Posts Tagged ‘‘Arguments for Socialism’’

Book on Industrial Democracy in Great Britain

January 12, 2019

Ken Coates and Anthony Topham, Industrial Democracy In Great Britain: A Book of Readings and Witnesses for Workers Control (MacGibbon & Kee, 1968).

This is another book I got through the post the other day. It’s a secondhand copy, but there may also be newer editions of the book out there. As its subtitle says, it’s a sourcebook of extracts from books, pamphlets, and magazine and newspaper articles on workers’ control, from the Syndicalists and Guild Socialists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, through the First World War, the General Strike and the interwar period, the demands for worker participation in management during the Second World War and in the industries nationalized by Clement Attlee’s 1945 Labour government. It also covers the industrial disputes of the 1950s and ’60s, including the mass mobilization of local trade unions in support of four victimized workers evicted from the homes by management and the Tories. These later extracts also include documents from the workers’ control movements amongst the bus workers and dockers, establishing works councils and laying out their structure, duties and operating procedure.

The book’s blurb reads

The issue of workers’ control in British industry is once more n the air. As a concept, as something still to be achieved, industrial democracy has a long and rich history in fields outside the usual political arenas. The newly-awakened movement that revives the wish to see workers given a voice in business affairs is, in this book, given its essential historical perspective. From the days of ‘wage-slavery’ we might at last be moving into a period of fully-responsible control of industry by those who make the wealth in this country. While this notion has generally been scoffed at – by working class Tories as much as members of the capitalist groups – there is now a formidable body of evidence and thought to give it substance and weight.

The editors’ theme is treated in four main sections: the first covers the years from 1900 to 1920, when people like Tom Mann, James Connolly, G.D.H. Cole were re-discovering ideas of syndicalism, industrial unionism, guild socialism and so on. The second traces the development of the shop stewards’ movement on the shop floors. Much of this material is especially interesting so far as the period 1941 – 45 is concerned. Section three deals with the nationalized industries’ relations to unions, and here the centre of interest lies in the relations between the unions and Herbert Morrison in the thirties and beyond. The last section deals with the re-invigorated growth of the post-war efforts to establish some form of workers’ control. It is the conviction of their editors that the movement they document so thoroughly has only just begun to develop seriously and it is therefore something that both business and political parties will have to take increasing account of. The book is both anthology and guide to one of the important issues of our time.

After the introduction, it has the following contents.

Section 1: Schools for Democrats
Chapter 1: Forerunners of the Ferment

1 Working Class Socialism: E.J.B. Allen
2. Industrial Unionism and Constructive Socialism: James Connolly
3. The Miners’ Next Step: Reform Committee of the South Wales Miners, 1912
4. Limits of Collective Bargaining: Fred Knee
5. Forging the Weapon: Tom Mann
6. The Servile State: Hilaire Belloc
7. Pluralist Doctrine: J.N. Figgis
8. The Spiritual Change: A.J. Penty
9. The Streams Merge?: M.B. Reckitt and C.E. Bechofer
10. Little Groups Spring Up: Thomas Bell

Chapter 2. Doctrines and Practice of the Guild Socialists

1.The Bondage of Wagery: S.G. Hobson and A.R. Orage
2. State and Municipal Wagery: S.G. Hobson and A.R. Orage
3. Collectivism, Syndicalism and Guilds: G.D.H. Cole
4 Industrial Sabotage: William Mellor
5 The Building Guilds: M.B. Reckitt and C.E. Bechhofer
6 Builders’ Guilds: A Second view: Raymond Postgate

Chapter 3 How Official Labour met the Guild Threat

1 Democracies of Producers: Sydney and Beatrice Webb
2 ‘… In no Utopian Spirit’: J. Ramsay MacDonald

Chapter 4 Eclipse of the Guilds and the Rise of Communism

1 In Retrospect: G.D.H. Cole
2 Revolution and Trade Union Action: J.T. Murphy
3 Action for Red Trade Unions: Third Comintern Congress, 1921

Section II: Shop Stewards and Workers’ Control; 1910-64

Chapter 1 1910-26

1 Shop Stewards in Engineering: the Forerunners: H.A. Clegg, Alan Fox, and E.F. Thompson
2 The Singer Factory: The Wobblies’ First Base: Thomas Bell
3 A Nucleus of Discontent: Henry Pelling
4 The Sheffield Shop Stewards: J.T. Murphy
5 The Workers’ Committee: J.T. Murphy
6 The Collective Contract: W. Gallacher and J. Paton
7 Politics in the Workshop Movement: G.D.H. Cole
8 The Shop Stewards’ Rules: N.S.S. & W.C.M.
9 The Dangers of Revolution: Parliamentary Debates H. of C.
10 What Happened at Leeds: the Leeds Convention 1917
11 A Shop Stewards’ Conference: Thomas Bell
12 After the War: Dr B. Pribicevic
13 An Assessment: Dr B. Pribicevic
14 Prelude to Unemployed Struggles: Wal Hannington
15 Defeat; The 1922 Lock-out: James B. Jefferys
16 Shop Stewards on the Streets: J.T. Murphy
17 T.U.C. Aims: T.U.C. Annual Report 1925
18 ‘The Death Gasp of that Pernicious Doctrine’: Beatrice Webb

Chapter 2 1935-47

1 ‘… The Shop Stewards’ Movement will Re-Appear’: G.D.H. Cole
2 Revival; The English Aircraft Strike: Tom Roberts
3 London Metal Workers and the Communists: John Mahon
4 The Communists’ Industrial Policy: CPGB 14th Congress, 1937
5 ‘… A Strong Left Current’; John Mahon
6 Shop Stewards against Government and War: National Shop-Stewards’ Conference, 1940
7 The A.E.U. and the Shop Stewards’ Movement: Wal Hannington
8 For Maximum Production: Walter Swanson and Douglas Hyde
9 Joint Production Committees: Len Powell
10 The Employers Respond: Engineering Employers’ Federation
11 How to get the Best Results: E & A.T.S.S.N.C.
12 The Purpose of the Joint Production Committees: G.S. Walpole
13 A Dissident Complaint: Anarchist Federation of Glasgow, 1945
14 The Transformation of Birmingham: Bert Williams
15 Factory Committees; Post-War Aims: J.R. Campbell
16 After the Election: Reg Birch
17 Official View of Production Committees: Industrial Relations Handbook
18 Helping the Production Drive: Communist Party of Great Britain

Chapter 3 1951-63

1 Post-war Growth of Shop Stewards in Engineering: A.T. Marsh and E.E. Coker
2 Shop-Steward Survey: H.A. Clegg, A.J. Killick and Rex Adams
3 The Causes of Strikes: Trades Union Congress
4 The Trend of Strikes: H.A. Turner
5 Shop-Stewards and Joint Consultation: B.C. Roberts
6 Joint Consultation and the Unions: Transport and General Workers’ Union
7 Strengths of Shop-Steward Organisation: H.M.S.O.
8 Activities of Shop-Stewards: H.M.S.O.
9 Local Bargaining and Wages Drift: Shirley Lerner and Judith Marquand
10 The Motor Vehicle Industrial Group and Shop-Stewards’ Combine Committees: Shirley Lerner and Judith Marquand
11. Ford Management’s view of Management: H.M.S.O.
12. The Bata Story: Malcolm MacEwen
13 Fight against Redundancy: Harry Finch
14 How They Work the Trick: Ford Shop Stewards
15 I work at Fords: Brian Jefferys
16 The Origins of Fawley: Allan Flanders
17 Controlling the Urge to Control: Tony Topham

Section III: Industrial Democracy and Nationalization

Chapter 1 1910-22

1 State Ownership and Control: G.D.H. Cole
2 Towards a Miner’s Guild: National Guilds League
3 Nationalization of the Mines: Frank Hodges
4 Towards a National Railway Guild: National Guilds League
5 Workers’ Control on the Railways: Dr B. Pribicevic
6 The Railways Act, 1921: Philip Bagwell

Chapter 2 1930-35

1 A Re-Appraisal: G.D.H. Cole
2 A works Council Law: G.D.H. Cole
3 A Fabian Model for Workers’ Representation: G.D.H. Cole and W. Mellor
4 Herbert Morrison’s Case: Herbert Morrison
5 The Soviet Example: Herbert Morrison
6 The T.U.C. Congress, 1932: Trades Union Congress
7 The Labour Party Conference, 19332: The Labour Party
8 The T.U.C. Congress, 1933: Trades Union Congress
9 The Labour Party Conference, 1933: The Labour Party
10 The Agreed Formula: The Labour Party

Chapter 3 1935-55

1 The Labour Party in Power: Robert Dahl
2 The Coal Nationalization Act: W.W. Haynes
3 George Brown’s Anxieties: Parliamentary Debates H. of C.
4 Cripps and the Workers: The Times
5 Trade Union Officials and the Coal Board: Abe Moffatt
6 Acceptance of the Public Corporation: R. Page Arnot
7 No Demands from the Communists: Emmanuel Shinwell
8 We Demand Workers’ Representation: Harry Pollitt
9 The N.U.R. and Workers’ Control: Philip Bagwell
10 The Trade Unions take Sides: Eirene Hite
11 Demands for the Steel Industry: The Labour Party
12 The A.E.U. Briefs its Members: Amalgamated Engineering Union
13 Making Joint Consultation Effective: The New Statesman
14 ‘Out-of-Date Ideas’: Trades Union Congress
15 A Further Demand for Participation: The Labour Party

Chapter 4 1955-64

1 Storm Signals: Clive Jenkins
2 The Democratization of Power: New Left Review
3 To Whom are Managers Responsible?: New Left Review
4 Accountability and Participation: John Hughes
5 A 1964 Review: Michael Barratt-Brown

Section IV: The New Movement: Contemporary Writings on Industrial Democracy

Chapter 1 The New Movement: 1964-67

1 A Retreat: H.A. Clegg
2 ‘We Must Align with the Technological Necessities…’ C.A.R. Crosland
3 A Response: Royden Harrison
4 Definitions: Workers’ Control and Self-Management: Ken Coates
5 The New Movement: Ken Coates
6 The Process of Decision: Trades Union Congress
7 Economic Planning and Wages: Trades Union Congress
8 Seeking a Bigger Say at Work: Sydney Hill
9 A Plan for a Break-through in Production: Jack Jones
10 A Comment on Jack Jones’ Plan: Tony Topham
11 Open the Books: Ken Coates
12 Incomes Policy and Control: Dave Lambert
13 Watch-dogs for Nationalized Industries: Hull LEFT
14 Revival in the Coal Industry: National Union of Mineworkers
15 Workers’ Control in Nationalized Steel Industry: The Week
16 Workers’ Control in the Docks: The Dockers’ Next Step: The Week
17 The Daily Mail Takes Notes: The Daily Mail
18 Labour’s Plan for the Docks: The Labour Party
19 Municipal Services: Jack Ashwell
20 The Party Programme: The Labour Party
21 Open the Shipowners’ Books!: John Prescott and Charlie Hodgins
22 A Socialist Policy for the Unions. May Day Manifesto

The book appropriately ends with a conclusion.

The book is clearly a comprehensive, encyclopedic treatment of the issue of workers’ control primarily, but not exclusively, from the thinkers and workers who demanded and agitated for it, and who occasionally succeeded in achieving it or at least a significant degree of worker participation in management. As the book was published in 1968, it omits the great experiments in worker’s control and management of the 1970s, like the Bullock Report, the 1971 work-in at the shipbuilders in the Upper Clyde, and the worker’s co-ops at the Scottish Daily News, Triumph of Meriden, Fisher Bendix in Kirkby, and at the British Aircraft Company in Bristol.

This was, of course, largely a period where the trade unions were growing and had the strength, if not to achieve their demands, then at least to make them be taken seriously, although there were also serious setbacks. Like the collapse of the 1922 General Strike, which effectively ended syndicalism in Great Britain as a mass movement. Since Thatcher’s victory in 1979 union power has been gravely diminished and the power of management massively increased. The result of this has been the erosion of workers’ rights, so that millions of British workers are now stuck in poorly paid, insecure jobs with no holiday, sickness or maternity leave. We desperately need this situation to be reversed, to go back to the situation where working people can enjoy secure, properly-paid jobs, with full employments rights, protected by strong unions.

The Tories are keen to blame the unions for Britain’s industrial decline, pointing to the disruption caused by strikes, particularly in the industrial chaos of the 1970s. Tory propaganda claims that these strikes were caused by irresponsible militants against the wishes of the majority of working people. You can see this view in British films of the period like Ealing’s I’m All Right Jack, in which Peter Sellars played a Communist union leader, and one of the Carry On films set in a toilet factory, as well as the ’70s TV comedy, The Rag Trade. This also featured a female shop-steward, who was all too ready to cry ‘Everybody out!’ at every perceived insult or infraction of agreed conditions by management. But many of the pieces included here show that these strikes were anything but irresponsible. They were a response to real exploitation, bullying and appalling conditions. The extracts dealing with the Ford works particularly show this. Among the incidents that provoked the strike were cases where workers were threatened by management and foremen for taking time off for perfectly good reasons. One worker taken to task by his foreman for this had done so in order to take his sick son to hospital.

The book shows that workers’ control has been an issue for parts of the labour movement since the late nineteenth century, before such radicalism because associated with the Communists. They also show that, in very many cases, workers have shown themselves capable of managing their firms.

There are problems with it, nevertheless. There are technical issues about the relative representation of unions in multi-union factories. Tony Benn was great champion of industrial democracy, but in his book Arguments for Socialism he argues that it can only be set up when the workers’ in a particular firm actually want, and that it should be properly linked to a strong union movement. He also attacks token concessions to the principle, like schemes in which only one workers’ representative is elected to the board, or works’ councils which have no real power and are outside trade union control or influence.

People are becoming increasingly sick and angry of the Tories’ and New Labour impoverishment and disenfranchisement of the working class. Jeremy Corbyn has promised working people full employment and trade union rights from the first day of their employment, and to put workers in the boardroom of the major industries. We desperately need these policies to reverse the past forty years of Thatcherism, and to bring real dignity and prosperity to working people. After decades of neglect, industrial democracy is back on the table by a party leadership that really believes in it. Unlike May and the Tories when they made it part of their elections promises back in 2017.

We need the Tories out and Corbyn in government. Now. And for at least some of the industrial democracy workers have demanded since the Victorian age.

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Tony Benn on Capitalism’s Failure and Its Use as System of Class Control

January 6, 2019

I put up a long piece the other day about two books I’d bought by Tony Benn, one of which was his Arguments for Socialism, edited by Chris Mullin (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1979). Benn is rightly revered as one of the great champions of socialism, democracy and working people of the late 20th and early 21st century. Reading the two books I ordered has been fascinating, because of how so much of them remain acutely relevant to what is going on now, in the last years of the second decade of the 21st century. It struck me very hard that you could open his books at random, and find a passage that would still be both highly enlightening and important.

One such passage is in the section of his book, Arguments for Socialism in the chapter dealing with the inheritance of the Labour party, where he deals with Clause IV. This was the section of the Labour party’s constitution which committed it to the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. This was removed in the 1990s by Tony Blair in his desire to remodel Labour as a capitalist, Thatcherite party. Benn however fully supported nationalization and wished to see it expanded beyond the public utilities and the coal and steel industries nationalized by the Attlee and later governments. This was to be part of a genuine socialist programme to benefit and empower working people. He also argued that this was necessary because capitalism had not produced the benefits claimed by its early theorists, and was simply maintained because it was a useful instrument of class control by the capitalists themselves, particularly the financial section. Benn wrote

The phrase ‘common ownership’ is cast widely enough to embrace all forms of enterprise, including nationalized industries, municipal and co-operative enterprises, which it is envisaged should provide the basis for the control and operation of manufacturing, distribution and the banks and insurance companies.

In practice, Labour programmes and manifestos over the years have focused primarily on the great monopolies of financial, economic and industrial power which have grown out of the theoretical operation of a free market economy. For the ideas of laissez-faire and free enterprise propounded by Adam Smith and carried forward by the Manchester School of Liberal Economists until they reappeared under the new guise of monetarism, have never achieved what was claimed for them.

Today, capitalist monopolies in Britain and throughout the world have long since ‘repealed the laws of supply and demand’ and have become centres of political power concerned principally with safeguarding the financial investors who have lost the benefits of shareholder democracy and the great self-perpetuating hierarchy of managers who run them. For this purpose they control the media, engage in direct propaganda and on occasions have been found guilty of corrupt practices on a massive scale or have intervened directly to support governments that will allow them to continue their exploitation of men and materials for their own benefit. (Pp. 41-2).

This has been thoroughly proved by the last four decades of Thatcherism and Reaganomics. The shareholder democracy Thatcher tried to create through the privatisations of the ’80s and ’90s is a failure. The shares have passed out of the hands of the working class investors, who bought them, and into those of the traditional capitalist middle class. Shareholder democracy within companies has also been shown to be extremely flawed. A number of companies have spectacularly gone bankrupt because of serious mismanagement. The directors put in place to safeguard the interests of shareholders either ignored or were participants in the dodgy schemes of the managers they were supposed to supervise. Furthermore, in many companies while the numbers of workers have been cut and conditions for the remaining staff has deteriorated with lower wages, the removal of workers’ rights and zero hours contracts, management pay has skyrocketed.

And some economists are now turning against the current economic consensus. Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism has shown that laissez-faire capitalism doesn’t create prosperity, economic growth and jobs. He still supports capitalism, but demonstrates that what genuinely does work to benefit countries and the majority of their people economically is state intervention. He shows the benefits of nationalization, workers’ participation in management and protectionism. The American economist, John Quiggin, has also attacked contemporary laissez-faire Thatcherite, Reaganite capitalism, arguing very clearly that it is so wrong it’s intellectually dead, but still justified and promoted by the business elites it serves. He calls it in the title of his book on it, Zombie Economics, which has the subtitle How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us.

Thatcher’s much vaunted monetarism was effectively discarded even when she was in power. A friend of mine told me at College that Thatcher had quietly abandoned it to try to stimulate the economy instead through the old Keynsian methods of public works. And I can still remember the controversy that erupted in the early ’90s when Milton Friedman announced that monetarism was a failure. The Heil devoted a double-page article to the issue, one page arguing for it, the other against.

Tony Benn was right. Monetarism and the laissez-faire capitalism of Thatcher and Reagan was simply a means to entrench and give more power to the financial class. State intervention, nationalization and proper trade union representation were the way to protect the interests of working people. It’s long past time the zombie economics of the Blairites, Lib Dems and Tories was finally consigned to the grave, and a proper socialist government under Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders elected in Britain and America instead.

Two Books By Tony Benn

January 4, 2019

I hope everyone’s had a great Christmas and their New Year is off to a good start. May the shadow of Theresa May and her wretched Brexit be very far from you!

Yesterday I got through the post two secondhand books I’d ordered from Amazon by that redoubtable warrior for socialism and working people, Tony Benn. These were Arguments for Socialism, edited by Chris Mullin (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1979) and Fighting Back: Speaking Out For Socialism in the Eighties (London: Hutchinson 1988).

The two books differ slightly in that one is written from Benn’s perspective at the end of the ’70s, while the other was written nine years later at the end of the 1980s. In both Benn tackles the problems of the day, and lays out his radical, democratic socialist plans to revitalise the British economy and industry, strengthen and broaden democracy, and empower working people.

The blurb of Arguments for Socialism simply runs

Tony Benn, the most controversial figure in British politics, outlines a strong democratic-socialist approach to the most crucial issues in our political life over the next decade.

It has an introduction, and the following chapters, subdivided into smaller sections on particularly topics. These are

Section 1., ‘The Inheritance’, is composed of the following
The Inheritance of the Labour Movement
Christianity and Socialism
The Bridge between Christianity and Socialism
The Levellers and the English Democratic Tradition
Marxism and the Labour Party
Clause IV
The Labour Movement.

Section 2. ‘Issues of the 1970s’
Labour’s Industrial Programme
The Case for Change
Opening the Books
Planning Agreements and the NEB
Public Ownership
Industrial Democracy
The Upper Clyde Work-In
The Worker’s Co-ops
The Lessons of the Workers’ Co-ops
Democracy in the Public Sector

3. ‘Energy’
North Sea Oil
The Debate over Nuclear Energy
Windscale
The Fast Breeder
A Future for Coal
Alternative Sources of Energy
Conclusion

4 ‘The EEC’
Loss of Political Self-Determination
Loss of Control over the United Kingdom’s Industry and Trade
Unemployment and the EEC
After the Referendum

5. ‘Democracy’
Technology and Democracy
The Case for Open Government
How Secrecy Is Maintained at Present
Leaks and How They Occur
Conclusion

6. ‘Issues for the 1980s’
The Arguments
The Argument in Outline
The Present Crisis of Unemployment
Adam Smith and the Birth Capitalism
Lessons from the Pre-War Slump
Three Remedies on Offer
1. Monetarism
2. Corporatism
3. Democratic Socialism

7. ‘Jobs’
The Pension Funds
New Technology
Growth
The Trade Union Role in Planning
Workers’ Co-ops
A New Relationship between Labour and Capital

8. ‘The Common Market’
Three Criticisms of the EEC

9. Democracy
Open Government
The Unions
The Armed Forces
The Media
A New Role for Political Leaders.

Fighting Back’s blurb runs

With crisis after crisis rocking the country throughout the Eighties, the formation of new parties, divisions with in the old, mergers, reconciliations – British political life is at a watershed.

Tony Benn, in speeches on picket lines, at Conferences at home and abroad, in broadcasts, in the House of Commons, has been a consistently radical campaigning voice: for equal rights, for democracy and for peace against the increasingly brutal politics of monetarism, militarism and self-interest.

Fighting Back brings together for the first time in one volume the best of Tony Benn’s speeches from 1980 to 1988. Few poeple will have heard more than brief snippets of proceedings in the House of Commons given by television, radio and the press, so the most important debates are included here – the Falklands War, Westland helicopters, Fortress Wapping, Zircon and Spycatcher – as well as some lesser known concerns, from the ordination of women, to the politics of singer Paul Robeson.

Throughout the difficult years in Opposition, Tony Benn has played a leading role in defending and regenerating the socialist tradition. But Fighting Back is more than simply a personal testament: it is also an exciting and accessible handbook to the turbulent Eighties, whatever one’s political convictions.

After the introduction, it has the following chapters and subsections:

1. The Stalemate in British Politics
-Fifty Years of Consensus Rule
-The Party and the Government
-From Defeat to Victory
-Parliamentary Democracy and the Labour Movement

2. Prophetic Voices
-Positive Dissent
-Thomas Paine
-Karl Marx
-Paul Robeson
-R.H. Tawney
In Defence of British Dissidents

3. Fighting Back
-The Falklands War (April 1982)
-The Falklands War (April 1982)
-The Falklands War (May 1982)
-The Falklands War (December 1982)
-The Miners’ Strike (June 1984)
-The Miners’ Strike (September 1984)
-The Miners’ Strike (February 1985)
-Gay Rights
-Fortress Wapping (May 1986)
-Fortress Wapping (January 1987)
-The Irish Struggle for Freedom
-After Eniskillen
-Privatisation of Gas
-Legal Reform

4. British Foreign and Defence Policy
-The Case for Non-Alignment
-Who is Our Enemy?
-A New Agenda for the International Labour and Socialist Movements
-Some Facts about Defence
-Towards a Permanent New Forum
-Paying for Apartheid

5. Work and Health in a Green and Pleasant Land
-The Unemployment Tragedy
-Trade Unionism in the Eighties
-Full Employment: the Priority
-The Common Ownership of Land
-The Case Against Nuclear Power
-Nuclear Accidents
-The Nuclear Lobby
-Evidence Against Sizewell B

6. The Arrogance of Power
-The Case of Sir Anthony Blunt
-The Belgrano-Ponting Debate
-Westland Helicopters
-Surcharge and Disqualification of Councillors
-The Ordination of Women
-The Zircon Affair
-Spycatcher
-Protection of Official Information

7. Disestablishing the Establishment
-Power, Parliament and the People
-The Civil Service
-The Crown, the Church and Democratic Politics
-A Moral Crisis
-The Disestablishment of the Church of England
-Television in a Democracy
-Televising the House

8. Light at the End of the Tunnel
-The Radical Tradition: Past, Present and Future
-Staying True to the Workers
-Aims and Objectives of the Labour Party.

The Books and their Times

Arguments for Socialism comes from a time when this country had nationalised industries, strong trade unions and an efficient and effective planning apparatus. It was also when unemployment and discontent were rising, and the country was facing the threat of Thatcher and her monetarist agenda. The speeches and articles in Fighting Back come from when Thatcher had seized power, was busy privatising everything not nailed down, smashing the unions and trying to silence any dissent. This included attempts to prosecute civil servant Clive Ponting for leaking documents showing that the Argentinian warship, the General Belgrano, was actually leaving the Falklands warzone when it was attacked and sunk. Thatcher also banned the publication of Peter Wright’s Spycatcher over here, because of the embarrassing things it had to say about MI5. This turned into a massive farce as the book was widely published elsewhere, like New Zealand, meaning that foreign readers had a better understanding of the British secret state than we Brits did. It was such a ridiculous situation that Private Eye’s Willie Rushton sent it up in a book, Spythatcher.

Benn’s Beliefs on Socialism and Democracy

Benn was genuinely radical. He believed that British socialism was in danger not because it had been too radical, but because it had not been radical enough. He wished to extend nationalisation beyond the utilities that had been taken into public ownership by Attlee, and give working people a real voice in their management through the trade unions. He also fully supported the workers of three firms, who had taken over the running of their companies when management wanted to close them down, and run them as co-ops. On matters of the constitution, he wished to expand democracy by bringing in a Freedom of Information Act, strip the Crown of its remaining constitutional powers and have them invested in parliament instead, and disestablish the Church of England. He also wanted to strip the office of Prime Minister of its powers of patronage and give more to MPs. He was also firmly against the EEC and for CND. Socially, he was on the side of grassroots movements outside parliament, fully embraced gay rights and the ordination of women within the Anglican Church.

Not the Maniac He was Portrayed by the Press

He was and still is vilified for these radical views. The press, including Ian Hislop’s mighty organ, Private Eye, presented him as a ‘swivel-eyed loon’, at best a mad visionary of hopelessly unrealistic ideals. At worst he was a Communist agent of Moscow ready to destroy this country’s ability to defend itself and hand it over to rule by the Soviets.

He was, it won’t surprise you to learn, anything like that.

He was very well respected by his constituents in my part of Bristol as a very good MP and brilliant orator, and was respected even by his opponents in the city. One of the leaders of Bristol’s chamber of commerce said that he was always rational and his opinions clearly thought out. I’m a monarchist and a member of the Anglican church, and so don’t share his views on the disestablishment of the Church of England. But his arguments there are interesting.

Disestablishment of the Anglican Church

Recent calls for disestablishment have come from atheists and secularists, and Benn does use the secularist argument that privileged position of various Anglican bishops to sit in the House of Lords is unfair to those of other faiths, Roman Catholics, Protestant Nonconformists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. But this argument actually comes at the end of the main body of his pieces. His main points are that the bishops shouldn’t be there, because they’re unelected, and that parliament and the prime minister, who may not be Anglicans or even Christians, have no business appointing the denomination’s clergy or deciding doctrine. It’s an argument primarily from within the Anglican church, not from someone outside, jealous of its position.

The Prime Minister against the Church and Its Members

One example of how the Prime Minister abused their position to override or impose their views against the wishes of the Church itself was when Thatcher got stroppy with the-then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Robert Runcie. After the Falklands War, Runcie had preached a sermon saying that we should now meet the Argentinians in a spirit of reconciliation. This is what a Christian leader should say. It comes from the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the peacemakers, and all that. We’ve heard it several times since by great leaders like Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But Thatcher didn’t like it because she wanted something a bit more triumphalist. This section is also interesting because it has an interesting snippet you and I south of the Border have never heard of, except if you’re a member of the Church of Scotland. That august body at its synod overwhelmingly voted in favour of nuclear disarmament. I hadn’t heard anything about that before, and I doubt many other people outside Scotland had. And it obviously wasn’t an accident. The Tory media really didn’t want anyone else in Britain to know about it, in case they thought it might be a good idea.

It wasn’t just the Church of Scotland that were against nuclear weapons. So was a leading Roman Catholic prelate, Monsigner Bruce Kent, now, I believe, no longer a member of the priesthood. One of my aunts was a very Roman Catholic lady, who was also a member of CND. She found herself on one march next to a group of Franciscan friars. So kudos and respect to all the churches for their Christian witness on this issue.

CND, the Unions and Media Bias

On the subject of CND, Benn talks about the blatant bias of the press. All kinds of people were members of the Campaign, but when it was covered on television, what you got were a few shots of clergy like Monsignor Kent, before the camera zoomed in on the banner of the Revolutionary Communist party. CND were part of Russkie commie subversion! Except as I remember, they weren’t. The Russians didn’t like them either after they criticised their maneoevres in eastern Europe.

Benn states that the media’s bias is peculiar – its somewhere to the right of the Guardian, but slightly to the left of Thatcher. This was the attitude of the establishment generally. And it was extremely biased against the trade unions. He cites the work of Glasgow Media Studies unit, who looked at the language they used to describe industrial disputes. The language used of the trade unions always presented them as the aggressor. They ‘demanded’ and ‘threatened’, while management ‘offered’ and ‘pleaded’. He then asked hsi readers to turn the rhetoric around, so that a union asking for a pay rise of 8 per cent when inflation in 10 per cent is ‘pleading’.

The Ordination of Women

His stance on the ordination of women is equally interesting. He was obviously for it, but his arguments as you might expect were very well informed. He pointed out that women had been campaigning to be ordained in the Church since the 1920s, and that other Christian denominations, like the Congregationalists, already had women ministers. As did other Anglican churches abroad, like the Episcopalians in America. It was blocked here by the Anglo-Catholics, who fear it would stop re-union with Rome. But even here, he noted, this may not be an obstacle, citing movements for the ordination of women within Catholicism. Again, it’s an argument from within the Church, or from someone genuinely sympathetic to it, than from an outsider frustrated with the Church’s stubborn refusal to abide by secular social values, although that is also in there.

Government Secrecy

And back on the subject of government secrecy, the Zircon Affair was when Thatcher banned the transmission of an edition of the documentary programme, Secret State. I’ve put up that documentary series a few years ago on this blog, because it showed the extent to which Thatcher and others had been using the Official Secrets Act to suppress information that was embarrassing or uncomfortable. Like the fact that in a nuclear war, this country would suffer massive casualties and the obliteration of its major population centres.

The book actually contains any number of interesting snippets that definitely weren’t reported, or else were only given very tiny coverage, in the mainstream press. Like details of various incidents at nuclear plants that could have led to serious accidents. He also talks about the ‘Atoms for Peace’ programme. In this international project, we sent our nuclear material over to America, where, we were told, it would be used for peaceful purposes generating power in American reactors. Well, it was used in American reactors. They refined it into the plutonium, that was then put in American nuclear warheads and sent back over here to the US nuclear bases on British soil. He also pointed out that the agreements covering the use of Britain as a base by US forces in the event of a nuclear war also contravened our sovereignty.

Ted Heath and the EU

Loss of sovereignty was also a major part of his opposition to the EU. But he also makes the point that our entry into the Common Market was also undemocratic. Ted Heath simply decided the country was going in. Parliament was not consulted and did not vote on the issue. I do remember that there was a referendum afterwards, however.

Intelligence Agencies Smearing Labour MPs

The intelligence agencies are another threat to British democracy. He cites Peter Wright’s Spycatcher memoir on how MI5 was spreading rumours smearing the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, as a KGB spy. This, like much of the rest of the material in the books, has not dated. The problem of the security services smearing left-wing politicians is still very much with us, as we’ve seen from the Integrity Initiative. They’ve smeared Jeremy Corbyn as a Russian spy.

Books Still Relevant in 21st Century

I’ve only really skimmed the books so far, just reading the odd chapter, but so much of it is directly relevant now. I think if he were alive today, Benn probably would have voted ‘Leave’, but his arrangements for leaving the EU would have been far more sensible and beneficial to this country’s ordinary folk than that of Tweezer and her band of profiteers. And he is absolutely right when he writes about expanding democracy in industry. He states that the workers’ co-ops on the Clydeside and elsewhere were attacked in the press, because suddenly the British capitalist establishment were terrified because it showed that there was a genuine alternative to capitalism, and that workers could run companies.

The individual sections in these books chapters are short, and the arguments clear. He also gives point by point party programmes on particular issues, such as making this country more democratic.

Benn Democrat, Not Authoritarian Communist

And it’s this concern for democracy that most definitely marks Benn out as being a democratic socialist, not a Trotskyite or Communist. Those parties and their various sects were run according to Lenin’s principle of ‘democratic centralism’. Put simply, this meant that the party would hold some kind of open debate on issues until a decision was made. After that, the issue was closed. Anybody still holding or promoting their own opinions faced official censure or expulsion. And the Communist parties of eastern Europe would have been as frightened of Benn’s championing of democracy as the British establishment.

Conclusion

As I said, I take issue with Benn on certain issues. But his reasoning is always clear and rational, his points well argued and based in fact. Furthermore, he is impressed with the British radical tradition and how much British socialism is squarely based within it. We lost one of our greatest parliamentarians with his death.

His ideas, however, are still very relevant, and have been vindicated with time. He was right about monetarism and corporatism, about unemployment, about the need for unions, about media bias. His support of women priests and gay rights were ahead of their time, and have now become almost a commonplace, accepted by all except a few die-hard reactionaries. And he’s right about nationalisation and worker empowerment.

These are books I intend to use for my blog and its attack on Tweezer and the Tories. And I won’t be short of useful material.