Friday, 14 March 2014
A tribute to Tony Benn
Already there have been hundreds of tributes made for the veteran politician, most of which praise him as a man of conviction, principle, honesty and as someone who cared deeply about humanity.
All this is, of course, utterly true. But there was far more to Benn than the cuddly national treasure he eventually became. He was, at his height, a hugely divisive personality, and one who prompted Harold Wilson to describe him as a man who "immatures with age". That aside from Wilson was somewhat unfair, but Benn was always best as a communicator rather than a leader.
A figurehead for the far left, in the late 1970s and early 1980s he represented much that was wrong with the Labour Party. Those who appreciate what a vital movement the Social Democratic Party was will similarly understand the problems presented by the Bennite faction within the Labour Party. Had Benn won what was probably the toughest and nastiest deputy leadership contest in Labour history, the modernising agendas of Neil Kinnock and, later, John Smith, would have (at the very least) taken much longer to materialise. The combined leadership of Michael Foot and Benn, principled as they were, would undoubtedly have led Labour further into the political wilderness.
Given this, it is ironic that Benn successfully transformed himself into the voice of authentic Labour, that he became its social conscience under the sterile and ideologically vacuous Blair years and that he became - to all intents and purposes - the human face of his party. He was always a man to speak his mind and, in the time of obsession with spin and appearance, his off-key and passionate messages resonated with a public longing for substance. It was not for nothing he received a standing ovation at Glastonbury.
I disagree a great deal with much of Benn's philosophy. This should come as no surprise, given that he was a socialist and I am a liberal. On the EU, I believe he was very wrong - even somewhat confused, as I fail to see how his anti-EU stance was compatible with his internationalism and passion for human rights. But on the major issues of the Iraq War, civil liberties and the future of the NHS he was both outspoken and broadly correct. Moreover, he was the kind of man who inspired people to get involved in politics and not - as he put it - "to wait for some nice MP to do it all for you".
I have met Tony Benn on a few occasions, most recently at the 2012 Labour conference where I was working as a photographer. He was speaking at an anti-war fringe event. In spite of his advanced years, his incredible oratorical skills were more than evident. I have said previously, and I will say it again, that listening to Tony Benn was a fascinating experience. He could be inspiring, even when the listener was in complete disagreement with the points being made. It would be impossible to sit through a Benn speech and not be impressed.
I also found him to be an extremely friendly person - at least when we talked about the issues we both cared about such as the NHS. That people were of different parties didn't seem to matter - after all, he felt he had little in common with a large section of the Labour Party.
Like Nye Bevan before him, Benn was a believer in the inevitable triumph of a scientific socialism. This naturally led to him to see the views of those he disagreed with as forensically wrong. In this sense, moreso than even Thatcher, he was the archetypal conviction politician. However, in standing up against the neo-liberal consensus, the fatuous and superficial elements of modern politics and the futility and immorality of action in Iraq Benn established himself as a voice of moral reason. He left the Commons in 2001 to "spend more time on politics" - there can be little dispute he put his time to effective use.
Whatever we may think of the socialism he espoused, there can be no doubt that on one level he was the perfect politician - caring, committed and determined to do his best for those he represented. And while there will always be those who see him as a self-promoting political maverick, we should not forget that he fought for LGBT rights and against racism a long time before there were any votes to be gained from such a stance. We need more like him.
My defining memory of Benn is of a BBC Question Time edition from 2006. Lembit Opik was also on the panel, and was effectively dismantling the flawed rationale behind Labour's misguided Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. Would Benn take the Labour Party's position? Of course he didn't, and proceeded to go further than even Opik in his denunciation of legislation that would "turn Britain into a police state". It was stirring stuff.
Remarkably for a hero of the political left, Benn was not a man to be overtaken by his own ego. He remained in the Labour Party when others of similar leanings departed, partly from loyalty but also because he recognised the party is bigger than any individual. Left-wing demagogues could learn something from his humility and his lack of the arrogance that so often characterises both modern Labour and the likes of George Galloway.
I did not know Tony Benn well but, for all our difference, he was the kind of man I wish that I did. When meeting him, it was impossible see him as anything other than committed, honest and, significantly, immensely interested in other people. He might have been difficult to agree with, but he certainly was very easy to respect.