George Walford: Volume One, Number One

The latest journal to hit – well, perhaps not the news-stands, but at least the desks of people interested in social reform, is SAMIZDAT. The editorial tells us that “Russian samizdat publications circulated secretly among a small, advanced public in the face of official disapproval. British SAMIZDAT takes its name from that example… ” The connection seems forced. The editorial goes on to suggest that control of opinion does take place in Britain, operating “not by fear of the gulag, but more subtly, through the persuasive powers of the deferential media.” SAMIZDAT may be resolved to defer to nothing and nobody, but does it not intend to use subtlety and persuasive powers? The opposition here, whether Tory, Labour, Liberal, Anarchist, Communist or SDP, has consistently enjoyed a freedom of speech and publication long denied in what used to be called “the socialist sixth of the world,” and it would seem better to recognise this. In Thatcher’s Britain the opposition cannot afford to divert attention to imaginary problems.

The cover is striking, even aggressive, in its bold angularity, including a large rectangle tinted – of all colours – pink. Did the designer intend the implications of “pinko” – a pale imitation of revolutionary movements? An accompanying brochure for the journal presents a portrait of Mrs. Thatcher endowing her with a nobility the Tories seldom claim; SAMIZDAT recommends looking for the best in people, but it is surprising to fmd the principle applied in quite this way. In its second sentence the editorial speaks of the past decade as one of “overbearing single party domination and weakened opposition.” Why single out that period for this description? There have been others it would fit at least equally well, one of them beginning with the entry of the Attlee government in 1945.

Turning to the contributors, there are sixteen of them, ranging from Liberals and Democrats to Eric Hobsbawm, a member of the Communist Party. All write on issues of present policy, even Hobsbawm foregoing any direct attempt to arouse support for his long-term objectives in favour of a piece on the American Presidential election. Margaret Drabble, perhaps familiar with the self-discipline needed by political writers, admits that her ideas about what people “really” want come less from observation than from what she would like them to be wanting.

Christopher Huhne, asking why the centre-left have been so backward in putting forward specific economic proposals, answers that the ones indicated by their theory would be so unpopular that they fmd it more expedient to keep quiet. John Lloyd interprets perestroika as formal renunciation of class struggle as the paramount Soviet doctrine in foreign relations. Paul Ormerod notes that the thinking of Labour politicians is remote from the ideas of the general body of the people. (Or, if you prefer that in mid-Atlantic journalese, “Basic credibility in Labour’s overall approach is lacking.”) Michael Young would like to see greater freedom of choice permitted to young and old, pensioners allowed to continue working without penalty and young people allowed to leave school earlier. Anne Sofer also argues for greater flexibility in education. Mary Kaldor writes under the title “The Best Form of Defence is not to be Afraid” – a questionable assertion; Goliath was not the least bit scared of David.

This is Volume One, Number One, and anybody who has taken part in the launch of a journal will understand the difficulties. God himself found that his original creation needed improvement.

Unlike the conservatives SAMIZDAT calls for ideas; unlike the socialists, communists and anarchists it does not put forward a firm system of ideas of its own, deriving from identification of one feature – such as excessive inequality, or private ownership, or authoritarianism – as the root of our major troubles. It stands around the centre of the political-ideological range, its position finding expression in a cartoon (by John Minnion) suggesting that socialists and democrats should talk to each other.

SAMIZDAT makes a brave attempt to distinguish itself from the existing political structure, deploring the divisions among the movements it terms “non-right” or “non-conservative” and declaring the need for a new approach. Aiming to be ecumenical and to base itself on common ground it seeks “a popular front of the mind.” By reminding us that this week the Communists are not supporting that policy this draws attention to the way in which, among these movements, even a call for unity can cause yet another split. These divisions come from deeper roots than any SAMIZDAT shows itself ready to recognise, but the view that they can be overcome with effort and goodwill is itself a valid moment in the ideological progression, one with a greater body of potential supporters than the deeper analyses, and with no journal much more serious than the GRAUNIAD catering for it. The niche is open; is SAMIZDAT willing to shape itself to fit?

from Ideological Commentary 38, March 1989.