Both the Left and Right have come together to celebrate the life of Labour Party MP Tony Benn. But they wouldn’t have liked him as much while he was still making policy.
When Margaret Thatcher died, the House of Commons was given over to a six-hour session to eulogise her (Winston Churchill had got an hour or so), her flag-draped coffin was hauled down the Mall on a gun carriage to St Paul’s cathedral — and protesters who held long-promised “Maggie’s Dead” parties were accused of politicising her demise. The logic of the ceremony was explicit: Thatcher had saved Britain from itself, fusing conservative politics to crown and church, as the Right.
It is both a source of relief and of profound melancholy that the death of Labour Party politician Tony Benn (pictured) has been greeted with nothing like the fierce divisions occasioned by Baroness Thatcher’s departure. Relief because Benn’s genial, expansive and overwhelmingly optimistic vision was rightly deserving of universal honour in a way that Thatcher’s politics-as-warfare could not; melancholy because the kindnesses paid to him by his enemies was a measure of the failure of his core project, which was democratic socialism in the post-war period. There was a period — in the mid-to-late 1960s — when something like that was possible in Britain, and again in the mid-’70s. That it never happened was due more to Benn’s Labour colleagues than to the Tories themselves — and it was the failure of Britain’s top-down social democracy to take that next step that created the political vacuum that Thatcherism would fill.
Thus Benn, an MP for 50 years, a tireless campaigner, a diarist and an orator of immense skill, has had nothing but praise in The SpectatorandTheDaily Torygraph for his big heart, his championing of the radical traditions, the Levellers, the suffragettes, and did those feet in ancient times, etc, with the praise reaching down to the condescending, if not satirical — with the historian Dominic Sandbrook remarking that of course everyone loved Tony but if he’d had his way, Britain today would look like North Korea, etc, etc.
It’s an absurd lie, but it’s a measure of the strange politics of Britain — a place where real political difference once presented itself, yet where the main players were so closely bound up with each other that the fights of yesteryear become, in retrospect, panto — that such a thing could occur.
Benn was born Anthony Wedgwood-Benn, son of the Viscount Stansgate, who was, of all things, secretary of state for India. Benn flew as a pilot in World War II and took a seat in the 1950 Parliament at age 24. He was a moderate, statist, Labour member — I once heard him at a book launch say he had never read Marx until he was in his late 40s — and he began to move leftwards in the early ’60s. By the time that Harold Wilson took power in 1964, Benn was a convinced socialist, committed to the notion of a nationalised industry policy that would drive a genuine push towards equality.
He had big battles — to try to create a form of socialist modernisation in British industry — and small ones, such as, when postmaster, trying to get designs other than the Queen’s head on stamps. In a second stint in the ’70s, he introduced the first health and safety legislation, and a bunch of other small reforms. It was at that time that he earnt the affection of the Right by being an opponent of UK entry into the European Union, from the Left position that it was a move by the European corporate elite to bypass local democracy.
But opposition to the EU was in conjunction with his other cause, which was an economic system that was both publicly owned and had a degree of worker participation and control. In the ’60s, Benn had become convinced that the problems associated with nationalisation of industry had to do with the bureaucratisation of the process and the lack of dynamic involvement by workers in their own industries, which tended to reproduce old class divisions. He was blamed for creating the money sink that was vehicle manufacturer British Leyland; but he also created the consolidated state-owned mainframe computer company ICL, which even the Thatcher government maintained as a viable concern. Indeed, the portrayal of Benn as some sort of woolly big-hearted idealist, knitting socialism while singing Dirty Old Town, does him a particular disservice. Benn was one of the few Labour people who took seriously the notion that Harold Wilson had put forward — that the “white heat of technology” would create the conditions where socialism could be created.
“… even those who honour Benn from the Labo(u)r side of politics treat him as little more than a mascot.”
Wilson was serious about improving people’s lives, but not about changing the structures of power. Benn was, and he believed that public ownership, and then social ownership, would unleash social dynamism and innovation. Benn worked with the management theorist Stafford Beer to try and design complex systems whereby social enterprises could be managed without recrudescing into bureaucracy or sliding into disorganisation. (In the early ’70s, when Labour was out of power, Beer went to Chile to help the Allende government establish the “Cybersyn” government, which would use mainframes — connected by telexes! — to create real-time market simulators to run a cyber-socialist system. This answer to the problems of socialism enumerated by classical liberals such as Hayek was destroyed by the ‘73 coup which violently instituted neoliberalism, with the enthusiastic support of, erm, Hayek and other champions of freedom. But that’s another story … )
Benn had as much resistance to these innovations from the traditional trade union leadership as he did from the corporate sector — and even more. Union leaders such as Jack Jones saw Benn not as excessively leftist, but insufficiently so. They were sufficiently, vestigially Marxist to believe that the revolution would create socialism, and that in the interim, their task was to maximise wages share (both Jones, the Trade Union Congress leader of the time, and Thatcher’s eminence grise, Sir Alfred Sherman, had fought in the Communist Party brigades in the Spanish Civil War. The UK is a hella strange place).
The lack of a social compact obliged the unions to chase individual wages gains when an inflation spiral set in, and workers became disengaged from the fate of the general economy. By the time that the country had slid into the “winter of discontent”, Thatcher’s argument for individualism and privatisation came to look like the sort of freedom and autonomy Benn and hoped would come from a genuine collective involvement in life.Benn’s reputation for woolliness came from what happened next. Thatcher squeaked through a first term, and after winning a second term, began the share-owning privatisations and battle with the miners’ union that would decisively shift the political culture of the UK. Benn continued to insist that a further Left program — embracing workers’ collectives, etc, etc — would draw out a majority vote from the 40% or so of eligible voters who never bothered to turn up. His earlier focus on detail and on the difficulties of creating a socialist system has been subsumed in his later romanticism, as he played up to the role of charismatic leader. By the time he left Parliament in 2001 — “to have more time for politics” — the Labour Party around him was utterly unrecognisable.
With New Labour committing the party to market supremacy, it was easy to blame Benn and his cohort for Labour’s wilderness decades. Yet what caused such a precipitous drop in Labour’s 1983 vote was the departure of the rebel groups who formed the Social Democratic Party and appeared to have taken 6 million votes from Labour — which might have been enough to get them a narrow win or a hung Parliament in that election. That can be overstated — it’s quite possible that Labour wouldn’t have got all those 6 million votes back. But there is something a little rich about Benn and others being blamed for Labour’s failure to get back in, or close, by those whose direct action split the vote.
In the aftermath, as these possibilities disappeared from the political landscape, what were political defeats gained a retrospective gloss of historical inevitability — so that anyone who had championed anything relatively innovative or liberatory was seen as a smock-wearing dreamer. Had Benn managed to move the Labour government Leftwards, there would have been huge problems ahead — not least that of capital raising in what was becoming an increasingly global market. But it might also have given enough people a stake in the viability of homegrown industry — as occurred in Germany and Scandinavia — to lay the basis for an economic reconstruction, rather than a scorched earth policy.
Had the UK done that then, like Germany, it would have had a viable high-tech industry sector, a more engaged populace, and more evenly distributed prosperity. Instead, the neoliberal destruction of the “workshop of the world” left it dependent on banking and services, wholly focused on the south-east, and creating a vast excluded class of people with diminished lives. It will take another decade or so before people are really willing to admit what a disaster Thatcherism was for the country, both economically and socially.
Meanwhile, even those who honour Benn from the Labo(u)r side of politics treat him as little more than a mascot. There’s something absurd about some people celebrating Benn — who, in his post-parliamentary years threw ample support behind the UK Greens and chaired the Trotskyite-run “stop the war” committee for a decade — when they would have assailed him as a disaster in real life. Benn is the current ALP’s favourite type of “ideas politician” — dead, and thus with no new ones. This is a party that is cheering itself up by celebrating a minority vote victory, with government dependent on independents, in the last state it holds. Wave that red flag. Any more losses and the most senior Labor politician will be an SRC president at a teachers’ college in the Riverina, and the next campaign launch will have to be squeezed in between a meeting on queer toilets and the film club screening of Eraserhead.
Do they care? When Labor last had to reconstruct itself in the post-Whitlam period, it drew on a range of writers and thinkers inside and outside the party to reformulate its ideas, published as the Labor Essays volumes. The process succeeded because the party thought it mattered. Nowadays the reverse is the process. Labor’s “intellectuals” feed off the party, not vice versa — for prestige, for position, for meaning in otherwise unremarkable academic careers. A good proportion of their frontbench are so enamoured of an unrestrained free market, and so relaxed about the depending inequality in Australian life, that they would rather the coalition was in power than that the left of their own party had access to the national economy. Even better is the coterie of a sort of Labor-branded hipsters — who also draw more of their identity from Labor than they put in, by way of reform — more interested in defining themselves against the Greens than redefining their party. Their energy could be better spent.
Let’s face it, most in Labor are relying on the old Labor right standby — turn taking — in an era when they have not merely been turfed out of office, but decimated in several states to the degree that they barely function as a parliamentary party. Yet through it all, a delusional serenity attends, espoused especially by those who have News Corp contracts and are — for reasons that can only issue from a deep masochism — still accorded a role in the party’s life. There is no urge to new ideas or party reform in the current ALP, because there are few things about Australian society that the leadership of the ALP wants to change. They honour someone like Tony Benn by adopting and adapting his maxim, staying out of power to guarantee permanent irreversible stasis.
Ach, to hell with it. Here’s a finale from Benn, the only man who ever got the better of Ali G. That, better than any flag-draped gun carriage, will bear him off to a half-built Jerusalem …