25 January 2015

Tony Benn (1925-2014): the death of a political giant

The death of Tony Benn in March 2014 was a psychological blow for the political left in Britain.

Tony Benn was the most admirable British politician in the whole post war era.

In the 1970s Benn signalled in the Labour Party a way forward, not just as an alternative to Thatcherism and authoritarian market fundamentalism, but as a solution to the shortcoings of 1960s and 1970s social democracy. His 1981 defeat to Denis Healey in the battle for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party sadly indicated the start of a process which ended with victory for New Labour in the Party in 1990s.

Benn, unusually for British politicians, was a great moralist and teacher, and invariably presented his ideas in spellbinding orations, rather than through the pen, with even his diaries consisting mostly of written up recordings. Some of his famous aphorisms will always stay with me.

“It’s man’s capacity for good that makes democracy possible. It’s man’s capacity for bad which makes democracy necessary.”

“I do ask people not to dwell too long on the theoretical differences between reform and revolution. I think if you added up all the reforms we want to make in the structure of society, people could not distinguish it from a revolution.”

“It’s not that we have reformed and failed, but we have failed to reform.”

Yet, Benn’s appeal to the moral high ground came at a price. Despite his position and influence in the Party, when his own Bristol constituency was abolished in boundary changes in 1983, he accepted defeat in the candidate selection process in the safe Bristol South seat. Rather than bunk off to a safe seat elsewhere, Benn remained loyal to the town of Bristol. He was accepted for marginal Bristol East where he lost to the Conservative candidate. Only then did he relocate to the mining constituency of Chesterfield, where he won a by-election in 1984, a seat he held until his retirement from Parliament in 2001.

Even after the left was crushed and marginalised in the late 1980s, he remained loyal to Labour – and I think mistakenly so - but he never capitulated to New Labour thinking.

Tony Benn’s death is a very great loss. He is sadly missed.

1 January 2015

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

Chaim Potok shows us a closed world, but one with universalistic human values.

Like Potok's 'The Chosen,’ this book ‘My Name is Asher Lev’ is a highly readable glimpse into a world which is both open and closed. It is open in the sense that the orthodox religious Jewish community in the United States, in which the book is set, not only shares a meaning and context which spans the Atlantic, but allows though Potok’s pen for the presentation of universal human values. But in another sense this community is also closed and cut off – almost comically so - from most of the life and concerns of average Americans in the second half of the twentieth century.

Like much of Potok’s work, the novel is a Romansbildung, featuring a boy from a distinguished orthodox family, who discovers and takes up painting much to his father’s disapproval. His longing for the artistic freedom finally causes his unwilling but expected expulsion from his community into the wider society.

The book is well-paced, excellently written and highly enjoyable.

POTOK, Chaim, My name is Asher Lev, Penguin 1973

A national government for Britain in 2015?

Every time the political situation in Britain is not straightforward, there are voices saying that there will be a return to national government, last seen 1931-45.

Of course anything in the future can happen, but it seems highly likely that following the 2015 General Election in May this year either the Tories or Labour will emerge as the single largest party in Parliament with the other in second position. By British convention the party with the largest number of seats will be invited to form a government, and if not successful the remit will fall to second party. It is highly improbable that neither Cameron nor Miliband would be unable to form a government which would not immediately fall in a parliamentary vote of no confidence. UKIP and the Northern Ireland Unionists would lean towards the Tories, while the SNP (likely to emerge as a major player in 2015) along with Plaid Cymru and the Greens (if they win seats) would favour Labour. The Liberal Democrats would get into bed with anyone, and it is unlikely after an electoral beating in May 2015 they would want a second general election.

In any event, a coalition only between the Tories and Labour would be, to borrow German terminology, a “grand coalition,” not a national government. Such a government, if only because it was so unexpected and would deny the voters any say in the direction of the country, would be unpopular and would soon haemorrhage support to the left (mainly the Greens, but also the SNP in Scotland) and to the right (UKIP). Recent opinion polls put support for a Tory/Lab coalition as the preferred outcome of a hung parliament at a mere 9 percent. Anticipating low levels of public support and votes falling away, a grand coalition would be the last choice for both Cameron and Miliband, or their successors.

A “national government” is not impossible, but it is highly unlikely.