Benn’s beliefs were poisonous, Crow was a Luddite. The Left would have crippled Britain and the Right should say so
‘A magnificent writer, speaker and campaigner, with a strong record of public service,” said the Prime Minister on the death of Tony Benn, a deluded leftwinger who spent much of his life and endless guile working to turn Labour into some kind of East European socialist party.
But in old age, apparently, a national treasure. “An extraordinary orator, and principled man,” tweets the Tory Chairman, of the notorious old twister; “a man of deep socialist principle,” gushes the Commons Speaker. How long before even Arthur Scargill is obituarised as some kind of saint?
There is more to this nonsense than an old-fashioned reluctance to speak ill of the dead. Socialists, I sense, are credited with principle and public-spiritedness almost by default.
Bob Crow, the Luddite RMT union boss who died the same week as Benn, was promptly soft-soaped with posthumous platitude: apparently he was “a fighter and a man of character” whose loss was “tragic”, according to Boris Johnson. Did Enoch Powell get this treatment from old enemies? Why do we who are not of the Left collude in rebranding hard-left bruisers and Marxist nutters as patriotic poppets? These rascals seldom return the compliment. Here’s how Boris Johnson’s “fighter and man of character” mourned another fighter: “I won’t shed one tear over her death . . . as far as I’m concerned she can rot in Hell,” said Bob Crow when Margaret Thatcher died.
I confess to slight stirrings of respect for the unsentimentality of the Left: not for Crow’s stupid opinion or Benn’s poisonous beliefs, but for their refusal to dissemble about people they thought bad for our country. Given their beliefs they were right to hate Margaret Thatcher. She would have hated them; in death as well as in life.
But enough of two wrongheaded men who would have dragged Britain on to the rocks if they could. They achieved nothing. The waters will now close over their heads. The more interesting question is why so many moderate Britons are reluctant to say what we really think about the dead icons of the Left?
We allow good manners to contribute to the mythologising of individuals who do big, bad things, hurt others, and leave our country worse than they found it. Most Conservatives felt uncomfortable at the Daily Mail’s attack on Ed Miliband’s Marxist late father, Ralph, for (as the paper alleged) “hating Britain”; but how much discomfort do the Left feel when writers in the Daily Mirror or The Guardian heap abuse of an often unashamedly personal nature on the memory of Margaret Thatcher, Sir Keith Joseph and other heroes of the Right?
Public figures should be publicly judged for the good or ill they do. Respect for a politician’s strength and stamina, love of opera, personal courtesy or kindness to small animals, should not smother one’s judgment of how his or her life scores on the only balance sheet that counts — the public good.
In world history many deluded leaders have been distinguished by their physical or moral courage, undoubtedly believing that they were serving those they led; and courage and courtesy are human qualities that can be displayed in the most appalling causes. Those on the Left have never shrunk from this truth; they don’t see politics as a game; they feel no sportsmanship towards those they think a danger to their version of progress.
The rest of us should learn from them. During the last century we have let a sort of lazy generosity lead to the lionising of figures of the British Left whose aims we did not support then and would not support now. Our country would be in better shape today if they had never lived, and we know it; but we murmur “hear, hear” when their names are praised.
We couldn’t begin to justify such sanctimonious cant, but we suppose it good form not to deride the Left’s kindly version of its own heroes’ lives. In failing to challenge these uncritical legacies, we’ve allowed myths to take shape that make a sensible reading of history harder to explain to younger generations.
Take Labour’s postwar Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. In the Commons, David Cameron has compared him with Margaret Thatcher as one of the four postwar prime ministers (said Mr Cameron) who “made the weather”. Heaven help us — Joe Stalin made the weather. Norman Tebbit, echoing Cameron in the House of Lords, praised Attlee and Thatcher as two prime ministers who “actually changed the country and did so in the way they wanted to change it”. And didn’t Pol Pot?
Attlee’s takeover of the coal and steel industries began a series of nationalisations that pointed postwar economic policy in wholly the wrong direction and helped to cripple our recovery. The entire economic philosophy of those who are (we coo) big figures in the history of British socialism has been abandoned as disastrous. So what’s all this guff about the great Clem Attlee?
The slow-burn catastrophe of putting health into the hands of a central state monolith was one of 20th century Britain’s most far-reaching mistakes. Do we find it hard to come to terms with the mistake because of misplaced deference to the “nobility” of their venture.
Well here’s the nobility of the Labour minister who brought it in, Aneurin Bevan, talking about the Tories: “We want the complete political extinction of the Tory party . . . So far as I am concerned, they are lower than vermin.”
Demythologising the leaders of the Left in Britain since 1945 would be a useful first step towards thinking straight about modern political history.
Forgive Michael Foot his duffle coat, but not the way that he set his face against the reform of trade union legislation and undermined Labour’s brave moderates. Tony Benn was only latterly a favourite socialist uncle: more importantly he was a poisonous force for insanity in his party. Anthony Crosland is lauded as an intellectual: he was a destroyer of our education system. Just because death or old age has drawn their teeth, why hold back from putting the boot in to these people’s malignant legacy?
“As the Lady sees it,” the late Ian Gow (Margaret Thatcher’s Parliamentary Private Secretary) once told me, “when you’re crocodile-hunting and you’ve got the reptile beached on a sandbank, you don’t help it back into the deep. You stick the knife in.”
The prophets of 20th-century socialism are beached. Stick in the knife.