On 14 March 2014 it was announced that the former Labour MP Tony Benn had died after a long illness at the age of 88. I'm sure that you've seen some coverage, ranging from overwhelmingly positive testimonies from ordinary people (in blogs and below the line comments sections), through mealy mouthed admissions that he was an important figure (the BBC, Ed Miliband, other New Labour career politicians) to outright hatchet jobs (from that fascist hate comic).
I don't want to duplicate the work of others by doing a detailed biography of the man, so I'm just going to write a little about five of the factors that I believe made Tony Benn such an influential politician.
The fact that Tony Benn was a great democrat was evidenced by the fact that he could have sat in the House of Lords as a hereditary peer from 1960 onwards, but he fought against the establishment order for the right to reject his inherited peerage, so that he could continue to serve as a democratically elected member of the House of Commons, which he did until 2001.
Benn was thrown out of the House of Commons after the death of his father in 1960, but he insisted on fighting the by-election triggered by his expulsion, which he won. The election officials barred him from returning to the Commons on the grounds that he was a Hereditary Lord and declared the runner-up Malcolm St Clair the winner.
Tony Benn continued his fight to renounce his hereditary peerage until the law was changed in 1963. He was then the very first Lord to renounce his inherited peerage. The Tory Malcolm St Clair then did the honourable thing and resigned*, allowing Tony Benn to regain the seat in another by-election. The whole episode recalls a time when Westminster politics was a more of a public service administered by honourable people, rather than a corruption riddled cesspit filled with dishonest, self-serving, expenses scamming, neoliberalism fixated career politicians.
No matter what his detractors say to try and smear him, Tony Benn's fight to reject his inherited privilege in order to make himself democratically accountable clearly illustrated his commitment to democracy.
Another example of Tony Benn's commitment to democracy was his unyielding opposition to the anti-democratic EU, which long predated the existence of UKIP. The right-wing press would have us believe the revisionist story that "the left" pushed us into the EU, but the historical record demonstrates that the left opposed the EU project as right wing governments (Heath, Thatcher, Major, Blair) gave away ever more powers to Brussels.
Here are a couple of quotes:
"[I am against] the Treaty of Rome which entrenches laissez faire as its philosophy and chooses bureaucracy as its administrative method." - January 1963
"This huge Commission building in Brussels, in the shape of a cross, is absolutely un-British. I felt as if I were going as a slave to Rome; the whole relationship was wrong. Here was I, an elected man who could be removed, doing a job, and here were these people with more power than I had and no accountability to anybody...My visit confirmed in a practical way all my suspicions that this would be the decapitation of British democracy without any countervailing advantage, and the British people, quite rightly, wouldn't accept it. There is no real benefit for Britain." - 18 June 1974
Tony Benn was a socialist, who moved slightly to the left through his political career, as the Labour party charged headlong in the opposite direction in order to embrace the Thatcherite neoliberal ideology that Tony Benn so eloquently criticised.
Tony Benn believed that essential services (such as health, utilities, water, the postal service, the rail network and the emergency services) are best off run as democratically accountable not-for-profit public organisations.
Even after 35 long years of neoliberal orthodoxy, the overwhelming majority of British people still agree with Tony Benn's stance on public services. The problem is all three of the establishment political parties (the LibLabCons) are adherents of the neoliberal ideological orthodoxy, and they refuse to represent the interests of the British public.
His opposition to the neoliberal orthodoxy ushered in by Margaret Thatcher was possibly best expressed in his speech to parliament following her resignation (after being stabbed in the back by her own MPs). Here are a couple of extracts:
"One cannot change human nature. There is good and bad in everybody, and for 10 years the bad has been stimulated and the good denounced as lunatic, out of touch, cloud-cuckoo-land, extremist and militant. The Conservatives in power have been the cause of that."
"The rotten values that have been propagated from the platform of political power in Britain during the past 10 years will be an infection--a virulent strain of right-wing capitalist thinking which it will take time to overcome." [Hansard]A threat to the establishment
The S*n once denounced Tony Benn as "the most dangerous man in Britain", and in a way they were right. His conception of democratically accountable socialism was as much a grave threat to the inherited privilege of the establishment as it was to Rupert Murdoch (the owner of the S*n).
Had Tony Benn ever become Prime Minister, it is impossible to imagine him sucking up to Rupert Murdoch like Thatcher, Blair and Cameron have done; it is impossible to imagine him allowing a tiny clique of press barons to establish themselves an oligopoly over the mainstream press; and it is impossible to imagine him appointing Murdoch stooges like Andy Coulson within his "inner circle".
It is also impossible to imagine a Benn government that wouldn't have confronted the institutions of establishment privilege. His belief in meritocracy over inherited privilege was perfectly illustrated by his rejection of his own inherited privilege. A Tony Benn government wouldn't have been perfect, there's no such thing as a perfect government, but we can be absolutely sure that it wouldn't have been stuffed full of incompetent and out-of-touch millionaire rich boys, who rose to the top of politics through inherited privilege, like the current government.
The right-wing press have conducted a decades long demonisation campaign against Tony Benn, which didn't even stop for a few days following hos death. This hate campaign once led the man himself to quip that "If I rescued a child from drowning, the press would no doubt headline the story: 'Benn grabs child'".
It is illustrative of exactly how corrupt the establishment must be that they considered a man of honesty and integrity like Tony Benn to be such a threat that he warranted such a prolonged demonisation campaign. That they refused to stop their demonisation campaign even in the week of his death also illustrates their fear that the ideas he promoted (democracy and socialism) are not as completely dead and buried as they wish them to be.
An anti-war activist
The thing that made Tony Benn such a convincing anti-war activist is that he lived through the Blitz, and served in the RAF during the second world war. Margaret Thatcher famously displayed her ignorance of these facts by lecturing Tony Benn that he "would not enjoy the freedom of speech that he put to such excellent use unless people had been prepared to fight for it".
Although the majority of his anti-war activism came in the latter part of his life (he was President of the Stop the War Coalition from 2001 until his death), he consistently opposed war throughout his parliamentary career and his later life. He opposed the wasting of countless £billions on nuclear weapons, he opposed the Falklands war, he attempted to mediate during the first Gulf War, he was one of the only MPs to vote against the Kosovo war (in which the West sided with the Islamist fanatics) and he opposed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (in which the West fought against the Islamist fanatics).
It shouldn't matter whether you agree with his anti-war stance, the more important thing is that he was consistent. He didn't bend with the wind of political expediency and he remained true to his principles, opposing war, no matter who was in power.
Here are a few of his best anti-war quotes:
"All war represents a failure of diplomacy."
"I was here in London during the Blitz. And every night I went down into the shelter. 500 people killed, my brother was killed, my friends were killed. And when the Charter of the UN was read to me, I was a pilot coming home in a troop ship: 'We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.' That was the pledge my generation gave to the younger generation and you tore it up. And it's a war crime that's been committed in Iraq, because there is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber. Both kill innocent people for political reasons."
“If we can find the money to kill people, we can find the money to help people.”
I never met Tony Benn, but he had a big influence on my political upbringing. I read his book "Arguments for Socialism" as a teenager, and found that I shared his stance on a virtually every issue. The one big difference being his vehement opposition to proportional representation in favour of the archaic non-proportional system used by Westminster.
He may not have been right about everything, in fact he openly admitted that he had made many mistakes in his long political career, but he was scrupulously honest and extremely consistent in his views.
One of the most inspirational things about Tony Benn was his determination to spread the message that people question what they are told. Here are a couple of quotes:
"If one meets a powerful person - Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler - one can ask five questions: 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."
"The key to any progress is to ask the question why? All the time. Why is that child poor? Why was there a war? Why was he killed? Why is he in power? And of course questions can get you into a lot of trouble, because society is trained by those who run it, to accept what goes on. Without questions we won't make any progress at all"Tony Benn was a pillar of honesty and integrity in a political system undergoing a terminal decline.
He was one of the last surviving politicians from a bygone era in which politicians worked to better the lives of ordinary people, rather than lazily accepting right-wing neoliberal dogma as the unquestionable orthodoxy, brazenly scamming their expenses and using politics as nothing more than a means to feather their own nests, as the majority of career politicians seem to do these days.
Tony Benn inspired millions of people to believe that politics could be an honest and noble profession, but the problem, which he himself admitted, is that good people who believe that politicians should work towards the greater good of society are actively shut out of the political system by the establishment order.
Many people have asked 'where are the Tony Benns of this generation?' The answer of course is that they are not in parliament, because they are not welcome there.
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* He accepted the office of the Steward of the Manor of Northstead, which is the ludicrous and archaic way in which MPs resign from parliament, even to this day.
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