By Graeme McIver
Earlier this morning I watched the BBC Breakfast News as they crossed to their political correspondent at Westminster to discuss the recently announced death of Tony Benn. "So just how divisive a figure was he?" asked the presenter. Divisive is not a word I immediately think of when I consider the life of Tony Benn. I inhabit the often harsh world of left politics where invective and the bitter dismissal of alternative views and those expressing them are the normal currency. Yet this elder statesman of socialism was held in almost universal high esteem, respect and affection within the left and progressive movements. He was a unifying figure. This is an achievement and accolade that is afforded to only a select few.
But of course that's not what she meant. In the political mainstream others will have viewed Tony and his socialist beliefs with disdain - even as they mouth platitudes in the media at his passing. They will talk of his honesty and decency, of his passion and oratory skill. They will praise him for the role he played in British public life over the decades and of his morals and integrity. But their praise will be qualified. "I did not agree with him on everything" is a phrase we will hear a lot in the coming days. Principal amongst this mealy mouthing will not just be the Conservatives that Benn devoted his life to opposing but New Labour types who share nothing or at least very little of the principles that motivated him. Tellingly Gordon Brown said that he was a "great campaigner for social justice." He stopped short of calling him a great campaigner for socialism...a word purged from the lexicon of those inhabiting the upper reaches of the party Tony Benn fought for all of his life.
Of course those in power did not agree with him on everything. His views represented a threat to the natural order. He was unequivocal in advancing socialist arguments and opposing the capitalist system - no amount of revisionist eulogizing can disguise that fact. He was considered a threat to the state. Yes, that old man with the pipe and the cup of tea who they are queuing up to acclaim was a target of the state's security forces and it is little wonder.
They disagreed with him not on some technicalities or nuance but on fundamentals. He believed in fairness and equality...they don't. He believed in the power of workers to change society...they don't. He believed in the redistribution of wealth, opposed austerity, despised nuclear weapons and opposed the folly of Britain's modern wars. His views put him at odds with the political establishment and those in the leadership in his own party. He said, "we are not here to manage capitalism but to change society and to define its finer values."
His journey towards socialist radicalism was unconventional to say the least. Harold Wilson famously said that Benn, "immatured with age" and he himself admitted that the older he got the more left wing he became. In the early 60's it seemed unlikely that the 2nd Viscount Stansgate, Anthony Wedgewood Benn would emerge as the most loved British socialist icon of our time. He fought to renounce his hereditary peerage in order that he could stand for parliament and was considered a moderate figure in the Labour Party at that time. His passage towards more radical conclusions had echoes of the political journey of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, a Scottish aristocrat and former pupil of Harrow School who was influenced by the likes of William Morris, George Bernard Shaw and Keir Hardie.
Despite serving as Postmaster General, Minister of Technology, Secretary of State for Industry and Secretary of State for Energy he refused to compromise with the system and moved further to the left as his time in parliament progressed. His experience in government convinced him of the need for socialism and argued that the civil service, industrialists, bankers and the media would always combine to frustrate attempts by the Labour Party to make worthwhile change when elected. Writing in his extensive diaries he said the power of the media,
"which like the power of a medieval church, ensures that events of the day are always presented from the point of view of those who enjoy economic privilege."
He compared the media's frothing at the mouth over trade union militancy with the real power wielded by industrialists;
"...compared to this, the pressure brought to bear in industrial disputes by the unions is minuscule. This power was revealed even more clearly in 1976 when the IMF secured cuts in our public expenditure. These lessons led me to the conclusion that the UK is only superficially governed by MPs and the voters who elect them. Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means of securing a periodical change in the management team, which is then allowed to preside over a system that remains in essence intact. If the British people were ever to ask themselves what power they truly enjoyed under our political system they would be amazed to discover how little it is, and some new Chartist agitation might be born and might quickly gather momentum."
His failure to win the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party in 1981 was seen as a great victory for the party's modernisers but in truth it was the beginning of the end of the pretence that Labour can be a party of radical change when in Government.
He retired from Parliament in 2001 saying famously it was to concentrate on politics and was plunged almost immediately into a relentless campaign against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He remained until his death a leading light in the Stop the War Movement and even relatively recently was still campaigning against the austerity consensus of mainstream politicians.
He never believed in giving standing ovations to speeches and lived by the maxim that it is better never to wrestle with a chimney sweep. His acerbic criticism was reserved for an individual's politics rather than resorting to personal attacks.
Unlike the majority of politicians he was greatly in demand to speak at events, demonstrations and public meetings. He admitted that following the death of his beloved wife Caroline he liked to be kept busy. In 2002 I contacted him and asked if he would speak at a Keir Hardie Memorial event a friend and comrade of mine Jim Monaghan was arranging in Cumnock in East Ayrshire. Due to the pressures on his time he was unable to attend the event but sent his best wishes. A few weeks later I received a letter from him in the post.
He had noticed that my home address was in Galashiels in the Scottish Borders. He was writing again to thank me for the invitation and to tell me of his maternal Great-Grandfather, a man named Peter Eadie had lived and worked in Galashiels. Eadie had invented a device called a "ring traveller" that became essential in the textile industry and had lived at number 4 Hill Street in my town. He included a sketch of the long since demolished house and the draft text about his ancestor from his book, "Dare to Be a Daniel" that was published in 2004. I found it incredible that someone as busy as he and who received as much correspondence would take the time to do that. Yet today the internet and social media is full of ordinary left wing activists relaying scores of similar stories of his kindness and attention to detail.
Speaking late last year Tony Benn said that he did not fear death. This should come as no surprise. During his political life fought for the working class as if he feared nothing. He was an inspiration. His death marks the closing of a chapter in the history of the Labour Movement in Great Britain. Tony Benn was always inspired by the younger generation and the potential for socialist change they presented.
He has laid down a challenge not just to look back, but to become inspired to even greater efforts to change society for the benefit of the majority.
The Point: Tributes and Obituaries to Tony Benn and Bob Crow
A Tribute to Tony Benn by Jack Fraser here
Tony Benn 1925 – 2014 by Gary Fraser here
No Mean Fighters – Tributes to Tony Benn and Bob Crow by Tommy Sheridan here
Other articles by Graeme McIver in The Point can be found here