what you get here

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!

Friday, March 14, 2014

The quintessential Englishman - Tony Benn - RIP

I have been collecting various links on the subject of old age – being very aware of how many of my erstwhile heroes had reached (and surpassed) the critical age of 90 eg Denis Healey, Diane Athill and Helmut Schmidt.

I had confidently expected Tony Benn to join their ranks – but have just learned that he has been struck down at 88  

How to explain this maverick left-wing British politician to my global audience?
·         First that he was quintessentially English in background – his grandfather founding a famous publishing company. This privileged background gave his socialism a slightly artificial tone - despite its undoubted genuineness (his family came from non-conformist stock). He never really "belonged"...... 
Benn became a (Labour) parliamentarian in 1950 (before I came to political maturity a decade or so later) and was a technocratic Minister in the Labour governments of the late 1960s. His famous Diaries, which he started in 1942, give a unique perspective about (if not insight into) our political culture in those days.
·         After the Labour defeat of 1970, reflecting perhaps wider social changes, something changed in him and he became increasingly left-wing and a real thorn in the power system of the Labour Party. He developed (with Stuart Holland) an alternative economic strategy and was the catalyst for the split from the party of the “social democrat” wing led by Roy Jenkins which then doomed the Labour party to 18 wasted years. I famously shared a political platform at the Port Glasgow shipyards with him in 1978 during the highly-charged referendum about a Scottish Parliament.
·         I had been a great admirer until then but felt that he had “lost the plot” as he threw his lot in with the “wild left”. In retrospect, however, the right who took control of the rump of the Labour party were hardly any better!

He was, as The Guardian editorial put it, 
one of the most charismatic, most controversial, most inspirational and most divisive public figures of the second half of the 20th century. He evolved into one of the great political educators, a role to which he was ideally suited by his personal charm, his sense of humour, his passionate interest in new people and new ideas, and his profound commitment to the importance of politics. Long after he stopped being a player at the top table of politics, he fired new generations with an interest in how power works. Unlike many of his contemporaries, there is no doubt that he will always be remembered.
Let his obituary tell the story -
·         When Labour lost the 1979 general election, Benn was well placed to assume the leadership of the left, and began to propose constitutional changes to give greater representation to the views of activists and trade unionists in drafting the manifesto and in selecting MPs. Militant and other Trotskyite groups who had perfected techniques of entryism sponsored the resolutions on party reform. Two very different groups were now following Benn. On the one hand there were revolutionaries of various kinds, many of whom wanted to destroy capitalism and did not mind killing off the Labour party in the process. On the other, Labour's left wing felt disappointed and betrayed by what they saw as the failures of the party's five years in office. The more progress Benn made with his demands for reform, the greater the possibility of a split became. When Callaghan resigned the leadership in 1980, Benn came close to running against Foot, but decided to stay his hand.
·         Despite Foot's passionate appeal to unity, Benn did stand against Denis Healey in the September 1981 election for the deputy leadership. Healey won, under the reformed system that Benn had championed, by less than 0.5%. This margin was accounted for by some of the MPs who would soon be leaving for the Social Democratic party, launched the previous March – though others of this group actually voted for Benn in the hope that he would win.
·         Labour began the long, hard climb back to power. The left of the party split – the Tribune group backing Foot and later Neil Kinnock and Benn setting up his own Campaign group in 1982. He declared the 1983 election a triumph because never before had so many people – 27.6% – voted for a socialist programme. Foot managed to keep Labour in the game, and when Kinnock took over after the election the high tide of Bennism had been reached. It took a decade to roll it back completely, but Benn's realistic challenge for the leadership was over.
In 1987 the first volume of his diaries appeared, covering the period 1963-67. Subsequent volumes then appeared almost annually, covering the whole of his career. At the same time Benn began to present more and more reform bills to the Commons. He did not do things by accident. The switch from trying to capture the party to producing an endless flood of words, in bills, the diaries, collections of essays, videos of speeches, CDs, DVDs, through websites and in semi-authorised biographies formed the great project that filled out his final years.

In response to the flood of his own words the public's perception of him shifted. Much of what he said was highly critical of the Blair governments and the European Union. He appealed to the anti-war movement, the anti-globalisation movement and Ukip supporters in about equal measure. Benn's self-image remained stubbornly self-confident: as he once said: "It's the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you're mad, then dangerous, then there's a pause and then you can't find anyone who disagrees with you."

 He had half a century in parliament. Then he had an Indian summer as a national radical treasure, the Home Counties' favourite revolutionary. He will be remembered as a great parliamentarian, a great radical and a great diarist. He will be forgotten as a practical politician and a political thinker. In the end his reputation will be significantly greater than the sum of his achievements because of the vast archive he accumulated and the quality of his diaries. He was like Samuel Pepys – someone who described an age without ever having shaped it – and is remembered for his words rather than his deeds and by many for his personal kindness and generosity with time and conversation.

The Guardian editorial put it very well -
Like his Puritan heroes, Tony Benn belongs in the great tradition of English revolutionaries – a passionate radical destined to be loved in popular memory for his defence of democracy and freedom, whose passing leaves the political world a smaller place.
There is a streak of madness in all who stand for office - and there was a time when I felt that the messianic streak in Benn had got out of hand. To understand him properly requires understanding the tradition he came from - ie the radical,Christian non-conformist tradition of the Levellers,the diggers,the Quakers and Methodists,RH Tawney,Kier Hardie and Stafford Cripps. He once said:

''My mother taught me that the Bible was about the Kings who had power and the Prophets who preached rightousness.She taught me to be on the side of the Prophets and I have always tried to do that although it has got me into a lot of trouble''

No comments:

Post a Comment