I recently watched, and very much enjoyed, the film ‘Tony Benn: Will and Testament’. I found it personally affecting as well as politically insightful but, rather than review it, I thought I’d share three particular political reflections which the film prompted for me.
1. The spirit of ’45. A pivotal point in the film, and in Benn’s life, is the historic moment of 1945: the end of war and the hopeful election of a Labour government which would go on to create the NHS, build large numbers of council houses, nationalise industries and provide the opening chapter in the story of a post-war boom, characterised above all by full employment, that would last until the 1970s.
The importance of the post-war settlement is illustrated in the film by the context of what preceded it: mass unemployment and squalor in the 1930s, the rise of fascism in much of Europe, and the contradictory experiences of wartime. It powerfully illustrates why, for example, the birth of the NHS was such a momentous advance for anyone who had been poor.
1945 was one of the turning points in British history and the 1945-51 government was in fact the only Labour government that delivered meaningful and serious reforms for working class people. The Wilson governments of 1964-70 – in which Benn served – benefited from being during the boom years, but their achievements were of smaller scale, and their contradictions more pronounced, than Attlee’s government. To a large extent the Labour Party has relied on the advances of those years to maintain credibility ever since, but with diminishing success.
After watching the film it occurred to me that three particular aspects of those years really made a material difference to working class people’s lives: the NHS, housing and full employment. Labour can take a lot of credit for the first two, though the needs of post-war society were such that there were few other options. Full employment was both a legacy of the war years – when people were put to work for the war effort – and a feature of the conditions of healthy economic growth that survived long beyond the Attlee years. This is what underpinned much of what characterised British society until the crisis of the 1970s, including the confidence of workers to strike for better pay and other improvements.
But there was also a darker side to the 1945 government, which is particularly highlighted in the film by Benn’s criticism of Attlee for secretively pursuing programmes for the creation of nuclear weapons, in close association with the newly dominant imperialist power across the Atlantic. Benn had a keen interest in many foreign policy matters and desire for peace even in his younger, more moderate days. The film relates how he was, for example, an enthusiastic supporter of the Movement for Colonial Freedom and the whole process of decolonisation, and an unwavering opponent of nuclear weapons.
2. Moving to the left. It is often said of Benn that he moved progressively to the left as he grew older, something that is seen as rare and exceptional. This is largely true, though he was never especially right-wing Labour to begin with but rather a career politician with a mix of ideas. What’s often missed, though, is something that comes across in the film: the leftwards shift happened mostly in one particular decade. At the start of the 1970s Benn had moved little politically since 20 years earlier when he had entered the Commons. By the end of that decade he was essentially the implacable left-winger we are all familiar with.
Such a political shift cannot be reduced mechanically to objective circumstances. Different individuals can react to the same events in quite different ways. Nonetheless, there are two major contexts which frame Benn’s political shift.
The first of these is the upsurge in popular rebellions and especially workers’ struggles between the late 1960s and the mid-1970s, including the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974 - the latter triggered the fall of Heath’s Tory government - and the occupation by the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (there’s footage of Benn addressing a Clydeside rally of the time in ‘Will and Testament’). These clearly influenced Benn’s move to the left, together with an increasing focus on what happened outside parliament as significant for the left.
The second influential factor was Benn’s own highly frustrating experience of being in office. As a Cabinet Minister in the Labour governments of 1974-79 under Harold Wilson and then Jim Callaghan, he had insider knowledge of how Labour politicians were subservient to the dictates of the IMF and big business. He was incapable of making even mild reforms. Such an experience normally shifts a Labour politician further to the right – as they rationalise their own situation as a means of coping with it – but the film reveals how it had the opposite effect on Benn (something that is also conveyed by his Diaries from that era).
On leaving office in 1979, with the election of Thatcher’s first government, Benn had moved to a firmly left-wing political stance and became the leading figure in the Labour Left. From the 1980s onwards he devoted a lot of time to extra-parliamentary struggles, speaking on campaign and labour movement platforms. A final shift would take place after leaving parliament in 2001, when he really did ‘spend more time on politics’ and dedicated himself overwhelmingly to championing struggles outside Westminster’s confines.
3. Democracy beyond Westminster. Perhaps the most compelling thing of all about Benn is the paradox that he spent half a century in the House of Commons, yet he increasingly gave priority to struggles and movements outside Parliament and used his profile to promote and champion them. This process began in the early 1970s, when he was in opposition and there was a wave of workers’ militancy, but it became more pronounced in the 1980s.
The Miners’ Strike was a whole year in which Benn dedicated himself to the cause of supporting the miners, their families and communities. He spoke in public around 200 times during the course of the Strike, and his devotion to the miners’ heroic struggle is of course a big part of why in later years he always got a great reception at the annual Durham Miners’ Gala, one of the places where he seemingly felt most at home and one of the locations for filming in ‘Will and Testament’.
The mid-1980s must have also been the time when Benn reluctantly realised that the Labour Party was not going to be won for the Left, and an excessive focus on internal battles would be unproductive (though he remained loyal to the Party to the end, and never entirely abandoned hope in it). He had been the figurehead in the early 1980s for the Labour left, the great hope for many socialists who did indeed get swallowed up inside the Labour Party and in fruitless battles over resolutions and democratic procedures. He stood firm against the Party’s drift to the right, beginning under the hapless and hopeless Neil Kinnock (seeing him on the big screen reminded me what a pitiful character he was), becoming over time an inspiration to many people beyond the Labour Party as well as the diminishing numbers of principled socialists within it.
His outspoken opposition to the Gulf War in the early 1990s prefigured his later energetic commitment to anti-war campaigning from 2001 onwards. His role in the Stop the War movement, following the commencement of the ‘war on terror’ in 2001, put his talents, especially as an orator, to magnificent use – the film includes some of his famous passionate attack on the BBC’s refusal to broadcast the emergency appeal for Gaza, which gives a flavour of his political eloquence. His anti-war role was surely his most important practical contribution in later years. He spoke on many other campaigning platforms, too, and devoted much time to touring the country and talking about socialist ideas at packed public events.
One thing Benn expressed powerfully when interviewed for the film was his conclusion that democracy is much bigger and broader than what happens in Westminster, and that real change comes from mass action and determined campaigning. Commitment to democratic principles and reform was in fact a thread running through his life, but in the end he had more radical sense of democracy and how it conflicts with the wealth and power of those who will preserve capitalism at any cost.
Benn said he would be content if his epitaph was, simply, ‘he encouraged us’. This seems to have reflected recognition that change will be won people’s own actions, not principally by the politicians in Westminster.