12 February 2008

Miliband and Benn

Memories are like photo snaps, not film sequences. From twenty-nine years ago in 1979 I can remember a warm spring day and the gate post at the end of our garden path. I recall that I had just returned after spending my newspaper round money on Ralph Miliband’s ‘The State in Capitalist Society.’ Today, Miliband’s book still has a prominent position on my bookshelf.

Perhaps I remember the incident because Professor Miliband was such a good writer and therefore a good teacher of politics and of Marxism. I admired him up until his early death in 1994. The first time I heard him speak – in the most articulate English with the strongest of French accents – was in 1987 at the Chesterfield Conference. Even now I remember what he said with the utmost clarify.

The star of the 1987 Chesterfield Conference, the then MP for Chesterfield, the neighbour and friend of Ralph Miliband was Tony Benn. Benn’s campaign inside the Labour party for what amounted to left-wing social democracy in answer to the debacle of the Wilson-Callaghan Labour government fired my imagination. It seemed to be the politics of the possible in the first half decade of Thatcherism.

So Tony Benn and Ralph Miliband formed my intellectual and political coordinates and held out a flag of hope for the next generation of which I was part. But any such hope was cruelly misplaced. Today Miliband’s son, David, is British foreign secretary and sits in the cabinet with Benn’s son Hilary. Together they have travelled along the New Labour road, embracing Bush, the Iraq War, further capitalist inequality in Britain and the attack on civil rights.

I can never hear the names of either of these two New Labour ministers without unfavourably comparing them with what their fathers achieved.

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