Another admirable politician – Tony Benn
Some thoughts from Tony Benn’s Salter Lecture in Canterbury, organised by the Quaker Socialist Society – August 2011
Tony Benn opened by remarking on the size of the huge crowd gathered to listen to him. He thought that this reflected the fact that there are a lot of people in Britain who are beginning to question the society in which we live and worry about the future and how it’s going to be tackled.
Enclosed land was the source of political and economic power which became absolutely dominant
“It’s a fact today that the richest man in Britain is, I think, from the Grosvenor family which own most of London, so if you live in London, and you buy a house, you probably buy it from the Grosvenors, or if you rent a house, you rent it from the Grosvenors, and that has brought them a great deal of money.
Power became more and more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands
“And of course land carries with it the ownership of what is under the land, which is coal, copper, oil – so those who owned the land became enormously powerful, and that was the position until we came to the Industrial Revolution, when those who had the money acquired the companies which we had in modern capitalist society – the first capitalist empire in the world I suppose is Britain – and in those circumstances power became more and more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands . . . ”
After reflecting on the extension of democracy in this country and campaigns culminating about a hundred years ago, when every man and woman had the vote, he added: “and what’s happening in the Arab world now is an example of what happened in Britain many many years ago”.
Out of the campaigns for the vote and for trade unions came the Labour Party and the socialist clause in its constitution, Clause 4, which said the object of the Labour Party was to secure for the workers by hand and by brain the full fruits of their industry and the best possible administration of each industry and service on a popular basis, i.e. democratic control of industry:
“Keir Hardie said at the beginning of the 20th century, we’ve got political democracy, now we want economic democracy.”
Noting that the public now perceives the growth of international capital, enormously powerful multi-national organisations, he continued: ”I remember when I was energy minister dealing with the oil companies, and they all had a navy far bigger than the British fleet, and they had enormous power, and they came here and wanted just to get control of the oil, and my job was to see that we got a better deal out of it.”
Democracy was being over-topped by capitalist institutions which had their own criteria
The multi-national corporations were responsible for setting up institutions which are undemocratic, including the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and the European Union and European Central Bank which are not elected but appointed by the national governments. As Mr Benn said:
“[A]t the moment when democracy was, on the one hand, beginning to spread its wings and have an impact on the way we were governed, on the other hand, democracy was being over-topped by capitalist institutions which had their own criteria. What we can see now are the problems we face as we go ahead . . .
“I think democracy at every level is the way that we are going to make progress. My mind goes back to 1944 when I was on a troop ship going to South Africa to train as an RAF pilot. In war-time, people were always discussing what would happen after the war – what are our war aims, what do we want? We had a meeting on war aims on this troop ship. One lad got up, and I’ve never forgotten what he said – “In the 1930s we had mass unemployment. We don’t have mass unemployment in war-time. And if you can have full employment killing Germans, why can’t you have full employment building hospitals, building schools, building homes, recruiting nurses, recruiting doctors” – and it was that that really explained the vote in 1945, for what we now call the Welfare State. It was a conscious decision to use the vote to change the political policy of the country in which you live – and very significant it was.
The development of the cooperative movement which has great potential
“Then you had of course the development of the cooperative movement which, as an alternative to capitalist ownership has great potential, because it does mean that the people who work in it do control it. They share the profits and share the objectives, and are an alternative to competitive capitalism. I think the cooperative movement has an enormous part to play, and I would like to see it able to do so. . . out of this type of cooperation you get better equality of income, and when you look at the enormous billions paid out in the profits to the banks, compared to what the banks pay their own employees, you realise that equality is a fundamental requirement of a fair society.
“So, there we are – those are the thoughts that I have as I look at these things, and certainly all this links very closely to the question of peace. Because you cannot have peace without justice. If people feel they have been badly treated, someone will take to the sword. And with nuclear weapons at the disposal of governments, the possibility that this might end in a catastrophe for the human race cannot be ruled out . . . The danger that this poses to our survival is so great that we have got to look again at the way in which we organise our world and particularly our international organisations, to see that they serve our need and are not there just in the pursuit of profit.”
Get to the root of what causes inequality and deal with it
After pointing out that justice requires more than palliative measures, “going along and helping people who have a rough deal”: you have to get to the root of what causes inequality and deal with it, he ended:
“I think this is where our democracy failed in a way because, without being too critical, when I look back at my period as a minister, I think that what the Labour Party was at the time was a team of people with a plan for making capitalism work slightly better; and the Conservative Party similarly was a party with a plan of people who thought that they could make capitalism a little bit better; but nobody in the public arena was really discussing the fundamentals which I have tried to touch on now, about why it is that there should be such enormous amount of power – unaccountable – and how it clashes with those who want to control their own lives.”