network of pipes that threaded their way throughout the plant. Gauges in the control room registered a massive surge in pressure in storage tanks below ground, and the storage rooms directly above the tanks were becoming unnaturally warm. The concrete floor was starting to shake.

Released MIC was rushing in super-heated gaseous form through the maze of pipes. There were several safety mechanisms in its path. The first was a ‘vent gas scrubber‘, which was designed to filter out and extract toxic particulates from escaping gases, mixing them into a payload of caustic soda, which would render them inert. The second was a ‘flare tower’ that could burn discharges of escaping gas. Neither of them activated when workers tried to switch them on.

Over forty tonnes of vaporous MIC surged unobstructed from the factory’s ventilation outlet into the open air, forming a gigantic toxic cloud that gradually spread and returned to the ground across the residential district of the city.

MIC reacts violently with water, heating up and expanding. Unaware of the accident at the plant, thousands of Bhopali inhabitants were breathing in the gas, which reacted with the moisture in their lungs. Their bodies’ immune systems responded by sending blood to the lungs, carrying antibodies to fight off the toxic substance. But with the lungs filling with more and more blood in response to such high concentrations of MIC in the air, it became impossible to breathe.

In one night, well over three thousand people died of, in effect, drowning on dry land.

Investigating the disaster

Subsequent investigation found that one of the three storage tanks below ground, designated ‘E610’, had been over 75% full of liquid MIC; Union Carbide’s own safety guidelines stipulated that the tanks should never be filled above 50% of capacity. Further, one of the three tanks was supposed to be kept empty, to be called into action only as a back-up in exceptional circumstances. But the investigations found that all three of the tanks were in full-time use instead. Guidelines, at least those applying in Europe, stipulated that the total amount of MIC stored on one site should not exceed half a tonne. But in India, no such guidelines were in force, and the amount stored at Bhopal was not far short of 70 tonnes. The cause of these ‘serious irregularities’ (to put it politely) was a recent downturn in the market. Demand for Sevin-Carbaryl pesticide was down, and so production had been slowed in response. This had led to a backlog building up in the plant of the raw materials to create it, and with nowhere else available to store up the backlog, the excess MIC had simply been pumped into the already-over-the-limit storage tanks.

Analysis of the storage area of the factory found massive cracks had formed in the concrete floor into which the storage tanks had been built. These cracks indicated the enormous heat and violent vibrations caused by a very powerful chemical reaction inside E610 that must have shaken the tank out of its position – even though the concrete floor had previously fixed it in place. Study of the tank found that the emergency pressure-release valve in its outlet pipe was ruptured. Dozens of tonnes of MIC gas therefore escaped the tank in a powerful rush into the venting system, and surged through the maze of pipes, out of the factory, and into the open air. Worse, a refrigeration unit, used to keep the MIC’s temperature at zero degrees centigrade, had been periodically switched off earlier in the year in a bid to cut power costs.

These discoveries were alarming, but did not explain how the MIC in E610 had evaporated. More investigation not only revealed how it happened, but also unveiled a picture of astonishing negligence, penny-pinching and habitual casualness.

MIC – a highly reactive compound

The likeliest explanation for the MIC evaporating was that it had reacted with another substance, and the likeliest candidate for that substance was, as mentioned above, water. That danger was well known of course, and the factory had been designed to keep water away from MIC stores at all times. Union Carbide had chemical plants of this type all over the world, and had worked with substances like MIC for many years, without disaster striking. The usual safety systems had been installed at Bhopal to prevent any contaminants getting mixed in with the MIC. But could there have been a way that water had been allowed to get into E610?

Well, yes there was. One routine problem that would surface regularly was one of the processing units located near to the storage tanks becoming clogged with chemical residues. The only way to get the system cleared of the clogs was to ‘flush them out’, which meant ‘power-hosing’ water into the unit’s inlet pipes. The pressure produced by the high volume of water would rapidly wash the residues away.

This technique was made easier but more dangerous by an unfortunate ‘short-cut’ decision made by plant managers, who a few months earlier had introduced new inlets that fed into the pipe network covering all sections of the plant from the control room. This allowed the factory staff to clear clogs in any part of the system from the same place, without having to lug lots of hoses and pumps around the buildings first. But it also connected the storage tanks into the same network, potentially allowing a pathway for water to reach and contaminate the MIC.

It later emerged that the plant workers had flushed out the pipes less than three hours before the disaster.

Union Carbide entrance

Not very enticing, is it?

Failed safety features

Now the pathway to the MIC tanks did have a safety feature called a ‘slip-blind’. This was a circular metal plate that could be inserted into the join between two lengths of the pipe, sealing off the path to the storage tanks and isolating them from any water in the network for the duration of the cleaning process.

Unfortunately, the maintenance worker whose job it was to make sure that slip-blinds were in position during cleaning work had been laid off a few months earlier – again, to cut costs. On this night, none of the other workers remembered to get the plate fitted before cleaning began.

The MIC tanks themselves had an extra protective feature that might just have stopped water from getting inside. They were pressurised with heavy nitrogen gas above the surface of the MIC. Due to the weight and high concentration of the nitrogen at the top of the tank, this created a barrier that was strong enough to hold back water.

Sadly, over the previous few weeks, workers had been unable to get E610 to pressurise, due to an apparent leak in the input valve. No one reported the fault, no one had located the leak, and no one had therefore got around to fixing it. In all probability, no one was ever going to. So there was no nitrogen seal to block the water either.

It is estimated that as much as 500 kilogrammes of water flowed into tank E610. Small amounts of iron, probably micro-fragments of rust lifted from the interior of the ageing and corroded pipes, were washed into the tank along with the water. Water and MIC react. When impurities like metals are caught in the mix, the reaction is a lot more violent. Hence the violent shaking of the tank causing the concrete around it to crack.

“Sabotage,” you say?

Union Carbide has always maintained that it was not responsible for the MIC leak, blaming the ingress of water into E610 on sabotage. The story that the late-Warren Anderson, the then-Chief Executive of UC, always put about was that a disgruntled employee had maliciously introduced the water into the system, removed the slip-blind from the inlet pipe, and damaged the nitrogen pressure valve. Even today, Union Carbide – now a part of The Dow Chemical Company –  still has this version of events published on its website.

This story neither tallies with the evidence, nor has ever been backed up by anything Union Carbide did in subsequent years. Given that the corporation asserts that an employee had committed an act of malicious sabotage that killed thousands, you would imagine it would have gone to great pains to identify who this employee was, establish his motive, and get him prosecuted. In thirty-four years, none of these have transpired. Not even any clear evidence to support the notion of deliberate damage has ever been presented by Union Carbide, or by Dow. It even seems mildly implausible that an employee inflicted all this damage without any of his colleagues even noticing him do it, or that UC might have found any evidence and not broadcast it from the rooftops.

Moreover, even were it accepted as an accurate explanation, it is highly debatable whether this story would even begin to get the company off the hook anyway. The problem with the story is that, while it offers a possible explanation for how water got into E610, it does not really address anything that happened afterwards, which was no less important.

As the MIC overheated and evaporated, under high pressure it surged through the outlets into the open air. But there were three more essential safety features between the tanks and the open air, and none of them was working.

Union Carbide - Gates of Death

Entrance to a Union Carbide chemical plant

More failed safety features

The aforementioned vent gas scrubber, a fairly large, bottle-shaped tank, was undersized for the scale of the factory, and could only really neutralise small leaks and discharges. Even so, that might still have lessened the scale of the tragedy. However, it was offline anyway, and workers later admitted that for weeks beforehand, they had not seen any sign from the instrumentation that it was working properly. No explanation has ever been offered by Union Carbide for why it was not working. If that was sabotage too, why did the saboteur wait until weeks after he had shut down the scrubber to feed water into the MIC tanks?

The MIC gas passed, completely unobstructed, through the scrubber.

The second line of defence, the flare tower, was a large, chimney-like structure near the final outlet of the pipe network. MIC is highly flammable. So, working a little like a gas cooker lighting up, the flare tower would project a small barrier of flame into the path of the MIC, and that would burn up just about all the gas before it could escape into the air.

Tragically, the flare tower was not working either. A four-foot stretch of pipe, not far below the burner on the flare tower, had become corroded, and was becoming increasingly unfit for purpose. It had finally been removed from the outlet a couple of months back, and no one had gotten around to purchasing and fitting a replacement – once more due to cost-cutting and staff shortages. The MIC gas therefore escaped largely around the burner rather than through it.

One last feature might have at least mitigated the tragedy. As MIC reacts with water, it also dissolves in it. Therefore, a mechanised hose system was positioned at the foot of the vent outlet. Water could be sprayed into the escaping plumes of MIC, absorbing the toxic chemicals and bringing them back to Earth without allowing them to spread.

Yet again alas, when the workers deployed the hoses, they found that the mechanism was not powerful enough to spray water to a sufficient altitude actually to reach the gas escaping from the outlet.

Apparently, Union Carbide had instructed the factory management to upgrade the hose system several years earlier. But at the same time, UC had also demanded that operating costs be cut in response to the market downturn. Cutting costs and upgrading systems simultaneously were a pair of contradictory objectives too far, and the management were compelled to choose one or the other. They chose cost-cutting, and so the hose system remained unchanged.

The failure of necessary safety apparatus between the storage tanks and the outside world was critical in causing the disaster, and Union Carbide has no scapegoat for that. How the water got into the MIC tanks, be it by sabotage or by ineptitude, is one matter. But it does not affect the reality that all three of these lines of defence should still have been working and they were not.

A scene from Hades

There was nothing left to stop the forty-plus tonnes of super-heated poison gas from escaping. The 3,000 deaths on the first night were just the beginning of the tragedy. Over the coming months, the death-toll increased to at least 8,000, and the tragedy continues right up to the present day, with the long-term death-toll by some estimates standing as high as 30,000. Dead people, and even dead animals, lined the roadsides for days afterwards, like a scene from a Biblical apocalypse. The local hospital and clinics were overwhelmed by enormous numbers of patients arriving and begging for treatment, either for breathing problems, or for pain in the eyes caused by MIC reacting with moisture from their tear-ducts.

Bhopal funeral pyre

Fire wood ran short in the days after the tragedy, and so mass-cremations had to be carried out on the many, many bodies, to prevent the spread of disease.

It was not just the numbers that were a problem. The medical services had no way of treating the poisoning. Many of the doctors in the city had never even heard of methyl isocyanate. Some assumed the gas was ammonia or even phosgene, both of which were among the chemicals used in the factory. So when the patients complained of the painful irritation in their eyes, the doctors attempted to treat them with eye-drops. Unfortunately of course, eye-drops are aqua-based solutions – principally made of water. So the water in the eye-drops immediately reacted with the MIC in people’s eyes, making it turn even hotter and more abrasive, making the problem even more damaging and painful.

All the warning signs of disaster had been there

This underlines Union Carbide’s negligence, and probable corruption, throughout its handling of the Bhopal facility. The firm had set up the factory in 1972, and knew at the time that it would be using chemical and technological combinations that had never been properly tested before. As a minimum safety precaution, the company should have informed the local emergency services of all the chemicals being deployed there, and made certain that they were supplied with appropriate medical resources to treat human exposure to them. In twelve years, the company had done neither, while it had increasingly compromised safety standards at the factory in order to cut its financial losses. As the plant fell into increasingly poor levels of maintenance, there had been five serious accidents with escaping gases in just three years leading up to the Tragedy, with no corresponding effort to correct the problems that had led to them. The routine dumping of chemical waste products in a nearby lake had also seriously polluted the local water supply. Pressure gauges were frequently ill-calibrated, giving inaccurate readings. Small leaks in containment and conduit facilities were a regular occurrence. Meanwhile, machinery and other apparatus across the factory were becoming rusty and fatigued. After a worker at the plant died of phosgene poisoning in 1981, a local journalist called Rajkumar Keswani began investigating the factory, and was appalled at what he found. He published his findings in Bhopal’s local magazine, Rapat, in which he berated the people of Bhopal to, “Wake up… you are on the edge of a volcano!

In short, all the warning signs of an impending disaster were clearly there. And they were ignored.

Union Carbide runs away

The number of people exposed to the MIC poisoning, and therefore suffering injuries, was well in excess of half a million. And the land in and around Bhopal was so saturated by the toxic fallout that it remains highly poisonous even today. The plant was soon abandoned by Union Carbide. The organisation was clearly not eager to get involved in the enormous task of trying to clean up the hellish mess it had created. The derelict factory still stands now, slowly rotting and corroding, looming over the surrounding city like a sleeping dragon waiting to let out another breath of murderous fire. Even the expense of dismantling the plant was clearly considered too much for Union Carbide.

Bhopal Union Carbide derelict

The abandoned Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, left to rot by the company after the disaster that killed thousands.

This is an ongoing tragedy, not a sad-but-inconsequential event from over three decades past. It is now entirely commonplace for babies born in the vicinity of Bhopal to have serious birth defects and abnormalities. The water supply is still very badly contaminated, but locals have to carry on using it, as they have nowhere else to go, and no other source of water for many miles. Tests carried out on samples of water taken from Bhopal suggest that the mercury content alone could be as high as nine hundred parts per million. If that sounds like a tiny proportion, consider that an intake of 0.11 parts per million of mercury is considered excessive, at least for children. And that is before we take into account all the other toxic impurities.

Dow’s and Union Carbide’s almost-childish resistance to responsibility is ongoing. Dow has tried to disown the responsibility on the grounds that it did not purchase Union Carbide until 2001, seventeen years after the Tragedy, and so what happened was nothing to do with them. (Dow has since merged with DuPont Chemical to form the world’s largest chemical-producing conglomerate.) Union Carbide tried to avoid prosecution in India on the grounds that it was not an Indian company but an American company, and therefore did not operate under India’s jurisdiction. At the same time, it tried to avoid prosecution in the USA on the grounds that the Tragedy happened in India, and therefore did not happen under US jurisdiction.

After much of this petty legal wrangling, in 1989 Union Carbide reluctantly paid a settlement of $470 million, plus $17 million to help fund a new local hospital to treat long-term victims of the poisoning. These payments, amounting to about $1,000 per death and $500 per injury, were conditional on Union Carbide being legally immune to any further criminal prosecutions in connection with the Tragedy, and were agreed by the Indian Government without prior consultation with the surviving victims. The payments survivors have received do not even come close to covering the costs of the medical treatment that they will have to receive for the rest of their lives, and have done nothing to detoxify the soil or water supply across the city. The Indian Government, cravenly acting as chief apologist for a rich, powerful multinational corporation that it does not want to risk upsetting for fear of losing its investment, frequently claims that there is no ongoing poisoning in Bhopal, an absurd claim that is completely at variance with all evidence.

Bhopal protesters

The Indian Government has repeatedly caved in to Union Carbide’s abrogation of responsibility, angering many of the survivors.

The campaign for justice

The global campaign for justice for the victims of Bhopal is huge, and with very good reason. It was the most profound and inexcusable example of corporate negligence in the history of Mankind, and the incredible destruction it has caused could take literally centuries to clear up naturally. Tens of thousands of lives have been permanently ruined by the poisoning, and many thousands more lives were ended outright by it. Union Carbide’s endless stalling tactics and evasions of guilt have been utterly contemptible, veering between fictitious claims about sabotage, and untrue legal smokescreens about debatable jurisdiction. Bhopal demonstrates not only human tragedy, but also the inhuman danger posed by corporate power. In the corporate world, money is more important than people, and so profit is more important than safety. Having compromised safety to reduce costs at its pesticide plant, Union Carbide then once more tried to avoid paying the much, much higher costs in necessary compensation after the inevitable disaster to which it led. This not only demonstrates the myopic stupidity of excessive focus on money, it also shows the inhuman void of empathy in corporate forces.

Bhopal proves, in short, that corporate power does not serve humanity, it enslaves humanity, and it sacrifices humanity, in the pursuit of riches. If Union Carbide and the Dow Chemical Company ultimately get away with this crime, humanity will be accepting that subordination to corporate power.

So please. Help stop that happening.