Off with her head

John Lloyd

  • Office without Power: Diaries 1968-72 by Tony Benn
    Hutchinson, 562 pp, £16.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 09 173647 1

In June of this year Tony Benn took part in a radio discussion on the working of Parliament, together with John Biffen and Roy (Lord) Jenkins. Asked by the chairman, Peter Hennessy, if he did not think that the Lords now functioned as a ‘focus of opposition’, Benn responded that it was, instead, ‘part of an attack on democracy. After all, why bother to vote in the next election if you’ve got a friendly peer you can write to ...’ After a little more of this, Jenkins cut in, the dwawl part amused, part irritated. ‘You do live in a wonderful fantasy world,’ he said.

For many, most of all for many in Benn’s own Party, that is seen to be the truth of it. The caricature has shifted in the past few years: he is no longer seen as mad and dangerous, just as mad. Soon, he will have to fight hard against being patronised, slotted into that role of the English Eccentric for which central casting is always anxious to find new recruits.

I have never thought he lived in a fantasy world and do not think so now (though that belief has been hard tested – especially when, after just losing to Denis Healey in Labour’s Deputy Leadership contest in 1980, he claimed in a television interview that he was the deputy leader of the Party, since more people had defected from it to form the SDP than made up Healey’s margin of victory. In this role, he urged the country to stay calm). What has happened to Tony Benn, I think, is that he has constructed a world, not of fantasy, but of certainty: one in which great forces are at work which only some understand – and that understanding puts them in touch with the true needs and desires of the mass of the people. It is a kind of idealist Bolshevism. Like any system, it ruthlessly marshals facts into its preconstructed framework: but it does not prevent him from being lucidly correct about, for example, the direction in which the Labour Party is travelling; nor does it prevent him from giving beautifully crafted and often very funny speeches in the Commons, especially on constitutional matters. At least one of these speeches, on the Zircon issue in 1987, persuaded the House to vote against its ‘natural’ bent. However, his system has proved rotten at securing for him what he wanted – and may still want – leadership of the Labour Party.

What is Bennism now? In many ways, as he keeps insisting, it is the polar opposite of Thatcherism – though, as both volumes of the diaries show, Benn saw many of the same social-cum-political movements at work as did Keith Joseph, Mrs Thatcher’s pathbreaker. Where Thatcher has consistently preached that the citizen should look after himself, Benn has just as consistently called for the state to become ever more enveloping in its care. Where she proclaims that she has set the people free, he sees a political establishment (which includes, of course, his own Party’s leadership) ‘huddling together at the top’ in order to suppress the demands of the citizenry. Where she emphasises her break with all previous governments – previous Conservative governments especially – he sees her as simply the latest mask worn by reaction – a view which puts him sharply at odds with the ‘revisionist’ school of leftism, who see in Thatcherism the will to make a decisive break with a post-war consensus. Where she finds inspiration in Victorian capitalism, and in the edifice of private charity which emerged in the latter half of the 19th century, his is found in the English revolution – in particular, the passions of the Levellers, who, though suppressed by Cromwell, ‘grew out of the conditions of their own time. They represented the aspirations of working people who suffered under the persecution of kings, landowners and the priestly class and they spoke for those who experienced the hardships of poverty and deprivation ... their advocacy of democracy and equality has been taken up by generations of liberal and socialist thinkers and activists, pressing for reforms, many of which are still strongly contested in this country to this day.’

For her, morality is rooted in the individual and the family: he is less clear on this, but it seems he would root it in class, though his conception is not strictly Marxist. Both adore the memory of their fathers. From hers, she takes a dedication to work, thrift and duty; from his, he takes a dedication to worker rights and social justice. ‘You might be interested to see,’ he records saying to a Shadow Cabinet meeting on 31 July 1971, ‘the address on which my father’ – William Wedgwood Benn, a Liberal, then Labour MP, created Viscount Stansgate in 1941 – ‘fought the election in 1906: cheap food, reform and prosperity for the Port of London, freedom for the trade unions and justice for Ireland – and it doesn’t seem as if we’ve made progress on any of them.’ It is not hard to guess what this hard-boiled gathering – Bob Mellish, Denis Healey, Tony Crosland, Barbara Castle, Roy Jenkins, Jim Callaghan among them – made of that. Fifteen years later, Benn showed me his father’s election handbill and made the same point – one he must have made to hundreds of others.

Where Thatcher rose up the English class ladder through education and marriage to a millionaire, Benn has descended from Viscount Stansgate through Anthony Wedgwood Benn to Tony Benn, his suits becoming baggier, his hair longer and his cool, posh voice flattening out. She has striven to be regal, he to be proletarian. Both have unfinished agendas: hers assumes a further purging of the remnants of state control while his assumes that there’s a deep radical stream running through British history which it is the duty of a politician of the Left to bring to the surface.

In short, when Benn claims – as he does, at least by implication – that he is the only major political figure who is wholly opposed to Thatcher, then he could well be right – temperamentally, philosophically, emotionally, by birth, upbringing and habit of mind. And it is a measure of her success in installing a politics of the Right, and of Neil Kinnock’s in turning Labour round to social democracy, that Benn’s period of being a ‘major’ figure is probably now over.

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