Tony Benn: a class act

Tony Benn’s was only ever half serious about politics. The other half was showmanship. For example, how to solve poverty? Simple: nationalise industry and the banks, join CND, cut defence and spend the money on the poor. Ta da!

He was a great showman
Vincent Cooper
On 23 March 2014 12:41

By all accounts the late Tony Benn was a charming man. Those who met him say he had the real grace and charm of the educated aristocratic Englishman. Even his political enemies praise him as a man who may have been wrong, but at least he was wrong with conviction.

Certainly, back in the seventies, Benn cut a dash as a sort of respectable Che Guevara character, a patrician tribune of the people. Private Eye dubbed him “the most dangerous man in Britain”, a title he apparently relished.

But was there ever anything more than showmanship and self image-making to Tony Benn? Consider his grasp of political events.

According to Christopher Booker of the Sunday Telegraph, Benn compared Labour’s general election win in 1964 to Castro’s march into Havana in 1959.

Such a comparison was, surely, a measure of Benn’s immature romantic revolutionary mentality. After all, when Castro marched into Havana he had 500 supporters of the old regime murdered. When Harold Wilson won in 1964 he made Tony Benn Postmaster General.

Lack of political realism was -- and still is -- a common feature of the romantic Left in Britain. On the Northern Ireland problem, for example, Benn always had a simple solution -- the British government should talk to the IRA terrorists: simple as that.

Of course, what Benn was suggesting would have conferred a degree of political legitimacy on those who placed car bombs among women and children. Not that Benn would, for one moment condone such behaviour.

But that’s the point: romantic leftists like Tony Benn are easy dupes for the propaganda of brutal power politics.

An interesting observation here, considering Benn’s never-ending demands to respect parliamentary democracy, was that he never said the elected majority Unionist voice should be listened to and respected.

But then, there was no kudos for a dashing revolutionary who had stylishly renounced his aristocratic title in supporting the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone.

Yet for all his leftish posturing, Tony Benn was not one of Lenin’s useful idiots. There was always the impression with Benn that he was conscious of his public image as the patrician tribune, the man with a higher understanding of world events than have ordinary mortals.

Such higher understanding lay behind his meeting with the isolated and embattled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Benn was on the world stage bestowing his wisdom on Saddam, above the narrow self-interests of ordinary politicians like Blair and Bush, very much the title-renouncing aristocrat.

Indeed, one feels it was the sheer class superiority in renouncing such a title that persuaded Saddam to host Benn.

The truth is that Tony Benn’s political persona, no matter how naïve and ludicrous to his opponents, always had the classy edge of the superior patrician. Benn’s politics was always something of an egotistical game.  

When it came to economics, Benn’s understanding was no more mature or rational than his understanding of power politics. For every economic problem, his solution was simple: throw government money at it.

Britain has its rich and poor (for socialists like Benn, there are always poor folk, no matter what the improvements in the standard of living). How to solve the problem?

Simple: nationalise industry and the banks, join CND, cut defence and spend the money on the poor.

It was all undergraduate nonsense, of course, and Benn could suggest all of these potty solutions when out of power. But the reality of power was that a Labour government had to call in the IMF under Chancellor Denis Healey.

Benn’s only response to this was that the IMF had no mandate from the British electorate. The truth is that Benn never engaged economics at the level of market realities, any more than he engaged politics at the level of Castro realism.

His grasp of economics was entirely ideological; understandable perhaps in an adolescent undergraduate but hardly appropriate to running an advanced economy.

Tony Benn exasperated many of his parliamentary colleagues. Harold Wilson said of him: “he immatures with age”. It certainly looked that way, if you took his views seriously. But Benn was only ever half serious about serious politics.

The other half was showmanship and fascination with self, as the Benn Diaries show.

Benn enjoyed playing the role of the title-renouncing aristocratic patrician of the ordinary people; a game which, in the complexities of the British class system becomes a form of anti middle-class snobbery, what the philosopher Roger Scruton has called “abjured privilege” whereby a “discredited privilege is at the same time discretely reaffirmed”.

Only in Britain could such a complex social class game be played. Only in Britain could an aristocrat praise characters such as Mao and Castro and end up as a National Treasure.

In almost 50 years as a turbulent public figure, Tony Benn leaves little or no lasting effect, did no real harm, and left pleasant memories to those who knew him and those who observe British politics from the sidelines. RIP.

Vincent Cooper is a regular contributor to The Commentator

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