R.W. Johnson


24 October 2016

Gaitskell and Europe

When the issue of Britain joining the EEC was raised following Harold Macmillan’s opening of negotiations in July 1961, Hugh Gaitskell had no time for those who saw the issue as one of principle, whether they were passionate pro-Europeans like Roy Jenkins or passionate opponents like many on the left who saw it as ‘a kind of giant Catholic, capitalist conspiracy’. (All quotations come from Philip Williams’s magisterial 1979 biography of Gaitskell.) Everything would depend on the conditions.


28 August 2015

Hacked!

I had just finished writing an article for the LRB and was attaching it to an email when suddenly all the files saved as icons on my screen vanished. I thought at first I had pressed some wrong and incomprehensible button – something that happens to me – when a message flashed up on my screen telling me that all my files were gone. If I wanted them back I would have to pay the equivalent of $500 in Bitcoins (at the current rate of exchange, that was 2.3 Bitcoins) within 130 hours, after which the sum would rise to $1000. Absurdly, I thought of Tarquinius bidding for the Sibylline books of prophecy, and every time he said the price was too high, the Sibyl burns three books and offers the remainder at the same price. Clearly, I was in that sort of auction. To help concentrate the mind the time remaining was set out in hours, minutes and seconds, with each second ticking off: looking at this merely increases one’s manic state as the loss of all one’s files kicks in. I was always promising myself to back everything up but hadn’t.


27 November 2012

Zuma's Re-Election

The race for the African National Congress presidency will be settled at the ANC Conference in Mangaung (Bloemfontein) at the end of the year. The winner at Mangaung will be the ANC's presidential candidate in 2014 and therefore, given the ANC's continuing electoral dominance, president of the country to 2019. The incumbent, Jacob Zuma, is widely seen as corruptible, uneducated, incompetent and unable to provide leadership even on basic issues, more interested in using state funds to build a palace for himself and his wives at Nkandla, the village in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) where he was born. Long ago the chattering classes of all races, including most newspaper editors and the black middle class in the economic capital, Gauteng (which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria), pronounced another Zuma term utterly unthinkable.


6 September 2012

Zuma Blunders On

The sequels to the Marikana massacre continue to develop in a number of different directions. It looks worse and worse for the police as evidence comes to light suggesting that several of the 34 miners killed by the police were cornered and shot in cold blood quite separately from those the world saw mown down in a rifle fusillade. This has now been further supported by the tales told by the 270 miners just released from the police cells.


19 August 2012

After Marikana

The key point to grasp about the Marikana shootings (we're not allowed to call them a massacre because that makes them sound like the bad old days of Sharpeville) is that the National Union of Mineworkers, South Africa's biggest union, is in apparently terminal decline and has been losing control of one pit after another to its new rival, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which has no political affiliations. The NUM is the spinal chord of the ANC alliance. Its leaders are always Communist Party members, it has provided the last three secretaries-general of the ANC in succession, and it is the dominant presence in the labour federation, Cosatu. The decline of the NUM threatens the whole structure of ANC power.


11 July 2012

Mr Blair goes to Astana

The Financial Times entitled its recent lengthy interview with Tony Blair 'Waiting in the Wings'. Blair, though claiming to be all-consumed by his current Middle East job, also declared himself ready to drop it like a hot brick if only someone would offer him the top job at the EU, the IMF or the World Bank. He angrily dismissed the notion that he wanted to be rich – he's earning £20 million a year – and said the whole point 'is not to make money, it's to make a difference'.


2 May 2011

Jumping the Queue

The news that Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace were among the million people (including 22 ‘world leaders’) who thronged St Peter's Square for the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II lends a piquant note to what was already a gothic occasion. Their presence was not, in itself, surprising: Mugabe tends to remember he is a Catholic whenever it is convenient – as in the case of his marriage to Grace, celebrated in a Catholic high mass in Harare, although they had by then already had two children. More recently, however, the main point has been to evade the EU's targeted sanctions and thus provide Grace (widely known as ‘Dis-Grace’) with opportunities for her extravagant shopping trips. The Mugabes were in Rome in 2005 for John Paul II's funeral, and again in 2008 and 2009 for UN food conferences – they get a free pass from the Vatican and from the UN, of which Zimbabwe is still a member.


18 September 2010

Mandela's Guests

The recent brouhaha over Naomi Campbell's blood diamonds cast a somewhat lurid light over the comings and goings at the Mandela Foundation and the Mandela Children's Fund. For many years there has been a stream of celebrities eager to shake hands with Mandela, share a photo opportunity with him and of course contribute to the fund. But looking at the famous photo of Mandela, Campbell, Charles Taylor et al., you have to wonder what such an unsavoury character as Taylor was doing there. And now there’s Thaksin Shinawatra, who got his photo op with Nelson Mandela last month, as well as a separate one with Winnie.


20 August 2010

When the Republicans were right

It was the 90th anniversary this week of the achievement of women's suffrage in the United States. On 18 August 1920 Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment – ‘The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex’ – and it passed into law. For those who remember how the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated in the 1970s thanks to die-hard Republican opposition, it may come as a surprise to realise how much women's suffrage was a Republican achievement.


12 July 2010

Bread and Circuses

My sympathies were with the Dutch. Rather endearingly, the Dutch team only booked its hotel accommodation for the World Cup to last until 5 July and thus had to find themselves a new hotel once they did better than they expected. The Sunnyside Park Hotel, to which they moved, is an extremely pleasant but middle market establishment which almost certainly never expected to house any of the overpaid footballers in South Africa for the tournament. All the other teams, and the celebrities, stayed in Sandton, Johannesburg's most affluent and whitest suburb. The Dutch alone moved out of Sandton. I know their hotel well, and hotels well known to me are not usually the sort of places frequented by celebrities and could, indeed, be termed WAG-free zones.