Kosovo, NATO, Milošević and the SWP at the Easter 1999 NUT Conference

Submitted by dalcassian on 2 September, 2013 - 5:44

Friday, April 2

Arrive at the NUT Conference in Brighton expecting a lively and constructive weekend. Teachers are deeply angry about the Green Paper proposals for performance related pay.

Yet it is hard to think about anything but the unfolding crisis in Kosova. The previous week I had been to an involved discussion on the issue. This conflict is not reducible to the well-worn slogans - 'the main enemy is at home', 'stop the war', etc.

Politics starts immediately with a Socialist Teachers Alliance (STA) meeting. The main issue is, rightly, the Green Paper, but I am approached by some comrades who hope to put the war on Conference agenda. This process requires a petition to suspend standing orders, with 200 signatures. That wins the right to argue on the conference floor for a debate. Two thirds of the delegates must then vote for the suspension. The motion I am shown heavily condemns the war, but my main concern is that it advocates Kosovan rights. It does, but in too low and too subordinate a key.

Later that night

I am preoccupied with the tactics required to fight the Green Paper. I am running between two left meetings (STA and CDFU, Campaign for a Democratic, Fighting Union) arguing the case for insisting that the dispute cannot be ended by the General Secretary and that any agreement be put to a Special Conference. When I get to the second STA meeting, it is obvious that things have moved on considerably on Kosova. The chair announces that the SWP are very keen to push for a discussion and would like this to be a joint effort. They only have one condition: there must be no mention of self-determination for Kosova! A WL comrade moves an amendment, to support independence for Kosova. It is seconded by a Socialist Party comrade and supported by Socialist Outlook.

The leading figure in the STA, Bernard Regan, argues three equally ridiculous propositions: that we must give way to the SWP here, that their tactical judgement might be right; that we might get broader support without reference to Kosovar rights; that independence was different from self-determination: who are we to say what the Kosovars want? He was really saying that the Stalinists on the NEC, and their supporters in Conference, would be less likely to support a motion which championed the Kosovars. The meeting, not very big by that time, voted against including support for Kosovan independence.

Saturday, April 3

Despite the enormity of the bread and butter issues this year, the war debate ripples on. One of our comrades asked the SWP's most senior NUT person why they had insisted on dropping self-determination for Kosova from the motion. Up until this week, he assured her, it was their position to support Kosovar rights. However, that was now an abstraction: the Kosovars had been driven out; there was no Kosova to speak of and probably never would be. It was chilling in its frankness. It sits very awkwardly with the SWP's support for the Arab Palestinians' 'right' to all of present day Israel. I suspect the real motive, as ever with the SWP, is organisational rather than political. It cannot have escaped their attention that the anti- war protests, such as they are, consist overwhelmingly of Serb chauvinists and old Stalinists and fellow travellers who think the break-up of Yugoslavia is (a) a terrible thing and (b) all the fault of Germany and western imperialism. Support for the Kosovars doesn't go down well with this audience and that's a far more important consideration than the rights of a faraway people of whom the SWPers know nothing.

Meanwhile, the London-based clique at the head of the STA have got themselves all het up about an insult thrown at their beloved leader by WL's Industrial Organiser, who said to Regan, privately, that his position was 'chetnik'. The incredible preciousness of this - we are routinely called 'unionists', 'pro-imperialists', etc. - leads me to conclude that a smokescreen is being created to avoid proper discussion of the substantial issues.

Sunday, April 4

Every so often something happens to reassure you that you have got things right. This morning I am given a leaflet which reminds me why I wanted nothing to do with a broad coalition of all those opposed to this war. The leaflet has a number of bold headlines. The third catches my eye: 'Stay out of Serbia's civil war'. Incensed, I go back to the woman. 'What exactly is Serbia's civil war?', I ask. Puzzlement and an answer which amounts to 'you must have seen the news'. Of course I have, but why does she describe what is going on as a civil war? How would I describe it, she asks? As a war of conquest and genocide by Serb imperialists, I suggest. She searches the leaflet for some reference to Kosovar rights like she would be pleased to find it, and then gives up, declaring that she cannot defend it.

Feeling a bit unsatisfied with her lack of fight, I tackle her colleague, someone I know will defend it, one Hank 'the tank' Roberts, NUT Secretary in Brent. Hank believes no state should be needlessly divided up by nationalists: he is against Wales separating from England and, when I press him, against Kurds separating from Turkey or Iraq. A hopeless case. I come away more convinced than ever that no left worth the name would support an anti-war campaign on the same basis as these people, the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist).

Later that night

The SWP insist that they should have the speeches moving and seconding the suspension (and the motion if it is discussed), reneging on a prior agreement with the STA. The STA cave in. We, WL, decide to produce a special bulletin on the issue for the next day as (a) the international debate is held then and (b) we have a fringe meeting on the subject. The normal arrangement at this conference has been that we provide paper and, as long as it doesn't upset their schedule, the STA print our bulletins. This time they, or at least one individual, refuse to print the bulletin because it criticises them. The really depressing thing is that no-one seems to find this sort of thing shocking any more.

Monday, April 5

The attempt to suspend standing orders fails to get a two thirds majority. Would it have been more likely with support for the Kosovars? I think so. There is no way of knowing and, in any case, that isn't the point. Immediately after encouraging the conference not to allow time to discuss it, the leadership take up 15 minutes of debating time with a statement on Kosova by the Deputy General Secretary, Steve Sinnot - bland, empty, delivered in a tone appropriate to a report on the union's budget.

Later that evening

At the SWP fringe meeting on Kosova, Alex Callinicos adds to the sense of unreality by questioning whether it really is reasonable to describe what is happening to the Kosovar Albanians as 'massacres', 'mass murder' or 'genocide' or whether these are just the lies of western imperialism. Hearing this I remember the earlier argument, that there is no Kosova left, as everyone has been driven out. What exactly has forced these people to such a desperate state that they would leave home in their thousands?

Is a left which sees this genocide and yet fails to place the rights of the Kosovars at the centre of their concerns a left worth having? This weekend I have looked, not for the first time, at many of my fellow socialists and thought: if this was all there was on the left I would want no part of it. It is not only a matter of the left we have, but of the left we can and will rebuild!

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