Tony Benn and the power of “Utopia”

by Glenn Edwards

Last week, the country lost one of its few great conviction politicians. Tony Benn, aged 88, has served as an enduring inspiration for those on the far Left who remain disillusioned with the gradual drift of UK politics towards a neo-liberal consensus. Ever the most ferocious critic of capitalism, his view of Britain as a country surrendering itself with increasing pace to destructive market forces is familiar to most.

Unfortunately I did not have the privilege of personally meeting Benn. But I did once get an opportunity to hear him speak at the Peterhouse Politics Society in Cambridge. I wanted to ask him a question relating to an essay I was writing at the time about Utopianism in political life, and luckily I got my chance. I asked him “What does Utopia mean to you?”, a rather gentle question I thought, considering he’d just taken a bit of an onslaught from several conservative-minded students in the room.

Following on from a very heated discussion about financial incentives, my question was met with unsurprising laughter from all round- but Benn’s answer drew the most inviolable of silences.

He said that “Utopia” is often used as a dirty word to denounce ambitious and courageous thinking in politics. He said that it had become a sort of trump card against all ideas not sufficiently steeped in reality or cynicism towards human behaviour. A catch-all term to “put down progressive forces” of all shapes and colours. But, crucially, he said that it is always Utopian and idealistic thinking that “rallies people against injustice”, paradoxically bringing about the change that was previously thought impossible.

Tony Benn understood the need to be wary of perceiving injustice of any kind as somehow necessary or natural, as well as the need to be suspicious of any intellectual monopolization of an alleged ‘reality’ in which its opposite is ‘Utopian’. He understood that many of the great questions in politics could be answered by asking ‘who wields power?’ He knew that reality, far from being preordained or static, is always being reinterpreted and reshaped through human endeavour.

Benn’s answer to that question is as timely as ever. It reminds us that we should always question those who argue that the world cannot change, especially those who use this argument to defend injustice. Today the Left faces a great number of supposed cynical ‘truths’ that have dealt enormous damage to British life, ‘truths’ that have taken decades to finally be reckoned with.

The dogma of free market economics is the example par excellence. Its legacy in this country has been a level of inequality not seen since before the Second World War, of which is largely responsible for the disintegration of social mobility and emergence of a new ‘British poverty’.

For decades we have been told by economists and politicians that, if only we leave the market to its own devices, if we keep government out of economic life, we can all prosper together. There will of course be inequality, the theories go, but enough wealth will trickle down to make up for it. Such thinking has enjoyed the status of quasi-scientific fact in the most influential policy-making circles.

Proponents of this theory have relished using it to deflect arguments against inequality. Speaking as if echoing the laws of time and space, Margaret Thatcher told Parliament that government interference in the market could succeed only in “making the poor poorer” and that those on the Left would be content with this “so long as the rich were poorer.” In other words, there was no way you could effectively bridge the gap between the rich and the poor- the gap could move up or it could move down- but a gap there would always be.

Today, the Labour leadership have blown this theory out of the water. Wages haven’t increased in pace with inflation, so Ed Miliband tells us, since the mid-1980s. Tony Benn himself pointed out its flaws, arguing that rather than trickling down, wealth has in fact “bubbled up”, becoming increasingly concentrated in fewer hands.

We are now aware that one of the biggest reasons behind increasing inequality and the stagnation of most people’s wages is that a few individuals at the highest echelons of the economy are taking an ever greater proportion of national income. We are living in a time where it is commonplace for the average UK CEO to make 84 times that of the average worker, as revealed of the year 2012. It has also become normal for bankers to earn £1,000,000 a year.

And yet some people see this as necessary in order to ‘attract the best people’. But as Ed Balls and Vince Cable have recently pointed out, there’s nothing natural or necessary about people being paid this much. These ‘masters of the universe’ only get away with gaining such a huge share of the spoils because, put simply, we let them. Most people would do the same jobs for half the pay, probably less.

In one of his later works, Letters to my Grandchildren, Tony Benn said that ‘by accepting the world as it is you legitimise it and thereby become responsible in part for its iniquities’. To begin to tackle injustice, he argues, you must first begin by asking ‘simple and even child-like questions’. He reminds us that revisiting basic questions such as ‘why are we unequal?’ are the beginning of the end of such cynical dogma.

Self-serving ideologies abound in the world of politics but they can always be challenged. Tony Benn understood this and his thinking remains a valuable asset to the Left today. Even if we remain a world away from his idea of socialism, there is still a huge amount we can learn from this great socialist.

Glenn Edwards is a politics graduate and Labour activist

Tags: , , , ,

2 Responses to “Tony Benn and the power of “Utopia””

  1. Mikeb says:

    How can you say that “the dogma of free market economics” has brought inequality and lack of social mobility? It has brought the greatest improvement in living standards, life expectancy, education and prosperity in history. Even those at the bottom of the pile are living better than the poor of any preceding period. You obviously have a massive chip on your shoulder about ‘inequality’. Get over it. For all to prosper, some must prosper even more.

    Tony Benn will go down in history as another naïve, failed socialist politician whose only contribution was to suggest spending other people’s money to bail out ineffective and unproductive businesses and people. Thankfully they are a dying breed (literally based on the evidence of the last two weeks). Having said that, Tony Benn was a great parliamentarian and believer in the importance and supremacy of parliament in the legislative process. That is what he will be remembered for.

  2. Matt says:

    So, why did this Great Socialist champion of redistribution deliberately personally manipulate his way out of paying more than 1 million ukp in Inheritance Tax?

    Personally, I can’t stand hyprocrites – particularly millionaire socialist ones whose lives give the lie to their belief in their professed values.

    Bury Benn deep, and remember why he was – properly – on the margins.

Leave a Reply