Chris Harman

Dialectically speaking

Turning the tide

(October 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.124, October 1989, pp.10-11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

POLITICAL diaries are an invaluable source of material for those who want to find out how decisions were really made at a particular point in time. But they are very rarely a gripping read. Big events get lost in the details of administrative measures and ministerial intrigue.

The first 150 pages of the most recent volume of Tony Benn’s diaries (Against the Tide, Diaries 1973-76, Hutchinson, £20) are a rare exception. They deal with the most exciting period of recent British history.

By early in 1973 the Tory government of Edward Heath – which had an impressive majority in the Commons – had failed in two tests of strength with trade unionists: with the miners over wages and with dockers over the imprisonment of five of their leaders under the Industrial Relations Act.

Now it was trying to impose new wage controls (known as “phase three” of its policy) in the face of a union movement that felt more confident than ever.

In the autumn of 1973 a difficult task seemed a near impossible one. War in the Middle East was followed by a quadrupling of oil prices and an upsurge of inflation across the Western world with the start of the first major economic crisis to hit the capitalist system since the 1930s. All this happened as miners began an overtime ban which became a strike in February 1974.

The usual complacency of ruling classes around the world was cracked by events. The British ruling class in particular started to panic.

Benn was very well placed to observe this turmoil in the ruling circles in the winter of 1973-74. He had been a middle of the road figure in the Labour leadership who had started moving leftwards a couple of years before. He still mixed freely with top businessmen, Tory ministers, foreign ambassadors and figures from both the right and left of the Labour Party and the trade union movement. So he can, for example, tell of:

“Dinner with Wilfred Brown (head of Glacier Metals) who believes we are heading for a slump and food riots and there must be national government ... At the Commons I saw John Biffen who told me, ’Enoch Powell is waiting for the call’.”

Or again, “The governor of the Bank of England said we would have ten years of austerity”. He also reported that at a Labour NEC subcommittee meeting, “Barbara [Castle] said, ’The Tories themselves are frightened of having a fanatic in charge and are afraid Heath will destroy social democracy.’ She had heard Heseltine was raging against Heath.”

Wilson told a meeting of the shadow cabinet:

“Carrington [the defence secretary] had let it be known to the press that there would be three resignations – his own, Prior’s and Barber’s [the then chancellor] – if there was any cash on the table for the miners. Whitelaw would like to resign if there wasn’t.”

Rumours swept through the circles Benn moved in. One was that the Tories would get rid of Heath and go for a national government, headed by either Whitelaw or Callaghan. Another, conveyed to Benn by Sir Eric Drake, head of BP, was that Lord Carrington, the Tory defence secretary, would form a hardline government.

Benn was not alone in suspecting that military manoeuvres around Heathrow airport were part of Carrington’s plan “to get people used to tanks and military patrols on the streets of London”. The leading industrialists, however, clearly had grave doubts about any resort to force against the unions. Benn reports:

“Went over to the CBI where there was a dinner ... I think the CBI have lost confidence in their own capacity to solve these problems, and so they are now pleading with the Labour Party to stand up against the unions because they see the Tories cannot do it.”

The trade union and Labour Party leaders themselves are shown to have vacillated. The TUC called a one day political strike to protest at government policies on 1 May 1973. Key supporters of the call were Jack Jones of the transport workers’ union and Hugh Scanlon of the engineers.

Yet Benn tells how, five weeks earlier a speech by Scanlon “appeared to say the TUC was prepared to try to enforce a maximum increase of £3.40 if only the government would accept it.” Jack Jones told a TUC-Labour Party liaison committee meeting “it would be a good idea if we had a Royal Commission on pay”.

The Labour leadership had not done at all well in 1973, losing an important byelection in Lincoln to the right wing defector Dick Taverne. Key sections of the Labour leadership, most notably James Callaghan, made no secret of their hopes for a national government.

Yet at the same time, the reality of capitalist crisis led to a feeling that the time for socialist rhetoric had come. Although Benn was already under attack from the mass media for calling for more state ownership of industry, people like Wilson and Callaghan still saw the need to court him. Even Denis Healey was, briefly, friendly.

Benn himself oscillated between extreme optimism and extreme pessimism. He could write in January 1974, “if the Labour Party wins the election on the slogan ’Back to work with Labour’ [which right winger Don Concannon thought up!] then the balance of power in the party is firmly on the left ... that will be a historic moment in the history of the Labour Party.”

A week later he compared Wilson’s leadership of the party with Ramsay MacDonald’s, commenting “there’s been no real change in the Labour Party since 1912.”

Optimism returned with Labour’s election victory in March. “There are four powerful secretaries of state on the left – myself, Michael Foot, Peter Shore, and Eric Varley – and we are a formidable team.”

What was really happening was that, after talking of taking a hard stance against the unions, the mainstream of the ruling class decided their position was, temporarily, too weak. They had little choice but to rely on the Labour Party right wing and the unions to rein in rank and file union activists. For this to be done successfully, the Labour right had to allow the Labour left to front some of the government’s policies.

At points Benn himself was aware of this. He could write in April 1975: “The Tories now think that Wilson, Healey and Callaghan are doing their work so well they don’t want a coalition government.”

The chain did not end with the ruling class using Wilson to control Foot and Jones. The Labour government could only control a working class movement as confident as that in March 1974 if many activists thought it was intent on genuinely left wing policies. For that it needed ministers with links with the trade union and Labour left – the likes of Eric Heffer, Judith Hart and ... Tony Benn.

Benn was industry secretary. As such he was responsible for handing out state subsidies to and, if necessary, nationalising firms hit by the crisis to stop them going bust – a policy already followed by the preceding Tory government (which had nationalised Rolls Royce). He wanted to use this power to move towards what he saw as socialism: by pressuring businessmen to accept state planning and to increase the influence of trade unionists on the decisions of firms.

His office became a frequent stopping off place, not just for the likes of Lord Stokes, whose British Leyland had to be rescued by the state, but also for delegations from unions and shop stewards committees trying to protect their jobs.

This worried big business. They were afraid Benn might be a focus for workers who remembered the victories of the previous years and who wanted to fight rising unemployment.

Yet in the interim they needed someone like him. Otherwise shopfloor anger at the effects of the crisis might have got out of hand. The shop stewards calling at Benn’s office might have been organising thousands of workers to occupy their plants and take to the streets, making it impossible for the right wing Labour leaders to manage capitalism.

At one point in January 1974 Benn showed some recognition of the role he would play. The editor of the Financial Times asked him, “You’ll take on the City of London?” Benn replied, “No. There’ll have to be reforms of another kind. The reason I am most bitterly attacked by the ultra-left is because they know I am really the only guy who might save the parliamentary system by making the necessary reforms.”

He tells how at lunch with Donald Stokes and the Leyland Board he said, “We ought to find a way of giving the unions an opportunity to contribute to the solutions of the firm’s difficulties because if there were no industrial disputes you would be nuking hundreds of millions of pounds a year.”

The outcome was the Ryder plan which cut jobs at British Leyland while stewards “participated” with management in preventing strikes – until the stewards’ organisation was so weak that management were able to sack the convenor, Derek Robinson.

The Labour government gave the ruling class a breathing space in which to recover its confidence and it was soon threatening an “investment strike” unless the Labour government conceded to its every demand. Wilson responded by wholesale attacks on those who had elected Labour – and by imposing tight restraints on Benn’s powers before finally moving him early in 1975.

As Labour abandoned one election pledge after another, Benn was repeatedly urged to resign by fellow Labour MPs like Dennis Skinner and Eric Heffer (who had himself resigned).

Yet Benn stayed on as Energy Secretary right to the bitter end in 1979, even though the “reforms” he was involved in framing now included the positioning of armed police at nuclear installations, the imposition of a bonus scheme designed to divide miners in one area from those in another and contingency plans for breaking strikes.

The tragedy with “parliamentary socialism” is that, as well as corrupting so many people who start off on the left and end up on the right, it also destroys the effectiveness even of those who hold firm to genuine left wing principles. Success for them depends on having a say in government.

Capitalism has a hundred and one means of bending parliamentary governments to its will. As the right wingers rat and the soft left surrender, the hard left end up binding workers to a government which in turn is bound to the system.

Benn’s diaries show he was repeatedly struck by feelings of remorse at staying in the government. But he always decided not to resign for fear of being consigned to an ineffectual role outside.

As a result, instead of playing a part in trying to turn working class confidence in 1974 into working class victory he was, despite himself, part of the mechanism that helped destroy that confidence.

Last updated on 7 May 2010