Tony Benn: Still our Man for all Seasons

I find it hard to accept it is 7 years since Tony Benn died. I miss his wisdom, foresight, kindness and humour. Worse still, whether the country realises it or not, we are all the poorer for the loss of Benn’s political acumen and vision.

Faced with some of the biggest existential challenges in human history, today’s politics obsesses with the short-term and the superficial. Benn would have had none of it. Asked about Harry and Megan, Tony would probably have made a twinkling reference to how stressful it must be for them, trying to work out what to do once furloughing ends. But then he would have moved the conversation to a different level.

Tony would want to begin with today’s collapse of democratic credibility; reminding us of his ‘Commonwealth of Britain Bill’ – first published 30 years ago – and suggesting that, rather than taking sides in a dysfunctional (Royal) family dispute, this would be the moment to discuss a new constitutional settlement for Britain.

He would then quickly shift the conversation from Harry and Megan to Greta Thunberg; insisting that Greta’s warnings are far more relevant to the lives of his (and our) children/grandchildren than anything coming from the Palace.

And finally, Tony would take the public into conversations about what a sustainable ‘post-pandemic’ politics will have to look like. This is exactly where Labour should be.

The fuel of the future

Central to everything is Benn’s instance that “Hope is the fuel of the future”. Forget conventional fuels. No amount of oil, gas, coal, nuclear or (reduced) aviation fuel duties will get us out of the mess we are in. ‘Hope’ was Tony’s engine of change, but it was always ‘vision’ that defined his direction of travel.

Then, as now, it was what got radical thinkers into trouble inside the Party. But this never worried him. Benn would simply point out that if the post-Covid world is to avoid climate breakdown and collapse then a completely different economics is exactly what we need.

Those arguing that conventional spending cuts must repay the borrowing costs that surviving the pandemic required would find Benn turning their logic turned upside down. He would point out that traditional austerity politics, targeting the poor, has only ever made matters worse. Then, with a mischievous grin, you could expect Tony to invert the argument. If it has a place today, austerity must begin with the rich not the rest. Climate scientists would almost certainly back him up.

Austerity for the rich

When John Kerry arrived in Britain in early March, his simplest message was that climate breakdown can only be avoided by radical carbon reductions now.

Benn would have agreed, pointing out that the world’s richest 10% are responsible for 50% of current carbon emissions, whilst the poorest 50% account for just 10%.

There is a cruel symmetry to this, but it that defines where austerity measures must bite. To this, I’ve no doubt that Tony would add

that the pandemic has actually widened the rich-poor divide; with collective billionaire wealth increasing by 27% (to over $10 trillion) between April and July 2020 alone. It is with the rich that climate reparations must begin and where ‘carbon austerity’ has to start.

Dismantling deceit

Boris would go ballistic. Labour might too. But Tony would just shrug and continue to dismantle the webs of deceit being woven around us. Not for one moment do the Tories believe in ‘levelling up’. You can picture Benn addressing a crowd (or the House of Commons) and asking “Do you really think William Rees-Mogg longs for workers on his estate to turn it into a shared-ownership co-op? Or that Bullingdon Boys hunger for the day when Oxford only takes kids from local comprehensives? Or that those stuffing cash into off-shore tax havens only do so because they couldn’t find a local branch of Triodos Bank that was open?”

Tony would have us laughing at the dishonesties we are asked to believe. But then he would plunge into the alternatives. If flying from London to Edinburgh uses 6 times as much CO2 as going by train, why not radically cut the cost of rail travel instead of reducing air passenger duties? Why not pay NHS staff properly using the money promised by that bloody Brexit bus? Why not reinstate the fuel-price escalator, earmarking the proceeds for generous ‘scrappage’ schemes that support a shift into clean transport systems?

Why not remove the ceiling on National Insurance contributions, so the rich at least pay the same rate as the poor? Why not tackle fuel-poverty by making landlords responsible for the heating bills in energy inefficient homes? Why not restrict tax allowances only to those who bank and pay tax in the UK, or put a 1% tax on casino gambling (‘shorting’) in the financial sector?

Revolutions in a tea cup

These, and dozens of other ideas, came alongside any invitation to join Tony for a cup of tea. He was a feast in his own lunchtime. And it could be anywhere. It didn’t matter whether you were in the carriage of a train, in the Members Tea Room, in a school hall or a community centre. Hope, dreams, vision and irreverent humour were ubiquitous accompaniments of Tony’s, tea, cheese sandwich, Mars bar and banana. These qualities (if not his food choices) are still his most lasting gifts.

Today, trailing in the polls to a government that is as corrupt as it is incompetent, Labour needs to reclaim Benn’s qualities of hopeful irreverence. Admirable orthodoxy is taking the Party to the political sidelines. Labour must reach out, embracing today’s most creative, irreverent voices, rather than stifling or suspending them.

The world to be inherited by Tony Benn’s grandchildren (and our own) cannot be made secure by a Party still wedded to capitalism’s ‘creative destruction’. We wouldn’t be the only species killed off in another orgy of unfettered consumption and waste. But the kids deserve something better. Only a radically different vision fits the bill.

Benn frequently reminded Labour that “The crisis we inherit when we come to power will be the occasion for fundamental change and not the excuse for postponing it.” The looming prospects of roller-coaster climate disruption and breakdown lends an urgency to these words.

On the anniversary of his death, I doubt Tony would look for flowers or eulogies. My bet is that Labour’s best ever ‘Man for all Seasons’ would simply tell us

“There is no final victory, as there is no final defeat. There is just the same battle. To be fought, over and over again. So toughen up, bloody toughen up.”

And so we should.

Alan Simpson March 2021


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