Radical Democrats

Ross McKibbin

  • Conflicts of Interest: Diaries 1977-80 by Tony Benn, edited by Ruth Winstone
    Hutchinson, 675 pp, £20.00, September 1990, ISBN 0 09 174321 4
  • Words as Weapons: Selected Writings 1980-1990 by Paul Foot
    Verso, 281 pp, £29.95, November 1990, ISBN 0 86091 310 4

When historians come to account for the dégringolade of modern British politics both Tony Benn and Paul Foot will find a place: Benn as actor, Foot as an observer. The two have much in common: both were born into very similar families; both see their lives as a continuing re-education, a casting aside of cultural baggage packed with the detritus of a worn-out social system; both have come to discover a superior morality within socialism and the organised working class. In both, this process has been incomplete, perhaps deliberately so. They both have a strong sense of Englishness, though they have defined it with recourse to a radical vocabulary. Both see themselves within an English radical-democratic tradition – Levellers, Paine, Cobden – onto which both have grafted Marxism.

This is the fourth volume of Benn’s published diaries and in some ways it is the most interesting. Perhaps it could hardly fail to interest, given the years it covers: the more or less perpetual ‘crises’, the Lib-Lab Pact, the Winter of Discontent, the demoralisation of the Callaghan Government, its fall and electoral defeat, the first year of the Thatcher Government. They also cover the rise of Benn: not in the Government itself, where it is clear he was marginalised both by Callaghan and his own actions, but in the wider Labour movement. He calls Part Six of the book (May 1979-May 1980) ‘Beginning Again’, and it was on the strength of that new beginning, and of the ‘youngsters’ (of whom more later), that he was to prepare his campaign for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party. Although this volume may have too much on the details of Seventies energy policy – throughout their period Benn was Energy Secretary – for everyone’s taste, it makes engrossing reading and must be a major source for the history of the Callaghan Government. Nor is there any obvious reason to doubt their accuracy – to the extent, at least, that they generally represent fairly what was said or done. It is not clear, however, on what basis the diaries were edited; Benn suggests that they were merely cut, but we do not know what was cut or why. The diaries have helpful appendices and a list of principal persons, but no attempt appears to have been made to notify the reader when descriptions of people or events are wrong.

The detail of the diaries is fascinating, but they still leave Benn a somewhat puzzling figure. We must assume that they were intended for publication and were designed to present Benn in a particular way. The way he appears is as a political ingenu; a man with little control over his department or influence in the Government, someone who feels that power is always elsewhere and who is reduced to the role of fretful onlooker. The diaries record a series of unfoldings: what the nuclear-power lobby is really like; how cabinet government actually operates; what in fact preoccupies the head of the Civil Service (the Honours List – ‘Amazing’). It may he that the apparent artlessness of the diaries is indeed just artlessness, though I doubt it. Whatever the intention, the effect is both to make Benn seem a far-seeing critic of the Callaghan and Thatcher Governments and to legitimate his later crusade.

Benn as critic is not to be underestimated. Much of what he says about his department and the larger developments of British economic policy can hardly be faulted. As Energy Secretary, he pretty soon saw through that nuclear lobby which has consumed so much of the national patrimony and given so little in return. He speaks of a kind of managerial, trade-union and scientific ‘fascism’ whose function is to exclude the ‘layman’ – that is, those who might be sceptical – and much of the diary records their activities. For those who are paranoid about the Lobby, pages 360-62 should give them some particularly chilling moments. In the long term, the real importance of this volume will probably be what Benn says about the nuclear industry: though he appears to have been unable to do much about it, his instincts were clearly right.

As they often were on economic policy. The diaries reveal all too plainly – and, I imagine, they were intended to – the extent to which Whitehall ‘realism’ about British industry, together with the Prime Minister’s own world-weariness, had been adopted by the leading members of Callaghan’s government. Benn quotes Callaghan as saying (September 1978): ‘Perhaps we are witnessing the end of the car-assembly industry in Britain, and that may be a good thing. BL has been a continuing drain on our resources and the British motor-car industry has done a great deal of damage to the reputation of this country.’ In February 1979 he reports Callaghan as saying that ‘we had got to the point where indiscipline was threatening the life of the community and the Government must have a clear line. The situation was extremely grave and the Tories would win, giving Mrs Thatcher a mandate for the most violent anti-trade union policy. But at least the trains would run on time’. Healey repeatedly (according to Benn) falls into a rhetoric not a million miles from that of the enterprise culture. Against this, Benn acts as a kind of dissenting chorus: he (rightly) disputes the notion that the Unions were primarily responsible for this malaise, while (again rightly) predicting that a Conservative government ‘would do terrible damage to Britain, not because there would be a terrible confrontation under Mrs Thatcher – if she won a huge majority, she would get away with it – but because we would continue to decline, Britain would become the Northern Ireland of the Common Market, selling oil and buying cars abroad with the proceeds’. That was said in June 1977. Two days earlier, he said of the enforced sale of BP shares: ‘The whole thing is a disgrace ... the BP sale will raise £535 million at a cost of £20 million to the jobbers, and, because it is being sold at a discount, £100 million has been written off straight away. It is an absolute scandal.’

A man who foresaw two of the essential elements of the Thatcherite political economy before most of his critics were even aware that there would be one has in an important sense established his credentials, They are further strengthened by his cheerful and attractive libertarianism. Throughout the diaries there is a half-comic sub-plot in which Benn tries (in vain) to discover whether his phone is being tapped. In 1980 he concludes (quite fairly) that the ‘club of ex-home secretaries’ is ‘one of the worst features of British public life’. On Any Questions (October 1979), he finds himself commenting on ‘sexual matters’ for the first time – ‘I defended homosexuals and prostitutes 100 per cent.’ He records on 29 April 1980 that he received a letter from the English Collective of Prostitutes thanking him for signing a motion condemning the imprisonment of Cynthia Payne. ‘I replied, wishing them success in their campaign.’ There is also a creditable reference to Jeremy Thorpe. It is obvious that Benn is personally a good-natured and generous-minded man.

The reasons for his later campaign for the ‘democratic’ reform of the Labour Party can thus be easily defended: his experience of the 1974-79 Government has convinced him that reform is necessary, first to dislodge the power-broking oligarchs who have abandoned socialism, and have made a muck of things anyway, and second, to restore to the Party that pluralism of debate which those same oligarchs stifled.

The reasons are defensible: the question is whether Benn can legitimately defend them. In the first place, his role as ingenu is not altogether convincing. Benn had been a minister between 1964 and 1970 and, intermittently, an MP for years before then. If it were only the experience of government after 1974 which revealed to him the secrets of British power – secrets which were open to anyone who seriously studied it – then he is either very naive or very unobservant. In the second, his claims to stand for a democratic renewal both of the Labour Party and of British life are undermined at every point by his own extreme constitutional conservatism. The diaries endlessly note his opposition to electoral reform (always called ‘proportional representation’), to direct elections to the European Parliament, to elected assemblies for Scotland and Wales, to any form of Parliamentary consultation with the Liberals, even when Labour is a minority (always called a ‘coalition’). For someone of so democratic an inclination this seems – as his wife pointed out – difficult to defend. Benn justifies it on grounds of Parliamentary sovereignty: the working classes had only just won this, he argues, and it should not be cast aside in favour of novelties. It is clear that Benn has the same sentimental attitude to Parliament that we associate with Michael Foot and Enoch Powell. But ‘Parliamentary sovereignty’ is one of the polite fictions of modern Britain: it permits the executive, judiciary and bureaucracy to do whatever they wish – usually in secret – precisely in the manner that these diaries spend so much of their space complaining about. And it was entirely incapable after 1979 – as Benn predicted – of protecting those working classes whose champion he had elected himself. There is no sense in these diaries that democracy rests not simply on the right to say what you like in Parliament, but on institutional liberties, or that any democratic ‘renewal’ must depend on these.

In fact, Benn’s attitude to the state is alarmingly like Mrs Thatcher’s. It is a formidable instrument of power which you use as you wish when you have the chance: if people do not like that, hard luck. Thus in March 1977, he records himself as saying of the Lib-Lab Pact: ‘It means the Liberals will penetrate the Official Secrets Act and know what we are doing before we tell anybody else.’ So much for democratic control; so much for hostility to the Official Secrets Act. We find the same ambiguity in his relationship with the ‘youngsters’ who were to be the shock troops of his army. It was clear then, and later, that many were neither particularly nice nor particularly democratic. Benn is aware of this. He writes of the Militants in his own constituency: ‘They moved endless resolutions. Their arguments are sensible and they make perfectly good radical points but they go on interminably in their speeches. They have a certain pleading manner which just infuriates the others.’ Benn is careful to distance himself from them; he argues that they are necessary for the Party, not because they are right, not because they support him, but because they are enthusiastic, because a plurality of opinion is healthy for the Party.

In a similar way, he justifies his attitude to Marxism. He never admits to becoming a Marxist (indeed he seems to regard Marx as one might regard the Christ who expelled the moneylenders from the Temple): ‘but I am trying to introduce Marxism into the mainstream of the British Labour Party debate because, frankly, without it I believe the Party has no future.’ This in turn is sometimes justified by a recourse to non-facts. He tells Ronald Butt that, among others, Ramsay MacDonald and Herbert Morrison were Marxists: a good debating-point, but wrong. Indeed, one of the many striking things about the diaries is how often Labour leaders attempt to validate their opinions by such a recourse to the Party’s history; and how often, when they do, they are wrong. And not just Benn; the most absurd of these non-facts is uttered by Callaghan.

Benn’s position seems to be contrived, though not consciously. It is also authoritarian in its implications. Why is this so? The answer is probably to be found in the entry of 22 November 1979, where he writes (of Roy Jenkins’s Dimbleby Lecture): ‘Of course there always has been a centre party in British politics in the 20th century: it is made up of Butskellites, including Macmillan, Callaghan, Wilson and Heath at one stage. It is that grouping that has presided over our decline.’ That remark unquestionably could have been made, and in those words, by Keith Joseph or any other product of a right-wing think-tank. The obsession with ‘decline’ and the conviction that a ‘centre party’, embracing the leadership of both the Conservative and Labour Parties, was responsible for it, united Bennite and Thatcherite. And it united them in opposition to the consensual, corporative institutions which this centre party is supposed to have debased. Tony Benn is not like Mrs Thatcher – that is apparent from his diaries – but he is like Keith Joseph, for whom life was also a series of unfoldings. Benn has lunch with Joseph in 1977: ‘Keith is an absolutely tortured soul – he was in agony, his face twisted in anxiety, his head in his hands.’ Benn’s re-education was never as spectacularly self-lacerating as Joseph’s; nevertheless, in so far as the Labour Party has a Joseph, it is Benn: both genuinely well-intentioned, both seekers after truth, both caught in hopelessly inconsistent political and intellectual positions.

Paul Foot’s political position, on the other hand, might be wrong but it is not inconsistent. Furthermore, he completed his re-education well before the earliest of these essays was written. He writes as some sort of Marxist and his view of British institutions is in some way Marxist. Nothing surprises him. Whereas Benn was amazed at everything, Foot is amazed by nothing. Foot believes that the institutions of the capitalist state, whether they are armaments-producers or High Court judges, behave the way they do because the system decrees that they should: to Foot it is systems which matter and not individuals – though that does not stop him saying some very hard things about individuals. It is this which makes these essays – evidence suggests – suspect to journalists of the centre: doubtless even more suspect after the publication of highly unflattering remarks about them in a recent issue of the LRB. Even now, Foot probably believes that the same coalition of interests which supported Mrs Thatcher supports Mr Major and will move heaven and earth to secure the re-election of his government, and that is certainly unacceptable to journalists of the centre.

Neal Ascherson, happy to describe himself as a middle-of-the-road warmonger of the sort attacked by Foot, gracefully admitted that Foot has often been right in the past – which is something that should be said at the outset. He has had a very good eye for scandal and injustice: for anyone who leans vaguely to the centre the extent to which he has been right is infinitely depressing. He has, however, a better eye for what is wrong than for any alternative, and these essays are better when muckraking than when they are hortatory. Since he has no illusions about the former East European regimes his freedom of manoeuvre as a socialist is limited. If you agree with him about the Labour movement or Harold Wilson or the miners’ strike, you agree with him; if not, not. His writings are unlikely to persuade. They are also likely to be free with history. Foot, like Tony Benn, has picked up history on the run and not always very firmly. The Sudeten Germans, for example, are curiously called a ‘peaceful and essentially social-democratic people’; 1.5 million people, it is suggested, died in the Irish famine; Harold Wilson is twitted for misremembering everything about the ‘famous’ Oxford by-election of 1939 – but that famous event was in 1938.

The essays themselves, written between 1980 and 1990, are reprinted from a number of papers, including the LRB, and vary in length and interest. Some of the earlier ones demand knowledge of a political context which many have now probably forgotten, and only in some cases (as in ‘The Tories and the Junta’) is it possible to quicken dead knowledge. As a rule of thumb, his essays on individuals or ‘inspirations’ are (with a couple of remarkable exceptions) less timeless than those on institutions – the Civil Service, the judiciary or the press – which have over this decade so conspicuously propped up the system. Part Three, ‘Keeping Secrets’, Part Five, ‘Media Mendacity’, or Part 12, ‘Injustices’, have in no sense lost their significance; since Foot himself has been an agent in many of the events he describes – particularly judicial ones – they have a special urgency. They are also written with considerable polemical force: see, for example, ‘Soaraway, servile Sun’. And unlike some of the party-political pieces, they are likely to persuade.

Foot’s politics, however, are not inconsistent with Tony Benn’s Leveller tradition. He is, paradoxically perhaps, at his best when he is writing as a radical pamphleteer. But he does not need to be a Marxist to believe that the ruling classes are corrupt, greedy or self-serving; that government is secretive; or that those in authority are pompous and vain. British radicals have always believed that. Thus he has a wonderful vignette of a former headmaster of Eton, A. Chenevix-Trench (‘no ordinary flogger’), which may, for all I know, he a gross libel on the dead, but which is a gem of public-school literature, and his essay on David Alton (‘Lord Alton of Knitting Needle’) is one of the most ferocious pieces I have ever read. Centre journalists doubtless did not like it, but it is enough in itself to make the book worth possessing. There is also a peculiarly successful English-radical essay on Ian Botham: he is admired not simply because he is an outstanding cricketer, but because he is no racist, a great mate of Viv Richards and hated by the system. But he is also a Tory. And that rather complicated admiration (the essay appears as an ‘idiosyncrasy’) owes, I imagine, more to Godwin (another hero) than it does to Marx.