The Tony Benn I never knew
I met Tony Benn once. It was at the 200th issue party for Red Pepper magazine. I was there performing some poems. I was introduced to Benn and Harold Pinter, who were also on the bill. Pinter bought me a bottle of beer and Benn, as I recall, politely shook my hand and said hello. It’s unlikely he had the foggiest idea who I was.
When I was growing up on the Labour left in the early 2000s, it was nearly 20 years since Benn had been a major political figure but, to the extent that the Labour left had a leader with any resonance whatsoever in the national popular consciousness, he was still it. He was still the headline act at most left gatherings (and still the best speaker).
There was no point after the end of the miners’ strike in 1985 when there was even the remotest prospect that Benn or his close followers would ever achieve any meaningful power at a national level in the UK. Whether or not Benn is personally to blame for the fact that he was unable to pass the mantle of the radical left on to a new generation – arguably, the emergence of Owen Jones as a writer and commentator in the last two years is the nearest the left has come so far to replacing him – it definitely does represent a failure of Bennism as a policy platform.
Anthony Wedgewood Benn 1925 – 2014
As a Young Labour activist listening to Benn speak at political meetings, I always enjoyed both hearing what he had to say and the way that he said it. He was intelligent man but (while being an intellectual is nothing to be ashamed of) he wasn’t an intellectual – he had plenty of ideas but he didn’t back them up with a theoretical justification – his brand of socialism was based primarily on an emotional appeal to do what was right, firm in the belief that everyone’s lives would be better as a result. This meant he was easy to understand and, if you agreed in principle with what he was saying, hearing him say made you feel better about yourself and the world.
I agree with even fewer of Benn’s actual suggested policies now than I did then but even then there was no connection between the warm glow I felt hearing him speak and real belief that he could become the prime minister – or that the country would be better off if he did. In reality, it was something I – as a Labour activist or a voter – needed to take a position on. Those days were long past. For Benn the politician, his transformation from hate figure to national treasure seemed like a tragedy but on a human level, given that he wasn’t going to achieve political power either way, it was preferable that he spent his later life viewed with affection and respect.
It’s too soon now and it may never be possible to make a clear judgement about whether Benn was a dismally unsuccessful politician or whether he was an incredibly talented politician who, despite living in a country where the practical policies he proposed – if not some of his ideals – were anathema to 90% of the population, still managed to come relatively close to leading one the country’s major political parties. He may never have been the most the dangerous man in Britain but, looking back from here, it seems like a phenomenal achievement that the right-wing press were able to plausibly (at least from their readers’ point of view) claim he was.