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Tony Benn 1925-2014

Written By: - Date published: 9:42 pm, March 14th, 2014 - 34 comments
Categories: class war, democracy under attack, democratic participation, uk politics, Unions, workers' rights - Tags:

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

Some extracts:

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.

Tony Benn protest

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.

Tony Benn mineworkers union

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.”

New Statesmen, Benn quotes [h/t Yoza]

If you can find money to kill people – you can find money to help people.



34 comments on “Tony Benn 1925-2014”

  1. Chooky 1

    +100 thanks Karol for that valedictory…Tony Benn was a very great man indeed

  2. Ergo Robertina 2

    Benn’s 10 minute history lesson is brilliant. Thanks for posting.

  3. Whateva next? 3

    Thankyou Karol, hard to find a politician who has shown such enduring integrity, and was so unintimidated by power.
    Yes you have been an inspiration, a life well lived

  4. Yoza 4

    Very sad to hear of his passing. This quote from him is my favourite:

    “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.”

    • karol 4.1

      Yes, it’s a great quote. I had that come into my twitter feed overnight as a pic, along with another one. Will add to the post.

  5. miravox 5

    This opinion by Tony Benn strikes me as important – it came with regard to why he never sought to leave Labour and start up his own party…

    Labour, he says, is at its best when it is a coalition.

    To take it a little further – Labour in NZ has blue collar traditionalists, working class heroes, feminists, environmentalists etc, etc – sometimes we can even be several of these things at once (much to the surprise of single focus righties). I’d like that Labour in NZ would promoted itself as a coalition of people with many different viewpoints who have a united view about the the welfare of people who need to sell their labour to get ahead. A party that will work with other groups to achieve that outcome within and outside of the party.

    Too much energy is spent on a Labour party that tiptoes around the ‘factions’ label – accepting this framing, arguing for ‘unity’ to ‘greater good’ and arguing against the right of people within the party to express minority concerns within the context of genuine left-wing ideals.

  6. logie97 6

    Tony Benn on Desert Island discs. Brilliant interview

  7. Colt 45 7

    “….anti-nuclear CND…”

    Benn was in the CND in the 70’s and close to that nut Malcolm Caldwell -the ”economic historian’ who was really just another Marxist.
    And Caldwell was one of the staunchest defenders of the Pol Pot regime, and he frequently attempted to downplay reports of mass executions in Cambodia – only to be killed by his idle Pol Pot on the very day that he met him.

    And I can’t recall Benn denouncing him for defending Pol Pot – however I presume he would have been one of the many who advised ‘ol’ Caldy’ not to go to Cambodia for his personal safety. In other words Ben turned a blind eye to the evils in Cambodia when it suited.

    I’m not trying to talk poorly about the dead, but I do think it should be said that Benn cared more about the cause than the people.

  8. Skinny 8

    Good work Karol!
    It’s been a bad week for the Left in Uk, Bob Crow earlier in the week too. Bob was a great Union leader and would show most of our Union leaders up as ineffective lightweights, 90% of them.

  9. Brian 9

    Sad news indeed. I remember him tying Robin Day up in knots during a “Question Time” over the Falklands campaign – brilliant, poor Robin I don’t think he recovered.

  10. Paul 10

    A man of principle who puts to shame the career politicians in Labour movements in the UK and New Zealand who sold their souls to the corporate dollar.
    Folk like Josie Pagani could learn a lot by reading about Tony Benn.


  11. RedLogix 11

    Every now and then a “thick rope” does indeed pass through the “eye of a needle”.

  12. Disraeli Gladstone 12

    I’m always torn by Benn. I didn’t see eye to eye with some of his thinking. I’m not particularly radical. I believed Clause IV was killing Labour. Indeed, Tony Benn’s actions (and others, Michael Foot) in the 1980s essentially gave us Margaret Thatcher. If Labour wasn’t so divided, Thatcher wouldn’t have lasted for so long. He was involved with the Longest Suicide Note in History.

    And yet. There was a profound goodness in the man. He respected people. It was never about the person, it was about the issue. He was charming and had good wit. While I disagreed with his ideas, it was always about helping people. Always stuck to what he believed in. If all politicians acted like Benn then the world would be a better place.

    My favourite story about him is that he would go around and put up plaques to champions of democracy, people who wouldn’t usually be celebrated in the realm of great prime ministers and military leaders. In parliament, down to Tony Benn alone, is a plaque to Emily Davison. It’s hidden in a broom cupboard where she herself had hid during the 1911 census.

    The world has lost a great man.

    • Morrissey 12.1

      Tony Benn’s actions (and others, Michael Foot) in the 1980s essentially gave us Margaret Thatcher.

      That statement is almost as hare-brained and willfully ignorant as the similar ones blaming Ralph Nader for George W. Bush’s victory in 2000.

      • Ergo Robertina 12.1.1

        I agree. Conviction politicians like Benn and Nader are rare, and while some question how much they manage to achieve, they’re crucial because they give people hope, and show what can be if we are braver and stop voting for traitors.

      • Disraeli Gladstone 12.1.2

        The comparison between Nader/Bush and Foot/Thatcher aren’t even close and it’s intellectually dishonesty to say so.

        Nader was a third party candidate. Foot was the Leader of the Opposition.

        • logie97

          … the Winter of Discontent finished Labour, but it was the Falklands War that gave us the Thatcher period. In fact the Tories were going to be a one term wonder, they were well down in the polls and then along came Galtieri, the destruction of the Sheffield and she never looked back.

          • Disraeli Gladstone

            The Falklands Bounce is oversimplified, though. It played a huge factor too, but actually, the Conservatives still lost votes. They just didn’t lose as many because the left was divided. The SDP-Liberal Alliance couldn’t win because FPP. Labour couldn’t take those floating votes because of a profoundly left-wing manifesto.

            And Thatcher romps home.

            If Labour hadn’t tacked so far left then it’s likely the SDP split probably wouldn’t have occurred. Labour would have pushed Thatcher hard and possibly won. And a still moderately left-wing Labour wouldn’t have need Tony Blair to save it from perpetual opposition by going even further right.

            That’s the key. In the late 70s/early 80s, the UK Labour wasn’t filled with “traitors”. It was varying shades of left. It’s different to Tony Blair who turned out to be right-wing in all but name.

            But this is all counterfactuals.

            Tony Benn’s death is a sadness. And the point I was making was that even though he arguably helped lead to one of the worst administrations in the UK’s history, that doesn’t taint his memory because of the extraordinary decency of the man himself.

            • karol

              You forget John Smith. He would have been a better option for Labour than Tony Blair. And you underestimate Team Thatcher.

              It was right for Labour to fight on true Labour values and policies. Giving them up just creates problems further down the track, whenever, and how ever they are done.

              • Disraeli Gladstone

                His death slightly undermines him being an “option”.

                I think they key, though, was the battle became too wide. You had radical Labour or radical neoliberalism. I really wish Labour had just fought to preserve the post-war consensus and built from there.

                It was the Somme. We threw too much effort into a battle that was far too big. If it was fought smaller, if Thatcher was defeated and the post-war consensus secured then perhaps you’d have the Conservatives merely trying to preserve the consensus and Labour advocating more to the left.

                The days when Harold Macmillian was a Conservative Prime Minister who was respected by his own party and believed in Keynes and the danger of unemployment and the plight of the poor.

        • Ergo Robertina

          It’s the same pragmatism versus idealism argument though.
          It has an echo in NZ with Muldoon and Rogernomics. I’m not equating Muldoon with Tony Benn, but there are now apologists for Labour who blame Muldoon for Roger Douglas, and it’s wrong. We need to look at ourselves; why we keep voting for traitors, and don’t stand up to bullies.

    • swordfish 12.2

      @ Dis Glads:

      Indeed, Tony Benn’s actions (and others, Michael Foot) in the 1980s essentially gave us Margaret Thatcher……..He was involved in the longest suicide note in History.

      You’re referring here to the 83 Election. Going by polling alone, I’d say the Falklands factor was EVERYTHING. The Thatcher government was extremely unpopular until that swift, decisive, jingoistic victory (complete with crowing tabloid cheerleaders).

      In the weeks before the outbreak of war, the Tories average poll rating was in the early 30s (as it had been for the previous 12 months). 2 weeks into Falklands they were averaging early 40s, by war’s end (only, of course, a few weeks later) they were averaging mid-late 40s. Over the following 12 months (up to 83 election), the Tories only fell below 40% twice (out of more than 80 polls). They maintained an average lead over those 12 months of about 15 points (which was pretty much their lead over Labour on Election day).

      So, there were no signs from polling that the Tories were on the way up – until those taken during the first couple of weeks of the Falklands War.

      As for Thatcher’s 83 victory being caused by Foot and Benn, that’s certainly the MSM mythology. Fact is: Labour continued to hold a pretty solid lead in the polls (occassionally in double-digits) throughout the first 11 months of Foot’s leadership (Nov 80 – Oct 81). Despite relentless attacks from the media as a party of the “Looney Left”, Labour remained ahead of both the Tories and Lib-SDP for about 8 months following the Limehouse Declaration by the ‘Gang of Four’, 6 months after the official formation of the SDP and 4 months after the SDP launched the Alliance with the Liberals. So, there was no sudden reaction by the British public to the rise of the Left within Labour at all. You might be better blaming horrendous Thatcherites-in-sheep’s-clothing like David Owen for their political blackmail, manipulation, eventual schism, followed by tabloid-friendly relentless attacks on Labour.

      The British media indulged in a relentlessly anti-Labour campaign throughout 1983. I had my first trip to the UK in 83 (in my late teens) and I did a bit of scrutineering for Labour on Election day. The media’s attacks on Foot and Labour were something to behold. And not just from the usual (Tory tabloid) suspects. The leading ITV personalities of the day – people like David Frost, Michael Parkinson and others – were openly supportive of the Lib-SDP Alliance and openly hostile to Labour. And, of course, certain Television journalists notoriously went out of their way to capture unflattering images of Foot.

      • karol 12.2.1

        Ah. yes, swordfish.

        And on the ground in London, I recall how unpopular Thatcher seemed to be, compared with the media coverage. The Gang of Four seemed like the main “traitors”. And how the media loved them.

        The neoliberal revolution was multi-pronged. And one of the prongs was the maneuvering to get sympathetic editors lodged in key positions in the msm – ones that would anticipate Thatcherist lines and lead with them.

        That is why media change also needs to be a significant part of any dismantling of neoliberalism, and change to a fairer and more equal society.

        See James Curran and Jean Seaton on how the proprietors of the main newspapers became more authoritarian, and imposed more conservative viewpoints between 1974 & 1992 – except for The Guardian and The Observor. The main proprietors were Murdock, Maxwell, Koch, Victor Mathews, and a Canadian (Black).

        On the Daily Star (p71) Curran and Seaton say on this 1983 example:

        In the end, Grimsditch was sacked and the paper became another Tory tabloid. It vigorously supported the Conservative Party in the 1983 election, even though only 21 per cent of its readers voted for Mrs Thatcher. Even when Lord Matthews was ousted by Lord Stevens in a corporate take-over in 1985, the Star continued to be a right-wing paper that reflected the Conservative views of its newproprietor rather than the predominantly centre-left views of its readership.

  13. PapaMike 13

    Even more remarkable in that he actually renounced his hereditary peerage as Lord Stansgate.

    • logie97 13.1

      That hereditary peerage was created for his father – trust you listened to the BBC link above to glean the facts behind that …

  14. Morrissey 14

    Tony Benn was brave and principled always, no more so than in this confrontation with the cowardly creatures working in State Television….

  15. Philj 15

    Thanks for the post, and links . Must learn more about him.

  16. Ergo Robertina 16

    The Guardian’s Gary Younge pays tribute to Tony Benn, a class traitor.

    ‘Benn stood against Labour’s growing moral vacuity and a political class that was losing touch with the people it purported to represent. The escalating economic inequalities, the increasing privatisation of the National Health Service, the Iraq war and the deregulation of the finance industry that led to the economic crisis – all of which proceeded with cross-party support – leave a question mark over the value of the unity on offer. What some refuse to forgive is not so much his divisiveness as his apostasy. He was a class traitor. He would not defend the privilege into which he was born or protect the establishment of which he was a part. It was precisely because he knew the rules that he would not play the game.’

  17. karol 17

    Thanks, Ergo. And the final paragraph.

    The trouble for his detractors was that Benn would not go quietly into old age. He didn’t just believe in “anything”: he believed in something very definite – socialism. He advocated for the weak against the strong, the poor against the rich and labour against capital. He believed that we were more effective as human beings when we worked together collectively than when we worked against each other as individuals. Such principles have long been threatened with extinction in British politics. Benn did a great deal to keep them alive. In the face of media onslaught and political marginalisation, that took courage. And, in so doing, he encouraged us.

    We need more of this.

  18. swordfish 18

    Very sorry to hear about Benn’s death. A rare inspiration. Worth a thousand Blairs, Browns, Healeys, Owens…

    He topped a 2006 BBC poll asking who is your political hero ? Managed to beat Thatcher into second place……..http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/politics_show/6161847.stm

  19. Richard McGrath 19

    Here’s another quote from Mr Benn:

    “In my opinion, [Chairman Mao] will undoubtedly be regarded as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – figures of the 20th century.”

    Written in 1976, years after Mao oversaw the deaths of 1.5 million Chinese citizens in the Cultural Revolution and 45 million in the Great Famine. In the 1930s Mao envisaged that 50 million Chinese peasants “would have to be destroyed” to facilitate agrarian reform.

    Yes, possibly the greatest murderer of the 20th century. That Benn saw him as a hero speaks volumes.

    • Te Reo Putake 19.1

      That you think that quote is hero worship speaks volumes about you, Dick.

    • karol 19.2

      Speaks volumes? What would that include/

      In 1976, many didn’t know the extent of the deaths in China, and many on the left saw Mao as doing good for Chinese people, based on the evidence at hand.

      Benn in no way was a supporter of mass deaths such as that, and opposed war, killing and violence in many ways.

      I see this Mao quote is being cherry picked by the right in such a way as to smear Benn, and along with it socialism generally.

      Benn was not always right, as he himself stated. See, for instance, this Qu & A with Benn at a much later date in 2006, in the Independent.

      Why are you on the wrong side of every argument? DANIEL TWIGG, WIMBLEDON

      I have made a million mistakes in my life and they have all been faithfully recorded in my published diaries.

      In this Qu & A says something about many prominent leaders, right and left wing, in terms of their place in history. Sometimes he contrasts the inhumane policies of some leaders demonised by the west, with inhumane policies by western leaders that generally go undemoninsed. Many of these kinds of statements are by no mean an endorsement of any of inhumane politics, no matter how others will try to twist his comments. Some examples:

      Do you regret praising Robert Mugabe? Do you regret praising Fidel Castro? A BEN MARZOUQ, LONDON SE1

      I don t think I ever have, but I was trained as an RAF pilot in Zimbabwe during the war when it was the British colony of Southern Rhodesia. Cecil Rhodes stole all the land from the Africans and gave it to white farmers. When Britain ruled Rhodesia, no black was allowed to vote. So Britain is not the best qualified country to condemn Mugabe. I greatly admire Fidel Castro. America has blockaded Cuba and yet Cuba has a higher standard of health and education than the US and sends its doctors and teachers all over the world. The problem of human rights in Cuba is in Guantanamo Bay and that is controlled by the United States.

      Do you like any Tories? If so, which ones? DAVID O’GRADY, COVENTRY

      I admire anyone who speaks their mind whatever their party and divide politicians of all parties into two categories: the signposts who point the way they think we should go and the weathercocks who haven’t got an opinion, until they’ve studied the polls, focus groups and spin doctors. I have no time for weathercocks and prefer signposts even if I think they point in the wrong direction.
      Do you think Thatcher’s governments did anything of value? RON SONNET, PORTSMOUTH

      The one thing Mrs Thatcher did do was to say what she meant, meant what she said and did what she said she’d do. I thought her policies were disastrous but at least you can’t complain that people who voted for her didn’t know what they were voting for.

      How do you reconcile being the greatest exponent of democracy with your historical support for Mao, and the Soviet bloc? PAUL BROWN, CROUCH END, LONDON

      History will record the Mao period as a dynasty like the Ming and the Tang and I suppose the foundation of the new China had something to do with Mao’s achievement in getting rid of foreign domination. The Soviet Union was invaded by Britain just after the revolution and the Second World War could have been avoided if the Anglo-Soviet alliance had been built then. The Soviet Union was our ally when America was still neutral and the sacrifices of the Russian people helped to turn the tide against Hitler.
      Who are your heroes? SIMON OSBORNE, EALING, LONDON

      Teachers. Kings, prime ministers presidents and emperors come and go, but teachers including Moses, Jesus, Mohamed and Buddha, Galileo, Darwin, Marx and Freud explain the world, help us to understand it and encourage us to think it out for ourselves.

      If all the right smear merchants can find to undermine Benn and socialism generally, is that 1976 quote, taken out of context of all Benn’s other underlying values and perspectives, then the righties really are struggling.

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