A sideways look: Tony Benn

A sideways look: Tony Benn

A brief look at the legacy of Tony Benn.

The death of Tony Benn gives us a chance to reflect on a controversial hero of the left who grew more radical as he got older. In British political terms he certainly was a figure of some stature, and many people had good things to say about his personal qualities.

Benn’s politics were democratic socialist, with a big chunk of Christianity, but the emphasis was very much on the democracy. Benn passionately advocated democracy, especially the Parliamentary kind. He famously renounced a hereditary peerage so he could remain an MP. This meant he often found strange bedfellows – many of his admirers were surprised at his warm words for Enoch Powell, but both were committed Parliamentarians. His record in government was patchy and he is most remembered for being the leader of the Labour left after the 1979 election defeat. Benn was the standard bearer for a sort of left reformism within Labour, which accounts for the bitterness of the Labour right on his death: they blamed Benn for Labour’s defeats at the time. Labour tore itself apart in the early 1980s against the background of the Thatcherite offensive against the working class. Benn lost the 1981 election for Deputy Leader of the Party. He was vilified by the media for his platform of nationalisation and leaving the EU. Some anarchists might even thank him for the damage done to Labour in this period, though as the heritage of it was Blair and the total marginalisation of any sort of socialism, I don’t think it’s a victory.

While the media’s depiction of Benn was unfair, it’s not like his policies were realistic. He claimed his experiences as a cabinet minister led him to see the power of the state to curtail progressive policies through the resistance of the civil service and the overwhelming power of bankers and industrialists and the media. This analysis led him to formulate his five questions, which are a useful starting point when you meet someone with power: “what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you?” Benn’s point was that if the last couldn’t be answered, the system wasn’t a democracy. But the real point here is that you can’t use the state to curtail the state. Benn never developed a serious critique of the state, though he did resign from Parliament in 2001 to “spend more time on politics”. He wasn’t naïve enough to believe that all political action happened through official channels, but he did see these channels – Parliament, elections, government – as trumping anything else and being needed to validate other changes.

His real anachronism wasn’t his socialism, but his emphasis on methods that by the end even he must have suspected don’t work. He was resolutely against the Iraq War and spoke at many rallies in his role as President of the Stop the War Coalition. There was clearly a majority of the public mood against the war – but it happened anyway. By 2002 as it was getting closer, Benn did call for non-violent direct action against the war, but the SWP-dominated hierarchy of the Stop the War Coalition succeeded in keeping people marching rather than taking action.

I think the other thing about Benn which is worth commemorating is his ability to engage with people in a civil manner. Benn’s Christian socialism was of the “have a chat over a nice cup of tea” variety, rather than the hellfire and damnation certainty that is reflected in the uncivil left.

Posted By

Apr 29 2014 22:31


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May 10 2014 15:22

A great representative of the bourgeoisie he was. Let's sing his praises.

Caiman del Barrio
May 10 2014 15:39

Yeah, I imagine this is Martinh being his usual diplomatic and rational self, plus possibly not wanting to speak ill of the dead? Or maybe he met Benn once and thought he was a nice guy, I'm not sure.

I have to say though, I would have written a more critical obit, which mentioned his aristocratic background (which rather change the atmosphere behind his infamous 'five questions', and are also indicative as to how his son also managed to enter politics to be his Blairite counterweight in the 2000s). He was also instrumental in breaking strikes under Wilson and Callaghan's governments, and I never really saw much evidence of him providing much more than leftist rhetoric to make people like him so much.

As for his rather ghastly manipulation as an old wind up music box for the STWC, where he called for direct action against the war, against the SWTC leadership's line, but it never occurred to either side to take on the other, demonstrates just how uninformed he was, and just how little of a threat STWC considered him.

And there's also his ill-advised - if eventually rescinded - defense of Assange.

TBH, I'm not entirely sure why even the soft left love him so much,. other than their constant desire for pin up celebrities to make cute soundbites. It's certainly beyond why anarchists would go soft on him.

May 10 2014 22:30

The trouble with his aristocratic background is that he didn't have one. When he renounced his peerage he was the 2nd Viscount Stansgate. This means his dad was the first (and now his son is the 3rd). He was created a hereditary peer in 1942. So, privileged, upper middle class, yes. But being created a hereditary peer doesn't make you an aristocrat any more than it did any of the more recent ones. He also renounced his peerage because of his commitment to "democracy" as an ideal.

Of course he was a representative of the bourgeoisie. I'm hardly singing his praises either, but I suspect the problem for some people here is that I don't see any value in repeating the obvious or being provocative for its own sake.

I can see exactly why the soft left loved him, as he was prepared to articulate arguments for a soft democratic socialism in a way that made the people he spoke to think he actually cared about them. If you consider who else has been around on the left in the last 30 years it is no surprise that someone who has basic interpersonal skills and treats people he meets with respect might stand out. Regardless of your politics, there are lessons to be drawn from that.