TONY BENN: MYTH AND REALITY
A guest post by Phil Larkin
Few can have missed the passing on of Anthony Neil Wedgewood-Benn (commonly known from around 1972 by his self-created title “Tony Benn”) last week. Over the last decade and beyond, ever since he stepped down as an MP in 2001, he had gained the reputation for himself as the kindly old sage of the British left, puffing his pipe, drinking large mugs of tea, appearing on stage at Glastonbury and providing stirring orations at ‘Stop the War’ Campaigns (in whatever corner of the world war happened to be taking place). He was sort of a sanitised, grandfatherly George Galloway, with far superior manners and courtesy. My main and abiding memory of him before his death was the very funny (and revealing) spoof interview which he did with Ali G: apparently he had jumped at the chance to explain the idea of socialism to young people when offered the interview (of which more below). I also recall him shepherding Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness around the Palace of Westminster, showing them the office and other facilities they would be entitled to although they did not sit as MPs. In sum, he had become a form of eccentric national treasure, welcome on many TV programmes to expound on his “convictions” and the great issues of the day. In addition, he was regarded (and he propagated this idea himself in no small measure) as someone who held steadfastly to his convictions and never wavered in his views. Yet, as one obituary rightly pointed out, this latter phase of his life was only the third in a long and complex career spanning over six decades. This aim of this piece is to cast a hopefully not uncritical eye over that career and some of the benign myths that have surrounded the man over the years. I would like him to be remembered for what he was, not for what he was not.
Benn was the scion of the wealthy Benn publishing house, and both his grandparents were Liberal MPs. He could also trace his ancestry to the famous Wedgewood family, enlightened employers of the Victorian era whose pottery was, and is, famous throughout the world. His father, William Wedgewood-Benn, was originally a Liberal MP who crossed the Floor of the House of Commons to join the Labour Party in 1928, becoming Secretary of State for India in Ramsay MacDonald’s second Government of 1929 to 1931. He later was elevated to the peerage during World War II, becoming Viscount Stansgate in 1942. Born in 1925, Benn remembered meeting with Gandhi, Ramsay MacDonald, Lloyd George and a whole host of other political greats at a very young age. His mother Margaret, a theologian, was something of a radical feminist for the age, advocating the ordination of women years before this was accepted by the mainstream Anglican Church. It was within this rarefied atmosphere that Benn was to be brought up. He was educated at the exclusive Westminster School, where he appears to have been something of an unexceptional pupil who was, according to one of his schoolmasters, “a little too conscious of Anthony Wedgewood-Benn.” I would assert that throughout his life he was to carry traces of the public schoolboy mentality which manifested itself in his thought and behaviour, despite the efforts he made to disguise them. He later tried to expunge all reference to his public school education in his Who’s Who entry. A spell as a pilot officer during World War II and a PPE degree at Oxford (where he became President of the Union) followed. While at Oxford, he met Caroline Middleton de Camp, daughter of an American lawyer whose wealth matched that of his own background. They married in 1949 and were to have a very happy family life until her death in 2000.
Becoming an MP and Renouncing the Peerage
Although he worked for a while as a BBC Radio producer after World War II (he was to master this medium, as well as the later medium of television very expertly), politics was his main focus, given his family background. In November 1950 the opportunity to contest the Bristol South East constituency arose unexpectedly, which he duly won, and remained MP for this seat for the next 10 years. In those early days his position on the political spectrum was difficult to define: certainly he was not associated with the Bevanite hard left during this period, and was regarded as on the centre-right of the Labour Party. Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the Labour Party during the later 1950s, is reputed to have viewed Benn as over-pushy, bumptious, and too eager for office. His heroes and inspirations of this time appear to have been the prophets of the Bible and the great Parliamentary figures of the English Civil War. Denis (later Lord) Healey recalled him at this time as a “harmless but engaging eccentric”, while Roy Mason in his autobiography recalls being stopped by a very agitated Benn in Westminster Palace one day, and being asked when his birthday was. When Mason told Benn that he was a few months older than him, Benn walked away relieved and elated: Benn still retained the title of the youngest MP in the House of Commons. Mason (a former Barnsley coal miner) remarked caustically on this incident, regarding it as “schoolboy one-upmanship.” I am inclined to agree.
His real rise to public fame came on the death of his father, Viscount Stansgate, in 1960, when Benn automatically inherited his peerage, preventing him from sitting in the House of Commons. Benn wished to retain his seat in the Commons, maintaining his right to renounce his peerage. He stood again for election to his constituency, and won once more, even though still disqualified to take his seat. Outside Parliament he continued to campaign for the right to renounce the peerage, and the Conservative Government of the time accepted the need for a change in the law, with Benn being the first peer to take advantage of the Peerage Act 1963 and return to the Commons in 1963.
However, and not for the first time in his life, the fulfilment of one of his passionate obsessions carried consequences which he had not thought through, or could not foresee. The Peerage Act 1963 also allowed the Conservative peer Lord Home to renounce his place in the House of Lords and become Prime Minister in 1963 as Sir Alec Douglas-Home. This legislation was bound to assist the Conservative Party to a much greater degree than the Labour Party, with the former having a much higher proportion of hereditary peers. Another suspicion of mine is that this period in the public limelight gave him a profile which he would not ordinarily have had, and a taste for playing the rebel which he never really lost for the rest of his long life. This was to have near catastrophic consequences for the fortunes of the Labour Party in later years.
Postmaster General and Minister of Technology
With the coming to power of Harold Wilson’s Labour Government in 1964, Benn reached ministerial level, first in the role of Postmaster General. Again, during this early period as a minister, his political position was not regarded as that of the hard left; rather, he came across more as a technocrat in his attitudes and a hardworking, generally successful minister more than a political partisan. However he was still prone to a little radical posturing on occasion: his plan to remove the Monarch’s profile from stamps in favour of the 17th Century Parliamentarians was thwarted by personal opposition from the Queen herself (one wonders what Benn’s Irish groupies in later years would have thought of his aim to put pictures of the likes of Oliver Cromwell on national stamps!). In the Cabinet itself he managed to get up the nose of certain colleagues with his eccentricities: for Roy Mason he tried too hard and too earnestly to be working class, without having the slightest clue how to do it. For instance, he would insist on pint pots of tea being served to him, believing it to be a proletarian habit. One is reminded irresistibly of George Orwell’s (another public schoolboy socialist) attempts to play at being working class in some of Benn’s antics.
As Postmaster General he presided over the opening of the Post Office tower, then the UK’s tallest building. He also thought that it would be a good idea to have a “rotating restaurant” at the top, where diners would sit at tables which revolved around concentric circles, meaning that the person who you were facing and speaking to would change as the circles rotated, allowing you to meet more people and ensuring, like King Arthur, that no-one could be at the head of the “round table.” A great idea in theory, but in practice the restaurant itself was so high up that diners would frequently suffer from travel sickness and queasy stomachs as the scenery of the city down below revolved before their eyes. Added to this was the fact that the restaurant menus were so expensive that only the very wealthy could afford them. The restaurant closed. Once more, Benn suffered from the law of unintended consequences.
Promoted to Minister of Technology in 1966, Benn’s most memorable achievement in this office was probably the development of the supersonic airline Concorde, which was partly manufactured in his Bristol constituency. Benn’s imagination was captured by the idea of Concorde to the point of obsession: there can be no denying that it was a magnificent technological achievement. However, the fact remains that the project was simply not commercially viable, since only very wealthy travellers, often with business expense accounts, could afford to fly the airline. Both the UK and French governments later came to regret persevering with Concorde, with it finally being removed in the early 2000s. Unintended consequences had reared their head again.
Interestingly, at this period of his career, Benn was an advocate of both the EEC (which later became the European Union) and of nuclear power. Given his later standpoints on these two subjects, especially his later championing of coal powered stations and the miners during the 1984/85 coal strike, it somewhat pulls the rug from out under his image of a man who never changed his convictions on anything. In reality, he was probably just as liable to make a complete volte-face as any of us.
Opposition, Cabinet, and Drift to the Hard Left
The defeat of Wilson’s Government in 1970 by Heath’s Conservatives took most people by surprise. Along with his colleagues Benn spent four years in opposition. His relative enthusiasm on the EEC having cooled by the early 1970s, with Heath’s bid to apply for membership, Benn campaigned for a referendum on this issue, and the shadow cabinet voted to support in March 1972, prompting Roy Jenkins to resign as Deputy Leader (a precursor to his later political direction a decade later). With Labour back in power in 1974, Benn returned to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Industry. The mid to late 1970s saw him move ever leftwards while in office, and as Industry Secretary he attempted to extend the principles of nationalisation into British economic life, setting up worker co-operatives to re-energise ailing industries in various parts of the UK. It appears that this policy initiative, together with his late discovery of the works of Marx, convinced him of the necessity of what he termed “collective” or “common” control over as much of national industry as possible, by which he meant nationalisation. Yet anyone who has ever been involved in any state-managed institution, even in a school or as a civil servant (and the public sector in Northern Ireland where I grew up is very large) will know the many possibilities/opportunities that exist for waste, poor management, inefficiency and nepotism there, as well as the problem of low productivity. None of Benn’s worker co-operatives lasted the distance, with the last of these, Triumph Motorcycles, folding in 1983. The massive problems associated with the imposition of a command economy, a strategy propounded by Benn, were shown up in a very sharp light with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s, but, despite this, Benn continued to expound on the inherent wisdom of nationalising as much of the UK’s economy as possible right until the end of his life.
His successful campaign to hold a referendum on EEC membership also produced the opposite effect to that which he had envisaged. The British electorate voted in favour of maintaining membership by a margin of two to one. Once again, Benn had not thought through the consequences of his plans carefully enough. During the campaign the self-proclaimed socialist luminary found himself on the same side as such right-wing naysayers as Enoch Powell. It is said that during the 1975 referendum period, Harold Wilson’s hatred of him had become pathological, with Wilson remarking on Benn’s drift leftwards while in office: “Tony immatures with age.” Wilson took the opportunity of his unsuccessful “No” campaign to demote him to the lesser position of Energy Secretary, where he would have less influence on overall economic policy.
On Wilson’s resignation in 1976 Benn stood for the Labour
leadership, coming fourth out of the six cabinet ministers who stood for
election. On the second ballot he withdrew his candidature, throwing his
support behind the veteran left-winger Michael Foot. Despite this, James
Callaghan, who won the leadership contest, kept him in post as Energy
Secretary. Perhaps Callaghan would have been better to have taken that
opportunity to sack him from the Cabinet altogether, thereby removing the
publicity which this position gave him. My guess is that Callaghan calculated
that it would, in the words of President Johnson, be better to have Benn “inside
the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.” Certainly Benn was always a
great speaker with a silver tongue, and a new Prime Minister would have feared
having such an opponent on his own backbenches. Until Labour lost power to
Thatcher’s Conservatives in May 1979, Benn continued to move to the left of the
political spectrum – his pronouncements always went down well with leftist
delegates and Party activists at the annual conference, while figures such as
Denis Healey and James Callaghan found themselves often being booed or shouted
down. Benn was rapidly becoming both the mouthpiece and the tool of the new
left within the Party.
The Destructive Phase
Labour’s loss of power in 1979 saw the beginning of the second phase of Benn’s career, of which in my view he had good reason to be the least proud. It is important to give a little political background to 1979/81 before proceeding further. It is easy to forget that in its first two years of office the first Thatcher Government was so unpopular that it was not expected to last beyond another election. With sky-rocketing unemployment and increasing social unrest (including very violent race riots Brixton and Toxteth), this should have provided a strong basis for a moderate Labour government to return to power relatively promptly. Thus some of the worst ravages of what later became known as Thatcherism could perhaps have been prevented. This was not to be, largely due to the actions of Tony Benn, (and those in the Labour Party who encouraged and supported his course of action), self-styled tribune of the people and champion of the poor and oppressed.
By the end of 1979/1980 Benn had come to a number of conclusions about the direction Labour should take, and the policies which it should adopt to gain the support of the British electorate. The first was that there should be more democracy within the Party, with members and activists deciding policies from the conference floor. The reality that this would have made any form of coherent Labour policy on any issue practically impossible did not seem to have occurred to him. He then launched into an attack on his former cabinet colleagues, accusing them of breaking promises which, in truth, they had not made, and of not adopting sufficiently leftist policies, despite the fact that the British electorate had roundly rejected such policies in the 1979 election. In addition, Benn never explained why he had at no time chosen to resign from the cabinet during the 1970s because of these alleged broken promises.
The second strand of his strategy was expressed in his keynote address to the Labour
in 1980, while Callaghan was still Party leader, where he stated that the next Labour
government would, “within days”, gain the necessary powers to nationalise key
industries, and impose capital control. Effectively this would have meant remodelling
much of the British economy on the Soviet model, which even by the early 1980s
was beginning to show signs of extreme fatigue. Within weeks, he continued,
would all powers held by Brussels be returned to Westminster, signalling a
withdrawal from the EEC (despite the fact that the UK electorate had already
expressed their intentions on this subject in 1975, and he had fought for their
right have the referendum in the first place!). Combined with a withdrawal from
NATO, an avowedly anti-US foreign policy, unilateral disarmament, the creation
of no less than 1,000 new peers to oversee the abolition of the House of Lords,
and British withdrawal from Northern Ireland (amongst other schemes) was his
grand vision for a UK political future to be fulfilled. Of course the right-wing
press vilified him for these policies, and the entire Labour Party became badly
tainted by association. Thatcher must have been rubbing her hands with glee.
By 1980 the procedure for electing the new Labour Party leader had changed to a position more in line with the Benn had fought for, but James Callaghan had shrewdly decided to resign before the new rules had come into effect, thus provoking a leadership election which Benn had little chance of winning. He was reluctantly persuaded not to stand. Michael Foot was to win the leadership election, an outcome bad enough for the fortunes of the Party, but even worse was Benn’s decision in 1981 to stand against the incumbent Denis Healey for Deputy Leadership, despite the impassioned appeals of Neil Kinnock and others, as well as Foot himself, not to stand and thereby preserve Party unity. This contest proved to be rancorous and was fought in full view of the public. As Healey later stated, Benn made a point of inviting groups which had no affiliation to the Labour Party along to his public meetings: one such group was the “Posadists”, which believed that socialism would be brought to earth by extra-terrestrial beings. Conversely, in one of Healey’s public addresses in Birmingham, he was shouted down by a large group of IRA supporters. All this occurred in the full, unforgiving glare of the media. By a margin of less than 1% did Healey eventually win the deputy leadership contest, but by then the damage was well and truly done in the eyes of the UK electorate. Healey notes that at least some of the MPs who voted for Benn in the contest were those right-wingers looking for an excuse to quit the Labour Party altogether – this they duly did later in 1981, with Roy Jenkins, Bill Rogers, Shirley Williams and David Owen forming the Social Democratic Party in another blaze of media publicity. Benn’s actions gave them the green light to leave. And there was even worse to come.
Benn’s general standing within the Labour Party, and his position within the National Executive Council meant that he was a leading light during the creation of the infamous Party Manifesto of 1983, described accurately by Gerald Kaufman as “the longest suicide note in political history.” The overall thrust of the Manifesto was for the Party to act as if the election defeat of 1979 had not taken place, and that a huge dose of renationalisation of (then crumbling) British manufacturing, swingeing controls on capital, withdrawal from NATO, the EEC, and Northern Ireland, an incoherent policy on nuclear disarmament, and an immediate end to the sale of council houses to long standing tenants, was just the medicine the nation needed to face the future. In June 1983 the UK electorate gave its verdict on the manifesto: a landslide victory for Thatcher and the Conservatives ensued, with them capturing 397 seats in the Commons, compared to a paltry 209 seats for Labour and 23 for the SDP/Liberal Alliance.
Growing up in a predominantly nationalist community in Northern Ireland, the received wisdom on Thatcher’s 1983 and 1987 election victories usually ran something like this: “Sure the English are that stupid/snobby/greedy etc. that they’d always vote for the Tories.” Yet even a cursory glance at the popular vote during the 1983 election does not support this wisdom: while the Tories gained just over 13 million votes, the combined votes of Labour and the SDP/Liberal Alliance totalled over 16 million, suggesting that a large majority of the UK electorate was really hankering for a return to moderate consensus politics rather than the divisiveness of Thatcherism. Instead, they were offered no viable alternative at all. Justly, in my view, Benn lost his own Bristol seat in the 1983 election.
Benn in later life was often breezily to state that he was a life-long learner, and that he had frequently learned from the mistakes that he had made. However, never once did he ever come close to admitting that his actions in running for deputy Party leadership in 1981, with all the resulting adverse publicity for Labour, was in any way mistaken. He preferred to dignify the wilful recklessness and stupidity of his own actions with platitudes about his decisions being based on “policies/issues and not personalities.” Largely because of him and his acolytes, the Labour Party was left with a reputation for crankiness, in-fighting, and fractiousness that it took well over a decade and the coming to power of Tony Blair to shake off. In fact, he and his supporters came damn close to destroying the Labour Party as a force in British politics. It is small wonder that Labour was not returned to government until 1997. He also was instrumental in providing an open goal mouth for the Tories to romp home in the 1987 election and win the 1992 election, and allowing Thatcher in particular to claim that her policies had received a ringing endorsement from the UK electorate, when, in reality, this was not the case. Who paid the price for Benn and his followers’ mistakes? Certainly not them. The people who paid were those tens of thousands of miners who lost their jobs in the pit closures of the 1980s and early 1990s, industrial workers who were thrown on the scrapheap of life due to the systematic destruction of the UK’s manufacturing base during the 1980s, 16 year old school leavers who were allowed to languish on the dole and not provided with proper skills and training for a fulfilling career, and the grim and depressing list goes on and on.
Anyone under 40 or so who wishes to gain a flavour of these times could do worse than have a look on Youtube at Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff, set in a depressed Liverpool in the early/mid 1980s. While there undoubtedly needed to be some serious restructuring of the UK manufacturing base, and there was bound to be a vast scaling back of the coal industry, none of this had to take the abrupt and harsh form that it did under Thatcher and the Tories. Benn cannot, and should not, be singled out as the scapegoat for all these evils, but he does share in responsibility for permitting them to happen. For the remainder of his life he still insisted on referring to the 1983 election result for Labour as a “victory”, and his running for deputy leadership in 1981 as a “healing process.” What planet did this man live on?
It says a lot about the charitable nature of the Labour Party that it was prepared to allow Benn the earliest possible opportunity of standing for Parliament after he lost his Bristol seat in 1983. My own inclination would have been to keep him as far away as possible from any forum/platform from which he could have damaged the Labour Party any more than he had. Perhaps he would have then become the venerable old leftie sage he later morphed into at a much earlier date, or even have disappeared into obscurity. He won the Chesterfield by-election in March 1984, with Denis Healey coming to speak on his behalf during his campaign. Yet, after all the chaos he had already caused, what do you think “Saint Tony” did after the 1987 election? HE CHALLENGED NEIL KINNOCK FOR THE LABOUR PARTY LEADERSHIP IN 1988!!! Luckily by this stage he was too marginal a figure in the Parliamentary Party to be in with any real chance of victory, but it demonstrates to me that, like the French Bourbons, he had forgotten nothing and learned absolutely nothing from the events of previous years. Even his manifesto for the Party leadership had hardly changed one iota from the 1983 general election.
So why had Benn doggedly pursued the levers of control in the Labour Party, on foundations which almost definitely would have made it permanently unelectable? One reason is, as Denis Healey suggests, he did not understand the march of modern history and of the socio-economic changes at play during the last quarter of the 20th Century. Another reason was his undoubted self-obsession and unwavering belief in his own moral rectitude that amounted almost to a messianic complex. My own private theory is that there was still enough of the public schoolboy and aristocrat left in him to engender the belief that he had some sort of natural entitlement to leadership. Renouncing your peerage is one thing, junking ingrained attitudes is quite another.
TV Personality and National Treasure
Removed from the inner sanctums of power, and regarded by the later 1980s as a man whose opportunity had passed, TV producers (especially those of programmes on affairs of state) were keen to have him on their shows: he was never less than exciting and stimulating as a speaker, both in Parliament and outside, and always remained telegenic, knowing how to maintain a commanding television personality. His strongest gift always remained the power of persuasive speech, and, in his own words, he had become “harmless.” In the introduction to this article I mentioned the interview which he did with Ali G, describing it as “revealing.” What made it so funny for me was the gulf between the lofty plane that Benn inhabited, and the real nature of the interview. He simply did not grasp that the whole thing was a spoof and that he was being wound up, insisting on being as sincere and articulate as ever in his answers to Ali G’s blatantly ridiculous questions.
If respectability and public affection had come his way in the final quarter of life, sound political reasoning had not. His political standpoint had effectively petrified in around 1979, and he remained as wrongheaded as ever. He passionately detested Tony Blair, declaring him to be the worst Labour Party leader and PM ever. Yet Blair had led the Party to three election victories in a row, and presided over Labour’s longest ever period in power. Benn could still heap sincere praise on mass murderers like Mao Tse Tung, who he still described in his copious diaries as “the greatest man of the twentieth century”, and be supportive of dictators such as Colonel Gadaffi and Hafez Al Assad. As late as 1997 he sent fraternal greetings to the North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Il despite the fact that this man and his regime were responsible for the complete absence in North Korea of the human rights/civil liberties and democratic values that Benn claimed to hold so dear, and who enforced his authority by putting families in concentration camps. He had words of praise for extreme Islamist groups such as Hamas, and compared the Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan to a sort of “Dad’s Army”/Home Guard, fighting against external occupation. We’ve all seen Dads Army on TV, and I can tell you now that I can see no parallels between those people in Afghanistan and Captain Mainwaring or Corporal Jones. Perhaps his least edifying moment came in 2003, when, as chairman of the “Stop the War” campaign he was approached by an Iraqi woman whose family had been executed by Saddam Hussein as CIA spies: Benn dismissed this as American propaganda. To me, that is even worse than hurling a racial insult at the woman: he had both insulted the family’s memory and called her a liar.
Benn claimed to have five questions that he would ask of anyone in power, from Bill Gates to Barack Obama:
1. What power have you got?
2. Where did you get it from?
3. In whose interests do you exercise it?
4. To whom are you accountable?
5. How can we get rid of you?
Few would disagree with the underlying spirit of these sensible questions. However, in his 2003 pre-War interview with Saddam Hussein none of these questions were put to the Iraqi leader by him, and neither, to my knowledge, were they ever posed to Gadaffi or Assad. Could it be that Benn held the leaders of western democracies to a higher standard of ethics and behaviour than dictators?
Also revealing are the tributes heaped upon him after his death by people like George Galloway and Gerry Adams. Benn always dogmatically subscribed to the policy of a united Ireland and advocated complete British withdrawal from the region of the UK we know as Northern Ireland. However, he never provided any solution to the inter-communal bloodshed which would inevitably have resulted from this withdrawal, and showed a complete disregard for the position of the Irish government which would have to shoulder responsibility for what would have been a war zone. Gerry Adams hailed Benn as a true friend to Irish Republicanism: of course he did, because the latter told Republicans absolutely everything they wanted to hear! It would have been interesting to hear leading Republicans’ private conversations on what they really thought about him. Lenin’s term “useful idiot” springs immediately to mind.
It is my hope that I have not portrayed Benn as a monster in what I have written above. He certainly was no-one’s idea of a fiend. While I will hold firm to the belief that much, if not all of the political criticism which I have levelled at him is fully justified, it is said that in his personal life he was a lovely man, with stories abounding of his many acts of kindness to people who were often complete strangers to him. Unlike George Galloway, who is just a bully and thug with a hide like a rhino, Benn’s courtesy was unflinching. He held no personal bitterness or rancour towards those who were his political opponents, and to this extent his life was a shining example. If anything I have written above is too harsh on the man’s memory, then it reflects more about my own frequently uncharitable nature. A very loving husband, father, and grandfather, I will miss him on the TV and in the newspapers getting on my nerves with his weird and wacky views on the world in which we live. I would go so far as to say that none of the political damage he ever caused to the Labour Party was meant intentionally, but arose because of his miscalculation and wrongheadedness. Winston Churchill once said that the definition of success was “the ability to go from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”: by this definition Benn was a resounding success.
In one obituary I read last week, it said that Tony Benn wished his epitaph to be “He encouraged us.” In his own way he encouraged me. He encouraged me to think through more carefully the consequences of my actions, words, intentions and opinions, something which I have not always taken care to do. He has also taught me the necessity of facing up to the world as it is, warts and all, and not seeing it as I would like to be.
RIP Tony Benn