Tony Benn (1925–2014)

Tony Benn

(picture of Tony Benn by Joe Dunckley)

Ian Birchall looks back at the life of a genuine socialist who fought to the end: Tony Benn, who died today.

During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it. – Lenin, State and Revolution

Hypocrisy is having a good week. First we had the nauseating spectacle of anti-union thug Boris Johnson praising Bob Crow; now we have the flood of tributes to Tony Benn. Few of those paying tribute to Benn will like to recall the attacks they made on him in earlier years. The Sun is unlikely to reprint its “Benn on the couch: a top psychiatrist’s view of Britain’s leading leftie” feature, printed the day Benn stood in a 1983 by-election; it reported that a US psychiatrist had analysed him as mad. In the 1980s, when Benn seemed to have a realistic chance of aspiring to the Labour leadership, he was constantly vilified by the right wing press.

More recently, he has been transformed into a figure regarded with affection, but at the same time dismissed as irrelevant; although all his utterances have been completely lucid, he has been treated as though he were too old to be taken seriously.

Benn deserves neither to be adulated nor to be patronised. He was a serious reformist politician – and increasingly, as he grew older, a left reformist. He broke with the pattern that socialists are supposed to sell out and become more moderate as the age – on the contrary, he kept his eyes open, drew on his own experience in “power” (or, as his own accounts make clear, lack of power) and became increasingly radical.

In his later years Benn was a superb propagandist for left wing ideas. He was a fine speaker, able to draw and hold an audience. Compare and contrast the mumbling nonentities who lead the Labour Party today. While they are constantly looking over their shoulders, afraid they might have made a slip the Daily Mail might pounce on, Benn simply stated his case without regard for the consequences. As a result his message was ten times more powerful and persuasive.

A case in point was his interview with the hoaxer Ali G. Benn was taken in, but because he simply responded by saying what he believed, he came out of the experience looking good; most of his contemporary politicians, concerned with image not substance, made complete fools of themselves.

So the only tribute Benn deserves is not flattery, but to be taken seriously. Like all of us, he had his strengths and weaknesses. An honest discussion of these may help socialists in the future to avoid some of the weaknesses. Perhaps this is all that Benn himself could have hoped to achieve.

Benn came from a privileged background; both grandfathers and his father were MPs. He became an MP himself at the age of 25 – the selection was fixed for him by his former Oxford tutor, Anthony Crosland, a leading figure of the Labour right. And for his first decade he appeared to be a normal loyal Labourite.

His first radical move came in 1961. His father had been a member of the House of Lords, and when he died Benn inherited the title and so was debarred from his seat in the House of Commons. He fought a vigorous and eventually successful campaign for the right to renounce his peerage. (I was at Oxford at the time and remember how his campaign was supported widely, including by many Tories. Benn was seen as a “victim”, and doubtless many of the young gentlemen found it easy to empathise with a problem not likely to worry most of us.) The result was the modern House of Lords, dominated by life peerages. Perhaps Benn’s achievement was to restore the credibility of a moribund institution.

Tony Benn

(picture: Tony Benn renouncing his Viscount Stansgate title)

Benn served as a minister in the Wilson governments from 1964 to 1970. As Wilson froze wages, tightened immigration controls and backed the US in Vietnam, Benn was able to say nothing. He was gagged by “cabinet responsibility” (a fine constitutional principle, to be contrasted to the evils of “democratic centralism”). His one radical proposal was to remove the Queen’s head from stamps, but he backed off as soon as it became clear that the lady herself would be displeased. And, something those of my generation will never quite forgive, he led the government’s opposition to the pirate radio stations which offered some decent music as opposed to the bland and inadequate coverage on the BBC.

Again from 1974 to 1979 Benn served in the Labour cabinet. This was the period of the Social Contract (often called the “Social Con-trick”), which controlled wages and effectively lowered workers’ living standards and blunted the edge of trade union militancy. Again, Benn could not openly criticise. Instead he from time to time made public speeches evoking the Levellers and the Suffragettes, sending out a coded message that he was to the left of the Wilson-Callaghan leadership.

One point, however, should be clarified. It is often claimed that Benn prepared troops to break a strike at the Windscale nuclear plant. The truth seems to be rather more complex:

Brian Sedgemore, in his recent book The Secret Constitution (1980), points out that when Tony Benn was Minister of Energy during a strike at Windscale, his civil servants informed him that unless troops were used to move nitrogen across a picket line a “critical nuclear explosion would take place”. Sedgemore diplomatically comments that these warnings were “unfounded”. The Civil Contingencies Unit at the Cabinet Office had prepared a plan “to break the strike with troops, thus leaving Tony Benn as a sort of latter-day Churchill” – The Times, 29 May 1980

Thus it would appear that Benn was set up by civil servants, something which doubtless helped to inspire his later recognition of the power of the state. Yet his only response was to keep his head down and stay in office, believing he could achieve more inside the government than outside appealing to the rank-and-file.

It was after Labour’s defeat in 1979 that Benn reached the peak of his influence. His increasingly sharp criticisms of the Labour leadership evoked a response from many Labour members who had been more and more disillusioned with Labour in power, but had kept silence for fear of harming their own side. When Benn decided to stand for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in 1981, he won widespread support in the labour movement. It was not quite on the scale of the Bevanite movement of the early 1950s, but it was comparable.

As Paul Foot (whose pamphlet Three Letters to a Bennite is worth rereading) described it:

I found Tony Benn’s summer and autumn campaign so exhilarating. He was talking socialism in terms at once more easy to understand and more powerful than anything which had come out of the Labour Left in my adult life. And the result was to electrify the political scene. Interest in politics on the Left soared. Mass meetings of the most extraordinary size and enthusiasm were staged by your people all over the country.

Tony Benn himself was enthused by it. He started cracking jokes instead of the rather wooden sermonising which cramped his style in the past. He found ways of beating the media at their own game, and became a popular and exciting television personality. Even when he worked himself into hospital, his campaign did not stop. I remember your letters last autumn in which you spoke of the enthusiasm in and around your local Labour Party; the increase in membership, especially young members; the formation of women’s groups which involved themselves in the problems of local people; the sudden injection of informed political discussion into Labour Party meetings.

All this had quite an effect on me. For years, at meetings and in articles, we in the SWP had derided the Labour Party as a party of permanently dwindling membership, of defunct local organisations, which could only be revived at election times by more and more desperate massage. The evidence of my own eyes and ears, quite apart from your letters, told me that these arguments were not much good any more. Whatever the national figures of membership, there was without any doubt a revival of the Labour Left in precisely the areas we had always written off in the past, a revival which in both numbers and influence was quite different from anything which had happened in the 1960s or 1970s.

Yet Foot also kept his distance from Benn’s politics, which stayed strictly within the bounds of left reformism, with all its concessions to nationalism:

I’d been impressed, too, more than I dared admit at the campaign by Tony Benn and his supporters. Why, I wonder? I’d never been an admirer of him personally. I suppose I’ve bashed him in print just as much as anyone else in the country, even the Daily Mirror leader writers. It wasn’t even that I was specially keen on the specific policies he was advocating. As you know, I don’t much go for a ‘siege economy’ and import controls, which I regard as a lot of nationalist claptrap. And I certainly didn’t like all those eulogies about Russia which were starting to creep into Tony Benn’s speeches, and which reminded me of the sort of windy fellow-travelling which polluted the Left in the 1940s and 1950s.

I suppose what I liked was the straight appeal to socialist solutions – the open attack on capitalism and all its works.

Now of course to say that Benn was a left reformist and not a revolutionary is not very useful. Benn himself would agree. But the argument was important. Many on the revolutionary left, quite rightly, supported Benn’s campaign. But in so doing they tended to suggest that Benn offered a real alternative, and in so doing played down their own distinctive politics. In fact, although Benn lost the vote very narrowly, there was no real alternative. Even if Benn had eventually won the party leadership, then either he would have been “persuaded” to tone down his policies, or the party would have split. The Labour right, firm constitutionalists when they have the majority, would never accept a democratic victory by the left.

In fact the great popularity of Bennism can be seen as a symptom of the weakness of the left. The steel strike of 1980 had gone down to defeat. Now, as Tony Cliff summed it up: “because workers don’t feel confident enough to fight for jobs or over wages in their own workplace, they look to Tony Benn”.

But the miners’ defeat meant the end of Bennism as a serious force. The left became in general more pessimistic, and hence more willing to compromise. Most of Benn’s supporters fell in behind Neil Kinnock, who won the Labour leadership with a bit of left rhetoric, but pulled the party remorselessly to the right, preparing the way for Blair. Benn himself, entirely creditably, did not give up, trying to regroup the left around the Chesterfield conferences, but they were on a much smaller scale.

In his later years, free from the responsibilities of office, Benn played a very positive role on the left. His role in the Stop the War Coalition was invaluable. He was a popular speaker at the SWP’s Marxism and many other events organised by sections of the left, inside or outside the Labour Party. Of course, this was not simple good nature. If we were trying to use Benn, he was trying to use us – he believed that if all the far left could be drawn into the Labour Party, it would strengthen the left. His view of the Labour Party was not simply an electoral machine, but as a body that could campaign on behalf of all the oppressed.

As he once put it:

The Labour Party must align itself with the women’s movement, the black movement, the environmental movement, the peace movement, the rural radical movement, the religious movements that object to monetarism and militarism.

But the Labour Party was always central. And hence Benn, despite his very real merits as a tireless campaigner for socialism, reflects the decline of the Labour left. When I was young, back in the 1950s, the Labour left stood for nationalisation of the “commanding heights” of the economy, whereas the Labour right (like Benn’s old tutor Crosland) argued that greater equality could be achieved without public ownership. Nowadays to argue for equality as Crosland did would put you in the ranks of the extreme left. Whatever Benn’s personal merits, the Bennism of the early 1980s was an anomaly that briefly interrupted the inexorable decline of the Labour left.

And as one who spent nearly 50 years of his life in parliament, Benn was an incorrigible parliamentarian. Undoubtedly he did, as socialists can and should, use parliament as a platform for addressing the masses outside parliament. But a parliamentary career also creates habits and attitudes. When the foul racist Enoch Powell died in 1998, Benn was one of the very few Labour representatives to attend the funeral. When he spoke at a meeting some weeks later I asked him about this and he defended himself vigorously. I was reminded of the old French saying: “There is more in common between two members of parliament, one of whom is a Communist, than between two Communists, one of whom is a member of parliament.”

Hence Benn’s never-ending devotion to the Labour Party. The morning after the London bombings in 2005, Benn and George Galloway appeared side by side at a meeting at the SWP’s Marxism. I cannot help wondering what would have happened if Benn had joined Respect, then still flourishing. Respect would have escaped from being the plaything of Galloway’s personal eccentricities, a whole number of Labour supporters would have followed Benn. The result would certainly not have been a revolutionary organisation, but it would have been a step forward for the left, and marked a shift in the overall debate. Of course it did not, and could not, happen. Benn’s undying loyalty to the Labour Party, despite his devastating criticisms of the party (forgotten at election times).

Some may find this obituary unkind, or inappropriate so soon after Benn’s death. On the contrary, Benn was a fine left reformist; he carried the arguments for socialism in a valuable and positive fashion. I mourn his passing. But he does not deserve the hypocritical praise that will come vomiting out of the mouths of assorted Tories and Labourites, who loathe all he stood for and would fight him to the death if they thought he had any chance of being able to put his ideas into practice.

In his Guardian piece Michael White tells us Benn “was almost the last of a disappearing species.” Doubtless the disappearance of genuine socialists is a source of great comfort to those who have the politics of the Guardian. But Benn will undoubtedly have his successors, though they will certainly take a very different form from the genial pipe-smoker. And they too will be slandered and abused by The Sun – and The Guardian – when they are making trouble, and be praised to the skies when they are safely dead.

Ian Birchall, 14 March 2014

There are 2 comments

  1. Peter Hine

    Thank you, Ian for an honest account. None of this ‘me and my mate Tony’ stuff like there is on other blogs/websites. Sure, Tony was a very nice honorable chap and an inspiration to many drawing them into activity.
    But, unless we have a balance sheet that can help us navigate the way forward, we will not have learned the lessons of the past and see what needs to be done.
    The history of Tony Benn starkly posses the question, reform or revolution?

Leave a Reply