Arguments for Socialism by Tony Benn is a book that has had a big influence on my political thinking. Here's my article from today's Morning Star on the book's continuing relevance - and how it can provide a blueprint for a democratic socialist renewal in Britain.
Blueprint for Socialism
It’s nearly thirty years since the book Arguments for Socialism by Tony Benn was first published. Yet far from being out of date, this thought-provoking collection of Benn’s speeches, lectures and articles from the period 1974-79, is as relevant to Britain’s problems today as it was on the day it was published.
Back in the mid 1970s, it seemed to many that Britain was moving inexorably towards socialism. In February 1974, the Labour Party had ousted the Tory government, fighting the general election on its most left-wing manifesto since 1935. Labour’s radicalism was rewarded with another election victory in October of the same year, one which gave the party a working majority in Parliament. Tony Benn, a strong supporter of Labour’s programme and Industry Minister in the new administration, quickly became a hate figure for the Conservative-supporting media. Likened to Adolf Hitler in the Daily Express and labelled a ‘demon mugger’ by the Daily Mail, Benn was caricatured as a wild-eyed extremist, the man who, with his plans to extend public ownership and democratic control of industry, would lead Britain to ruin. In fact, all Benn wanted was for Labour to carry out its democratically endorsed manifesto commitments: to bring about ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families’- and to make sure that the British economy worked in the interests of the majority of the population - and not foreign owned multinationals and financial institutions.
In Arguments for Socialism, Benn put forward a powerful case for the extension of public ownership. He detailed how, in the four years prior to 1974, over £3bn of taxpayers money had been ploughed by the government into the coffers of private companies, without the state acquiring any equity in return. Benn firmly believed that no subsidies should be made to private industry without the state acquiring ownership rights and saw the newly set-up National Enterprise Board as a way the government could extend public ownership into the most profitable areas of industry- eventually extending its influence over ‘a very substantial area of the economy’.
Shamefully, Prime Minister Harold Wilson caved in to pressure from the Tory press and the CBI to have Benn replaced as Industry Secretary after only a year in the job, and the National Enterprise Board was never given the funding it required to fulfil its duties. For the next four years, Benn served as Minister for Energy and saw at first hand the enormous pressure foreign multinationals attempted to exert on democratically elected governments. Under the previous Tory government, licences to exploit North Sea oil had been given to oil companies without provision for any of the oil to be directed to meet UK needs. Benn’s response was to set up the British National Oil Corporation, a state-owned enterprise, to ensure that the country would derive maximum benefit from the development of new oilfields and to press for a North Sea oil development fund. Benn wanted oil revenues to be ring-fenced for Britain’s industrial regeneration and not used to finance unemployment benefits or short-term tax cuts. At the time, his approach was derided as ‘statist’ and attacked by free market propagandists. Yet, across the North Sea, Norway did follow the path of state intervention and established a national Oil Company (Statoil) and a State Petroleum Fund for the country’s future. Norway’s reward for eschewing the Thatcherite path is to be officially accorded the distinction of the richest country in the world, with its State Petroleum Fund, (now known as The National Pension Fund), currently showing a surplus of $210bn.
Had Britain followed the programme for industrial renewal Benn outlined in Arguments for Socialism, not only would we now be a more prosperous country, with an industrial base and up to-date infrastructure, but also a more democratic one. Benn understood, perhaps more than any other politician of his time, that if economic power lies elsewhere, in the boardrooms of the multinationals, or in the offices of un-elected bureaucrats in Brussels, then democracy too, is adversely affected. In Benn’s view, extending public ownership and restricting the power of multinationals was not only economically desirable, but together with other measures such as abolition of the House of Lords, more open government and pulling out of the EEC, was essential for reclaiming democratic control. ‘If we don’t own and control them (monopoly capital), they will own and control us‘, Benn told the Labour conference in 1973: how prescient those words have turned out to be.
Although Labour had been elected on a radical programme in 1974, international capital and members of the party’s right-wing did all they could to prevent the government from carrying out its manifesto commitments. The turning point came in 1976, when a run on the pound prompted Labour to approach the IMF for a loan. Benn, along with Cabinet colleagues Peter Shore and Michael Foot were strongly opposed to such a course, arguing that Labour should instead embark on an ‘Alternative Economic Strategy’ of increased public spending, compulsory planning agreements with industry, nationalisation and the introduction of import controls.
Time has of course, proved the dissenters right. Labour’s credibility was tarnished by acceptance of the IMF loan and Prime Minister Callaghan’s shift to a more conservative economic agenda only paved the way for the election of Margaret Thatcher and the eventual destruction of manufacturing industry in Britain. Sad though it is to reflect on what might have been, the wheel has now moved full circle and it is the socialist left, who once again, who have the momentum. As Tony Benn himself has said, public opinion today is far to the left of the pro-big business, pro-war junta that goes by the name of a Labour government. Dissatisfaction with privatisation is at an all-time high: opinion polls shows that around 75% would like the re-nationalisation of our privatised railway system- which costs the taxpayer four times more than British Rail. Millions of Britons fail to understand why we have no national water grid, or the logic of an energy policy in which a country which has hundreds of years of coal under its soil, sends young men thousands of miles away to be killed in wars over control of energy supplies. Unsurprisingly, when so many important decisions affecting our lives are taken elsewhere, there is a widespread apathy towards the political process, with around 40% of people electing not to vote in the last two General elections. At the same time, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen: the top 0.1% in Britain have now returned their share of income to the level of the 1930s.
In 1975, Tony Benn won a standing ovation at the Labour Party Conference for declaring ‘we are here not to manage capitalism, but to change society and find its finer values’.
Thirty years on, the arguments for socialism are more compelling than ever.