Almost a decade ago, when I was a young and ignorant 16-year-old, my economics teacher took me along with my class on a trip to hear Tony Benn speak. It was only in hindsight that I realise what she was attempting to teach us that day. After a cheeky-touch of Dutch courage during the intermission, I plucked up the nerve to ask him a question. While I no longer remember what I asked him, or what the proceeding answer was, it was an experience that has profoundly changed my life – an important link in a chain of events that has lead me to become an activist and a writer today. I went home that evening, and being inspired by what I had heard, began my exploration of the socialist ideals that had been the basis of Benn’s political and philosophical outlook for over six decades.
So it is of no surprise then that his passing should bring me, along with many millions in this great country, a deep sense of sorrow and mourning. Tony Benn was a man like any other – his life was a journey that took him from the warm bosom of middle class England to a staunch defender of the most marginalised in our society, and indeed, the world all-over. Deeply sceptical of government, war, capable of profound insight and courage, he was often at odds with people within his own party.
Speaking last year to the BBC, he said: “I am an example of someone who moved to the left as I got older. I have known many people who were very left-wing when they were young who ended up as Conservatives. But the experience of government made me realise that Labour was not engaged, as it said it was, in changing society but to make people change to get used to the society we had.”
Indeed, Benn was a devout proponent of the rights of the working class, democracy, and the socialist ideals that many in our country have now grown to treat with contempt. He wrote and lectured extensively on the topic, ranging from publishing diaries such as “Arguments for Socialism (1979)”, or his book entitled “Free Radical: New Century Essays”, a collection of his column’s for the Daily Star. He was never afraid to speak out against injustice, voicing his concern on issues such as civil liberties, corruption and the problems with the system of governance that presides over our nation.
In 1988 he wrote in his diaries: “…the UK is only superficially governed by MPs and the voters who elect them. Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means of securing a periodical change in the management team, which is then allowed to preside over a system that remains in essence intact.”
Benn was also very critical of the press, comparing the mainstream media to the the power of the medieval Church, which “ensures that events of the day are always presented from the point of the view of those who enjoy economic privilege.” In one video dating back to 2009, Tony Benn defied the BBC’s sickening impotence during the crisis in Gaza at the time, repeatedly giving details of the DEC appeal himself during a live interview.
Watch Tony Benn’s lecture, “The Media and the Political Process”, to find out more about the power of the media over politics and public understanding, spanning over five centuries.
Coupled with the recent loss of trade unionist Bob Crow, this has truly been a devastating week for the left in Britain. In a world where the ideological divide between the two major parties appears to be only superficial at best, it seems now more than ever we need decisive figures like Benn and Crow to inspire a new generation of left wing flag bearers.
Speaking to The Guardian in 2006, Tony said: “Mrs Thatcher was asked what was her greatest achievement, and she said New Labour, and I think she’s right. The PM said when he became leader of the labour party New Labour is a new political party. Well I’m not a member of it, I’ve never had anything to do with it.
“For the first time in my life, the public are to the left of what is called the Labour government. They don’t want war, they don’t want privatisation, they don’t want pensioners on a means test, they don’t want students saddled with debt. And so far from feeling isolated, the public are in favour of many things the left have advocated.”
In 1929, CLR James, a famous socialist in his own right, wrote that while socialism “is to be attained by the will and energy of men, it will not be attained how and when men please. It is neither pious hope nor moral aspiration, but a new form of society which will arise for one reason and one only, the unavoidable decay of the old.”
And all around us this decay is taking place – riots sparked by increasing discontent with government corruption, the impotence of the main stream media, rocketing food prices and energy bills, a growing divide between the rich elite and the global poor – we no longer live in a world run in the interests of the majority. In fact, we never truly did. As long as the rights of men and women are eroded for the benefit of a few, the world will never know peace. And I hope that does not stir up feelings of apathy in you dear reader. But just in case it does, I leave you with this quote from our fallen comrade.
“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. I think it’s all about campaigning for justice and peace, and if you do that, you get a lot of support.”
Rest in peace Tony Benn, may your legacy live on for many years to come.*Note: Title changed to include “one of” at reader request.