Three weeks ago, the venerable Tony Benn succumbed at last to age. The press was naturally quick to react, and soon abounded in obituaries. But amid all the usual, tired adjectives—’divisive’, ‘rebellious’, ‘controversial’—it will be difficult for those unfamiliar with Benn to grasp what the man was about. I for my part think the Bard may help us here. Shakespeare’s Timon, flattered by a clump of hangers-on, receives the following panegyric in absentia:
A most incomparable man, breathed, as it were,
To an untirable and continuate goodness:
Of course, any goodness that the old Athenian has is shallow and dilute, and evanesces into hot misanthropy. All the more reason, then, to appropriate for Benn the praise above. It manages to capture his essential nature, and so may function as an epitaph. The object of this essay is to justify such an epitaph—to show that it is neither overwrought nor undeserved.
Anthony Wedgwood Benn was born in 1925, the scion of a distinguished political family. Educated at Westminster School and Oxford, young Benn in 1950 became the Labour Member of Parliament for Bristol South East. He remained so until the death of his father ten years later. Benn thereupon became the second Viscount Stansgate, and, as a result, had to relinquish his right to sit in the House of Commons. He was persistent in his attempts to reject the succession, and eventually prevailed in having the law changed. Shorn of his peerage, Benn returned to the Commons in 1963. He represented Bristol South East until 1983, when the constituency was abolished.
From 1964 to 1966, Benn served in Harold Wilson’s Cabinet as Postmaster General. He was then appointed Minister of Technology, in which office he oversaw the development of Concorde. The 1970 election was won by the Tories, but Benn returned to government on Labour’s victory four years later, first as Secretary of State for Industry and later as Energy Secretary.
In 1979, Thatcher came to power, and Labour were to remain in opposition for the next eighteen years. Benn was at the heart of the internal discord that convulsed his party in the early 1980s: he infamously stood for the deputy leadership in 1981, but was very narrowly defeated by Denis Healey. Seven years later, he challenged Neil Kinnock for the leadership, but was soundly beaten. In between, Benn had become the MP for Chesterfield.
He retained his seat at the next three general elections, and watched from the backbenches as neo-Thatcherites Blair and Brown ascended to government. In 2001, Benn left Parliament for good. His was a full and purposeful retirement, replete with meetings and speaking engagements. Most notably, he was for thirteen years the President of the Stop the War Coalition.
Benn’s health began to deteriorate in 2009, and was significantly worsened in 2012 by a stroke. He died on March 13 at the age of 88. By all accounts a loving family man, Benn is survived by four children, twelve grandchildren and a set of diaries that span seventy years and 15 million words.
What was it, then, that made Benn so remarkable? Ambrose Bierce, the great American wit, pithily observed that politics is ‘[a] strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.’ Bierce, of course, is effortlessly vindicated by the majority of politicians, but not by Tony Benn, whose principles—he had some—were firm and genuine and shot through with an unquivering commitment to securing human dignity, here and everywhere. He existed to serve the people, and did so tirelessly, right until his health gave in.
Such service was guided, above all, by a love of two things: democracy and peace. Hence the empery of capital was a fact that Benn deplored; he recognised that, in this country, real power rests not with ordinary Britons, but with the very wealthy, with companies and corporate finance. He recognised that the hungry fixation on profit is poisonous, and that such profit often arrives by means of exploitation. Of course, it goes without saying that Benn stood with the exploited. He stood with the poor, with workers, with labour over capital; his impassioned support for the striking miners is but one example. As Thatcher brutally set about dismantling the unions and atomising the workforce and smashing its bargaining power, Benn campaigned for better pay, better conditions and workers’ self-management. Beyond that, he called for public ownership of gas and electricity; he would have nationalised the banks and the railways and oil too. He threatened, then, to release—at least in part—the grip of capital on power, in favour of the people, and the establishment despised him for it.
Benn’s dedication to realising genuine democracy is evident in many other of his beliefs. Unusually for a politician, he dared to suggest that the House of Lords be done away with. There is, said Benn, no place in our system for an unelected upper chamber, especially one that brims with aristocrats, executives and co-opted men of the left. Benn also opposed, on democratic grounds, the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. He felt that the people of Britain were constantly put upon by unaccountable mandarins in Europe, and thereby deprived of the right to determine their own direction. Once, in Parliament, he declared that ‘communism run by commissars from Moscow did not work, and nor will capitalism run by Commissioners in Brussels. Both deny people their right to develop in their own way.’ One gets the sense from this that Benn saw the EU for what it seems at heart to be: a sprawling neoliberal enterprise.
And then, of course, there was Benn’s opposition to the ever-thrumming Western war machine. He opposed the Suez war, the Falklands war and the Gulf war. He denounced the intervention in Kosovo, and, like a million others, marched in protest against the invasion of Iraq. Moreover, Benn was firmly for nuclear disarmament, and correctly identified NATO as a body which ‘is used to enforce Western interests on any country that is intransigent’. In short, Benn’s humanity led him to hate imperialism of every kind.
His righteousness in this regard was exemplified when, live on BBC News in 2009, he took it upon himself to broadcast an appeal on behalf of the Disasters Emergency Committee, following the brutal bombardment of Gaza. At the same time, he censured the corporation—which had cruelly refused to air the appeal itself—for capitulating to Israeli pressure. Not for the first or last time, Benn’s fundamental decency was clear for all to see.
We can see, then, that Benn’s principles set him apart from the vast majority of other politicians. As a result of this fact, he is often astringently criticised. It is time now to address a brace of such criticisms.
Firstly, the argument is frequently made that Benn, by standing for the deputy leadership in 1981, took the Labour Party to the very brink of implosion. Now, Benn’s policies, which were solidly socialist, represented the interests of labour far better than did the incumbent Denis Healey’s. Moreover, Benn lost the contest by only one per cent. Any threat of implosion, then, is an indictment not of Benn, but of the considerable rightist presence within the Labour Party, which had in truth ceased to care about the people for whom it was supposed to exist. Watching footage of the 1981 Labour Party conference, one can do nothing but shake one’s head in disgust on seeing that gang of impostors sing The Red Flag, paying lip service to values they had long since abandoned.
An implosion of sorts did occur at the general election in 1983, when Labour received just 700,000 more votes than the SDP-Liberal Alliance. Benn is often blamed for this as well, and also for the manifesto that is commonly branded the ‘longest suicide note in history’. But could it be that people had become disillusioned with the Parliamentary Labour Party’s rightwards shift, with the fact that it had stopped, stone dead, the labour movement? At any rate, Benn was correct when he recognised that the sole function of the Social Democrat Party—many of whose founding members had voted against Benn in 1981—was to destroy what was left of Labour by splitting its vote. Thus Thatcher was able to continue, and the germ of New Labour was born.
Secondly, Benn is sometimes derided for his ‘aristocratic’ background. One writer even went so far as to demeaningly anoint him the ‘Bertie Wooster of Marxism’. This kind of criticism is entirely without substance, even if those who proffer it imagine that they are invalidating his opinions by doing so. While it is true that Benn was born into wealth, his father was not raised to the peerage until Benn himself was sixteen years old. Furthermore, Benn went to great lengths to abnegate much of the privilege that he had. Critics who seize upon his plummy eloquence or his spacious home are advised to engage instead with his ideas.
When Tony Benn was challenging for power, he was routinely portrayed by the media as a ‘mentally unstable and megalomaniacal individual’. After his chance at power had passed, this vicious propaganda disappeared: he was now a ‘national treasure’. There is a grain of truth to that last description: in his second coming as a socialist, he had the support of a very considerable portion of the British public.
It is not hard to see why Benn was anathema to the system: he saw the inequities it necessarily spawned, and railed against them, and persuaded others to do so too. ‘I was radicalised by being a minister,’ Benn once said. ‘That’s when I saw how the system really worked.’
He was, quite simply, without peer among British politicians. At a time when there seems to be no prospect of escape from the dogma of profit over people, we should do well to remember Tony Benn.