Review of 'Free Radical', Tony Benn,
Tony Benn's latest book is a collection of essays from 2001-02 written for the Morning Star. There are several excellent pieces on Palestine, US foreign policy and privatisation which make this a worthwhile read. However, there is also the central conundrum with much of Benn's political trajectory - 'spending more time with my politics' since he left the House of Commons - that are difficult for revolutionary socialists, namely his insistence that the task of the left is to reclaim the Labour Party. After all, he states, 'I didn't join "New" Labour. I was born into and will die in the Labour Party.' And time after time this is his conclusion, notwithstanding his withering criticisms of New Labour.
Tony Benn provides the reader with an exhaustive series of New Labour betrayals, focusing particularly on how undemocratic Blair's party actually is. He blames Blair's betrayals for the massive decline in membership - from 400,000 in 1997 to 185,000 today. Benn suggests that socialists have been driven out as a consequence of business-friendly Blairite policies, leaving behind the New Labour acolytes of the 'dear leader', so there seems little or no chance for Benn and his supporters to 'reclaim their party'.
There are good points in this book. Benn is very supportive of the anti-capitalist movement. He salutes the demonstrators at Seattle and Genoa in particular, where he rightly condemns Berlusconi's carabineri for their murderous assaults on the protests. He is also hugely optimistic about the Stop the War Coalition. His description of the struggle for a united Ireland is also worth reading, quoting Bobby Sands - 'Our revenge will be the laughter of our children'.
Benn provides the reader with several very useful checklists of essential demands for socialists. These include Afghanistan, the Middle East, Ireland and the US. He also describes how he was lied to when energy minister about the value of nuclear power. He is particularly good at describing Blair's fixation on Britain joining the euro, and how the Frankfurt bankers are increasingly taking power away from our democratically elected political representatives, be they MPs, local government councillors or trade unionists. His accounts of the NUM and Arthur Scargill's struggles against Margaret Thatcher's determination to smash the miners are also very moving.
Benn sets out over and over again the problems of New Labour regarding democracy, the royal prerogative, government secrecy, its obsession with big business, etc. His conclusions, however, remain in reclaiming the Labour Party through the trade unions and the annual conference. Blair has made sure neither will happen while he is the 'dear' leader.