Tony Benn is not someone I generally refer to with a great deal of affection. He was my MP in the 1970s and early 1980s when the Labour Party was in the business of tearing itself apart by lurching uncomfortably to the far left. I heard him speak at countless public meetings in Bristol and concluded quite early on that Benn had very simple, actually simplistic, ideas of how society could be fairer and more equal. Ideas, but never policies. He was also consumed with a weird romantic fascination for the working class whose lives he knew nothing about. In fact, Benn was always more keen on building a political movement than forming a government that could actually change the country and make the lives of working class people better.
In the local Labour Party, the bulk of the officers and committee members were from the hard left, where Benn cleverly placed himself; and from the relatively affluent middle classes.
I recall the 1983 general election on the eve of which I attended a public meeting at which Tony Benn proclaimed that we would soon be blessed with a Labour government to change the country. Instead, as everyone at the meeting knew, Labour was to lose, disastrously so, but no one seemed to care. As Benn left the meeting, warmly shaking hands with and acknowledging the comrades, most of us had twigged that not only would Labour be destroyed by Margaret Thatcher, but that Benn himself would lose his seat. If he suspected it, as we all did, he hid it well. Then again, he was a wealthy man who could ride out a Tory government and anyway another constituency would come along and offer him a job as MP, so why should he worry?
My own political views were mainstream Labour. You know the kind of thing. A strong and well-resourced NHS, an end to homelessness and rough-sleeping , dignity in old age, good schools; in other words, regular stuff. I’ve always been in favour of people succeeding and making decent amounts of cash on the simple proviso that they pay their fair share to the exchequer. If you were to ask me to describe socialism, I’d say without hesitation the NHS. And I am pro European and internationalist.
I used to argue that my socialism, such as it was, was the only form of socialism that might succeed, at least in the short term. In general terms, people liked the idea of equality and fairness, but they also liked the idea of working hard and playing fair and being better off as a result. They saw extreme socialism as being against those who wanted to better themselves; that it was based upon jealousy. Could there not, I wondered, be a country where you could have it all? You could have good schools, good hospitals, more equality and fairness without tearing the country apart? And who worked that out first? After me, it was Tony Blair.
“Oh, Tony Blair – IRAQ!!!” Do shut up, if that’s what you want to say. If you can bring yourself to actually think back to a time when this country was, generally speaking, at peace with itself. Because that’s what New Labour brought about. The NHS was literally saved, schools were better funded, Sure Start was founded, homelessness was pretty well abolished, we got the minimum wage – look: when we were told things can only get better, they really did.
I still believe that stuff today. I believe that Tony Blair is still the greatest political figure in the land and if you repeat ‘Iraq’ at me one million times, I’ll still support him and what’s more I’ll support the decision to remove Saddam Hussein. I am tired of being defensive about Tony Blair. I felt cowed into silence when the very mention of his name brought about a chorus of booing. No more.
We live in an era of politics where the intellectual pygmy is king, which is why it is estimated a third of voters have voted for Nigel Farage in the EU elections. I always felt that a sensible, left of centre Labour Party could make everyone happy. I think I’m the only one left who believes that. I happen to think that, given the evidence of the Blair years, I’m right.