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Tony Benn – Rebel's End

By now we are accustomed, if nauseated, each time a self-promoting rebel – in sport, entertainment, politics – warns us of the end of their need to be disruptive by transforming themselves into something called A National Treasure. This was how it was with Tony Benn who died last month. Among the outpourings of blather there was Ed Miliband: 'iconic figure of our age, a great parliamentarian and a conviction politician'. Then David Cameron: 'a magnificent writer, speaker, diarist and campaigner with a strong record of public and political service'. And Benn himself, shortly before he died: 'the nation's political grandfather'. Even Denis Healey, Benn's bitterest enemy when they were fighting each other over the Labour leadership (Benn was an 'unprincipled careerist') persuaded himself to comment moderately, suitable to his great age.

We did not contribute to that tsunami of hypocrisy. We have seen too many of capitalism's political leaders grappling for power by promising to change this social system, out of its essential character, but doing little more than re-arranging some of its more toxic effects while tagging it with another name. Among that parade of frauds and cheats the Labour Party has been most persistent and damaging. And in that party's disreputable history Tony Benn ranks high as a Treasure, a Grandfather... As examples of his 'socialism', during his time as a Minister in the 1960s and 1970s he was involved in many developments such as the creation of the giant motor firm British Leyland which was combined from other similar firms to be in competition with foreign companies such as Volkswagen, Renault, Vauxhall but which floundered. He was enthusiastic about the Concorde airliner, which was sleek and fast but did not fulfil the hopes that it would see off the American Boeing Corporation. Benn's fantasy about that rolled out to be no better than flying for the rich – but carrying unforeseen technical faults which eventually wiped it out.

In 1979 Benn agreed to be interviewed by two members of the Socialist Party on the basis of his recently published book Arguments for Socialism. An edited account of the interview (approved by Benn), was published in the Socialist Standard of January 1980. Benn was first asked for his definition of socialism but then had to be repeatedly encouraged to do just that instead of offering vague, often contradictory, evasions. Our final comment, after outlining socialism as 'a world common-ownership society with free access and voluntary co-operation' was to remind Benn that the logic of his argument led, not to socialism but to different forms of capitalism. We had not expected that he would be in any way diverted by the case for socialism and at the end of his life our comment in the 1970s – that 'capitalism today is as terrible a system to live under as it ever was'  –is as pertinent as ever. Benn's final comment was 'Well anyway I've enjoyed it very much. A stern cross-examination'.

Next month we analyse in more detail Tony Benn’s career and politics.