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Labour should look again at Tony Benn’s arguments for democracy

Daniel Bentley, 14 March 2014

‘If one meets a powerful person ask them five questions: ‘What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?’ If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system’ – Tony Benn

In the post-Blair era in which most left-leaning politicians (and many right-leaning too) regard the European Union as an essentially benign force, Tony Benn’s euroscepticism seems a historical curiosity, a relic from the same strand of Labour politics that served up the ‘longest suicide note in history’ in the form of its 1983 general election manifesto.

But while so much of the Labour politics of that era is now scoffed at by all but a few committed left-wingers, the party’s hostility to what was then the European Economic Community sprang from an unease with unaccountable transnational forces and organisations that, if anything, has only deepened in the past three decades or so. Just not so much at the top of the Labour Party.

Benn’s hatred of the European Commission was related not only to his dislike of the unelected House of Lords and the prerogatives of an hereditary monarch but also his profound suspicion of bodies like the International Monetary Fund and global corporations who had ‘no allegiance to the nation’. In Arguments for Democracy (1981) he is scathing about the fact that multinationals’ profits ‘made in one country can be exported to another where perhaps wage rates or taxes are low’ (sound familiar today?). He goes on in the same pages to criticise the subjugation of British foreign policy to that of the United States and denounce joining the Common Market as ‘the most formal surrender of British sovereignty and parliamentary democracy that has ever occurred in our history’.

All of this had reduced Britain, he said, to ‘colonial status’; what was needed was a ‘national liberation struggle’. This sort of language would be tut-tutted by most mainstream politicians today, not least one imagines on the Labour frontbench. And yet he was at the same time a passionate internationalist. How such views became so unpopular among the party that was established to give the working man and woman a voice is an area that needs greater study today as both Labour and the Tories wake up to the threat of a party like Ukip.

Benn foresaw the dangers of globalisation and the drifting away of power from democratic national parliaments. Many of the tributes today fondly remember his stubbornness even when he found himself proved wrong by events. But it is to his eternal credit that he never succumbed to a certain complacency about the need for democratic accountability in the exercise of power that has taken hold in the past 30 years – and against which we are now beginning to see a backlash among voters. Labour, in particular, should look back and consider whether the Bennites were so wrong in every detail, after all.

Daniel Bentley is Editorial Director at Civitas. He tweets @danielbentley

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