1980s >> 1988 >> no-1012-december-1988

Running Commentary: Used in evidence

Used in evidence

Certain members of the criminal set will have greeted with hollow laughter the announcement of the government’s intention to abolish the so-called Right of Silence. A fat lot of good it ever did them, they may well have mused; for they are the people who have suffered the fate of being “verballed-up” — convicted on a spoken admission of an offence (“It’s a fair cop. guv” sort of thing) which they did not in fact make but which was the creation of an imaginative copper.

Of course under the new arrangements suspects helping the police with their enquiries will still be able to remain silent if they wish and are able to hold out against their interrogation. But at their trial the prosecution will be allowed to refer to this and to make as much of it as they can, inviting the jury to conclude that only the guilty keep mum.

This has some embarrassing implications for all politicians and especially for those in positions of power. Poor Robert Armstrong, in the Spycatcher trial, talked about being economical with the truth; now what about those who economise in that way by a sparing use of words — those who use phrases like “no comment” or simply ignore pointed questions in order to hide their culpability in some outrageous decision or incident?

For example, a little while ago it was revealed that when he was prime minister the late Harold Macmillan decided to suppress the report on the 1957 fire at the Windscale nuclear reactor. This resort to silence was used because the report laid out some facts about the true scale and threat of the fire and Macmillan thought that to publicise this would have been an embarrassing complication in Britain’s relationship with America, which he saw as balanced on nuclear capability. Human rights and safety did not enter into it. How do we now judge Macmillan?

More recently Mrs Thatcher habitually responds with evasions to parliamentary questions which prove some Tory vulnerability and could not. she may feel, be answered without conceding a point to Labour in their need to show that they would make the better job of running capitalism.

If, every time a politician stayed silent or evaded a question they were incriminating themselves, they would now stand convicted of a mass of very serious offences against human interests. Their guilt would lie in their impotence to affect or improve society as they have claimed they could. It would be in their unrelenting efforts to deceive us into keeping this social system in being although it cannot meet our needs and is repressive and destructive of us.

Whatever they say — how much, how little — they cannot hide this awful reality. They cannot evade the fact of their guilt and it is high time that what they stand for was brought to account.


Home Secretary Douglas Hurd explained the government’s plans to place restrictions on free reporting about events in Ireland by saying that it should not be possible for anyone to try to justify acts of indiscriminate killing and destruction.

He did not make it clear whether this will prevent future media obscenities such as the notorious Sun headline, which gloated over the ruthless killing of hundreds of Argentinian sailors on the Belgrano with the word “GOTCHA!”.

At all events the policy — like quite a lot of what this government does — seems to be politically crude and ill-advised, an attempt to stifle what freedom of expression we have through an impulsive reaction to a problem. No minister can seriously believe that the sight of Gerry Adam ‘s cold features on television after the reporting of some IRA bombing would help to persuade anyone that the bombing could be excused. The very opposite is more likely to be true; for Adams — and on the other side the likes of Robinson and Paisley appeal only to the already-converted and tend to antagonise others.

Perhaps, twenty years after the Irish problem flared up again, the government is having to face the fact of its own impotence. Of course they are very free with the propaganda about the IRA suffering crucial setbacks, being on the point of final defeat and so on but there is plenty of historical evidence to show how futile it is for a power to engage in a prolonged struggle with a nationalist movement which has any considerable popular support.

In the case of Ireland, British policy is complicated by the rival economic interest and the manner in which these energise deep-seated bigotries — a feature not unknown in war. What is apparent is that since 1968 there has been no progress towards settling the troubles. Direct rule from London; occupation by British troops; internment; the abolition of juries; all have failed to have any real effect.

The only policy the British government have been left with is to step up the pressure on the IRA, for example by the Shoot to Kill tactic, by abolishing the Right to Silence and now by the media ban. They have also given considerable publicity to what they have done so that they appear to be effective when in fact they are not.

The persistence of the troubles, and the government’s continuing inability to deal with them, provide evidence of how powerful is the conflict of interests in Ireland and of the bigotry there — which the British government has not been averse to using for its own ends in the past. This is a typical, tragic episode in this social system in which rival capitalist groups exploit the ignorance of millions of workers while politicians pretend to be able to unravel the mess. How the media behaves in this hardly matters; the realities are too clear and too urgent.

Maggie immortal?

If they had known in 1979 that Margaret Thatcher intended to remain as Prime Minister for ever or until she died, whichever is later, would the working class have been so ready to vote her into power? Her reign – for that is how she seems increasingly to regard her time at Number Ten — has been remarkable for a number of features. Typical of them was the style of her recent announcement about carrying on. when she said this was partly because nobody else was up to the job, which was a pretty damning thing to say about her ministers.

But this was inevitable, considering how assiduously Thatcher has weeded out anyone who posed as a threat to her. She has not sat easily with doubts or criticism from her supporters and now has a government which is likely to go down in history as a unique collection of toadies. She has turned on its head the once accepted theory that the most efficient government is the one which is most open to the stimulating effects of opposition.

Her administration has also been notable for its dismantling of the policy — which in some respects goes back to just after the First World War — that governments and local councils should have a decisive role in almost everything of social consequence. On that policy councils all over the country were enabled to set down housing estates, run homes for children and old people, clear up the rubbish and so on. The central state took control over industries which, to serve the interests of the British capitalist class as a whole, were most effectively run as an integrated whole. In that way were born the Post Office, the National Coal Board. British Railways and the rest. In the past Conservative governments were not averse to carrying through their own bits of nationalisation, or leaving untouched those which were already in existence, if they considered there was a case for this in terms of overall profitability.

Now that this is being replaced the former image of the all-caring, all-managing state has been replaced with the look-after-yourself, stand-on-your-own-feet image of privatisation. It did not seem possible, ten years ago, that a government would be able to inspire such a reversal of popular thinking but it has happened.

There is a danger that the mourning for state and council control will obscure some important facts. The policy was originally formed, not to serve the interests of the people who do all the work and produce all the wealth but to protect and improve the profits of their exploiters. The case for nationalisation was that it was a more efficient way of running a business like the coal mines and would therefore work towards safeguarding the profits of the industries which depended on coal. The case for the NHS was that the former fragmented services were not the best way of dealing with workers’ illness, of servicing them into consistently productive and profitable employees.

Labour Party supporters will not appreciate the point, but from the point of view of workers’ interests neither theory — state control or privatisation — has anything to offer. They are both methods of running a social system which cannot operate in our interests. Workers who are now debating the issue of privatisation should consider the actual experience of both methods, and draw the obvious conclusions. It would be nice if they did this before Thatcher finally goes, for the sooner the better.