Paul Foot

They all knew he was a crook

(December 1991)

From Socialist Worker, 14 December 1991.
Reprinted in Chris Harman (ed.), In the Heat of the Struggle, Bookmarks, London 1993, pp.272-3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

IF I had not already been a socialist, the astonishing events at the Daily Mirror in the last few days would have quickly made me one. They are calling the Maxwell Robbery the greatest financial scandal of all time.

He robbed some £300 million from the workers at the Mirror, either from their company or from their pension fund.

All around there is a great tut-tutting. Newspapers which only weeks ago were describing Maxwell as a ‘swashbuckling buccaneer’ now fall over one another to denounce him for what he was – a revolting crook. Nowhere is the embarrassment greater than in the City.

In 1971 a distinguished lawyer and a distinguished accountant declared after a careful examination of Maxwell’s relations with a company called Leasco that Maxwell was not fit to chair a public company.

In the early 1980s Maxwell became chairman of one of the biggest public companies in the country, the British Printing Corporation.

In July 1984, on what we on the Mirror called Black Friday, he became chairman of the Mirror Group of Newspapers – which ran five national newspapers with a combined circulation of four million copies every weekday and six million every Sunday. How could this happen?

Every reason has been thought of except the right one – that Maxwell was a valuable standard bearer for his class when it was on the offensive in the 1980s. His brash, old fashioned style fitted the needs of the bosses of the Thatcher decade.

In an aggressive cowboy manner much admired by the bankers he had smashed the unions at BPCC and turned the company into profit. Could he not do the same at the Mirror?

Yes, he could. From the moment he came into the building, Maxwell set himself the single task of breaking the trade unions.

Maxwell’s fall, like his rise, was symbolic of the Tory government’s fortunes. Like them he believed the capitalist

boom of the 1980s would last forever.

In a sort of frenzy he started buying up everything which came up for sale in the United States, Portugal, Argentine and Israel.

He borrowed and borrowed from his most faithful supporter, the National Westminster Bank, which could never forget the way he smashed the unions at BPCC and saved the bank an embarrassing insolvency.

Up and up went the takeovers and the loans in an endless spiral of megalomania and greed. No one stopped him – not a banker, not an adviser, not a regulator, not a government minister, not a policeman. What did stop him was the fatal flaw in the market system which promoted him.

Suddenly the boom evaporated. The ‘impossible’ recession swept over him. Interest rates climbed and the revenue from his new companies slumped. Squeezed more and more tightly, he turned for final salvation to the huge sums piled up in the Mirror workers’ pension fund.

Long ago Tories and capitalists used to argue that pension funds were proof of the burgeoning economic power of the workers. ‘With so much money in pension funds’, it was said, ‘millions of workers have a stake in the system.’

The argument overlooked the reality of control of the pension funds. The money was paid in by workers, but controlled by a handful of capitalists and accountants who used it to lubricate the Stock Exchange.

Maxwell adored Margaret Thatcher, and Thatcher repaid the compliment. When Julia Langdon joined the Mirror political staff from the Guardian, Thatcher applauded her decision. ‘A dose of Maxwell will do you good,’ she trumpeted.

But Maxwell was not a Tory – he supported the Labour Party. Into his plush inner circle came a clutch of right wing Labour Party supporters, most of them ennobled as Maxwell hoped to be.

There was Lord Donoghue, the biographer of Herbert Morrison, Lord Williams – a city slicker and deputy leader of the Labour peers – former Attorney General Sam Silkin and former Solicitor General Peter Archer. While Maxwell behaved like a Tory, while he broke the unions like a Tory, while he stalked the Mirror and other enterprises he owned with all the arrogance of a Tory grandee, he said he was a supporter of the Labour Party and the Labour leadership glowed with delight.

Now, instead of revelling in his disgrace, instead of exposing it as a disgrace of capitalism like all the other disgraces of recent years – Polly Peck, Ferranti and BCCI – the Labour leaders can only fret and fume and hope the whole thing will go away.

They too are stuck deep in mud of capitalist corruption.

Socialists need not be mealy mouthed. Maxwell was a great fat capitalist. His rise and fall reflected the rise and fall of British capitalism in the 1980s. He went up on backs of workers and down in the crisis of the market system.

This grotesque and apparently immovable statue to modern capitalism has come crashing down and no one wants to put an another remotely like it in its place.


Last updated on 17.1.2005