15 March 2014

Tony Benn's Anglo-American Dimension

Tony Benn has died. When I arrived in Blighty, back in the late 1970s, he was a key figure on the political scene. I was not a fan of his. But it was sort of a knee-jerk response. He wanted to remove the Queen's head from the postage stamp. This is a notion I still find repellent; but with the sale of the Royal Mail, I don't see it as so important any longer.

What the obituaries reminded us was that Benn married an American woman. Caroline Middleton DeCamp met Tony Benn at Worcester College, Oxford, in 1949. She had been Vassar '45 and Cincinnati '48 and went to London to do a Master's degree at UCL, itself a somewhat radical foundation. Mrs Benn had an enduring belief in the principle of 'comprehensive education', the idea that schools should not select their pupils on the basis of ability, but largely by where they reside in relation to the school's buildings. From the obituary I linked above, here is a memory from Clyde Chitty, her colleague in the war against selective schooling:

Caroline saw the British education system with a foreigner's eyes. She hated British divisiveness and elitism, and, when her own children were at Holland Park comprehensive, she wanted the best for them, and for the school - and for that best to be extended to all. Utterly informal, with that American vitality, she was classless. With her, there was none of that "presence", that sense of being with someone important. She could relate to anyone.
Of course, Britons loved to believe that American life was not divisive or elitist, and I hope they know better now.

The comprehensive educational system has certainly done nothing to overturn the divisive and elitist nature of British education. What happens now in Britain is that one selects more on the basis of family income. If one can, one pays a higher price for a house with good schools. Sometimes, it probably makes more sense to buy a cheaper house and spend the money saved on sending your child to some kind of private school. I know from experience that getting one's child into a decent secondary school in London is a highly competitive process, and that people will go to all kinds of lengths, either legitimate or not, to improve their child's chances. And, I'm afraid to say, the same has been true of Canada as well. At the primary level in London, it's a lot easier to find a good school, because they are smaller. The Law of Unintended Consequences works powerfully, and should make us less eager to attempt simple administrative reforms to correct injustice.

Perhaps with the help of his wife, whom Benn confessed to be a source of advice, Benn proved an 'early adopter' of television as a means for politicians to address the voters in a direct way that previously had not been possible. From the late 1970s onwards, he looked to extra-parliamentary politics to act as something of a counterweight to the whipped-in majorities of the House of Commons, and then the loss of legislative authority to external transnational organisations such as the European Commission. In this, Benn may have detected that the 'separation of powers' under a modern Westminster regime really relates to groups outside parliament. Months of pressure by organised campaigning are required, which is beyond the patience of most people. This mixture of technology and grassroots organisation is especially American, going back to the days of the Populists and the Progressives at the turn of the twentieth century. This circumvents the kind of elitist log-rolling that one tends to associate with Tammany-Hall type regimes, but which also captures the older Westminster model on display in Namier's analysis of the eighteenth-century epoch of parliamentary government.

As well as being married to an American, Benn apparently also found some support there during his campaign to renounce his peerage, according to this excellent memoir of him by the member of parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central, Tristram Hunt. This article is worth reading with some care, because one can see in Benn's career a kind of emblematic arc of the decline of national parliaments in a world where trading arrangements between countries has gradually taken authority away from legislators and put it into the hands of judiciaries or quasi-judicial organisations, often of a trans-national character. Benn's sharp shift leftwards in the 1970s can be seen in this light as the moment when he recognised that 'moderation in pursuit of national self-determination', to coin a phrase, was a vice, and it was natural for a man in his political position to shift towards the autarkic 'socialism in one country' of the Alternate Economic Strategy of the Labour left. The AES was to a great extent a throwback to the Labour recipe of the 1945-51 Atlee government, which was remarkably successful on its own terms. It was at this point that Benn found himself on what could be called 'the wrong side of history', at least for the rest of his lifetime. He ended up waging a steady guerrilla campaign against his vision of American foreign policy, ably summarised in The Guardian's obituary.

The Bennite worldview presented a well worked out analysis according to which the IMF, the World Bank and multinational corporations ran the global economy. The European commission and the establishment governed Britain. Spin doctors and pollsters dominated politics. "I did not enter the Labour party … to have our manifesto written by Dr Mori, Dr Gallup and Mr Harris," wrote Benn. The US was an imperial power that had pursued a policy of world domination since the second world war, and that policy was based on a doctrine: "A faith is something you die for, a doctrine is something you kill for. There is all the difference in the world."

Yet Benn's effective criticism of the Eden government during the 1956 Suez Crisis served American interests, and also that American world domination he has condemned since the 1970s. This fiftieth anniversary summary of the crisis' signficance in world affairs, from The Independent, captures how Britain's ability to act in its interests could be undone where it contradicted the interests of its closest ally. Quite possibly the Americans did the British a favour, in the long-term, in 1956. Probably Benn would have seen it that way at the time. This thirty-year-old article from the always-excellent History Today suggests that this view was wrong, and that the interests of both Britain and America might have been better served by a policy more supportive of Britain's anti-nationalisation stance. Remember, the current woes in Egypt stem from the actions of the descendants of that same clique of officers that have been in charge since Nasser led them there.

The irony of Benn's career is that the forces he supported at its beginning, those working towards the so-called democratisation/Americanisation of Britain, have been exactly the same forces he found destroying Britain's political and economic independence in its middle and at its end. We always think we can pick and choose from the menu, but history proves this is rarely the case. The framework that the United States has erected in the latter half of the twentieth century is remarkably similar to that put up by Victorian Britain, which occupied a near-identical role as global economic arbiter. We may swear allegiance to different things (the Queen, still on some postage stamps, on one hand; a flag on the other), but our cultural outlook — which includes the foundations of property law and its effect on the organisation of the economy and trade — remains identical.

UPDATE: One more thing: in doing the reading for this post, I came across a reference to the title that Mrs Benn suggested for Labour's 1964 election manifesto. She proposed 'The New Britain', which worked its way into the final title. Eight years earlier, Adlai Stevenson ran for president under the slogan 'The New America', possibly based on a memo of Arthur Schlesinger's. Of course, it's probably just coincidence.

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