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.