Socialist Stalwart Tony Benn Dies In London, Aged 88

ONE OF THE GENTLEMAN of the Left has died this evening, Melbourne time; Tony Benn — a stalwart of the hard Left of Britain’s Labour Party, and a rank socialist to boot — has passed on after a short illness, aged 88. In life, he drew respect from across the political spectrum for the forthright nature of his views; he was an opponent with whom conservatives differed vehemently, but was nonetheless well liked. Above all, he was a character.

Whilst I detested his politics and despised most of his world view, I have always — always — liked Tony Benn enormously.

Whilst I’m not going to write at great length upon his death this evening, I nonetheless wanted to at least say a few words to mark the passing of one of the real characters (and true gentlemen) of politics; Benn was never going to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, but he does deserve credit for the influence his ideas exerted on Labour policy in Britain and, indirectly, across the world.

An ardent advocate for the abolition of the monarchy and republicanism in Britain for decades, Benn — who inherited a peerage when his father died — will perhaps be most instantly remembered for his anti-establishment and republican gestures, such as engineering two by-elections in two years in his seat in Parliament to enable him to renounce the peerage (this drawn-out adventure was necessary to ensure the procedures followed were legal), and later in the early 1990s with his “Commonwealth of Britain” bill which aimed to abolish the monarchy and transform Britain into a federal republic.

Benn’s lasting contributions on policy, however, were ones that failed to generate sensational headlines; a minister in the governments of Harold Wilson (both times) and Jim Callaghan, the reforms and ideas Benn pursued in areas such as industry policy, industrial relations, welfare reform and relations with Europe have proven durable, and still underpin to a great degree the platform of the Labour Party today.

Indeed — to put this into a local perspective — some of his views were eerily similar to those pursued by the Gillard government, with the caveat that at least Benn had some class about him even if his ideas, necessarily, did not.

And he was a vigorous and enthusiastic opponent of Margaret Thatcher for decades, although it goes without saying that Margaret clearly prevailed in their “battle of ideas.”

I have always liked Benn — despite his socialism, which is odious no matter the cloak it wears — because he could be funny, witty, and was an intensely interesting figure to listen to.

He also was able to articulate why he held the views he did, rather than simply marking out a position and deploying spin and/or abuse in its defence: a lesson some of his antipodean contemporaries would do well to emulate.

It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the tributes pouring in from political opponents in the UK — my people — are heartfelt in their sincerity that on a personal level, he will be greatly missed.

A couple of articles from the coverage beginning to appear in the British press can be viewed here and here.

Not everyone who disagrees with you in politics is, viscerally, an enemy, even if their pursuit of ideas that you find repugnant is ruthless and relentless: in other words, as readers will have heard me say on numerous occasions, politicians are people too, and that human factor comes first when the battle over ideas is done.

Certainly Benn exemplifies this. For those not familiar with either Benn or his work, over six decades, I strongly recommend doing your homework.

Tony Benn was a class act. I wish him rest in peace.


Able Archer: 30 Years On From Nuclear Near-Miss

SPARE A THOUGHT for the nuclear Armageddon that so nearly, yet inadvertently, destroyed civilisation 30 years ago; a routine military exercise at a time of heightened cold war tensions, this day in 1983, came dangerously close to triggering a colossal Soviet strike on the USA and Western Europe.

I thought it appropriate to note the 30-year anniversary of Operation Able Archer given its significance as a turning point in the Cold War, and representing as it did the time at which the world arguably came closer to devastating nuclear wipeout than at any other.

To some extent, the same issues are pertinent in the world today: thousands of nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, with a window of mere minutes for a nuclear-armed nation under apparent attack to assess the threat and strike back.

Then, as now, it represents the potential for miscalculation,with catastrophic consequences.

The world, obviously, has changed; yet in some respects, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Russia — depending on who you listen to — is a nuclear threat, either due to rearmament and modification of its nuclear arsenal and a determination to reclaim the international strength and prestige of superpower status, or because of ageing and decrepit missile and control systems that are increasingly susceptible to malfunction or accidental launch.

The USA — on President Obama’s watch, at least — seems determined to realise further steep cuts in the number of strategic nuclear warheads that remain actively deployed on high alert. Yet there is little concrete evidence to suggest America’s moves in this area are reciprocated by Russia, and in any case, stories of demoralised US nuclear forces have also found their way into the international media over the past few years.

And of course, there are the “rising threats” posed by other nations and rogue states who have either acquired nuclear weapons capability or seek imminently to do so: India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran, for instance, all deepen the complexity of the nuclear equation and add to the general instability posed by nuclear weapons in a multipolar world.

The point of this post isn’t to scare anyone, or even to make a case for or agin when it comes to the world’s nuclear armaments. Rather, at what is unquestionably a significant time in the modern history of the world, I seek merely to note, and to commemorate.

To this end, just a single reference: a very good documentary that aired on Channel 4 in the UK a few years ago, dealing specifically with Able Archer, but which also provides a fascinating glimpse into the international politics and threats of the day — particularly where nuclear weapons and the politics of the Cold War are concerned.

For those unfamiliar with the background and nature of the Operation Able Archer exercises, this article (although dating to 2007) should give a broad overview of what was involved and the international environment in which the exercises took place.

The thing that struck me most in reviewing Able Archer at the weekend wasn’t the near-miss the world had with a nuclear Armageddon in 1983; rather, it was the consideration that apparently restrained the USSR from launching an all-out attack: the memory of Russia’s ambush and invasion at the hands of Nazi Germany in 1941.

And whilst I have read extensively on Able Archer over the years (nuclear politics being a bit of a pet interest), it surprises me that fewer people know about it. Everyone knows of the weather satellite launch that confused a Russian radar crew in 1995 and saw then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin open his nuclear briefcase in readiness to retaliate against the strike that proved a false alarm, but relatively few people know about this.

I support the continuing deployment of a Western nuclear deterrent; as Margaret Thatcher once observed, you can no more “disinvent” nuclear weapons than you can “disinvent” dynamite, a reality that I believe really ought to be accorded greater consideration in the arms control and arms reduction politics of the present day.

And I note that 30 years on from the near-catastrophe of Able Archer, the present generation of world leaders is largely unrestrained by the atrocities of the second world war: certainly, we all know how that disastrous conflict played out, but the key international figures of 2013 are the children of those who witnessed it first-hand, whilst the WWII generation itself is, literally, dying — and their memories with them.

I hope readers enjoy the material I have linked to and, as ever, encourage those interested to seek additional reading and media on the innocuous, routine exercise that very nearly triggered a third world war 30 years ago today.

In Bongo Bongo Land: How Not To Win Friends (And Votes)

JULIA GILLARD and her anti-misogyny handbag hit squad would choke on their breakfast if confronted with this: a British politician has been thrown out of his party after the latest in a long sequence of questionable comments about women and foreigners. Is this larrikinism, or a bridge too far?

The news overnight that a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has been ejected from UKIP comes as little surprise.

I am posting on this matter this evening because of the real contrast it throws up between the crusade Gillard went on during the last Parliament — railing against “misogyny”, as they believed it personified by Tony Abbott — and the reality of what has been bubbling away at UKIP for years, and which has lately come to an ugly head.

And these issues really are for the perusal and interest of readers, and I would love to know what Gillard would make of them. Her attack dog Nicola Roxon, too, for that matter.

There are some elements — both in the political community and in the wider community generally — who lament the disappearance of the “larrikin” from Australian politics, but I doubt this is the sort of thing to elicit such nostalgia.

Godfrey Bloom — a UKIP MEP from Yorkshire — has apparently exhausted the patience of both his party and UKIP leader Nigel Farage in his latest outburst, decrying the fact Britain spends £1 billion per month on aid to “Bongo Bongo land” and after saying in an address to an event to promote women that “this place is full of sluts.”

The outburst comes as the latest instalment in a colourful career that has featured Bloom having to be carried out of the European Parliament by an aide, too drunk to complete a speech, and using the using the Nazi slogan “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” to insult a German Social Democrat politician during a separate debate in Brussels.

Readers can access two articles on Bloom’s latest exploits here and here. A YouTube clip of his doorstop press conference yesterday — ostensibly to clarify his remarks, but which (predictably) ended in further controversy — can be found here.

The point is that anything Tony Abbott has ever been accused of by the likes of Gillard, the odious Roxon, and their fellow finger-shaking comrades pales in comparison to this.

But the question, very simply, is whether Bloom has gone too far.

Some will find his remarks — and antics — distasteful in the extreme, labelling him a sexist, racist, xenophobic pig with a bigoted view of the world and a jaundiced perspective on the role of women (and anyone beyond Britain) in it.

Others will take the view that political correctness has all gone too far; that people take themselves far too seriously, and that the likes of Bloom add a little colour to what is otherwise the dour, dull grind of democratic politics.

In any case, it has been many years since this sort of thing was a feature of Australian politics.

What do readers think? Is Bloom out of line, and right to be punted from his party in disgrace? Or is it the case that UKIP being just a bit too prim for its own good, and should take a load off and calm down.

I’ll be interested in people’s thoughts. Keep it clean.



Margaret Thatcher Funeral And Tribute

LIKE millions of viewers across the world, I watched the funeral of Baroness Thatcher this evening, Melbourne time; it was a remarkable celebration of a remarkable life, and as regular readers will know I am very upset indeed by the event of Mrs Thatcher’s passing last week, aged 87.

At some point in the next few days, I will be posting a tribute to Mrs Thatcher on this site.

It won’t be a regular post in the sense that we pick apart a topic, with an opinion piece augmented by discussion and viewpoints from readers.

The format will be media clippings: photographs and video snippets from Mrs Thatcher’s career; some well-known and others rather less so, as well as some comment from myself where I feel it is warranted.

Those who love and/or admire Mrs T will enjoy the tribute; even those who detest the lady — let’s face it, people loved her or hated her — may find some wry amusement in the material I am assembling as well.

As one of the true conservative icons of the 20th century, Mrs Thatcher’s death is a historic event; as a truly great leader, both at home and upon the world stage, she was a significant figure who deserves to be honoured, and remembered.

I have deliberately avoided posting this piece until the public funereal service had been concluded; readers should expect to see the tribute to Mrs Thatcher appear in this column by the weekend at the very latest.

Vale, Margaret Thatcher (1925 – 2013): A Leader For Her Time

THEY THOUGHT THE GROCER’S DAUGHTER, Margaret Thatcher once said — speaking of the disdainful regard in which her aristocratic male colleagues held her — didn’t really know how things were done. But, she added, they also knew that they simply didn’t have it within themselves to see things through.


With the death this morning (GMT) of Margaret Thatcher, Great Britain has lost one of its most significant political figures of the 20th century, and its greatest postwar Prime Minister; the UK’s prestige and reputation in the world was restored by Thatcher after decades of decline, and the changes she enacted in Britain have proven more durable than anyone could have foreseen upon her election to office in 1979.

Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher LG OM PC FRS, née Roberts (13 October 1925 – 8 April 2013) won the 1979 election in Great Britain with a simple objective: to reverse Britain’s decline.

Britain’s first female Prime Minister faced obstacles in the form of some of her own colleagues within the Conservative Party, over and above those any Conservative leader would face when attempting to effect significant change; and in the end, these were by far the more potent threat to her ability to complete what she saw as her mission in politics.

Thatcher — the lower middle class daughter of a grocer from Grantham, married to a successful and wealthy businessman — entered the House of Commons as Member for the London constituency of Finchley in 1959; a scientist and lawyer by profession, she was described in the parliamentary handbook’s “new members” section as “the mother of twins.”

After backbench stints in government before 1964 and in opposition following the Labour win at that year’s election, Thatcher experienced rapid promotion; upon the return of the Conservative Party to government in 1970 under Edward Heath, she became Secretary of State for Education.

It was in this role — charged with finding reductions in expenditure — she gained the unwanted moniker “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” after cutting the free milk program for school children aged 7 to 11. She later wrote: “I learned a valuable lesson. I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit.”

But Heath’s government was doomed; oil shocks that reverberated across the Western world in the early 1970s, along with a miners’ strike which determinedly sought to bring a Tory government down, found their mark. Ted Heath narrowly lost two elections in 1974, with the second (in October) resulting in a wafer-slim but outright majority for Labour.

After the loss, Thatcher challenged Heath for the party’s leadership in 1975; Heath failed to obtain the number of votes required under Conservative Party rules on the first ballot and withdrew, and Thatcher defeated his preferred successor, Willie Whitelaw, on the second.

Yet from that point on, sections of the Tory Party refused to accept her legitimacy as leader; some felt she would prove a mere stopgap, whilst others believed the Tories would be consigned to at least two terms in opposition, with Thatcher destined to lose the election to be held before the end of 1979.

But just as the unions helped destroy Heath’s government with a miners’ strike, so they helped to destroy the ensuing Labour government; the “Winter of Discontent” — a series of rolling strikes initiated by unions over the 1978-79 winter — had disrupted sectors such as waste collection, cemetery workers, emergency services and transport workers.

It destroyed public support for James Callaghan’s Labour government, and as the rubbish literally piled up across the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party moved — and won — a parliamentary vote of no-confidence.

Taking office after winning the resulting election held in May 1979, Thatcher publicly enunciated a wish for her government: it was the Prayer of St Francis, which runs

Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.

Where there is error, may we bring truth.

Where there is doubt, may we bring faith.

And where there is despair, may we bring hope.

These were words that were time and again flung in her face by opponents and detractors.

As a middle-class woman from the Tory Right, Thatcher was obliged to allocate a significant number of ministries in her government to internal party opponents.

Typically, these were Conservative grandees; landed gentry figures whose careers in public office were built on a culture of consensus and a tolerance of the creeping socialism that had all but strangled Britain in the postwar years prior to 1979: the very attitudes Thatcher saw as the root causes of the decline that she regarded as her mission to reverse.

This was the basis of the notorious “wet-dry” schism for which the early Thatcher government was known; the “wets” on the Tory Left, mostly loyal to former leader Heath, went to great lengths to frustrate  and obstruct the Thatcher agenda in government.

But — in Thatcher’s own famous words — the lady was not for turning.

The Conservative Party had come to office in a country blighted by inefficient and uncompetitive industrial practice, a rampant and militant trade union movement, declining living standards, and the suffocating effect of nationalised industries operating in outdated or obsolete markets: unable to compete in the world or retain market share, the slow creep of socialism was choking the very life out of the country.

So after two years of internal warfare, Thatcher jettisoned the “wets” from her cabinet; in return, the “men in grey suits” never ceased to look for the opportunity to tear her down.

Thatcher’s government was remarkable in that it initiated radical and widespread change in virtually every aspect of British society: nationalised industries and state-owned assets were privatised; the outdated and inefficient framework of British industrial practice was torn down; the stranglehold of unions over industry was broken; and the decades-old culture of consensus government at a snail’s pace was replaced with an emphasis on personal responsibility, private enterprise, and what is still known as the “opportunity society.”

Like any period of sustained change, there was indeed dislocation, and there were indeed losers. But Thatcher was an agent of change, and the transformation her government undertook of the United Kingdom was necessary, urgent, and long overdue.

Indeed, the vindication of those changes lies in the fact that almost a quarter of a century after Thatcher left office, much of what was controversial in the 1980s is remains in place, regarded very much as the norm.

Certainly, Thatcher made enemies, and fought many battles against them; in 1984, the National Union of Mineworkers — led by militant mining figure Arthur Scargill — attempted to bring down the Thatcher government in the same way it had engineered the demise of Heath’s government in 1974; but the miners acted and illegally, and in breaking their strike, Thatcher effectively broke the militancy of the entire union movement.

And IRA terrorists made an assassination attempt on Thatcher at the 1984 Conservative Party conference in Brighton; whilst they succeeded in killing or maiming a handful of the party’s people in the attack, Thatcher survived unhurt.

But it was the invasion by Argentina of the Falkland Islands in 1982 that provided the pivot point for nationalist pride to begin to be restored; Thatcher’s swift dispatch of a military taskforce to the South Atlantic, and its recapture of the islands after a brief but successful war against the Argentinian forces of the dictator Galtieri, was a turning point in both the country’s self-esteem and in the political fortunes of the Conservative Party.

The Falkland Islands conflict is widely credited as a major factor in the thumping election win recorded by the Conservative Party in 1983; a second landslide re-election would be achieved four years later, in June 1987, as the British economy boomed, and many believed that Britain’s structural economic problems had been solved.

Thatcher left her mark on international affairs beyond the Falklands; in 1980 she reached a settlement with the black majority in white-governed Rhodesia, from which democratic Zimbabwe was born, and of which Robert Mugabe became its first Prime Minister (in 1980, there was no indication of the murderous regime Mugabe would run; indeed, Britain won international praise for the settlement it reached in Rhodesia at the time).

Her dealings with paramount Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s led to the simultaneous return of Hong Kong to China, and the opening of China to British trade.

And she will be remembered as perhaps the pivotal influence in bringing the Cold War to an end; it was Thatcher who identified Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as a man the West could “do business with;” through her close personal and political relationship with US President Ronald Reagan, the pair were able to speed the spread of democracy in eastern Europe and the fall of communism, culminating in the dissolution of the USSR itself.

But throughout her years in government, the “men in grey suits” waited, and watched; Thatcher had forced one of their number — Michael Heseltine — out of the government in 1986, over a dispute centred on the bailout of a helicopter company, Westland.

And in 1988, Whitelaw — the “wet” whom she had beaten to the Tory leadership, and who subsequently served as her deputy — retired, removing what had been an important balancing and moderating influence on her.

Thatcher’s third term in office marked the onset of drift; disputes with her ministers became more frequent, as colleagues of her own generation were replaced by younger and less experienced men and women as the government matured.

But it was her policy of a poll tax — the principle by which a duke would pay the same charge for council services as a pensioner — that sowed the seeds of destruction of her government; conservative voters in Tory strongholds demonstrated against a conservative government for the first time in living memory.

(Ironically, the continuing Major government restructured and neutralised the tax, but its basic premise remains largely unchanged, and has been operative for 20 years).

And her Eurosceptic, anti-European views ultimately provided the trigger for her party to dump her.

Key ministers Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe resigned in 1989 and 1990 respectively; Howe’s resignation speech was widely seen as an invitation to Michael Heseltine to stand against Thatcher for the leadership, which he did.

Heseltine had spent his years on the backbench befriending backbenchers and canvassing their support, with the consequence Thatcher failed to win the first ballot; and rather than risk a loss in a second ballot, she took the honourable path, and resigned.

Following her retirement from the House of Commons in 1992, the Queen created her a life peer — Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven — although she rarely sat in the House of Lords.

Thatcher gradually withdrew from public life; her beloved husband, Denis, died in 2003, shortly after which Thatcher suffered a series of mild strokes that affected her mobility and short-term memory. As is well known, prior to her death she also suffered from dementia.

She lived her final years in the privacy of a flat in Belgravia, in central London, and is thought to have been staying at the Ritz Hotel when she died to enable easier access to her by medical personnel who had been treating her.

Thatcher is survived by her twin adult children, Mark and Carol, and their families.

Her legacy will be one of lasting change in Britain, and of indeed reversing her country’s decline, both in its own standards of living and in its place in the world.

Britain, and the wider world, is a better place for her time as Prime Minister, and the enduring nature of the changes her government made — both in Britain, and in the countries around the world that adopted them — is testament to her remarkable achievement born from a simple wish to restore the greatness of her country.

Like any agent of change, she will be revered by some, and reviled by others: such is the nature of politics and politicians, and the impacts they engender upon democratic societies.

But as Margaret Thatcher (or Mrs T, or simply Margaret, as those of us who were fond of her were wont to call her) herself often remarked: “It’s a funny old world.”

This column wishes to express its great sorrow at Mrs Thatcher’s passing; we trust she is resting in peace, and may God rest her soul.

BREAKING NEWS: Former British PM Margaret Thatcher Dead at 87

IN DREADFULLY sad news tonight, former British Prime Minister has died this morning (London time); Mrs Thatcher is reported to have suffered a final stroke after an intermittent series of minor strokes in recent years, and died peacefully in her sleep. She was a few months short of her 88th birthday.

After years of hoax announcements, this one is accurate.

This is frightfully upsetting news and I will be monitoring the British press through the night (Melbourne time) for more information, and will post again later tonight or tomorrow.