Sleep well, Tony Benn. We will not see your like again.

Posted: March 15, 2014 in Political musings, Popular Culture et al
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

tony-benn

 

Tony Benn was my hero.

I have read his diaries from cover to cover more than once – and if for no other reason than his remarkable capacity as a diarist recording the reality of government – shining a light on its intrigues, its soaring ambitions and its farcial incapacities – history owes him a huge debt of gratitude.

Benn was notorious for talking naive, cheery nonsense. It was an inevitable feature of a man whose passion for social and international justice was never far below the urbane surface of his Edwardian facade.

 

Tony Benn

 

As an ironed-on member of what used to be called the Hard Left he could strike ridiculous poses: in conversation with a Chinese diplomat calling the worst mass murderer of the 20th century, Mao, the “greatest man of his era”, for example, and recording the conversation in his diaries without a trace of a pause for self-reflection. But surely such ridiculous excesses and flights of fancy can be forgiven, for they are more than balanced by a man who was enduringly courteous, kind, Christian, humble, dedicated, hugely knowledgeable and well read, and unflaggingly energetic in pursuit of the causes he championed. It was certainly a general understanding of these facets of his nature that saw him elevated, towards the end of his life, to “national treasure” status.

As one of the longest-standing and most highly-regarded Parliamentarians of his era, it is a great irony that his most dramatic impact on the consciousness of two generations was not his part in the internecine struggles of the Labour Party – where his compulsion to see the party not drift to the right was subsequently proven to be entirely justified by the advent of Blairism – nor his leadership in many quixotic iconic struggles such as the Miner’s strike against Thatcher, where recent disclosures again show him to have been on the right side of history – but in his extra-Parliamentary leadership of the anti-war movement that coalesced around outrage against the West’s invasion of Iraq.

The war in Iraq and the consequent dismemberment of that society, with civilian deaths now estimated by the most conservative estimates to be over 600,000 and still climbing, is a terrible blight on the reputation of the West, and America and Britain especially. And that is not to detract from the courage of those who have served there honourably under very difficult circumstances, just as it is an indictment of the donkeys that sent them there.

Saddam Hussein, his family and his cohorts were a bunch of brutes responsible for many horrors. But they were useful brutes for the West, for a time, and were supported uncritically while they toed the line. There is little doubt in my mind that the invasion and the subsequent and parlous current state of Iraq was and is a worse outcome for the people of Iraq than if Hussein had remained in power, just as the awful Assad regime in Syria is nevertheless the lesser of two evils when compared with the butchering extremist Al Qaeda-led forces that now oppose it, who are laying waste to whole areas of the country, murdering indiscriminately and driving millions into internal or external exile.

Anyhow, to experience again the rage that broke on the heads of the West’s leaders at the time of the Iraq invasion, and to understand the moral force of Benn’s trenchant opposition to war as a means to solve diplomatic ends, we recommend you watch this short video of him raging against the hypocrisy of the West’s position, and that of then American UN Ambassador John Bolton in particular.

It is also, and especially towards the end of the item, an example of Benn as his most excoriatingly honest and clear-sighted, and at his most impressive.

 

 

Unlike those politicians who endlessly prevaricate, who wait for an opinion poll or focus group before telling us what they think, and who hide timidly behind ranks of advisors and flunkies, Tony Benn always knew, instinctively, which side of the barricades he was on, when push came to shove.

He convinced me to join him there thirty five years ago, even though I was never a supporter or member of his party, and I have never regretted throwing in my lot with the poor, the dispossessed, those with no voice, those with no power.

As a callow youth, I chatted to Benn for an hour in a hotel bar after a fringe meeting at a Liberal Assembly in Harrogate. I was clutching a pint, him a mug of tea, as was his wont.

Never once “talking down” to me, he passionately laid out why he believed democracy to be under threat from the power of capital and its fellow travellers in the industrial-military machine. He quietly and intensely outlined events to me during his own Ministerial tenure which he probably shouldn’t have, and which I will not reveal here, to prove his point, but it was typical of the man that he would not be hidebound by convention when he saw the opportunity to win another mind to the cause, believing that truth – and his reliance on the wisdom of ordinary folk to grasp it – was much more important that mere quibbles about whether or not he should be chatting to a complete stranger about matters that were undoubtedly confidential.

His was the politics of discourse, of argument, of analysis, of debate. Above all, it was the politics of truth, as he saw it. Of the need to unflinchingly tell the truth even if it cost him power personally, or led him to be ridiculed, or marginalised.

He struck me then, and ever since, as charming, polite to a fault, and utterly sincere. If only – if only – we had more like him, on all sides of politics, the world would be a better place. Which was, above all, what he worked for all his life.

His legacy will endure. Our sympathies go to his family, and all who knew and loved him. The one consolation is the hope that he is now united with his beloved Caroline, who did so much to support him for so long.

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Comments
  1. Hear, hear! Mr. Yolland. Absolutely first class. And that last video. Wow! John Bolton? A cad, a contemptuous bigot, and . . . I leave it go at that. 🙂

    Like

  2. paul says:

    Beautiful tribute to a wonderful man.

    Like

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