September 27, 2004

Benn there, not done that

I can't watch the Labour Party Conference nowadays, whereas twenty-odd years ago I used to watch every second of it that I could. There's a few reasons for this, one of which is there are uncomfortable memories associated with it, and another that there are uncomfortable feelings associated with the sound of Tony Blair's voice, to which I have much the same reaction as I used to have to Margaret Thatcher's. Not entirely the same - back then I used to have to use the off switch, whereas now we can just operate the mute button. Of course if you leave the telly off in the first place then it makes no difference.

A third reason is that it just doesn't matter any more, since there's not the slightest expectation on anybody's part that any decisions made by the conference will have the slightest impact on the policy of the government, which renders it almost entirely pointless in the first place. (We used to say not "by the conference" but "by Conference", a familiarity and a capital letter which its current inert status hardly justifies). The conference itself is almost entirely abject, almost entirely happy with its status, happy to be thrown the bone of being allowed to discuss five - five! - motions all of its very own. Nobody in the world is interested any longer in the spectacle of the political correspondents all gossiping about what a hard conference its going to be and how It All Depends On The Leader's Speech - and then, when he gives the usual speech with the usual picked-for-the-occasion theme (Africa, world poverty, presumably childcare this time) gets the usual standing ovation from the usual sheep and is, as usual, declared to have triumphed by Andrew Marr et ses amis. Really, I would rather watch Trinny and Susannah. I would rather watch Friends with the sound off than the Labour Party Conference with the sound on.

The voice of the Left is almost entirely unheard, and when it is heard, it is only with the sort of patronising tolerance than is given to the likes of Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner because the courtiers in the press no longer see them as a threat. Who controls the present, controls the past, and the role of the Left in the past is not even debated - it is taken as a given that they were wrong, and damaging, and irresponsible, and all the things that the victors write in the history books about the defeated. Perhaps this will change, in the future, if the left does indeed make the smugocracy less sure of their supremacy. Just as it became much harder to make Westerns when the Civil Rights movement made it impossible to take for granted the myths on which the Western had depended, so a new left will cast doubt on the narrative which the history of the last two decades has imposed on the events which opened them.

Because I remember it differently. I remember thinking how possible it all was, how right and reasonable it seemed, and it seems right and reasonable to me now, even if much less possible and much less likely than I thought when I was younger. I remember how riveting it was, how close we seemed to the possibility of power, when Tony Benn declared to Conference that "we shall create a thousand peers". I have thought much about Hartley Shawcross, and his wonderful outburst in the House of Commons in 1946 that "we are the masters now!" - how important it as to have that said, how wonderful it must have been to say it and have the other side know you meant it. For me, Tony Benn's speech, much flinched at by cowards since, was of the same importance It had the same galvanising effect.

And even if it seems, now, that half my life has gone on trying to bring about an elusive and chimerical socialism - in conditions less favourable for socialist ideas than had been the case in England for more than a century - yet I still think that we were right, right to try, right even though we were defeated, defeated, mostly, because we were right.


At February 15, 2007 6:00 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is wonderful, marvellous, inspiring, true stuff, that needs to be said, and said much more often that it is. I agree with every word.


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