No tears for a parting politician

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The Independent Culture
WORDS CANNOT express my regret at the news that Anthony Wedgwood Benn has decided to retire from Parliament. My regret is that he has left it so late. Twenty years too late.

For Benn has done more damage to the Labour Party than any other of its principal figures - even Ramsay MacDonald. For, while MacDonald, Labour's first Prime Minister, in 1931 engineered a split that kept the party out of power for 14 years, Benn led the hard left's manoeuvrings that helped to keep Labour out of power for 18 years.

He started out promisingly, as a young sprig of the nobility: the Stansgate viscountcy, with an estate in Essex. When I asked a visitor to Stansgate whether he had run into Anthony, my acquaintance replied "Yes. Very good with the servants."

I used to see quite a lot of Benn during Wilson's first Labour government, when I worked at 10 Downing Street, in an advisory job to Wilson which, indeed, Benn had recommended me to accept. During this period, when he was a member of a small informal group of gossips who imagined, mistakenly, that they comprised a kitchen Cabinet, Benn was occupied harmlessly with such tasks as introducing pictorial postage stamps (when he was Postmaster General) and thinking up regional policies (when he hung a map of Britain upside down in his Minister of Technology's office in that very Millbank Tower now infested by his betes noires, the minions of New Labour).

Regrettably, however, during Labour's period of opposition from 1970 to 1974, Benn discovered the working class, always a dangerous thing for an aristocrat to do. Sons of factory workers, like me, have no illusions about our fellow proletarians; nobs like Benn, on the other hand, revere them as noble savages.

As shadow industry spokesman after the 1970 defeat, he became infatuated with the struggle of the Upper Clyde ship-builders. On becoming Secretary of State for Industry in 1974, he proceeded to set up a dotty collection of workers' co-operatives, all of which collapsed.

But then, the minutiae of administration were never his strongest suit. I remember attending a cabinet committee called principally for him, now Energy Secretary, to present a paper on, I seem to recall, nuclear power. When this item was reached on the agenda, Benn asked for the discussion to be postponed. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, asked why. Benn explained that he had not yet had time to read the paper that had been circulated over his name.

Benn, further, fell in with a motley collection of lefties, some simply mad but others profoundly malevolent, who regarded him as an instrument they could use to transform Labour from a messily democratic party into a disciplined Stalinist organisation. When Labour lost in 1979 after its humiliation by the International Monetary Fund (a process in which Benn willingly co-operated as Secretary of State for Energy, even offering an increase in gas prices), the hard left decided their hour had come.

Having by infiltration gained control of many constituency Labour parties (including mine), the National Executive, leading unions' block votes and the party conference, they proposed constitutional changes, including an electoral college for choosing the leadership, which Benn supported wholeheartedly. In 1980 in a campaign that he had hailed as "cleansing" but which made Labour appear, accurately, divided and extremist, Benn was beaten by Denis Healey for the deputy leadership by only a fraction of 1 per cent.

Up to then Labour had led in the opinion polls. After that, Labour never led again until its massacre by the Tories in the 1983 election. In 1988 Benn stood again, this time for the leadership against the incumbent, Neil Kinnock. Once again Labour was damaged with respect to the electorate.

During the 1983 Parliament Benn, though never elected to the Shadow Cabinet, stepped into a place vacated, ironically, when Bill Rodgers left to join the Social Democrats. In that period, having failed to abide by collective responsibility from the front bench, Michael Foot delivered against him at a Shadow Cabinet meeting the most excoriating denunciation of one politician by another that I have ever heard.

At the time of the Gulf crisis, Benn spoke up against action to deal with Saddam Hussein, whom he visited in Baghdad. And during the Kosovo crisis he has spoken up against action to deal with Milosevic. On home affairs he has taken pretty well every possible opportunity to vote against the Blair Government, in whose landslide victory he had not shared. We shall have to put up with him for the rest of this Parliament. At any rate, considering his past pronouncements he may not be seeking a peerage in the next, I suppose.