Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Archive for January, 2014|Monthly archive page

A different view on World War I

In O. Adams on January 13, 2014 at 1:55 pm

by Owen Adams (un-edited edition)

ONE late night at the Angel pub in Coleford, I found myself chatting with a soldier based at Beachley about the war in Afghanistan. He agreed that there was no good reason for the British army to be there, but as to the idea of bringing the troops home, he said “if we give up now, the deaths of all those killed in action in Helmand, including my mates, will be in vain”. In other words, to retreat would be to dishonour the fallen, despite the lack of justification for the war in the first place.

The same kind of rationale seems to be the main theme every remembrance day. If you’re not wearing a red poppy, or arguing against wearing a poppy because it’s glorifying war, it’s considered a betrayal to the memory of the dead and injured. Many poppy-pushers don’t want to hear about the futility of war, or that arms traders use remembrance day functions as networking events… or that remembering the fallen isn’t enough, we need to strive for an end to all war.

A year before the centenary of the outbreak of “the war to end all wars” (which rather paved the way for more wars), the government has announced a £50 million fund to pay for commemorations. Every school will receive funding to visit French and Belgian battlefields. The PM said: “Let’s get out there and make this centenary a truly national moment in every community in our land… to ensure the sacrifice and service of 100 years ago is still remembered”. Communities secretary Eric Pickles added: “Remembering the huge losses of people and sacrifices made across the Commonwealth during the First World War is something that will unite the whole country next year… We have a duty to educate future generations about the First World War to ensure that the role our armed forces played, and continue to play, in defending our liberties we take for granted today are remembered.”

Never mind that even the best historians are unable to explain precisely why or how all the major world powers of 1914 mutually massacred more than 15 million of their young, that people’s liberties weren’t on the agenda (rather they were slaves ordered to murder), we are now obliged to remember the sacrifices people made for “their country”, in the stage-managed propaganda of the military-industrial complex.

The sacrifices people were forced to make – under pain of court-martial, imprisonment or firing squad, or at best accusations of cowardice – were in the name of capitalism and empire. Is it coincidence that war was declared at a time of immense social upheaval across Europe, when trade unions, labour movements, calls for universal suffrage and socialist causes were beginning to make headway and threatening to topple the establishment and capitalist fat cats? While we remember the war, will we also remember the widespread industrial unrest (including two police strikes), mutinies, peace truces, the Easter Rising of 1916 in Ireland and the Russian Revolution of 1917, as well as the German Revolution of 1918, the anti-war sentiment of the shipyard workers of Red Clydeside and many socialists in Britain and elsewhere, plus the devastating 1918-19 influenza outbreak which killed far more people, already exhausted by years of unnecessary brutality?

Will we remember one of the enduring slogans of the war: “A worker at both ends of a bayonet”? Perhaps not even Labour Party historians would want to see the First World War as intrinsically a war to stem the tide of international socialism and a burgeoning working-class uprising – Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists was published just a few months before war was declared?

Just two days before war was declared, Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson signed a manifesto at an anti-war rally at Trafalgar Square which stated: “Workers stand together for peace! Combine and conquer the militarist enemy and the self-seeking Imperialists today, once and for all… Down with class rule. Down with the rule of brute force. Down with the War. Up with the peaceful rule of the people.” Within several weeks, the British Socialist Party, the Labour Party and TUC swung firmly behind the war, leaving only the national council of the Independent Labour Party unstinting in its anti-war stance.

Bristol Radical History Group, which includes input from Forest of Dean historians such as Ian Wright, are researching and appealing for hidden and buried war-time history to be unearthed and collated as a counter to the government’s propaganda machine about 1914-18.

Among the revelations they are working on is that the so-called Christmas Day truce of 1914 involved hundreds of thousands of soldiers, in some places lasted for months rather than a day or two, and was repeated several times; that Churchill and other leaders hatched a plan to engage British and other troops – 500,000 of them – in nipping the Bolshevik revolution in the bud, but had underestimated the lack of enthusiasm for such a campaign; that soviets were declared not only in Russia, but even a soviet formed in Southampton; and that there was a roaring trade in VD  gononoccal pus, rubbed on the groin, as a way of getting out of the trenches, as well as soldiers shooting themselves in the foot.

The Gloucestershire poet FW Harvey, who lived in Yorkley from 1921 until his death in 1957, is remembered almost entirely as a “war poet”, mainly thanks to his poem Ducks, penned while a prisoner of war, but scarcely known for the peace meetings he organised at Devil’s Chapel after the Great War. While we have no proof either way, Harvey enthusiasts will typically dismiss any suggestion that he deliberately went over the top to hand himself over to the Germans in 1916 to escape the trenches for a prison, as so many others did. The stigma remains, promoted by warmongers, that someone trying to save their own life or sanity by leaving the battlefield is a coward.

The narrative Cameron and co will no doubt want us all to follow is that everyone in Britain was eager to play their part before and into the war, and it was only after soldiers experienced the horror of the trenches that they were moved to pen poignant poetry. The story is well known that those who didn’t volunteer before conscription was introduced in 1916 had white feathers thrust on them by “patriotic” women and elders.

However, research under way by Ian Wright suggests that in the Forest of Dean, at least, only a small number of miners were willing to leave the pits for the trenches. This was despite a recruiting office being set up directly outside the entrance of Norchard pit, near Lydney. But in January 1915, figures show only 600 out of 7,000 miners (out of a total Dean population of 15,000) had signed up to fight the Huns. Only about a quarter of the 800-strong Forest battalion of the Gloucesters regiment were recruited from the Dean – while the officers came from ruling-class families and mine owners. The battalion last 292 men, 38 from the Forest. And there was also opposition to conscription, as more than 200 Forest miners were to be dragged into the war by order of HM Government after 1916.

“In the summer of 1916 at the annual miners’ demonstration at Speech House the National President of the Miners Federation urged the miners across the country to stand together against their natural enemy, the coal owners,” writes Ian. “He emphasised the need for union solidarity with other industries, in particular the dockers and railway workers. These views were very popular and had the support of the Forest miners, where union membership was nearly 100 per cent.

“At a meeting in Drybrook in August 1917 syndicalist miners from south Wales met with the Forest men. They decided to oppose any further scheme and declared in favour of negotiation for an immediate and honourable peace with Germany.”

The IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) syndicalist slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” seemed to apply at Norchard Colliery, where 6,000 Forest miners threatened an all-out strike in 1918 calling for the reinstatement of one sacked worker.

In Russia, the Tolstoyan Valentin Bulgakov’s first reaction to the outbreak of war was an appeal to “wake up, all people are brothers!… The common enemy of us all, no matter what nationality to which we belong – is the beast within us.” He was soon arrested. AE Ashworth’s The Sociology of Trench Warfare 1914-18 remains one of the best alternative narratives which reveals the humanitarian lengths ordinary soldiers in both trenches went to while their bosses, the generals and other commanders, weren’t looking. One British soldier remembered: “Hatred of the enemy, so strenuously fostered in training days, largely faded away in the line. We somehow realised that individually they were very like ourselves, just as fed-up and anxious to be done with it all.”

Ken Weller’s Don’t Be A Soldier! also offers valuable insights which depart from the establishment version of jingoism and sacrificial lambs. The title is taken from a leaflet produced by the North London Herald League in 1914, which stated: “A good solider is a blind, heartless machine. At the word of command he will put a bullet in the brain of the bravest and noblest man who has ever lived. He respects neither the grey hair of age nor the weakness of childhood. He is unmoved by prayers, by tears, or by argument. He is indifferent to human thought or feelings. Don’t be a soldier – be a man!”

Finally, the official account always tells us that the war ended with the armistice of November 11, 1918; the reality was demob didn’t get underway until the Peace Treaty of Versailles was signed in June 1919, and only after numerous mutinies, mass walkouts, an influenza epidemic and civil unrest in towns such as Luton, where rioting returning servicemen faced with unemployment smashed up the town hall and a grand banquet organised for the mayor. “For a while the power of the armed forces had slipped out of the control of the ruling classes,” Dave Lamb notes in his extensive study of mutinies from 1919-20, of which there were many – some leading to the setting up of soviets or workers’ councils.

We all know what happened after Versailles. The toxic brew of nationalism and fascism fermented across Europe over the next two decades, tolerated – and supported – by the British Establishment right up until 1939. Industrialists, capitalists, church and other forces of ruling-class authority were bolstered and workers repressed by fascism – only when their empire, land, resources and private interests were specifically threatened did the allies swing into action and push the cannon fodder into service again. Just like any war waged in the name of “our country”, past, present and future, it was good for business, good for averting crises in capitalism and continuing the great lie.

Find out more about Bristol Radical History Group’s alternative WW1 history project here: http://www.brh.org.uk/

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Coalfaces: back to 1970’s Wales

In C.Spiby on January 13, 2014 at 1:43 pm

A review by C. Spiby of the photographic exhibition ‘Coalfaces: A Mining community in photos – Bargoed in the 1970s’ at the Winding House, New Tredegar, Newport, Wales (to Spring 2014).

Unlike the immediacy of photojournalism, the photo essay requires a photographer to immerse himself within his subject’s community. To even hope of capturing a real sense of social documentary, he must mine the spirit of a place and that of its people. Only the best photographers achieve this. Fewer still can present art over mere representation. But that’s exactly what Kjell-Ake Andersson has managed to achieve in this humbling collection of 1973 photographs exhibited under the title ‘Coalfaces’.

Moved by Eugene Smith’s 1950’s work on the subject, Andersson spent months living in the Welsh mining community of Bargoed. He rented a room with a local miner and with his host departed for work each morning to the pit. Eventually the young Swede was accepted by his subjects, thus allowing him to capture them at their most natural. In the evening he and has family mined the pubs and clubs in much the same way, embedding himself into their trust.

The collection, very simply but sympathetically and respectfully presented in this charming museum in New Tredegar, Newport (barely miles from Bargoed itself), is a masterful example of social realism of the highest quality. Consider the composition of ‘Marleen Wilkins in the family home, serving tea’. Andersson could not have predicted how kitsch the patterns of the carpet, wallpaper and tabard would be in the eyes of today’s viewers, but it is in this detail that Andersson proves a master of construction: the patterns – busy as they are – don’t clash at all; rather they flow in perspective and to me speak volumes of grace under pressure, pride, hospitality and fortitude.

‘Interior of George Pub, Arbergoed’ is equally arresting, whereas others remind me of Don McCullin’s British social documentary work. Then there’s his character study of Les Hughes; Andersson is multi-talented. Only the rugged beguiling landscape that surrounds his subjects is missing in his portfolio.

Life is clearly not easy at all, but neither is it hopeless. In virtually all the photographs based in social settings there is laughter and a real community spirit. At home it is peace, family responsibility: the day to day graft of making ends meet. At its core, of course, are the pits, the workers and the baths – the relentless before and after shift faces. The ghost-like whites of miner’s eyes and the dirt of labour.

Coalfaces2 The Winding House and Caerphilly Borough Council deserve recognition for bringing us this free exhibition, but also widening its appeal with a range of 1970’s commodities, National Coal Board paraphernalia (you can almost smell that distinctive odour of the NCB donkey jacket) and a selection of artefacts from the pit itself as well as Andersson’s original 35mm camera and that edition of LIFE magazine which featured Eugene Smith’s photos which gave Andersson the push to move his family to Wales.

Coalfaces1 A real treat is the family photo album with a wider range of Andersson’s photos from his time in the area. What we might use to store of shoddy family snapshots, Andersson offers as a wider portfolio, simple and unabashed. Such a pity those included don’t feature in the otherwise well-produced catalogue, let alone in the exhibition itself.

Yes, the whole thing is crude (especially the way the photos are framed) but this only adds to the charm of an unmissable exhibition of the heritage of a nearby area, and near history.

‘Coalface’ shows what Thatcherism destroyed. The 70’s is nostalgia for my generation and beyond, but driving around on a fine autumn day trying to find the venue (not the easiest!) I couldn’t help feel that today the place seemed soulless. That sense of community eroded by out-of-town supermarkets, let alone the general malaise of modernity which has closed public houses all over the country, took Bingo out of the social club and into massive megaplexes. Andersson’s photography does that rare thing and captures the soul. And it does so in all the black of coal, and the innocent white of the wedding veil.

This FREE exhibition runs until the Spring of 2014. Find out more at www.windinghouse.co.uk – for sat nav use post code NP24 6EG

DINOSAUR: Modern Times

In Dinosaur on January 13, 2014 at 1:40 pm

Cold calling by phone:

dinosaurLike many readers I’m sure, I get more than my fair share of “nuisance calls” on my telephone. The sort that are trying to sell me something that I don’t want, or ask me if I could “answer a few questions” that “won’t take a minute”. And many of them can be very persistent.

I have tried such strategies as, “sorry I’m just on my way out”. or even, “there’s no-one of that name here”. But even these don’t always work. Once I just slammed the phone down. Within seconds the cold caller had rung me back. “Why did you hang up?” he asked accusingly.

It’s no wonder that a new survey finds that more than three million of us are afraid to answer the phone in case it’s one of those unsolicited calls. Many of such calls, it suggests, are from pay-day lending companies touting for business.

The findings are based on a YouGov survey, and have been published by a debt charity called StepChange. It says that about 45 million people have received nuisance calls in the last year – with 26.3 million of them being offered high-interest credit such as “payday” loans.

You wouldn’t think, would you, that such outfits would need to tout for business in this way. It’s like giving sharks access to the telephone. But it’s yet another sign of the times we live in.

Posh people still prevail:

Talking of surveys, there’s been a certain amount of publicity given to a new study by a couple of academics suggesting that the same families still dominate the upper echelons of our society, forming an unbroken link back to the time of the Norman conquest (1066, and all that).

Names such as Darcy, Percy, Mandeville and Neville still crop up from generation to generation. They are the families that still maintain power and wealth – in England, at any rate. Those with names such as Cameron can trace roots back to Scotland, and that’s a slightly different story.

One commentary I read suggests that it’s the public school system that has helped to maintain this exclusive hold on power and wealth. Public schools are based on drilling certain assumptions into their students, with the sort of education to back them up. (rather like joining the Bullingdon Club at Oxford?). But I’m not sure it’s as simple as that.

After all, back at the time when “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” was written by Thomas Hughes, the public schools were the province of the middle classes. Those in the upper strata of society had their offspring privately tutored, and introduced to the world of privilege that they’d inherit.

But going off at a tangent, what, I wonder, happened to the Saxon aristocracy after the Norman conquest? Were they simply wiped from the social map? Maybe there’s another study to muse over there.

Telling it as it is:

If we believe Ed Miliband, we’re in for a rough ride this coming year, as we approach the date of the  2015 General Election.

He predicts that the Tories will engage in such an orgy of mud-slinging that we’ll be bogged down in all the dirt heading in our direction. In this they’ll be backed up by their allies in the media – the Mail and the Murdoch press, to mention but two examples. There’s a saying that if you throw enough mud, some of it’s bound to stick. All the more need then to spell out our arguments, and clarify our alternative (once we’re agreed what it is of course!) – and repeat  it loud and clear, and as often as possible.

Those were the days:

Many tributes have been paid to John Cole, for many years the BBC’s chief political reporter. With his strong Northern Irish accent, he was unmistakeable.

And many stories have been told about him. The one I liked best was one he told himself, many years ago, in a radio interview. It was how he got his first break when he was a young cub reporter on the Belfast Telegraph.

Clement Attlee (then PM) was visiting Northern Ireland. Cole discovered the route he’d be taking (towards Antrim, as I remember) and drove out to intercept and interview him. The Attlee’s modest Austin Ten duly appeared in view, driven by Mrs Attlee. John Cole walked out in front of the car, flagged it down – and got his interview.

Can anyone imagine anything like that happening these days? Roads would be cleared, tight security imposed – and any rash reporter would have had his career terminated abruptly! Oh, happy days!

Dinosaur

 

CARRY ON CAMPAIGNING! The Clarion Review of 2013

In Editorial, R.Richardson on January 13, 2014 at 1:35 pm

 & PAYING THE PRICE FOR “FREE” SCHOOLS

For those affected by the impact of Austerity Britain, the past year has been tough. Falling living standards, rising prices on those essentials in life, and in many cases, poverty wages, have typified it for far too many.

This time last year, in our Clarion Comment review, we highlighted the rising resistance to the ComDem Government’s “austerity” measures – together with its plans to transform the NHS into a semi-privatised parody of its former self.

Despite the scale and fervour of the opposition , the Health & Social Care Act was pushed through Parliament – and we are now just beginning to feel its impact. Meanwhile, Government attacks on the welfare system continue unabated. The dismantling of the Welfare State, established in the late 1940s, has now reached the point where the very notion of an all-embracing welfare system based on the needs of all of us has effectively been abandoned. At best it’s now seen merely as a safety net for the needy – and not a very efficient one at that. It’s no longer seen as raising them up by dealing with their needs but as keeping them in their place.

WHAT OF THE FIGHTBACK?

Sadly, however, much of the organised resistance to these Tory measures has dissipated – or perhaps been fragmented. Maybe it’s because the opposition has found itself having to fight on too many fronts. Or maybe a certain “war weariness” amongst many active campaigners has emerged. Or, more hopefully, it’s a pause for breath, to re-group.

There’s certainly been plenty to campaign against during the last twelve months. Gradually, brick by brick, the NHS is being re-structured. As in education, threats and the blame culture are used indiscriminately as a stick to beat those involved back into line. Meanwhile the number of homeless continues to increase , whilst benefits are capped or withdrawn altogether – particularly from those who are deemed to be failing to “actively seek work”. They are the ones who are now being pushed to the margins of society, condemned with the label of “scroungers”. And, of course, the contemptible “bedroom tax” is now causing real hardship to many of those affected. It is difficult to keep a roof over one’s head when rents are pushed beyond one’s means and there is no alternative accommodation with the appropriate number of bedrooms. Ed Miliband has pledged that Labour would abolish it.

THE ROCKY RISE OF UKIP:

But it has certainly had a major impact on the political agenda. Suddenly “immigration” became a number one issue. It provoked a contest between certain parties as to who had the most “robust” (sic) policies on keeping out those who, for whatever reason, wished to come to the UK. The success of UKIP in the polls spurred on the Tories to move the whole issue of immigration up the agenda. And, so far, the left has failed to counter the ugly propaganda that’s emerged.

But on a more positive note, the emergence of “Forest Unity” marked a local breakthrough in the anti-UKIP campaign. It was formed after the County elections in May, and held its launch event – a well attended gathering in Ruardean – at the end of June.

Meanwhile, on the economic front, Osborne was able to claim that we were now “turning the corner”. The economy, he said triumphantly, was back in growth (albeit by a tiny decimal point). Whether he could make the same claim about reducing the deficit is another matter. But he did tell us that unemployment was now falling.

Of course it’s fairly easy to massage the unemployment figures. As Churchill once said, “there are lies, damned lies, and then there’s statistics.” First of all you delete all those who you decide are not “actively seeking work”. Never mind the reasons. Then you force those still on the unemployment register into pseudo jobs – part-time, low paid employment, or the iniquitous “zero hours” contracts where those affected become part of a pool of labour who may gain a few hours work at the bidding of an employer, and often at short notice.

“TOO MUCH”:

At the same time, those who’re on benefit are accused of getting too much. They are having their source of income capped to ensure that they don’t benefit too much. But as we commented in our August/September issue, “the fact is that those on benefit aren’t paid too much. They never have been. The reality is that in far too many cases those who are classified as employed are paid too little… This is the scandal that we need to tackle.”

But now at last we may see a serious attempt to face up to this issue. Ed Miliband seems to have put the concept of a “living wage” on to the political agenda. Whether this will have any impact on current policies remains to be seen – but Labour appears to be trying to shift the debate away from crude rhetoric about economic recovery to one more concerned with living standards. Here the call for a “living wage” together with the pledge to freeze energy prices is to be welcomed.

On other fronts, as we approach the end of 2013, we’ve seen Gove’s ideologically-based policy of setting up “free schools” begin to crack at the seams. And in the NHS a number of “failing” hospital trusts have been named and shamed – making us wonder whether maybe, just maybe, they are being set up for disposal to private health companies when the next phase of health “reforms” kicks in next year.

THE BIG LIE:

And, of course, the insistence of Tory politicians that their “austerity” measures are necessary is based on a lie. It is a cover to hide the sustained attack on working people, their livelihoods, and the Welfare State.

As the novelist Ian Banks put it before his untimely death: “your society is broken, so who should we blame? Should we blame the rich powerful people who caused it? No, let’s blame the people with no power and no money, and those immigrants who don’t even have the vote. Yeah, it must be their fucking fault.”

Experience suggests that those countries that have been prepared to soft-pedal on their austerity package have been able to pull out of recession far more successfully than the UK. Even the head of the IMF has suggested that Osborne’s “slash and burn” policy has gone too far!

There are signs that the message may be getting through. Labour is maintaining its lead in the polls, and Ed Miliband’s attempts to change the agenda seems to be striking a chord.

Maybe we could look for a lesson to the USA. Here, the Republicans, driven to the right by its raucous “Tea Party” faction, has been losing support; whilst in New York, a Democrat, Bill De Blaiso, has been elected Mayor on a progressive platform including increasing taxes on the rich to pay for pre-school places for every child and to build more affordable housing in the city.

A straw in the wind, perhaps?

>> the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine editorial committee

PAYING THE PRICE FOR “FREE” SCHOOLS

by RUTH RICHARDSON

Remember the Al-Madinah school in Derby? We reported on it briefly in our last issue, recounting how all women teachers had to cover their hair, and girls had to sit at the back of the class.

FAILED ON ALL COUNTS:

I make no apology for returning to the topic. New facts have emerged which demonstrate clearly the dangers inherent in the setting up of free schools. When Ofsted inspected Al-Madinah, so many problems were found that the school was closed completely while the investigation continued. The report declared:

“This school is dysfunctional. The basic systems and processes a school needs to operate well are not in place. The school is in chaos.”

Staff in key roles did not have relevant qualifications or experience. Most of the teachers in the primary department had never taught before.  This of course could never have happened in a school under local authority control.

THE CURRICULUM:

Another cause for concern was the nature of the curriculum. Free schools may decide what and how they teach. It’s not required that they follow the national curriculum (as those under local authority control have to do).

Guidelines are supposed to guard against Muslim fundamentalists being able to set up a free school. In fact Al-Madinah was originally marketed as an “interfaith” school in order to qualify for taxpayers’ money. It was promised that 50 per cent of the intake would be non-Muslim – but because the school operated according to Islamic law, the students were 100 per cent Muslim.

The school was thus declared inadequate in all the inspection categories, and was put into special measures. It had been open for just a year.

“INNOVATIVE”?

The Kings Science Academy in Bradford, another free school, was set up two years ago. Last year, David Cameron visited and described it as innovative and inspiring. He later praised the school in a personal letter to the principal.

Earlier this year, a catalogue of financial irregularities came to light.

More than £80,000 of taxpayers’ money was misused, to hold parties, buy furniture for staff and pay for first class rail travel. Furthermore, a senior member of staff appointed his brother to the board of governors, employed his sister as a teacher while his wife also worked at the school and his father drove the school bus.

It all began to look like a family business. But again, neither the misspending nor the nepotism could happen in a local authority controlled school.

BACKSLIDING?

The new shadow minister for education, Tristram Hunt has now retreated from his earlier opposition to the very idea of free schools. Presumably their abolition is considered to be too politically unpopular in certain circles.

But there would be, under Labour, crucial differences. Only in those areas of need could free schools be set up. Qualified staff would have to be employed and there would be proper financial accountability.

One might have thought that links with the local education authority would be another priority for Labour, but this has not been spelt out. In a recent survey of London parents with a child at a free school, 91 per cent thought that local authorities have an important role in maintaining high standards in all schools

LAST WORD:

Meanwhile, a free school is proposed in Islington, an area where there is no shortage of school places. The site had been earmarked for social housing.  A local teacher said: “Islington does not need a school run by a private consortium, taking resources from well-performing local schools, without the control of local democracy, and staffed by potentially unqualified teachers – but it does need more social housing.”

RR.

THE STRANGE CASE OF OUR ETHICAL BANK

In A.Graham on January 13, 2014 at 1:27 pm

Did the Co-op forget its way? by Alistair Graham

As friends will be happy to agree, I’m a firm supporter of the co-operative principle, and indeed the Co-op movement (with a capital “C”). So it distresses me to criticise those within the movement who take their eye off the ball (temporarily at least), and lose sight of what being a co-operator is all about.

I’m talking about the Co-operative Bank, of course, and its current plight. In what seemed to me to be a slightly gloating piece in the Independent on Sunday (10th November), Julian Knight, “personal finance adviser”, declared that “the mutual concept (i.e., the co-operative ideal) is all but dead.” He concluded that “we need a full enquiry into what has gone on at the Co-op.”

Suchan enquiry is already under way.   But perhaps it’s fairly easy to see what went wrong with our bank. Those responsible for running the Co-op Bank on our behalf lost sight of the movement’s goals. Like Icarus, they decided that they could soar into the capitalist heavens – and instead crashed down to earth.

PLAYING WITH THE BIG BOYS:

It all began when the directors decided that they could expand profitably and play with the big boys, by taking over some 600 branches of Lloyds Bank. But then a gaping hole in the Co-op Bank’s own finances was revealed. It was the result of a previous takeover of the Britannia Society, which had managed to lumber itself with toxic debts – which, it seemed had been overlooked at the time of the takeover. This, together with a directive from on high that the Co-op Bank should increase its liquidity levels combined to drive it to the wall.

Inevitably, the media has had a field day with the misdemeanours of former director and non-executive chairman of the bank, the Rev. Paul Flowers. He has been made a scapegoat in all this – though in fact the part that he played has been minor compared to some. Little mention has been made of the Bank’s accountants KPMG, for example, who failed to warn of the black hole in the Britannia Building Society’s accounts. It seemed that they felt it wasn’t within their remit! Or of the former head of the Co-op Group, who was a driving force behind the bank’s bid for expansion.

But now 70 per cent of our bank is to be controlled by hedge fund managers – the enemy which is anathema to the ethos of co-operation. Someone must really be laughing all the way to the bank. Particularly as much of their money is in offshore accounts.

It’s not the first time that the Co-operative movement has faced such a crisis – though it could be the most serious. We could go back to 1997, when an ambitious young entrepreneur called Andrew Reagan persuaded enough directors on the board of the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) to sell all its food manufacturing factories to a company that he headed called Hobsons. He then made a further bid, to take over the CWS lock stock and barrel. If he had succeeded, all its assets would have been snatched from the membership and used for private speculative gain.  But Reagan had over-reached himself , the movement was alerted and his bid failed.

In more recent times, the Co-operative Group hatched a merger of its travel operations with those of Thomas Cook. There were concerns about how such a merger would work – yoking together a “mutual”, owned by its members with a capitalist company owned by shareholders. But the deal went ahead – but then it was discovered that Cooks were in financial difficulties. Incidentally, it should be made clear that our own Midcounties Co-operative Society did not get involved with the deal – and since then has managed to build up and develop its own travel business quite successfully.

ORIGINS OF THE CO-OP BANK:

As for the Co-operative Bank, its history goes back well over a century, when it was founded as the CWS Bank, to serve the Co-operative Movement, its individual societies and later its millions of members. In 1992 it introduced its customer-led ethical policy, which in turn attracted many more to switch to the Co-op.

IDEALS LIVE ON

As for the assertion that “the mutual concept is all but dead”, such a claim denies history, a history that goes back at least to the Rochdale Pioneer in 1844. They were building something new, a counter to the rampant capitalism of the day. They wanted their ideals to permeate every aspect of society, to give people control over their lives – and build a “co-operative commonwealth”.

These ideals are still with us, including the presence of credit unions and building societies. Indeed the Co-operative movement is now worldwide.

As for the fate of the Co-op Bank, a campaign to save it has been launched by the magazine Ethical Consumer. It has been gaining support – and though the disposal of the Co-op Bank to private investors may be a done deal, we should at least ensure that the predators who now own a controlling share know that we’re not taking it lying down. And we should campaign for its return to mutual ownership.

For more details, go to: www.saveourbank.coop

REVIEW: “A BLAZE OF AUTUMN SUNSHINE” – Tony Benn the last diaries

In R.Richardson on January 13, 2014 at 1:19 pm

TONY BENN’S LAST DIARIES, reviewed by Ruth Richardson.

Tony Benn, of course, is still very much with us. We heard him speak at Tolpuddle in July, inspirational as ever.

But following an operation and a period of illness in 2009, his diaries kept for over sixty years ceased. This volume covers the years 2007 to 2009, with a final memoir, “Life after the Diaries” – part personal, part political – reflections on events of the last four years.

As Clare Allan in the Independent wrote, the diaries are “a delight and an inspiration”. More than that, they are a thoughtful, informed critique of the political events of the time.

Here Benn covers the years when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister. Initially Benn had a good deal of sympathy for him. Certainly he was preferable to Tony Blair! But following Brown’s discussions with President Bush on the continued occupation of Iraq, Benn wrote that he felt “absolutely and completely betrayed by New Labour and Gordon Brown… It was just not possible to put a postcard between him and Bush.”

STILL CAMPAIGNING:

Of course Tony Benn was president of the “Stop the War” movement for many years. He was involved in a number of campaigning groups. Although age made standing increasingly difficult, he continued to speak at many rallies up and down the country. He wrote warmly not only of Tolpuddle but also of the Durham Miners’ Gala, the Levellers event at Burford, Glastonbury and Burston.

Tony’s schedule was staggering for anyone, let alone an octogenarian. In July 2007, he wrote: “I have to be up at five to go to the picket line for the post men and then I am off to Durham and I won’t be back till Saturday night. Tolpuddle on Sunday and on Monday I am at Fox Primary School.”

MIND OVER BODY?

But increasingly over the two years up to when the diary ceases, he admits to feeling tired and sometimes depressed. “I’m feeling my age very much more,” he writes. “I’m unsteady on my legs… I doze and am tired all the time. But there you are, I’ve just got to get used to that. My mind is okay.”

As indeed it is. The final fifteen pages in which Tony reflects on events between 2009 and 2013 are as insightful as ever. He writes, too, of his family, his four children, their partners and his grandchildren who are obviously hugely important to him. He pays great tribute to Ruth Winstone who edits the diaries and who “looks after all my arrangements now… I couldn’t carry on without her.”

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE:

A few weeks ago, there was an interesting and moving interview with Tony Benn by Stephen Moss in the Guardian. At the end, Tony says that he is looking forward to reaching ninety, and Stephen Moss asks him how he manages to stay so positive. “In some ways,” replies Tony, “the test of politics is whether your mind is fixed on the future or the past, and I always try to keep my mind fixed on the future.”

(published by Hutchinson, IBSN 978-0-94387)