Tony Benn – He Encouraged Us

You’ve all heard it said. It is one of the leading cliches in politics: the older one gets, the wider one’s waistband expands, and the more conservative one becomes. There are notable exceptions to such sad cases that affirm this dictum of aging reactionaries. One such prominent case was Tony Benn, who started out as a mainstream Labour politician of the social democratic post-war establishment, only move further to the Left as he passed through Parliament and more than one Labour cabinet. The only thing startling about the old man was that he was ever a banal centrist.

The praise now being showered on Tony Benn relegates him to the dull realm of acceptability. It was not so in the days when Benn posed a serious challenge to the Labour leadership and the prevailing Cold War consensus. The Murdoch gutter press went after him with characteristic fairness, they went through his bins, produced a bogus report on his mental well-being, and probably tapped his land-line. The hysterical press barons saw a dictator of the proletariat on the horizon, but they also saw a similar figure under their beds at night. Those days are long gone. The Soviet Union collapsed and with it the threat of democratic socialism evaporated. The death of socialism and the end of history were proclaimed. Only liberal capitalism was left standing, seemingly everywhere triumphant. A socialist like Benn could be praised for his integrity only because the game was over. The conservatives and liberals can now applaud him precisely because they think the battle is over and his ideas don’t really work.

No longer a prospective dictator, we find Anthony Wedgewood can be lauded as a man of principle from the old-fashioned days of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan. The exactitude of the principles if a another matter entirely, we’re led to believe that the ‘Old’ Labour Party was for stripping away the wealth of the propertied classes. It just didn’t work. It turned Britain into the Sick Man of Europe. Have no doubt about it, the Labour government of 1945 to 1951 established a welfare state and mixed economy which produced greater development, economic stability, and growth, than have been enjoyed since the post-war settlement was dismantled from 1975 onwards. As much a creature of the War (not to be confused with any mere wars) and the social democratic consensus of the 1950s and 60s Benn had the qualifications to speak for the anti-war movement and the socialist movement.

As a Labour politician who lived through the first Wilson administration which had sought to deliver significant rates of growth rather than address the distributional basis of the economy. The hope was that the growth would raise living standards for the working-class without really changing the class structure of Britain. Yet Wilson had come to power just as an economic boom was hurtling out of control. The government had to look to hold down wages and prices to get a grip on inflation. In the midst of this Tony Benn was made the Minister of Technology and would go on to chair the Industrial Reorganisation Committee. He spent the last years of the Wilson government picking winners and backing takeovers in the midst of the Jim Slater era of asset stripping and ram-raids on corporate structures.

History is full of ironies. It was the beginning of the deindustrialisation of Britain that would eventuate in the 1980s and 90s. The conditions of the post-war settlement which amounted to the grave crises of the 70s are what led the way for Thatcherism and later Blairism. Only for the new establishment to lead to the current crisis we’re living with today. The vast swathe of Labour parliamentarians were on board with the new consensus by the 80s and many of them had been even before it had fully emerged from the womb of social democracy. It was the Callaghan government which had signed up for the IMF austerity programme, which Denis Healey later admitted was unnecessary and probably cost Labour the election. We can and should praise Benn for learning from this experience and having the fortitude to take the stances he did against the onslaught which was well underway by 1979.

The stagnation of the 1970s matched a political crisis within the establishment itself. The Conservative Party wasn’t going to forget the humiliation of 1974 and was determined to inflict a historic defeat on the trade unions. Under these conditions Margaret Thatcher came to the foreground. Originally the candidate was going to be Keith Joseph, who had helped to spread the ideas of Milton Friedman. He argued the crisis was down to the decline of wealth-producing sectors of the economy and the growth of the public sector and government. It was tremendously popular in contrast to the perceived bungling of Ted Heath. In the end Joseph eliminated himself by giving a eugenicist speech on poor mothers and their children. This may have been the exuberance of the emerging consensus which would be consolidated under Thatcher. Few people saw what was coming.

The major ideological triumphs of the Thatcher regime can be rounded down to just two: the Falklands War and the Miners’ Strike. Tony Benn was on the right side in both instances. He saw that the war was an unnecessary loss of life and should have been handled through the United Nations. It really was a battle between two bald men fought over a comb. Without the war the Thatcher government may have well paid the price for its vandalism and suffered a defeat in 1983. Instead the Conservatives benefited from the patriotic fervour whipped up for the war. It’s possible that the subsequent battle over the mines would have not arisen had the tide been turned back at that point. Once the miners had been defeated in 1985 the Thatcherite era had well and truly consolidated its gains and could go on to further victories. The labour movement that had vanquished Heath was smashed.

Even in the face of such defeats Benn stood strong and kept to his principles. He maintained his position as MP for Chesterfield and condemned the pit closures which would toss so many onto the trash heap. He stood as a voice of working-class interests against the tidal wave of Thatcherism and its bid to dismantle the entire edifice of social democracy. He remained steadfast in his optimism, at a time when many despaired, and had good reason to do so. The arguments he put forward were rooted in common-sense and populist appeals to the moral collectivism of the people. He was not a Marxist, but a left-moralist. The influence of the Fabian tradition, with its gradualist approach, and fetish for reform, can be picked up here; but there’s also a break with Fabian progressivism in Benn’s shift to the Left. His faith in the democratic mechanism is not as lukewarm as some on the hard Left may like to claim. The welfare state was socialist development, but it wasn’t the end itself. He wanted to see democracy extended to the economy, it was a syndicalist call for industrial democracy.

This post was originally published at Living in Philistia, on March 16 2014, just days after Tony Benn passed on.

About JT White

a writer and journalist living in the UK where he works as Africa editor and researcher for the World Weekly. White is a philosophy graduate, specialising in political thought, and maintained a blog for several years. His main focus is national and international politics having written on subjects as seemingly far apart as US elections, Russian nationalism and the state of modern Britain.
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