Tony Benn: socialist with an aristocratic past

"Every couple of generations, you get a period of real reform, and I think we're heading for it again." Curled informally in a chair in his Thames-side office 100 yards downriver from Big Ben, Tony Benn talked freely with this correspondent about Britain's ills and their remedies.

He is a man who could become the next prime minister. Or he could lose the narrow Labour majority in his southeast Bristol seat and be out of Parliament altogether. Either way, he will continue as the most experienced and one of the most engaging of the radical Left's practical theoreticians.

His message: Democracy and capitalism do not mix. His rallying cry, appealing in a doomsayer's age, is what he calls "the politics of hope." His brand of socialism, calling into action great faith in the individual, comes, he admits, "very largely out of the Bible."

His central conviction is that the popular analysis of Britain's problems is incorrect, and nothing significant will change unless the whole system of government is overhauled.

His method is to mount a two-pronged attack involving analysis and remedy. The first prong generally seems much sharper then the second. But the attack is singularly free from personal animosities. "I haven't got any scapegoats," he says. Even his references to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher are respectful.

He is not the sort of Kissinger-style debater whose logic makes perfect three-point landings on whatever topic is spread beneath it. Essentially extemporaneous, his mind hovers around whole sets of problems -- the excessive power of prime ministers, the entrenchment of the civil service, freedom of information, big government, big banks, big business. Thinking, for Mr. Benn, develops in action rather than solitude: "I'm motivated by events more than by reflection," he notes.

His analysis centers on the need for full employment. Wealth creation, for this man who fought hard and successfully to renounce his seat in the House of Lords, as well as his inherited title of Viscount Stansgate, comes not from reinvestment by the privately powerful but by government-sponsored employment. "What ended the slump before the war," he says, "was rearmament. Rearmament is public expenditure, and when you go for public expenditure you're creating real wealth." Rearmament itself was "an absolute waste." He feels that if capitalism has reached the stage where it needs rearmament for full employment, "That's the greatest condemnation of it altogether." He would reemploy the idle -- who he and others estimate will soon be some 2.5 million -- in education, housing, and health projects.

He is keen to refute the "British disease" theory, which is that "we've got lazy workers, incompetent managers, Reds under the bed, and we're on the brink of anarchy and chaos." He says that view does not "conform to reality," and adds , "so you've got to offer another explanation." In place of that analysis, he spies "a new feudalism" in Britain overlaid with a contradictory thrust toward increasing democracy.

"You cannot run your economy on the system that requires the maximum degree of inequality in order to generate wealth," he says, "and combine that with a political democracy where through the ballot box every man, rich or poor, has an equal vote."

What about remedies? Mr. Benn, with 23 years on the "front bench" in Parliament, both as a Cabinet minister and as opposition spokesman, still seems to struggle for a cogent overall statement of an alternative to Mrs. Thatcher's economics. But in several areas he radiates a clarity of conviction:

The European Community: "The EC is a centralized bureaucracy" -- two negatively charged words in Mr. Benn's vocabulary -- that exacts "taxation without representation." He feels that it has taken away Britain's power of self-government -- and that Britain, unlike Germany and France, has a much older and more matured democracy for which EC membership is a backward step. The Labour Party: Contrary to the popular picture of Mr. Benn and his parliamentary colleague Eric Heffer as the red-eyed wreckers in the party's National Executive Committee, he feels that he is simply helping the party through a period of self-examination that will move it farther left.

Compared to party arguments in the past, he says, "There's very little hostility this time," a view disputed by many on the party's right. But "the Labour Party will never split," he adds, although he is accused of fostering divisions within it.

The place of values in politics: Mr. Benn, whose father and two grandfathers were in Parliament before him, sees four levels to politics, which he describes as personalities, policies, institutions, and values. "Until you're prepared to drill down and find out what are the values at issue in any case," he says, "you can't really understand it. Then, when you've got the values out of it, you pump them back into the argument." Personalities, he feels, are only important "if they are projecting a set of values."

He had 210 meetings around the country last year, he says, and television cameras regularly find him heading up a trade-union march or speaking at Young Socialist rallies. Intentionally or not, he seems to be building a base that could nicely support a bid for even greater power within the party.

Why all the effort? It's a marvelous and enjoyable life," he confesses. And , in a more metaphoric vein, he takes another shot at the subject of Britain's woes. "If you're trying to steer a rowing boat where the rowlocks are all loose ," he says, "it's no good whipping them [the crew] up or shouting at the captain: You've got to fix the boat."

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