Tony Benn: The strange death of socialist England

A great piece of political irony is that Lenin, perhaps the most aggressive of Left Wing figures, wrote a pamphlet in 1920 condemning socialist parties on the Ultra Left who refused to compromise with any parties further to the right, even if they had shared goals. Indeed, in his writing on 1920s Britain, he argues against the suggestions of radical trade unions and communist movements to break up the Labour party, but rather emphasised the need for cooperation against Conservative reaction. And although Tony Benn has enjoyed a great deal of public popularity (a 2003 BBC poll ranked him as the most trusted politician), to me he has always been the extreme left wing leader Lenin had in mind; he has never been one to compromise. Benn will rightly long be remembered as a bastion of the working classes and a fiercely dedicated proponent of British socialism, but for the Left, it is unfortunate that this doggedness has prevented any major political success and that no figure has emerged to take over on the mantel.

I had the good fortune to meet Tony Benn as an old man. Despite his 86 years, he still had a fading aura of grandeur about him. Aided by the beauty of the surroundings of Christ Church meadow, the quirks and anecdotes that made his public image so charming were resplendent, not least his iconic pipe, which he refilled twice. He spoke eloquently, wrote voraciously and was a constant champion of the poor and dispossessed. His diaries are some of the most important personal records of left wing struggles in the 20th century; perhaps only Orwell, Serge and Trotsky are above him.

Yet to me, despite his apparent enthusiasm for the causes he propounded, when I spoke to him there was always something slightly strange, even robotic about his answers. The closer we came to talking about contemporary events, the more his answers turned into mere generalizations and platitudes such as “global opposition to the status quo” and “now is the time for a change in society”. When pressed for specific examples, he retreated into a narrative of the Labour party’s record of socialism, such as the building of the welfare state and the NHS. To me, he seemed to be more concerned with grand changes and he was less interested in the details and tactics, telling me, “some change will be created by ordinary people, while some will of course be created by institutional and legislative changes… the ordinary people have always played a key role in achieving social justice.” Perhaps it was this obsession with the concept of change rather than the details of change itself that denied him any political success.

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After all, although Benn fought so hard to lead a life of true public service, the question remains – what did he actually do? The unfortunate answer is that Tony Benn’s parliamentary career lacks any significant legislative achievement, and what he did outside Westminster to help left wing causes in his speeches, writings and activism, he negated with his divisiveness and apparent determination to drag the Labour party away from ever being electable. It’s not for nothing that he claimed he left Parliament to leave “more time for politics.” He was a theorist rather than a tactician.

Perhaps one of the reasons he was so loved and respected is that, maybe because of the political firebrand and iconoclast figure he presented and because of this preoccupation with theory rather than practice, he never got his hands on the levers of real power. On all political causes he fought for (with the curious exception or his fight to renounce his hereditary peerage) he eventually lost. He bitterly opposed European integration; which he lost. He stood for Deputy Leader of the dysfunctional labour party in 1981; and lost. He played a major role in Michael Foots 1983 campaign; which lost, and lost him his seat. He turned his attentions to supporting the miner’s strikes against Thatcher; which lost. He was most famous recently as the Leader of the Stop The War campaign, and admirable movement that was a leading force against Western folly and imperialism in Iraq; which also lost.

He has oft been contrasted with Tony Blair, and in many ways they are polar opposites. Whilst Blair was responsible for Labour abandoning its commitment to industry nationalisation, Benn condemned it. Whilst Blair courted the right wing press and flattered Rupert Murdoch, Benn denounced it, earning him the title of “the most dangerous man in Britain” from the Daily Mail. In essence, Benn was about the radical transformation of the British society, Blair was about getting elected.

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Yet Blair was in many ways a reaction to Benn. Traumatised and heavily disillusioned by 17 years of successive defeats and Conservative power, he appeared as a fresh, modernizing alternative to what many considered the “looney left,” with Benn as its chief representative. Had Labour been elected in the 1980’s, as it may have been without Benn, Blair’s initiatives would have been unthinkable for the party. The implicit riposte from Blair to Benn was that Labour could never change society without being in power.

And this is what brings about a sad coda to Tony Benn’s death. With him gone, and no heir apparent, there is no longer a great socialist figure to argue for a lasting, fundamental change in British society. Socialism had in Tony Benn its most eloquent advocate with a large national and public esteem; now it has the odd Politics Professor or Trade Union leader. In the 20th century, Parliament was a place where great theories of history – liberalism, conservatism and socialism – battled for hearts and minds. Politics since then has become the politics of how best to continue the legacy of Thatcherism. Sure, there will be quibbles over the small details; Chancellor and Shadow will argue over whether the rich should have a 50p or 45p tax rate, but no one will ever again argue for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy. The great confrontation of 20th century British politics dies with Tony Benn.