64. London and Madrid Bombings



The splendid demonstration in Edinburgh showed the enormous potential for a powerful youth and workers’ movement to confront the bosses. However, the consistent failure of the right-wing trade union leaders and New Labour to utilise the situation to advance workers’ interests was once more transparent. The inevitable mood of disappointment was added to by the London bombings which took place within days of the mass mobilisation at the G8. In its wake it conjured up the possibility of ruinous ethnic strife in London and elsewhere. However, when similar methods had been deployed by al-Qa’ida terrorists in Madrid a year earlier, it had the opposite effect by reinforcing mass opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and class unity.

Al-Qa’ida and such terrorists have a warped sense that they are acting on behalf of the ‘oppressed masses’. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is the poor masses and working class who reap the bloody harvest of their work, above all in those countries where the majority of the population is Muslim. The bombings in Madrid inflicted the greatest suffering against those who opposed the war: the working class and the youth. The largest number of deaths took place on a double-decker train in a working-class suburb of Madrid. Large numbers of migrant workers from Latin America and Eastern Europe lived there. Among the dead were many trade union activists, students and workers.  Like many others these victims had marched against the war in Iraq; 92% of Spaniards had opposed the war, which had been enthusiastically backed by the right-wing People’s Party (Partido Popular – pp) government of José Maria Aznar. This government tried to exploit the bombings by blaming them on the Basque nationalist forces, with a history of terrorism. The masses angrily refused to buy this tale; rage swelled up against the government. This attack took place in the week before a general election. Consequently the pp share of the vote fell from 44.52% in 2000 to 37.08%; they lost over 690,000 votes. The beneficiary of this angry mood was the so-called ‘Socialist Party’ (Partido Socialista Obrero Español – PSOE) which was by this time a staunch supporter of Spanish capitalism, ‘socialist’ only in name. Nevertheless, the defeat of the pp was seen as a big victory by the workers and the youth. Unfortunately, the alternative of the United Left (Izquierda Unida – IU, dominated by the Spanish ‘Communist’ Party) signalled that it was ‘loyal’ to the new government and did not offer any real alternative to the ‘market-friendly government’. The leader of PSOE, José Luis Zapatero, was able to rule for a fairly lengthy period on the basis of an artificial boom in the 2000s, which eventually spectacularly collapsed resulting in mass unemployment and poverty.

However, the London bombings of 7 July 2005 (7/7) did not have the same political repercussions by toppling Tony Blair, the dual architect with Bush of the Iraq disaster. When it took place there was a huge wellspring of sympathy and solidarity for the victims of the London Underground and bus bombings. We pointed out: “The unspeakable horrors that have been visited on the innocent have produced a deep sense of outrage in London, throughout the country, and even internationally.” Those who carried out this heinous act deserved the unqualified condemnation of working people everywhere. We also pointed out that “So do those who have created the conditions for the growth of terrorism.” Eager to shift blame, Blair rushed out a statement arguing the “Iraq war had nothing to do with the events of 7/7”. Incredibly, Ken Livingstone, who had now re-joined the ‘war party’ of New Labour, together with ‘eminent Islamic scholars’, all agreed with Blair in an article in the Independent!

However, this was not the view of the government’s own Joint Intelligence Committee, which warned before the war that the terrorist threat “to Western interests… would be heightened by military action against Iraq”. The year before this bombing a former Australian Foreign Minister said: “The net result of the war on terror is more war and more terror. Look at Iraq; the least plausible reason for going to war – terrorism – has been its most harrowing consequence.”1

Jack Straw, in an unreal intervention, stated that the bombings had “come out of the blue”. He must have been the only person in Britain who held this view, as police and intelligence chiefs had warned relentlessly that it was not a question of ‘if ’ but ‘when’ such an attack would be made. This bombing was a direct result of the terrible war in Iraq and the subsequent occupation.2

Its effects on working people in the capital were reflected in the pages of The Socialist. Hugo Pierre, local government worker and Socialist Party member, commented on the effects on workers: “I contacted shop stewards in the Town Hall, opposite Kings Cross station. It had been evacuated because of further bomb threats and staff were moved to a neighbouring building. Everyone was told to stay in their workplace and not to travel until they were given further advice. Eventually a message was sent to tell people that buses and tubes were shut down and they could walk home.”3

A London bus driver also wrote: “One Muslim driver at my garage told me he’d got abuse from some passengers after the bombings. Working-class Muslims in Iraq are victims of both the invading armies and the terrorists. In London they face the anger of a mindless minority… I don’t see how Blair can ever stop the threat of terrorism. He’s the one who’s fanned the flames. He can’t eliminate the causes.”4

The effects of the cuts on the fire service were illustrated by a fireman writing: “Only a month before the bombings, one of the two fire engines based at Bethnal Green Fire Station was removed,  as part of a ‘reorganisation’ by the London Fire Authority. Altogether 10 fire engines were taken from fire stations in inner London and transferred to outer London stations along with a number of firefighters.”5

The Socialist Party, particularly our comrades on the Stop the War Coalition steering committee, pressed for demonstrations within days to show that the anti-war movement was opposed to terrorism as well as to the war and occupation in Iraq. In particular, they were concerned about any racist backlash or an erosion of civil liberties in the aftermath of these bombings. This initiative, however, was not taken up. Meanwhile, the Guardian reported Blair at a Cabinet meeting, “likening Islamic extremism to the Trotskyist Militant Tendency”.6 As Socialist Party general secretary, I wrote an immediate protest letter to the newspaper: “Blair’s remarks are an outrageous slur. Militant Tendency, now the Socialist Party, has always condemned terrorism; both the terrorism of individuals and groups both in Britain, Ireland and internationally, and the state terrorism of the US and British governments that is estimated to have resulted in the death of 100,000 civilians in Iraq.”7

The effects of the bombing radiated beyond London. Mike Foster, Unison representative in Kirklees in Yorkshire, knew the mother of one of the alleged 7/7 bombers. He wrote in the Socialist: “When I read newspaper stories of the arrests in West Yorkshire, I realised that the Dewsbury bomber was the son-in-law of… a Unison member I visited only three weeks ago. I knew that she’d be devastated… I rang the school and spoke to the steward. Word had already got out. I explained the need for discipline, things would get tough in the workplace. I also rang the head teacher and offered the union’s help in dealing with any difficulties. Later [the Unison member] rang me, distraught… She had been forced to flee her house… She was terrified of the BNP who live up the road from her. She wanted to clear her name – could the union help?”8 This is just an example of how the trade union movement is able to step in, as in Northern Ireland over many years, to defend those subjected to or threatened with attack from bigots, which in the process can help to create class unity.

Fear was sweeping through Muslim communities that more bomb attacks would lead to a racist backlash and that the government was trying to exploit the bombings for the purpose of proposing measures against Muslims. In particular, as with previous bombings of Britain by the IRA, there was an attempt to push through emergency measures that would massively restrict civil liberties. Along with others we energetically campaigned against this attack and participated in the protests at the killing of an innocent man on the London Underground, Jean Charles de Menezes. To this day, the culprits have not been brought to justice. We also demanded a genuine public inquiry under the democratic control of trade union and community organisations into these events, as well as police heavy-handedness when it was reported that the driver of a tube train in Stockwell station was held at gunpoint. We also drew a connection with what had happened in the US in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, with the introduction of draconian laws and internment in Guantánamo Bay under the guise of taking measures against ‘terrorists’.

Britain already had the most sweeping anti-terrorist legislation in Western Europe. This did not stop Blair from declaring at a press conference: “The rules of the game have changed.”9 The fact that such a serious issue as terrorism and the gnawing fear which this engendered were referred to as a ‘game’ earned Blair the scorn of even capitalist commentators. Proposals for the setting up of a special secret anti-terrorist court, the granting of punitive powers to investigating magistrates – along the pattern of the French judicial system – and the right to detain people without charge in terror cases for up to three months had even the judges up in arms. In effect, these proposals ratified internment without trial, unprecedented in peacetime outside of Northern Ireland.

We pointed out that when such measures were introduced by the Tories in Northern Ireland in 1971, it acted as a huge recruiting sergeant for the Provisional IRA. Another half-baked measure was the threat by the government to reactivate treason laws, last used against the British Nazi collaborator, William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw) in 1945. This was hastily dropped when it was realised that they could charge the most unlikely of people. For instance, James Hewitt could have been indicted on treason charges for having ‘relations’ with Diana, Princess of Wales, the wife of the future monarch!

There were also proposals to ban ‘dangerous’ Muslim organisations. This would only serve to drive some Muslim youth into the arms of such organisations. All of this confirmed that capitalism, which alienates the youth and reinforces poverty and discrimination, was incapable of effectively countering the ideas of right-wing Islamic fundamentalism. It was not an accident that the 7/7 bombers were representative of disconnected, alienated Muslim youth in Yorkshire towns blighted by poverty and unemployment. They saw no hope in the blind alley of British society and therefore took some refuge in the reactionary utopia of a return to a 7th century caliphate! Their inchoate anger was expressed in one poll which showed that 5% of Muslims – 7% under 35 years old – ‘justified’ the suicide bombings in Britain. Two thirds of Muslims expressed the wish to leave Britain following the atmosphere created by 7/7.

The anti-terror legislation introduced in the aftermath of the bombings only served to widen the discontent and alienate Muslims young and old. We made it clear that the Socialist Party, while opposing such undemocratic actions, did not condone the bombers or oppose effective class measures which defended innocent Londoners. There was real fear of venturing onto the Underground or taking a bus, signified by a 30% drop in tube travel and a big increase in the number of cyclists. We reiterate: the only way to counter this danger is to first of all understand the roots of terrorism. The fear of Londoners was real but the government was using this as a means of strengthening its own wrong undemocratic policies, to deflect responsibility from itself and vilify anybody who sought to explain the roots of modern terrorism.

These arguments had little effect, as expected, on New Labour or its Home Secretary, Charles Clarke. With over 200 ‘anti-terrorism’ legal measures already in existence, Blair’s government was subject to widespread criticism from civil rights campaigners and others for planning more. Yet Clarke, with Blair’s support, introduced a whole slew of such measures. The police themselves admitted that the government had already introduced more than sufficient powers to arrest and prosecute suspects where there was evidence of terrorism.