After the sudden death of Bob Crow earlier in the week, I never thought that I would be writing two tributes to two fine men in the space of five days. Tony Benn, the veteran Labour politician died yesterday at the age of 88. I once shared a stage with Tony Benn at a gala on Newcastle’s Town Moor in 1989, at which I was compèring. I can remember introducing him to the crowd but I also remember being too much in awe to actually say anything to him. To this day, I wish I had. Tony Benn was a very approachable man, who was always willing to chat and have his photo taken with people. He was a fine orator and a first-rate parliamentarian. The like of which we may never see again. These days many Westminster politicians are too concerned with managerialism and public relations to deal with real life issues that affect ordinary people. You see, these people are not interested in ideas unless they’re bad ideas. They have no plan for the future. It’s all about smashing and grabbing what they can for themselves and their corporate pals. Tony Benn wasn’t like them.
I first became aware of Tony Benn in the early 1970s when he was still called “Anthony Wedgwood Benn”. In those days, I knew very little about British politics but I remember the unpopularity of the Heath government and its arrogance. The Miners Strikes of 1972 and 1973-4 had seriously damaged the government’s authority over the increasingly restive unions. Heath responded to the strike of 1974 and the power outages that were caused by dwindling coal stocks, by limiting the working week to three days to put a brake on energy consumption. Talks between the government and the unions broke down and in a last-ditch effort to assert his authority, a reluctant and petulant Heath was forced to call a general election for 28 February, 1974 on the question of “Who governs Britain”.
Once the votes were counted, the Conservatives attained a higher percentage of votes (37.9%) but because of the vagaries of Britain’s voting system, they won fewer seats than their Labour rivals who polled slightly less (37.2%) but had won a larger number of seats. The result was a hung parliament. Nonetheless, Heath was invited to form a government and he proposed a coalition with the Liberal Party, but this was rejected by leader Jeremy Thorpe because of the former’s refusal to accommodate the Liberals’ demands for proportional representation. Harold Wilson’s Labour Party formed a minority government and immediately entered into negotiations with the unions to end the strikes. With the strikes over, Wilson called a general election for October 1974, which the party won with a tiny majority of three seats. This precarious situation would return to haunt the Labour government which would be forced to enter into an uneasy supply and confidence arrangement with the Liberals in what was referred to as the ‘Lib-Lab Pact’ in 1976.
Under Wilson, Benn was handed the Industry portfolio but was then moved to Department for Energy in 1975, presumably in an effort to placate critics of Benn and the policy of nationalization. When Wilson suddenly resigned in 1976, Benn stood for the leadership and came fourth in the first round and withdrew from the second ballot. James ‘Sunny Jim’ Callaghan was elected leader and became Prime Minister and stepped straight into a sterling crisis (which had been caused by a massive balance of trade deficit left by the Heath government). To deal with this problem, Denis Healey, the right-wing Chancellor of the Exchequer, applied for a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the conditions of which stipulated that the government was obliged to adopt monetarist policies. Among other things, this meant swingeing cuts to public services. If anything, this episode in Labour’s history was partly responsible for the later splits in the party.
Benn kept his job as Energy Secretary and established the British National Oil Company (BNOC) in 1975. Although its chief role was to ensure adequate oil supply levels, its other less-discussed role included the creation of a sovereign wealth fund using the royalties made from the production of North Sea Oil to fund social programmes and have some money saved for a ‘rainy day’. When the Tories won the 1979 General Election, Thatcher privatised BNOC and renamed it Britoil in 1982. It was later bought by BP in 1988. Under Thatcher, most of the country’s oil money was squandered on tax cuts for the rich, with the rest going to pay for the Tories’ devastation of Britain’s traditional heavy industries. At this time, Benn had already moved to the Left and when Labour were out of power, he became something of a standard-bearer. He spoke of the need to continue the nationalisation programme that the Tories were now dismantling. He spoke of the need to leave NATO and the EEC. The former because of its constant and unslakeable thirst for war and the latter because he saw it as fundamentally undemocratic.
When Callaghan resigned as leader in 1981, Benn stood against Denis Healey in the deputy leadership contest and lost by a mere 1%. The party had more or less fixed the election. Michael Foot became the party leader but was faced with internal difficulties, which led to the split from the party of the so-called ‘Gang of Four’. To this day, the former members of the SDP blame Benn for splitting the Labour Party but this was already happening in 1974 with MPs like Dick Taverne and Eddie Milne leaving the party and standing as “Independent Labour” or “Democratic Labour” candidates. Both men were defeated in the October 1974 election. Taverne later joined the SDP, while Milne vanished into obscurity and died in 1983 after another unsuccessful attempt to regain his seat. Then there was the infamous Reg Prentice affair in 1976, when Tory Julian Lewis – with the financial support of The Freedom Association – posed as a Labour Party moderate and managed to briefly gain control of the Newham North East constituency in an attempt to have Prentice reselected. Prentice later joined the Tories.
In 1983, Benn lost his seat when the Bristol South East constituency was abolished due to boundary changes and he lost the contest to be selected for the new seat of Bristol South to Michael Cocks. He immediately stood in the newly created seat of Bristol East but lost the the Tory candidate, Jonathan Sayeed. Less than a year later Benn was selected as candidate for the Chesterfield constituency when the sitting MP, Eric Varley resigned to become the head of Coalite. During the campaign, The Sun ran a series of articles titled “Benn On The Couch”, purportedly written by an American psychiatrist, which concluded that Benn was insane. Other papers produced their own Benn scare stories. Indeed the media construction of the ‘Loony Left’ phenotype has its origins in this period. To this day, the Right continues with this line of attack precisely because it has no ideas and because it realises that Left ideas are more popular with most voters than the secondhand Thatcherism offered by the present government or, indeed, the last Labour government.
Like many people in Britain, The Cat believes that Benn was the greatest Prime Minister this country never had. His detractors may claim that he was a “relic from the past” and his politics were “out of date”. Yet there is nothing modern or ‘up-to-date’ about wanting to drag this country back to the 1950s or the days of the British Empire. Nu Labourites blame Benn for Labour’s wilderness years during the 80s but this ignores the fact that Labour under Kinnock offered no real alternative to Thatcher’s policies. Kinnock lacked the guts and the spirit to make a decent leader and feared the wrath of the Tory press if he dared move leftward. Furthermore, the lack of support shown by the leadership of the party with regards to the Miners’ Strike showed that the party no longer had any time for its core voters and preferred, instead, to chase the so-called floating voter and appeal to the media-constructed ‘Essex Man’. Labour in the mid-1980s was already dead to me. As far as I was concerned I had no party to vote for. By the time of Blair’s victory in 1997, it had migrated so far to the Right that it actually began to resemble the SDP.
Yet Benn continued to be a member of the Labour Party even after he left the Commons in 2001 to “devote more time to politics”. Remember this is the party that more or less stitched up the deputy leadership election in 1981 to favour Healy. This is the same party that cast him out of the inner circle because, like the Tory press and the SDP splitters, they believed he was ‘dangerous’. But the dangers posed to this country by the Thatcher government weren’t even noticed by the Labour Party’s top brass, who moved rightward in an attempt to out-Tory the Tories. This is what happens when you fail to develop ideas and policies of your own: you end up copying your enemy. True to his word, Benn did spend more time on politics and continued to write and speak. Among other things, he became President of the Stop the War Campaign on 2001. He travelled to Baghdad to meet Saddam Hussein in 2003 before the disastrous invasion and occupation by the Coalition of the Toadies. He appeared at the Leftfield at the Glastonbury Festival several times and inspired a new generation of young people.
The last time I saw Tony Benn was last September at the Stop the War rally at Trafalgar Square before the Commons vote on possible British intervention in Syria. He looked frail but he still made a good speech. I may not have always agreed with his brand of socialism but I admired his fighting spirit and his oratory skills. Who knows what might have happened in 1981 if Benn had stood for the leadership of the party instead of the deputy leadership?
So farewell Tony Benn, but we have little time to mourn you. The best thing we can do to honour your memory is to fight back and fight hard.
I’ll leave you with this video of Tony Benn giving both barrels to Thatcherism.