2000s >> 2007 >> no-1237-september-2007

Greasy Pole: Like father like son

There is no reason to believe that he was asked what he thought about it but Tony Benn has been transmogrified from an unbending leftwing critic, protester and campaigner into a National Treasure. Manacled in this identity he will find that participation in any future marches, petitions or demonstrations will provoke only the kind of fond indulgence normally given to senile dogs. In addition Benn may be disturbed by the fact that no offspring has followed in his stumbling political footsteps, for his son Hilary made his attitude clear from the very beginning of his time as an MP: “I am a Benn but not a Bennite” – which may be translated as “please forget all that daring but embarrassing stuff I once raved on about – my career is more important to me than any principles you may have attributed to me”.

We may ask why there are so few examples of admiring offspring following a parent into a successful career in politics – which is, after all, supposed to be an honourable profession with rewards both material and in public esteem. Is it just a matter of rebellious youth defying parental assumptions? Or is there something about the work and the esteem which discourages?

The Greenwoods

Arthur Greenwood was a leading Labour figure, an MP from 1922 until his death in 1954, who held a number of Cabinet posts. In the chaotic 1929/31 Labour government he was Minister of Health and in 1935 he became Clement Attlee’s deputy leader. In the wartime coalition Churchill made him Minister Without Portfolio and then in 1941 Chairman of the Reconstruction Committee – a grandly titled body with the even grander job of organising post-war reconstruction. This committee was expected to produce practical proposals covering a wide range of spheres of action and to this end Greenwood recruited a number of economists and others who thought highly enough of themselves to believe that, at that time of extreme peril for British capitalism, their opinions would have any effect on governmental policy.

In any case the very fact of Greenwood’s appointment was evidence of the low priority given to post-war “reconstruction” for his serious drink problem made him quite incapable of keeping up with the demands of the job. Mercifully, in 1942 he was sacked (the Committee had met only four times) and the government could get on with the serious business of organising the slaughter.

His dismissal from the Cabinet left Greenwood free to take on the (unpaid) unofficial leadership of the opposition. The style of his “opposition” may be judged by his contribution to a debate, in February 1943, on the Beveridge Report, heartily welcomed by so many war-weary people under the impression that the type of reforms Beveridge was proposing would be the reward for all their suffering during the war. The coalition, however, was not to be rushed into any such extravagance and Greenwood, by pre-arrangement with the government, introduced an analgesic motion greeting the Report with the meaningless hope that it would – sometime, somehow, somewhere – be implemented.

Anthony Greenwood

In the post war Labour government Greenwood held a couple of minor jobs but his health steadily declined; in 1950, virtually immobile, he was brought to the Commons in a wheelchair by his son Anthony. “He looked dying” recorded Tory MP Henry Channon, “…Anthony, also a Member, has a Surbiton accent but a pleasant, well-soaped appearance”. That was alright then, everything well set for another, eminently acceptable, Greenwood to take his place in the most exclusive club in the world where they do the business of managing British capitalism.

Greenwood Junior was among those who conform to whatever the priorities of capitalism demand while protesting that their principles as left wingers would prevent them behaving in that way. A member of the anti-nuclear movement from its early days as the Hydrogen Bomb National Campaign Committee, he stood for the party leadership against Hugh “Fight And Fight Again” Gaitskell, who won with almost three quarters of the votes cast. Gaitskell’s death in 1963 brought Wilson into the leadership and Greenwood was plucked from the back benches to become Secretary of State for the Colonies. This was either a mistake by Wilson or an example of labyrinthine subtlety for he had grumbled to Barbara Castle that “Tony has no brains. I soon realised that all he is good at is public relations” – a breathtaking sneer from one who was himself a keen student of the shadowy art of public relations.

Anthony Greenwood had responsibility for a number of decisions which would have outraged any self-respecting left winger. In 1964 there was concern, in London and Washington, that a general election in British Guiana would bring into power a government led by Cheddi Jagan, who was likely to pursue policies unfavourable to American interests in the area. Stifling his earlier reservations for such subversive, undemocratic activity, Greenwood co-operated with the Americans in an intelligence campaign successfully aimed at undermining Jagan’s chances in the election. In 1965 the Americans had designs on building a nuclear base on Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean. The problem was that the islanders did not want to leave so they were removed forcibly, through deportation or attrition; for example Britain bought the only employer on the island and then closed it down. By 1975 the job was finished and the base was there, where once the islanders fished, farmed and harvested the copra.

Hilary Benn

There is nothing in the family antecedents for any existent Greenwood to take pride in. But the tradition, or whatever it is, lives on; the grandson of Anthony Greenwood, Leo Murray, is a co-founder of Plane Stupid, an organisation which in its own way tries to defy the realities of capitalism by campaigning against airport expansion. Watch out for Leo Murray; there is time for him also to get into Parliament, become a minister and forget the days when he was devoted to trying to make capitalism behave out of character.

Such has been the story of so many politicians, among them Hilary Benn, a fourth generation MP who began as a local councillor at Ealing in London. That was in 1979, when Ealing surprised itself by electing a council which, with policies which were presented as eradicating discrimination but which on balance probably had the opposite effect, made them contenders with others such as Camden and Hackney for the title of loony lefties. At the same time Ealing council significantly upped the local rate which, to voters who are under the delusion that such things are important to them, was little short of electoral suicide. In 1983 and 1987 it almost certainly helped to increase the majority for the sitting Tory MP for Ealing North, where Benn was making his first attempt to get into Parliament. Avoiding another failure at that constituency, in 1999 Benn was returned at a by-election for Leeds Central. He has been the most compliant of Labour MPs, voting for ID cards, university top-up fees, the war in Iraq, replacing Trident…and he has moved smoothly up the greasy pole, to his present Cabinet job in charge of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Enough has been said and written about Hilary Benn’s father Tony Benn, left wing irritant turned National Treasure. It is however useful to remember that he was a minister in as succession of Labour governments during the 1960s and1970s, beginning with Postmaster General for Harold Wilson in 1964 and including the misery and chaos of the infamous Winter of Discontent. Among his notable achievements was his very own carbon footprinting when he oversaw development of the Concorde airliner which, apart from what it did to the ozone layer, was the rich person’s exclusive mode of air travel.

If the history of family politicians tells us that successive generations learn little or nothing from experience – well the same, even more so, must be said about the people who, in obdurate masochism, vote to keep them in power.


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