Saturday, 15 March 2014

Tony Benn: A Conviction Politician

by Will Wallace

(image source: Bristol Post)

It's the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you're mad, then dangerous, then there's a pause and then you can't find anyone who disagrees with you.”

One thing that our country lacks today is leadership. When Baroness Thatcher passed away last year, there was widespread praise for her resilience and determination, even when she was frankly wrong. People look at Cameron, Clegg and Miliband and see three men that slip into shiny suits, are overly obsessed with the media and their image, and have spent the past couple of years essentially saying the same old thing. Yet they see Thatcher as a “conviction politician” who stuck to her guns – that much is true – but while Tony Benn similarly rejected compromise, his credo rested on the notions of community and egalitarianism, as opposed to Maggie’s belief in corporatism and greed. Today, Britain lost a true hero: a voice for the dispossessed in times of injustice and and a voice for peace in times of war. 

It's often said that Tony Benn was the catalyst responsible for tearing the Labour Party in two, causing the moderate social democratic wing to tear away and form the SDP. Certainly, Benn was unapologetically committed to the hard left stances that he had grown into during his time in Harold Wilson's government. But should he be criticised for this?
Therein lies a difficult debate, and one which I am sure will last a number of years, but it would be short-sighted to view his actions as anything less that sheer mettle. His refusal to surrender to the forces of modernisation could be compared to the dogmatism of the hordes of Tories refusing to step into the 21st century; but the difference is that Benn and his socialist comrades knew that any let-up to free market economics would harm the record low income inequality achieved in the 70s. Unlike the stalwart Thatcherites ruining the modern Conservative Party, whose aims are to cling into the right wing dogmas of another generation, Benn sought to prevent his party from selling its soul.

Benn's last public appearance: speaking at a memorial for Nelson Mandela
(image source: BBC)

I hold Tony Benn in far greater esteem than most currently living politicians, solely because his convictions were just. He legacy is surely that idealism is only laughable when it is neglected as a means to forming the fair and equal society that so many have striven for. Whilst his time as a 1970s Cabinet minister can be credited with overseeing the development of Concorde and improving  conditions for industrial workers, his greatest work was outside of Westminster.

Unlike Maggie T, he didn't lead the country. Nor did he lead his party. However I would contend that he was at the very heart of the anti-war movement that swept the country at the turn of the millennium. It is unlikely that we will see a left-wing conviction politician like Tony Benn again, and that in itself is a tragedy.

In the Independent, Mark Steel notes:

"As he became younger with age, so did his audience. In a time when socialist groups despair at how to attract the under-50s, Benn regularly packed out a tent that held 3,000 people at Glastonbury. Anyone passing by outside who heard the roars and squeals as he appeared must have assumed the Arctic Monkeys were making a surprise appearance, but it was a man in his 80s, clambering on stage with a flask of tea.

Then he’d start with: “I’m pleased to say I’ve decided to give up protesting. Instead of protesting I’m going to take up DEMANDING instead.” And teenagers would shriek and raise their arms above their heads and clap, belly button studs wobbling as he recounted the first time he met Clement Attlee.

He filled theatres as well. In places like Telford, the box office manager would say: “The shows that went fastest this year were Tony Benn and a Led Zeppelin tribute act.”

In The Daily Telegraph, Chris Mullin argues that Benn was also one of the great political diarists: 
"He was one of three diarists of the Wilson era, the others being Barbara Castle and Richard Crossman. By common consent, Benn’s diaries are both the most entertaining and the most self-deprecating of the three. As one reviewer remarked, “He is far and away the most generous to his colleagues”. . .  Occasionally he is prescient. As early as August 1974 he predicts that Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams will break away and form their own party. Shortly after Margaret Thatcher displaced Ted Heath, at a time when many (especially on her own side) were quietly dismissing her chances of survival, he writes: “I think we would be foolish to suppose that Mrs Thatcher won’t be a formidable leader.” It is apparent from later volumes that Benn was an admirer of Mrs Thatcher’s. Not for what she stood for, but for the conviction and tenacity with which she fought her corner."

In the Daily Telegraph, Dan Hodges describes the moment that Benn became "a national treasure":

"(Tony Benn) had the benefit of bearing living witness to his metamorphosis from public enemy to national treasure. I distinctly remember the moment that transition was finally complete. It did not come within the grandiose surroundings of the House of Commons, or amid the white heat of some great debate on constitutional reform. Instead it occurred as Tony Benn sat opposite a white comedian who was pretending to be an Asian gangster-rapper while clad in a black beanie . . . Unwittingly Tony Benn had communicated his greatest virtues – his conviction, and his sincerity."



  1. I beg to differ , generally I think socialists tend to be younger people such as students

    1. Beg to differ from what? The fact that he became more left-wing during the 1970s? Even he admitted that.


Comments with names are more likely to be published.