Obituary: Tony Benn

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on April 14, 2014


On March 14, 2014, Anthony Wedgewood Benn (“Tony Benn”) died aged 88. Though, as his assumed name in later years suggests, Benn presented himself as a populist, he was in fact of very elite stock: born in 1925, his grandfather was a Liberal MP, as was his father (until he joined Labour in 1927), and his mother was a leading early feminist campaigner. Benn was entitled to a hereditary peerage as Viscount Stansgate, which he declined. (Ever one for publicity, after the Peerage Act of 1963 was passed on July 31 of that year, allowing renunciation of peerages, he became the first peer to renounce his title, 22 minutes later.) He mixed with figures like David Lloyd George and Mohandas Gandhi, and attended the exclusive Westminster School, which is “something he tried to hide in future biographies,” before going on to be a fighter pilot in the RAF.

Having been briefly a producer at the BBC, he went on to be Minister of Technology with responsibility for the development of Concorde in 1967. After Edward Heath’s Tories’ victory in 1970, Benn went on to agitate for a referendum on the EEC—about the only useful thing he did in his entire life—and in 1975 campaigned loudly for the “No” side, which was, then-as-now, left without a great deal of mainstream support, trapped with the Bennite far-Left on one side and the Enoch Powell-led ultra-Right on the other. With the referendum over, Howard Wilson sought to unite his fractured party—the point of the referendum to begin with—and appointed Benn Secretary of State for Energy, where Benn was able to do considerable damage.

Even in an era of wasteful State expenditure on industries well past the point of usefulness, Benn made a special point of propping up the most grossly wasteful and mismanaged industries. His continuation of the Concorde scheme at public expense, for example, was a classic case of the thing he would most rail against in later years: wealthy “special interests”. His experiment in “workers’ control” was a dismal and costly disaster. Oliver Kamm once noted:

The most absurd of these schemes was an ailing workers’ co-operative, formerly a private company, called Kirkby Manufacturing and Engineering (KME), which Benn championed in the early days of the 1974-79 Labour Government … KME made radiators, parts for British Leyland and—heaven knows why—orange juice. Benn first gave a subsidy of £3.9 million of public funds to the company, and a further £860,000 was awarded in 1977. The money might as well have been thrown in the river: the company’s financial position deteriorated such that a loss of £700,000 in the first half of 1978 was succeeded by a loss of £1 million in the second half. Whereupon a private firm called Worcester Engineering was persuaded to take over KME with another public subsidy of £4.3 million.”

Benn was one who helped write into the February 1974 Labour manifesto: “It is indeed our intention to … bring about a fundamental … shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people”. His most lasting, concrete contribution to government, however, was a massive shift in wealth from tax-paying working people to tinkering and avaricious rich tycoons who blundered with Concorde.

In 1976, after Wilson’s resignation, Benn was knocked out in the first round of the leadership contest and threw his support to Michael Foot, who lost to James Callaghan. If there was any single moment that marked Benn’s sharp shift to the Left, this was it. Foot was a decent enough man but he was a hopeless manager. In 1983, when Foot had acceded to the leadership of his party and Benn played as unofficial leader of an insurgent wing of the party that was actually more the leading wing than anyone cared to point out, Benn excused the near-annihilating defeat by saying that at least eight million people had voted for a pure socialist platform. As Neil Kinnock tried to regain control of the party—and to comb out the Communists, both the Kremlin’s direct agents, especially among the trades unionists and the “peace” movements like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and Moscow’s fellow travellers—Benn was no help whatever, beginning what would become a feature of his latter years: an alliance with totalitarian forces as long as they were sufficiently anti-American.

Benn liked to say he was a supporter of Sinn Fein and their Irish unionist cause; even at the time his soft-peddling of IRA terrorism and the republican movement’s grimmer, street-level gangsters and killers was obvious to anyone who cared to notice. His support for the egregious figure of Arthur Scargill nearly destroyed his own political career, tying not only the miners’ cause but the Labour Party, in the public mind, to a Stalinist, somebody who blatantly eschewed any democratic process, within the TUs, and writ large—attempting to mobilise a violent putsch against the elected government of the United Kingdom while in receipt of money from Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya and the Soviet Union. Unsurprisingly it failed, breaking the back of the trades unionist movement and keeping Labour away from the levers of power for more than a decade in the process.

Having stood down from Parliament in 2001, Benn’s attempted ironic comment that he was doing so to “spend more time on politics” was perfectly accurate: he will be remembered by most—especially those most loudly cheering his virtues at the present time, the students and others who came of age in the last decade—for his public profile since that time. He put himself at the service of the totalitarian Socialist Workers’ Party and its front-organisation, the Stop the War “Coalition” (the only other partner being the Muslim Association of Britain, a party more stern in its cultist totalitarianism than the SWP)—and campaigned loudly to blame the violent attacks of Muslim extremists on the United States.

Of every blunder and mistake he made in his career, there is nothing—nothing even close—to his actions in February 2003, when he flew to Baghdad to address Saddam Hussein in obsequious terms, with his customary modesty, on behalf of every Western opponent of the then-impending invasion. There is nothing that will efface the shame of Benn sitting across the desk from a man who had murdered two million people, started three wars, attacked six neighbours, and tyrannised a whole State for three decades, driving four million people abroad, and refusing to ask him a single difficult question. Benn acted as Saddam’s megaphone, and openly said that the “peace” movement identified itself with Saddam. For somebody who had styled themselves as the inventor of five questions with which to assess the legitimacy of the powerful, it was quite amazing that Benn did not even ask this most absolutely powerful of men even one of them.

Opposition to the invasion was not the same as supporting Saddam; one could maintain the former position while taking the side of Saddam’s victims. But for Benn Saddam’s victims were politically inconvenient so they played no part in his moral universe: he unforgivably denounced an Iraqi woman in London as a “CIA stooge” when she tried to tell him he was on the wrong side of history marching with the Stalinist hacks and the Muslim Brotherhood to try to save Saddam.

Benn’s final act was to throw his support to the “Hands Off Syria” faction, who did not object the outside interference of Russia and Iran in Syria to prop up the Assad dictatorship in its exterminationist campaign against the Syrian people, but who did object very strongly to any American-led effort to end this slaughter, or at least blunt the regime’s killing machine. It would be too kind to say that the people who only discovered that there was a war in Syria when Western intervention was proposed last August are fools. The people with whom Benn chose to identify himself were quite plain in their pro-Basharism; for them the fact that Western ­non-intervention favoured the regime in its unequal combat with a desperate rebellion was the feature not the bug of the stance. Either Benn was naïve enough to lend his credibility to a movement for dictatorship and mass-murder, or he was cynical enough to do so behind the same smokescreen of being “anti-war” as these people, who had very sternly chosen a side in this war. Neither position has any honour in it, and in the final analysis that may well be Benn’s epitaph.

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