After Gaddafi, before Blair and farewell to Wapping

Cameron’s about-turn on Libya, lip-service to human rights, News Corp’s caring and sharing ethic and

Now we know why the government was so anxious to mount a military operation in support of the Libyan rebels against Muammar al-Gaddafi. It hadn't merely, in the interests of persuading the dictator to abandon terrorism and WMDs, turned a blind eye to his failings.

It had actively colluded in his tyranny, handing over rebel leaders for torture, training his thugs and keeping him abreast of Libyan dissidents' activities in the UK. No wonder ministers rushed to support the rebels when they looked likely to win. If they hadn't, there would now be all hell - or, more precisely, lucrative oil exploration contracts - to pay for.

There may still be a high price, but at least there's a chance the new Libyan government will think it owes us. For David Cameron, it has all worked out nicely. Though he, like Gordon Brown, quietly continued Tony Blair's policy of cosying up to Gaddafi (albeit without having himself pictured in a tent), his briskly executed U-turn allows him to pose as a friend of the revolution while the reputation of his Labour predecessors sinks still further. The new regime may turn into an Islamist theocracy, treating its opponents as brutally as Gaddafi treated his. If it does, will Cameron remain so supportive of human rights?

Winston's way

I am surprised that nobody has mentioned the obvious historical analogy to the alliance with Gaddafi: our collusion with Stalin in the Second World War. As the Russians advanced over eastern Europe, Stalin demanded that those found in previously Nazi-controlled areas, including some 40,000 "White Russian" or anti-communist troops, should be repatriated regardless of their own wishes. Winston Churchill agreed that, where necessary, our troops would help in rounding them up. He well understood that many would be shot. "We cannot afford to be sentimental about this," wrote the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, adding, "we don't want them here".

The wartime government, however, had the further excuse that British prisoners-of-war were falling into Soviet hands and that upsetting Stalin might endanger them. Furthermore, even though Churchill backed military support for the White Russians during the civil war, he never pretended to favour humanitarian and liberal crusades. He was an honest, old-fashioned warmongering imperialist, not a hypocritical moralist in the Blair mould.

Family firm

From the latest MPs' questioning of former News International executives, we know the real reason Rupert Murdoch's company paid large sums to Clive Goodman, the News of the World reporter jailed for phone-hacking. Not, as we thought, to keep him quiet so he didn't implicate other staff - including senior executives - in criminality. No, Goodman, a convicted criminal who brought shame on his employers, was paid £230,000 on compassionate grounds. "Newspaper proprietors have a tradition of looking after staff families," MPs were told. In more than 30 years working on Fleet Street, five of them for the Sunday Times when it was controlled by News International, this caring side of the industry somehow escaped my notice. Like Murdoch's executives and ex-executives, I have searched my memory on this subject, but I cannot recall any person in a senior position even asking if I had a family. I don't remember. I was not aware of it. I had no involvement. It was outside my brief.

The confusenik

Given that Wapping seems to induce chronic amnesia, Murdoch is wise to abandon it. I worked there for only a few months and still shudder whenever I pass. A few journalists, known as "refuseniks", declined to obey Murdoch's instruction to move there in 1986 so that he could break the print unions. I was a "confusenik", because, much as I hated Murdoch, I didn't greatly care for the unions, which to my mind behaved more like labour contractors than organisations of proletarian solidarity.

I declined to travel on company buses provided to ferry employees to work safely. Instead, I walked from the local Tube station, braving abuse from picket lines and the occasional stone, which I was then nimble enough to dodge. Wapping itself, draped with barbed wire and entered through a heavily fortified gatehouse, was far more unpleasant. Murdoch's men called it "the plant" and indeed it felt like a factory. I knew journalism had changed for ever when I heard an executive refer to a newspaper as "the product".

Circus act

The late education professor Ted Wragg used to say that education was like Piccadilly Circus: wait long enough and everything comes round again. Here's an example. Travelling on a train from London to Manchester many years ago, I fell into conversation with a formidable woman who said she was a school governor. Which school, I asked. All schools in Manchester, she replied, explaining that the city's education committee, of which she was a member, was also the governing body for each school. That arrangement, I learned to my surprise, was not uncommon and it continued until legislation in the 1970s required each school to have a separate governing body.

Now, as the Financial Times reports, Ark Schools, which runs a chain of supposedly “independent" state-financed academies - set up, the government assures us, to "liberate" education from stifling local authority control - wants to set up a single governing body for all its schools. "The vast business of English education", a leaked memo says, should not be "run and regulated as a set of cottage industries". So much for accountability, devolution and the "big society".

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires