Sometime around 1969 / 1970 Anthony Wedgwood Benn who was then Minister of Technology, spoke at Swansea University. He was a man enthused, a man with a mission, possessed with the answer to everything: Technology. The Buzzword then was the ‘white-hot heat of technology.” Technology was the Alchemist’s Stone that would transform society, revitalising wherever it touched. Technology would dissolve class, or at least make its inequalities more bearable.
At the back of the hall was Terry Harrison, a Militant Activist from Liverpool, and a Cammell Laird’s Shop Steward at a time when Merseyside still built ships. He listened attentively, and when the talk opened out into questions raised his hand. There followed a searing analysis of the Minister’s idealism (or crap), its contradictions and flaws, and how it bore little relation to the daily life of working men. He concluded with how Britain was essentially dominated by 300 monopolies (A Militant slogan at the time) and how technology would primarily be used to exploit labour with greater efficiency. There followed a deadening silence and a subdued response from Anthony Wedgwood Benn. More of a burble than a response.
Shortly after that Anthony Wedgwood Benn became Tony Benn, a lucid leftwing firebrand, and in time, a ‘National Treasure’* - the status acquired when one is deemed no longer a threat. Mick Jagger is one, along with Cliff Richard – but I digress.
I like to think that Tony Benn experienced a Damascene moment when Terry Harrison spoke, and know it for conceit. We’d all like to think, that at least once in our life, we’d been touched by history. In the words of one who could turn the Lords Prayer into a soundbite "A day like today is not a day for soundbites, really. But I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders. I really do.” (Tony Blair) In my case it was probably dandruff.
Benn was, no doubt, blissfully unaware of Terry Harrison. He attributed his radical shift to his experience as a minister in the 1964–1970 Labour government. In his words:
As a minister, I experienced the power of industrialists and bankers to get their way by use of the crudest form of economic pressure, even blackmail, against a Labour Government. Compared to this, the pressure brought to bear in industrial disputes is minuscule. This power was revealed even more clearly in 1976 when the IMF secured cuts in our public expenditure. These lessons led me to the conclusion that the UK is only superficially governed by MPs and the voters who elect them. British Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means of securing a periodical change in the management team, which is then allowed to preside over a system that remains in essence intact. – Which helps put the Palin Mcain/Barak Obama and Joe Biden hoopla’ in perspective.
* A list compiled by the New Statesman in 2006, voted Benn twelfth in the list of "Heroes of our time"