Trump deflected is an object lesson in the power of protest but it is only a beginning, writes Lindsey German
The news that Donald Trump has cancelled his visit to Britain - due in February and obviously in advanced stages of planning - is welcome and a great credit to all those who have demonstrated against him already and who gave notice of even bigger demos should he dare to arrive. No one should be fooled by Trump’s transparent and cowardly excuse that he didn’t like the new embassy and didn't want to cut the ribbon. It is clear that the threat of protest played a big part in his decision.
This is particularly embarrassing for the British government since it clings desperately to its ‘special relationship’ with the US president - a relationship which has seen Britain back the US up to the hilt on foreign policy, and gear its whole military and defence operations, including Trident, to those of the US. Trump has now visited fifteen countries, including the rest of the G8, but not the one with which it has this supposed close tie.
At the same time as he ducked out of the visit, we were reminded of Trump’s vile imperialist and nationalist politics, as he described Haiti, El Salvador and a number of African countries as ‘shitholes’. When this news broke, Trump was forced to deny it, because even his fellow Republicans must see this isn’t a good idea. There has been outcry from the governments and diplomats of many of these countries, but Trump’s remark, while much cruder than those used in public by most politicians, well sums up the attitude of the rich imperialists to those countries the plunder of whose wealth helped make them poor and helped to enrich the empires of Europe which came to dominate the 19th and 20th century world.
The US did not have formal colonies in the way that Britain or France did, but it established a system of imperial reach in the countries closest to it - central and South America, and the Caribbean - and helped to exploit their natural resources for the benefit of the US. Haiti, for example, has a history of slavery, much greater wealth than today, and resistance to colonialism and empire. If today its inhabitants are largely poor and often forced to emigrate, this is to do with a long history of colonial exploitation and Western-backed repression.
The same is true of the South American and African countries which suffered the attentions of the US and European powers. Today, imperialism as a system dominates the world, with the US at its apex. The United Nations, which is meant to be an international body of cooperation, is in practice dominated by the five permanent members of the Security Council, the US, UK, France, China and Russia. Smaller countries are regularly bullied as Trump’s UN ambassador has demonstrated in recent weeks.
If you wanted to sum up the foreign policy of the imperialists you could say they stand for war and exploitation of resources abroad, racism at home. Trump certainly personifies this view - which is why the movement against him in Britain has played such an important role.
The Carillion crows
The major company Carillion going bust raises some very fundamental questions about British capitalism. This is a construction company that receives huge amounts of government money in order to perform a number of services once carried out within the public sector. They run military bases, including the top-secret Northwood in West London, run spy centre GCHQ, provide school dinners for large numbers of children, and are centrally involved in the HS2 project. It apparently continued to be awarded contracts by transport secretary Chris Grayling as late as last summer when its financial soundness was already in question.
The big question is, of course, why should our money be spent paying a private company to provide school dinners or infrastructure at military bases? Why should this not be paid directly to publicly owned enterprises, with any surplus going back into public funds rather than to companies for the benefit of their shareholders or chief executives? This is, as Marx would have said, Moses and all the prophets to the capitalists and their supporters in government and the civil service. The private sector is sacrosanct and supposedly the only means of promoting efficiency in public services. Yet time after time we see private sector companies bailed out, taken back into public ownership or in other ways aided by the government. From G4S to Carillion these companies can be seen to be in it only for themselves, creaming off profits, paying their staff minimal wages, and providing services which are judged purely in profit and loss terms, not in terms of public good.
The person who could do an audit which approximated the cost of all this overall would be doing the movements a huge service, since it would undoubtedly demonstrate a private sector characterised by monopoly, public subsidy, gross inefficiency and copper-bottomed certainty of dividends for shareholders.
In the case of Carillion, it now owes the banks nearly £1billion, and it is this which is precipitating talks on its future since the banks are refusing to lend without government guarantees or part renationalisation. Meanwhile, pension liabilities are little over half that. Yet, surprise surprise, as with the bailout of Tata steel it is the workers and former workers who are supposed to make sacrifices. This money is not a gift but deferred wages paid over decades and it is not the company’s or indeed the government’s to steal. The only answer to this is nationalisation, full protection of jobs, wages and pensions and the abandonment of private contracting for good.
This matters for the 43,000 workers for Carillion or those in receipt of their services. It is also about the NHS whose funding crisis is exacerbated by privatisation, about social care, which is carried out by private companies on the cheap in terms of wages and conditions but at great cost to us, and about libraries, schools, parks, housing and all the other amenities on which we rely.
The cult of Churchill
Apparently, one of the highlights of Trump’s British tour, now put on hold, was to have been a Churchill themed dinner at the latter’s ancestral home, Blenheim Palace. Sad. But it, along with the favourable reviews of the new film starring Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour, got me thinking about the cultish approach to Churchill today. This comes in part from US neocons, one of whom this week compared him to Trump, and from nostalgic Tories who want to hark back to the glory days of the Second World War. But it obviously also comes from many liberals and those in the arts world who see him as a great figure.
On Churchill himself, the cultish devotion really doesn’t stand up. A warmongering aristocrat, sometime Liberal and sometime Tory, Churchill’s military record was not great. He was responsible for the Dardanelles catastrophe during the First World War, for the first aerial bombardment in Iraq after the war, for an obsession with the Mediterranean during the Second World War which was only strategically central if you wanted to protect the sea routes to the Suez Canal and empire. Domestically, he ordered the shooting of striking miners in Tonypandy, and deliberately allowed anarchists to burn to death on the siege of Sidney Street.
So far, so reactionary. But perhaps the interesting thing is about what happened to British society itself in 1940. Britain entered the war in September 1939, reluctantly on the part of its rulers, and ill-prepared. It is no secret that a large section of the cabinet, royal family and establishment wanted to appease Hitler, and would rather do a deal with him than defend Czechoslovakia, Poland or other countries he threatened. Churchill was different, not for any left wing reason but because he understood that Hitler represented an existential threat to the British empire, which he would defend at all costs.
This meant he was serious about prosecuting the war unlike many of his colleagues, who constantly wanted to do a deal. He came to power after the Norway defeat which predated Dunkirk. These two defeats left Britain isolated after the fall of France. But he only succeeded in forming a government with the support of Labour. Indeed, Churchill ruled in a wartime coalition whose important posts were held by him and Labour. When he first stood as prime minister in the Commons in May 1940, he was cheered by the Labour benches while his own side was near silent.
He understood as well that there was huge class resentment against those termed ‘the guilty men’ in a bestselling pamphlet - the appeasing ruling class. In the summer of 1940 Britain must have been a frightening place. Hitler’s troops were 21 miles across the channel and poised for invasion. Everyone feared it, especially in London and the south east. But they also feared an airwar which they knew was coming. They were also very angry - angry that there was no direction to their work and defences, angry at the lack of preparation, and angry that the same ruling class seemed to learn no lessons from defeat.
So the summer saw grassroots attempts at defence and preparations for shelters, military defence, and turn towards essential war work. The Home Guard, now identified as a joke with Dad’s Army, was in fact set up by a left wing Spanish civil war veteran aimed at creating a citizens militia. Churchill didn’t want a lot of this of course, but had to go along with some of it because of the needs of the time.
The invasion was prevented by the Battle of Britain but almost immediately aerial bombardment began on London and other cities. London was bombed every night bar one from early September till late May 1941 when Hitler turned his attention to invading the Soviet Union. It was impossible to win the battle for London without mass working class and popular mobilisation, as Churchill recognised.
Even here there was great resentment. One eyewitness described the traffic jam of Rolls Royces round Euston station as the bombing began, as the rich tried to evacuate their children to the US and Canada. There were mass campaigns to open the shelters to all and to open the tube - at first resisted by the government. There was opposition to expensive restaurants and rich people avoiding rationing. These issues helped to create the great wave of left wing sentiment which led to Attlee’s landslide in 1945.
That sentiment increasingly led to Churchill being seen for what he was - a serious war leader but one who could not be guaranteed to support an egalitarian peace, and who never lost his reactionary politics.
Perhaps one day we can have a film which tells it like it was.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Marxism, the family and women's oppression - video
- Marxism and feminism - Marxism and Women's Liberation extract
- Tiers of a clown – weekly briefing
- Engels: giant of the socialist movement - video
- Engels: a working class hero
- No money for school meals but Johnson found £16.5bn extra for the military
- The left’s Trump card – weekly briefing