He has come a long way. Born the Hon. Anthony Wedgwood Benn, he inevitably became by public-school nickname ‘Wedgie’ and later, by his own socialist deed-poll, plain ‘Tony Benn’. Today he is more often referred to simply as Benn – a hard word spat out like ‘Lenin’.
Benn puzzles and alarms people because he is at the same time frightfully English and frighteningly un-English. The young Benn, with his prefect’s chin, boy-scout keenness and pipe-smoking gravitas, would have done for the hero of an Ealing comedy – reluctant peer and noble comrade. Then there was middle Benn, the new computer-speak, managerial whizz-kid politician of the Technological Sixties: not yet ‘Tony Benn’, he changed the name of the Ministry of Technology to MinTech. At around that time he told me at a party about how he had opened a file on the giant hogweed which, according to the newspapers, was advancing on the West End from Kew Gardens. That was Benn the mad boffin – another English or Ealing type.
Late Benn dates from 1968, when his mind became filled with student politics and Marcusian dialectics; he was ‘into’ revolutionary sociology and radical theology. He later produced a little series of Fabian tracts which incorporated his wide if ill-digested reading. The early years of the Seventies saw the flowering of the year ’68 in England – behind the times as usual. That was the period of Benn’s conversion, a conversion finalised by the crisis of conscience experienced with the collapse of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, which he had ‘saved’ at MinTech. Afterwards he used to explain that in the Sixties he had ‘busted a gut trying to make the mixed economy work’ and wasn’t going to do it again in the Seventies. Benn had become a Socialist, and it was a long time since the English had been obliged to take a Socialist seriously.
At first people didn’t quite. Benn has benefited from being taken too seriously as an ideologue and not seriously enough as a menace to the pluralism of the Labour Party. The Seventies made him into a bogeyman, a profligate nationaliser and spender of the public purse. His colleagues were increasingly exasperated by his behaviour but were too used to the idea of potty old Wedgie, and too contemptuous of what they saw as an overblown ambition, to take his challenge seriously. Wilson’s tactic was to ignore him, treat him as a bore. Callaghan regarded him as a Sixties figure who, he hoped, would be passed over by the Eighties. Yet all through the Seventies – we can now see, looking back – while Benn was making headlines, his cause was making solid organisational headway.
The ingredients of the Benn phenomenon are similar to those of a revanchiste movement. There was a stab in the back, an unequal treaty, a pervasive conspiracy, a disgruntled sub-class. The stab in the back was the failure to implement the 1974 Labour Party Manifesto, symbolised by Wilson’s banishment of Benn from the Department of Industry to the Department of Energy in 1975. According to the Bennite mythology, the 1974 programme would have arrested Britain’s decline and – in his own words – ‘transformed the situation in a decade’. Only the Great Betrayal prevented the building of a Socialist Britain.
The unequal treaty, of course, was the one which made Britain a member of the European Community. This, according to Benn, rendered Westminster subordinate to Brussels and precluded the planning of the British economy on Socialist lines. Aggrieved nationalism, xenophobia and chauvinism are among the sentiments or prejudices upon which Bennism plays. The pervasive conspiracy is of international bankers and multinational managers. The first of the pieces reprinted in this collection of Benn’s articles, lectures, speeches and sermons is called ‘Britain as a Colony’ and argues the need for a movement of ‘national liberation’. Manifesto, jointly authored by half a dozen of his henchpersons, states: ‘Britain is a member of a vast economic and political empire, known as the free world.’
Finally, there is the disgruntled sub-class. In my Guardian column at the end of the 1980 Labour Party Conference in Blackpool, I rudely dubbed this the ‘lumpen-polytechnic’. It deserves more subtle analysis, but until somebody produces a sociology of the Benn phenomenon one can only be impressionistic. The expansion of higher education in the Sixties created new middle-class cadres, often of working-class origin, who were not fully incorporated into, or felt themselves to be excluded from, the ruling élites. The burgeoning of the public service sector in the Sixties and Seventies gave substantial numbers of people a new vested interest in statism. This army of functionaries grew, and so did the battalions of trade-union officers – a new breed, for the most part – who sought to organise them.
At the same time, in industry, there was emerging a new kind of professional, and often full-time, shop-steward. Shop-floor power asserted itself against the old trade-union hierarchy; the new concentrations of public-sector trade-unionism, in the local authorities and in the health services, aspired to the same kind of political influence, at first at local levels, as industrial workers had earlier sought and largely achieved; the nexus between the politically-relevant departments of the new universities and polytechnics and these new arenas of political power (between sociology departments and local-authority social workers, for example) helped to create a sub-culture far removed from the increasingly centralist, or corporatist, preoccupations of the Labour Government and the old Labour Movement. In short, there was growing up a rival élite, a new interest, a putative power structure. It was these people, by and large, who took over the moribund Labour Parties in the constituencies and who are now advancing their power within the corrupt and rotten Trade Union movement. And most of what Benn has said in the years of his power bid has been directed, not at the general public who might elect a Labour government, but at those capable of capturing the party for Benn. It has been a successful operation.
Tony Benn may be Britain’s first Post-Bourgeois Politician. ‘Post-bourgeois’, a term of art in American political science, describes the politics of the post-industrial society in which acquisitiveness among the increasingly affluent and educated middle classes supposedly gives way to less material values, such as participation or free speech. There has been a good deal of academic dispute as to whether Britain has to be excluded from such a thesis because of her inferior economic performance. Surveys have suggested that in Britain the ‘post-bourgeois’ generation does remain more dissatisfied with its material status than its Continental counterparts appear to be. Alan Marsh of Michigan University has argued plausibly that the co-existence of material with newer non-material concerns is to be explained by the ambition of the new élite to supplant the old. ‘By appearing to speak against their class interest they ... may acquire a reputation for altruism ... Such gains would certainly ameliorate the sense of power-frustration experienced by many young middle-class Europeans who are excluded from the exercise of real power and positions of high social respect by what seems to them (probably rightly) to be a mere lack of seniority.’ The priority they give to ‘freedom and participation’ and their ‘dissatisfaction with democracy’ may thus ‘reflect little more than their urge to hasten the day when the existing élites have been ousted by themelves’. Benn stresses the values of the ‘new’ or ‘post-industrial politics’. His extempore speeches around the country are more likely to be about the issues of decision-making and accountability than about the numbers of slum houses lacking inside lavatories or bathrooms. The criteria which some of his people circulated for the guidance of constituency parties in reselecting their MP included where they had stood on Hosenball and Agee. Who? Few could recall these heroes of the New Left, one an American journalist, the other a CIA defector, deported by the Labour Government in 1977.
In spite of his endless assertions, that the struggles in the Labour Party are about policies and not personalities, Benn’s pieces do not touch upon policy in any detailed sense. Those who want policy must turn to Manifesto. For Benn himself, the argument for democracy is the argument for socialism: the one, he claims to believe, will flow from the other. ‘It is not possible to conceive of a socialist society with any future that denies political democracy, nor is it conceivable that real political democracy could fail to lead to greater social equality and socialism’ (my italics).
The underlying idea here is the fundamental article of Socialist faith: namely, that, given the chance to control its own destiny, the working class would transform a capitalist society into a Socialist one. But ‘democracy’, as we learn later in the book, has a more direct and mechanical role to play in the achievement of Socialism. Why was it, Benn asked himself in the course of a recent interview, that Labour governments made so little difference, especially after 1964? Because – and this has been the core of Benn’s appeal among the party active – the Labour leadership in office became disconnected from the aspirations of those who worked to put it there. In other words, they failed to carry out the mandate of the Manifesto. Benn’s programme for party democracy is perfectly coherent: the Manifesto should be drawn up by the National Executive Committee on behalf of the Conference; MPs returned to Parliament would either have to carry out the Manifesto or face reselection by their local parties; MPs, thus mandated, should elect the Cabinet; the Labour Movement, in an electoral college, meanwhile elects the leader, and thus the Prime Minister. Nothing is to stand in the way of the exercise of the will of the party, once it has been endorsed by the people – not the House of Lords (abolished), nor the European Community (withdrawn from), nor the financial institutions (nationalised). In this way, democracy would lead to socialism.
Philosophical arguments about representative democracy or participatory democracy, parliamentary democracy or party democracy, Burke or Benn (both of whom have represented the electors of Bristol), though interesting, are scarcely to the point. The point is that Socialism is the goal and the purpose of the party is to achieve it. From their point of view, the Bennites are perfectly entitled to complain that Wilson had not the slightest intention of carrying out their leftish programme of 1974, or, today, that Denis Healey is no kind of socialist.
Why Socialism? Why Socialism in the 1980s? One reason given by Benn (which forms the main theme of Manifesto, the most coherent and comprehensive account of Bennism I have come across) is that Britain is unable to function effectively in the interdependent world of mixed economies. ‘The mechanisms of free trade and multinational business are destroying Britain’s economy.’ The people to blame for Britain’s decline are the people who locked the country into the global markets of the Western Alliance. The revisionists failed, and the consensus collapsed, when the mixed economy entered into a state of crisis after 1967. Only the Bennite ‘alternative strategy’, a centrally-planned economy accountable to a participatory democracy, has the measure of these problems.
But if the problems are the result of the ‘international capitalist system’, how is it that the same system has permitted all other mixed economies to flourish as never before? The Bennites nowhere answer this question. Ludicrously, the authors of Manifesto envisage a declining Britain helping ‘to show the way to the resolution of the appalling difficulties now facing the whole of the Western Alliance and the Third World’. Since the world, and not the British, are to blame for Britain’s decline, the reversal of that decline will result from the insulation of Britain against the wickednesses of the world.
Manifesto is no hard-nosed neo-Marxist prospectus. Serious Marxists would, I suspect, find it devoid of any political theory of how to effect the transition from a declining capitalist economy to a Socialist society. There is the little matter of power to consider. Indeed, what strikes one about Bennism is how politically jejeune the whole concoction is. Tear away the veneer of participatory democracy and what you have is old-fashioned, sentimental, fundamentalist Socialism – Clause Four dusted off. It is as if the 20th century had not happened. A Socialist Britain to lead the world in productivity? The Yugoslavia of the West? Nor is there thought to be any problem in reconciling socialism and democracy which cannot be solved by a hyphenation of the terms.
The Benn phenomenon is to be numbered among the disorders of decline. Benn is an inspired politician of the instinctive kind. He identified the issues which could mobilise a small, disgruntled and power-hungry minority. The Labour Party was a push-over. Its class base was withering; organisationally, it was in many places moribund. The Bennites probably will complete their capture of the party. The capture of power is a different matter. It is possible, under the British electoral system, for Labour to win majority power on a minority vote. That might happen even on an out-and-out left-wing programme. But with the new Social Democrat-Liberal Alliance in the field it is improbable. It is more likely that Benn will turn out to be one of the midwives of the party realignment, one of the grave-diggers of the old Labour Party. Proportional representation would allow a constitutional niche for his brand of primitive socialism. Benn keeps saying that his kind of Labour Party is going to win a landslide victory at the next election. If he believes that he has taken leave of his senses. Running through Bennism is the dangerous notion that the tiny Socialist majority which is busy taking over the Labour Party is the true majority. Benn’s prescriptions would hasten the economic collapse which remains the chief threat to British liberty. Awareness of these dangers, however, is speeding the disintegration of the Labour Movement as a political force capable of government. To that extent, Benn may be a blessing in disguise.