My Biggest Mistake

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The Independent Online
Tony Benn, 68, has been Labour MP for Chesterfield since 1984 and spent a decade as an industry minister. After attending Oxford University, he served in the RAF during the Second World War. He then worked as a BBC producer before becoming an MP at the age of 25. Disqualified in 1960 on the death of his father, Lord Stansgate, he was re-elected three years later after fighting peerage law and renouncing his title. He was chairman of the Labour Party in 1971-72 and served in every Labour government after 1964. His latest book is Common Sense.

MY BIGGEST mistake was a failure to make central in British politics two requirements for our survival as an industrial nation. One is that the nation's wealth must be controlled by the people who create it. The other is that industry depends on the people actually working in it and not on the speculators who hover about like vultures trying to pick up profit from it.

It was only in the latter part of my 11 years as an industrial minister that I realised Britain was going through a rapid and progressive process of de-industrialisation.

At school, I read that Britain was the workshop of the world. That, of course, was the basis on which our industrial and economic strengths and, indeed, our world position, depended.

When you look back, that process of industrialisation had begun to fall away soon after the Great Exhibition of 1851.

This decline was held in check by the Second World War, because re-armament involved a huge investment in industry. Then, at the end of the war, we had a false boom, because there had been such a lot of destruction, including that of our main competitors, Germany and Japan.

But by the time I became Secretary of State for Industry in 1974, the situation was already critical.

In 1948, Britain launched 48 per cent of all the ships manufactured in the world; now we've got one shipyard hanging on for another Trident submarine contract. In 1960, we had the biggest motorbike industry in the world; now we've got nothing.

This process of de-industrialisation was covered up a second time by the oil revenue that poured into this country and allowed us to buy things from abroad that previously we would have had to pay for by selling manufactured goods.

But you cannot let industry go down just because you can buy things more cheaply from abroad. You cannot regard industry as a place where people go to make money rather than a place where people go to make things. We are now paying the price for having failed to appreciate as a nation what was happening. And although I tried to do something about it, what was required was far more radical even than I was saying, and certainly 100 times more radical than the British Establishment was prepared to consider.

Nobody, but nobody, should have been allowed to believe that going for profit in the short term could ever lead to anything but national disaster.

When people wake up and realise that Britain is becoming a Third World country, they will be so angry that generations of politicians and industrialists who saw this happening did nothing about it.

My main criticism of myself is that I was slow to appreciate it, and even when I did, the hammering I got for talking about it made it harder for me to get my message across.

The flame thrower of Establishment disapproval that was turned on me for raising these matters was very, very powerful, but I should have been much stronger.

I should have simply gone on and on about de- industrialisation, no matter what the consequences.

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