The news of Tony Benn’s death hit me incredibly hard – Benn was something of a hero in my family, a political titan who offered a glimmer of hope in some of the bleakest of times. My parents have vivid memories of the Thatcher years, the bleak 80s where it seemed like the public sector would collapse in on itself. My mother, a nurse in the NHS, had to face very much the brunt of Thatcher’s brutal policies. However, it was politicians like Benn that offered hope in perhaps what was, for the North at least, one of the bleakest decades in politics. Tirelessly he would work, championing the rights of the poor and the public sector in the House of Commons with his blistering oratory style and fierce debating skills. He was a firebrand socialist, a skilled parliamentarian and a rare example of a politician that can inspire people from both sides of the aisle.
Luckily, I was given the chance to meet Tony Benn. I reflected yesterday on one particular day at the Labour Party Conference in 2012. I was able to catch him casually and speak to him one on one. For someone mystified by the media as some kind of aloof national treasure, he was remarkably down to earth and very willing to converse with grassroots members like myself. I had the opportunity to be photographed with him as well- which, given the recent sad news, I will cherish dearly.
Tony Benn’s most admirable quality was his firm belief in sticking to his principles. And despite him abhorring Thatcherite policy, he admired her ability to be a “signpost” politician rather than a “weathervane” one. He himself is perhaps one of the greatest examples of a “signpost” politician. Sticking firmly to his left-wing and humanitarian beliefs, he campaigned tirelessly against monarchy, corporatism and war and refused to take refuge in the safety of public opinion, which tragically many contemporary politicians resort to today.
Even into his retirement he would travel around the country to give speeches, unlike many politicians who vanish after their careers as MPs, Tony Benn carried on representing people and fighting for his beliefs in public, becoming a figurehead of the British left. I remember watching him; live on air, harangue the BBC for its coverage of Israel and Palestine. It’s hard to find anyone, in or out of politics, so committed to their beliefs and acting to achieve what they believe in the world.
Certainly, I’m not a robot who would agree with Benn inside and out, as a social democrat I found many of Benn’s proposed policies far too radical. Yet Benn certainly was one the inspirations as to why I joined the Labour Party, as indeed many radical socialists inspire young people today. People like Benn and many other figures on the hard-left refuse to turn on their stance, some may see such commitment as foolish, but I see it as inspiring and sadly rare in politics these days. The most significant and iconic political figures are the ones that stick to their beliefs, like Tony Benn, Clement Attlee, Nelson Mandela and, dare I say it- Margaret Thatcher.
It’s been a depressing time to be a member of the left in the past few months. The loss of many of the champions of the left, such as Bob Crow, Nelson Mandela and now Tony Benn has been truly saddening. Yet, I don’t see it as a time to mourn – their memories should be carried on by all those who genuinely believe in social justice, fairness and egalitarianism. You don’t have to agree with them in every sense of the word, but their commitment to democracy, representation and their own principles are qualities that we can all be inspired by - on both left and right.
To conclude, I will resort to a quote by someone who knew Benn, and could capture him far better than I, Mark Ferguson, of LabourList said: “trying to write about Benn, his complexity and his multitudes is like writing about the sun when you’re used to writing about lightbulbs. Benn was powerful, passionate, bright. By contrast other politicians can seem artificial. Tiny. Small.”
By Rory Claydon