How politicians came not to praise Tony Benn but to bury his ideas
Benn remained true to his principles when so many senior Labour figures were doing the exact opposite, picking up peerages and lucrative directorships with private companies and corporations.
Rarely has the death of a major politician generated such faint and often blatantly hypocritical praise as the tributes and obituaries dedicated to Tony Benn. In general the response has been dominated by broadly similar motifs; that Benn was ‘charming,’ ‘charismatic’, a ‘great speaker’ and a ‘conviction politician’ with strongly-held principles and beliefs – accompanied by the unspoken or sometimes overt caveat that these beliefs were naive or wrong-headed, and that in any case the person praising him for having them didn’t and doesn’t share them.
We know that Cameron doesn’t share them, so there is nothing surprising about his patronizing observation that ‘ There was never a dull moment listening to him, even if you disagreed with him.’ Or Nick Clegg’s description of Benn as ‘A towering figure in British politics and a fervent defender of what he believed.‘
Benn’s former colleagues in the Labour Party have made similar observations. Thus Margaret Beckett observes that ‘People may or may not agree with him but they would come out of a public meeting he had addressed saying “I didn’t agree with any of it, but it was wonderful”.
Ah bless. And then there is Ed Miliband observing that ‘Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, everyone knew where he stood and what he stood for.’
That’s certainly not something you can say about Miliband. Benn remains an uncomfortable and anomalous figure for the Labour Party: a democratic socialist and political radical who was genuinely popular; an activist/politician who believed in trade unions and regarded working men and women as protagonists of history rather than objects of focus groups; who opposed the war in Iraq, who stood up for the rights of Palestinians, who supported nationalisation and public ownership.
For years the Labour Party has based itself on moving away from most – if not all of these ideas and projects, and its leadership is still terrified of being associated with them. Therefore to depict him as a charming speaker who you could spend a pleasant evening with listening to amiable but ultimately wrong-headed beliefs is both a distancing mechanism and an overt or covert rejection of those beliefs.
Some Labour figures have gone further. In the Independent, David Blunkett describes him as ‘ charming, persuasive, and deeply frustrating who ‘missed his chance to make a real difference’ when he was in government and represented a period when ‘Labour was still stuck in a bygone era, ceding the intellectual high ground as well as failing to relate to the very electorate Tony genuinely believed he spoke for.’
Then there is ‘Baroness’ Shirley Williams, one of the founders of the SDP, similarly claiming that ‘Tony was yearning for a world that was gone. He didn’t really recognize that the world was becoming global.’ And on Channel Four News yesterday, Polly Toynbee, another of the SDP’s founding members who left Labour because of Bennism, described his influence on the Labour Parrty as ‘ catastrophic’ and essentially blamed him for keeping the Tories in power for the best part of two decades.
In 2011 Toynbee described Benn in 2011 as ‘ a ruthless destroyer now curiously regarded as a charming national treasure.’ Like many of Benn’s critics, she accused him of having made Labour ‘unelectable’, even though it was the formation of the SDP that split the Labour vote.
Media guests invited to discuss Benn also appear to have been chosen to reflect a similar view of Benn’s influence and legacy. Few of them have come from any further left than Diane Abbot. On BBC news today, Alison Phillips, weekend editor of the Daily Mirror could be found accusing Benn of having ‘ caused all sorts of problems for the Labour Party’ in the 70s and 80s.
Bad Benn. And yesterday’s Guardian obituary – co-written by arch Blair acolyte Patrick Wintour - included this stunningly poisonous nugget:
‘Some old ministerial colleagues from the 1970s and 80s privately made plain they would be making no public comment, reluctant to speak ill of the dead. But bitterness against what they still see as his destructive and dishonest conduct during the Bennite ascendancy remains toxic.’
It is difficult to imagine the Guardian ever saying something like this about any politician, let alone a Labour politician. ‘Dishonest’ and ‘toxic’ are not words that Wintour or the Guardian are ever likely to apply to Tony Blair.
But Benn is clearly a figure who still needs to be put in his place, and not only by his former party colleagues. There was a time when the rightwing press vilified Benn for his support for nationalisation and public ownership, when he was ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’ and the Daily Express drew cartoons showing him in a Nazi uniform. Even today, despite his evolution into an avuncular, pipe-smoking radical, historian Dominic Sandbrook was still claiming in the Daily Mail yesterday that Benn would have transformed Britain into ‘North Korea.’
Even in death it seems, Benn is an uncomfortable figure for a political and media establishment that is determined to present anything and anyone with the faintest whiff of socialism as backward, reactionary and dangerous.
This discomfort is particularly apparent amongst the hollow, manufactured politicians, careerists and closet neocons who dominate the Labour Party, perhaps because Benn remained true to his principles when so many senior Labour figures were doing the exact opposite and picking up peerages and lucrative directorships with private companies and corporations as a reward for doing so.
I remember him very well during a brutal night at the Wapping picket in 1986. Benn was speaking from a small stage in the fenced-in field opposite the News International building when mounted police charged the audience in a totally unprovoked attack. It was a terrifying experience to be hemmed into that densely-crowded field, with visored cops swinging truncheons at a crowd that had been peacefully listening to speeches.
I remember Benn calling for an ambulance from the stage because someone had had a heart attack, while the police horsemen roamed the field cracking heads. This mayhem was quite routine, but it was never condemned and rarely even mentioned in parliament or the media.
I don’t recall any other senior Labour politician who went anywhere near Wapping throughout the year of the strike. Then, as now, trade union struggles were something to be avoided, by a party that had already embraced the essential tenets of Thatcherism in order to make itself ‘electable’ and has continued to do so ever since.
Even then, it was obvious that Benn was different. In the years that followed he remained a tireless and ubiquitous figure in the extra-parliamentary left who was always present in every popular movement, every demonstration, and every popular mobilization, the living embodiment of the British socialist tradition of Blake, Robert Owen, William Morris, Keir Hardie and Nye Bevan.
That is a tradition that the Labour Party has long since distanced itself from, and despite the crocodile tears that have been shed over him in the last two days, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that many of those who are queuing up to pay their respects have come, like Caesar’s mourners, to bury and not to praise him.