Saturday, 15 March 2014

Tony Benn, Thatcher and New Labour

One aspect of left-wing politics that irritates me is the propensity for those on the left to assume that theirs is the only moral position on the big issues of the day and in particular war and peace - everyone else is a war criminal or traitor to the cause. The same of course applies to right-wing politicians. There is an implied and often explicit distaste for those of the middle ground. What the left and right cannot accept is compromise. They talk about standing on principle - and we tend to admire more those who 'stand by their beliefs'.

Yet practical politics is the art of compromise. I have little doubt that Bevan was right in the compromises he made with the birth of the National Health Service - and compromises he made in dealing with the then opposition of the medial professions. Now, nobody believes that Bevan was not a man of great passion and principle. Indeed, when he could no longer compromise, as over the imposition of prescription charges, he resigned from the government - and Wilson also followed suit. Bevan also stood on principle when he argued that unilateral nuclear disarmament would be wrong - but then of course the left would rather put that aside as an aberration.

Harold  Wilson was of course noted later for, as he saw it, the virtue of pragmatism. The truth is that a bit of pragmatism goes a long way in getting things done. It was Wilson's pragmatism more than those of us marching in protest, that enabled him to say no to President Johnson's repeated requests for British troops on the ground in the Vietnam war. Few these days will applaud Wilson as being 'a man of beliefs' - and yet he was, just as surely as was Tony Benn. It serves little purpoe to distort history in creating the divide between 'those who stood by their principles' and those who compromised to get things done! Governing involves more than simply standing your ground.

Tony Benn and others of the Left were willing not only to oppose the Wilson and Callaghan governments but also to undermine them as traitors that didn't do what they said they would do. This of course is true if you accept their interpretation of what it was they were supposed to do! But I believe the achievements of the Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan governments are much greater than given credit at the time and certainly by those on the left. Increasingly, Wilson's premiership, at the time dominated by financial crises, is seen as advancing socially, particularly in spending on housing, social welfare, health and education.

My criticism of Tony Benn then is that he failed to support those and work with those who also wanted to change society for the better. His was an attitude of mind that said that only what he thought was right. On that he was wrong, no matter how much we grew to love him. That 'love' was increasingly proportionate to his remove from power, government and influence.

I know that this is not going to be liked by my left wing friends. But what I cannot accept is that in not speaking ill of the dead we must distort history. Arguably, the likes of Tony Benn did more than most to ensure 18 years of Thatcher governments and the birth of New Labour.

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