Tony Benn – in memoriam

Tony Benn imageTony Benn’s passing saddened and concentrated my mind. His was the voice that resonated with (a much younger version of) me most powerfully immediately after I moved to England in 1978. I was attracted instantly to the combination of: his commitment to the progressive history and potential of British Parliamentarianism, his passionate anti-imperialist pacifism, his relentless socialist critique of capitalism, and his stupendous eloquence. But there was something beyond that: He stood opposite Mrs Margaret Thatcher as one of the few members of the opposition interested in, and capable of, conviction politics. In an age of increasing spin, Tony Benn was solid in his support of political causes independently of political expediency.  He was a rock rather than a weathercock. 

Tony Benn’s was a disturbing voice on Europe. Unlike his colleague on the Labour Left (and my good friend) Stuart Holland, Benn was deeply sceptical of Brussels and of the whole European Union enterprise. He opposed Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community and maintained what might be called a Euro-sceptic stance throughout his political life. But, and this is crucial, his Euro-scepticism was based on radical solidarity with the people of Europe, as opposed to UKIP’s xenophobia or the Tories’ thinly disguised superiority complex. He believed that Brussels was a fundamentally anti-democratic set of institutions whose increasing power would be detrimental to the interests of Europe’s peoples. Recent developments, I fear, suggest that Tony Benn’s left-wing assessment was on history’s right side.

My only meeting with him took place during the miners’ strike of 1984. It was brief. But it allowed me a glimpse of the man’s warmth, passion and intellect. Those were sad times, as we were witnessing the wholesale destruction of communities around Britain that never recovered since, the result being the rise and rise of the spivs whose rule remains, more or less, uncontested to this day.

Tony Benn ended up a defeated political giant. But his defeat I feel as mine too. It is the defeat that has allowed neoliberalism to drag our societies into a deep and terrible mire. Now, without Tony Benn, it is also a hollower mire.

Benn’s parting shot from Parliament, when he decided not to contest the 2001 election, was a classic: “Having served for nearly half a century in the House of Commons, I now want more time to devote to politics and more freedom to do so”, he said. I often plagiarise him when asked whether I shall stand for Parliament in Greece, declaring that I shall not be doing so because I need to dedicate as much of my time to politics as possible.

I finish off with two other typical Bennite quotes:

“I opposed the Suez war, I opposed the Falklands war. I opposed the Libyan bombing and I opposed the Gulf war and I never believed that any of those principled arguments lost a single vote – indeed, I think they gained support though that was not why you did it. What has been lacking in Labour politics over a long period is a principled stand.” (1992)

“We are paying a heavy political price for 20 years in which, as a party, we have played down our criticism of capitalism and soft-peddled our advocacy of socialism.” – Speech to the 1976 Labour Party Conference 

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  • Tony Benn’s death marks the end of an era where political heavy weights like Brown (George not Gordon) Callaghan, Crossland, Healey and Wilson fought for the hearts and minds of the Labour Party. Benn was not only divisive but history may well show that his actions within his own party solidified Margaret Thatcher’s hold on power. He was a thinker, a fine orator and a prolific diarist but there was always something profoundly false about a multi millionaire championing the left, the poor etc. When the time comes to write about the great politicians of the 20th century Anthony Wedgewood Benn will perhaps be given a footnote and that in itself will be his greatest disappointment.

    • It has been my impression all along that the last thing Benn would care is whether he reseves a footnote or not

      His greatest disappointment most definetly would be related to one of the myriad of issues he so passionately cared for.

  • This is a beautiful obituary. Tony Benn was indeed a great man and of course a sincere committed politician of absolute conviction. I have said that although he was on the wrong side of his class (since he was the first politician to renounce his title in order to be elected to the House of Commons as a labour candidate) he was on the right side of history. And I firmly believe that. His legacy shall be a light for the future.

  • Dies ist ein sehr schöner Nachruf und er wird T.Benn sehr gerecht. Ein Denker ging von uns. Danke für Deine Zeilen.

  • He was a more honest politician than any around now. You may not have agreed with all his views but you knew where you stood. He could have taken the easy way out, but he didn’t. He sacrificed a lot for the sake of his principles. I did not believe in all his views, but if he stood in a Roman Senate of old, I would have listened

  • Tony Benn was blessed with a brilliant mind that stood out above, by far, the majority of leaders of his age. His legacy remains to highlight that, regardless of his undoubted intellectual capacity, the “Left” could no more than the “Right” create a workable economy that would increase prosperity for an entire nation; without disharmony.

    The same left right dichotomy plagues the worlds economies to the present day.

    Regardless, his intellect was supreme and certainly stood out. Such minds are always missed.

  • Tony Benn’s departure is the end of the morality in political decisions. A era of principled politics is gone.

    Immense sadness for us who got to know him during our studies in Britain in the 70’s.

  • Did not see a single word of this in the Australian press. Seems our media is very selective. Not surprising now that knighthoods abound….

  • I am new to Tony Benn’s view of the world and have just listened to his ‘Socialism in Britain’ interview in 2006 with Nick Stadlen QC.

    Wow, what a wonderful mind lost to this world.

    This interview should become compulsory listening for all 15 year olds, their parents, their grand parents and anyone else interested in understanding how we got to where we are now – lest we forget…

    Many men and women have given their lives to keep us free and safe; Tony Benn had the ability to verbalise eloquently why we should all continue the fight to maintain those freedoms – a fantasmagorically lovely man. RIP