Tony Benn in 2009

Tony Benn in 2009

I’ve always thought there was some epochal significance in the fact that when, in 1981, we had friends round to hear the live coverage of the results of Tony Benn’s bid for the Labour deputy leadership, I was upstairs in the bathroom being violently sick.  He lost, of course, defeated by a sliver of votes cast by those who were shortly to abandon Labour to found the SDP.

It was the shock and awe of Thatcher.  Another two years and I was on the doorsteps, trying to persuade voters to support ‘the longest suicide note in history’, the 1983 election manifesto that called for unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the European Economic Community, abolition of the House of Lords, and the re-nationalisation of recently industries like British Telecom that Thatcher had recently privatised.  Punch drunk from that, a year later we were doing what we could to support the miners in their doomed strike.

These memories returned hearing of Tony Benn’s death today.  The arguments about the extent to which he was responsible for the disaster endured by the Labour Party in the 1980s have resurfaced in the obituaries, but his unswerving political career seems somehow estimable.  He never ceased to believe that there could be an alternative to the neo-liberal consensus that was heralded by Thatcher’s victory in 1979 and sealed by Tony Blair’s ascendancy.

And when it all came crashing down in 2008 and, outrageously, the Labour government was blamed exclusively for the rapaciousness of banks, Benn calmly challenged that view:

What happened in 2007-8 is now used by the government as an example of the failure of the Labour party. But the changes that were brought about led to a need to think about something more radical, and more radical ideas – on, for instance, public ownership and education – would win popular support if they were presented to the public.

Reading those words today reminded me of the superb 2007 conversation between Stuart Hall and Philip Dodd that was repeated shortly after Stuart Hall’s death at the beginning of February.  Dodd put it to Hall: You’ve been fighting for fifty years, which is a long time in any lifetime. It must seem hard that it seems further away than it ever did?

This was Stuart Hall’s reply:

I feel the world as stranger to me than I ever felt before. I feel out of time for the first time in my life.  I do feel the world turned in the 1970s; it turned, you know, fundamentally turned.  The end of that post-war social democratic period in Britain.  The end of Keynesianism.  Glimpsing the end of the welfare state.  This is the big historical shift; it’s the beginning of globalisation, though we didn’t understand that it was.  It’s a move by capitalism away from the constraints of the welfare state, the attempt to tax capital in order to maintain social peace.  It got to the point where they said, ‘if you tax us any more we’ll go out of business’.  This is what Marx said: at a certain point you come to the limits and then you either change the system or the system will go somewhere else, and we are in the middle of ‘all that is sold melts into air’.

Should we have a political party that believes we should tune ourselves up to the global economy?  Of course we should – but not two, or two and a half!  It’s when everyone is operating in so many of the same parameters that the only debate you can have is a sort of Swiftian debate – you know, shall we eat the children now or later on?

It will unravel.  Since that unravelling will mean the death or suffering of large numbers of people, I can’t say I’m glad about that.  But unravel in a way that I can’t now predict, I don’t have any doubt at all.

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11 thoughts on “Tony Benn: we need to think about something more radical

  1. I know what you mean about that suicide note! The thing for me about Benn, love him or hate him, hate to love him or not, he had a stance and he held the line in that! He was roundly hammered by the right wing press, as was Foot, both rightly and wrongly, he frightened them and the panels and blue rinse audiences of Any Questions.
    When I look back on those pre- and Thatcher days, how I hated Britain then! The polarisation of those days caused me to occupy my own pole – or grumpy corner – and is one reason why I left the UK. I think they were extreme days, days which led to the slick Blair years and Iraq.

    1. Gary Younge writes in today’s Guardian that Benn once told him of the words he planned for his gravestone: ‘Tony Benn – he encouraged us. I think that’s right; you didn’t have to agree with everything he said (he probably wouldn’t have expected it) or with all of his actions, but as Younge remarks, ‘two things stood out: his optimism and his persistence. He believed that people were inherently decent and that they could work together make the world a better place – and he was prepared to join them in that work wherever they were.This alone made him remarkable in late 20th-century British politics. He believed in something’.(

      Giles Fraser says something similar in his appreciation:

      1. I agree. I also think he was a decent man, and as an epitaph, what more can one hope for? It would satisfy me.

  2. Unravel? Absolutely. All the cards are stacked and our votes matter not. Corporate Personhood and trade deals negotiated in secret that allow corporations to sue for “lost future profits” handcuff, no, emasculate, governments and their electorates alike. So sad. So true.

  3. Deep respect for Tony Benn as a man who held on to his principles. This we need more of in all parties today.
    However, I think in reality he was largely ineffective in changing anything. As a teenager I watched him fail to answer straight question after straight question and I lost heart in people like him. Along with Michael Foot he held a romantic socialist view rooted in one era which did not transfer in to the realities of the following decades.
    I too lament the power of corporations and the fact that our society has bought into materialism to such an extent that it now pays the price but is too addicted to change.
    I love England, but England has no idea how blessed it is in world terms and the constant longing for “more” will not ultimately make us happy.
    I hope for, pray for men of integrity to stand for what is right in this generation.

  4. Gerry hope this finds you have misplaced your email.

    College for staff has become utterly coercive and toxic. Maire has decided she’s had enough. Her last ever trade union Mass Meeting is next Friday in the Black-E (China Town) between 12 and 2. I’ve put together a celebratory newsletter about her which will be disseminated on Monday. Thought you and Rita might like to come to the Mass Meeting?

    Failing that Maire is planning to have a “Natfhe” leaving “do” in the Casa on Friday 11th July. But please do consider coming to the Mass Meeting Gerry as a prior member. X

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