What if Tony Benn had taken over as Prime Minister 10 years ago and not Tony Blair?
This piece of mine appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free website.
Just imagine ...
Ten years ago Tony Benn became prime minister. As he prepares to step down after a decade at the helm of Britain's most socialist government of all time, it's timely to assess what his administrations have achieved.
The renationalisation of the railways, carried out in the first months of the Benn government, has been a great success. Britain now has an integrated public transport network whose standards are up to European levels, (buses were also bought into public ownership) with the billions of pounds of subsidy that were being paid to profiteering private companies being invested in the network.
The government has also saved taxpayers money by cancelling the costly private finance initiative and by bringing "in house" all the services contracted out by the NHS and other government bodies. The renationalisation of the privatised utilities has also proved popular with the public, with prices of water, gas and electricity all dropping now that there's no fat cats to siphon off the profits. The nationalisation of North Sea oil and the setting up of a State Petroleum Fund to invest in long-term projects augurs well for Britain's future prosperity.
The Benn government set out to drastically reduce inequality, and has achieved this by the reintroduction of a new top rate of income tax, the introduction of new wealth tax on unearned income, a land tax and by generous increases in old age pensions and the minimum wage. Thanks to such redistributive policies, the gap between the rich and poor is now at historically low levels.
Britain's amicable withdrawal from the EU has saved the taxpayers billions of pounds too and prime minister Benn's idea of a "Commonwealth of Sovereign European States", with countries free to decide their own domestic policies, but agreeing to cooperate on matters of mutual interest has become increasingly popular with the millions of Europeans disenchanted with the undemocratic and overly-bureaucratic EU.
Benn's government's introduction of a fully elected second chamber has reinvigorated democracy, as have bi-annual elections, and the greater use of referenda. With more decision making power being restored to people themselves, voter turnout has returned to its highest postwar levels.
As impressive as its achievements on the home front have been, it's in the field of foreign policy where Benn's governments have arguably had their greatest impact. In 1999, it was Britain's implacable opposition to Nato military action that led to a peaceful solution to the incipient civil war in Kosovo. And in 2003, Britain aligned itself with France and Germany in opposing US plans to illegally invade Iraq. President Bush threatened to go it alone, but in the end, deprived of British support, he was forced to back down. Hans Blix's weapons inspectors finished their job and a costly and potentially catastrophic military conflict was averted. We will never know how many innocent lives were saved by the British government's anti-war stance. It could have been hundreds of thousands.