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Reflections on Tony Benn

Tony-Benn-image-credit-Pryere-200Tony Benn spent nearly 50 years as a Labour Member of the British Parliament.  He was a proponent of democratic socialism, a vegetarian and an advocate of humane social values. Benn, a radical social reformer, was vilified by big business, demonised by the media and targeted by the right-wing majority of his own party. He died on 14 March 2014, aged 88. Bill Waters reflects on Benn’s lengthy career. 

23 April 2014

Tony Benn was a rarity among politicians: a man of exceptional talent, towering intellect, highly articulate in speech, and a courageous crusader for humane social values.

Like his socialist role model, Aneurin Bevan, Benn never received the award he desired and deserved most: leadership of Britain’s Labour Party, with the Prime Ministership then within reach.

He held six ministerial posts in five British Labour Governments in the 1960s and 70s, and his number one target was the undemocratic nature of Britain’s basic institutions. 

Benn had faith in the capacity of ordinary people to govern themselves, and he was never compromised or silenced by office or the prospect of office.  However, he was demeaned and demonised by the “popular press” as the Labour Party’s major “threat to democracy”.  

No-one in public life was more vilified by the big business elite than Benn. The mere mention of his name would trigger waves of ridicule-cum-hysteria through business boardrooms in the City of London. 

The right-wing majority of his own Party seemed more obsessed with taming Benn than with curbing the inequities and inefficiencies of the capitalist system.

Benn believed the “granite foundation” upon which politics rests is values.  What are our obligations to our fellow men and women?

Benn said the need for neighbourly love within a common humanity was more immediately apparent than the alternative interpretation or appeal of Christianity based on the values of mysticism, fear, liturgies and creeds.

“The deeply held conviction that conscience is above the law, because conscience is God-given, and laws are made by men and women, is highly revolutionary”, said Benn.

If we are “our brother’s and our sister’s keeper” then “an injury to one is an injury to all” and that premise, he said, underpinned the origin and growth of the trade union movement.

According to Benn, all moral values under capitalism have been subordinated to the religion of the market-place. But, he says, “the best of the Christian tradition has always been revolutionary, democratic and humane” (In the 1970s, Benn became a vegetarian on ethical grounds and remained so for the rest of his life).

In practical terms, Benn believed democracy was compatible with socialism, and incompatible with capitalism. Distinguished economist, Milton Friedman had in 1962 published Capitalism and Freedom which was the standard textbook-cum-reference for the thesis that only the free enterprise capitalist economic order was compatible with freedom and democracy.

Tony-Benn-credit-Glastonbury-Left-Field-250But Benn built an impressive case to the contrary.

Benn’s thesis was that capitalism, to operate effectively, requires more economic inequality than free and strong trade unions, and democracy based on the ballot box, would permit.  

Firstly, the unions could put such pressure on the profit rate that capitalism became deadlocked.

Next, if people/voters who lack the finance for schools and hospitals can vote for schools and hospitals by electing a candidate who promised to give them a health service, and a decent educational system, then a second pressure (through a progressive taxation system) is put on profit margins (and high incomes), and capitalism will be unable to cope. 

Thus, only socialism is left standing to meet the needs of the masses.

Ben’s basic thesis could be reformulated as this: The political system is based on voter equality (one person, one vote, one value).

In the market place of the capitalist economy, however, there is extreme inequality. There the “voting power” of high-income earners vastly exceeds that of low-income people.   Here is economic inequality counterpoised to political equality.

In the political arena, the majority, consisting of middle and low-income earners can outvote the upper income group, and legally enforce a redistribution of income and wealth to the detriment of the upper group.

Voter equality can make vast inroads into economic inequality and make the private-profit based economic system unworkable.

Sadly, history has, at least up to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), passed by this scenario.

Capitalism has made no sustained recovery from the GFC and is being propped up essentially by the printing of money (quaintly described as “quantitative easing”) in the US, Europe, and elsewhere. 

This is no long-term medication to cure the malignancy at the heart of international capitalism. But political parties that were once on the progressive side of the spectrum have shifted to the middle, while the whole spectrum (in the developed world) has shifted to the right, and remains anchored there, despite the disgrace that capitalism (and its supporting economic ideology) had incurred owing to the GFC.

Social historian Selina Todd’s new, brilliantly researched book Register for self-service experienceThe People – The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010 sadly concludes that, in a society where 60 percent of British people still consider themselves to be working class, the current labour movement is “in crisis, lacking any sense of identity, direction or collective power”.

This is, to no small extent, due to the Labour leadership void that the Nye Bevans and Tony Benns would have filled with courage and distinction.

Bill Waters holds a Master’s degree in Economics and an Honours degree in Government, both from the University of Sydney. He taught Economics and Government at the University of Sydney, and Politics at the University of New South Wales.

Images from top: Pryere, under a Creative Commons licence; Glastonbury Left Field under a Creative Commons licence.



+2 #1 Selina Todd 2014-06-10 19:02
I found this very astute and also very moving. Thank you for your kind comments about my book, and more importantly for sharing your insights into the career of the greatest leader Labour never had.

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