Pinochet, like Stalin and Franco but unlike Hitler, really liked killing his own people

For most of the past decade I've spent much of my time in south-west France. This month I upped sticks and returned to London for good. I felt pretty hesitant about it. Life in England, however much loved, means another dose of English newspapers, with their invented indignations and infantile sexual prurience, English dithering about Europe, the daily bullying that passes for interviewing on Today and The World at One, endless drivel about the monarchy and so on.

As it happens, I have been greeted by an entirely different circumstance: the moaning about the Labour Party current among my friends and acquaintances. I have always lived on the tattered fringes of the chattering classes: many of my friends vote Labour - or at least say they do. You wouldn't know it now. The whingeing level about Blair, Cook, Straw, Brown et al seems to have reached a pitch that can only be explained by some kind of in-built British masochism or a desire always to have someone to hate as much as Margaret Thatcher. How can this be? I say, remember Thatcher, Parkinson, Tebbit, Portillo, Howard. Remember the poll tax. Remember her voice. Remember their opinions. Look at the railways, the schools, Clause 28, the beggars in the streets.

I bow to no one in my admiration for Tariq Ali, a prince among anarcho- revolutionaries. But on my first Monday back in London there he was on Start the Week, roaring like a stuck pig about Blair and co. When I said to Tariq, "I have not come back to this country to listen to you sounding like Margaret Thatcher - plot different, voice the same," he accused me of being something called "new Labour".

This I resent. Just because you vote for a party doesn't mean you agree with them about anything much. To me, it just means you know what you don't want, what sort of world you want to live in, and who is likely to do as much as one can reasonably expect along those lines. Judging Blair et al after 18 months, I cannot see where their mortal sins yet lie, except for foreign affairs, which I agree verge on becoming a disgrace. I can think of other things to grumble about but, though I am now an old-age pensioner, my memory is still in good shape and I have total recall of the Thatcher years.

I want neither to go back to that past, nor do I have any craving to see Ken Livingstone back as mayor of London. I don't care if Livingstone is old or new Labour. I do know that I am deeply suspicious of people who can't move on to new things. If old Labour means anybody who was anybody regurgitating themselves exactly as before, then I'm certainly new. I have no solution to this problem, except the airing of it here, and a stubborn feeling that there is something phoney about the entire old/new conceit and I will continue to shake my fist at it.

Any knee-jerk belief in mythical divisions between Labour, old and new, pales into insignificance before the gap between the voices of the two Englands which these past weeks have spoken forth with gusto about Augusto Pinochet.

One England - some Conservatives, business interests, the Tory press - gave voice through people like Michael Howard, who seems to think that being elected in a fashion, many years after you've ruled as a dictator for decades, gives Pinochet some kind of moral authority; or through that small journalistic pot of anger, Taki, fuming away in the Sunday Times. Both are typical of one kind of England, their case for Pinochet being, "Poor old man: whom did he kill (apart from communists) that Stalin or Amin didn't?"

For the rest of us, the riff-raff and residue of the sixties and seventies, Anthony Howard opines that Straw's decision about Pinochet is the dividing line between Labour old and new. If you wanted Pinochet extradited you're old Labour, and if you wanted him sent home you're new.

I doubt it. Speaking for myself, I would have been happy either way. In a just world I would like Pinochet to suffer exactly what he inflicted upon the great Chilean singer and composer Victor Jara - he broke every bone in his fingers so that even if he had lived, he could never have played again. Then he killed him. But breaking every bone in Pinochet's hands is hard to contemplate. It's too late now; I would have liked to have done it then, and in situ.

I am also reliably informed that in Spanish jails you're allowed to eat and drink anything you want as long as you can pay for it. I will hope for Pinochet's punishment on this earth, but it hardly matters because the punishment of the gods is already upon him, and this punishment is neither old nor new, but eternal. His reputation is fixed. Every time some Chilean admirer tells us about his "economic miracle", Victor Jara's hands will rise up to shake their broken fingers at him through every cuttings file, video library and Internet-linked computer in the world. That's his punishment.

Pinochet certainly hoped for more, as did his hero, Franco. What these two had in common - apart from being unelected, getting rid of elected governments and electing themselves by force of arms and murder, being generals and "good" Catholics - was an extraordinary dislike for their own people if they turned out to be socialists, communists, radicals, or anything irritating that caught their eye. Hitler took a low view of Franco, for this, and other reasons. Unlike Hitler - but like Stalin - Franco and Pinochet did not have to demonise Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and the backward in order to be mass murderers; they really liked killing their own people. Give me Margaret Thatcher, the two Englands or Labour old and new any day.

This article first appeared in the 11 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Plato rules, OK?