Monday, 17 March 2014

Tony Benn & Bob Crow!

High Mindedness, and the Fat Fan of Fried Fish    
TWO esteemed titans of the far left died last week; the ex-Labour MP and former Minister, Tony Benn, formerly known as Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn, at 88-years, and the RMT trade unionist, Bob Crow, at 52-years, who two years ago enjoyed an F.T. Lunch at an expensive and distinguished fish and chip restaurant in the metropolis; an occasion on which he  proclaimed that the fried halibut was good for building up the brains.  Reviewing their lives is rather like analysing the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: the noble tall  high minded thin man and the pleasingly plump trade unionist.  Despite the radical views he espoused in his later life in Labour Party politics, Mr. Benn managed to turn himself into a little public treasure much loved beyond the main stream left.  Mr. Crow represented rougher tackle purveying himself as the quick-witted cheeky cockney on Any Questions on Radio Four, and even cuddling-up to Ukip and Nigel Farage, in his anxiety at displaying his hatred of the European Union and all its works.   

For his part Wedgwood Benn has been a life-long devotee of the parliamentary system, clearly at ease in the chamber of the House of Commons.  It seems that this passion for all things parliamentary has been something of a family tradition with the Wedgwood Benn clan, because in 1932, when the then Minister of Labour referred to parliamentary proceedings as a 'performance' the then Mr. William Wedgwood Benn, the father of the Tony Benn so recently deceased, complained of this slighting representation of the business of the House, and demanded the withdrawal of a remark so offensive in its implications.  Despite the adoration of the Benn family for parliamentary government throughout the generations the institution has certainly fallen on hard times today; yet even then in his book 'The Thirties' Mr. Malcolm Muggeridge was to observed:
'It is not power which Parliament lacks... rather the will to exercise it.  Power without resolution is as vain as desire without virility, and evokes scant respect.  The proportion of voters who care to register their votes has fallen sometimes as low as thirty per cent, and since 1932 has rarely been above fifty per cent.'

Benn, the son of a hereditary peer who renounced his peerage ultimately was to become a bit of a champion of the hard left, after being a middle-of-road moderate as a Minister and serving as postmaster general under Harold Wilson.  Born in 1925 to a privileged childhood that included   Westminster School and New College, Oxford. His father was a Liberal MP who joined the Labour Party and became India secretary, and later a hereditary peer under  Ramsay MacDonald.   

Mr. Benn, who met Ramsay MacDonald when he gave him a chocolate biscuit when he was five-years-old, is in some weird ways in the MacDonald tradition of Labour politics, as Bob Crow was more like MacDonald's adversary Arthur Henderson.  Malcolm Muggeridge expresses the two crucial elements in the Labour Party thus:  'They (MacDonald and Henderson) represented two elements in the Labour Party whose incompatibility had been perhaps its greatest weakness – the urge on the part of prudent, industrious manual workers to improve their conditions, and the romantic discontent of would-be, and sometimes actual aristocrats.  The trade unions and the Co-operative movement are characteristic products of the former; National Labour and the Left Book club,of the later.'  Benn rather like MacDonald is the romantic idealist who could in the 1930s have so easily slipped into the MacDonald role of appeaser of international conflicts and champion of oppressed peoples, while Crow was clearly more parochial bent on setting up National Shop Stewards Networks, tending his allotment, and eating fish and chips in London's east end.  As Muggeridge says of MacDonald:  'The romantic idealist invariably turns his eye abroad...It is so much easier and more exciting to side with the weak and defy the strong in other countries than at home.'   

Despite their high minded similarities, the difference between MacDonald in the 1930s when he was Prime Minister, and Benn in the 1980s at the peak of his influence is that while MacDonald was an electoral asset to his party, Benn made the Labour Party unelectable helping to craft the Labour manifesto in the 1983 election which came to be entitle 'the longest suicide note in history', and he later defended the Militant Tendency, now re-erected as the Socialist Party, which Mr Crow embraced after he fell out with Arthur Scargill and the Socialist Labour Party.   

MacDonald, high minded and believing his time had come, and though he had been unpopular in his stand against the Great War, the historian AJP Taylor wrote that 'most English people [at the time of the second Labour government in 1929]  agreed with MacDonald that nations had the same interests if they did but know it and that all conflicts could be dispelled by “strenuous and good will”.'  Mr Taylor somewhere describes MacDonald as the 'patron saint of appeasement'.  In the 1980s, with Tony Benn, of course,  it was nuclear disarmament with CND.  Both MacDonald and Benn were great orators: MacDonald with his 'rich Highland voice'; Benn with his southern brogue, and both managed to carry their Christianity lightly into their politics.  Bob Crow, for his part, kept the promise I heard him give defiantly on Radio Four the day before he died:  'I was born in a council house and I'll die in a council house!'  Sancho Panza couldn't have forecast at better result.


barry said...

The comparison between Ramsay Macdonald and Tony Benn needs to be more nuanced although the article contains many thoughtful insights. Benn was undoubtedly a parliamentary socialist but he fully supported the Stop the War Coalition in its opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars unlike most Labour MPs and that cannot be construed as appeasement.
The notion that Ramsay Macdonald was an electoral asset to the Labour Party was factually wrong. His decision to form a National Government led to the complete annihilation of Labour in the General Election.

bammy said...

Barry writes: 'The notion that Ramsay MacDonald was an electoral asset to the Labour Party was factually wrong.'

I know what he's getting at, but Muggeridge wrote of his Labour Party colleagues, in 1930 (6-months after the election), thus: 'How they distrusted and for the most part disliked him; yet they clung to him. He was the only possible leader, they assured one another; he still had a large folliowing in the constituencies... It was true, of course, that MacDonald was an electioneering asset... Women especially found him impressive. He appealed to them.'