The Political Struggle For Equality Tony Benn MP

Tony Benn MP at our conference  Health, Wealth and Poverty November 1992

I am the only surviving Labour member who was in parliament when Aneurin Bevan was Minister of Health. I heard his speech in 1951, when he resigned from the Cabinet on the question of teeth and spectacles and because he believed that the defence burden was too great.

The postwar government was an agency for social, political and economic change. Now we are living at a time when politics have become enormously managerial and I am not attracted by the way in which they are conducted. The argument is all about who can run the status quo better. However, a managerial position without an agitational underpinning never comes off at all. I have in my time been a manager, for eleven years as a Cabinet Minister, but on reflection I think agitation is more important than management in bringing about social change. And I am an agitator.

What then are the conditions that bring about change? A political movement without a history and without a vision cannot really make a lot of progress. There is a tendency to live for the day: what will tomorrow’s headlines say, what will the public opinion polls say on the eve an Election? But what moves people is more than the fact of being spectators of the political process. I think the developments in America, the defeat of Bush and the election of Clinton, are very important, because they raise in people’s minds hope of the possibility of change – and hope is a very big factor in all political change.

What has moved people, it is of course, ideas. When Cain killed Abel and the Lord had a word with him about it, Cain said : “Am I my Brother’s keeper?’. He was talking about equality. The idea that I have an equal responsibility for my neighbour or my brother has reappeared in a whole range of different forms over the years – “am I my brother’s keeper”, “an injury to one is an injury to air, “united we stand, divided we fair, “love thy neighbour as thyself.

If you look at the great statements that have been made over the years, that have formed a critical part of the Labour movement’s philosophy you come across some very interesting passages which are all about equality. There was clearly no demand for Child Benefit to be uprated in accordance with the cost of living in the seventeenth century, but there was a demand for equality, and in so far as we have gone wrong, it may be, I rather suspect, because we have forgotten the relevance of equality, which is the core of this conference.

I came across a passage recently by a historian, writing about the English Revolution in Chelmsford: “The relation of master and servant has no ground in the New Testament. In Christ there is neither bond nor free, ranks such as those of the peerage and gentry are ethnical and heathenish distinctions. There is no ground in nature or scripture why one man should have £1000 a year and another not £1. The common people have been kept in blindness and ignorance and have remained servants and slaves to the nobility and gentry, but God hath now opened their eyes and discovered unto them their Christian liberty’. Now that idea is powerfully entrenched in the collective consciousness of the nation and unless we are prepared to reawaken and use it for the purpose of dealing with the problem of equality, it just becomes a curiosity.

But this concept of equality has been obliterated by managerial solutions to every known problem – we set up a quango to do this; have a tax structure to do that -but the main idea which has really guided and inspired people over many centuries has been put on one side.

The birth of trade unionism was all about giving people equal rights. Trade unionism was about a greater degree of equality between those who invested their money in industry and those who invested their lives in industry.


Here you come to an extremely important element in all successful struggles: you have to have solidarity and effort. Nothing ever comes down from the top. This idea of a Good King is one of the great illusions of the Middle Ages- Good Kings and Bad Kings. It has to be challenged head-on. When the Combination Acts, which made trade unionism illegal, were repealed it was because there was a huge mobilisation comparable to the one we saw recently in London for the miners, but going on over a very long period. The Chartists’ demand for the vote was made because they recognised that the vote was an instrument for political power, to bring about greater equality and the services that were needed. The suffragettes won the vote through a huge, long struggle. They chained themselves to railings, they were arrested, imprisoned, they went on hunger strike, they were forcibly fed. I put up a little monument to Emily Wilding Davison in the crypt of the House of Commons, because on the night of the census of 1911 she hid in the broom cupboard of the crypt. When the Census return asked “What was your address on the night of the census?”, she replied “the House of Commons”. I asked the Speaker to unveil a plaque to her but he refused because, he said, the Lord Chancellor objected to a phrase on the plaque “by this means was democracy won for the people of Britain’, which he said was open to misunderstanding. But of course it wasn’t open to misunderstanding: that was how the vote was won.

One of the reasons why we have not been as successful as we might have been in defending and preserving local government is that we have forgotten that the first examples of progressive politics achieved through the ballot box in local government. Look at Birmingham under Joseph Chamberlain in the nineteenth century: there was a municipal effort to provide housing, hospitals, water supply, transport, gas, orchestras, museums. And what was the means by which these were achieved? Very simple: it was the essentially egalitarian nature of the vote which gave people power to buy collectively what they could not afford individually. If you do not have the ballot box then power rests entirely with those who own the land, factories, banks, and the means of communication. It is all about equality -about giving people the right by the vote to counteract the unjust distribution of money.

That is why democracy has always been more frightening to the establishment than socialist rhetoric. It is easy to make a socialist speech – I must confess I have done it myself once or twice – but it doesn’t really frighten those in power. What frightens them is a challenge to the monopoly of their power; by asking them how democratic it is.

If you meet powerful persons, try asking them these 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?

It has not been very respectable to struggle – extraparliamentary activity has been frowned upon. But when I look at the world we live in, all power has been extraparliamentary. If capitalism in Britain depended on Tory MPs it would end tomorrow. It is there because of the power of business, finance, the media, the administration, the military and so on. And our power has similarly been manifested outside parliament, in the labour movement. One can write marvellous Fabian pamphlets, but unless you are part of a movement with solidarity, a sense of history, some sort of vision, some recognition that you have power that you can deploy, nothing whatever will happen. We have had to get this across to people – a very difficult thing to do over the last ten years, because there is a view that there is no alternative. I think one of the reasons the miners got such a lot of support was that three weeks earlier speculators had picked up ten billion pounds of our money, gambling on the currency. Three weeks later they said they were going to sack, in effect, 100,000 people because we are not prepared to pay £100 million a year to make British coal competitive with imported coal.

There is a school of thought that says that Mrs Thatcher changed the culture of our society permanently: that somehow when she came to power history flipped and it would never be the same again. I have never believed that for one moment because I remember the spirit that existed in earlier days – the wartime spirit and so on. In wartime there was less food than there is today, but because of equal distribution through rationing in fact the health of children improved enormously.

We have a cash-related society, without a strategy to deal with the social and health and educational and indeed pension consequences of having such a society.

I have a feeling there is a thirst for the politics of agitation, of principle, of a historical and visionary view. Unless there is, we will never be able to harness all the sort of energy it took forty-five years for us to harness, from Keir Hardie to the election of that 1945 Labour government which gave us the health service, gave us full employment and – the greatest equaliser of all – gave us the welfare state, and probably did more for equality in society than any government in our history.

I have a feeling that the 1990s are going to be quite different. The whole monetarist selfish philosophy is in retreat and we have to see that the vacuum is not filled by the hard right but with the vision of a better society.