The Caught In The Act column from the December 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard
IN THE RAW
Our readers will be relieved to learn that the Socialist Standard will not be contributing to the praise, criticism and analysis of the life, times and death of Robert Maxwell - at least not in the style to which we have, over the past few weeks, become accustomed.
Maxwell was - how many times have we read this? - larger than life, which in his ease means that he routinely behaved in an excessively outrageous way. That was the soil in which so many stories about him flourished - like the time when he abruptly sacked a man for smoking outside his office, paying him off at once in cash from his own pocket which both surprised and delighted the man because he wasn't employed by Maxwell anyway. Sacking people was one of Maxwell's things - according to SOGAT secretary Brenda Dean he fired some of that union’s members six times, usually round Xmas to emphasise the point.
He could behave in this way - and then be remembered as a lovable eccentric for it - because he was rich. Most people don't - and can't behave like that because they’re poor. Maxwell was capitalism in the raw, in the sense that he worked on the simple and unavoidable principle that under this social system to have money means to have power.
This raises an interesting question. Why was he a member of the Labour Party, which professes to stand, if not for socialism, at least for capitalism without its rougher edges? The only possible answer is that Maxwell thought the Labour style of running British capitalism was best for his profits; he would certainly not have joined them if he had thought Labour policies were harmful. And why did the Labour Party accept him? Clearly that had a lot to do with his control of a large media empire, particularly the Mirror Group Newspapers and all that implied. What are a few professed political principles worth, compared to support from the Daily Mirror?
Perhaps Maxwell was not so much cynical as crazy. But, confronted with this gross personification of a ruthless, oppressive, murderous social system, how do we assess the response to him? The responses of the media, of the sycophants who feared above all being fired by him, of the Labour leadership who grovelled in the hope of attracting some grubby votes? These too are examples of capitalism in the raw. It is not a pretty sight.
We all know who Neil Kinnock dislikes - Militant, those who remind him of his past as a left-winger and anyone who challenges his fragile hold on the job of leader of the Labour Party. But who does he admire? In a recent issue of The Director he unveiled his choice.
Inevitably, he admires Ancurin Bevan who, apart from being Welsh, turned his back on much of what he had called his principles because he thought that would help him become Foreign Secretary. Kinnock has been doing the same thing ever since he became party leader - except that he has his sights on Number Ten. His next heroes were Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King whose popular reputation as men of unrelenting principles does not mix with Kinnock's, who has abandoned almost everything his erstwhile admirers once thought he stood for in his greed for power.
But Kinnock's headline-snatching choice was a heroine - Annie Besant, who led the famous match girls' strike in 1888. The passage of time has given that strike and Annie Besant a romantic niche in history But if Kinnock were Prime Minister, what would a Labour government think of a similar strike nowadays? Their record in power does not encourage us to believe that they would have been at all sympathetic to the strikers, no matter how appealing their ease.
Kinnock made his choices because, he said, they were united in a fundamental commitment to individual freedom. This is a little rich, coming from the leader of a party whose commitment to individual freedom was less than wholehearted when they were in power. In fact, the interview did little more than confirm his reputation as an unoriginal, shallow and inept contributor to political thought. It reinforced the impression that there is no reason to take anything he says seriously.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
Kenneth Baker, genial bungling Home Secretary, is not famous for being uniquely successful in his political career but he has learned the technique of the pre-emptive strike, which he used to deflect the annual bout of Home Secretary-bashing at this year's Tory Party conference on the issue of the so-called joy-riders. Baker did this by declaring that he was about to introduce harsher penalties for those who are caught committing this offence and, to make it more likely that they are caught, by creating a new offence.
Approval for this extended beyond the conference hall; those who wait for the media to warn them that the country is being overwhelmed by a surge of anti-social behaviour are usually in favour of responding with suffer sentences for it. This vengefulness helps to obscure the fact that when politicals are confronted with a problem of any kind they have to appear to be in control and capable of doing something about it. Reality is rather different.
To begin with, "joy-riding" is not new. It has been happening for a long lime, with some help from the car manufacturers' reluctance to make cars more difficult to steal because of the expense involved. Then there is the fact that this government has devoted a lot of energy to Law and Order. They have given the police pay rises above the going rate in order to increase their numbers and are now aiming at recruiting another 1000. They have given the police more powers and they have introduced harder sentences for those convicted of some offences. By rights - or rather by their standards - crime should have responded to these measures by falling rapidly but, in fact, the figures for reported crime continue to climb inexorably, ever upwards.
So no joy-rider with any sense would be impressed by Baker's windy rhetoric. But they might wallow in the notoriety while they can, for while at present they are the bogey everyone loves to hate, by this time next year they may have been superceded by another one, by other demands for action and for the police and the courts to crack down. Whether there will be another Home Secretary to make the same kind of promises as Baker will depend partly on the timing of the next general election - and partly on Baker's well-known talent for survival.