Above: Benn marching with UCS stewards, Glasgow 1971
A number of readers were upset by the piece including an Open Letter from 2005, that we published on the morning following Tony Benn’s death. I, personally, thought the Open Letter made fair and important criticisms of Benn’s politics, and the opening remarks I wrote were suitably respectful towards this major figure on the British reformist-left. One of the authors of the Open Letter, Sean Matgamna, has now writtten an obituary of Benn. It makes many of the same points, and is generally very critical of Benn’s politics and political methodology. But, once again, I’d argue that the piece is fair and also gives credit where it’s due. Benn was a serious politician and deserves to be assessed seriously. We do not subscribe to the universal, and often hypocritical, adulation of Benn that has been prevailent since his death.
Matgamna worked with Benn and others to set up the Rank and File Mobilising Committee, which for a while united most of the Labour Party left, at the start of the 1980s:
The first thing that should be said and remembered about Tony Benn, who died on Friday 14 March, is that for over four decades he backed, defended, and championed workers in conflict with their bosses or with the “boss of bosses”, the government.
That put him decidedly in our camp. The political ideas which he too often linked with those bedrock working-class battles detract from the great merit of Tony Benn, but do not cancel it out or render it irrelevant.
Politically, Benn’s story was a strange one. An editorial in the Times neatly summed up the shape of Benn’s long career. His was “A Life Lived Backwards”. For the first half of his long life he belonged to the Establishment, socially and in his politics. To the dissenting old radical-Liberal and right-wing Labour part of the Establishment, but the Establishment nevertheless.
Both his parents had MPs for fathers. Four generations of Benns have been MPs. Benn’s son, Hilary, has been the third generation of cabinet-minister Benns. His father was Ramsey MacDonald’s Secretary of State for India in the 1929 government.
Benn went to one of the leading “public” schools and then to Oxford University, where he climbed up onto that milestone in the careers of so many Establishment politicians, the presidency of the Oxford Union debating society. He became a pilot in the hierarchical Royal Air Force, in which pilots came from the upper classes, and in 1950, at 25, a Labour MP in a safe seat. His wife, Caroline, was rich, as was Benn himself. This sincere champion of the working class was a millionaire.
Benn became a minister in Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964-70 and was a minister again in the Wilson-Callaghan government of 1974-9.
Out of office after 1970, he turned left, at the age of 45. Publicly, he shifted during the great occupation and work-in at the Upper Clyde Shipyards (UCS) in 1971. The decision by Edward Heath’s Tory government to end subsidies to ailing industries meant shut-down for UCS.
In office Benn had subsidised UCS, so there was a logic and continuity in this. He marched alongside the Stalinist UCS leaders Jimmy Airlie and Jimmy Reid at giant working-class demonstrations in Glasgow.
Interviewed in the Observer at that time, he said of himself that in office one was a pragmatist, and in opposition one’s idealism held sway. That might have been a summing up of the Parliamentary Labour Party side of what socialist critics called the old “fake left” culture of the labour movement: left talk combined with right-wing and conventional bourgeois actions at all the crucial turning points.[These days, there is something more like a "fake right" culture!]
Benn’s “pragmatism” had kept him in the government that brought in the first statutory wage controls (1966) and tried in 1969 to bring in laws to shackle the unions – an attempt to pioneer what the Heath Tories would ineffectively make law in 1971, and which Thatcher would succeed in shackling on to the labour movement in the early 1980s. He had supported the Wilson government’s unsuccessful attempt to join the Common Market (now called the European Union).
After UCS the second Tony Benn started to emerge. He opposed the Heath version of the union-restricting laws he had supported in their pioneering Wilson government form in 1969. He sided routinely with striking workers. He came out against the Common Market (EU), opposition to which had by then become an article of faith with the conventional left (Communist Party, Tribune, some trade union officials, and most of the revolutionary left). He came out against nuclear weapons. He championed nationalisation of industries in difficulty.
None of that went far enough to stop him serving as a minister all through the 1974-9 Wilson-Callaghan government, which demobilised the militant working class which had brought it to power. It would be only after Labour’s general election defeat of 1979 that Benn shifted fully and decisively.
But after UCS he often spoke for the conventional left at meetings and conferences. He came to reflect the conventional left in his attitude to the Stalinist states.
The modification in his preferred name summed up the shift. “The Right Honourable Anthony Wedgwood Benn” said he now wanted to be known as plain “Tony Benn”, and he was.
In 1960 he had refused to inherit his father’s title, Lord Stansgate, because that would have made him ineligible for the House of Commons. He fought and won two by-elections in his seat, Bristol South East, in a campaign to be allowed to renounce his title and sit in the Commons.
That episode had produced the first “left” and “anti-Establishment” Benn. In its politics, it was a piece of old 19th century radicalism revisited. It even had precedents. The atheist Charles Bradlaugh had stood in a series of by-elections in Northampton to win the right to take his seat without first swearing a Christian oath; and in the late 18th century, John Wilkes had fought a similar series of by-elections in the Middlesex seat.
Benn moved left, seeing himself more and more as the modern embodiment of the old radicalism. He took to making frequent historical references in his speeches, and commemorated calendar-occasions – the Levellers of the 1640s, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the suffragettes, the Chartists (whose call for annual parliaments he, however, rejected).
Ostentatiously, he played his chosen part, visibly relishing it. To say that is not necessarily to question his sincerity, and sincerity does not rule out calculated self-positioning. His enemies said of him that in 1979 Benn calculated that Labour would lose the election, and started to position himself as the instrument of a break with the Labour government’s record, in the expectation that he would become party leader.
In any case, he played the role he assumed in 1979 for the remainder of his life.
In 1918 the Bolshevik Anatoly Lunacharsky wrote about Trotsky that he “treasures his historical role and would probably be ready to make any personal sacrifice, not excluding the greatest sacrifice of all – that of his life – in order to go down in human memory surrounded by the aureole of a genuine revolutionary leader”.
Benn also treasured his role, but the differences between Trotsky and Benn, and their respective traditions, are defining. Trotsky, from the age of 18, was a Marxist, marinated in the doctrines, the politics, the history that made up the Marxist tradition. He could be and was consistent in aims, goals, and in the tradition he sought to personify and continue. Trotsky was both politically and personally an integrated, organic whole. The doctrine he upheld was coherent.
Benn? He shifted radically halfway through his life – back to the Radical seam in British political history, but by about 1980 it was a very thin seam. Its old unwon causes – abolishing the House of Lords and the monarchy, for instance – were now of only marginal importance. Even the right-wing Blair government could essay to abolish the House of Lords.
Benn’s posture translated in the real political world of the 1980s into a comprehensive accommodation with the extant conventional left; and, except for points of historical continuity, that left had very little in common with the old democratic Radicalism he wanted conjure back into life. (Moreover, that old Radicalism itself had bred antagonistic political currents – Joseph Chamberlain, the Radical imperialist, as well as Liberal anti-imperialism).
The labour movement left of the early 1980s was a chaos trying to make sense of itself. Shaped by Stalinism in varying dilution, its dominant model of “socialism” was cross-bred from Britain’s wartime state-regulated economy on one side and on the other from the USSR and its East European satellites.
Most of the left believed in the goodwill of Russia’s rulers and their peaceful intentions and priorities, even while Russian Stalinism was expanding its areas of control and semi-control, as it did all through the 70s and early 80s. In 1982 Benn’s constituency Labour Party, Chesterfield, with Benn’s evident agreement, wrote an open letter to the Russian dictator Brezhnev, accepting the good intentions and desire for peace of the government that had invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and triggered the “second cold war”.
Playing the demagogue to the existing left and its causes and assumptions, Benn won tremendous popularity among people eager for a prominent and capable tribune who, moreover, knew how to play the media’s game.
Benn walked from his position of upper-class privilege into leadership of a wide coalition of leftists like a man casually walking into his own living room. Visibly glorying in the applause and approbation which it brought to him, he became the central leader of a loosely defined left.
And in Benn’s role there was much of the old “Dancing Elephant Act”. The elephant trainer moves his hands and the elephant dances to the gestures. But in fact the reality is the opposite of what it appears to be. The trainer’s skill is to move in time with the elephant.
Benn appeared to “conduct” the left orchestra, but in fact he accommodated to what he found already there. He did that as a calculated role.
For instance, he talked much of the radical Christian tradition and of the affinity of the Christian tradition with the socialist attitudes to which Benn appealed. He presented himself as in that Christian tradition. He was widely accepted as a Christian. In fact he was an atheist!
The late John Mortimer, in a published interview, had to ask Benn, repeatedly, insistently, again and again, if he believed in God. Finally, after dodging the question many times, Benn admitted that he didn’t.
A political event, a picture, an image that summarises his political trajectory, stands at each end of Benn’s career as a radical.
The first is Benn marching with the leading stewards from UCS through Glasgow. The second is the aged Benn, no longer an MP, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq conducting a fawning interview with Saddam Hussein – producing in effect a “party political television broadcast” from Saddam to the people of Britain. There was no “speaking truth to power” there! Benn would have seen what he did then as part of the “fight for peace”.
Accepting all the problematic causes of a confused and disintegrating left, Benn joined in the pro-Milosevic, pro-Serbia “Stop The War Coalition” in 1999, making an outcry to “stop the war” against Serbia which in the event succeeded in stopping the genocidal Serbian war against the Albanian population of Serbia’s colony, Kosova. (It was not necessary to back NATO, or to give the Western powers any political credence or support, to understand what was going on).
Benn and the Catholic ex-Monsignor, Bruce Kent, spoke to a big meeting at the Friends Meeting House on Euston Road, London, at which Benn delivered a blimpish denunciation of Germany, and Kent spoke of the proletarian-background Labour Minister of Defence, George Robertson, like a dowager duchess describing an incompetent milk-delivery man – “that little man”.
Yet, in this bitter political chronicle, it is necessary to return to where we began: Benn stood with the workers in all the clashes after 1979.
With a critical edge to his old-style radicalism, he might have fruitfully interacted with the extant left in the ideologically battered condition it was in by the time he joined it. But that would not have been popular with the conventional left. Benn chose to seek popularity, to be the chief demagogue, to ingratiate himself with what existed.
From the (politically speaking) rotten timbers, decaying carcases, bits of broken stone, and crumbling dusty cinders that he found to hand, nothing worthwhile could be made.
Benn’s relationship with the left and labour movement after 1979 – that of speaker, orator, articulator, political chameleon to the coloration of his audience – is most reminiscent of the role which freelancing radical leaders of 200 years ago played with the nascent labour movement and the broader plebeian anti-Establishment stirrings they found to hand – manipulation, demagogy. Such people as, for example, “Orator Hunt”, one of the speakers at the meeting in St Peter’s Square, Manchester, that became the site of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819.
At that time, the labour movement was only coming into being and taking shape, as the Industrial Revolution transformed Britain. Benn’s career was part of the decline and decay of the old left, the old trade unions, and the old working class.
In old age Benn found himself widely popular even with people who disagreed with his political ideas or knew little or nothing about them. He appeared to be a man of principle who stuck to his guns against the Establishment.
There was some justice in that, too. And symbolism. Benn did play, personify, and project himself as a rebel and anti-establishment nay-sayer – irrespective of the politics involved – and, for us, despite his politics.
(From the Workers Liberty website)