BOOK REVIEW / Panache without power from our best-loved radical: 'Common Sense' - Tony Benn and Andrew Hood: Hutchinson, 8.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
TONY BENN is a man of many consecutive convictions. Each is argued passionately until, inevitably, it is superseded by some grander enthusiasm. In the early days it was the iniquity of imposed privilege. Then it was technology; next it was Europe (for and against). In the early Eighties the words 'conference' and 'party democracy' struck terror into the political classes, until the 1983 general election rendered them irrelevant. In recent years, Mr Benn has been railing with all his immense force of indignation against the Queen, her prerogative powers and the British constitution.

The menu of reform proposed in this book is of course thoroughly radical: abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords; disestablishment of the Church of England, withdrawal from the European Community as presently constituted; troops (and government) out of Northern Ireland; the establishment of a new Commonwealth of Britain. Only a reconstituted House of Commons would survive from the old order. Needless to say, the breadth of these proposals makes them impossible to achieve; the book is an exercise in existential constitutionalism by an old iconoclast with more political enemies than diary entries. But the man himself is charming. The book contains not a hint of that awful bitterness that invades the minds of so many political 'has-beens'. The writing is full of gusto, the lines delivered with brio and panache.

The left needs a new ideology, some new ideas even. But this book provides neither. Mr Benn has the annoying habit of presenting something blindingly obvious as though it were a deep secret the revelation of which will change the world. Too often there is the intellectual breathlessness of a man in a hurry to his next passion. Northern Ireland 'deserves detailed examination', which it gets in 23 lines before we are suddenly catapulted into local government, where we learn that 'decentralisation of power would revolutionise (its) efficacy'.

The book is plain wrong at times. Roe v Wade has been upheld, not reversed, by the American Supreme Court; whatever is meant by 'a system of government created as a baronial court to King John', it cannot have happened in 1265, by which date this king had been dead almost 50 years; the right to vote is not limited to British citizens who have a residential qualification but also includes Commonwealth and Irish citizens on the same condition, so it is wrong to imply that all foreigners are 'excluded from any right to participate in the political process'; Gerry Adams was elected to Parliament as a Provisional Sinn Fein candidate not as a 'Republican'. Northern Ireland, we are told 'must be free . . . to determine its own future' but the way to achieve this is 'by the termination of British jurisdiction'. So much for local democracy] The book's redeeming feature is its courage. Tony Benn is not afraid to lay out a radical socialist agenda. At a time when his party is on the verge of adopting a whole raft of liberal policies on constitutional reform, his work is a valuable reminder of the importance of democracy, by which Benn means the participation of ordinary people in decision-making and the holding to account of those who exercise political power. His bill of rights includes social and economic rights as well as political freedoms and contains some interesting ideas on the difficult question of its non-judicial enforcement.

Benn reminds us that bills of rights do not need to hand power to the judges to be made to work. But he is unlikely to be listened to, for he has long lost the power to influence events. When there was a chance that he might succeed, Tony Benn inspired fear and loathing. In defeat (which we can now see came with Labour's failure in 1983), he has become a 'dignified' part of that constitution that he excoriates so vehemently.

Sitting in Parliament, moving his points of order, his early day motions, making his socialist speeches and his clever constitutional interventions, he reminds the nation of its commitment to liberty and freedom of speech, while no longer challenging its greedy commitment to inequality. There is no radical so loved as one who has been defeated.