FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Legacy of Tony Benn

by BINOY KAMPMARK

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: bkampmark@gmail.com

 

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

January 18, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
The Destabilizer: Trump’s Escalating Threats Against Iran
John W. Whitehead
Silence Is Betrayal: Get Up, Stand Up, Speak Up for Your Rights
Andrew Day
Of “Shitholes” and Liberals
Dave Lindorff
Rep. Gabbard Speaks Truth to Power About the Real Reason Korea Has Nukes
Barbara G. Ellis
The Workplace War: Hatpins Might Be in Style Again for Women
Binoy Kampmark
Corporate Sickness in May’s Britain
Ralph Nader
Twitter Rock Star Obama’s Silence Must Delight Trump
John G. Russell
#Loose Lips (Should) Sink … Presidencies … But Even If They Could, What Comes Next?
David Macaray
The “Mongrelization” of the White Race
Ramzy Baroud
In Words and Deeds: The Genesis of Israeli Violence
January 17, 2018
Seiji Yamada
Prevention is the Only Solution: a Hiroshima Native’s View of Nuclear Weapons
Chris Welzenbach
Force of Evil: Abraham Polonsky and Anti-Capitalist Noir
Thomas Klikauer
The Business of Bullshit
Howard Lisnoff
The Atomized and Siloed U.S. Left
Martha Rosenberg
How Big Pharma Infiltrated the Boston Museum of Science
George Wuerthner
The Collaboration Trap
David Swanson
Removing Trump Will Require New Activists
Michael McKinley
Australia and the Wars of the Alliance: United States Strategy
Binoy Kampmark
Macron in China
Cesar Chelala
The Distractor-in-Chief
Ted Rall
Why Trump is Right About Newspaper Libel Laws
Mary Serumaga
Corruption in Uganda: Minister Sam Kutesa and Company May Yet Survive Their Latest Scandal
January 16, 2018
Mark Schuller
What is a “Shithole Country” and Why is Trump So Obsessed With Haiti?
Paul Street
Notes From a “Shithole” Superpower
Louisa Willcox
Keeper of the Flame for Wilderness: Stewart “Brandy” Brandborg
Mike Whitney
Trump’s Sinister Plan to Kill the Iranian “Nukes” Deal
Franklin Lamb
Kafkaesque Impediments to Challenging Iran’s Theocracy
Norman Solomon
Why Senator Cardin is a Fitting Opponent for Chelsea Manning
Fred Gardner
GI Coffeehouses Recalled: a Compliment From General Westmoreland
Brian Terrell
Solidarity from Central Cellblock to Guantanamo
Don Fitz
Bondage Scandal: Looking Beneath the Surface
Rob Seimetz
#Resist Co-opting “Shithole”
Ted Rall
Trump Isn’t Unique
January 15, 2018
Rob Urie
Democrats and the End(s) of Politics
Paul Tritschler
Killing Floor: the Business of Animal Slaughter
Mike Garrity
In Targeting the Lynx, the Trump Administration Defies Facts, Law, and Science Once Again
Thomas Hon Wing Polin
Hong Kong Politics: a Never-Ending Farce
Uri Avnery
Bibi’s Son (Or Three Men in a Car)
Dave Lindorff
Yesterday’s ‘Shithole Countries’ Can Become Classy Places Donald, and Vice Versa
Jeff Mackler
Lesser Evil Politics in Alabama
Jonah Raskin
Typewriters Still Smoking? An Interview with Underground Press Maven John McMillan
Jose-Antonio Orosco
Trump’s Comments Recall a Racist Past in Immigration Policy
David Macaray
Everything Seems to Be Going South
Kathy Kelly
41 Hearts Beating in Guantanamo
Weekend Edition
January 12, 2018
Friday - Sunday
George Burchett
Wormwood and a Shocking Secret of War: How Errol Morris Vindicated My Father, Wilfred Burchett
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail