Sorry to hear that Tony Benn has died today, at age 88. When I lived in England, I never quite understood why he was considered such an (unacceptable) “radical”. With his distinctive sh sound, his animated speech, and lively mind, he always seemed to me to talk sense.
The Guardian has published a fairly extensive outline of his life [h/t Ergo Robertina]. Benn was from an aristocratic background, but renounced his peerage. He spoke out for working people and democratic process, but was often marginalised within Labour – especially, I think by Tony Blair.
Tony Benn was one of the most mesmerising and divisive figures in the mainstream of postwar British politics. An establishment insider who became a rebellious leftwing outsider, a cabinet minister turned street protester and reviled prophet of capitalism’s demise, he nonetheless managed in old age to become something of a national treasure. “It’s because I’m harmless now,” he would explain.
With hindsight Benn’s most lasting impact on politics has been his leading role in giving party activists – even in a reluctant Conservative party – a role in choosing their leader and in making “jobs for life” MP s more accountable via routine reselection procedures. Potentially of more significance in the future is another of his campaigns, to introduce referendums, a device that had previously been despised in Britain as a tool of despots.
Yet clues to his future radicalism has been there from the start. Benn was fiercely anti-colonial, joined anti-nuclear CND early and abandoned Gaitskell during the leader’s doomed attempt to abandon Clause IV, Labour’s commitment to nationalisation. It was the exact battleground on which Blair fought, and won, 40 years later.
It was a favourite Benn maxim that “issues not personalities” matter in politics, though year after year his own vivid personality – complete with trademark pipe and mug of tea – undermined the assertion. In a managerial era where the ideological battles embodied by Thatcherism versus Bennery have lost potency, he was almost the last of a disappearing species.
In this video, “Tony Benn – 10 minute history lesson for neoliberals”, he outlines the changes he saw in his lifetime. Benn says every generation has to relearn what the generation before had learned. He talks of the way the wealthy have ruled in their own interest since forever. He says that for the left, a big resource is the people. And that real trade unions, not the shells they have become, are the vehicle for people to challenge the wealthy for the good of all the people. He explains how and why Thatcher destroyed the unions, and local government, and made the workers slaves again to their employers.
And he never let go of his ideals, in spite of Thatcher, Blair, etc.
Bye Tony. You have been an inspiration.
[Update] These images came into my Twitter stream last night – both with great Tony Benn Quotes.
“If one meets a powerful person – Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler – one can ask five questions: what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.”
If you can find money to kill people – you can find money to help people.