Post-Bourgeois Man

Peter Jenkins

He has come a long way. Born the Hon. Anthony Wedgwood Benn, he inevitably became by public-school nickname ‘Wedgie’ and later, by his own socialist deed-poll, plain ‘Tony Benn’. Today he is more often referred to simply as Benn – a hard word spat out like ‘Lenin’.

Benn puzzles and alarms people because he is at the same time frightfully English and frighteningly un-English. The young Benn, with his prefect’s chin, boy-scout keenness and pipe-smoking gravitas, would have done for the hero of an Ealing comedy – reluctant peer and noble comrade. Then there was middle Benn, the new computer-speak, managerial whizz-kid politician of the Technological Sixties: not yet ‘Tony Benn’, he changed the name of the Ministry of Technology to MinTech. At around that time he told me at a party about how he had opened a file on the giant hogweed which, according to the newspapers, was advancing on the West End from Kew Gardens. That was Benn the mad boffin – another English or Ealing type.

Late Benn dates from 1968, when his mind became filled with student politics and Marcusian dialectics; he was ‘into’ revolutionary sociology and radical theology. He later produced a little series of Fabian tracts which incorporated his wide if ill-digested reading. The early years of the Seventies saw the flowering of the year ’68 in England – behind the times as usual. That was the period of Benn’s conversion, a conversion finalised by the crisis of conscience experienced with the collapse of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, which he had ‘saved’ at MinTech. Afterwards he used to explain that in the Sixties he had ‘busted a gut trying to make the mixed economy work’ and wasn’t going to do it again in the Seventies. Benn had become a Socialist, and it was a long time since the English had been obliged to take a Socialist seriously.

At first people didn’t quite. Benn has benefited from being taken too seriously as an ideologue and not seriously enough as a menace to the pluralism of the Labour Party. The Seventies made him into a bogeyman, a profligate nationaliser and spender of the public purse. His colleagues were increasingly exasperated by his behaviour but were too used to the idea of potty old Wedgie, and too contemptuous of what they saw as an overblown ambition, to take his challenge seriously. Wilson’s tactic was to ignore him, treat him as a bore. Callaghan regarded him as a Sixties figure who, he hoped, would be passed over by the Eighties. Yet all through the Seventies – we can now see, looking back – while Benn was making headlines, his cause was making solid organisational headway.

The ingredients of the Benn phenomenon are similar to those of a revanchiste movement. There was a stab in the back, an unequal treaty, a pervasive conspiracy, a disgruntled sub-class. The stab in the back was the failure to implement the 1974 Labour Party Manifesto, symbolised by Wilson’s banishment of Benn from the Department of Industry to the Department of Energy in 1975. According to the Bennite mythology, the 1974 programme would have arrested Britain’s decline and – in his own words – ‘transformed the situation in a decade’. Only the Great Betrayal prevented the building of a Socialist Britain.

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