Ian Aitken: A vital voice amid the control freaks

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Indy Politics

When I joined Tribune in the early 1950s it already seemed part of the political firmament. Yet it had been launched barely 15 years earlier as the mouthpiece of Aneurin Bevan, leader of the Labour left, in his fight to defend the Spanish republic against fascism. Its no less passionate cause in the post-war period was resistance to the division of the world by Churchill's Iron Curtain.Then as now, it was an internationalist paper.

Tribune's office in my time was in a gloomy building grandly known as the Outer Temple, just across the Strand from the Law Courts. It smelled slightly of horses, for no better reason than that the man who operated the creaking lift was a drayman. Bevan himself used to attend editorial meetings, as did his wife, Jennie Lee. Eager young journalists like Gerald Kaufman would lurk on the landing, clutching some offering they hoped we would publish.

Michael Foot, who had been a youthful reporter on the paper when it began in 1937, was by now its editor-in-chief. As MP for Devonport, he occupied a room in Tribune's dust-laden empire. The editor, Bob Edwards, had the room next door. To reach his office you had to tiptoe through Michael's.

It was a time of political upheaval. Bevan, who quit the Attlee government over the imposition of NHS charges, was now leading the fight against the deepening Cold War. Frequent attempts were made to expel him from the party, and an atmosphere of permanent crisis pervaded the office. The seriousness of the crisis could be gauged at any given moment by the frequency with which Michael Foot resorted to his asthma spray.

We were desperately poor, having just survived a major libel suit from Lord Rothermere's Daily Mail. When things got worse, his rival Lord Beaverbrook contributed a useful sum to the fighting fund.

Tribune's outspokenness played a crucial part in the survival of Labour Party democracy at a time when the unions were solidly on the right and armed with block votes to crush their opponents. With control freaks in charge of the party 50 years later, the situation is alarmingly similar. Again, the paper faces a libel challenge which could destroy it. Yet, with the party leadership poised to back a potentially disastrous American onslaught on Iraq, its internationalist voice is needed no less than in the 1930s. It must survive.

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