Photo by Chris Boland
I was shaken to the core when I heard, early in the morning, that Tony Benn had died. I was surprised by how close I felt towards him, and how fond I was of him, because I had come to be equivocal about his politics and judgment over matters where I felt he had compromised the ideals and policies that I shared with him.
Tony Benn was an inspirational figure for me in the 1970s. He was unusual on the left in Labour, in his passionate zeal to make real the basic principle of democracy (‘rule by the people’) as opposed to the distrust of the working class whom Labour politicians patronisingly ‘ruled for’. His democratic instincts came to embrace a semi-syndicalist commitment to workers’ control, while at the same time he wished to employ the power of the state to protect British industry and workers from the growing oligarchy of global corporate power. He was also startlingly original, as he was throughout his life.
In the 1970s, and earlier, I was a political ally of Frances Morrell who was at first Tony’s unofficial adviser, and then his adviser in government, along with Francis Cripps. As such I became a Bennite and was one of those who visited Benn in his home. I remember affectionately one odd incident when Tony wished to demonstrate how fit he was – he peeled off his shirt and danced for us in the beam of a projector.
More importantly, I worked for Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) at the time and organised its campaign to win backing throughout the Labour party. I saw that hordes of Labour people turned up early for the annual conference and had nothing to do on what were ‘dead’ Saturday nights. I organised a huge rally for CPAG’s policies, with Tony’s enthusiastic support; he spoke alongside Jack Jones of the TGWU and Joan Lestor MP. It was a great success, spoiled a bit by Tony’s patronising remark afterwards that the “bleeding hearts brigade” was important to Labour’s electoral appeal, but secondary to real politics. He suggested that CPAG should affiliate, informally or formally, to the party.
Among all the comment on Benn’s death, Shirley Williams interestingly accused Benn of being “out of date”. It hardly looks like that now when corporate power has a strangle-hold on government and parties suck up to ‘big business’ and use state power to reinforce its power. Neil Kinnock remembers Benn’s eccentric opposition, as he saw it, to the sale of council houses – which was one of the most devastating blows against the living standards of working people ever. Benn apparently argued that council homes belonged to the community, rightly so. His argument looks all the stronger in the midst of a housing crisis in which working people are being priced out of housing.
Kinnock’s comment was on the edge of often sneering comments from other politicians, of all parties, that somehow Benn’s radical politics were compensation for the fact that he wasn’t truly working class. A more generous view might be that his growing radicalism was, as he himself explained, a reaction to his experience in government and Labour’s timidity and that it sprang naturally from the liberal and egalitarian non-comformist roots of his aristocratic family. The sort of reverse snobbery, indeed smearing, that Benn and others from more advantageous backgrounds have experienced has bedevilled the Labour party; perhaps his example will release the party from this ridiculous burden.
There was a minor kerfuffle with Tony over a joint book, Manifesto, that Frances, Cripps, me and others wrote in 1981. Tony was about to publish his own book and feared that we would steal his thunder, and as it happened, we did. But it was his conduct during the miners’ strike in 1984-85 that caused me to begin doubting him. As editor of New Socialist at the time, I was wholly for the miners, but against Arthur Scargill’s refusal to ballot his members. I also came to learn from my visits to Sheffield and the coal fields that Scargill was a tyrant within the NUM. It was easy enough for me to take a principled position. It was different for leading politicians, like Kinnock and Benn, who had wider responsibilities. I still believe that Tony, whose guiding principles were of democracy and freedom, should have distanced himself from Scargill over the ballot, but at the same time I now appreciate the difficulties that such a stand would have caused.
(I came down one time from Sheffield by train to London with Tony. He was convinced that the public backed the miners and that the strike would be won. Why was he so sure? I asked. “Everyone I speak to tells me that they are for the miners,” he replied. I didn’t make the obvious reply. Actually I believe that at the end of the strike, popular opinion had swung behind the miners as the extent of the distress in mining communities became known, and crucially, when it was clear that they were defeated.)
My doubts grew during the next few years as Benn’s challenge to the party leadership intensified and he stood against Denis Healey for the deputy leadership. It was entirely proper for him to do both. But he took as allies in the struggle the varieties of ultra left Trotskyist groups, many of whom (not all) were vicious campaigners who took every opportunity to inflame divisions within the party. They were especially keen to distinguish themselves from others on the left and to discredit and denounce them as ‘traitors’ and ‘Judases’. They were not democrats, and weren’t willing to trust fellow party members with power in the party.
It was at this time that the distinction between ‘soft left’ and ‘hard left’ grew up and gradually Tony’s more moderate allies, even those most close to him, began to distance themselves, not only because of the damage he was doing to Neil Kinnock and the party, but also because they were moving from the left’s isolationist ‘socialism in one country’ Alternative Economic Strategy towards a European-wide response to the power of the multi-national companies. I then wrote an article in May 1985 for New Socialist, entitled “Bennism without Benn” on the re-alignment that was taking place. I offered Tony the opportunity to reply. He didn’t. Instead we were estranged and I began to figure in his diaries as a suspicious figure, along for example with Martin Jacques.
Later on, I also came to regret his Labourite attachment to first-past-the-post, which the party traditionally clings to as it gives them the chance to govern as a single party, notwithstanding that it does so undemocratically. However, I think that his political influence as a popular sage after he resigned from Parliament in 2001 may well prove to be far more valuable than people realise at this moment. He made the case for civil liberties and democracy with a humorous charm that appealed widely, and played a significant part in the anti-war movement. I have always been suspicious of the elevation of people like Tony and Bob Crow to the pantheon as national institutions or treasures. But Tony truly was a national treasure and it is all too rare for any politician to achieve this status.
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