June 05, 2009

Reflections on Tony Benn's early life


I thought after the last post I'd briefly give a few thoughts on aspects of Benn's life particularly ones i picked up from the biography. This is no way meant to be a summary or a proper appreciation of this fascinating man or his historic impact! For this post at least I will address some thoughts trigged by aspects of his early life.

One is the degree to which British Socialism particularly in its middle class more ideological form was a continuation of radical liberalism. Benn's father Wedgwood Benn latter Viscount Stansgate (given to represent the Labour party in the lords) was a radical liberal a supporter of such trendy post Gladstonian causes as home rule, colonial rights etc. He was also a massive supporter of planning like many radical liberals. His transition into a Socialist in the 1920's happened without any obvious change in views at all. Indeed even in the late 1950's he was agitated strongly for faster decolonisation-and was on the left of the Labour party as he had been on the liberal party. Indeed he seems more radical than the young Benn ( at one point Jennie Lee the leading left winger said to him of his son his becoming a "right little tory" ) and the Labour leadership. Benn himself shared his enthusiasm for colonial independence-and this gave him much of his left wing credentials in this era. Whether or not Labour owed more to Methodism to Marx, it seems fairly clear to me that it owed more to the "new liberalism" which sought to use government action (Rather than the withdrawal of it) as a battering ram against privilege than either.


Another is the system of controls and restricions that were mostly imposed during the war out of necessity and kept by Labour for numerous reasons-but perhaps foremost the desire to build a better Socialst world. There is a fascinating individal anecdote which I think sums up why Labour ended up losing the 1950 election. Benn and his new wife found they couldn't' bring all her stuff back from American-because of these controls, he is clearly very annoyed in his accounts at the time by this. And let this was Benn- the son of a Labour peer, seeking to become a Labour mp himself. This helps explain why Labour lost the 1950's election. They lost middle class support and the liberals melted down among the middle classes-their voters went massively g for the conservatives who were runniong on "set the people free" ending this system of control and offering the middle classes the hope of something resembling pre war (middle) class standards. This was not due to fall in Labour support among the working class-it rose sharply so much sao that the 1951 election (which they lost due to the electoral system) saw the highest % of the vote Labour has ever got at any election-a tribute to how popular so much of the Labour record (particulary perhaps on health) was. But the middle class backgrounds against less ideological committed middle class progressive "Benn's" nearly obliterated theri majority in 1950 and threw them out altogether a year latter.

The Christian Socialist (arguably Christan radically liberal) nature of Benn's family is very compelling. His elder brother (who was supposed to inherit the peerage that nearly killed Benn's career) who died in a plane accident was very devout-so much so he concluded war was wrong even as he served loyally in the British military.Nor was this confined to him. Strafford Cripps praising his sucessor emphasised his commitment to christianity (to Benn's apparent embarrassment- this was more or less as he was losing his previous faith) as well as socialism. One is tempted to say that the Benn family may not be unrepresentative in keeping their religious attitudes whilst dropping their beliefi n formalised religon one of the biggest changes among the radical left (and arguably the political class in general) over the last few decades. One thing that struck me about the piety of Benn's family is what a high view of humanity it had by traditional Christian standards - indeed Benn's brother in the same moving letters talks of his belief humans can easily work together and become good people. This tempts one to suggest semi seriously that what has held together the British left secular and religious is a high view of human capacity and a belief in the fundamental vulnerability of human evil-or to put it antoher way a renunciation of the traditoinal view of the inherent limits of human character.

Another interesting aspect of the Young Benn is Technology. As his opponent Lord Rodgers pointed out and Jacks' biography shows in greater detail he was a massive pioneer of television and television methods in a very sophisticated form (his main pre political job was for the BBC's world service). This is very interesting given what an old fashioned politician Benn seems today love him or loathe him. It's an indicator that being human politicians tend to become set in their ways - so technologies that come along in the middle of their career they are much less adept with than ones they are More acculturated to. Benn's diaries show he has the discipline which is perhaps the most essential element of a blogger. NO doubt pioneering media politicians of today Will one day seem just as old fashioned as Benn.

They will be lucky if they've had anything like the same impact in the meantime though.

1 comments:

James Higham said...

Christian Socialist

Interesting concept that. I was actually pres of a society of them in my younger, more naive political days.