The Consequential Tony Benn

Tony Benn is a legend in his own time to many a politicos, especially those of us who are interested in anti-imperialist politics. He is admired by friend and foe alike as the fearless embodiment of the principled and quintessential British parliamentarian.

Over the last ten years his reputation as a peacenik and a radical left-winger was further consolidated by being the head of the UK’s main anti-war organisation, Stop the War Coalition (StWC) and with his continued patronage of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Britain’s main pro-Palestinian organisation. Yet according to a recent article published on the Open Democracy website it seems that Benn has a particular past which brings his current status into question. According to the writer, Professor Colin Scindler, Benn used to write “uber-Zionist” articles for a pro-Israeli journal called, the ‘Jewish Vanguard’. This surely beggars the question who is the real Tony Benn in accordance with a ‘Chomskyite’ criteria.

In an interview with James Peck, Noam Chomsky strongly states that politicians should be judged on their record when in office. He gives the example of the Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky. For Chomsky, Trotsky should be judged on what he did while in power and not after he was exiled:

“Whatever he may have said during the periods when he didn’t have power, either prior to the revolution or after he was kicked out, when it was easy to be a libertarian critic, it was when he did have power that the real Trotsky emerged.”[1]

Chomsky then lists the number of contentious policies executed by Trotsky in authority which includes the institutionalisation of the militarisation of labour in a totalitarian society, undermining popular worker organisations and the Krondstadt episode before concluding that, “was the essential doctrine of Trotskyism in power, whatever he may have said before and after.”[2]

Tony Benn’s “uber-Zionist” articles in the Jewish Vanguard may yet to be fully researched. And according to Dr. Paul Kelemen, whose book on the “British left and Zionism: A history of Divorce” was published recently, Benn makes no mention of them in his much vaunted early Diaries.[3] Yet we do know that when Benn exercised power as the Minister of Technology in Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the 1960’s, his department was involved in the selling of nuclear material to the Zionist regime. Britain “made hundreds of secret shipments of nuclear materials to Israel.”  

The Israelis seem to have had only two avenues to purchase chemical materials required for nuclear warheads, France and Britain. While the nuclear reactor in the Negev desert was built by the French, Britain seemed to have provided the chemical materials to produce the warheads. At this time, the United States and Israel were not very close allies, so Israel had no choice but to rely on the Europeans. Chemical material covertly obtained by the Israelis from Britain in this period included heavy water (this deal was done by decoy through Norway); uranium-235 and lithium-6.

Not all the material acquired by the Israelis for their nuclear programme was obtained covertly. In 1966, the year Tony Benn became Minister of Technology the British government openly sold a material called Plutonium to the Israelis.  

Furthermore, while Secretary of State for Energy in the 1970’s, Benn was then responsible for the purchase of uranium from the Rossing mine in Namibia while the latter was under occupation by Apartheid South Africa. The white rulers in South Africa needed the revenue from the sales of uranium to build a dam in their Apartheid. The mine was also partly owned by the British company Rio Tinto Zinc. The mining of uranium in occupied Namibia was in contravention of United Nations Decree Number 1 but this did not deter Tony Benn or the Labour Government from conducting business with South Africa.[4] Maybe this was one of the reasons why, while Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, his Labour government vetoed four UN resolutions condemning South Africa.[5]

Tony Benn in authority clearly acquiesced and indeed was a distant complicit in the crimes of not only Israel but also Apartheid South Africa or as his later Labour Party nemesis, Denis Healy was to write:

“It is ironic that Tony Benn’s ministerial career should have left only two monuments behind – the uranium mine in Namibia he authorised as Energy Secretary, which helps to support Apartheid and is in territory illegally occupied by South Africa and an aircraft which is used by wealthy people on their expense accounts, whose fares are subsidised by much poorer taxpayers.”[6]

The aircraft in question is, of course, Concorde which Healy implies was viewed with favour by Benn because as a Bristol M.P it was to be built in that city and therefore provided employment to his constituents either directly or through the supply chain.

This ‘Chomskyite’ criteria of judging an individual by what he did while in power should not, of course, be limited to socialists or even politicians. For example, no one in their right minds should find the time to listen to Fred Goodwin, former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland or Bob Diamond, former head of Barclays deliver lectures on business solvency or ethics. This is very much to do with the fact and perception that most people are well aware of their actual track record when they were the prime decision makers in their respective businesses. The respective bankruptcy and venality associated with these two individuals will render their opinions if not void, then surely outrageous.

Tony Benn in power, that is the real Tony Benn, is far from a convincing political character even if he did charmingly smoke a pipe, possibly wear tweed and take a flask of tea to his political meetings. His deeds in power should not have warranted leadership of an anti-war movement. Needless to add, many will not judge Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister by his promises during the 2010 general election campaign but by what he has been party to in the Coalition government since.

Kelemen claims that even in 1982, when the Zionist entity invaded Lebanon destroying the country and killing 20,000 people, Benn, unlike Eric Heffer a fellow left-wing Labour firebrand, did not break with Israel. It is not known for sure when Benn began appearing on pro-Palestinian platforms. This author’s estimation is that it maybe after the first war on Iraq in 1991.

To be fair, Benn does mention his early unequivocal support for Zionism in his later dairy. In late 2004, he writes that Israel is now “behaving in such a disgraceful way”[7] that he regrets his early support for it. But Israel’s behaviour has been gruesomely and criminally consistent from the start whether it is the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands Palestinians in 1947-48 right through to the current wars and siege on Gaza. In late 2005, he partly blames his mum for his early support as she “was keen on a home for the Jews”[8] Although he conveniently indicts the Americans and Israelis for keeping Palestine “off the map”[9] Benn simply cannot bring himself to acknowledge which Empire laid the political and military foundations for the first thirty years for Palestine to be actually wiped off the map let alone elucidate on why the British Empire issued the Balfour Declaration.

For Kelemen no one thought much of the Balfour Declaration when it was first issued in 1917 because “giving a bit of the Empire to white people wasn’t a big deal” during this period. One must ask if this line of thinking crossed the Labour government’s mind when it purchased stolen Namibian uranium from Apartheid South Africa? 


[1] Noam Chomsky, ed. James Peck, “The Chomsky Reader”, (Serpant’s Tail: London, 1987), pg. 40

[2] ibid., pg. 41

[3] This reference and all references to Kelemen are based on a Paul Kelemen meeting held in Birmingham, England on 28th March 2013.

[4] Katherine Yih, Albert Donnay, Annalee Yassi, A. James Ruttenber and Scott Saleska, “Uranium Mining and Milling for Military Purposes.” Chapter 5 in Arjun Makhojami, Howard Hu and Katherine Yih, “Nuclear Wastelands” (MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000), pg. 142-143

[5] David Yaffe, “The Labour Party and aristocracy”, “Fight Racism, Fight imperialism”, Dec 2001/January2002, Accessed on 11th April 2013 at: http://www.revolutionarycommunist.org/index.php/britain/1138-the-labour-aristocracy-and-imperialism-part-4-frfi-164-dec-2001-jan-2002

[6] Denis Healy, “The Time of My Life”, (Michael Joseph, London), 1989, pg. 409

[7] Tony Benn, “Diaries 2001-2007, More Time for Politics” (Hutchinson: London, 2007), pg. 214

[8] ibid., pg. 277

[9] ibid., pg. 274.

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2 thoughts on “The Consequential Tony Benn

  1. helsworth March 20, 2014 / 10:03 pm

    As an admirer of Tony Benn, the information in your article saddens me. I am of the belief that the present shapes the character of a man, not his past… provided, of course, the individual in question has renounced his “sins” (has learned the error of his ways).
    All in all, politics is a whore – and nobody gets in power without striking a deal with the devil. At the end of the day, we should do away with all manner of hagiography and look to ourselves as “worthwhile” examples to follow. Ideas and dreams are immortal, but the hearts of men are weak. Thanks for the article.

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