Rod Liddle

Loony meets butcher

Rod Liddle on the naivety of those who think Tony Benn is just a charming old leftie

Text settings

Now that Dr Blix has done his work, how will Saddam Hussein cope with the latest threat from the West to both his political stability and his sanity? It seems that, as a softening-up exercise before vaporising Baghdad with expensive ordnance, we have begun to export British lunatics to Iraq. And, because this is total war; because we are seriously angry with Saddam, it is not quite enough that we should dispatch George Galloway. We have gone further. We have thought the unthinkable. We have pushed the envelope. This week, cruelly, we have deployed our Weapon of Mash Deshtruction.

You can be assured that by teatime the Iraqi dictator will be in a befuddled state of mind. He may also be bored to the point of expiry. And this is because, at his right-hand side, sipping a mug of tea, puffing on his bloody pipe, and gabbling endlessly about the Chartists and the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, and perhaps even reading aloud crucial passages from his numbing contribution to the political debate, Arguments for Socialism, will be Mr Anthony Wedgwood Benn.

For once Saddo should have a claim on our sympathy. We in Britain know well the hideous effects of long-term, unprotected exposure to Benn. And yet we are prepared to inflict it on a foreign head of state. You would think that there was something in the Geneva Convention, or the 1951 Convention on Human Rights, which precluded the use of such a weapon so early on in the hostilities; something in the small print, alongside napalm and sarin. You might even expect the world to have briefly put aside its many differences and united in a Benn Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But no; by the time you read this he will have been ensconced in his seat on the aeroplane, heading relentlessly eastwards, his trusty Dictaphone in his pocket, instructing the poor stewardess that 'itsh all about oil, you know' - a missile guided by strange, barking, babbling voices.

We cannot be entirely sure what Mr Benn is up to. It is a potentially dangerous mission. Perhaps, then, it is all part of his long-running attempt to obliterate himself. This began when he fought successfully to have his name and title (Lord Stansgate) abolished, and has continued, more or less, ever since. In Tony Benn's vision of the world, people like Tony Benn don't exist; they have all been quietly expunged. Aristos with huge houses in London's most exclusive enclave, however penitent or self-loathing, are not really part of the gilded, proletarian picture. Tony's quest, then, has always been for a sort of public suicide - a stratagem he nearly persuaded the Labour party to adopt back in the early 1980s.

And yet he has been transformed somehow, in the last 15 years - perhaps through our collective affection for failures and a concomitant respect for old age (no matter whom the condition afflicts; we even ended up loving the Krays and Ronnie Biggs) - from scary pantomime villain to a national treasure on a par with Stonehenge, the Albert Hall and Norman Wisdom. Today everybody adores Tony Benn, even those on the Right for whom a Benn regime would mean bankruptcy and an enforced, ascetic joylessness.

Just recently, he's been touring the country in a one-man show; packing 'em in, spreading his antediluvian and redundant gospel to cheering crowds who reckon that politics should be about conviction - even when that conviction is manifestly ill-founded.

I caught him at last year's Glastonbury festival, in between two rather less harmful reminders of days gone by, the Charlatans and Rolf Harris. The audience clearly worshipped him and - you have to give him this - he can, on his day, be a powerful and engaging public speaker. But the message was of course the same old reprehensible claptrap: pay everybody more money, full employment, nationalisation, enforced equality, international socialism - nostrums from some time round about 1848.

His perpetual opposition to Tony Blair is, of course, one reason why we have so taken him to our hearts. It is good to hear an articulate voice of dissent, particularly when the present opposition is so bereft and despairing of itself. And Tony Benn has been consistent in this important regard for 35 years: he has opposed - and bedevilled - every Labour leader from whom he has cheerfully accepted office (without ever resigning, you will note; Tony's heroic commitment to principle never extended quite to sacrificing his career).

His rapid, opportunistic slide to the far Left after serving as postmaster-general led Harold Wilson to come to view him with, as Denis Healey puts it, 'hysterical loathing'. Wilson was not alone. Every subsequent Labour leader has felt similarly, and for a large number of party members he is primarily responsible for Labour's long and painful exile from reality and the consequent triumph of Thatcherism.

There is a perversity to Benn's political make-up which was once risible but is now, apparently, rather likeable: vehemently in favour of joining the Common Market when the idea was utterly untenable; vehemently against when it eventually became, at least arguably, a good idea in 1973. His almost every utterance from 1979 to 1988 served to dissuade people from voting for his party, and yet he found himself able to hail the 1983 election result as an unmitigated triumph. He was cheered that 27 per cent of the electorate could have been persuaded to vote for the wacko Labour manifesto of that year. And, on reflection, he had a point. It is genuinely astonishing that Labour's vote achieved even double figures.

He is probably more popular now than he has ever been. Certainly, when it came down to it, when he was a political force, ordinary people, the voters, ran a mile from him. It was rather as Marx and Engels themselves put it in The Communist Manifesto, in a critique of feudal socialism, which, they said, was 'ludicrous' in its effect 'through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history'. And they continued: 'The aristocracy, in order to rally the people to them, waved the proletarian alms-bag in front for a banner. But the people, as often as it joined them, saw on their hindquarters the old feudal coat-of-arms and deserted with loud and irreverent laughter.' This is precisely what we used to do to Tony Benn. Maybe these days we've just forgotten.

Perhaps he has taken some friends with him to Baghdad. Perhaps he has taken with him some Posadists. Do you remember the Posadists? They were people who firmly believed that socialism would be brought to earth by strange creatures from outer space. Well, I suppose it was marginally more likely than its being delivered by the Labour party. Tony Benn liked the Posadists so much that he invited them to join his campaign for deputy leader of his party in 1981, as Denis Healey, in his autobiography, somewhat wryly recalls.

So watch your back, Saddam, mate. Mr Benn's on his way. And who knows? Things escalate quickly in time of war, things get out of control; the next flight to Baghdad may well contain David Icke.

Rod Liddle is associate editor of The Spectator.