Tony Benn And The Left Wing Case For Brexit

What is the left wing case for Brexit? The same as everyone else’s case: democracy and self-determination

In this response to a student’s question at the Oxford Union, the late Tony Benn makes a calm but passionate argument for Brexit which anybody of any political leaning should be able to embrace:

When I saw how the European Union was developing, it was very obvious that what they had in mind was not democratic. I mean, in Britain you vote for the government and therefore the government has to listen to you, and if you don’t like it you can change it. But in Europe all the key positions are appointed, not elected – the Commission, for example. All appointed, not one of them elected.

[..] And my view about the European Union has always been not that I am hostile to foreigners, but that I am in favour of democracy. And I think out of this story we have to find an answer, because I certainly don’t want to live in hostility to the European Union but I think they are building an empire there and they want us to be a part of that empire, and I don’t want that.

Typically, the left-wing argument against the EU and for Brexit consists of lamentations that EU rules prevent the government from renationalising industries, erecting protectionist barriers to trade and entry, or otherwise meddling in the free market. Jeremy Corbyn would be busy making such arguments right now, were it not for his colossal failure of political courage in rolling over to the demands of the die-hard pro-Europeans the moment he became Labour Leader.

Such arguments are all well and good, if you are one of the small minority of the population for whom the British government’s current inability to renationalise the energy sector keeps you awake at night in a cold fury. But such people are few and far between.

When asked his own thoughts about the European Union, Tony Benn did not do what most contemporary Labour Party personalities do, and talk about the virtues of undemocratically imposing more stringent social and employment laws on Britain (an irritatingly less social-democratic country than our continental friends). Because Tony Benn understood that the left-wing case against the European Union was about democracy, democracy and more democracy.

Tony Benn understood that some things are more important than whether Britain might happen to move in a slightly more left or right wing direction as a short and medium term consequence of Brexit. He understood that self-determination and democracy – particularly the ability for the citizenry to remove people from office – is the first and most important consideration in determining the democratic health of a country.

And Benn understood that living in a democracy where his own side would sometimes win and sometimes lose was far preferable to living in a dictatorship where his own preferred policies were implemented through coercion with no public redress.

Jeremy Corbyn also seemed to understand these things, until he most unexpectedly ascended to the leadership of the Labour Party, which loves the European Union with a blinkered fierceness with which there can be no reasoning.

Indeed, there are now so few high profile left-wing eurosceptics that the bulk of the heavy lifting in this EU referendum will inevitably be done by those on the centre-right. Their challenge – our challenge – will be to make a positive case for Brexit as a desirable thing in and of itself, and not as part of a partisan political agenda.


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Nepotism Alert – Emily Benn

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“People might ask how I can know anything about ‘the real world’ given who my family are and the fact I am the granddaughter of Tony Benn” – Emily Benn


First it was Stephen of House Kinnock. Then came Will of House Straw. Euan of mighty House Blair waits in the wings. And now it is official – Emily Benn, fifth generation of her line, has been selected as Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Croydon South.

At one time, this depressing nepotistic spectacle was mostly a Tory party phenomenon – the Conservatives still boast a grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, Nicholas Soames, among their MPs. But as the ideological gap between the main parties has narrowed and the background of one party’s parliamentary intake has gradually become indistinguishable from another’s, we can only expect cases like this to become more frequent.

Is it necessarily bad to have someone from a political family, a woman in her early twenties, in Parliament? Of course not. Since the interests and priorities of young people are often scarcely acknowledged by Britain’s political leaders, more young faces in the halls of Westminster can only be a good thing. In particular, at a time when huge areas of government spending have been strictly constrained, virtually nothing has been asked of Britain’s pensioners or soon-to-be retirees, so great is the power of the grey vote. More young voters and a few twentysomething MPs are not the whole solution by any means, but it couldn’t hurt.

But is this really best that today’s Labour Party can do, in the age of Miliband? When every other speech from the Labour shadow cabinet (generic ranting against austerity aside) bemoans the lack of opportunities available to disadvantaged young people and the vital importance of listening to them, how will electing a privileged young woman from a dynastic family, almost completely divorced from real life, help to redress the balance?

Emily Benn, of course, is falling over herself to emphasise her humbler side and the extent to which she shares in the same trials and tribulations as the rest of us. In a piece in the Telegraph entitled “What I can offer British politics”, she insists:

“I get up and go to work every day (in the private sector). I have the same friends as everyone else and use the same buses, tubes and trains to get around town. I procrastinate on Facebook, just like the rest of our digitally savvy society, and struggle to find a house I can afford. And right now I am using the very same NHS hospitals as you would, while I accompany my mother to appointments in her cancer battle.”

But while it is true that this routine does indeed mirror the lives of many Britons, it would bring absolutely nothing new to the socioeconomic makeup of the House of Commons. Emily Benn’s career path has essentially been that of any other young(ish) Labour MP: university graduate (Oxbridge was helpful), premium graduate job (working for UBS investment bank, in Benn’s case), dabbling in lower level local politics to show a willingness to “help out”, followed by the nimble leap to national political party life. The only thing that differentiates Emily Benn from the other women in the Labour parliamentary party is the speed at which she achieved the holy grail of being selected by a constituency association – a victory which, if she were to be honest, is entirely attributable to her surname.

Contrast the embryonic career of Tony Benn’s granddaughter with the likes of Owen Jones, the young and telegenic left-wing campaigner, author and talking head. While one can disagree with his politics (this blog certainly does), it is hard to deny Jones’ very tangible accomplishments: a bestselling book that made people stop and think and which influenced the national political conversation, another book on the way, and a respectable track record of grassroots activism to back it up. Jones is often encouraged, even begged by some supporters, to stand at the next general election – though to his credit, he demures and remains non-committal. And few would doubt that Owen Jones would make an energetic, engaged, articulate and highly effective MP were he ever to run.

When has Emily Benn made people stop and think anew about a longstanding social problem? How many people turn out at events to hear her speak passionately on an issue close to her heart? How many newspaper articles does she have to her name, how many books has she published, how many times has Emily Benn’s media profile or debating ability led to invitations to appear on Question Time? In short, aside from her brief tenure as a local councillor, what has she done (aside from graduating university and getting a job like the rest of us) that in any way suggests an ability and promise so great that they earned her the right to carry the Labour Party banner into the 2015 general election?

When The People’s Assembly skulked through London in protest against austerity, this blog contended that a national movement which chooses Russell Brand rather than the likes of Owen Jones as its figurehead should not be surprised when it is generaly dismissed as irrelevant and unserious. The same criticism must now be levelled at the Labour Party, and the way in which local Labour associations are selecting their parliamentary candidates. If Labour insists on choosing famous names, and favouring style over substance, why should voters give them the time of day?

Ultimately, Emily Benn must ask herself this question – are her potential abilities as a future Member of Parliament so great and so unique that her contribution to British political life will outweigh the harm that she is doing by perpetuating yet another exclusionary British political dynasty?

But we cannot expect Ms. Benn to reach the difficult, truthful conclusion on her own. Therefore, it falls to the constituents of Croydon South to ensure that genuine promise beats hereditary entitlement in May 2015.