The stonewaller’s end

Several MPS have retired from Parliament, with the General Election. We look briefly at the high spots of the career of one of them.

Listening to the proceedings of the House of Commons can be interesting but also very puzzling at times. Does anyone, one wonders, ever mean what they say there? Does the merest tinge of sincerity ever enter any of the speeches? Is the whole place just an excuse for a few hundred ambitious people to scratch each others’ backs, to treat each other to a drink?

Such doubts were especially insistent, as the last Parliament broke up and the Members went off to their constituencies. Not a few of them were aware that they were sufficiently out of favour with the voters to make their return to Westminster about as likely as Halifax winning the FA Cup. And quite a few others knew that they would not be coming back because they were retiring from the House.

As might have been foretold, this event provoked some gushing sentiments, as the Speaker assured the retiring Members that he hardly knew how Parliament would run without them and they, in their turn, deluged him with some startling descriptions of how vital he had been to their parliamentary life. Had they been hiding all these feelings from each other, for so long?

Even by the standards of Parliament, it was pretty sickening stuff; the Members were lucky the Speaker did not call them to order for contempt of the House. (Traditionally. Parliament is very sensitive about such things. They have men with funny names like Serjeant-at-Arms and Black Rod who, although they look on the verge of senility, can do terrible things to anyone who treats them with contempt.)

One prominent, and retiring. Labour MP who did not join in this fulsomeness was Michael Stewart, whose craggy, generously eye-browed features are constructed for silence. They rear above his body like some granite cliff-face and they resist the elements of Parliamentary weather just as stubbornly.

He was an MP for a long time, sitting for constituencies in Hammersmith and Fulham from 1945. When he started his life in the House he was fresh out of the Army, and was known as Captain Michael Stewart, which allowed him to be addressed as the Honourable and Gallant Member instead of just an Honourable one. This is another important thing about which Parliament is very sensitive.

Stewart came up through the teaching profession and he never lost his precise, schoolmasterly manner. At times, when he was under especially fierce criticism, he seemed to long to control his tormentors by giving them all a hundred lines—“I must not say nasty things to Her Majesty’s Minister of Education/Foreign Secretary/First Secretary of State . . .”

For during his time he held all those big jobs, and a few others as well. Harold Wilson thought highly of him, as well he might; his comment, when he moved Stewart from the Foreign Office to George Brown’s old job in charge of the Department of Economic Affairs:

“Michael Stewart . . . readily accepted the move and brought his great administrative talents to his new task. He was listed at No. 3 in the Cabinet order of preference, which aroused great press interest.”

It is not difficult to understand how Wilson came to this admiring opinion. During his periods as Foreign Secretary (1965-66 and then 1968-70) Stewart stonewalled as single-mindedly on the issues of Vietnam and Biafra as Geoff Boycott in the Roses match. Any man who can lisp out precisely the cold-blooded interests of British capitalism to an audience aware that as he spoke thousands of people were being killed, is clearly worth bringing on.

Stewart loyally carried this task out, when the Wilson government was under fire from its slap-happy left wingers over its support for the Americans in Vietnam. When he was Foreign Secretary for the second time, Vietnam was draining America in terms of both lives and economy. Deaths averaged a hundred a week, with peaks of over five hundred during 1968 and the war was costing 300 billion dollars a year. Both sides had settled into a policy of attrition, the Vietcong chipping away with their guerilla tactics and the Americans blasting and burning with their napalm. Such horrors were a lesser concern for Stewart; he deserved a medal for his stubborn justification for it all—for medals are what capitalism awards for such outstanding devotion to duty.

A lesser known, but equally horrible, feat was Stewart’s policy on the Nigerian/Biafran war, which was notable for the Nigerian government’s genocide against the Ibos and for the savage famine which Biafra suffered. The Nigerians were supported by the supply of arms from Britain, which again provoked much opposition— sometimes not just from Labour’s left wing but also from the Tories.

A million Biafrans were killed in the crushing of their rising. There were some three million refugees, whose plight was such that they were dying in their thousands—the relief agencies estimated between five and ten thousand—each day. Yet Stewart thought it appropriate to justify the arms on the grounds that it would be wrong to cut them off just when the Nigerian government needed them to kill the Biafrans, to suppress the rising. (House of Commons, 12.6.68.)

Nine months later, he was just as adamant, saying that to have stopped the arms going to Nigeria would have caused

“. . . a profound estrangement of ourselves from Nigeria and from Africa as a whole. It would have involved a great increase of Russian influence in Nigeria, and it would have involved a great risk to British people and British interests in Nigeria.” (House of Commons. 13.3.69).

And there Stewart knew what he was talking about. Nigeria is a source of rubber and tin and was at that time among the top ten oil producers in the world. Of course the British capitalist class were anxious to keep Russian influence at bay there. The Americans backed British policy, partly in return for British support for the atrocity of Vietnam. So, in terms which politicians like Stewart and Lyndon Johnson understood, it all made sense. Only the starving refugees in Biafra, hounded and massacred, or the terrified people under the napalm in Vietnam, might have been forgiven for failing to grasp the nice rounded logic of it all.

That was a long time ago now and Stewart has passed through the back benches into retirement. He served capitalism. and in particular the British ruling class, well. Only one thing can be said in his favour—he did not try to hide what he was doing. Like any teacher spelling out an equation to a backward class, he explained it all in grisly detail.

Any confusion about him was hardly his fault. In his manner and his appearance he served admirably as a bogy man for the left wing, which allowed those senseless romantics to enjoy their customary illusion that capitalist politics, and the horrors of this society, are a matter of personality. Get rid of Stewart, they once shrieked, and there will be no more Biafra. no more Vietnam.

Well Stewart was got rid of but the world is no more peaceable a place. And he has been replaced by new bogy men to be subjected to the left’s hysteria. It would be tedious, except that the blood still flows and it is the blood of the people who will be needed to live, to change society.


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