Tony Benn: a reality check

The best way to show respect for Tony Benn is to continue debating his beliefs and legacy

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An example

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.

He called himself a ‘great admirer’ of Mao, possibly the worse mass murderer in history.

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

Benn was as Eurosceptic as Farage.

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.

Conclusion

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.

The Greeks at Srebrenica: a warning from history?

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Why a horrifying massacre twenty years ago should raise alarm bells about the potential repercussions of the Eurozone crisis

Do you want to be scared about the Eurozone crisis? Then read a book about the war in Bosnia. The Greek journalist Takis Micas’ Unholy Alliance: Greece and Milosevic’s Serbia includes an account of how around a dozen Greek soldiers came to be in Srebrenica in July 1995.

The Massacre

Before that month, this small town in eastern Bosnia was known – to the limited extent it was known at all – for salt mining and spas. After that it would be known as the site of the worst massacre in Europe since the Holocaust. The town had been declared by the UN as a safe zone and thousands of Bosnian Muslim refugees fled there from neighbouring Serb controlled areas. However, when it came under siege, rather than defend it, the UN peacekeeping force turned it over to the Bosnian Serb forces. What ensued in the following days is close to unspeakable. Men of fighting age were separated off from the rest of the refugees and were systematically executed. Many women were raped and tortured. Those refugees who’d fled into the hills found themselves in a desperate race to get out of Serb territory before they were hunted down and killed. By the end, more than 8,000 people had been murdered.

The Greeks who participated in this atrocity belonged to the Greek Volunteer Guards, a unit of the Bonsian Serb army, composed mostly of mercenaries and members of the far right. In fact, when the town was captured by the Bosnian Serbs, their commander Ratko Mladić ordered that the Greek flag be flown over the city.

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Greek volunteers with the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic

The Unholy Alliance

While it would be unfair to read too much into the actions of a dozen men – people from many countries fought in the war – their actions were unfortunately a microcosm for Greek attitudes to the war. People and politicians alike at best ignored and at worst actively condoned the atrocities being committed. Michas describes how during the nineties a Serb journalist working on his magazine was frequently approached by strangers who would congratulate him on the “great work you guys are doing.” Michas also points to polling evidence showing that not only was there near universal opposition to NATO’s military action amongst Greeks but that a clear majority said they actually approved of Milosevic’s regime.

This support manifested itself in many ways. Greek officials passed the information they obtained from NATO briefings to the Serb military. Priests from the Greek Orthodox Church blessed Serb units. And the Greek government helped break the economic sanctions against Serbia.

The Scary Part

The obvious explanation for Greece’s support for Serbia is their shared Orthodox Christian heritage and fear of a Muslim enemy – Bosnia and Turkey. But Michas suggests there is more to it than that. He suggests his country is defined by ethnic rather than civic nationalism. Modern Greece was formed by population transfers that purged it of its non-Greek inhabitants. Michas suggests that this created a political culture that allowed Greeks to see the actions of their co-religionists as excusable or even commendable.

Golden Dawn party members

Golden Dawn party members

The alarming part of this in the context of the Eurozone crisis is this: if Greeks were prepared to condone mass murder in Bosnia and Kosovo, might they do the same in their own country? Yugoslavia fell into bloody chaos after an economic crisis pushed the country to accept an international bailout the terms of which lead to a recession that sent unemployment skyrocketing. That gave extreme nationalists the chance to gain power. Now a decade and half later Greece is suffering a post bailout economic crisis and its own extreme nationalists are on the march. Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi movement that supplied many of the members of the Greek Volunteer Guards is now the third largest party in Greece. Its members have been linked with numerous acts of violence and even mainstream parties are pushing a progressively more extreme line on the treatment of migrants. For these reasons it would be a mistake to think that the dangers of the austerity policies being pushed by the Troika are purely economic: a bad bailout can lead to genocide.

Reasons to visit the Balkans (3) – it has a music festival in a castle

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Every year 180,000 music fans gather for the Exit Festival. What makes this unusual, is it’s held in a fort built in the 17th century to by the Hapsburg Empire as part of its defences against the Ottomans.

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This is indicative of Serbia’s surprisingly vibrant youth culture:

Today, Belgrade may be many years behind other European capitals when it comes to economic, industrial, and scientific development, but it’s literally light years ahead when it comes to nightlife. The Belgrade clubbing industry is better organized and has more to offer than any other out there. Every night of the week, there are countless different clubs with different styles and with different kinds of music where you can go. It may be hard to believe, but all the clubs which have the capacity of 300 to 500 people are basically full every night of the week.

And it’s not the most surprising place in the Balkans to be developing a reputation for its nightlife:

Tell us, do you associate Kosovo with partying? Well, you should. Kosovo’s capital Pristina is an awesome place to go out. Balkan people know how to party and they can drink A LOT. Drinks are cheap: a beer never costs you more than one-fifty euros. Or try a homemade Rakia that will burn your intestines, if you dare. In Pristina there is a big community of young internationals; working in NGO’s or interning at embassies. You will meet them for sure, since they mingle with locals easily and they are always up for something on the weekends. Just like locals, they will be happy to show you around (the relatively small) town of Pristina. Check out our Pristina party tips below.

Europe’s Muslim Majorities

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The Gazi Husrev mosque in Sarajevo

Those who fret about the Islamisation of Europe and the emergence of ‘Eurabia’ should take comfort from those parts of Europe that already have large Muslim populations

Europe’s growing Muslim population has become one of the most important political issues on the continent. The fear of non-Muslims runs something like this: Muslims have more children than the average non-Muslim, therefore, they will account for an ever greater proportion of Europe’s population. And a result Europe will become more like the Muslim world in terms of its attitudes to personal, religious and political freedom. This thesis is assailable from two directions. Firstly, it doesn’t seem that the Muslim population of the EU will grow that much, it will likely go from about 7% now to around 10% by 2050. Secondly, we can wonder if Europe might change its Muslims more than vice versa. For example, the Islamic theologian Tariq Ramadan has argued that there is evolving a distinct “European Islam” to accompany the Asian and African varieties of the faith.

One thing that tends to get overlooked in this debate is that Europe already has predominantly Muslim countries. About 70% of Albanians are Muslim and the proportion in Kosovo is probably even higher. Muslims are also the plurality in Bosnia and a majority in the Bosniak-Croatian entity within it.

However, contrary to what many Europeans would assume these countries feel more like Italy or Poland than Saudi Arabia. All are constitutionally secular and all have large groups who identify as Muslim but don’t practice. Walking around Sarajevo – a now overwhelmingly Muslim city – you see fewer people wearing veils than in London and as many people drinking: the average Bosnian drinks more than the average American!

This is in part the product of the religious history of the Balkans: most of its Muslims belong to traditions that have been influenced by Sufi mysticism and its receptiveness to folk traditions. The Islam you get in the Balkans is thus of the less puritanical and more tolerant variety.

Equally importantly Islam has been present in the Balkans for centuries. It was first introduced by the Ottomans in the 14th century and this 600 year history in European countries has given Balkan Islam a distinctly European hue.

This is not to say that everything is mysticism and tolerance: there have been concerns raised about the radicalising impact of the wars in the region. However, that is something happening on the fringe rather than the mainstream.

There are limitations to using the Balkans as a model for the rest of Europe: in particular Muslims in the rest of Europe tend to come from lands where Sufism is less influential. However, to completely ignore these examples of a genuinely European Islam is scaremongering by omission. Ironically, a region often associated with war may be a herald of how Europe will be able to live with itself in the decades to come.

 

 

P.S: If you’re wondering why I’ve not really addressed whether the wars of the 90s undermine my arguments, don’t worry I’m going to do a post on that later in the week.