Why Mr Benn is the right man for the job

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The Independent Online
NOT SINCE Harold Wilson in October 1963 has any Labour leader enjoyed such a command over party and country as Mr Tony Blair enjoys today. He has lured an ancient beast from its lair and slain it. This was a feat that eluded Hugh Gaitskell, who retreated rapidly after it had emitted a few growls. Lord Wilson did not even make the attempt, maintaining as he did that the creature was an old regimental mascot, a family pet really, which was about as menacing as a pussy cat. Instead, he persuaded the wholesale nationalisers to lie down with the right-wing revisionists by saying that the journey to the Promised Land would be conducted by gentlemen in white coats with ball-point pens sticking out of their breast pockets.

More than 30 years ago, when Lord Wilson made the speech on science and socialism at the Scarborough conference, nationalisation was still a matter of controversy. It was used as a talisman of whether you were on the Left. This was doubly paradoxical. For, first, the Left had never shown the slightest interest in how public ownership should actually be secured. And, second, the public ownership which in fact existed was based on a model popularised by a figure the Left hated perhaps more than anyone, Herbert Morrison. His model was the public corporation, whose best-known example before 1939 was the London Passenger Transport Board.

But the pre-1945 Labour Party had done little detailed work on the subject or, indeed, work of any kind. When Emanuel Shinwell was assigned the task of nationalising the coal industry, he sent out to Transport House (then the Party's headquarters) for guidance and was supplied with a pamphlet by Jim Griffiths - in Welsh. Still, coal was duly nationalised, along with gas, electricity and the railways. The nationalisation Acts of the Attlee government seemed part of the British constitution. The huge corporations looked out over the political landscape like great, brooding monuments built on a cliff edge.

No one, not even the most optimistic member of what in the 1970s was called the Radical Right, really expected them to be toppled into the plain below. Yet toppled they were, though more by accident than through any desire by Lady Thatcher's governments to satisfy the precepts of the new Conservatism. Ministers discovered that privatisation was liked by the Treasury, which gained money, and popular with the voters, who bought shares and sold them at a quick profit. By what the poet Blake termed "fearful symmetry", Conservative governments simultaneously busied themselves with setting up what were, in effect, public corporations on a small scale, known as quangos, called into existence to regulate activities which had previously been the province of Whitehall departments, local authorities, voluntary bodies or no one in particular at all.

And still it goes on. I read somewhere the other day that Mr John Major had been trying to detach or, as people say, "distance" himself from the legacy of Lady Thatcher. In what ways, precisely?

We are no longer safe in our beds, not only because of the dangerous lunatics released on to our streets by Mrs Virginia Bottomley, but also because of the latest batch of violent criminals who have managed to effect their escape from private custody. The Post Office may or may not be privatised, depending on the political mood of the moment. This was a step which Lady Thatcher was unwilling to take, even if it was for the slightly babyish reason that the service was called the Royal Mail. The privatisation of British Rail - which no one wants, and hardly anyone understands - is perhaps the greatest act of government folly since the poll tax.

The Conservatives will say that the abolition of Clause IV does not mean that a Blair government will refrain from nationalising or renationalising. I only wish that were true. Indeed, if I were Mr Blair, I should place Mr Tony Benn (a perfectly able chap, provided you keep a watchful eye on him) in charge of all measures of renationalisation under the new Labour administration.

Mr Benn is not a member of the Shadow Cabinet. This means that, according to the parliamentary party's standing orders, he cannot be appointed to the real Cabinet when it takes office. This restrictive provision was inserted by Mr Benn when he was at the height of his influence 15 years ago. Fearful symmetry again, you see. No matter. There is nothing in the rules to prevent Mr Blair from reshuffling his Cabinet six weeks (or, for that matter, six days) after its formation and disposing of the dullards who have been imposed upon him through the parliamentary party's system of election.

Alas, this will not happen. None of it will. Mr Benn will not be reborn as a minister. The half-witted will not be jettisoned from Mr Blair's Cabinet; not, at any rate, for some time. And nothing will be renationalised.

There is a pattern to Labour's response to the privatisation measures of successive Conservative governments. First of all, there is a ringing parliamentary pledge: not only will this iniquitous measure be opposed with all the force at Labour's command but, when the party gains power, as it assuredly will, the enterprise in question will be returned to where it properly belongs, to the people. In the second stage, after the measure has become law, the Labour spokesman promises that some form of public control - it is not clearly precisely what, but some form - will be imposed on the privatised concern. In the third stage, after the industry or service has been operating for some months, providing greater or lesser degrees of satisfaction, the question of its future ownership or control is quietly forgotten.

Having started off as a mountain torrent of indignation, and subsided into a brisk stream of adverse criticism, it disappears sluggishly into the sands. The question becomes one of adequate regulation under the existing system. There are complaints about harassed old ladies, distressed pensioners, defrauded payers by direct debit and excessively remunerated directors. Very fierce Mr Blair's colleagues sound. He can even sound quite exercised himself about these matters, provided he has been briefed on them during the morning before Prime Minister's Questions. The one thing he and his chums on the front bench are unwilling to supply is a clear promise that the industry or service concerned will be restored to public ownership.

Perhaps they are wise not to do so. After all, Mr Blair is in the happy position he is in today partly through the Government's unpopularity, partly through his refusal to risk offending anybody. (In October 1963, by the way, Labour held a lead of 12 points in the Gallup Poll.) But I am not sure that caution is always the best policy. The only service which has clearly improved since privatisation is the telephone. The public mood has now turned against the whole racket. It would be a pity if the abolition of Clause IV fortified Mr Blair in ignoring that mood.