Why I am a Bennite – A Eulogy to the Rt Hon Tony Benn by George Galloway MP

I was a “Bennite” (which became a considerable term of abuse in the 1980s) since the 1960s. I was brought up in a Labour household in which the premiership of Harold Wilson was the sun and in his constellation Mr Benn was the brightest of the many stars clustered around that Labour cabinet. There were so many stars – James Callaghan Roy Jenkins Barbara Castle Tony Crosland Richard Crossman Dennis Healey George Brown – but even in that company, the young, fresh-faced, bursting with ideas Wedgwood-Benn (as he was then known) stood out.

For us he seemed to exemplify the “white-hot heat” of the “technological revolution” – Mr Wilson’s wheeze for disguising his socialist purpose from a hostile media and the “Gnomes of Zurich” who, even then with their financial power had the means of destroying any real Labour government. Mr Benn was brimful of innovative unorthodoxy, and seemed just what the doctor ordered.

From his heroic ( and successful) fight to remain in the Commons upon the death of his father Viscount Stansgate – a Viscountcy which Mr Benn was to be forced to inherit – through to the Hovercraft, Concorde, TSR2, nuclear power, special edition postage stamps, tape-recording (we’d scarcely heard of it) his own interviews and speeches, he was every inch the “young Lochinvar”. Dashing, romantic, eloquent, unafraid.

The “technological revolution” cooled, the crucible crumbled but my love for Tony Benn never did which is why his death today at the age of 88 surrounded by his family whom he loved with extraordinary zeal is not just any other passing and has caused, unusually for me, the cancellation of a raft of important engagements.

I first met Tony Benn (as he was by then) at the Labour conference in Blackpool in 1974. I was 20 years old, the Secretary of Dundee West Constituency Labour Party. Whilst I was expressing my hero-worship of him, he told me that I was “the youngest constituency party secretary in Labour Party history”. It made that badge seem much brighter.

We remained in touch throughout the 1970’s as Tony Benn emerged as the most important, most popular socialist – as opposed to mere Labour – figure in Britain in the 20th century. When Mr Wilson and then Mr Callaghan’s governments (1974-79) ran into more and more troubled waters it was Tony Benn who became the parliamentary (and cabinet) focus of the fight for an “alternative economic strategy” being developed by the extra-parliamentary left and the trades unions particularly the engineering unions AUEW and TASS their supervisory section led by the immensely impressive Ken Gill.

On the eve of the Devolution Referendum in 1979 Mr Benn addressed a huge Yes Rally in Dundee’s Caird Hall attended by over one thousand people on a bitter winter’s night and gave a speech – the tape-cassette of which he sent me and which I still have – in which he gave quite simply the greatest speech for the socialist idea I have ever heard, bar none. In the vast cavernous auditorium his rolling cadences, his masterful command of the English language, his (by then) thinly coded attacks on the collapse into financial orthodoxy of his cabinet colleagues, the clarity of his call for the unity of working people on this island whilst supporting Home Rule within it, his unbelievably powerful case for democracy in our economy as well as our institutions (no-one believed in democracy more passionately than Tony Benn) still ring in my ears as I write this. It was a tour de force, even by his standards and no-one who was there will ever forget it.

Many of the words, concepts, imagery he used that night I still use in my own speeches today. Earlier he had posed in my home for pictures with my then baby daughter Lucy, today a mother of four, as he later would with her babies. His kindliness as well as his courage, intelligence, eloquence marking him out as head and shoulders above all of the political class then as now. If you can imagine the kindly old gentleman who sat at the back of the carriage in The Railway Children waving his handkerchief at the children and who came to their aid in their tragedy; that was the kind of man Tony Benn was.

Just before he launched his campaign for the Labour Party’s Deputy Leadership in 1981 Benn called my house. “Thish ish Tony Benn” he told my astonished then wife who thought it was a friend of ours playing a prank. “Oh yeah, right” she said.

He asked me if I would support his campaign. I was a full-time Labour organiser and the Chairman of the Labour Party in Scotland at the time and he knew it might put my job at risk. He promised to look after me should the worst happen and a job at his side if he won.

Without hesitation I supported him and threw myself into the campaign as the Scottish organiser. It proved a bitter and divisive battle, crystalising exisiting divisions within the movement and, when Neil Kinnock and a group of left wing apostates who included Robin Cook backed a “soft-left” rival John Silkin to split the Benn vote created new divisions some of which never healed.

The Labour Party had never seen a mass exercise within its ranks quite like it; and has since taken steps to ensure it never will do again. Thanks to democratic reforms within the party pioneered by Benn himself the choice would be made, not merely by MPs but by the rank and file of the party and the unions then affiliated, enthusiastically, in their millions. Benn chased every vote. Though supposedly handling Scotland I traveled with Benn the length and breadth of the country. If you’d believed the media Benn was then, literally, mad bad and dangerous to know. If you believed the evidence of your own eyes, he was the most exciting and inspiring leader in the land.

I remember one occasion in particular in a motor-way service station near Liverpool. We stopped for tea and toast (Benn rarely actually ate real food), Tony, me and Hugh Wyper the then legendary Scottish union leader and Hugh’s wife. First virtually every person in the station came over to greet him. Then, wearing their aprons and chef’s hats all the kitchen staff did the same (alas there were no camera phones then so each person had to get a time-consuming autograph) then people started coming in from the petrol-station forecourt leaving their vehicles unattended then Tony gave an impromptu speech. It felt like a popular revolution. And maybe it could have been.

At the height of his campaign when he seemed to be about to carry all before him, Benn was struck down by an obscure illness The Guillain – Barre Syndrome which attacked his nervous system, confined him to bed, and left him shaky on his legs for the rest of his life. It seemed suspicious at the time, and it still does now. Especially after what happened to Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and other left wing leaders in Latin America.

For that to sound less fanciful one must recap on what Benn might possibly have done. He might have won the deputy leadership of a Labour Party then regarded as a natural party of government. And quickly thereafter, its leader. He would have pulled Britain out of NATO and from the EEC. He would have scrapped Britain’s vastly expensive, unaffordable and essentially useless nuclear He promised public ownership and workers control of the commanding heights of the British economy. He would have nationalised the banks and many other industries including pharmaceuticals. He would have mounted a profound challenge to the rich and powerful in Britain and beyond, AND he had mass popular support in doing so.

The media hysteria had to be experienced to be believed. Think Scargill, Livingstone, Crow, add it all together and double it. It was that bad. Whole pages in serious newspapers were given over to cod-psychologists making the case that Tony Benn was, literally, insane.

But Benn-mania was taking on Beatles levels in the ranks of Labour. With the whole Labour establishment against him, as well as the whole of the British ruling class and its media echo-chamber, Benn was winning. As we gathered on the eve of the fateful Labour Conference in the Brighton conference centre the buzz was simply electrifying. When the result came and the right-wing candidate Dennis Healy was announced the winner by the hair of an eyebrow – well less than 1% – a result achieved only by the votes of a raft of Labour MPs, traitors who promptly defected to the now-forgotten SDP – the rest of us lost our heads. But Tony kept his, taking his brilliant and beautiful America wife Caroline by the hand and walking to the nearest fish and chip shop on the Brighton sea-front for a rare slap-up.

Kinnock picked up his 30 pieces of silver later and is now an establishment clown (along with his wife) in the House of Lords. The remnants of the SDP (which helped keep Thatcher in power for a decade), now serve in David Cameron’s Tory government.

Benn lost his Bristol seat due to boundary changes in 1983, was re-elected in Chesterfield with the support of the Derbyshire Miners (he was among other things the most whole-hearted of the Miners supporters) before “giving up parliament, to spend more time on politics” and continued to the end to support the socialist alternative to barbarism and war. He died and will forever live as the Honorary President of the Stop the War Coalition, leading the greatest mass movement in British history. He was the greatest leader Labour, and Great Britain, never had.

In Shakespeare’s words “He was a man, take him for all in all; I shall not look upon his likes again”

George Galloway MP
House of Commons
London
14th March 2014

Scotland, Farage and Me

The imbroglio involving Nigel Farage and a hate-filled mob on the streets of Edinburgh was a pure dead embarrassment to Scotland. Any sensible person can see that. It could have been so described by First Minister Alex Salmond if he was in any way prime ministerial, but it was not. Adding insult to injury Salmond put the boot in and made it all worse. For a popular elected politician to be forced out of Scotland’s capital city in a police van is intolerable and for many will be seen as the shape of things to come in the run up to the independence referendum and beyond – if Salmond were to win. Meanwhile the message sent to millions of English people who support Farage, to investors, tourists and customers, is that Scotland is not open for business if your face – or your flag – doesn’t fit. For me Farage is a right-wing populist Europhobe – the anti-thesis of everything I stand for. But he is not a racist – still less a fascist, and has every right to speak anywhere in the United Kingdom – so long as it exists.

The night before the roughhouse in the Northern Yorkshire town of Rotherham – filled with ex-miners and steel workers – UKIP won a sensational council by-election over Labour. A few weeks ago they scored 25% of the vote in English local elections. Unless millions of working class people in England have swung to Nazism this phenomenon needs better tools to fix than those deployed routinely against the likes of the BNP.

It is said that Farage feeds popular prejudice against foreigners – so do all the mainstream parties, including if the English are to be so described – the SNP.

That he is not particularly sound on gay rights. As sound as Brian Soutter of stage coach – the million pound backer of the SNP – who funded homophobic campaigns throughout Scotland. Farage who is admittedly better if you catch him before lunch time is no different in these things from many other political leaders who, if this fashion catches on, will be told to regard Scotland as a no-go area for them. Where will that leave us?

Not every racist is a fascist; if they were, we’d be being run by men in black uniforms and iron heels. If you believe Paulo DiCanio not even every fascist is a racist. And the idea that folk not keen on gay marriage, for which I voted, should be denied a platform would make Scotland look like Albania circa 1980. These false trails will have to be combatted by more sophisticated arguments than the Doc Martens of a Scottish rent-a-mob. Such tactics will merely garner increased support for them and an increasingly unpleasant reputation for a Scotland itself divided along many different fissures.

Salmond sunk to the occasion showing himself less than a national leader, more as a faction fighter at the head of a motley crew. If the virtual social media spoke for Scotland this game would already be a bogey. Cyber-nats bestride the internet in an increasingly poisonous parade of flag-waving and militancy which makes me wonder what happened to the Scotland I left just eight years ago. In that they are the mirror image of the Faragists who think getting all red-faced going down to the channel ports and shouting boo at Johnny Foreigner can somehow solve our problems, which are not, as it happens, the fault of the English, the immigrants, the gays or the Europeans.

I have had to block hundreds of Scots on Twitter for example, who deny my own right to speak on Scotland’s future despite my having been born and raised here, elected to parliament four times from Glasgow and been a feature in Scotland’s politics for 40 years. All on the grounds that I now live in England. Not that they’ll be sending Sean Connery’s campaign cheque back of course.  I have no doubt that when I pitch up to speak on the Fringe of the Edinburgh Festival this summer, that the same thing as happened to Nigel Farage will happen to me. What kind of Scotland is this? Is this really the kind of country you want?

It was once said that anti-semitism was the socialism of fools. So too is the idea that Scotland broken from the rest of this small, island of English- speaking people will somehow lead to some kind of progressive beacon of hope for the world.

The opposite is true. Socialism in one country was a myth, even when the concept was coined to describe a state – the USSR – which stretched from the Urals to Vladivostock. In Scotland, a country of five million, largely empty and with the only population in Europe that is falling, it is even more absurd.

We would be permanently joined to a perpetually Tory England and thus would begin a race to the bottom.

Tory England would always have lower corporate and personal taxation than a so-called socialist Scotland – unless Scotland undercut them. Where then would lie free prescriptions, tuition fees and free care for the elderly? Let alone the red-speckled dreams of the nationalist left fringe?

Independent, Scots would continue to be at the mercy of the waves of international vicissitude. The only difference would be that they had gotten out of an ocean-going liner and climbed into a Para-Handy puffer – with no life boats. The same is true of course of Farage’s fantasy of bulldog Britain. In that sense those waving their flags at each other in Edinburgh last week were bald men fighting over a comb and hair gel.

If Britain cannot face this storm alone how much less can an independent Scotland?

I’ll tell you what would happen when an independent Scotland proved to be a chimera.

Scots would turn inwards, turn on the English and turn on each other. First they would come for the ‘unionists’ as they describe people like me. We would become a ‘fifth column’. Soon other scapegoats would have to be found. Catholic schools, judging by the cyber-nats-speak, would have to succumb. Then it might be the immigrants, brown as well as white who would be ‘taking our jobs’, ‘our houses’, ‘marrying our women’ and the rest. We would become an embittered people, the very opposite of the Scottish internationalist we have been for so long. What a pity.

Who will guard Scotland’s 4000 miles of coast line. A Scottish Royal Navy? How will we pay for it? If you lose your passport in Uzbekistan when you’re scouring the world looking for work, who will replace it? The embassy of England? What currency will you use? Not the English pound I promise you. The Euro? How’s that going? The Icelandic Shilling perhaps? Covered in the ash of a volcanic national bankruptcy? Or would we bring back the Groat? Backed by what? Oil and gas reserves, fast running out? Or sell ice cream to tourists increasingly repelled by the kind of mentality we saw in Edinburgh…

Doesn’t all this seem like a high price to pay? To make Alex Salmond the Prime Minister, he’s just shown himself to be less than capable of being? A Brigadoon Scotland shrouded in the mist of Celtic obscurantism is not for me. Does it do anything for you?

Are the people of Liverpool or Leeds really foreigners to you?

You speak the same language as them, watch the same TV, read the same newspapers, listen to the same radio, eat the same food – usually curry. What foolishness is this?

Did you consider the Beatles your fellow countrymen or not? Have you seen the statue of the late Scotland captain Billy Bremner at Leeds United Stadium?

Do you know who has just followed the greatest living Scotsman Sir Alex Ferguson into the manager’s seat at Manchester United?

Scotland and England have been grafted together like bone, politically for 300 years, physically since the dawn of time.

We have committed – in times of empire – many crimes together. But for a time in the face of real Fascism we stood alone and changed the world. When we did so together, it was our finest hour. Running Nigel Farage out of a press conference  was not.

Words by George Galloway MP

Design by Gayatri

In Memoriam Comandante Che Guevara

In Memoriam
Comandante Che Guevara Lynch
Born June 14th 1928
Murdered 8th October 1967
45 Years Remembered

Che Guevara was one of the men of the 20th century. Born in Argentina (with the blood of Irish rebels flowing through his veins as his father said) he played a leading role with Comandante Raul Castro and Comandante Camillo Cienfuegos under the leadership of Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro in the liberation of Cuba from fascistic dictatorship.

He helped build the socialist foundations of Cuba as Minister for the Economy and Governor of the Bank of Cuba.

He participated in the military defence of Vietnam against US imperialism and fought by the side of the greatest of all African leaders Patrice Lumumba (later assassinated by the imperialists) in the Congo.

Che Guevara led an uprising of the Bolivian revolution against dictatorship and in October 1967 he was captured by the forces of reaction and, after consultation with Washington, murdered by the agent Mario Teran on the orders of the CIA.

Sensing his assassin’s cowardice Che told him “What are you waiting for?” – “Kill me now, I am only a man”.

Seldom can the word “only” have been less appropriate.

Mario Teran and all of the servants of the CIA who participated in the murder of Che Guevara met with revolutionary justice; each and every one of them being consigned to early and violent deaths.

The blood of Guevara watered the earth of Bolivia which fructified in the victory of the Bolivian revolution under the leadership of Evo Morales.

Che Guevara never died in truth, his face his spirit and his sacrifice are to be found throughout the world wherever the flags of freedom fly.

Hasta Siempre Comandante. Hasta la Victoria Siempre.

Comandante Che Guevara: Presente!

George Galloway MP
Revolutionary Venezuela
October 8th 2012

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