Luces Rojas

End of an Era

Andrew Richards

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The death of Tony Bennon 14th March, aged 88, brings to an end one of the most colourful and controversial careers in modern British politics. The Left in particular has lost an iconic figure. Benn held successive high-profile Cabinet positions in the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s, as Minister of Technology (1966-1970), Secretary of State for Industry (1974-1975) and Secretary of State for Energy (1975-1979). When he stood down at the 2001 General Election, his fifty years of service in the House of Commons made him the longest serving Member of Parliament (MP) in the history of the Labour Party, a record that is unlikely to be surpassed.

Widely acknowledged as the finest political orator of his generation, Benn was also a prolific writer. For example, Arguments for Socialism, published in 1980, and Arguments for Democracy, published in 1981,were bestsellers. Above all, though, journalists, academics and politicians of all coloursconcur that his nine volumes of political diaries, the last of which was published in October 2013, represent by far the best personal chronicle of the entire span of postwar British politics. As the eloquent and highly readable testimony of a politician whose career coincided with a period of dramatic economic and social change, they may well stand as his most important legacy.

Benn's emergence as a leading radical Socialist –or what The Sun newspaper, with typical vitriol, once labelled “the most dangerous man in Britain”– had long been in the making and was the product, above all, of his experiences as a Cabinet Minister. As Minister of Technology in the 1960s he had been alerted to the immense powers of private industrialists and bankers, and the ability, in his judgment, of the civil service to thwart the wishes of the elected government. In 1976, in conditions of rising unemployment and economic stagnation, the Labour Cabinet reluctantly accepted a loan from the IMF which demanded severe cuts in public expenditure. Benn had unsuccessfully fought for an Alternative Economic Strategy which rejected the loan entirely.

This defeat in Cabinet only served to reinforce his conviction that bold intervention in the economy on the part of the state was the only way to preserve the independence of the government in the face of national and international capitalist interests. On these grounds as well, the previous year he had opposed Britain's entry into the European Union (EU), viewing the latter as democratically unaccountable, a mortal threat to national sovereignty, and a fundamental constraint on the ability of a government to enact meaningful reforms in the economic and social spheres. This was a position from which he was never to deviate subsequently, and one which now undoubtedly resonatesin many quarters, though Benn's critique of the EU never incorporated the crude xenophobia of the truly abominable United Kingdom Independence Party currently gaining ground amongst the British electorate.

Benn exerted his greatest political influence in the early 1980s. As the charismatic standard bearer of the Labour Left, he was the main protagonist in the ferocious ideological battles which engulfed the party after its 1979 General Election defeat. With widespread support amongst party activists and trade unionists, and with a powerful institutional base as chairman of the party's Home Policy Committee, Benn spearheaded a Left insurgency. In 1981, he challenged Denis Healey (Labour's Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1974-1979) for the deputy leadership of the party and, in a bitter and often ugly contest, eventually lost by the narrowest of margins, 50.46% to 49.54%. Though this subsequently proved to be his own personal high watermark, the power of the Left ensured that Labour's manifesto for the 1983 General Election was its most radical ever, promising massive state intervention in the economy to reduce record levels of unemployment and boost growth, withdrawal from the EU without a referendum, and unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Such policy measures provoked several moderates to exit the party and form the rival Social Democratic Party. The ensuing split in the traditional Labour vote led to a landslide victory for Thatcher's Conservatives in which the Labour Party almost suffered the ignominy of being pushed into third place. In the light of its crushing defeat, a moderate Labour MP labelled the party's 1983 manifesto “the longest suicide note in history”. Benn, however, was unrepentant. Even though he lost his own parliamentary seat in the debacle (he would return to Westminster the following year for another constituency), he declared the 1983 election a triumph, as never before had so many people –27.6%– voted for a truly socialist platform.

Either way, 1983 marked a key turning point in the history of the Labour Party, and Benn would always be identified with, if not always blamed for, the scale of the defeat. Undeterred, Benn maintained a high profile both within and beyond Parliament as an effective and often controversial critic of the Conservative governments of Thatcher and John Major. He was a prominent supporter of the 1984-85 miners' strike at a time when the Labour leadership was attempting to distance itself from trade union militancy. He consistently condemned the Conservatives' increasingly draconian anti-union legislation of the 1980s, remained a key figure in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and was vociferous in his opposition to Thatcher's ultimately ill-fated attempt to implement, in 1990, an utterly regressive poll tax.

As a lifelong opponent of apartheid (in the 1950s he became the first ever MP to table a motion condemning it), he criticized the Conservatives' refusal to countenance economic sanctions against the South African minority regime. It was poignant and fitting that in what proved to be his last public appearance in December 2013, a physically frail but lucid Benn delivered a moving and eloquent tribute at Parliament's remembrance of the life of Nelson Mandela, in which he lauded the latter's fight for justice “not as a South African, or a black, but as a member of the human race”.

At the same time, he was dismayed by the subsequent moderation of his own party's platform after 1983 and considered the leadership and government of Tony Blair an unmitigated disaster. In September 2010, he wrote a scathing review of Blair's memoirs in The Observer, in which he condemned the transformation of the Labour Party “from being a radical alternative to the Conservatives into a quasi-Thatcherite sect”. “New” Labour, he added, had alienated itself from “its natural base of public support, and created a general sense of cynicism about British politics from which we are still suffering”.

Though by no means a pacifist, he was outraged by the military involvement of the Blair and Brown governments in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2001, when he retired as an MP, he accepted an invitation to become President of the Stop the War Coalition, a position to which he was re-elected in 2004 and 2008 and which he retained at the time of his death. In February 2003, he addressed an anti-war protest in London of at least 750,000 people, acknowledged by the police as the largest public demonstration in British history.

In the numerous obituaries and analyses that have appeared in the British press since his death, many have questioned Benn's political judgment, but very few have challenged his integrity, the strength of his political convictions, or his lifelong adherence to parliamentary democracy and radical notions of social justice. From my own personal experience, I can attest to his personal charm and impressive erudition, which perhaps explains his ability, at the time of his death, to win plaudits from across the political spectrum. (For example, Christopher Hope, senior political correspondent of The Daily Telegraph –a newspaper as ideologically opposed to Benn as is possible– nonetheless wrote that “Westminster has lost a Colossus”). In typically eccentric fashion, Benn, in later life, recorded a video message to be broadcast only after his death, in which he declares: “I tried to speak my mind, and that's what you have to do in politics”. At a time of widespread apathy and cynicism, what more can the voter possibly ask of a politician?


Andrew Richards en investigador senior en el Centro de Estudios Avanzados en Ciencias Sociales del Instituto Juan March. Doctor por la Universidad de Princeton, es autor del libro Miners on Strike (Berg, 1996). En la actualidad está escribiendo una biografía de Salvador Allende.

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