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Last updated: 05 March 2020. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Tony Benn 1925-2014




Tony Benn 1925 - 2014

By Gary Fraser

Tony Benn was more than just a politician – he was an educator, a preacher and dare I say it, a visionary. His death, last week at the age of 88 profoundly upset me, even though I knew he was unwell. It’s strange how you can have genuine feelings for someone you didn’t know, and for someone that you only met once albeit for the briefest of moments. But I grew up feeling like I knew Tony Benn.


My Dad introduced me to two things that set me on the path towards becoming a socialist. The first was Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and the second was Tony Benn. It was Benn, more than any other figure, who gave me a basic understanding of the socialist case, an understanding that has never left me. In this respect, I regard Tony Benn as one of the great socialist educators of recent times. He might not have changed society, as his critics point out, but he certainly changed the way many people think.

Education can do two contradictory things; it can give you the certainty that socialist ideas have the potential to change the world. Yet, on the other hand, sometimes the more you read the more uncertain you become about socialism. This I guess is the dialectics of education. We live in an age where socialist ideas, however well intentioned, are on the retreat. I must confess that there are times when I have found the socialist analysis inadequate. Socialism is something I have questioned, and it’s a cause, especially in light of its own problematic history, that I have on occasion been uncertain of - yet at the end of the day, I still regard myself as a socialist. In part, I have Tony Benn to thank for that. In an age of cynicism and uncertainty, Tony Benn had that rarest of gifts – he inspired confidence and a genuine hope that it was possible to change society.

I met Tony Benn, once in 2001, when he spoke at Edinburgh May Day. It was a pleasure to meet him. Then and now I regard him as the most important post war socialist figure in British politics.
I know it’s sometimes fashionable on the left to decry the role of individuals in history, which leads to an analysis of history that is crudely mechanistic, even absurd, but the simple truth of the matter is that individuals do make history. There could be no Russian Revolution without Lenin and no Second World War as we know it without Hitler.

Individuals matter, and Tony Benn did more for the cause of British socialism than any other figure I can think of. Moreover, he was a natural leader, a quality often downplayed by the left, and more often than not by Tony Benn himself. But just as individuals matter leaders matter too.

For socialists of my generation, I always saw Tony Benn as an older man. His image in his later years, was that of the Grandfather of British Socialism, something that he was aware of and slightly embarrassed about. When I first heard him speak in Edinburgh he started by saying that he was too old to call us ‘brothers and sisters’ and would instead opt for ‘sons and daughters’.
There was an all-round respect for Tony Benn on the left, something which is quite rare. Socialists can sometimes behave despicably towards one another, and fall out over the tiniest of differences, but Tony Benn was that one individual who seemed to unite all people on the left. I sometimes wonder why this was. The best that I can come up with was that he seemed to be a decent person. Even his opponents say that. He was the living embodiment of the socialist message, which I think was influenced by the way in which he fused the ideals of Jesus Christ with the economics of Karl Marx.

For Benn, socialism was not just a set of beliefs, or an ideological doctrine but a way of life. It’s not always the case with socialists. It used to annoy me, but rather amuses me these days, that a movement which preaches brotherly love and unity, has throughout most of its history been driven by infighting and division. The obsession with what Freud called the ‘narcissism of the difference’, has long been a self- destructive characteristic of the socialist movement. Tony Benn knew this only too well when he said in my favourite quote of his that there were too many socialist parties and not enough socialists.

Tony Benn was driven more by ideas than by personal ambition, something even his political opponents acknowledge. This makes him a very rare breed in politics. In fact, had he been more moderate, less ideological and more willing to compromise, he could have been British Prime Minister. But Benn refused to ‘sell out’ as they say on what he believed in. This is important. There ought to be statues everywhere in Britain, to those men and women, who never made it to the top of their chosen professions simply because they stood by their principles.

And now to the politics. If there was one theme that ran throughout Tony Benn’s thought, it was a belief in the power of democracy – from the rejection of his peerage in the early 60s, to his position on the European Union, to his writings on industrial democracy, crystallised in his book, Arguments for Socialism and to his republicanism; democracy was the heart of Tony Benn’s conception of socialism.

Unlike many socialists he would share a platform with in his later years, Tony Benn had actual experiences of being in government. Serving in the governments of both Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, he witnessed first-hand how power seduces, corrupts and manipulates individuals. On a political level, he discovered the limitations placed on national governments by organisations such as the International Monetary Fund. He also lived the tension of being part of a government that was not acting in the material interests of those who voted for it, and this profoundly affected him, even though he argued inside the cabinet for an alternative economic plan.

I have read all of Benn’s diaries, but the period I often go back to is this period in the mid to late 1970s. His experience of being in office, but without power, shifted Benn to the left and helps to explain the irony of a man who seemed to become more left wing as he got older.

In 1981, he challenged Dennis Healy for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party. For some, like the then leader Michael Foot, Benn’s challenge was unnecessary and divisive. In terms of history, I think many see Benn’s challenge as the last great stand of the left in the Labour Party. The Sun newspaper, described him at the time as the most dangerous man in Britain, and from the point of you of the British establishment, he was. Tony Benn’s challenge in 1981 was the last time that an explicit socialist strategy would be tried within the structures of the Labour Party.

His loss, by the tiniest of margins, (I think it was half a per cent thanks to the likes of Neil Kinnock whose tactical abstentions ensured his defeat) marked the end of an era. He would lose again in 1988, but by then Labour had started to drift to the right and the result was not even close.

Benn’s defeats saw the gradual retreat of socialism from British public life. By the time of Benn’s second defeat to Kinnock, the Miners had been defeated, and Thatcherism, was transforming Britain from a market economy to a market society. The USSR collapsed. Francis Fukunyama said it was the ‘end of history’ in a comment widely ridiculed by the left. Yet, had Fukunyama said that it was the end of hope, then I suspect that he might have been onto something.

Yet, Tony Benn continued to offer hope in an era when lesser men might have given up, and unlike others on the left, he continued to stay in the Labour Party. Today, his critics and detractors say similar things; they say that he was ‘divisive’; he waged a ‘destructive battle’ inside the Labour Party; he ‘drove Labour into the wilderness’; phrases used by Benn’s opponents and also by a gullible and increasingly anti-historical British media.

Benn might have been divisive, but as Gary Younge in The Guardian points out that only makes sense if you understand what the divisions were. Tony Benn’s constituents who kept electing him certainly didn’t find him divisive. But there can be no doubt about it, he was ‘divisive’ to those ‘left’ figures in the British establishment whose comfy positions in British public life are dependent upon a labour movement that is pliant and docile.

Pay close attention to the people who dismiss Benn; the Neil Kinnocks’ of this world, the Roy Hattersley’s, the Shirley Williams – these despicable hypocrites all have the same thing in common - they ended up Lords, Barons, and Baronesses; establishment clowns, to use George Galloway’s term, who spent their later years being paraded by the mass media, having served the function of having destroyed the Labour Party as a vehicle for socialism in Britain. To hear them criticise Benn for ‘dividing’ Labour during the Thatcher years is stomach churning. The hapless and ineffectual Neil Kinnock was a gift to the Tories. Here was a man torn over the fundamentals in life, a man openly prepared to betray everything he believed in to get power, but who ended up losing two General Elections. Then there is the likes of Shirley Williams, disgracefully trotted out by Newsnight on the day of Benn’s death. Benn once called Williams a traitor in one of those rare moments when he got personal. And he was right. By joining the SDP, the forerunner of today’s odious Liberal Democrats, the likes of Williams allowed Thatcher to achieve hegemony.

Of course difficult questions of the political left remain. Had Tony Benn been Labour leader he would have certainly supported the miners and tried to build public opposition to Thatcher. But could he have built a coalition big enough to win power? On this question the obvious answer is that we will never know. However, and I know I won’t win any popularity contests for writing this in a left magazine, but there was always a whiff of truth in some of the allegations made against the Labour left, especially the ‘Militant’ left, who were often their own worst enemies. Sometimes it did seem as if were out of touch. Aspiration became a dirty word. Moreover, they often displayed a collective mentality that all too easily led to allegations of group think and cultism. Furthermore, they lionised and romanticised the working class out of all proportions, especially at a time when some working people were benefiting from Thatcher’s policies and drifting to the right of the political spectrum. There was something comically absurd about being a revolutionary in a country with no chance for revolution.

Of course Tony Benn’s politics were more astute and he was no stranger to criticising the pretentions of some of those he regarded as being on the far left, but he saved most of his criticism to the hypocrites leading the Labour Party. Lambasting how the Labour Party was taken over by the PR industry, Tony Benn would note that ‘I did not enter the Labour Party 47 years ago to have our manifesto written by Dr Mori, Dr Gallup and Mr Harris’. He continued to speak truth to power, and in a world driven by those he regarded as unelected – the bankers, the IMF, the EU bureaucrats in Brussels - Tony Benn would ask five simple questions about democracy:

What power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.

Tony Benn’s socialism was born out of the Second World War, summarised in the following piece:

After the war people said, 'If you can plan for war, why can't you plan for peace?' When I was 17, I had a letter from the government saying, 'Dear Mr Benn, will you turn up when you're 17 1/2? We'll give you free food, free clothes, free training, free accommodation, and two shillings, ten pence a day to just kill Germans.' People said, well, if you can have full employment to kill people, why in God's name couldn't you have full employment and good schools, good hospitals, good houses?

This was a pragmatic socialism which looked to the state to protect people from the scourge of poverty and unemployment. It was a socialism built on hope and the promise that through our collective endeavour a better society was possible. Tony Benn was the finest proponent of this ideal. He will be greatly missed.


The Point: Tributes and Obituaries to Tony Benn and Bob Crow

Tony Benn: An Obituary by Graeme McIver here

A Tribute to Tony Benn by Jack Fraser here

No Mean Fighters – Tributes to Tony Benn and Bob Crow by Tommy Sheridan here

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books