Friday, 28 March 2014

Letters to my Grandchildren by Tony Benn (2010): A Review

"There are four questions which, although simple, and even child-like, get to the heart of the problem and offer a way for adults to act. Where there is injustice, the first question is: who gave one person the right to do harm to another? That is a revolutionary question which is directed at authority itself and the sources of power which sustain it. Then comes the question: what is going on? It is often a difficult one to answer but it is also an important one because if you do not understand a situation you cannot influence it. The next question is: why is it going on? It forces you to think about the nature of society and how it works. What can you do about it? is the most difficult but also the most important question of all." (Tony Benn)

One of the shortest publications to come from the pen of Tony Benn is the book "Letters to my Grandchildren". It's not nearly as long as the volumes of his diaries, having a bare 164 pages. Each section is very short, as if it was in fact, a letter. And over the course of this book, he covers many issues.

The tone of the book is very different from the diaries, however. It's like a grandfather gently reclining in a chair, with slippers on his feet, puffing away on his pipe; it is a warm and chatty style. Here is an example, and note how he takes the amusing letter from the constituent to raise a chuckle before moving on to the serious question of new technology and the moral questions it raises.

"When your parents were your age, and the United States and the Soviet Union were racing to land on the moon, the Russians put down a little robotic machine onto the lunar surface. One of my constituents in Bristol, where I was then the MP, wrote to me: "

"Dear Tony,

I see the Russians have put a space vehicle on the moon. Is there any chance of a better bus service in
Bristol? "

"It was a very good question. "

"From the beginning of time to the days when your future great-grandchildren are born, the choice is and will always be: what do you do with the technology you have? Is it for peace or war? Does it divide people or help to bring them together? And what effect could it have on the human race's capacity to govern itself peacefully? The uses made of technology thus raise fundamental, moral issues."

These letters are finely crafted, rather like secular sermons, and they begin like this, with a homely anecdote as the hook to take the reader into the actual point which he wants to make. The difference, of course, is that these are secular, although one feels the prophetic overtones bubbling away under the surface.

Technology is often a key feature of these letters, perhaps reflecting that he himself was once Minister for Technology, and oversaw the opening of the Post Office Tower; in its day, this was a marvellous leap forward in telecommunications.

And he looks at the technological revolution of the internet, and how it has fundamentally changed how information is controlled.

"All of you grandchildren, like everyone of your generation, take the internet and its social possibilities for granted. The technicalities of using it are hard for parents and grandparents to master but it has helped to create the best-informed generation in history and gives you freedom to exchange information and compare interests across the world. This very fact has made it a deadly threat to the powerful. Throughout history control of communication and information has been crucial to political control. Dictators use that power over information to dominate their people even if there is no provision for democracy."

It's not wholly true, of course. Secrets are still kept behind locked doors of governments, and it is sometimes hard to ask the question to open that door, and manage to get an answer. The internet has also become so swamped by data that there is also an awful lot of misinformation out there. It can be difficult sometimes to know where truth lies, although outside of David Ike's forums, you are unlikely to get much credence for supposedly eye-witness accounts that Ted Heath was a shape shifting alien, which is something which Ike himself seems to believe.

But what the internet does do extremely well is to widen terms of debate, and open up news sources that would have been in the past constrained by the editors of the great newspapers, and the magnates who owned them.  That can be both a blessing and a curse. If one considers the abdication crisis, the UK newspapers first kept the story out of circulation, and then the government and newspapers shaped the debate. They can still attempt to spin stories, but other voices can be heard, and other historical narratives offered.

And here is another opening which grabs the reader. He takes the global reach of travel, and uses it as a hook to open people's eyes to the places they visit - and the political regimes in charge.

"You think nothing of jumping on a plane and going to Beijing, or Nepal or Tehran. But when you arrive in any country, you should always ask yourself, `Who runs the joint? Power in the world has always been exercised by a tiny handful of people with their gangs of followers, and it is very easy to see what their interests are - to hang on to their wealth and power and increase them wherever possible."

This is perhaps an over cynical view of the world, and it is not altogether clear how much power can be exercised by individuals, and how much comes from market systems which may be beyond anyone's ability to control. It is notable, for instance, that examples of that, as with the credit crunch, are rather conspicuous by their absence. And political regimes do collapse, and on occasion, as in Russia, quick rich businessmen can find their wealth is no safeguard against brute political power.

Nevertheless, the questions about who runs a country, who is in charge, and how they hold onto power is still one worth asking. Power can easily become a vice, a magnet drawing people in, and those who enter politics with the best of intentions can be corrupted by the desire to hold onto the reigns of power.

Nothing is perhaps more pitiful than a politician who was in power, but who has fallen from the charmed circle, suddenly coming to the realisation that power resides in an inside group, and he is no longer part of that; it is pitiful, because they invariably never saw that while in office, and one strongly suspects that should they be in a position of power again, all those doubts and criticism would melt away like morning dew. But what they do show, and show very well in their resentment, is that there is invariably a charmed circle of some kind, which draws a ring around its deliberations, and keeps backbenchers at arms length. I think that's true of even those who espouse consensus.

Most of the letters also look back on history, and take lessons from the past into the present. There's an interesting one on slavery, which looks at the abolition of slavery, but also looks at the different degrees in which slavery persists today. Some of this is to a degree metaphorical, as with debt slavery, but some of it is still very much a throwback to slavery.

People trafficking, which mostly effects women, is something that while illegal, still persists in its own very black market. And while Lord Shaftsbury worked to implement the Factory Acts in Victorian society to restrict and eventually outlaw the exploitation of child labour, we are often still happy to get cheap consumer goods from distant lands, and not give the sources of those goods the scrutiny which they deserve, where childhoods are being stolen:.

"In industrial society, workers are to some extent at the mercy of their employers and might be sacked if they oppose or question their conditions of employment; if they have mortgage and cannot make the repayments, their home: may be repossessed. So debt slavery is also a form of control. Of course, we believe slavery to have ended and imperialism to be history, but there are two new forms of slavery that have developed in your lifetime: the hideous trafficking of women for prostitution and the completely unacceptable use of child labour to produce cheap consumer goods for the richer countries."

It is interesting that Tony Benn's vision of workers, while heavily critical of large businesses which can use their economic leverage to protect their global interests, is strongly in favour of small businesses. What he means by workers are not just those employed, but employers who also work very hard for relatively little return:

"When socialists talk of workers, they must necessarily include small businesses, not only the ones that produce new ideas, but also the shopkeepers and organisations that meet most of your daily needs, and are run by people who work very hard, whether in a newsagent or a small engineering factory and do not have teams of accountants and public relations officers to market their goods."

"The small business that innovates, develops and markets new products - as Nahal will know - or meets local needs efficiently, has to be regarded as the pioneer of the new technology and deserves public support and indeed backing from the labour movement."

"A real political problem arises when it gets so big that it becomes a force of its own, using its influence to control governments. This is even more true of multinational corporations that have no local roots and are rich enough and strong enough to campaign to protect their economic interests against governments and parties that are much less well financed."

On elections, he is firmly in favour of the Single Transferable Vote as the fairest way to conduct an election, but he also has an interesting point to make about candidate's interests, which I think would be of great benefit, not just in the UK, but also locally:

"The register of members' interests which was established some years ago should be extended to become a register of candidates' interests, for electors are entitled to know the interests of all candidates before they are elected rather than after."

On cabinet government, and collective responsibility, he thinks too much power is in the hands of the Prime Minister: "Government ministers are subject to even tighter control than MPs because their employer is the prime minister who has the absolute right to dismiss them"

That can mean that the Government Minister has a strong structural bias to support the Cabinet, whereas Tony Benn sees the responsibility of all members of Parliament quite differently. He would like more power to devolve back to Parliament. Jersey is, of course, heading in the opposite direction in this, with the new proposition about collective responsibility, and an increase in the power and patronage of the Chief Minister.

Tony Benn is speaking, of course, of a Party System, but it is, I think, a good illustration of the balance between different responsibilities faced by a member of Parliament, and how you have to weigh them up:

"I can think of no greater honour than serving as an MP, and the relationship between you and your MP must be one of trust, for in democracy sovereignty belongs to the people and they merely lend their power to those who represent them. An MP's first responsibility is therefore to constituents. "

"The second responsibility of an MP is to the local party, who can select - and deselect -- the candidate and must trust whoever they do select to work honestly for the policies to which they are committed. MPs also have a general responsibility to the party of which they are members. "

"Finally and most importantly, MPs have a responsibility to their own conscience, which may on occasion lead them into conflict with their local or national party or even into voting against the majority opinion of their constituents."

There are homely anecdotes throughout, and one thing that becomes clear is the importance of contact with the constituents who elected you. This is something which is a vital part of being a member of Parliament, although it often goes on behind the scenes in Jersey, as in the UK.

I was impressed, recently, and privileged to hear of some of that work done (from a constituent) by Montfort Tadier, and doubly impressed because I know he has made no political capital of this behind the scenes helping his St Brelade constituents. I know that Deputy Judy Martin and Deputy Geoff Southern also do a lot helping people who are struggling with income support forms. This is not showy, of the kind of work that gets you on the BBC Radio slot, or a picture in the JEP, but it is the backbone of democracy.

I'm sure that, far from being idle, many Deputies do a lot unseen and confidential, and often in evenings when people are free. Just because a Deputy does not blow their own trumpet, does not mean that they don't work hard for those they represent.

I know from my own experience when Deputy Graham Huelin helped our family that a lot of this background work goes on. Those who think that all Deputies are largely idle wasters - and I have seen that accusation several times - are speaking with the confidence of ignorance. There are idle Deputies, and I could name a few, but to tar all with that brush is unjust.

Tony Benn gives an anecdotal insight into his surgeries, and how they worked:

"The surgeries became almost like a psychotherapy session. One elderly man on crutches asked me to help him prosecute his teenage son and, with gentle questioning he poured out a whole series of incidents. I asked him at the end, `I wonder whether possibly you are a bit jealous of your son?'  His attitude changed and he clapped his thigh, shook my hand and said, `Mr Benn, I believe you are absolutely right.' He picked up his crutches and walked out. "

"I have given a lot of thought to the work of a local member of parliament and have come to the view that much of the casework fell into the same category as the palliative care offered by hospices. Support was needed whether or not you could actually solve the problem for a particular constituent. The people who wrote to me or queued up at my advice centres to tell me their stories, wanted to be heard and they wanted me to listen."

The letters end on a note of humility, and warmth, as he looks back on his life, and takes stock of the future, with hope. Despite everything, he remains an optimist:

"Living as I do `in a blaze of autumn sunshine' I realise I have learned more from my children and grandchildren than I did from my parents and therefore look with love .and thankfulness on the human family. It seems appropriate to end these letters in a spirit of love and gratitude and sign myself off"

I think that long after the diaries have collected dust on the bookshelf, forgotten except by historians piecing together different perspectives on our age, this small little book will still be read. It does not provide answers, so much as questions; but in doing so, it raises matters which we and our children and grandchildren will need to address.

This is not the whole Tony Benn. The tearing apart of the Labour party, and the Manfesto described as the longest suicide note in political history (and the terrible election defeat which followed), and Benn's active involvement in them is not to be found in his historical anecdotes or his comments about Government and the Labour Party.

Also the misplaced support he gave to the Militant Tendency, the movement within the Labour party which used the threat of deselection to try to  manipulate members of Parliament as puppets is also not present. Lessons could be taken from those, but no letters address those matters.

That matters, in terms of assessing the political legacy of Tony Benn. But this book is not about that political legacy. It is not an examination of a life, or an autobiography. It is not a political tract. It is more of a statement of faith, of optimism and hope in the next generation, and, as the subtitle puts it, of "Thoughts for the Future".

And regardless of whether we regard Tony Benn as a dangerous maverick, a National Treasure, a ruthless operator (as Jack Straw described him), or a determined democrat, the matters which he raises are important issues. I'd recommend this to anyone, especially young people, to look at those issues which are presented here in a clear style which is certainly reminiscent in many ways of George Orwell or C.P. Snow. It is very readable, almost chatty, and never boring.

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