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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Benn's inspiration

It's extraordinarily difficult to sum up a person's life - there are so many phases and different (if not conflicting) facets....I was deeply involved as a Regional politician from 1970-1990 and experienced Tony Benn's positive and negative aspects powerfully - if not personally. 
He was latterly a deeply divisive figure within my party - making few concessions and bearing a heavy responsibility for the breakup of the Labour Party and for Thatcherism. 
From 1990 I was a (distant) spectator and could experience (and admire) him simply as a diarist and (marginal) activist - exposing brutally the realities of the British political system. 

Alternately I respected him; rejected him; and revered him........Did I change - or did he? Or was it our expectations which changed? The answer, I suppose, is all three. We never remain the same - nor do those who judge us (with different and varying standards) . 
I am sorry that so few of the obituaries I am reading do justice to such complexity................There are some interesting interviews - but they are recent. To get any sense of Tony Benn, you have to go to the Diaries which he actually seems to have started in 1940!................

My last post on his passing was a long one - as befits a man of his complexity and fascination. For someone who had such polarising policies, he had a very even, if not sweet, temperament. He was reason personified, idealistic and boyish in his enthusiasms. 
The Obituaries section of The Daily Telegraph is recognised as Britain's best - and has a long entry here for those who want all the detail on Benn's long life - and its significance for British politics.

The last part of my tribute in the previous post emphasised Benn's almost religious commitment to the decency and struggle of ordinary people - as expressed, for example, in the history of the Levellers (of the 17th century) and the Chartists (of the 19th) and the values of the non-Conformists and Quakers. He was not a religious man but, like many of us, he had a strong moral strength which was based on the religious beliefs of his parents....... 
A good short video here - with various appropriate tributes......

It is interesting that several of the tributes to Tony Benn have made the simple point that he “encouraged people”. The journalist Gary Younge observed him for many years and has given perhaps the most eloquent comment on this part of his appeal -
The two things that stood out were his optimism and his persistence. He believed that people were inherently decent and that they could work together make the world a better place – and he was prepared to join them in that work wherever they were.This alone made him remarkable in late 20th-century British politics. He believed in something.
For some this was enough: they were desperate for some ideological authenticity, for someone for whom politics was rooted not merely in a series of calculations about what was possible in any given moment but in a set of principles guiding what was necessary and desirable. Criticisms that he was divisive ring hollow unless the critics address what the divisions in question were, and how the struggle to address them panned out.
Benn stood against Labour's growing moral vacuity and a political class that was losing touch with the people it purported to represent. The escalating economic inequalities, the increasing privatisation of the National Health Service, the Iraq war and the deregulation of the finance industry that led to the economic crisis – all of which proceeded with cross-party support – leave a question mark over the value of the unity on offer.
 What some refuse to forgive is not so much his divisiveness as his apostasy. He was a class traitor. He would not defend the privilege into which he was born or protect the establishment of which he was a part. It was precisely because he knew the rules that he would not play the game.He hitched these principles to Labour's wagon from an early age. Its founding mission of representing the interests of the labour movement in parliament was one he held dear. He never left it even when, particularly as he got older, it seemed to leave him. His primary loyalty was not to a party but to the causes of internationalism, solidarity and equality, which together provided the ethical compass for his political engagement. When people told him that they had ripped up their party membership cards in disgust, he would say: "That's all well and good. But what are you doing now?" 
The devotion that has poured out for him since his passing is not simply nostalgia. The parents of many of those who embraced him in recent times – the occupiers, student activists, anti-globalisation campaigners – were barely even conscious at the height of his left turn. They are not mourning a relic of the past but an advocate for a future they believe is not only possible but necessary.
The trouble for his detractors was that Benn would not go quietly into old age. He didn't just believe in "anything": he believed in something very definite – socialism. He advocated for the weak against the strong, the poor against the rich and labour against capital. He believed that we were more effective as human beings when we worked together collectively than when we worked against each other as individuals.
Such principles have long been threatened with extinction in British politics. Benn did a great deal to keep them alive. In the face of media onslaught and political marginalisation, that took courage. And, in so doing, he encouraged us.
A dissenting prelate put it this way in his tribute -
All history is the history of struggle, and religious history was, for him, no different. "For many, many centuries, political arguments were fought out in religious terms, and I've never thought we can understand the world we lived in unless we understood the history of the church. All political freedoms were won, first of all, through religious freedom."
Likewise, there is no way of understanding the politics of Tony Benn without understanding the very English traditions of religious dissent that so shaped his imagination.Asked last year how he would like to be remembered, he answered: "I would be very pleased when I die if somebody put on a stone: 'Tony Benn – he encouraged us'." Well, he encouraged me. Tony Benn, rest in peace.

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