The Legacy of Tony Benn
Their scanning us for hidden socialism, you know.
– Tony Benn to Nigel Nelson on going through a metal detector, The Daily Mirror, Mar 15, 2014
It was a title inspired by P. G. Wodehouse and coined by the novelist Malcolm Bradbury. This was the late Tony Benn as satire, Benn as the hugely visible, orated political presence that guaranteed his status as myth that no governor can ever have. The business of governing, after all, is bound to get your reputation dirtied at some point.
The sharp and somewhat unforgiving former Lord Chancellor Denis Healey, Benn’s greatest, and perhaps bitterest rival, showed how titanic struggles over the Left in Britain did, at one point, matter. Here, we had two men of striking inclinations – both of the socialist movement, but both intent on finding different ways into the corridors of power. Their disagreements were the templates of internal divergences within the British Labour movement.
Healey considered Benn a poseur, a pretender keen to cultivate and confect a left-wing identity from an inseparable aristocratic past. Along with Michael Foot, they were less interested in winning than wading in a toxic pool of ideology. Healey would admit that Benn’s views would “soften” but Benn could never prove to his satisfaction that he was “working class”. In Healey’s eyes, Benn always remained the quixotic 2nd Viscount Stansgate. Ever heavy does tradition weigh on aspirations.
Benn had made it clear that he was not interested in polls, in the ticker of fickle electoral opinion and focus groups. “I did not enter the Labour Party 47 years ago to have our manifesto written by Dr. Mori, Dr. Gallup and Mr. Harris,” he would say in 1988. It might well be said that oppositional politics was always going to be both his strength and Achilles heel, ever the dissenter even as policy was being made in Cabinet. In his appraisal of those getting to No 10, he could only say that, to get there, you needed to climb “on a little ladder called ‘the status quo’. And when you are there, the status quo looks very good.”
Others have ventured stabs at the heroic failings of Benn. Tom Doran in The Independent (Mar 15) did not have much time for the label of Benn as the “conscience of the left”. Much of this is based on the fact that canonisation of the right’s key “totemic” figure – Margaret Thatcher – was understandable – she did change Britain, if not kill much of it. Having bashed herself into the mould of history, she did deserve some form of recognition. As for Benn, the question for Doran is what was actually achieved by this sainted conscience.
Doran is searching for a fight, because he evidently would like to see the Left run up the runs, get the points and steal the political show. For a generation and more, it has been conservatives and reactionaries who have done most of the running and much of the winning. If it wasn’t conservatives, it was conservatives in progressive clothing. Benn certainly illustrates the fundamental dilemma of a left politics that proposes but does not dispose. This, invariably, is the problem of any stance that requires fashioning and practical application. “Tony Benn,” Doran insists, “is the very embodiment of this doomed, circular romanticism.”
Benn’s time in government – for he did not spend his time sunning himself on the backbenches in idle reflection – is characterised by some policies that might surprise the hagiographical brigade.
He was the instrumental figure behind the doomed British Leyland Motor Corporation in 1968, a creature of Benn’s Industrial Reorganisation Committee from Prime Minister Wilson’s period. The plan then was to merge the profitable Leyland Motor Corporation with the failing British Motor Holdings. The venture collapsed in 1975, a creature of creative obsolescence.
He was also a stickler for bold Britain, at stages taking a line that would make modern Conservative Eurosceptics and UKIP cheer leaders proud. In a letter to Bristol constituents in December 1974, he suggested that, “Britain’s continuing membership of the Community would mean the end of Britain as a completely self-governing nation.”
For all that chequered disposition, he did have a truck load of beliefs, fighting the bellicose, opposing engagements such as Suez, the Falklands and the Gulf, and keen to take to the soapbox for worker rights. For many in the political arena, that quality is either indispensable or bound to railroad your credentials. If Benn was symbolic of the Left’s role in Britain, it was the fact that he did, even as the drive for modernisation became de rigueur, explain that some things are beyond modernisation, Blair-proof, if you will.
As far back as 1976, Benn would highlight a vital dissonance within Labour party politics before those attending the Labour Party Conference. “We are paying a heavy price for 20 years in which, as a party, we have played down our criticism of capitalism and soft-peddled our advocacy of socialism.” When Labour became “New” in its aspirations, the cupboard was also being emptied of other ties. Tony Blair’s price in winning was never high enough.
Benn was hardly oblivious to the unsteady landscape of politics. Each station of a long political career will see a range of transformations, a shedding of skin. “What is the final corruption in politics? Earlier, it was to get into cabinet, before that, to be popular, but later on, the final corruption is this kindly, harmless old gentleman.” Like a creature you could imagine creeping out from a Wilde play, he was himself a creature of social, if not socialist, satire. “I am not a reluctant peer but a persistent commoner.”
His departure is another exit of those with convictions who might sway a room or a session. Political managerialism is defined by an absence of ideology and a total lack of conviction. Benn, however flawed, defied and repudiated it. Power corrupts, yet some shall govern. In so doing, Benn posed the vital question of our times. “To whom are you accountable? How do we get rid of you?” Without the means of cleaning up parliament with a steady broom, the degenerates shall thrive.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org