Monday, October 2, 2023

Caught In The Act: Oil and carrots (1990)

The Caught In The Act Column from the October 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

Oil and carrots
Some time ago Ken Livingstone said that anyone who enjoyed being in Parliament was in need of psychiatric care. But he was in a minority; almost every other MP is convinced that parliament is an essential contributor to our safety and welfare and that without its debates the nation would be like a ship without a rudder. So it was that as the crisis in the Gulf developed there were many people who thought that in so grave a situation nothing less would do than the immediate recall of parliament.

The government agreed (Margaret Thatcher takes only brief holidays in any case, and then grudgingly) and the Members selflessly left the grouse moors and the sun-soaked beaches to hurry to London. After a couple of days of well-publicised talking they resumed their holidays, leaving us with the question what was it all about? Was it worth it?

At the end of the debate the Commons voted, more or less, in favour of Britain going to war with Iraq — to go to war, in other words, over a border dispute between two other states — something which, when it suits them, government will decline to do. Of course tho Members were excited by the sudden discovery that Saddam is a brutal tyrant, after all those years when he had been our friend for whom we could overlook one or two minor aberrations such as his ordering the use of chemical weapons to slaughter thousands of helpless Kurdish villagers.

In fact so dose a friend was Saddam that his tyranny was sustained by armaments sold to him by Western powers (in the debate Denis Healey referred to "stuffing arms down tho throats" of powers like Iraq, although he was a member of a government which did not demur at doing just that) Any British, American or French soldiers who have to do the fighting will not be consoled by the fact that their governments supplied many of the weapons being used against them. Margaret Thatcher, who is contemptuous of history, summed up the debate when she told the house that "History has many examples of perfidy and deceit" — an unconscious warning that the Honourable Members were providing another example.

But parliament is nothing if not adaptable about these things How else could it have coped in the past with the changes in its assessment of Stalin, Ceausescu, the unity of Germany, the resurrection of Japanese power?

In tune with the times Thatcher was belligerent, Kinnock statesmanlike, Ashdown cautious in tho soldierly way befitting someone trained to kill with their bare hands. Except for a handful of MPs who put their confidence in the shaky delusions of the United Nations the House was united — Tory, Labour, SLD, SDP all jostled into tho lobby to vote for a war in which they have every reason to believe they would not be killed nor even fight.

At times the perfidy and deceit in the Commons became so intense that reality was lost sight of. Thatcher spoke as if Britain was a major factor in the crisis. She harped on the ‘legality’ of the action against Iraq as if the British and American ruling classes (or any other, for that matter) only indulge in "legal" military enterprises which meant that she had forgotten what had happened in Grenada and Panama and what the Israeli forces have been up to recently. She warned that the Iraqi take-over of Kuwait affected " . . . world security, world oil supplies and world stability" — which is either untrue or extravagant with the truth.

War fever
The real purpose of the debate, the reason which brought those MPs back from their holidays, was to gird up tho British workers for war. We have been subjected to a stream of vicious propaganda about Saddam, who is the latest bogeyman after the likes of Hitler, Nasser and Gadaffi, to provide lurid headlines in the gutter press. All these leaders, we are told, were mad along with their other personality problems — which ignores the fact that someone like Saddam needs a kind of sanity to survive in the volatile politics of Iraq

One Tory MP blustered that he wanted Saddam "politically humiliated and militarily castrated" which hints kinkily that Westminster has its personality problems as well. Once more the world is divided into goodies and baddies. Foreign Office Minister William Waldegrave drooled that "Democracies are slow to anger, but once angered they will go right to the end of the road". Again there is a general unity among tho capitalist parties that "our" interests demand that "we" go to war to remove some evil force from the world so that we can live in peace, at least until the next war

What cements that unity is the interests which are actually at stake in the Gulf. These do not include tho welfare of the people in Kuwait or Britain who, as members of the working class, are readily expendable and so not fit subjects for emergency debates in parliament. A former American Assistant Defence Secretary pointed out, as the crisis began, that if Kuwait grew carrots nobody — by which he meant no member of the ruling class — would give a damn if the place was invaded.

The crisis revolves around the fact that Kuwait is oil-rich and that Iraqi ambitions threatened to upset tho pricing structure of the world oil industry The former Labour Cabinet Minister was not talking about the world supply of carrots when he said ". . . it is a world necessity that we have access . . . at a reasonable price".

In these kinds of situation — like Suez in 1956 — there is very little scope for capitalist powers to take other than a short term view. In 1956 a long-term assessment saw how wasteful and unproductive for the capitalist class was the assault on Egypt by the French and British forces The same view now sees that, again from the standpoint of the capitalists, there is an enormous amount to lose by going to war with Iraq, among it lasting damage to the oilfields and the replacement of Saddam by a government more hostile to Western interests. That is the logic of the situation; but even by its own standards capitalism does not always work logically

So what the emergency debate demonstrated was that at present parliament does not operate to deal with the interests of the majority who elect it. Its role is to pass the laws which are needed to ensure the most effective exploitation of the working class and the most powerful defence of the profits of the exploiting class. Occasional showpiece debates encourage us to believe that parliament is concerned for our welfare and this perfidy and deceit is called democracy

A saner way of running human affairs would not be profit-motivated and productive of social schisms. It would have neither wars nor smug politicians to urge us to die in them. It may even, if it made sense from the point of view of human welfare, shut down the oilfields in the Middle East and grow carrots there instead — which would be a neat and conclusive way of proclaiming that somebody at least gives a damn.

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