The best way to show respect for Tony Benn is to continue debating his beliefs and legacy
In 2009, Richard Curtis released a film called the Boat That Rocked. It centred on the anarchic world of Pirate Radio, the small scale independent and unregulated radio stations that sprung up in the 1960s in defiance of the BBC’s monopoly. The film was sympathetic to this world and therefore needed a villain from the world of officialdom who would be hostile to it. A Guardian interview with Curtis from the time explained:
“Radio Rock’s fictitious nemesis is Kenneth Branagh’s minister, Dormandy, an archetypal killjoy toff. In reality, it was a future national treasure, postmaster general Anthony Wedgwood Benn. “He’s morphed into everybody’s favourite wise uncle,” says Walker. “But back then he was this wild-eyed, maniacal, fearsome, controlling character. If you see any footage of him being interviewed, he looks like he’s on speed.”
“When I tried to write a more Labour thing it didn’t work,” Curtis admits. “It didn’t make sense in story terms, so I ended up moving back towards a more authoritarian figure with a moustache.”
A man worthy of respect
This is perhaps rather typical of how generous we are to Tony Benn. It’s not hard to see why: he was not only one of the most eloquent politicians of his generation but also one of the most likable. He was a great example of disagreeing without being disagreeable. He put forward very controversial proposals without apparent venom. This is probably part of the reason that he was able to maintain friendships with people as far to the right as David Davis and Enoch Powell.
He was also clearly an inspiration for many people – well beyond the Labour Party. That includes me: he was one of an impressive array of speakers I heard at the 2003 demo against the Iraq War, the formative political event of my life. It will probably never be possible to work out the impact he had as a galvaniser.
However, this is far from being the totality of his legacy. Now a little time has passed since his death we ought to refresh our memories of those things that do not belong in gushing obituaries. Otherwise, we may forget them and end up with a skewed view of history. In our desire to commemorate him, we shouldn’t forget that his political views became rather extreme and increasingly misguided. He also wound up damaging many of the causes and movements he cared about.
So here are some parts of that legacy that need to be borne in mind:
1. He struggled to see how terrible others on the far left could be
Many of the eulogies to Benn described how he always stood up for the powerless over the powerful. This wasn’t entirely true. He had a huge blind spot over the sins of his comrades on the far left.
As the (notionally communist) Milosevic instigated the ethnic cleansing of much of the Former Yugoslavia, Benn blamed the crisis not on the machinations of Belgrade but on the IMF. He also suggested that in Bosnia “the main enemy is NATO.”
When Milosevic again attempted ethnic cleansing, this time in Kosovo; Benn was again at the forefront of opposing the NATO military action that would ultimately foil his plans.
Closer to home, he backed the thuggish fanatics of Militant. When the Observer published documents showing the group was manipulating Labour’s internal democracy, Benn argued with unbecoming paranoia that they were fabrications of the security services.
2. He called the Cold War wrong
The conditions for peace in Western Europe after World War II and the liberation of Eastern Europe after 1989 were laid by two institutions: NATO and the EU/EC. Benn wanted to pull Britain out of both.
3. He got the EU wrong
On this as on so many other issues the rest of the Left left him behind. They saw that what many of them had assumed would be a ‘capitalist club’ had evolved into a ‘social union’ and a promoter of solidarity and human rights. He struggled to expand his notions of democracy beyond Westminster elections and to see that the political influence of the City would be increased not reduced by a Brexit.
4. He was not a man of ‘unswerving commitment’
When Benn is discussed it is quite common to hear the assertion above followed by the observation that “he was one of the few people to moved leftwards with age” with no apparent awareness that these two statements are contradictory.
The reality is that like any other politician Benn evolved. He came from a Liberal family, was initially affiliated to the right of the Labour Party, his spells in government were characterised by technocracy and it was only in the 70s that he associated himself with the radical left. This final move put him in a better position to bid for the Labour leadership.
Now to be clear I am not suggesting Benn’s move was cynical nor that his subsequent socialist convictions. What I am saying is that Benn shows we shouldn’t equate a shift in position with insincerity. And I don’t see why Tony Benn is the only one to be given this benefit of the doubt.
5. He made Thatcherism and Blairism possible
Tony Benn was an anomaly in the history of the Labour Party. Harold Wilson supposedly said the party was “more Methodist than Marxist” and “The Labour party has never been a socialist party, although there have always been socialists in it – a bit like Christians in the Church of England.” Benn’s mission was to turn the Labour Party into a more doctrinaire socialist. That led it to an electoral disaster that made Thatcher’s reign possible. The party responded to these defeats by further eviscerating its traditions under Blair. Benn may have been a good socialist but he was not good for socialism.
6. His concrete achievements were very modest
Thanks to Benn 18 hereditary peers have resigned their seats. That is not a great policy legacy.
7. No one (including the far left) actually agrees Benn on economics anymore
There is an understandable nostalgia for the post-war mixed economy with its equal and rising incomes. However, Benn (at least in his later incarnations) cannot be a symbol of this. He was as emphatic an opponent of it as Thatcher.
His vision was not of an economy that looked like Britain in the Sixties but Poland at that or Venezuela today. His plans would have extinguished any kind of meaningful private sector with dire consequences for productivity (and potentially democracy).
What is especially striking is that even the far left has fallen out of love with Benn’s economic vision. As a recent episode of Radio 4’s Analysis reported this section of the political spectrum is increasingly occupied by anarchists rather than socialists. The notion of an economy organised into monopolies run by government bureaucrats is as unappealing to Benn’s contemporary comrade as it is to everyone else. It may well be that the future of radical politics is closer is less like Benn’s than the pirate radio stations he shut down.
Tony Benn’s transformation from perceived demagogue into a national treasure was helped no end by his losing and our country’s fondness for noble failure. However, our affection for Benn personally should not lead us to rewrite history.
His defeats made it possible for Benn to be almost universally respected by generation. However, had we been around during his political ascendancy we would virtually all have been fighting to stop ensure that defeat took place, whether that would have been as Tories, members of the Alliance, some anarchist group or even/especially within the Labour Party.
Benn complained about being treated as “a kindly, harmless old gentlemen Well, I am kindly and I am old, but I am not harmless.” Let’s not insult his memory by erasing his more controversial political stances.