Thursday, December 24, 2015

Open letter to Dick Taverne, MP (1964)

From the February 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard


You may remember me as the Socialist who had the difference of opinion with you at a Marylebone meeting recently (or rather, I was one of a number). I hope you will not mind my writing to you. I have been engaged fairly actively in Socialist politics for many years and this is the first time I have felt prompted to do so.

I asked you a question about South Africa and you gave two replies (you will appreciate, I am sure, that a witness who gives one reply to a question and when that does not go down very well comes up with another answer, is always calculated to make the judge look over his glasses). Your first reply was that I had got my facts wrong. The second was that you were at school at the material time. And it is the latter answer which impels me to try and continue your education by means of this letter. I trust you are not already offended and that I do not appear too patronising. You must remember that it was you who pleaded youth in extenuation of ignorance; I am merely answering your implied cry for help.

Obviously, if you are too young to know one aspect of politics it is unlikely that you will be bristling with a sound knowledge of the facts on other matters; however, in this letter I propose to deal mainly with the South African question which started things off at the meeting. You were asked how you could reconcile your criticism of the British Tory Government record at UNO on the question of apartheid with the fact that when your own party was last in power they followed an identical policy at UNO. As mentioned above, your first shot to the effect that my friends and I had got our facts wrong, was wide of the mark. It is true that we had not brought any dossiers of evidence along but the vehemence of our reaction caused you to change course immediately. 

Now I am sure that an intelligent young man like you who only recently hit the headlines as one of the late Hugh Gaitskell's new crop of MP.’s, if you felt you were in the right, would not be put off his stroke by a handful of irate questioners' amongst a hundred of bis own supporters. Perhaps you realised that you really did not know the facts and that it was therefore simply not possible for you to maintain your stand. Of course, when you grow older and more experienced you will realise that it is possible to maintain even downright lies as long as your questioners are few and your supporters are both numerous and uncritical. At present you have not yet reached this stage.

Your next line, though, was really rather breathtaking. You were still at school, you said. This is no doubt true. But it will hardly do, will it? After all, if you are on a platform as a representative of a party you must surely be presumed to know what it did yesterday and even the day before. I was speaking on public platforms for the Socialist Party (and against the Labour Party) before I was twenty. But I would not have been able to do so had I not satisfied my comrades that I know all about my party's activities from the time it was formed (which was not when I was at school but long before I was born). Yes, and all about your party, too, and about all the other parties which seek power on a programme of reform of capitalism some of whom, like yours, claim to be Socialist (or at least used to; I noticed that neither you nor any of your colleagues on the platform so much as mentioned the word Socialism). In fact, I was ready to answer questions about the economic and social causes of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire as well as the change from primitive communism to property society; both of which, you will realise, happened well before I started school, let alone left it

You see, we hold that those who are not possessed of the necessary knowledge, either through their youth or for any other reason, should not presume, too, to instruct others from platforms; a proposition which you must agree is eminently reasonable. And my colleagues and I are only amateurs; we are none of us full-time paid politicians like you.

At any rate, I am sure you would like to know the facts so that next time you come up against others who know them, you will not feel at such a grave disadvantage. The government, when run by the party that you represent and which you may one day even lead (you seem to have all the advantages which Harold Wilson had and more; you are just as young, you are better looking, and equally you know nothing about Socialism), did all the things at UNO when the South African question was on the agenda that you now accuse the present government of doing. Not being a full-time politician and not having the staff at Transport House to wade through the records I cannot cite some of the choicest examples, but the following two or three, taken from a five-minute glance through Keesing's in the local library should do.

Nov. 29 '49: Resolution proposed by Scandinavian countries calling on South Africa to submit the question of the mandate to S.W. Africa to the International Court of Justice was carried 30-7. Your government abstained from supporting what it called the rule of law in international affairs.

Dec. 5 '50: A resolution condemning Apartheid defeated by, amongst others, the vote of your party’s government.

Nov. 28 '49: This was the occasion when the Rev. Michael Scott made a speech about the appalling sufferings of the Herero tribe. India moved a resolution condemning S. Africa. Carried 31-10. This time your lot did not abstain. It was one of the ten who voted against. You can imagine who tbe other nine were; if you can't, I suggest you look it up and see what kind of company your government was keeping while you were at school. Even the United States (not a Socialist country even by your notions) could not bring itself to associate with them and abstained.

Of course, all this was some years ago. But your party had the biggest majority of any party this century. And you must admit that it is rather less than honest to accuse your opponents of actions while hiding or denying the fact that you did likewise the last time you had the chance to do anything at all. And although some of the actors have passed on to higher things, some of them are your leading colleagues today who were not unknown school children in those days. For example you are no doubt acquainted with Barbara Castle who leads your anti-apartheid wing now. Well, she was old enough to know all about it.

I’m afraid I may have been a little too facetious in my letter. Things are really not funny at all. And the saddest thing is to see young people like you, able, intelligent and with the gift of tongues, swimming comfortably with the tide: the tide of capitalism that has for so long drowned all the hopes of a decent world for the human race to live in.

If you would like me to send you a pamphlet about Socialism, please let me know. I am sure you will find it a revelation. Then next time you are on a platform and a Socialist asks you a question, perhaps you will not feel so badly out of your depth.
                                                                                                                         Yours truly,
      L. E. Weidberg

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