I’m 28, 60 years younger than Tony Benn. Yet Tony Benn played a formative role in my own political development. I first became aware of him in 2003. I was seventeen and had taken the train to London for my first ever protest. Tony was the headline anti-war speaker at the rally in Hyde Park. I was packed in the park with millions of others when he spoke.
‘If there are to be [weapons] inspections in Iraq I would like to see inspections in Israel, inspections in Britain, inspectors in America. I want to see the United Nations take sanctions against the arms manufacturers who supply weapons all over the world.’
It was through his tireless anti-war activities that Tony became familiar to many people of my age. When he spoke against the war in Iraq he coupled genuine emotion with reason – It was this skill which made him such a powerful advocate for the movement. His arguments made you think, sometimes laugh and occasionally they’d make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.
The following year he visited my seaside town to stage ‘An evening with Tony Benn’, and despite the town’s history as a Tory stronghold he sold-out the biggest local theatre. To some extent his popularity transcended political divides; this was in part due to his wonderful storytelling. I remember him sat on stage with pipe in hand and taking a long drag before declaring his support for the smoking ban, done with perfect comic timing.
Despite the media’s many attempts to tarnish his image, it was impossible not to find his passion, intelligence and wit likeable/ It was these qualities, along with his determination to always speak truth to power, which had made him such a threat to the establishment, with Murdoch’s Sun newspaper famously suggesting he was ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’.
‘What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you? If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.’
He made socialism seem so undeniably reasonable, humane and obvious. I bought a CD of his ‘greatest hits’: a compilation of memorable speeches. I’ll admit it was not an album that won me much admiration as I headed off to university at 19, but I found it captivating because it contained so many examples of this ability to appeal to common sense in making arguments for socialism, a skill I had rarely seen exercised so cogently before. He was able to do so because he saw socialism as an extension of democracy – and the want for democracy as a fundamental element of human nature.
‘You can’t change human nature, there is good and bad in everybody, but for the last ten years it’s the bad which has been brought out and the good which has been denounced as out of touch, cloud cuckoo land, extremist and militant.’
Five years later, as the economic crisis took hold and Gordon Brown’s response became ever more depressingly conservative, I wrote my undergraduate politics dissertation, studying the alternative to austerity provided by Tony Benn’s politics in the 1970s. I hoped that by understanding how the Labour Party responded to the crisis in the 70s, I would better be able to grasp Labour’s ineffective response to the current situation. Tony had argued that the crisis of profitability in the 1970s made the social democracy to which the Labour Party had become wedded untenable. Therefore the Labour Party was faced with a choice between socialism and neoliberalism, and he argued that if the Labour Party chose neoliberalism, the working class would not forgive them. Tragically for the Labour Party, prime minister Jim Callaghan ignored Tony and chose neoliberalism; the Winter of Discontent began and Thatcher came to power and a key opportunity for radical change was lost.
Understanding this moment in the Labour Party’s history isn’t just about bemoaning what could have been. It visibly demonstrated to me a juncture at which the rise of neoliberalism could have been resisted in the UK. Such junctures can be carved out again during this current crisis and different routes taken. It was an understanding that bought me considerable political hope.
The left without Tony’s qualities will be an impoverished one, however, his legacy will of course live on. If I had to choose the one lesson that has been most important to my own political development, it is that left-wing politicians:
‘are not just here to manage capitalism but to change society and to define its finer values.’