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.