Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Tony Benn: A man of morals, modesty and common sense.

In Guest Feature, M. Davies on November 15, 2012 at 1:47 pm

By Mat Davies

‘’The health service was the most socialist and popular thing we did’’

On the 17th of September I had the chance to meet the activist, republican, and Labour legend Tony Benn. It was a pleasure to hear him speak with passion and to state his position on (New) Labour, socialism and inequality. As an MP he clocked up 50 years in the House of Commons either on the backbenches or as a Cabinet Minister. His views matter.

With the Labour Party conference on the horizon, and austerity inflicting old fashioned class warfare on the many, it is time to revisit some of Benn’s ideas.  He is currently touring the country arguing that politics should be wedded to morality. And tries to encourage people to say what they mean, and mean what they say by standing up for what they believe in.

He continues to be highly critical of the power of finance capital, which he believes prevented Labours economic ambitions during Harold Wilson’s governments. Having seen first-hand the damage wrought to domestic public-policies when loans were granted by the International Monetary Fund to Britain in 1976.

It is no surprise that by the late 70s his experiences harvested a left-wing tendency in the Labour Party. Consequently, his critique of the New Labour government and its (Thatcherite) economic and security policies is no secret. He suggested that with the emergence of Blair came the project of New Labour which led to a ‘’new political party’’.

However, he seems more positive about the current shadow cabinet led by Ed Miliband. Benn knew Ed’s father well. Ralph Miliband was a renowned Marxist political economist who published several influential texts, noticeably ‘parliamentary socialism’. Ed worked in Benn’s office in the early nineties; during that time Benn got to know him well.

He believes ‘’ they [us] will have a good leader in [Ed] Miliband’’ however, he quickly pointed out that ‘’ I am a socialist in the Labour Party, there are few of us there’’.

This point highlights the considerable challenge for those on the left who argue for progressive taxation and banking reform. The term ‘socialism’ continues to be avoided, labelled old fashioned, like the hangers on to clause 4. I am proudly one of them. 

Nevertheless, Benn’s point is relevant due to the dilution of ‘socialism’ as a word to express a movement for the commons, against inequality or more recently for fairness. Beyond Britain, other Labour Parties (noticeably in Poland and Malta) in Europe use the term more confidently, and address the supremacy of Capital over Labour in the process.

However, they tend to exist in societies which understand the difference between socialism and communism. Additionally, they have been spared the violent monetary and soul shifting policies wielded by the Conservative Party in the eighties. The aftermath of which is disturbingly clear.

Benn points out that today we must address the problem of the ‘scrapheap generation’ and nuclear weapons. This is a relief, as both are often side-lined or ignored in most leading media outlets. Following this, he emphasised that policies aimed at progressive taxation require more attention on the doorstep in order to counter cynicism.

He asserted that ‘’the real problem is the status quo; people are very shrewd in their assessment of what they hear. Being cynical would encourage you to do nothing at all. Anything that spreads cynicism is destructive’’

Towards the end of the evening he was pressed on what type of prime minister he would have made. Mr Benn’s response confirmed that he remains a man of modesty, morals and common sense.

He said ‘‘If someone wrote on my tombstone, Tony Benn, he encouraged us, I would be happy’’.

If there was one lesson to be taken away from an evening with Tony Benn, it would be that if more politicians were like him then policy-making would be a moral pursuit. Politics, with a capital P, could once more become a space for economic and social emancipation, rather than individual greed and short-term gains on behalf of Capital.

Tony Benn’s most recent publication is ‘letters To My Grandchildren’’.

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