The crisis of the Libyan dictatorship has shamed a number of prominent personalities in academia and culture, who benefited from Qaddafi’s random, but typically excessive, spending on whatever he and his family desired. London School of Economics (LSE) director Sir Howard Davies resigned from his job on March 4, in response to disclosure that the school had accepted a donation of 1.5 million British pounds from the Libyan dictator. Among the British intellectual elite, that news was followed by the resignation of Sir Richard Roberts, 1993 winner of a Nobel Prize in medicine, from the board of the Qaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, which gave Libyan money to the LSE. In the less elevated environment of pop culture, singers Nelly Furtado, Beyoncé Knowles, Mariah Carey, Timbaland, and 50 Cent have all admitted they were paid exorbitant sums to entertain the Qaddafis.
These revelations call to mind similar shenanigans a quarter of a century ago. Then, Qaddafi’s financial backing was provided to the British actress and veteran anti-Israel agitator, Vanessa Redgrave, her younger brother Corin, who died last year, and a Trotskyist sect to which they belonged, the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP). That story was briefly noted in the normal world, if not ignored, and then forgotten. But in the context of recent developments, it deserves reexamination.
The WRP probably never had more than 500 members and occupied an insignificant place in British politics. It was run in totalitarian fashion by a man named Thomas Gerard (Gerry) Healy, who was born in Ireland, and died in Britain in 1989, at 76. Yet in the 1970s the party was flush with cash, which others in the European and American Trotskyist movements presumed came from the Redgraves and their peers in the British theatre and film industries. Vanessa Redgrave had unsuccessfully run for Parliament as a WRP candidate. The WRP even founded a daily newspaper in London, first called Workers Press and then NewsLine, which continues to appear.
But the Redgraves were overshadowed as patrons of the WRP by Qaddafi. In 1985 the WRP disintegrated, and, in a peculiar habit seen in Trotskyist groups, expelled its leader, Healy, along with the Redgraves. Healy, an exceptionally unattractive little man, was accused of demanding sex from female members of his political cult. Then his opponents in the ideological parallel universe he and the Redgraves inhabited opened up their archives and exposed what kept the show going. From 1977 to 1985, one million pounds (accounting for inflation, that would be at least $12 million today) came to the WRP from Libya, Kuwait, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Libya and Qaddafi delivered about half the confirmed subsidies.
The provision of cash from Arab oil despots to an obscure British Marxist faction could not be explained by the questionable prestige of Vanessa Redgrave alone; Qaddafi’s own eccentricities were probably more relevant. But Qaddafi and his peers got something for their money. Healy printed his and other leftist newspapers that disseminated the views of such anti-Israel radicals as George Galloway, who also benefited from Saddam’s subsidies, and former London mayor Ken Livingstone. And little about the arrangement was hidden. The WRP press included advertisements for Libyan Airlines flights to Qaddafi’s domain, and the whole crew threw themselves into a frenzy of Jew-baiting, under cover of criticizing Israeli policies.
In 1983, the WRP’s NewsLine declared, “Zionism made it possible for a number of rich Jews to leave Nazi Germany with the agreement of the Fuhrer provided they agreed to become Zionists.” In the same article, the group preened itself over its “principled stand against imperialism and in support of the Libyan masses under their leader Muammar Gaddafi. . . . The WRP unhesitatingly supports the Libyan and Palestinian people and its leadership.” Livingstone added a guest column ranting, “My own experience of being witch-hunted by the Tory press is that the labour movement needs a paper like the NewsLine to hit back . . . Agents of the Begin government [in Israel] are active in the British labour movement and press.”