Sunday, October 09, 2011

When Tony Benn was still Anthony Wedgwood Benn

On her blog, Lynne Featherstone points us to an article by Carol Morley in today's Observer. It deals with the life and death of Joyce Carol Vincent, who was found dead in her North London flat after her body had lain undiscovered for three years. Her story has been made into a film, Dreams of a Life, which is to be shown at the London Film Festival.

Lynne herself features in Morley's article, having tried without success to interest the authorities in the case, but I was struck by a very minor point in the article.

Morley says of Joyce Carol Vincent:
She was born in 1965, the year the Post Office Tower opened, which Tony Benn later referred to as a symbol of our age – an age in which we worship the internet, television, mobile phones.
But Tony Benn did not say this "later" at all. He said it at the time. Because in 1965 he was Postmaster General and one of the bigwigs at the tower's opening.

A Guardian article by Nigel Fountain from 2000 describes his attitude that day:
While Big Ben had represented "the fussy grandeur of the Gothic revival that epitomised the Victorian imperial affluence, built on the foundation of the first industrial revolution", as the postmaster-general, a Mr Anthony Wedgwood Benn, had pithily proclaimed at the opening, "the Post Office tower, lean, practical and futuristic, symbolises the technical and architectural skill of this new age." 
Good old new ages, where would we be without them? At the time, Tony Benn - as he became when he, too, opted to be lean, practical and futuristic - reckoned a new definition of a Cockney would be someone born within sight of the tower.
You can even see footage of him that day on the British Pathe site. (My current internet connection cannot cope with it, so I have not seen this newsreel myself.)

Shortly afterwards Anthony Wedgwood Benn became even more lean, practical and futuristic and took charge of the Ministry of Technology - or Mintech, as he liked to call it. The days when Tony Benn (as he was later to become) would present himself as a sage who laughed at the follies of our technological age were then far ahead of him.

But then Carol Morley is not the first person to be taken in by accepting Benn at his own estimation. In a House Points column a couple of years ago I recalled his role in the banning of pirate radio and then asked:
Do the sweet young things who hang upon his words about global warming know that when a minister in the 1970s he forced through the construction of the coal-burning Drax power station?
People can get upset when you point out historical ironies of this sort, but I am with Cicero: "To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child."


railmangwyn said...

I believe it's also true that Mr Benn was the relevant Minister in the 1970s who encouraged British Rail to purchase new locomotives from ... er ... Rumania, rather than from British manufactury.

Anonymous said...

But he did say it later! Maybe it's not clear, because it's not in quotes, but it was Benn looking back at when he opened the tower to the public. (The opening to the public was in 1966- although it was first opened in 1965.) The "an age in which we worship the Internet, TV, mobile phones" is what Benn said as he looked back at that historic moment- and of course he couldn't have known in the 1960's about mobile phones etc!
carol m

dreamingspire said...

Minister of Technology in that disastrous period when a Labour govt thought it knew how to stimulate the technological contribution to national wealth, and thus destroyed a lot of it by shotgun marriages driven by dogma rather than having the best people in charge. We are still suffering the consequences.