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What would a 1980s Tony Benn premiership look like?

Elektronaut

Accurately Described as Improper
#22
Seeing it after all is the 1970s were talking about, on this point, I must admit I need a little more context to be able to judge Benn on that comment in particular.
The context is he had exactly the same blinkers that his protégé Corbyn does when it comes to People On Our Side and in a foreign policy context this manifested itself as Mao admiration, as well as Castro admiration and all the horribly predictable rest. As late as the final years of his life he thought the only human rights problem in Cuba was Guantanamo Bay. In fairness like Corbyn he was also capable of lapsing into selective pacifism towards right-wing tyrannies when they took on the west, as he did over the Falklands, so he was even-handed at least.
 

Avalanches

FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD
Location
Tampa, FL
#23
In an interesting bit of information I found while doing some research, Benn felt that the centralization of power with Prime Minister was fundamentally undermining the powers of Parliament, and needed to be weakened.

Tony Benn said:
My argument can be very simply summarised. The wide range of powers at present exercised by a British prime minister, both in that capacity and as party leader, are now so great as to encroach upon the legitimate rights of the electorate, undermine the essential role of parliament, usurp some of the functions of collective cabinet decision making and neutralise much of the influence deriving from the internal democracy of the Labour Party. In short, the present centralisation of power into the hands of one person has gone too far and amounts to a system of personal rule in the very heart of our parliamentary democracy. My conclusion is that the powers of the prime minister, and party leader, must be made more accountable to those over whom they are exercised, so that we can develop a constitutional premiership in Britain. To transform an absolute premiership into a constitutional premiership would involve making some fundamental changes in its functions comparable to those made over the years, when the crown was transformed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.
While I can’t find an open PDF version of the lecture this came from (The Case for a Constitutional Premiership, if you’re curious), it would seem likely that Benn would deliberately weaken the post of the Prime Minister if he got the job.
 

Comisario

Hello Tony, I am 1952
Published by SLP
Location
London
#26
The nationalised industries would likely see some amount of reform to allow for greater industrial democracy, seeing as that was really the goal of any half-way economic literate person on the Labour left from the '60s onwards. The idea that things would have simply rusted and broken down over time, with Benn presiding over centralised industrial malaise is one of those Dominic Sandbrook "baby's first counterfactual" scenarios that shouldn't be entertained by anyone with a decent understanding of 20th century Britain.

The Institute for Workers' Control will be inside the tent, as it were.

In an interesting bit of information I found while doing some research, Benn felt that the centralization of power with Prime Minister was fundamentally undermining the powers of Parliament, and needed to be weakened.

While I can’t find an open PDF version of the lecture this came from (The Case for a Constitutional Premiership, if you’re curious), it would seem likely that Benn would deliberately weaken the post of the Prime Minister if he got the job.
To go along with this, his rather libertarian support for freedom of information will probably carry on into his premiership, thereby opening up the workings of government to the people. Trust in government would likely be a lot higher as a result in the long term.
 

David Flin

It's not how long one lives, but how well.
#27
While I can’t find an open PDF version of the lecture this came from (The Case for a Constitutional Premiership, if you’re curious), it would seem likely that Benn would deliberately weaken the post of the Prime Minister if he got the job.
Benn's one of the few politicians I could believe would, when gaining the power of the PM, then reduce the power of the PM out of principle. Certainly he was in favour of reducing the power of PM and increasing the power of Parliament when he was an MP, but nowhere close to being PM. Would he be so in favour should he be PM? Possibly, and there are few politicians that I think would.
 

Avalanches

FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD
Location
Tampa, FL
#28
Benn was, as most know, progressive and forward-thinking on social issues when even compared to other Labour MP’s. Would some of the reforms that passed during Blair’s premiership (equalization of the age of consent, removing the ban on LGBT people serving in the armed forces) happen a decade earlier under Benn?

At the risk of channelling Art, I'd believe that when it happened.
Not saying he would be successful, but I’d imagine he’d try at the least.
 

Comisario

Hello Tony, I am 1952
Published by SLP
Location
London
#29
Benn's one of the few politicians I could believe would, when gaining the power of the PM, then reduce the power of the PM out of principle. Certainly he was in favour of reducing the power of PM and increasing the power of Parliament when he was an MP, but nowhere close to being PM. Would he be so in favour should he be PM? Possibly, and there are few politicians that I think would.
It's one of those propositions that seems silly to a lot of people (who are, quite rightly, cynical of large swathes of the political class) before it happens and then seems right and proper once it has been done. Devolution would fall into a similar category, I should think, given how long it took for Britain to finally adopt any measure of decentralising power and then how quickly many instances followed (Scotland, Wales, London, the attempt in the North East, etc.).

Benn was, as most know, progressive and forward-thinking on social issues when even compared to other Labour MP’s. Would some of the reforms that passed during Blair’s premiership (equalization of the age consent, removing the ban on LGBT people serving in the armed forces) happen a decade earlier under Benn?
More than likely, yes. I could see some of the "smaller" reforms of that period being implemented too, such as banning bloodsports and hunting. Corporal punishment in state schools is probably banned a little quicker (that was 1986, but I imagine it's quietly banned in a Benn first term).
 

Avalanches

FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD
Location
Tampa, FL
#30
Also, this one is fairly obvious, but the Electoral College would never get created under a 70’s Benn leadership, and he would push an alt-Comission of Inquiry to just turn leadership elections over to the membership.
 

Charles EP M.

Well-known member
Published by SLP
#31
Due to another thread here, I'm thinking: what happens with Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and South Africa? Far as I can tell, the unrecognised Z-R government would still turn to Benn's Britain to help get the Bush War ended and the country brought in from the cold, and I'm betting Mugabe is going to do Mugabe shit whoever's in London. But that will mean Mugabe's doing his OTL nastiness in a world where the PM is a big leftie and is going to pressure South Africa to end apartheid - I can see a lot of talk from Conservatives, the right-wing pundits, and people abroad (esp. America), "look how Benn screwed up in Zimbabwe, I know he means well in South Africa but what happens if that becomes Zimbabwe II?"

I doubt that would stop a Benn Labour government from trying but it would be a pain in the arse for it.

Would some of the reforms that passed during Blair’s premiership (equalization of the age of consent, removing the ban on LGBT people serving in the armed forces) happen a decade earlier under Benn?
I can see some getting through but not as many, or as strong as Blair, simply because it's the early 1980s and not the late 1990s, society's less tolerant. Equalisation of age of consent, sure; reforms for trans people and being able to openly serve, no. (Of course that could then happen earlier ITTL under a different government because Benn started things earlier)

A more gay-friendly, big-state left-wing government mind respond better to AIDS, which would be a huge change to recent British history - and for other countries too, if Britain pioneers methods/treatments that other countries go "what a good idea" over. Though that would depend on how long Benn is in office, and who was Health Secretary.
 

Elektronaut

Accurately Described as Improper
#32
Also, this one is fairly obvious, but the Electoral College would never get created under a 70’s Benn leadership, and he would push an alt-Comission of Inquiry to just turn leadership elections over to the membership.
The only reason the electoral college came into being was because he opposed OMOV, which he and his faction suspected would undermine the hard left in the party, something they were absolutely correct on as during the deputy leadership election when ballots took place they produced much more pro-Healey results than when things were restricted to the activist apparatus as he favoured, which is the only reason he ended up with that totally incredible result you see in that section of the college; CLP business committees consulted themselves and then awarded their vote on a winner-takes-all basis.

This is why his claims of being some great disinterested selfless democrat should be taken with a big bag of salt. Benn was a politician and like almost all of them he advocated selectively, just as the right of Labour would do on this issue as well incidentally in fairness, in them championing membership democracy during the eighties and nineties - originally only if they couldn't keep the choice of leader restricted to MPs - and then suddenly becoming decidedly more comfortable with the electoral college under Ed.
 
#33
I realise that I opened up the topic of someone as decisive as Tony Benn there would likely be the start of an intense debate, though I will admit to my expectations being a bit loftier than some of the comments put forward here. My thanks to those who have provided more constructive discussion points: @Comisario, @Avalanches, and @Charles EP M.. I feel I should also note that even with a PM in office, that doesn't equate to their entire personal views & policies being enacted and passed either; Mrs May could probably tell you a thing or two about that!

As @AlfieJ commented, I wanted to see what the thoughts were here on what a realistic Benn premiership would like; what would his government want to work on, could it pass such legislation in the Commons through the PLP, the impacts of such policies, etc. I've not seen much in terms of a detailed TL with a PM Tony Benn which is one of the reasons I ask this question; we've had a few PM Enoch Powell TLs (for better or worse) but never one of the other key and controversial figures of the 1970s & 1980s.
 

Jape

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
#34
Due to another thread here, I'm thinking: what happens with Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and South Africa? Far as I can tell, the unrecognised Z-R government would still turn to Benn's Britain to help get the Bush War ended and the country brought in from the cold, and I'm betting Mugabe is going to do Mugabe shit whoever's in London. But that will mean Mugabe's doing his OTL nastiness in a world where the PM is a big leftie and is going to pressure South Africa to end apartheid - I can see a lot of talk from Conservatives, the right-wing pundits, and people abroad (esp. America), "look how Benn screwed up in Zimbabwe, I know he means well in South Africa but what happens if that becomes Zimbabwe II?"

I doubt that would stop a Benn Labour government from trying but it would be a pain in the arse for it.
It depends partly on who is Foreign Secretary and how much true power they have. Peter Shore is a strong contender for the FO. He was a 'Commonwealth Man' and while anti-colonial was very positive towards British-descended settler communities. He may push quite hard for a real biracial solution in Zimbabwe, probably throwing in a trade deal and promise of British interest going forward. Of course, this doesn't guarantee a prosperous Zimbabwe (cos Mugabe) but a left-wing Commonwealth-focused Africa policy based on promoting true biracial solutions while also being doggedly anti-imperialist towards the likes of South Africa is a pretty interesting avenue of thought.

Shore attempting to organise a Commonwealth trade bloc would be very interesting.


I can see some getting through but not as many, or as strong as Blair, simply because it's the early 1980s and not the late 1990s, society's less tolerant. Equalisation of age of consent, sure; reforms for trans people and being able to openly serve, no. (Of course that could then happen earlier ITTL under a different government because Benn started things earlier)

A more gay-friendly, big-state left-wing government mind respond better to AIDS, which would be a huge change to recent British history - and for other countries too, if Britain pioneers methods/treatments that other countries go "what a good idea" over. Though that would depend on how long Benn is in office, and who was Health Secretary.
Benn was very pro gay rights - you'd get the age of consent lowered, anti-work discrimination legislation (possibly part of a broader equality bill) put through. Benn was an early supporter of gay marriage but that is just way too radical for 1970s/80s Britain. Also while he was big on it and grassroots support for gay rights increased greatly in the Labour Party in the 1980s, many members were not keen. Casual homophobia was common and many, even on the left, viewed the negative tabloid coverage of their LGBT policies as not worth it. Notably Neil Kinnock saw it as electoral poison and his stint as Party Leader is stained by a pretty cowardly approach to gay rights. So overall some landmark bits of legislation possibly but disinterest from much of the Labour leadership - left and right - and no doubt plenty more to distract him as PM, would probably see a burst of reform and then very little.
 
#35
One question I'd have about this scenario is what exactly is the make up of Benn's cabinet? I find it very difficult to see him winning among the PLP in the mid 1970s on the programme he was advocating after '79, so I'd imagine he'd initially have to win as a soft left candidate, then tack to the left during his leadership. I imagine that that would mean that at least some moderates serve in his shadow cabinet-especially ones with whom he was on relatively good terms, like Callaghan (if he doesn't retire) and Crosland.

The right probably wouldn't take too kindly to the shift toward a more hardline platform, so I imagine we would see some resignations over the course of the parliament, and at least some attempt to unseat Benn-maybe a VoNC in the PLP, which he might just about be able to win if he could point to Labour leads in the polls.

By the time he takes power, I'd think his cabinet would probably resemble something like Corbyn's first Shadow cabinet, a mixture of hard left and soft left MPs, with a smattering of relatively junior rightwingers there too. As has been pointed out, Shore probably gets a quite important job, as does Foot, and maybe Castle too, if Benn doesn't retire her early as Callaghan effectively did. Some other left wingers who made their way into Foot's shadow cabinet like Heffer, Booth, and Silkin would be there too.

We'd probably get some hardcore Bennites in some of the most senior positions, but since there weren't too many of them on the frontbench around this time, I'm not sure who that might include, other than Meacher probably.
 

Jape

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
#36
This question was asked in the Other Place too, this was my spitballing about how Benn can reach Number 10:

Warning: Very Long

In Place of Strife passes in 1968. This reduces strike action overall and introduces partial employee ownership into the British economic mainstream. In annoys the more radical wing of the TUC overall, lowering their opinion even further of the Labour leadership. It also ends the closed shop, which decreases union membership and would hit the many (many) smaller unions harder, encouraging mergers. Many politicians and union bosses favoured mergers as larger unions theoretically weakened the power of the stewards to agitate for strike action. Its been argued Britain's trade union woes of the 1970s weren't that bad in terms of total work hours lost compared to contemporaries but the sheer number of strikes by smaller unions that really made the difference both economically and in the minds of the public. However as big unions like the NUM show, that doesn't automatically equal moderate labour relations.

Fewer strikes doesn't mean the 1970s is great for Britain though. You'll still see economic chaos to some degree. Have Heath win in 1970 and survive 1974/5. Its a hung parliament but Heath and Thorpe come to an agreement. Many in Labour are convinced it will collapse quickly so Wilson holds onto the Party leadership by his fingnertips for most of the decade, becoming increasingly stale. He is basically forced out.

In the meantime the Lib-Con government make no effort to hold a referendum on the EEC, as Labour did in 1975 IOTL. Although anti-Brussels feeling was nowhere the level it would get to (1975 ended in a 68-32 split to Remain) it was not inconsequential and the lack of a referendum would have effects. The Labour membership was anti-EEC 2 to 1 in the mid-70s. Labour backbenchers were often split down the middle on EEC related legislation put forward during the 1974 Wilson government. Similar to how Thatcher would lead Tory MPs to support Wilson's EEC legislation to ensure it passed, you could easily see similar from the Labour Right to the Heath government of TTL as the Eurosceptic wing of the Tories rebel.

Heath was great at negotiating and schmoozing one-on-one but pretty tone deaf to public relations. I can see him managing to woo the Liberals for a few years to stay in power while pissing off the Tory Right and making public gaffes as was his style. You also have Jenkins & Co angling for the Labour leadership (let's say Callaghan's health leads him to retire early), while claiming the 1974 general election result was proof the public was pro-EEC and there was no need for a referendum. Chuck in some anti-EEC news stories (Cod Wars etc.) and a growing public opinion that is less anti-Brussels than pro-referendum, the likes of Benn claiming the EEC has not been an economic magic wand and the lack of a public debate shows its the whim of the Establishment.

Benn was IOTL and even more so ITTL the face of Euroscepticism (Powell was close but outside the relative mainstream). It is on this issue he beats Jenkins to Labour Leader, not simply anti-Europe but played as a populist pro-democratic movement. It is also a slap to the Labour Right as a whole, who many feel have let the side down ever since In Place of Strife. Ironically many opponents of these reforms back Benn, who is pretty keen on worker ownership.

Benn as leader would be far from flawless and might have a fair few gaffes. A Gang of Four style split is likely but it might happen differently. Here Labour has not just been kicked out of government but is seemingly just waiting for the Lib-Con government to collapse. The careerist types would be less inclined to jump (I'm looking at you Owen), while fearing a Labour government would equal leaving the EEC, maybe Jenkins, with less support for a new party, simply crosses to the Liberals as he had considered.

If Jenkins and a few people cross over to the coalition benches, it can be jumped on as a symbol of the patricians of all three parties uniting to defend the free-market swindle known as the EEC. Tribal loyalty is very strong in the Labour Party, even to this day. By joining the Liberals, the ideas and allies of Jenkins still in the Party would be worth bugger all in the short term - poisoned by 'treason'. You may also see some traditional conservative MPs leaving, becoming "Democratic Labour" and the like.

Now the Heath government finally enters it last act circa 1977-1980. Sunningdale has been a worse mess than OTL thanks to Heath just not giving up, meaning more violence, maybe even Unionist paramilitaries attacking more Government targets, claiming London is trying to betray them. 'Quit Ireland' is slowly becoming a thing. The labour reforms have limited strike actions compared to OTL but a big confrontation (say the Miners' Strike is simply put off for a few years) finally brings the whole edifice crumbling down.

Hell on top of the EEC, union tensions and Northern Ireland, let's throw in some nukes. During the Heath government's last days a very scary cock-up happens involving a US nuke. A scare, no mushroom clouds over Norfolk but enough to shit people up and lead to pointed questions in Parliament about how much oversight the government has over foriegn WMDs on British soil.

An election is called, lets say summer of 1978. You have a tired government led by an unpopular PM, the right-wing of his party very unhappy, the moderates stained with the economic malaise and grubby compromises of coalition government. Labour election posters show the three heads of Heath, Thorpe and Jenkins, representing the stale status quo.

Benn, formerly Labour's election guru, is aware of the need for a good campaign and maybe even bites his lip and hires some big marketing folk to help out. The message is simple and populist - the consensus politicians are undemocratic and out of touch, unwilling to take bold action in the face of Britain's many problems, which naturally they helped cause. It might be a little too cute to have an iconic "The Conservatives Aren't Working" poster but you get the idea.

The message is rather than socialist, democratic, focusing on "putting power in your hands". Benn promises a referendum on the EEC and a full national debate, which leads Enoch Powell to once more openly back Labour as the only chance of ending the European experiment. Peter Shore, a fellow Eurosceptic Labour Left figure with a patriotics streak, is central to the more 'nationalistic' part of the campaign, attempting to woo over Tory and floating voters to what is ultimately a pretty radical Labour Party in the name of the country.

The effects of In Place of Strife creating a more moderate, concentrated elite of TUC bosses, combined with watching Heath 'prune' the national industries has led Benn to decide the 1945 ideal of state industries and strong unions means squat for the socialist revolution when the TUC bosses are dining with Heath, and a nationalised industry can be easily privatised once more. So his 'democratic' policy extends to economics, give workers larger stakes in the economy, to entrench 'their' ownership over that of unionists or government officials. Note this doesn't mean Labour's campaign would anti-union but it would focus on the foot soldiers over the bosses. This also makes it much harder for future governments to privatise if the employees have a direct financial stake. This is combined with devolution of power (including devolved assemblies), establishing national referenda as a common means to decide major issues. All of this gels pretty well with Benn's OTL views.

Benn wins an okay majority that is stronger than Labour's popular vote. The Tories and Liberals are stained by the chaos of the 1970s and keen to blame each other, while the various *SDP exiles lack organisation and due to Jenkins' tarnished reputation are wary of an electoral alliance. Due to the optics of the election as change versus consensus means these candidates' impact of splitting the Labour vote is limited, with non-partisan Eurosceptic voters voting Labour outweighing defectors.
 
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Charles EP M.

Well-known member
Published by SLP
#37
As has been pointed out, Shore probably gets a quite important job, as does Foot, and maybe Castle too, if Benn doesn't retire her early as Callaghan effectively did. Some other left wingers who made their way into Foot's shadow cabinet like Heffer, Booth, and Silkin would be there too.
With Foot one of the biggies on the Labour left at the time, would he end up as Benn's Chancellor?

It depends partly on who is Foreign Secretary and how much true power they have. Peter Shore is a strong contender for the FO. He was a 'Commonwealth Man' and while anti-colonial was very positive towards British-descended settler communities. He may push quite hard for a real biracial solution in Zimbabwe, probably throwing in a trade deal and promise of British interest going forward. Of course, this doesn't guarantee a prosperous Zimbabwe (cos Mugabe) but a left-wing Commonwealth-focused Africa policy based on promoting true biracial solutions while also being doggedly anti-imperialist towards the likes of South Africa is a pretty interesting avenue of thought.
That is going to be interesting. I could also see Mugabe going along with it if Britain's giving him a r£a$on to, as he initially worked with white Zimbabweans until it was politically handy for him to not do that. And if Zimbabwe's less terrible than OTL and white South Africans are assured Britain will back a multiracial solution, that could end apartheid sooner too.

Of course, that all depends on Benn and Shore staying in their respective offices, or whoever comes after continuing their policies. If a Conservative government gets in after five years and has very different policies, it could all go tits up!
 
#38
With Foot one of the biggies on the Labour left at the time, would he end up as Benn's Chancellor?
Possibly, although their relations did deteriorate considerably over this time period, so he might be reshuffled eventually in favour of Meacher or another true believer.

If he wasnt Chancellor, he'd probably get another one of the two top jobs. His left wing but anti-authoritarian credentials would make him a good candidate for the foreign office- he would agree with most of what Benn wanted to do in that area, but also reassure the right by steering clear of some of the apologism for leftist dictators that Benn was sometimes accused of.
 

Bonniecanuck

yellow object
Location
Ford Nation
#39
I have a feeling that given what's been stated about his views on China, Benn would be far quicker to cede Hong Kong, especially if he were to let the Sinologists have sway over the Sino-British negotiations like Thatcher did. I can't find any specific reference to how he actually felt about it, especially after the Handover, but he did at one stage equate Irish unification positively to "pulling out" of the territory, so I'm confident that he'd sign terms that probably be worse for the territory than the Joint Declaration was. Sure, Hong Kong might have a Special Economic Zone status to keep the banks in the city, but a Chinese annexation without the guarantee of political autonomy would not only see its institutions "Mainland-ised" more quickly and thoroughly than OTL, but also see a much larger exodus of wealth and people out of the city. And if the political situation in China deteriorates just the same, I have a feeling that the name of Tony Benn would be cursed by Hongkongers in the same breath of Mao Zedong and Li Peng.
 
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