Goodbye Mr Benn – and thanks for the inspiration

14th March, 2014 11:32 am

The sum of things Benn did, thought, achieved and changed can’t be summed up in a single piece of writing, so it’s foolish even to try. His uncut diaries were 16 million words. He was a minister, and was a firebrand backbencher. He united and he divided. He was an outrider and he was a supporter. He was a technocrat and he was ideologue. He was a hereditary peer and he was one of the most powerful opponents of entrenched privilege.

Trying to write about Benn, his complexity and his multitudes is like writing about the sun when you’re used to writing about lightbulbs. Benn was powerful, passionate, bright. By contrast other politicians can seem artificial. Tinny. Small.

The smallness of our politics, and how Benn threw that into repose, was referred to by Ed Miliband this morning, who said:

“In a world of politics that is often too small, he thought big about our country and our world”

Miliband, who knew Benn since childhood, will surely dwell today on the size of our politics and what Benn teaches us about the importance of conviction and scope.

It’s clear that Benn inspired Miliband. And yet Benn’s enduring legacy could be how his conviction and passion has inspired generations of activists. He managed to leave Parliament and yet become a bigger political figure for it. In his latter years he inspired a new generation. He certainly inspired me.

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I first heard Benn speak in Newcastle over a decade ago as a student. One of my sixth form politics teachers – Mr Dabb – organised a trip for a dozen or so of us to go and hear “Wedgie” speak at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal now that he had left Parliament to “spend more time on politics” as he so memorably put it. To this day it’s still the best political event I’ve ever been to. Benn’s passion sucked in the attention of hundreds of people towards an old man, sitting on a stage, smoking a pipe and drinking a flask of tea. It was mesmerising. I’ve seen him speak a handful of times since – at the Cambridge Union, at a community centre in Archway to launch his close friend Jeremy Corbyn’s election campaign, at demos and marches and protests – he was consistently spellbinding, but nothing quite matched that first sighting in Newcastle.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that watching Benn that evening changed me. It crystallised in me the idea that politics was something that you can and should do, not just something you should be interested in. That it wasn’t just a matter of debate and reason, but of passion and conviction too.

Would I have been so inspired by and passionate about Benn and his work had I been involved in the Labour Party in the 1980s? I’m not so sure. I could never, for example, have taken any solace from the 1983 drubbing which Benn at times appeared to. For some his legacy was one of a party divided, but for me that never rang true. Benn was a Labour man to the end, something which cannot be said about all of his detractors. Yes, he could be divisive. He thought, not incorrectly, that you couldn’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, but some will always believe that such egg breaking helped prolong the Thatcher era. But to blame Benn for such splits is to look at history through the wrong end of the telescope. Tony Benn didn’t make the Labour Party divided, he exploited those divisions to advance what eh thought was the best course of action for the country. Like it or not, that’s what conviction politicians do.

Years later, at a demonstration in London, I charged over to Benn to say hello. I’m not entirely sure why I did it. I didn’t know him and he certainly didn’t know me, although since I’ve discovered that this wasn’t a rare phenomenon. Benn was constantly being approached by those he had inspired. I told him, as briefly as I could, how he had inspired me. He smiled and talked with me about the day’s events. As I turned to leave, I noticed a small huddle of people behind me, all desperate to share a few moments with Benn as I just had. I struggle to think of more than a handful of other politicians who can expect to be treated likewise.

This morning I was lucky enough to be speaking at my old school. I had prepared notes about the current state of the Labour Party but I chucked them away and tried to talk about Tony Benn a little. The class I was speaking to had been to see Benn speak last year. I’m glad they had the chance to hear him speak. I hope they realise how lucky they were. I hope they were inspired too.

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  • IAS2011

    The fact that the Pm, David Cameron, has stated that he ‘didn’t agree with most of what Mr Benn said’, is testament to the democratic values that Mr Benn had – and so enthusiastically expressed and mentored through his political life – and the values Mr Cameron fails to have – even as a PM.

    I am proud I know who to take my hat off to.

    • BillFrancisOConnor

      Cameron wouldn’t recognise fairness, justice or democracy if they were sprayed on his eyeballs.

      • treborc1

        Kinnock had the biggest attack today on Benn telling us Benn had kept labour and him out of power.
        He could not leave it at least for a few days, he attacked him on the day of his death so much bitterness he has a chip the size of an oak tree on his shoulder.

        • BillFrancisOConnor

          Yeah not sure Benn would have approved of your new found enthusiasm for UKIP

        • Matthew Blott

          Dennis Healey said much the same when he was interviewed. All the centre-right blogs have turned off their comments for fear of the inevitable bile it would produce (thus making them look hypocrites when whining about the slagging off Thatcher got when she passed away recently). Still, the comments that have riled me most today is this from an unexpected source.

          • BillFrancisOConnor

            Looked at your link. Who the hell is Shiraz Socialist? Only asking.

  • Boldee

    A sad day indeed.

  • Daniel Speight

    Benn and Crow – seems you have to die to get nice things said about you.

    • IAS2011

      Daniel, you are right!
      Bob Crow upheld ‘fairness’ in the treatment of ‘ordinary’ people in our Labour force. Both the news media and politicians always failed to talk about the real issues , but was always keen to talk about ‘strikes’ – not the causes of strikes!

      The question is ‘ who will follow in their foot steps’ and who is brave enough to do so and to face the same nonsense that even the BBC throws at us that undermines democracy.

      Isn’t it about time that we hear more from ‘ordinary’ people with real ‘voices’ throughout our media??

  • Matthew Blott

    Nice words Mark, I’m a little sad today. RIP comrade.

  • NT86

    His “spend more time on politics” quote has never been more relevant and I think as time passes it is something you comprehend more than you ever did before. Professional politics in the Westminster the bubble has produced an apathetic and/or antipathetic public who understandably see no meaning of politics (look at how election turnouts have fallen over the years) while MPs heckle each other like children every week, have no courage or principles and speak like managerial automatons.

    Judging by the positive remarks which many on the political right have made about Tony Benn and even Bob Crow earlier this week, it strikes me that British people appreciate individuals for their convictions and ability to stir interest and passion. Even if they don’t necessarily agree with the opinions being expressed. When the dust clears, it is those people who leave a lasting legacy behind, not the fly by night apparatchiks who are forgotten.

  • Graemeyh

    Whether you agreed with him or not – I didn’t always – I think he was a fundamentally decent, honourable and compassionate man and the world poorer for his going. RIP.

    • althejazz

      Above all he had principles and a heart, both of which which most tories, and too many labour politicians, lack.

  • Southpawpunch

    Like the author, I was also involved with “the Labour Party in the 1980s” and I took part in the Bennite wars.

    I am sorry he has died, consider he did some good stuff (particularly in his post parliament years)

    But there was a whole bunch of us in Labour (and a group that then had some social weight then) who had a very different view about Benn.

    History is being misremebered here; this is how this Trot remembers it – http://redsouthpawpunch.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/tony-benn-man-of-misremembered-yesterday.html

  • Richard Stevenson

    Miliband can refer to Benn only as I can look up to the sun. So much work to do, let the labour party rot as it will.

    • reformist lickspittle

      You do know that Benn rated Miliband – don’t you?

  • David Lindsay

    If Labour had won the 1979 Election, then Tony Benn was to have been the Minister responsible for putting the North Sea oil revenue into a sovereign wealth fund.

    By that means, Norway has acquired the highest per capita income in the world.

    That could have been Britain.

    Benn’s Britain.

  • JC

    As divisive as Thatcher, but less influential. He only managed to destroy the Labour Party. Imagine where we’d be if he’d become party leader.

  • Carolekins

    Unlike you, Mark, I was aware of Tony Benn and his politics in the 80s – even campaigned on the famous manifesto, which I agreed with, although most voters on the doorstep didn’t. You can’t fault him on the big questions, but his influence in the Labour Party is more uncertain.

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