Tony Benn: in memoriam

tony benn 1“We are at a turning point in British politics when the Labour Party has got to renew itself from underneath and with the problems that lie ahead, that must be the top priority”.

This is as true today as it was when Tony Benn wrote these words in a 1999 letter. As his death is announced it seems the best tribute is to remember the views he ardently upheld. 

On Radio 5 this morning, a caller commented: “The fact that he was never leader of the Labour Party says so much about them”.

MP Diane Abbott rather ‘damned with faint praise’, saying that in his prime Tony Benn was an inspiring speaker. More accurately A.A.Gill – not noted for enthusiastic comments – wrote in the Sunday Times years ago that Tony Benn was:

“[A] statesman of gravitas . . . commanding the sort of crowds that haven’t been seen since Keir Hardie. Not only are voters turning up in their hundreds to listen to him, they are paying for the privilege”.

tony benn 2 pipeLast time we met, years ago, was after one of those crowded meetings in Birmingham Town Hall – memorable not only for his words but for a small incident which showed the calibre of the man. During the interval, noticing that he was smoking his pipe on the stage with a NO SMOKING notice behind him, my companion walked forward and asked him to stop, indication the notice. The female chairman bridled up and was angrily reproving this lack of respect when Tony pleasantly said that she was quite right and put the pipe away.

MP Francis Maude described Mr Benn as “a failure as a politician” – an unintended accolade. True he did not follow the custom of both Labour and Conservative leading politicians and allow his decisions to be influenced by big business and accept lucrative directorships. Mr Maude also added that Benn was a ‘disruptive force’ – many would add ‘but not disruptive enough’.

On Radio 5, MP David Blunkett said “I was taken by Tony in the 70s’ – and many were ‘taken’ with Blunkett in the 70s before he became enmeshed with the corporate world.

It is a matter of regret now that all letters and postcards received were not kept. The most clearly remembered refer to his detestation of military aggression and his enthusiasm for news of worker co-operatives. Some files have recorded his words on a few subjects:

The media and politics

In 2002 he wrote at length about ‘vivid examples of the power of the media’ – one example being Israel’s destruction of the Palestinian Radio station to silence the Al Jazeera station – detested by them and American and British authorities because they allowed another perspective to be broadcast.

‘Not Apathy, but Anger’

His comment in the Guardian: “Apathy has its advantages for the political class – by which I mean the party leaders, their spin doctors and their embedded correspondents in the media, who live in the Westminster village and rarely seem to get out to listen to what is being said. It encourages ministers to do what they like on the grounds that the public are not really interested. For the same reason, it entitles the media to dumb down their coverage as if that is the only way to win attention. This suggests that those at the top have little confidence in people’s intelligence”.

General elections

“General election campaigns have degenerated into an exchange of personal abuse which puts most people off; a flurry of election promises marketed by high-pressure salesmen; and the usual solemn warnings about apathy — as if the real problems in Britain were caused by the inactivity of the people, rather than the activity of the parliamentarians.

“My own experience, four years after leaving parliament to devote more time to politics, has convinced me that, far from being apathetic, most people are angry that no one seems to be listening to them; nor do they believe what they are told. Anger and mistrust are highly political responses and in no sense can they be described as apathetic.”

The Post Office

In 2007: “Let us be absolutely clear. The Post Office is being systematically and deliberately destroyed. And the British government is standing by and letting it happen . . . ”

Apathy, anger, democracy

Those in power, Benn believed, have an interest in spreading apathy. ‘If people really were apathetic there would be no challenges to what they do,’ he says. ‘They do spread pessimism. It’s very easy if you allow them to do it to you to get discouraged and you mustn’t get discouraged. Hope is the fuel of progress and fear and pessimism are a prison in which you confine yourself.’ Benn’s impression from talking to ‘ordinary’ people is that they are angry and mistrustful, both highly political things to feel, but with no obvious purchase in what he sees as an emerging one-party state ‘where everybody agrees’.

‘Nobody in power likes democracy,’ Benn says. ‘The Pope doesn’t allow Catholics to elect the pope, Stalin didn’t allow the Communist Party to elect the leader, the Prime Minister appoints the Archbishop of Canterbury. What democracy does is to create circumstances in which poorer people who don’t have resources can buy with their vote schools, hospitals, universities and so on. The whole welfare state is a product of democracy. The establishment doesn’t like it but rather than have bloodshed they will concede it. Then, when the pressure is off, they will try to recapture the territory they have lost.’

Scotland’s oil and devolution

It was reported that documents detailing secret government plans in the 1970s to prevent Scotland laying claim to North Sea oil were seen by The Times (14.2.09).

“Mr Benn told The Times yesterday that he had favoured Scottish devolution. “I have always taken the view that power was too centralised,” he said. “I think you have to determine what it’s appropriate to devolve. On the question of ownership of natural resources, that has to be seen as an integral part of the country.

”They show the extraordinary lengths to which civil servants were prepared to go to head off devolution, which was seen then as inevitably leading to independence . . .

pcubothMany will have examples of encouragement given by Tony Benn  – one which comes to mind is his 2007 advice to help with Tower Colliery’s search for backing for a film, scripted by Colin Welland, recording the workers’ buyout of the pit – in the teeth of management/government skulduggery – and running it co-operatively. Readers here and abroad (above, last week) are invited to add their own memories and impressions in the comments section – and on this occasion negative comments will not be approved.





Posted on March 14, 2014, in Corporate political nexus, Democracy undermined, Government and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. One way to give thanks for Tony’s life would be to have a Stop Trident March. I am sure he would approve and its so much in keeping with his legacy.

  2. Alison Williams

    Political idealists have lost a very tall tree who will be remembered with much affection, admiration and gratitude. I look forward to seeing who now comes into the light from the passing of his shadow.

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