As the iconic orator is laid to rest, the unfair rhetoric of contemporary British politicians must make way for the legacy of a rare political hero
Just over a week has passed since the death of the giant of British politics and constant thorn in the establishment’s side, Tony Benn. Revered by most, reviled by some including in his own party, he remained intensely popular among the British public even following his departure, in 2001, from the House of Commons after 51 years in parliament. In 2006 the leftwing icon topped a poll conducted by BBC Daily Politics that asked people to pick a political hero, pushing Margaret Thatcher in to second place.
Though tributes have poured in thick and fast, not all have been glowing. Some have patronised and mocked, resigning him to the status of an eccentric, loveable old fool who “never moved on”. Such commentary is connected to a wider effort that began some years ago to push his image through a transition from principled political street-fighter to cuddly, if unconventional, national treasure, stripping his stance of its contemporary relevance.
Predictably, a plethora of politicians, both Labour and Conservative, have churned out re-hashed versions of David Cameron’s “he was a magnificent writer, speaker, diarist and campaigner… even when you disagreed with everything he said”. The need to qualify praise continued on Friday’s debate in the Commons on Benn’s legacy, bar moving speeches given by the likes of John McDonnell and Dennis Skinner.
Others meanwhile have waxed ad-nauseum about his being a “divisive” figure who “kept Labour out of power” during the Thatcher years; a man who, in David Blunkett’s view, “missed his chance to make a real difference” through a “stubborn refusal to see how the world was changing”. The world was indeed changing, but its newly acquired direction wasn’t to Benn’s liking.
Born into an affluent political family in 1927, he was influenced heavily by his mother, a feminist and prominent member of the reformist Congregationalist Church, as well as his father, a Liberal MP who advised him aged eight to “never wrestle with a chimney sweep”. Taking this advice on board, Benn strived to keep personal abuse out of politics for the entirety of his career. He became famous for his exemplary parliamentary manners, often taking even the harshest of media attacks with a smile.
In his 2005 autobiography, Dare to be a Daniel, we learn of a well-mannered schoolboy deeply affected by the events of WW2. Alongside humorous recollections of Westminister School and Oxford, we learn of an RAF pilot who became a supporter of anti-colonial struggles following his experience with a Matabili warrior in what was then Rhodesia, as well as of an old-fashioned romantic who went on to buy the Oxford bench where he proposed to his American wife-to-be, Carolyn VanDecamp, “for a tenner”.
Coming to power in the Wilson government in 1950, Benn’s became a household name with his ultimately successful three-year court battle to be rid of a hereditary peerage following the death of his father, setting an important precedent. His efforts to secure re-entry to the lower house rendered him a class traitor to many on the right. In his view, little good came from ennoblement; he would later lament how the establishment uses the Upper House as a tool to decapitate radical movements. Tantamount to political castration, ennoblement would often turn the most hardline of communist trade unionists in to purring kittens overnight.
Rejection of New Labour
It is regularly said Benn drifted further to the left as time progressed. Some cynics have argued this shift in approach was one designed to improve his chances of party ascendancy in the 1970s; well-known politicians occupied space in the ‘moderate’ or ‘left-of-centre’ zones, so the thinking goes that Tony felt he should come in from the ‘far-left’. He himself however attributed the shift to his experience in government where he grew frustrated with expectations of undying loyalty to the leader, the power of the media which he said often operated like the medieval church, and the power wielded by industrialists and bankers which often affected policy. Following his experience as Industries Minister, he once stated that multinational companies “behave like colonial powers”.
Another explanation would be in the context of Labour’s incremental drift to the right, towards becoming a near antithesis of its earlier mission statement. The party had moved a long way since Benn’s boyhood years when, aged twelve, he distributed leaflets for the 1935 election that spoke of national and international disarmament as well as common ownership of the means of production. With large segments of his party increasingly sacrificing long-held principles for anticipated electability – something that gathered pace through the Blair years – Benn merely maintained his positions, if somewhat stubbornly. Gary Younge writes in the Guardian:
“Benn stood against Labour’s growing moral vacuity and a political class that was losing touch with the people it purported to represent. The escalating economic inequalities, the increasing privatisation of the National Health Service, the Iraq war and the deregulation of the finance industry that led to the economic crisis – all of which proceeded with cross-party support – leave a question mark over the value of the unity on offer.”
Appalled by the Reagan-Thatcher era neoliberalism that would in time cause financial melt-down, Benn was one of the earliest figures to call out the dangers of the free market and the connected form of economic globalisation then unfolding. Acknowledging industrialisation had its benefits, he continued to stress that much of this came at the expense of an alarming increase in income disparity, gross exploitation of the developing world and massive job-losses, including of countless miners, who he stood by his entire career. For these reasons and more he came to loathe New Labour, whose economic philosophy wasn’t much different from that espoused by the Conservatives.
“Margaret Thatcher said Tony Blair and New Labour was her greatest achievement, and she was right,” he once responded in an interview. Indeed as early as 1993 he warned that Blair stood further to the right than the leader of the Social Democrats.
“It is no good saying that we shall run market forces better than she [Thatcher] did, because her whole philosophy was that one should measure the price of everything, but the value of nothing. We must replace that philosophy.”
Reaching the peak of his party political career in the early 1980s, he suffered two major losses of sorts; first in 1981, he was beaten to the position of Deputy Leader by the incumbent Dennis Healey by a mere one per cent. The abstention of those on the ‘soft left’ such as Neil Kinnock and Robin Cooke played no small role in this event. Later, being a major influence to Labour’s manifesto under Michael Foot, he was blamed for the party’s heavy loss in the 1983 elections. With the loss also down to internal rifts, as Seamus Milne reminds us, Bennites weren’t the only ones guilty of a failure to compromise – the right was often more savage in its factionalism.
Progress comes from underneath
Though immensely popular among the party’s grassroots activists, he would spend the rest of his years on the back-benches advocating for those with less: workers, minority groups, the marginalised. He continued to rally against what he felt was the ongoing counter-revolution against the welfare state, trade unionism and democracy, directing much of his ire towards New Labour, once joking to the Mirror’s Nigel Nelson whilst passing through metal detectors at a party conference “they’re scanning us for hidden socialism, you know”.
Not always on the ‘losing side’ of practical politics, something we are regularly told, change Benn was able to bring about before being sidelined by his own party post-1983 included the democratisation of manifesto production and leader selection, and ensuring MPs now face contested re-selection prior to elections.
Other frustrations however, would remain. Among the most important issues for him, he would lament constant use of the Royal Prerogative to circumvent debate in the House when appointing peers and bishops, signing treaties and taking the country to war – drawing comparisons with powers wielded by Charles I. “The divine right of kings is alive and well in the person of the prime minister of the day,” he declared in a 1992 Parliamentary debate chaired by Edward Heath.
Following retirement from the Commons, bowing out of British politics to spend his last decades in a leisurely fashion simply wasn’t for him. In many ways he never retired, immediately taking up a leading position in the Stop the War Coalition and later, the People’s Assembly Against Austerity. He also continued to work on his remarkable political diaries. An indefatigable campaigner, several commentators have spoken about Benn almost becoming more youthful with age. Well into his 80s, he could be seen addressing union meetings, events against library closures and anti-war demonstrations often back to back. In the words of Mark Steel, “if he was on Tony Blair’s asking rate for speeches he’d have been a billionaire within a month”.
“The flame of anger against injustice and the flame of hope”
Among students like myself who became politically radicalised over the past few decades, what he will be remembered for above all is his consistent stance against the scourge of war. From the Falklands, which he declared tragic and unnecessary at the height of Thatcher’s power, to Iraq in 2003, when he regularly addressed crowds of tens of thousands of protestors; from his royal take-down of former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, on Question Time, to his passionate slamming of the BBC for failing to air the Disaster’s Emergency Committee appeal for Gaza in 2008, Benn remained steadfast in his convictions.
“I was in London in the Blitz in 1940… every morning I saw the Docklands burning, 500 people were killed in Westminster by a landmine, it was terrifying! Aren’t Arabs terrified? Aren’t Iraqis terrified? Don’t Arab and Iraqi women weep when their children die? Doesn’t bombings strengthen their determination? What fools we are to live in a generation for which war is a computer game for our children, and just an interesting little Channel 4 news item.” – House of Commons 1998.
Some years later, standing on the plinth of Nelson’s Column with Platform editor Lubaaba Amatullah in 2008 during the brutal Israeli bombardment of Gaza, he remarked, “we’re all cousins you know, Muslims and Christians”, much to her elation, whilst filling his pipe with tobacco.
A vigil for the left-wing icon is set for 26 March in Westminster, with his funeral being held on the following day. Though the majestic orator’s presence will be marked by silence this once, as his family has noted, it will be his last night in Parliament.
In Letters to My Grandchildren, Benn states: “Every generation has to fight the same battles as their ancestors had to fight, again and again, for there is no final victory and no final defeat. Two flames have burned from the beginning of time – the flame of anger against injustice and the flame of hope. If this book serves its purpose it will fan both flames.”
Benn’s life served this purpose, and his legacy will continue to do the same.
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