Gospel Truth

Ian Aitken

  • The End of Parliamentary Socialism by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys
    Verso, 341 pp, £40.00, September 1997, ISBN 1 85984 109 0

Just over a quarter of a century ago, shortly after Ted Heath’s surprise defeat of the Wilson Government, Tony Benn addressed a Fabian Society meeting in a gloomy Westminster basement. With his usual happy choice of language, he described how fired-up he had been on eventually becoming a minister in Wilson’s Cabinet; he had always wanted to get his hands on the levers of power, he said, and at last he was going to do just that. And sure enough, when he walked into his office at the Ministry of Technology for the first time, there they were in all their gleaming majesty – the levers of power. With a glad cry, he had leapt forward and started tugging at them in a frenzy of pent-up enthusiasm. It was quite a long time before he realised that, however hard he pulled, nothing actually happened. It was even longer before he discovered that the levers weren’t actually connected to anything.

This seemed to me at the time to be a delightful example of Benn’s unrivalled ability to entertain as well as to instruct, and the story I wrote for the Guardian that night described him as the Labour Party’s would-be philosopher king. What I did not register was that Benn’s lecture that night marked the public beginning of a long intellectual journey. It eventually transformed him from a fairly orthodox left-of-centre Labourite to the front man for a form of radical socialism which few contemporary party colleagues – and even fewer of their predecessors – would have recognised as compatible with Labour’s traditional, vaguely Keynesian approach. As he has said more than once, the journey marked him as one of the few people who have defied normal human experience by moving further to the left as they grew older.

Far from being Labour’s philosopher king – a term which implies a certain cool detachment – Benn turned out to be its would-be messiah. Wrapped in the tattered robes of poverty and wielding his staff of truth, he trudged endlessly through the wilderness with his band of apostles, bemoaning the state of the Labour Party and pointing the road to salvation. His purpose was to find converts, and at first sight it seemed that he was succeeding on a spectacular scale. Indeed, at one point in his journey it appeared that he had won over a majority of Labour’s active membership in the constituency parties. But this eventually proved to be an illusion; what had really happened was that a rag-tag-and-bobtail army of assorted Trotskyists, single-issue fanatics and plain old-fashioned troublemakers had spotted Benn and his apostles and had attached themselves to him as their ‘leader’. He didn’t take them over, they took him over. And when the mass of the Labour movement at last became fed up with these people’s antics they threw some of them out. Most of the rest have since mended their ways, and have become models of moderation. A few have even embraced Tony Blair and New Labour with such enthusiasm that they now hold high-ranking commissions in Blair’s praetorian guard.

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