Friday, 14 March 2014

Tony Benn remembered

3/4/1925 to 14/3/2014

Tony Benn was a great champion of working people. Loved seemingly universally, it troubled him in later life that he could be well regarded by the Sunday Telegraph. “If I’m a national treasure in the Sunday Telegraph, something’s gone wrong,” he said in the last diaries.
Tony was first and foremost a democrat, with a real belief in the potential of education and the human spirit.
It was democracy that he felt really frightened the ruling class. He was right because if there ever was a population that was truly educated and informed those who continue to profit to the cost of everyone else could no longer prosper.
Many of Tony Benn’s socialist ideas like workers councils and taking public control of much of industry are as relevant today as they were many years ago when he first raised them. He never trusted the nuclear industry, recalling how they had lied to him when a minister about an accident that happened at a power station in the 1950s.
Tony was also an opponent of the European Union, as presently constructed. He objected to the transfer of powers from sovereign states, the lack of accountability and the fact that it was basically run by bankers. In his opposition to Europe he found many allies on the Tory right, not least the late Alan Clark. The rationale for opposition was different but both were united in the ultimate goal.
Tony’s  life was a journey that took him from the centre to the left of politics. In the 1950s he was very much the spin doctor in chief for then Labour leader Hugh Gaitskill. He began to move left in the 1960s and 1970s when serving in office under first Harold Wilson and then James Callaghan. Tony seemed to despise Wilson coming to the conclusion that he stood for nothing much beyond personal political survival. A bit harsh maybe.
Hostilities broke out toward the end of the Callaghan government of the late 1970s, with a virtual civil war ensuing after defeat in 1979. The group of left wing thinkers congregated around Tony, coming up with radical new socialist policies for government. Unfortunately, these did not come to pass.
Tony lost the deputy leadership contest with Denis Healey in 1981. The despicable soon to become SDP founders, staying just long enough to cast their votes for Healey in what proved a narrow victory.
Tony stayed on as an MP, losing his Bristol seat in 1983 but then being elected for Chesterfield. After 50 years, he finally left Parliament in 2001, notably quipping that he wanted to spend more time on politics.
There were others no doubt glad that Tony never became Prime Minister. It was said that the security services were frightened that Tony Benn would become Prime Minister as they had nothing on him. It was Benn upon whom Chris Mullin based the character of Harry Perkins, the left wing Prime Minister in his book A Very British Coup.
Tony gives a brilliant account of life in and out of government in his diaries running from 1940 to 2010. The only sadness is that the final diaries: A blaze of autumn sunshine were cut short by illness, preventing a day to day account of the Coalition. He instead summarises things in effectively a 20 page essay.
In the diaries he also reflects on his life, being driven to try to improve life for humanity generally. He does though have some pangs of guilt as to whether he spent too much time on work and should have given more to his wife and family. He was struck hard by the loss of his wife Caroline in 2000 but had immense pride in all of their children.
He strikes up some important friendships in later life such as with newsreader Natasha Kaplinski and actress Saffron Burrows. Ruth Winstone, who brilliantly edited the diaries was also a steadfast friend for much of his life.
All who have known Tony Benn will value the experience, a truly selfless person who tried to make the world a better place for all who live in it.  

*Morning Star - 28/3/2014

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