TONY BENN: will and testament

It’s hard not to be moved by the filmed tribute to Tony Benn premiered nationwide. We see the gaunt old man, facing up to his own end, mourning his lost wife Caroline, reflecting on a turbulent life that mingled great achievements and good fortune with a degree of public and personal hostility few politicians experience. Even the film reviews show these feelings are not yet dead. The source of such reactions lies in the quite recent past, but a past that has not yet found its historian. Today people can casually refer to the ‘Winter of Discontent’, a fertile myth that conveniently captures a certain view of the political world, consoling the intellectually lazy. They talk of how Neil Kinnock made Labour electable and attribute the 1997 election victory to New Labour. Such fantasies are like the work of a Tesco accountant only using black ink. To assess Tony Benn’s appeal you have to get beyond this sloppiness. Why did he face such hatred?

A generation born after World War Two came to adulthood and political awareness in the 1960s. The fortunate 10% of it that attended the universities – new or expanded in anticipation of their coming of age in greater numbers – probably reached the former later and the latter earlier. Those of us attracted to the Left perceived Antony Wedgwood Benn (as he then was known) as a figure embodying modernity, a characteristic he shared – less ambiguously – with Labour’s new prime minister Harold Wilson. As political understanding grew and Wilson became more right wing, so Benn’s reputation suffered on the emerging British Left. ‘Modernity = Socialism’ had lost its magic.

Heath’s unexpected victory of 1970 changed everything. Tony Benn perceived the widespread disillusionment with continuity politics and moved to express it. Such a trajectory was infeasible for the older Tribune Left which owed a primary loyalty to Michael Foot. This Left was primarily a parliamentary phenomenon. What distinguished Benn was his willingness to turn outwards and talk to excluded forces. The film features the UCS sit-in, a dramatic example to be sure, but actually only one of many. The 1970s were years of industrial and political struggle: two national miners’ strikes and, eventually, a 24-hour general strike called by the TUC. In Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon the engineering and transport unions had new leaders willing to countenance industrial action and apparently also content with parallel radicalism in the Labour Party.

Here we reach the first of our sources of opposition to Benn. Before the 1974 election he had industrial allies in seeking to radicalise Labour’s programme (and thus, it was hoped) the manifesto. But once Wilson’s frail second government was formed union leaders’ instincts were to sustain it. They were moreover of the same generation and outlook as Foot who, from 1974, was the most important government minister after Wilson. The 1975 referendum campaign obscured this fissure by briefly uniting the entire Left. After that, and with Benn demoted by Wilson, the fissure became a chasm.

The best way to track this would be to watch filmed records, if they existed, of the Tribune rallies at the Labour Conference. In 1975 both Benn (then Industry minister) and his Minister of State Eric Heffer the one obliquely, the other more directly, set a critical tone. But the platform also included government loyalists. The final speaker was Michael Foot, who spoke for almost an hour. It was dazzling oratory, but almost devoid of content save for one central idea: Labour must keep the power. When the same double acts were featured the following year, the critique of the Labour government (now headed by the egregious Jim Callaghan) was so much more marked that Jones was moved to storm onto the platform demanding the right to speak.

There is a direct line from this reaction to the role of the abstainers in Labour’s Deputy Leadership campaign of 1981. In their view Cabinet ministers were supposed to spend their time celebrating actual existing Labour government and not to point to what might be. This is ludicrous at any time. In the era of what became minority government and the 1976 intervention of the IMF to rewrite everyone’s election manifesto it was plain daft. The loyalist/abstentionist refusal to redefine the role of a Left that had stagnated since Bevan’s time is the first source of spite directed towards Tony Benn. Spiced with the envy of those who feared Benn blocked their path to the leadership, it became a poisonous brew.

He had polled well in the March leadership 1976 election to succeed Wilson, reflecting a growing popularity in the constituencies. The film is surprisingly silent on the struggle for democracy which convulsed the Labour Party in those years. Perhaps this may reflects a personal view of its significance in his life? In fact he had by the later 1970s become a unique figure by marrying authority in the party to advocacy outside it. There were wide disagreements on the content, even the need, for constitutional changes to the Party, but Benn’s growing authority allowed a movement to coalesce around a small number of demands. The general election defeat of 1979 unleashed union power against the new Conservative government, but it also unmuzzled Benn and his allies who now could hardly be accused of rocking a boat that had disappeared beneath the waves.

The period that followed, lasting from 1979 to about 1985 saw Tony Benn the object of public vituperation equalling, if not surpassing, that suffered by Bevan in the 1940s and 1950s, ironic since Foot had succeeded Callaghan as party leader. The 1981 defection of the Gang of Four removed Benn’s most honest opponents from Labour and followed speedily a conference decision to establish a new electoral college to the elect the leader. It was the enemies who did not defect who proved more dangerous. Foot was unopposed under the new system, but Benn stood for the Deputy Leader post. The Labour Right stopped at nothing, including electoral fraud, to gain the narrowest of victories for Denis Healey. In this contest the decisive role was played by 37 Labour MPs who abstained, too gutless to vote for Healey and too jealous to vote for Benn. At a rally that night Margaret Beckett acidly observed that in politics you have to choose. Naturally it was an abstainer who won the 1983 contest to succeed Foot as leader. Neil Kinnock, envious, evasive, mediocre, proved a catastrophic leader who masterminded two election defeats. Benn, who had lost his Bristol seat in the 1983 election rout, was ineligible.

This great exponent of parliamentary practice and upholder of parliamentary rights had eclipsed even Foot who by 1974 was exhausted and had only rhetorical tricks left. The paradox is that this combination of exploitation of parliamentary potential allied to external agitation actually drew large numbers into politics. It would be possible to write a history of the seventies and eighties which presents him as the saviour of parliamentary politics. Despite the (rather good) joke – we hear him repeat it in the film – about leaving Parliament to devote more time to politics, he was an outstanding parliamentarian. He was frequently denounced for undermining Parliament. This inaccurate view traduces his respect for the long suffrage struggle. What he had come to understand however was that only marginal change was possible in the absence of pressure from outside Westminster.

If his failure to play the parliamentary game motivated his many Labour enemies, there were social causes that extended beyond politics. Tony Benn was a patrician. He was, in the most accurate sense, a Labour aristocrat, the son of a Labour peer and grandson of a Liberal politician. National prominence first came to him via a battle to renounce his peerage – Hugh Gaitskell’s supportive statement is one of the many telling clips in the film. When victory was finally won and his election was recognised, his acceptance speech to the electors of Bristol south-east anticipated the politics of twenty years later: ‘you have defeated the Conservative cabinet…you have defeated the House of Lords…by your own power’.

To the Establishment such formulations smelled of trahaison des clercs. But the hostility went deeper. A radical odyssey, getting more left-wing rather than right wing through age, was not what was meant to happen. Labour could accommodate prophets, men of power, even those who moved from one role to the other. But here was a man whose early ambitions had been achieved more easily than most and could at any point have made his peace with the Establishment; he did not do so. Instead he used his prominence to feed a mass movement. To those whose idea of leadership consists in lowering expectations this was mere irresponsibility. We can see where this has led us by looking at Scotland and a Labour Party quite unable to explain how a social-democratic SNP has been able to do all things it said could not be done.

The final source of opposition to Tony Benn lay in objections to his use of history. As a Cabinet minister in the 1960s and (especially) the 1970s, he had to find a political language to communicate with an extra-parliamentary audience. The convention of Cabinet responsibility requires ministers to support, at least not to oppose, government policy. The trick therefore was to play a full and engaged part at the top table while encouraging those excluded from it, to continue to be a man of power while not confusing it with office. Churchill constantly brooded on comparisons – sometimes making them explicit – with earlier periods of British history. Trotsky was said by Lenin (who ought to know) to be constantly looking at his role in history.

Whether Tony Benn did the same I do not know, but he certainly knew enough to feed a mass movement with examples from the past. At the Durham Miners’ Gala, at Tolpuddle, at Burford he honoured the radical or socialist tradition. Sometimes merely turning up there and making a speech was enough but he went further. To hear him addressing the major rallies of the 1970s was to hear surveys of the Labour past pregnant with lessons. A new 1931 – a real danger both in 1968 and in 1976 – was a favourite but he could also be playful as when Andy Bevan, Labour’s young newly-appointed Trotskyist Youth Officer was told his inaugural address would have sounded to Stafford Cripps like that of ‘a vicar at a Fabian tea party’. He became a master of walking the fine line, outwitting – through sheer ability – those who sought to gag him.

These days everyone acknowledges that the political class is unrepresentative and out of touch. It would be nice if those who have since 1994 argued that the only possible Labour government is one which doesn’t do much showed a little humility. They might like to acknowledge that we have lost a rare politician who could get a hearing from ordinary folk in the age of the Westminster clone.

King Charles III

KING CHARLES III

Originally shown at the Almeida in the Spring, Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III has now transferred to Wyndham’s West End theatre. Early reviewing focused on the humour and, if Saturday’s audience is anything to go by, it has stimulated ticket sales. However, even determined laughers were defeated in the second half: this is a dark and serious play. The characters speak blank verse which, to an English audience, subliminally signals Shakespearean themes: power, honour, ambition and loyalty. This medium, powerfully appropriate to depict the real monarchy of late medieval England, might seem overblown for today’s Biedermeier and showbiz version. The triumph of this production is to discover serious themes even in a toothless monarchy, messages which match the medium.

The story is easily outlined: Charles stumbles at the first constitutional hurdle of his reign and is forced to abdicate even before being crowned. Such a synthesis serves the plot scant justice. Charles, hesitant, decent, uneasy even before he has worn the crown, attempts to persuade his prime minister to reconsider a press regulation bill with all-party support. Fatally he overplays his hand first by declining to sign the bill into law, and then – when this has provoked a constitutional crisis – by dissolving Parliament. When Parliament refuses to be dissolved and no general election follows it is the new king who is made to abdicate. The play ends with William and Kate ascending the throne as joint monarchs and royal activism extinguished.

Walter Bagehot’s The English (sic) Constitution (1867) distinguished the dignified and useful parts of the country’s basic law, famously consigning the monarchy to the former. Yet there is no question that the gradually passage of monarchical power to the prime minister – a phenomenon of the long eighteenth century which helped forestall a second English Revolution – has left some grey areas, the ‘reserve powers’ or ‘Royal Prerogative’ of government texts. The Charles of the play (the admirable Tim Pigott-Smith) is fated to dispel the possibility of royal political action and increase the power of the political class – precisely the opposite of his intention. Well-meaning and anxious, he believes his defence of press freedom will rally support, especially since his family were victims of media intrusion. He has confused shadow and substance, not comprehending that the whole point of the Royal Prerogative is that it cannot be used. The whole House wants the press bill and so a new monarch’s views are immaterial. Lacking a legitimate basis to act, he is doomed. Long years anticipating his future role have not equipped him to grasp this overarching political fact. Driven from one failing expedient to another he is finally cornered when it becomes obvious that the very existence of the monarchy is at stake.

In its battle with Charles the political class is represented by two classic specimens. The prime minister is a silky Blairite bully, primly conscious of his dignity and status. The Leader of the (Conservative) Opposition duplicitously encourages Charles in private while solidarising with the prime minister in public. It is no contest. However, it is not their superior skills which defeat Charles but a revolt within the Royal Family. If the nuclear option for politicians is a republic, they can play a lesser card and replace him with his own son and daughter-in-law. This however requires the William of the play to repudiate filial loyalty in the grim closing scenes, ‘there’s son against father’.

The Shakespearean trope was caught even by a Saturday night West End audience. In a marvellous coup de theatre, the deposed Charles intervenes in William’s Abbey ceremony. Taking the crown from the Archbishop, he muses on it before the terrified son who has failed to wait his turn, Hal to Charles’s dying Henry IV; a deposed Richard II teasing an embarrassed Bolingbroke. Charles’s bitter rebuke makes crown itself into metaphor. Splendid to look at, it is empty: ‘turn it this way and there’s nothing there’ he says peering through at William. Which is emptier, the space within the orb or its usurper, a hollow man for a hollow crown?

This scene is elegiac. The decisive moment comes when William breaks ranks, opening a way for monarchy to continue. His Brutus is married not to Portia but to Lady Macbeth. For all her ‘common’ associations, the Kate of the play is an eighteenth century woman, content to enjoy power vicariously; unlike Charles, she understands that the whole thing is just for show. She persuades William that his father’s course threatens the institution itself and with it her own career and that of the infant Prince George. Once he is king she will rule through him and later through her son. The politicians acknowledge her role and formalise it with a joint crowning. We don’t need Shakespeare for this. It is a close parallel to the events of 1688-9 when a runaway James II was deemed to have abdicated. His own daughter and husband were crowned joint monarchs in his place, an event that inaugurated the era of parliamentary supremacy and mythic royal power lasting till our own times.

How prophetic is King Charles III? Unusually we know much of the real Charles’s views on architecture, farming, the environment, hunting and much else besides. Once king he will succeed a long line of dullards who, if they had opinions, rarely uttered them. Britain has not had an intelligent monarch since the death of William III or, arguably, Charles II. Given the degree of popular support and media interest the institution apparently still commands an activist monarch could yet upset the apple-cart. The failure of the British public to grow up politically circumscribes political action. Even Alex Salmond, brave enough to frighten the Westminster establishment, envisages a union of crowns, not a Scottish republic. Britain’s preposterous Royal Family is still a fit subject for serious drama.

Martin Upham, 16 September 2014

Rights are won, not conceded

Right from the start the UK government has approached Scottish independence in a patrician way.  This was most glaringly obvious during the referendum negotiations.  Prime minister David Cameron, confident of a No vote, insisted it be all or nothing and refused to countenance a third question on enhanced powers (devo max).  As I warned at the time this was likely to blow up in his face.  Now that it has, everyone recognises it for the blunder it was.  Lest there be any doubt remaining, the offers of the last week from the three unionist parties (actually replicating what they said in the Spring and therefore already discounted by the Scots electorate) do constitute various versions of ‘devo max’.  Of course the problem still remains because:

  1. The three offers are all different, with the Conservatives at the most generous end (because they are furthest from power in Scotland).
  2. They were made by Gordon Brown who ceased to be prime minister in 2010 and is not in a position to deliver them.
  3. They purely address Scotland’s constitutional status and this (assuming a No vote on 18th) is infeasible because of the ramifications for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But what has not yet been understood is that barring the devo max question was as much as about method as about content.  Cameron’s original stance can now be seen in the light of powers that the Conservatives are prepared to concede.  He is prepared to be flexible if he can preserve the Union.  But what is not negotiable is the entrenchment of any new powers for Scotland by a popular vote. A voted majority for devo max would first of all be a vote for a definite proposition, and not for the vague and sentimental waffle served up in the past week.  Second it would be absolutely irreversible, consolidated by an open and free vote of the Scottish people. David Cameron’s approach to all this has been that of the feudal lord, who graciously concedes.  But concessions can be withdrawn – as these will be after a No vote.  The only rights worth having are those you win by your own efforts.  I am one Englishman hoping Scotland will vote Yes on Thursday.

English socialists should hail the approaching Scottish Yes

Since about 1960 the true bedrock of the United Kingdom has been the Labour Party. This is true in the sense that only Labour has sufficient support in all three UK countries to hold them together.  (Ireland, which was divided in the last territorial loss from the UK has a separate party system.)  We have reached the extraordinary point where the UK prime minister cannot have a public meeting in Scotland, partly because he knows the reception he’ll get but also because he knows his special line in condescension is a sure-fire vote-loser. In the current referendum campaign, a No vote always depended on the mass loyalty of the traditional Labour vote.  But Labour has completely failed to mobilise it. Why?

One answer is probably complacency, though there have been signs for years that it is flaky, with seats fraying to the Nationalists.  Moreover there was no proper debate before Labour adopted its knee-jerk No stance; and, fatally British Labour determined the Scottish Labour position. Another is the embittered, carping, negativity radiated by the Scottish Labour hierarchy, relentlessly talking down and seeking to debase each step taken by the SNP government.  But what is really striking is that Labour has no answer to a critique, urged with the authority of a successful government, from its Left.  The mindless repetition of ‘what is your Plan B?’ was believed to be a deadly weapon against the Yes campaign.  How effective was it against an opponent who had actually demonstrated over many years that Scotland could be governed from left of centre?  When Britain’s two major parties actually agree on ‘anti-austerity’ spending plans from now until 2020, no wonder Scots are flocking in the opposite direction.  Labour’s inability to mobilise its traditional mass vote is a direct consequence of its evolution into New Labour.

New Labour’s right wing stance is the Achilles Heel of the Union and the wound there will be fatal.

There is too much knee-jerk opposition to nationalism on the Left.  English socialists should embrace the Scottish independence cause. (I won’t discuss Wales here, except to predict First Minister Carwyn James will face some awkward questions back home as to why he thought it appropriate to go to Scotland and plead for the Union.)

  1. It will be a shattering blow to the complacent and largely unanimous political establishment of the UK which threw everything at the Yes campaign and lost.  These are the same people who have been telling us for the last six years that there is no alternative to the ‘anti-austerity’ programme.  Cameron will be the first prime minister since Lloyd George to lose part of the UK.  What will authority will remain to him? Ed Miliband will be confronted by the stark reality that there is no right-wing path back to power for Labour.  Clegg, an irrelevance in this campaign, is history.
  2. It will force a re-examination of the constitution of the shrunken UK.  The reality of London-based government will be laid bare in a smaller country.  Real re-balancing – economic and constitutional – must follow Scottish secession.
  3. It opens up new vistas in international relations.  Someone is bound to ask why the shrunken UK should retain its UN Security Council seat.  And hopefully everyone will ask why the new state is retaining nuclear weapons – another subject on which there has been no debate.
  4. British prime ministers from Blair to Cameron love to strut the world stage, dreaming of past glories.  Perhaps we can anticipate a little more modesty in future, starting with an end to Cameron’s ludicrous sabre-rattling in the Ukraine.  Meanwhile the slavish subservience of the UK – militarily, diplomatically, culturally – to the United States has been an international embarrassment.  At last it will be questioned here at home.
  5. Free at last of the imperialist mentality England in particular can rediscover itself.  It is too easily accepted that this is a conservative country naturally inclining to market forces.  It is also the country of Wat Tyler and John Ball, of the mother of modern revolutions, of Tom Paine and the first trade union movement.  England can rediscover its own radical self.  It will be a shock for the Faragists when it does.  Some in the Scots Yes campaign argue that it is impossible for Labour to win.  Not so. But Labour does need to become a very different party if it is to return to power.

In the wake of the Scotland vote, new vistas open up for the English Left.  Labour can be part of it but only by turning away from the consensual politics of the last 30 years.