The Opposition is at a low ebb. Labour consoles itself for its third consecutive thrashing with the thought that at least its leader put up a good show and the Party was well-prepared and ran a good campaign. None of these things was true: Kinnock trailed Thatcher massively in the leader polls and was far less popular than his party; the campaign, largely a matter of a few videos and avoiding the London press, was good only in comparison to Foot’s; and the Party was so ill-prepared that, despite four years of reflection, it was still chronically unsure even about such key issues as its taxation policy. For some years now, the most impressive intellectual input to the Kinnock camp has been that of Eric Hobsbawm, who is actually a member of quite another party, a fact which is surely comment enough in itself. But Labour still exists, which the Alliance no longer does. In their different ways all the members of the old Gang of Four have effectively admitted that it was 1987 or bust. Three of them have moved purposefully towards retirement while the fourth seems to have gone mad. The resulting collapse in Alliance support has seen the Tories reach 50 per cent in the polls, a fact which, like the tremors from the Stock Exchange, is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Thirties. Why has the Opposition done so badly? Two recent books afford a clue.[*]
Tony Benn’s diaries are full of interest, in many ways the more so because we already have such plentiful diaristic accounts of the 1964-70 Labour Government. (Benn reveals, incidentally, that Harold Wilson promised that he would publish posthumously the real inside story of his government.) Many of the incidents and personalities that Benn describes are now of historical interest only, as indeed is the great battle he fought for the right to disclaim his title. This, together with his struggle as Postmaster-General to have stamps issued without the Queen’s head, occupies no little part of these diaries, and in both cases Benn argues that, though the issues were small, they provide a chilling insight into the machinations of the Establishment and the dense and pervasive network which operates in this country to throttle democratic impulses.
Benn’s attempt to hype up the significance of these two battles in the anti-Establishment struggle seems almost deliberately naive. Few passages are more unconsciously telling than that in which he describes how his triumphant re-entry to the Commons as a commoner in October 1963 was spoilt by the ironical cheering of Tory MPs celebrating Lord Home’s appointment as premier, made possible only through Benn’s Act. This, he records,‘discomfited the Labour Members and confused the nature of the victory’. I am not sure it did confuse it. After all, such an Act was always likely to be most useful to the Tories, enjoying as they do the support of the overwhelming bulk of peers, and the new phenomenon of life peers spawned by Benn’s Act has simply breathed fresh life and respectability into the whole institution of the peerage. And surely the true significance of the battle of the stamps was that it symbolises so exactly the way in which those full of zeal to abolish private schools, redistribute wealth or bring about rapid economic growth end up by doing nothing whatsoever about such things while getting enormously waxed up about matters like hare-coursing, motorway speed limits, British policy towards Anguilla or Antigua, and whether or not the sovereign’s head is on stamps. It is all very well for Benn to inveigh against the way in which the Establishment deflects reforming politicians, but for this to work such politicians, in the last analysis, have to be willing to be deflected. As these diaries only too copiously show, Benn was willingly deflected into all manner of things.
Whether or not he realises it, he emerges from these diaries as an earnest, good-natured man of a naivety so complete as to verge, occasionally, upon stupidity. If one puts that together with the unforgettable picture of Benn which emerges from Susan Crosland’s biography of Tony Crosland – Benn ringing up at all hours with phone pranks, practical jokes, impersonations and Goon Show voices – one realises that the common strand is a good-hearted boyishness. Far from being the sinister ogre of the hard Left, Benn is, simply and irretrievably, an honourable schoolboy. One senses that his later radicalism springs from the same source. Early on, he seems to have swallowed the whole school prospectus and everything the Head said on speech days, a reaction to which the son of a Labour MP sent to a private school was more vulnerable than most. He set out to serve his constituents with a truly rare unselfishness and worked with an even rarer zeal as a minister for what he saw as the national good. But late in the day – long after the period covered by these diaries – he seems to have realised that the Head was not quite the Arnold he presented himself as, that the prefects were smoking behind the cricket pavilion, that the teachers were trying to seduce the boys, and that the whole prospectus was a fraud. His reaction was an outraged sense of honour, a righteous indignation knowing no bounds, and a root-and-branch denunciation of the school in terms of the rather pious school ethic, now clung to more fiercely than ever. God knows what actually happened to Benn at Westminster to explain all this.
[*] Out of the Wilderness: Diaries 1963-1967 by Tony Benn, reviewed by Ben Pimlott in the last issue of this paper, and Labour: A Tale of Two Parlies by Hilary Wainwright (Hogarth, 338 pp., £5.95, 28 September, 0 7012 0778 7).
Vol. 10 No. 1 · 7 January 1988
From Hilary Wainwright
SIR: I was amused to see that R.W. Johnson disagrees with Labour: A Tale of Two Parties so strongly (LRB, 10 December 1987). But I challenge the charge that the book is ‘not strong on facts’. The ‘facts’ which Johnson uses to make his case do not stand up to investigation. First, Johnson’s facts on the miners’ strike. He makes several inaccurate statements but the two most important are these. 1. One of my omissions, says Johnson, is that I make ‘no mention of the fact that the NUM, though one of the richest unions in the country, refused to give strike pay despite the terrible suffering of miners’ families.’ He is right, I do not make any such mention, for the simple reason that the NUM of the Eighties is not ‘one of the richest unions in the country’. If the NUM had paid strike pay to its 150,000 or so striking members, it would have been bankrupt within six weeks. There has never been any provision in the rules of the NUM for strike pay for a national strike. Even in wealthier days, strike pay for a national strike by an industrial union like the NUM (as distinct from a general union where it is sections rather than the whole membership who are normally involved in a strike) would quickly use up the union’s funds. 2. Johnson goes on to say that the union ‘carried on paying its officials, such as Mr Scargill, quite normally’. In fact, during the first month of the strike, the NUM’s National Executive decided that none of its members nor any NUM full-time official should draw their salaries until the end of the dispute. Mr Scargill’s salary, along with that of other officials, went to the Miners’ Solidarity Fund, a fund for miners’ families in hardship (trustees: David Blunkett and Sheffield MPs Bill Mackie and Richard Caborn).
He is also inaccurate about the GLC. He asserts, confidently, that ‘the collapse of London services constantly predicted by the GLC’ has ‘not taken place’. From the vantage point of an Oxford don, the signs of collapse might not be immediately obvious. But from London’s Underground, London’s bus stops, roads and communities the view is rather different. The latest Annual Report of the London Regional Passengers’ Committee and an earlier report – Counting the cost – of the Association of London Authorities are just two of several accounts of the serious deterioration, at times collapse, of services previously under the control of the GLC.
Finally, Johnson says I support proportional representation and talk ‘blithely of the day when Labour will win an absolute majority under PR’. My own words were: ‘In the long run socialism needs the active support of the overwhelming majority of people; we have nothing to fear from an electoral system which requires us to win such support.’
Vol. 10 No. 2 · 21 January 1988
From Christopher Price
SIR: RW. Johnson (LRB, 10 December 1987) attempts to rubbish, with cloistered Magdalen hindsight, a quarter of a century of Labour pragmatists and radicals alike. It is all rather too facile. Certainly Wilson was too devious and Callaghan too unimaginative to understand the new imperatives of political leadership. But Benn, Scargill and Living stone, though they failed to shift the direction of the winds of change, at least had a go: and for Johnson to write off Kinnock quite so soon (‘just a student union politician’) says more about high-table hubris than realistic political judgment. It is a fatal assumption about the political primacy of economics which blinds Johnson to what was actually happening in the first Wilson years: changing the law on abortion, homosexuality and divorce (which would not have happened without the carefully co-ordinated backbench efforts of a large Labour majority) did more for equality in the long term man any fiddling with the exchange rate could ever have achieved. Wilson in the Sixties may have been a timid leader and an economic incompetent: but he had a lot of quiet instinct for helping others to make social progress.
Vol. 10 No. 3 · 4 February 1988
From R.W. Johnson
SIR: Hilary Wainwright’s logic (Letters, 7 January) still leaves me baffled. She says Labour has nothing to fear from an electoral system which would have banished all majority Labour governments from the history books – and then looks to a future in which ‘socialism’ (not just Labour) goes far beyond the always unattainable 50 per cent to gain ‘the overwhelming majority’. What are we talking about here – 70 per cent, 85 per cent, 99.9 per cent? The only way of gaining access to figures such as these is by Eastern European methods or the use of hallucogenic substances, and I am not sure which of these Ms Wainwright is recommending.
The same peculiar hallmark is present in the discussion of the NUM. It simply will not do, when talking of the NUM’s resources, to attempt to elide away the difference between pre-strike wealth and post-strike poverty by using the deliberately vague phrase, ‘the NUM of the Eighties’. The fact is that before the strike the NUM was, member for member, probably the wealthiest union in the country and that its funds rivalled those of unions many times its size. Of course it is true that it could not afford to keep its whole membership on full strike pay for a year – neither I nor anyone else was suggesting that. What Ms Wainwright refuses to face up to is how truly remarkable it was that, during the coal strike, the NUM leadership appealed to other unions and to all of us, the general public, to help relieve the terrible suffering of the miners’ families by direct donations, while itself giving no such relief. Instead, the leadership used its discretion to waste vast sums on always hopeless and thus quite irresponsible legal antics and to send large sums winging round the European banking system. That same discretion could have been exercised to spend the same money on affording some relief, however slight, to the suffering of NUM members and their wives and children. It is silly to speak as if the NUM rules somehow prevented this: it was purely a matter of discretion how the funds were used. The leadership, in the event, used its discretion to throw the money away.
Ms Wainwright surely also knows how murky and controversial the question of money within the NUM during the strike is and how inadequate it is to pretend that the whole matter can be disposed of by reference to a resolution about the disposition of the salaries of Scargill and his henchmen. For a start, the NUM continued to pay all the tax, national insurance and other contributions of its officials throughout the strike. Moreover, these officials all had access to expense accounts and it was commonly alleged by NUM members that some officials seemed to be almost better-off during the strike than before it. We all remember the press brouhaha over the expensive foreign holiday taken by one NUM official after many months of strike had depleted to misery levels the resources of mere members?
There is also the unhappy fact that very large sums of money were contributed by sympathisers and that the disposition of this money was not always satisfactorily accounted for, giving rise to all manner of recriminations within the union. Perhaps the most remarkable case is that of the very large sum raised by Soviet miners – many of whom contributed a whole day’s pay in support of their British colleagues. The fact that there is no trace at all of this sum in the NUM accounts has led to some extremely bitter questioning, and it would be fair to say that the answers provided by Mr Scargill are far from satisfying even some NUM officials. What is certain is that the money was sent and that it is traceable as far as the French CGT; thereafter the trail goes cold. The secretary of the Soviet miners’ union, when recently in this country, was closely questioned on the matter by darkly suspicious NUM members. He appeared clearly upset and disconcerted at the way in which this money had vanished, apparently for ever, into thin air.
Ms Wainwright is surely too close a political associate of Mr Scargill’s not to be fully aware of certain resemblances to that other entrepreneur of the hard Left, Derek Hatton – he of the BMW with the personalised number plates. She must know that of all the NUM expense accounts, Mr Scargill’s was – and is – the largest and that he retained his chauffeur and large car throughout the strike. (Which other union leader would go from one picket-line fracas to the next in a chauffeur-drive Jaguar? The style is reminiscent of African chieftaincy, Buthelezi-style, or perhaps an Auberon Waugh parody on the English working class. Can anyone who has read Animal Farm avoid a snort of recognition at such behaviour? A grunt, even?) Since the strike Mr Scargill has astonished many of his members who are slowly and painfully digging themselves out of debt by lashing out on a £150,000 house (a sum that buys a palace in West Yorkshire). It is not entirely clear whether this is Mr Scargill’s second or third abode – his previous house does not appear to have been sold and the new one, in which Mr Scargill actually lives, is in the name of his student son-in-law. Mr Scargill has also acquired a flat in the Barbican.
The fact that so unconditional a Scargillite as Ms Wainwright can look hard the other way when the conversation turns to topics such as, well, chauffeur-driven Jaguars is perhaps to be expected. But the real key to the way Ms Wainwright thinks is that she should have been able to write a book in which the miners’ strike looms so large without ever once mentioning the leadership’s refusal to allow a membership ballot; indeed, she condemns another union because it did hold such a ballot. The word ‘Stalinism’ is too often and too loosely thrown around, but here we have a textbook example of what is meant: an unswerving devotion to the Great Leader, including the attribution of all manner of heroic and saintly motives to him, the suppression of key historical facts, with deviationists such as the Nottingham miners simply written out of history (they become entire non-persons for Ms Wainwright), the endless repetition of ideological catch-phrases and a straightforward disrespect for democratic procedure.
Finally, the GLC – where Ms Wainwright is, of course, similarly devoted to another Great Leader. Ms Wainwright suggests that the complete collapse of services in London is not obvious to me because I am, irredeemably, an Oxford don. Actually, if the dire predictions of the GLC leadership really had been borne out – ‘chaos’, ‘utter shambles’, ‘anarchy’ and so on – then maybe it should have been obvious even to someone like me: we’re not talking about the normal, ghastly Thatcherite cuts, after all, but about something closer to Götterdämmerung. Hilary Wainwright’s real problem is not with people like me but with the once-solid Labour voters of London, to whom the GLC’s predictions do not appear to be obviously true either. Had they held such a perception, it is inconceivable that they would have swung further towards the Tories this year while the rest of the country was moving the other way. Had Ken Livingstone’s GLC been anything like the success Ms Wainwright believes, it is inconceivable he would have succeeded in turning one of the safest Labour seats in the country into a marginal. Ms Wainwright is doubtless right not to worry that her ideas may have failed to pass muster with an Oxford don: the fact that the once-Labour working class of Brent feels the same might give her pause for thought.
Magdalen College, Oxford
Vol. 10 No. 6 · 17 March 1988
From R.W. Johnson
SIR: Hilary Wainwright’s attack (Letters, 3 March) is truly amazing. I point out that she makes no mention of Scargill’s refusal to ballot his members on a strike: so she accuses me of either trying to bully her or rescue her. (Surely it would be better for her to plump either for bullying or for rescuing? Indecision between two such opposites rather diminishes the moral force of any accusation.) I disagree with her views, without ever mentioning her sex: she replies that I am a misogynist. I point out that Ken Livingstone nearly lost Brent for Labour: she replies that I am a poseur and speak with forked tongue. Finally, she accuses me of seeking to avoid public debate. Well, that’s what I thought we were having. Or trying to.
Magdalen College, Oxford