The first moderniser

Tony Benn: a political life

David Powell <em>Continuum, 256pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0826456995

The Right Honourable Anthony Wedgewood Benn spent almost half a century in the Commons before retiring last June to spend "more time on politics". During this life, he was a kaleidoscope of political pictures. A third-generation MP - his father was Ramsay MacDonald's secretary of state for India in the 1929-31 Labour government, and both of his grandfathers were Liberal MPs - he was shoehorned into the Bristol South East constituency, in November 1950, on the resignation of Sir Stafford Cripps. Cripps showered endorsements on the 25-year-old Benn in a way that Millbank could scarcely better today.

Benn quickly made a name for himself in the Commons as a liberal human rights campaigner. By 1957, he was, briefly, Labour's spokesman on the RAF, before resigning on the grounds that he could not support the use of nuclear weapons in any circumstances. It did his career no harm. Benn was elected to the party's national executive committee.

After his father's death in 1960, he was propelled into the House of Lords. That he was able to mobilise support for a successful campaign to protect the rights of that smallest group of oppressed minorities - reluctant peers - showed the extent of his contacts and commitment. Back in the Commons, he became Harold Wilson's personified technocrat, first in 1964 as postmaster-general and then as minister of technology. He was a moderniser's moderniser: pro-Concorde, in favour of restructuring British industry, and in favour of both Barbara Castle's attempts to incorporate the unions, through the "In Place of Strife" plan, and membership of the Common Market.

Within five years, he had metamorphosed into the populist Tony Benn, pro-trade union and anti-European Community. An advocate of workers' control and internal party democracy, he was sending his ministerial car shuttling around London's radical bookshops hunting for copies of the International Marxist Group's Socialist Challenge. By 1981, after Labour's ejection from office by a disgruntled electorate, Benn and his supporters - of whom I was one - seemed willing to pull the party down with them. Buoyed by support in the party that could deliver unscripted, unbussed and unpaid audiences of thousands, we confused support among the self-selected for support among the electorate. It was sectarianism at its best. Benn was its prophet. It all culminated in his attempt, in October 1981, to replace Denis Healey as deputy leader.

Benn could have won easily. They had only to count the votes differently. If abstentions had been included, he would have won instead of losing by less than 0.9 per cent. If he had, Labour's social democratic tendency would have jumped ship almost in its entirety. As a result, in 1983, Labour would have finished third and the Liberal-SDP Alliance would have inherited the future. Eventually, the Tory hegemony would have been broken. But it would have been the "new" Liberals who would have inherited the earth. However, in contrast to today, they would have been pressured on the left by a socialist Labour Party, entrenched in its heartlands in Scotland, Wales and the urban centres.

After 1981, Benn's star was waning. If the campaign against Healey was tragedy, his drubbing in the leadership contest of 1988 against the incumbent Neil Kinnock was farce. Benn retreated to the further shores, searching for new political resonances. Betrayed by the logic of his own premises, he chose to embrace "socialism in one country". Torn between past and future, he chose the former; seduced by his love of history, he defied global economic and political realities rather than riding with them. His criticism of the EU's flawed democracy has merit, but it's a bit rich coming from a country whose feudalism still lurks in its unelected second chamber. After all, Britain barely achieves the democratic criteria for joining the EU, let alone lecturing it.

Benn's final political resting place is among the political King Canutes of the anti-globalisation movement. Instead of trying to stop the tide coming in, the real challenge was, and is, to direct and democratise the emerging global economy.

As for Benn himself, what will history make of him in 50 years' time? He would aspire to be seen as a 20th-century Leveller. In reality, he will be seen either as a late 20th-century John McGovern - the Independent Labour Party minister of housing in the first Labour government, who was the left's hero in the 1920s, but is all but forgotten today - or as a hero of the second Luddism. Still, being a footnote in history is more than most of us can hope for.

Glyn Ford is a Labour MEP

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The SAS story they want to suppress