Tuesday, 18 March 2014

A modern-day Chartist: Paul Foot on Tony Benn

Paul Foot's magnificent book The Vote: How it was won and how it was undermined was published posthumously, by Penguin, in 2005. Paul Foot had died the previous year, aged 66. In the passage below, from the book's Conclusion, Foot the lifelong revolutionary socialist (who emphatically rejected Labourism) wrote about the transformation of Tony Benn from a moderate Labour politician to a radical campaigner.

Although Benn remained a Labour Party member until the end (something that was never really in doubt) the last decade of Benn's life, including his role as Stop the War Coalition president and his contributions to the Coalition of Resistance and later the People's Assembly, confirmed what Foot wrote about his radicalism and his active commitment to popular struggles.
Here is what Paul Foot wrote in The Vote:
Anthony Wedgewood Benn was born with a political golden spoon in his mouth. His father was a Liberal who joined the Labour Party and became a member of two Labour governments - and a Viscount. When he was only 25, young Tony 'inherited' Sir Stafford Cripps's safe seat at Bristol. After campaigning successfully to reject his inherited title, he became, on his own admission, a compliant and even right-wing secretary of state in the 1964-70 Labour government, and a senior figure in the 1974-79 government.

During the early 1970s, no one knows quite when, he moved sharply to the left, developed a rich, mocking sense of humour and started making overt socialist propaganda. None of this was strong enough to pull him out of the Wilson or Callaghan governments, but in the early 1980s he resumed his socialist pilgrimage, and in 1981 was only very narrowly defeated for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party.

During all this time he kept a daily diary- perhaps the most formidable document of a century of Labour Party history. His political development can be traced in the forewords to the seven volumes as they came out. The diaries for 1963-67, for instance, unquestionably the most right-wing period of his long parliamentary career, were published in 1987, the year he launched, in his Chesterfield constituency, a socialist conference to unite and inspire the rank and file outside Parliament.

The foreword to that volume set out his most explicit concerns about the value of parliamentary democracy. He emphasized four lessons he had learned from his long parliamentary experience. The first two were the 'feudal structure' of Crown and Lords and the power and patronage wielded by the leader of the Labour Party. He went on:

'Third, as a minister, I experienced the power of industrialists and bankers to get their way by the use of the crudest form of economic pressure, even blackmail, against a Labour government. Compared to this, the pressure brought to bear in industrial disputes is minuscule. This power was revealed even more clearly in 1976 when the IMF secured cuts in our public expenditure.' 

The fourth lesson related to the power of the media, which 'like the power of the medieval church ensures that the events of the day are always presented from the point of view of those who enjoy economic privilege'. Tony Benn's conclusion was as follows:

'These lessons led me on to the conclusion that Britain is only superficially governed by MPs and the voters who elect them. Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means for securing a periodical change in the management team, which is then allowed to preside over a system that remains in essence intact. If the British people were ever to ask themselves what power they truly enjoyed under our present political system they would be amazed to discover how little it is, and some new Chartist agitation might be born and might quickly gather momentum.'

Tony Benn kept up his diary through the rest of the 1980s and for all the 1990s too. He watched in bemused dismay while a new leader of the Labour Party was elected from a quite different tradition to the one he grew up in. He observed how speedily New Labour ditched what was left of its social democratic heritage - Clause IV, public ownership, the welfare state, comprehensive education. He was naturally not even considered for office in Tony Blair's administration after 1997, and seethed on the back benches as his party in government stumbled from reaction to reaction until it became indistinguishable from the Tories.

In all this time he made himself available to any organization outside that was resisting this slide. Any workers fighting redundancy, any school standing up for the comprehensive system, any persecuted foreigner seeking asylum could rely on his active support. Again and again, he deliberately abandoned his base in Parliament and worked among those who, he hoped and believed, would one day trigger a new Chartist agitation, and a revolution from below.

In 1999, after two years of the Blair government, he made a historic announcement: he would not be standing for Parliament in the 2001 general election. He would be leaving Parliament 'in order to devote more time to politics'. His own enormous experience in the highest places in the land drove him to the conclusion that the place to fight was in the lowest: that any future for an egalitarian socialist society rested not on what happened in Parliament but on the resistance and determination of the workers and the poor.
Some pointed out rather churlishly that this decision came at a time when his parliamentary career might have been over anyway. He was 74, and in any case his constituency, Chesterfield, was lost in the 2001 election to the Liberals. But his resolve never wavered. Despite his age and the cruel death from cancer of his wife, he continued resolutely down the path he had set himself: to argue and agitate for change from below.


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