Tony Benn, the veteran Labour politician and icon of the Left, was praised by friends and foes alike as a man of great principle and deep conviction when he died last week, aged eighty-eight.
A towering giant of British politics, he was nevertheless a controversial figure who campaigned throughout his life to give the British Left a more dominant role in Labour’s ideology, as he saw it. In so doing he alienated his own party, causing dissension and alarm among its ranks; yet to many, some of whom were opposed to what he preached, he was considered a decent man who had perhaps lost his way.
A brilliant writer and formidable speaker his popularity was never to be dismissed, for the crowds were truly moved by his charisma and emotional oratory. As a messiah of the Left he was undoubtedly without parallel.
British politics will be the poorer for his loss. And, like the Last of the Mohicans, he leaves a vacuum hard to fill.
I got to know Tony Benn by accident. In the late 1980s my chauffeur stumbled on a chequebook belonging to him, which he found in Holland Park Avenue while trying to park. Rather than post the chequebook to the politician’s house, I opted to deliver it the next day. That’s when we first met very briefly, and I was rather surprised that he knew who I was.
Then, in 1993, I went back to his house to interview him at length, to talk about his life in general and his political career in particular and what were his aspirations and hopes for the future. (For those who wish to read the interview in full, the link is here.)
I found him to be a highly principled man, who believed strongly in the ideals of Socialism while maintaining an open mind about those whose political philosophies he totally disagreed with. In many ways he was a dreamer, prone to go on a bit, to emphasise a certain point or an argument which in theory could be workable but in practice was almost impossible to achieve. The ideology of the Left I find to be cumbersome, for it often lacks the impetus of a competitive edge for our deeply inherent nature.
Tony Benn was a complex amalgam of many things. When I asked him if he could detach himself politically, how would he assess Mrs Thatcher, he answered:
She was a strong, principled woman who defended her class with absolute commitment, and was determined to crush trade unionism, local government and democracy itself. I regard her politics as absolutely evil and destructive, but at least you knew where you were with her. By contrast Labour Party policy is like a bit of cloud blowing up – you don’t know where it is, what it’s covering up, and where it’s going next.
I’ll tell you an interesting thing. When Eric Heffer died, there was a memorial service in St Margaret’s, Westminster, at which I gave the address. The Labour Party didn’t send anybody, but Mrs Thatcher was there, standing just behind me. As I get older what matters to me is not so much whether I agree with people but whether I respect them, and I can respect people with whom I profoundly disagree if I think they mean what they say and say what they mean.
In a further question about those political commentators who were comparing him to Enoch Powell, pointing out that they were both great debaters, he said:
I’ve known Enoch for years, and I respect him in the way I respect Mrs Thatcher. He made one terrible mistake in the speech about rivers of blood, but he is a thoughtful academic, and I’m not an intellectual in the way he is at all. People compare me to Enoch in order to make me seem extremist, but the difference between Enoch and myself is that he has never been elected to any position in the Conservative Party, while I have been elected for thirty-odd years to the National Executive. Enoch is worth listening to; you can disagree with him but at least he is motivated by a desire to illuminate.
There are three ways in which politicians can operate: they can oversimplify like the demagogues, they can mystify like the people who say you can’t discuss unemployment unless you have a PhD in economics, or they can clarify. Enoch is a clarifier. I also try to be a clarifier, and I like him very much.
Wanting to ask him about what will probably be his greatest legacy, his voluminous diaries and correspondence, I wondered whether his last volume of Diaries at the time of my interview (The End of an Era 1980-1990) was the era referred as the ‘Bennite’ era, and he replied:
No. It was the end of Thatcher, and the end of Communism. It wasn’t the end of my era – in fact, there’s probably more public support for my ideas now than there’s been at any time in the last ten years. People have rejected Thatcherism, they’ve rejected selfishness; they see our industry being destroyed, they see homeless people, unemployment, and much of what I have argued for has now won support.
People wrongly thought it was the last volume of the diaries, but I’m working now on 1942-1962, and the one after that will be 1990-2000, and the final one will take me up to my 100th birthday.
I couldn’t resist my next question: How would you like to celebrate your 100th birthday? ‘I’d like to be re-elected to Parliament on that day for the first five years of my second century,’ he replied.
It was not, in the end, to be as he wanted. But his legacy, both written and remembered, will surely last well beyond the next century.