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More time for politics

03/23/2014

Tony Benn 1

I’m not really sure who or what a “national treasure” is but it’s probably fair to say that Tony Benn didn’t quite fit the bill when he was invited to speak at our school in December 1984. This was Chesterfield, nine months into the miners’ strike and feelings were running high. Tony Benn had been elected as our local MP earlier in the year in a vicious by-election in which The Sun newspaper had labelled him “the most dangerous man in Britain” and ran an article on the day of the election entitled “Benn on the couch – a top psychiatrist’s view of Britain’s leading leftie”. An American psychiatrist had concluded that Benn was power hungry, would do anything to satisfy his hunger and that he was “prone to periods of fantasy”. A number of fellow Labour MPs complained to the Press Council about the piece.

Despite the right wing vitriol, Tony Benn prevailed in the by-election and beat sixteen other candidates (a record for a by-election at the time). He secured 47% of the vote from a turnout of 77%. Quite a mandate by modern standards and Benn, typically, described it as a victory for socialist policies. Sadly, many parents didn’t share Benn’s passion for socialism and took their kids out of school the day that he came to speak.

Tony Benn campaigning in Chesterfield 1984

There was an anxiety that he would use the speech to show his support for the miners’ strike. By this time, the miners had been out for nine months and Benn had stood by the National Union of Mineworkers and Arthur Scargill unlike many in the Labour movement. Inevitably he did mention the strike in his speech but in his own inimitable style. It was a beautiful speech about the benefits of a good education (one of Benn’s themes throughout his life was that an educated country is harder to govern) but he also wove into it his admiration and support for the striking miners and their families. For a fifteen year old like me, beginning to take an interest in politics, it was inspirational stuff.

Nearly thirty years on and it hasn’t properly sunk in yet that he’s gone. I’m still half expecting him to turn up on Question Time, a programme he graced on so many occasions, in a few weeks. Someone will ask a question about the situation in Crimea and his eyes will light up, his hands will start moving and he’ll begin with “well, of course, to understand the situation in Crimea we need to go back to 1854…..” I loved the way that he always tried to set current events into an historical context. It was such a refreshing contrast to the cheap points scoring that most of the politicians on the programme indulged in.

Tony Benn & Arthur Scargill

I learnt so much from him down the years. Who’s this Gerrard Winstanley bloke he keeps going on about? What happened at the Putney Debates? Who are the Diggers? And he made me think about issues like Northern Ireland for the first time. Whilst there was a broadcasting ban on Sinn Fein, Benn invited Gerry Adams to speak at events. “Bloody IRA bastards” screamed our newspaper at home after the latest mainland bombing but Benn was keen to make us understand that events like this didn’t occur in a political vacuum; to achieve peace we must understand the deep-rooted reasons for conflict. It was to Benn’s credit that, in addition to Gerry Adams, he also counted the unionist Ian Paisley as a friend. He admired outsiders of all political hues who adopted a principled stance and fought for what they believed in.

He was a compulsive diarist from a young age and his collected works, stretching to eleven volumes, comprise an incomparable insight into post-war British politics. They are infused with a tremendous warmth and humanity and are extremely readable. Often it’s the minutiae of everyday life outside of the parliamentary sessions, party conferences and meetings that is most revealing about the man. Take this from 13th October 1984 for instance. Benn is travelling by train back up to Chesterfield from London and meets two young striking miners from Derbyshire with no money and no tickets. Benn’s worried that they might get into trouble when they get off the train at Derby and so his diary records that “I wrote a note to the ticket collector at Derby, explaining their situation and saying that, as the NUR was showing solidarity with the miners, I would be grateful if they could be allowed through and, if there was a problem, they should send the bill to me”.

Tony Benn diaries

There is humour too, in the diaries. Take this from 20th May 1984; “Heard Neil Kinnock on the one o’ clock news. His interviews are like processed cheese coming out of a mincing machine – nothing meaty just one mass of meaningless rhetoric that defuses and anaesthetises the listener”. Benn, of course, was disgusted that the Labour leadership failed to support the miners during the strike.

Typically the “tributes” following his death included the usual sanctimonious, patronising guff from leading figures of the right echoing what we’d heard only a few days before after the death of Bob Crow. David Cameron praised his abilities as a “campaigner” and “writer” and added that “there was never a dull moment listening to him, even if you disagreed with him”. A bit like describing a slightly, doddering eccentric uncle who visits occasionally. No mention whatsoever of Benn’s socialist beliefs and principles.

Tony Benn & Jemima Khan

I loved the way that he bucked the usual trend and became more left wing with age; I can relate to that. When he famously retired from parliament to have “more time for politics” he still maintained a ferocious round of public speaking, campaigning and writing. As president of the Stop The War Coalition he was an outspoken critic of the Iraq war and spoke at the million-strong anti-war demonstration in London in 2003. I saw him speak on numerous occasions and each time it was a privilege to listen. I didn’t always agree with him (particularly on Europe) but he always made me think.

One of the last times that I saw him speak in public was in 2011 at an event, organised by the Stop The War Coalition, at the Conway Hall in London to show support for WikiLeaks. He shared the platform with Tariq Ali and Jemima Khan. Khan acknowledged that this was one of her first public speaking engagements and that she was very nervous but typically Benn took time out to offer words of encouragement. In his later years he remarked that he would like the words “Tony Benn – he encouraged us” as an epitaph. Well, he certainly encouraged me.

His politics were based on ideas, principles and a faith in human nature that was the antithesis of many modern day politicians too scared to make a move without considering the electoral calculus or the views of some focus group. For him, the fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t represent the “end of history” and the triumph of capitalism over socialism. He maintained that a fairer socialist world was possible. The idea that all that remained for left wing politicians to do was to tinker with capitalism better than the right, as embodied by New Labour, went against everything that Benn believed in.

Even though the closest I got to him was a handshake and a smile when he visited our school that didn’t stop me from shedding a few tears the other Friday morning as the news of his death interrupted my journey to work. He was my political hero and ignited my own socialist beliefs. Above all, he had a wonderful, unshakeable faith in the ability of people, through collective action, to change the world around them. Let’s not let him down eh? National treasure? Pffftttt. He was a proud socialist and an inspiration to many. Tony Benn, rest in peace.

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From → Politics

2 Comments
  1. Sharon Robson permalink

    Another good one. Keep them coming!

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