Saturday 15 March 2014

COMMENTARY: Tony Benn and the Defeat of the British Left

After the death of Tony Benn, I find myself ruminating over whether socialism can ever prevail. By socialism, I refer to all parts of the political compass-spectrum from 'centre' Left to 'extreme' Left.

Tony Benn was an English aristocrat who found his political conscience from, I believe, the tenets of Christian Socialism - not Bolshevism, Trotskyism or other Left 'ism'.

When as a teenager I became aware of him from the early 1980s, it was clear that he was considered ‘hard’ Left and that the media and a lot of fellow ‘Old’ Labour party socialists were against him.

There was a tremendous battle between the political Right and the Left in the United Kingdom after the Second World War –maybe not as dramatic as places such as Italy and West Germany- but a battle nonetheless in which the Right-wing establishment prevailed.

The advent of the nationalising, welfare state-creating Labour government of Clement Atlee and the rise of trade union power led to the feeling among UK figures in the far Right Tory establishment, the security services and the military that Britain was “going Red”.

Some actually believed that Harold Wilson was a Soviet agent who had assumed the leadership of the Labour Party by the grace of the Soviet’s ‘assassination’ of Hugh Gaitskell who seemed prepared to institute reforms of the sort not accomplished until the metamorphosis of New Labour.

The same sort of people also felt that Moscow was giving direct orders to trade union leaders to make Britain ungovernable.

The attempts to destabilise Wilson’s government in the 1970s by renegade members of the security services and threats from elements in the military to stage a coup d’├ętat, as well as the tactics used specifically to destroy the power of the miners’ union during the strike of 1984 and the general laws passed by the Thatcher administration to curtail union power in general, show how far the Right was prepared to go.

And as a figurehead of the Left, Benn was a target. Apparently he was at one time marked down for assassination if he ever became the leader of an elected Labour government. It was alleged that Airey Neave, an establishment figure of the Tory Party with connections to the security services and military, had once issued such a threat.

Benn of course failed in his bid to become both leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party.

The advent of Thatcher, the defeat of the miners as well as the reform of Labour, which renounced Clause 4 of its constitution on social ownership, into New Labour confirmed the defeat of old-style socialism and its removal from the mainstream of UK politics.

Tony Benn obviously did not like the course New Labour took, but even if people on the Left are correct in their assumption that the mass of people have been brainwashed by the Althusserian-styled Ideological State Apparatus, it is simply the case that most people in the UK simply do not go for old-style socialism.

Will the patently obvious failings of deregulated state structures which have bequeathed the casino culture of profiteering bankers, corporate fat cats and the soulless, market-orientated league tables which determine areas such as health, education and law enforcement bring about a resurgence in classic socialist beliefs? For the moment it appears not.

The vestiges of a National Health Service, free education and social security system are in themselves symbols of a kind of triumph of socialism.

But they are all presently under attack under the pretence of austerity measures, the need for ‘efficiency’ and the apparently impossible financial burdens an ageing population would place on the state.

Also, the repressive features developed by many socialist regimes in power during the 20th Century, at the helm of which was that of the old Soviet Union, purportedly leading mankind into a communist utopia, were not a good advertisement for the cause of the Left.

I’m no ideologue or soothsayer, so only time will tell.

In the meantime, RIP 'Wedgy' Benn, you stuck to your belief system right to the end and your eloquence, humaneness and charisma mean that you will always be remembered.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2014)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

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