Greasy Pole: Tony Benn – Getting it Wrong

In the matter of political funerals and their selectively phoney eulogies, Tony Benn had to be outdistanced by Margaret Thatcher, which should not obscure a few significant similarities between them because after all they were both in that same business of politics. In their time as back benchers they each cosseted an intention to rule as much of the world as possible starting with a considered process of undermining their party leaders by an implicit claim to represent a simpler, clearer, more effective style of managing this chaotic social system. They were bolstered by a conviction that they would leave a non-fading mark on history which in itself, as an implacable reality reduces them, will provide material enough to keep a tribe of biographers at work. There were of course some divergences between them; for one thing Thatcher chose to pass into the ermine comforts of that same House of Lords that Benn had devoted so much energy to escape from. And he remained active to the end, passing on his delusions to others rather than endure their exposure. He died as President of the Stop the War Coalition, with an established reputation as ‘…one of the few politicians to have become more left wing after holding ministerial office’.


It was not always like this. Benn came from a family well established in politics with both his grandfathers elected as Liberal MPs as was his father, before 1929 when he crossed to the Labour benches under Ramsay MacDonald. This did not, apparently, quell his political appetite because in 1941 he reluctantly agreed to augment the Labour Party in the House of Lords by accepting a peerage, making him Viscount Stansgate and a member of the Attlee government. So in 1950 when Stafford Cripps MP – who had his own reputation for being disruptive of party discipline – had to retire through ill health there was a vacancy in Bristol South-East and, with the help of his friend Anthony Crosland, Tony Benn was selected as the Labour candidate. To begin with Benn was an unremarkable back bencher, taking a place in the political centre with a leaning towards the right wing and critical of the restless Bevanites. He was a follower of the party leader Hugh Gaitskell, a leader who after an aberrant phase of opposing the Suez invasion was nervous of further damaging the party’s electoral chances, and pursued a noisy campaign to revise the worrisome Clause Four of the party constitution with its policy of widespread nationalisation and warned that he would ‘…fight, fight and fight again’ to overturn a conference decision to ban nuclear weapons.


The image of a party persistently at war within itself was not voter-attractive and among the candidates offering a more peaceable and seductive style was Harold Wilson with his strategy of soothing the edges of inconvenient policies rather than abandoning them. Benn transferred his allegiance to Wilson and Gaitskell retaliated by no longer actively supporting him as a Labour MP. The matter was temporarily resolved in 1960 with the death of Benn’s father which transformed him into the new Viscount Stansgate, thereby disqualifying him from the Commons. Nevertheless he grimly contested the resultant by-election in Bristol – which made the case for changes in the honours system, but inevitably he was again disqualified. He then resorted to a long, determined campaign to change the law which eventually, in August 1963, resulted in the Peerage Bill and after yet another by-election he won his way back into the Commons. (There were other results of that Bill, for example it allowed the excessively wealthy, heavily aristocratic, massively land-owning Lord Home to change into Alec Douglas-Home and to succeed that other Old Etonian Harold Macmillan as a Conservative Prime Minister).


Gaitskell died suddenly in January 1963 and the following year Wilson led the Labour Party to victory, on some vague assumptions about a Britain fed, cared for and stimulated by something he had called the Technological Revolution. By this time Benn was occupying a niche as an untiring advocate of a rabble of superficially attractive policies. In his first ministry as Postmaster General he covered the opening of the Post Office Tower and then, more memorably, he had to compromise on his proposal to remove the Queen’s head from all postage stamps, instead using a miniaturised version of it. As Minister of Technology he recommended to patriotic British workers the supersonic Concorde airliner, which was promoted as a knock-out blow to the American company Boeing. As part of the process of getting the Concorde into service it was decided to run trials of the effect of its supersonic booms on the general population. It did not take long for this to be assessed as too much by way of pollution and misery inflicted on the people below and Concorde had to be confined to going supersonic over oceans or deserts or the like.


In 1974 when Labour came back to power Benn reacted with the assumption that the establishment of socialism was surely a technological process. As Secretary for Industry he operated a policy of industrial rationalisation leading to the merging of large companies with all that entailed by way of a better organised and applied exploitation of the labour force. In the miners’ 1984/5 strike there was some residual resentment that the miners’ cause was actually damaged by the effect of such policies. But Benn’s typically obscure justification was that ‘We are not just here to manage capitalism but to change society and to define its finer values’. In the background to this there was the recurrent struggle for leadership of this disgraced and floundering Party. In the 1981 contest for Deputy Leader Benn lost by 0.5 per cent to Denis Healey and in 1988, against Kinnock for the Leadership, he was defeated by a large majority. He eventually gave up, with his well-publicised declaration that he was ‘leaving parliament in order to spend more time on politics’. If nothing else, this gave him more time to amass his archives – his diaries, newspaper cuttings, and minutia of correspondence. Like all Labour politicians, his career can be summarised as an unremitting distortion of the meaning of the word socialism and all that implies, wilfully confusing socialism with state capitalism. In spite of all his obsessive energy, sadly he died leaving capitalism as brutal and wasteful a system of human affairs as it ever was.


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