Tony Benn died last week. The left-wing politician who became increasingly radical – or immature, according to Harold Wilson – passed away surround by his family in his Notting Hill home. West London, hardly the hotbed of the working classes he was so eager to represent, but then Benn’s contradictions were at his very core.
Benn was, back when I started to understand politics a little better than simply left versus right, a man I immensely admired, but coming to write this I find myself struggling to articulate why.
Reading the obituaries to him over the weekend I am left little wiser. His achievements as a politician were mediocre and probably would have been delivered by anyone else in post at the time: the opening of the post office tower, the establishment of pop music radio stations ending the pirate radio ships, championing Concorde (which was being built in this then constituency of Bristol). Some of his more interesting and hard-line left ideas, such as issuing stamps without the Queen’s face, not only ended in failure but now seem tame. In the sixties they were hardly incendiary either. With hindsight, at least, they appear to have little more than a sense of mischief about them.
By the time he developed his more militant attitude he was in opposition. The early eighties battle to be deputy leader of Labour – which Benn again lost – was not only bloody and helped keep the party for a generation, but saw Benn be christened, by an over-excitable right-wing media, the most dangerous man in Britain. In later life Benn used to joke that he achieved national treasure status by being rendered harmless by both old age and leaving parliament. He was both right and wrong. By the eighties he was pretty harmless too. More is the pity. He became a politician of greater conviction – bemoaning his own involvement in the sixties stand-down from socialism that saw Labour elected (usually only just) four times in two decades – but only after the opportunity to deliver had gone.
In his sort of retirement he traded on his image as a nice old man with a firebrand tucked inside. The pipe, the incessant tea drinking, the standing up for things which should have been seen as unilaterally right – not invading Iraq, banning nuclear weapons, the NHS, trade unionism – but for the oddities of politics weren’t. Somehow the most radical (former) politician in the country came across as a kindly uncle. Albeit, one with an unusual range of pronunciation. And, of course, he was a politician so there must have been an element of the bastard in him. I quite liked the anecdote Andrew Rawnsley threw in his Observer column about a journalist interviewing Benn who didn’t like the way the conversation had gone and so wiped the tape, there and then, with a magnetic device he kept handy in his office.
I first read about Benn in a mammoth book my Dad had when I was a kid: A Chronicle of the Twentieth Century. Despite being published in 1987 - and so far from complete - this enormous compendium reprinted important newspaper items for every month of the century. I was obsessed by it and would read it again and again, focussing mainly on the bits I was more familiar with from school and comics (mainly various wars), but as those became over-familiar anything and everything that caught my eye. July 1963 must have been a relatively slow month on the global scene for the book reprinted a slight article about Anthony Wedgewood Benn renouncing his hereditary title in order to serve in the House of Commons even though being in the House of Lords didn’t preclude you from being in government. In fact not having to win an election seemed like an easy option to me.
Of course I didn’t fully understand the intricacies of the situation. I didn’t know that Benn’s father, also a Labour politician, had only grudgingly ascended to the upper house himself; that the title may have been jettisoned but the Benn’s were never going to be destitute; that peers can’t hold the highest offices of the land, suggesting that blind ambition might have had a lot to do with it. Okay, so I didn’t grasp all that, but I found the idea of giving up what I thought of privileges to be a common man and to devote yourself to the service of others on a point of principle to be wonderfully romantic.
In the late nineties I was at university in Sheffield and would drive between Birmingham and Yorkshire in a tired eighties bright red Fiat Panda. Made of thin steel and sporting an ineffectual one litre engine taking it on the motorway felt like asking for an early grave and so I used to drive up the A roads passing through Benn’s later constituency of Chesterfield. That fact is irrelevant. It’s not as though I ever saw Benn, nearly ran him down at a zebra crossing or anything. I imagine that he was, unfortunately, rarely there. I bet he preferred the comforts of West London to the rain sodden spire twisted shopping centres of North Derbyshire.
But it was at that still impressionable age (although you’d deny it, wouldn’t you?) around twenty that my ideals of socialism were beginning to form more fully. I wasn’t active in student politics, much to my regret, but I did spend a lot of time thinking about these things. About the big questions. Thinking and debating them too late at night with my friends over another unnecessary beer.
Tony Blair might have shared Benn’s initials and he may have been the first Labour leader to not only win three successive elections but to win with a significant majority, but there was no love lost between the two. Blair being seen as the heir to Thatcher must have made Benn’s blood boil and up in Sheffield, as I experienced my first protest marches against the introduction of student fees, I couldn’t help but feel let down. The first Labour government of my life and nothing was changing.
Even then, before Iraq, dodgy dossiers and a skin colour that stinks of money, Blair was coming across like a career politician. He seemed like a man who would do – and say - anything to win. He didn’t seem confined by an ideology or principles. It didn’t seem like he gave a shit for anything other than being at the top.
Don’t get me wrong, as I’ve said before I think New Labourdid brilliant things for the country – certainly things the previous five years have reminded us are unlikely to be repeated under a Conservative government – but I can’t help wondering if the price was too high. If that to get some things done, they have sold off what they stood for on too many fronts. No wonder Benn resigned from Parliament to spend more time in politics.
Maybe that’s it: maybe that’s what I’ve always admired. Benn was never afraid to lose if it meant having the fight that was right; he wouldn’t back down on the things he believed in, even if by not backing down he knew that he’d never have the opportunity to try and do them.
Tony Benn then, aside from everything else, he was a man of principle. I can only hope to be thought of in such a fashion.