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

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A Tribute to Tony Benn by Jack Fraser

Only days after the untimely death of Bob Crow, a great trade unionist and socialist, another giant of the British left has sadly died. Tony Benn, a Labour Party socialist who was unashamedly Old rather than New Labour passed away on the 14th March 2014. Born into privilege he was the first peer to renounce his title to remain an MP. An accomplished parliamentarian who won the respect of many on the right, Tony Benn never shirked from promoting his socialist values. He always remained loyal to his Labour Party.


Arguably the best political diarist of our time, his writings radiated inspiration, a quality that is often lacking in our modern day careerist politicians. This dearth of inspiration is often blamed for the apathy associated with an increasing public disengagement from politics. As a socialist Benn knew it was much more than apathy that discouraged people from voting. He advised people, particularly the young, to question things because he knew that if you ask questions you gain self-confidence. He wrote that the rich and powerful have this self-confidence while the least confident are those who have no wealth of power and see themselves as the permanent victims of injustice, actually persuading themselves that there is nothing that can be done to change those injustices. Marx would have recognised this as a class issue because the wealthy and powerful convey their confidence to their own children.

Always critical of "modernisers" within the Labour Party, Benn was particularly contemptuous of Neil Kinnock's attempts at reform and had even less time for Tony Blair and New Labour. After the demise of Blair, Benn continued to criticise a rightist Blairite tendency that now controls a party he represented for nearly fifty years in the House of Commons.

Benn was often accused of splitting the Labour Party, when in fact, it was people on the right of the party who split. The pursuit of socialist policies from Benn and other socialists within the Labour Party drove Shirley Williams, David Owen, Roy Jenkins and William Rodgers to move to the right and form the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981. Masquerading as centrists the "Gang of Four" as they were infamously called went on to form an alliance with the Liberal Party another pseudo centrist party. This alliance was known as the SDP-Liberal Alliance. Known as the Liberal Democrats today, these "woolly" centrists are just Tories in disguise.

Vilified in his early years by the right and the tabloids as the most dangerous man in Britain, Benn often joked in his later years about being accepted by the Establishment and the main stream media as a harmless old gentleman. I thought this was patronising, but Benn took their condescension in his stride. Paradoxically, some on the left, saw Benn as being too pragmatic. Sometimes I think we socialists are just far too critical of each other when we should be out together agitating.

On the subject of agitating, Benn, who loved paradox, often encouraged me to look at an issue from a different angle. In his wonderful book Letters to My Grandchildren, Benn quoted Oscar Wilde who wrote in The Soul of Man under Socialism in 1891:

Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community, and sow seeds of discontent amongst them. That is why agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilization.

After leaving government, Benn said he wanted to concentrate more on politics. He went out into the communities and agitated. Paradoxically he found that more people agreed with his politics than at any other time in his career. Oscar Wilde was right; "Agitators are so absolutely necessary".

A champion of trade unionism, Benn never forgot that the Labour Party was formed with the help of trade unions to give the working class a voice. Unlike the Blairites who rule the Labour Party and support the anti-trade union legislation brought in by the Tories, Benn was that voice. Critical of Labour's support of the illegal war in Iraq and its support of Trident, Benn was the President of the Anti-War Coalition. On his desk was a tea-mug inscribed Make Tea not War.

Benn always had a sense of humour. He also had a certain innocence I liked. I still laugh at his interview in 1999 with Ali G. On discussing the miners' strike, Ali G asked Benn "Is calling a strike not a bit like calling a sickie"? Benn swallowed the bait hook line and sinker and went on to defend the miners. Benn later claimed that people approached him in the street to say how glad they were that he defended the miners. Benn was one of my political heroes. I'll leave my final praise to a giant of the left with the words of Ali G: "Maximum respect going out to my main man Tony Benn".

Jack Fraser


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

Tony Benn: An Obituary by Graeme McIver here

Tony Benn 1925 – 2014 by Gary Fraser here

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

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