The news that Tony Benn has decided not to seek re-election has prompted a series of assessments of his career, which read like obituaries. Tony said that he faced the "daily hazard of being described as a rebel or a leftwing veteran which obscures what you are trying to do and say." But Tony has been written off more times than I have written restaurant reviews, so I shouldn't think he's too worried about it.
Tony was certainly born to rule, but his political journey is more interesting than Gerald's silly sound-bite that "Benn discovered the working class, always a dangerous thing for an aristocrat to do." Tony was born in 1925 at the sight which now houses Millbank Tower. As a child he met Oswald Mosley and Ramsay Macdonald, and Gandhi in 1931, when Benn's father was Secretary of State for India. He went to Westminster School and Oxford, where he did PPE. Although his father was made a peer, Tony was born not into the aristocracy but into the patrician middle classes.
In an absolutely classic pattern, his older brother went into the church, his younger brother took over the family business and Tony went into public service. Far from being an insult, that tradition has been a major contribution to the British way of life until it was extinguished by Mrs Thatcher and her money-is-everything mentality.
Benn's grandfather was chairman of the London County Council, fighting for cheap fares and democratic control of the police. His father started out in Parliament as a socially conscious Liberal, whose politics had a lasting impression on his son. Tony describes his father as someone whose "inherited distrust of established authority and the conventional wisdom of the powerful, his passion for freedom of conscience and his belief in liberty, explain the causes he took up in his life." William Wedgewood Benn broke away from Liberalism to the Labour Party, where the Benns have remained.
In the relationship between the different strands of this political heritage - liberty, democracy, collectivism and the confidence that comes from his upbringing - Tony's political development can be explained. He was certainly not a left winger when he entered Parliament. He was a moderniser and technocrat, the kind of person who would now gravitate to the Peter Mandelson wing of the party.
He initiated slick modern party political broadcasts. Every time you get on Concorde, you are flying in a bit of early Bennism. His first book The Regeneration of Britain is a mix of old Labour values and the excitement of the generation which fell in love with science and used it to build the future. Peter Kellner wrote this week that Benn's great contribution to British politics has been on the constitution: "He has contributed powerfully to debates about the future of the monarchy, the rights of minorities to fight discrimination, the case for disestablishing the Church of England and the need for MPs to hold governments of all parties to account."
Tony is often at his most passionate and effective on the constitution but I think it is a mistake to regard his interest in this issue as his political legacy. Tony's emphasis on parliament is responsible for his major political error.
He developed the theory that Britain had been subordinated to the European Union within the US-dominated world order, and that the reassertion of parliamentary sovereignty would, therefore, be a step forward. He wrote: "Britain is now, in law and in practice, a colony of this embryonic West European federal state." And he concluded that the only solution to this was to "embark on a national liberation struggle." I am not sure that Tony would still use the second of these phrases, but he still believes that demand for the restoration of British parliamentary sovereignty against the EU is a progressive one. However, Britain is not a Third World nation like Cuba or Vietnam but a powerful financial and military power in which the nation state has long ceased to be progressive.
The truth is that the only way to oppose America's imperial economic interests is to build a Europe strong enough to resist American ambitions. Many commentators prefer Tony as a constitutionalist because they fear or oppose his real contribution to British politics which was to lead the most left wing political movement since the General Strike. Tony's rise to prominence as leader of the left was only possible because Bevanism had finally exhausted itself in the debacle of In Place of Strife and the Social Contract.
Bennism, by contrast, did not rest on the post war consensus, but on the defence of its gains against Denis Healey's first monetarist budgets, combined with a critique of Fabian centralism. Tony saw the democratic content of this new, post 1968, movement and embraced it. Working class politics were reasserted, and he welcomed the women's movement, the demands of the black communities and the lesbian and gay movements.
He was the first national politician I heard to seriously raise these new issues a good two years before the Labour GLC was elected with a commitment to tackle racism, sexism and homophobia.
The crisis of the post war consensus in the 1970s was such that it would either be deepened - which meant, overwhelmingly, that it had to be democratised - or it would be smashed.Bennism and Thatcherism were the only two games in town, and the victory of Thatcherism, sealed in the defeat of the miners' strike in 1985, was the great domestic political event of our generation. From then on, the Labour movement has been boxed in and forced into retreat. Tony's great contribution was, and is, to fight for an alternative. Just as Tony was the moderniser who went on to become a socialist terror in the mind of middle England, so I suspect that sitting on Labour's genetically modified benches at this moment is some loyal MP who in the next decade will discover socialism and swing charismatically to the left.
I have my own list of suspects but I'll keep them to myself and spare them the attentions of the Millbank Tendency death squads.Reuse content