Friday, March 14, 2014

Tony Benn - messiah or devil?

Ed Miliband said that Tony Benn was a champion of the powerless, a conviction politician, and somebody of deep principle. In other words all the things that Ed isn’t.

I am sad at Mr Benn’s death. He was the reason why, in 1981, at just 17 years of age, I joined the Labour Party. I was electrified when I heard him speak alongside the open-shirted dockers’ leader, and communist, Jack Dash at the National Museum of Labour Party History.

I also heard him at a Tribune fringe meeting in Brighton shortly after he lost the deputy Labour leadership contest to Dennis Healey. A Bennite sitting two rows behind us shouted “Judas” at Neil Kinnock who had voted for Healey. “Is Benn Christ then?” responded a guy sitting right behind me. That was the atmosphere of the time. He was for some a messianic figure, and if you were young and idealistic this was especially beguiling. For others he was the devil incarnate. I remember a Daily Express cartoon depicting him in a Gestapo uniform. This was a man who served during the war as an RAF pilot. This was not something he ever particularly emphasised, but not because he was ashamed of it. He was a patriot but of a different kind. His pride in British parliamentary democracy made him opposed to the EU, NATO and the influence of the US over UK foreign policy. Like Benn said of the Labour Party, he was "more Methodist than Marxist." 

He had begun his political life as a fan of the then Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, who, whilst a socialist to my mind, was subsequently seen by the hard left as the Tony Blair of his day. Benn’s commitment to democratic socialism hardened in office in the 1970s under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan. He never resigned his cabinet post. After 1979 he wielded the knife against the government in which he had just served, and intoned about the great betrayal he had apparently witnessed from the inside.

His followers would demonise anyone insufficiently left-wing and would fellow travel with the enemies of democratic socialism. He does have some responsibility for the departure from the Labour Party of some very able politicians (and Gaitskellites) who founded the SDP in 1981, and especially for the 1983 election manifesto. Despite that devastating electoral defeat, the strength of the Labour left, of whom he remained the unofficial leader, made it hard for Kinnock to criticise what had to be criticised about violence and intimidation in the 1984-5 miners’ strike. After the loss of the 1987 general election, Benn largely became irrelevant to the party’s fortunes.

He could though still be powerful critic of the realism that so many of us went along with. I met him in February 1998 on the eve of an aborted US/UK military build up in the Gulf aimed at Iraq. I muttered what I thought was a relatively inoffensive comment about how the Blair Government was just helping to "shore up" containment. Benn rebuked me sharply with a statement about the moral bankruptcy of what then had been seven years of containment.

Harold Wilson once said that Tony Benn immatured as he grew older. As Benn’s socialism became more and more unfashionable, he ironically became something of a national treasure. However Benn’s radical opposition to the anti-democratic whims of the free market and his criticism of the closeness of some UK governments to Washington have arguably more relevance than ever.  

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