Nationalisation: The Reason the Tory Press Feared and Hated Tony Benn

In 1970s and 1980s, Tony Benn personified everything the Conservatives and the right-wing press hated and feared about the Labour party. In the early 1970s the party had adopted an increasingly radical platform, advocating the nationalisation of 25 companies, including BP, and introducing a form of industrial democracy, which would have seen up to 50 per cent of management boards composed of workers’ representatives. Benn, who had won press approval in the 50’s and 60s for his efficient management of industry, had moved leftward, and fully supported these proposals. Instead of arguing against these ideas, which were the policy of the wider Labour party, the Tory press held Benn almost solely accountable for them. He was therefore reviled as a fanatic, compared to Adolf Hitler, and derided as a ‘loony’. None of this was even remotely close to the truth. Those, who had personal dealings with him, such as the head of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, where Benn was the local MP, stated that he was calm, reasonable, and always gave a clear answer. Other industrialists spoke about how Benn always listened intelligently to what others had to say, and sought out all opinions on an issue before he made his mind up. But this was very firmly ignored and denied in the press’ caricature.

Mark Hollingworth discusses the press’ demonization of Benn, and how it sharply differed from the reality, in his book, The Press and Political Dissent: A Question of Censorship. In the chapter on Benn, he makes the case that what the press feared most about Benn was his advocacy of increasing nationalisation and state control. They were afraid that after he’d nationalised the initial 25 firms, he’d extend it even further, until the press itself was nationalised. Hollingworth writes:

During a meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee on 28 February 1975, a prominent member suggested that if Tony Benn were to save a child from drowning, the headlines the next day would read ‘Benn’s Latest Grab’. He was exaggerating, of course, but not by much. for between May 1973 and June 1975 Labour’s industrial policies were consistently portrayed as the pipedream of one politician.

The press campaign began with the advent of ‘Labour’s Programme for 1973’ – a radical nationalization document. Benn fully backed its proposals

What we have in mind goes far beyond the window dressing of some European schemes. We are thinking of say 50 per cent of workers, elected through their trade union membership onto supervisory boards with real power. And we mean to carry through this sort of reform in the public sector as well as in the private sector. We shall carry through a real redistribution of income and wealth by radical changes in the tax system.

Fleet Street was horrified. Suddenly Benn was part of ‘the wild Left’, ‘trying to attract the support of the extreme left militants.’ The Sun, at that time loosely pro-Labour, stated: ‘If Mr Benn is to be believed, Britain may shortly become a Marxist state,’ while the Sunday Telegraph preferred ‘Bolshevik Benn’.

In September 1973, Labour’s National Executive proposed that 25 leading companies be taken into public ownership. The Daily Express interpreted this plan as Benn toeing the Moscow line: ‘Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin – those four grim, grey spectres from the past who started it all – might not have been displeased with the former Lord Stansgate.’

But the press’ hostility to nationalisation was for reasons much closer to home, according to Charles Wintour, then editor of the London Evening Standard and now a member of the SDP: ‘They’re planning this socialisation of the 25 firms,’ said Wintour at the time

Well, in the long run, if this process continues indefinitely, they will start brooding on state control of the newspapers. I mean, nationalization means a production – the newspapers are produced. In the long run, this must be part of their policy. that’s logical. They believe in it. And consequently I think that the newspapers have a right to be particularly suspicious of the Labour Party in its extension of nationalisation and state control.

Wintour’s analysis turned out to be correct. The press was deeply hostile to nationalisation. But this political opposition was concealed in the form of linking the policy with Benn’s political ambition. This is how Noyes Thomas reported the issue for the News of the World: ‘In his thirst for power he has seemed recently to be prepared to see even his party out of office for a further term provided it brings Wilson and his moderate colleagues to the end of the political road. It was Benn who bludgeoned through the party’s policy document – the threat to nationalise Britain’s top 25 companies.’ (pp. 39-40).

The British press claims to be a democratic check, holding the government to account through questioning and reporting. In fact, as the authors of several of the chapters in Jacky Davis’ and Raymond Tallis’ book on the privatisation of the NHS, NHS SOS, show, the press, with some notable exceptions, along with so many of the other British institutions which should have been defending it, signally failed to do so. They have been quiet as this most precious of British institutions has been and is being privatised. Elsewhere in the book, Hollingworth states that at the 1979 election, Thatcher only got 44 per cent of the vote, but she had 84 per cent of press support. And the press’ bias against Labour has continued. It only abated under Tony Bliar, because the wretched warmonger caved in, and gave the Thatcherite privatisers, and particularly Murdoch, everything they wanted. It’s high time that relationship changed, and we had a truly free press.

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