25 January 2015

Tony Benn (1925-2014): the death of a political giant

The death of Tony Benn in March 2014 was a psychological blow for the political left in Britain.

Tony Benn was the most admirable British politician in the whole post war era.

In the 1970s Benn signalled in the Labour Party a way forward, not just as an alternative to Thatcherism and authoritarian market fundamentalism, but as a solution to the shortcoings of 1960s and 1970s social democracy. His 1981 defeat to Denis Healey in the battle for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party sadly indicated the start of a process which ended with victory for New Labour in the Party in 1990s.

Benn, unusually for British politicians, was a great moralist and teacher, and invariably presented his ideas in spellbinding orations, rather than through the pen, with even his diaries consisting mostly of written up recordings. Some of his famous aphorisms will always stay with me.

“It’s man’s capacity for good that makes democracy possible. It’s man’s capacity for bad which makes democracy necessary.”

“I do ask people not to dwell too long on the theoretical differences between reform and revolution. I think if you added up all the reforms we want to make in the structure of society, people could not distinguish it from a revolution.”

“It’s not that we have reformed and failed, but we have failed to reform.”

Yet, Benn’s appeal to the moral high ground came at a price. Despite his position and influence in the Party, when his own Bristol constituency was abolished in boundary changes in 1983, he accepted defeat in the candidate selection process in the safe Bristol South seat. Rather than bunk off to a safe seat elsewhere, Benn remained loyal to the town of Bristol. He was accepted for marginal Bristol East where he lost to the Conservative candidate. Only then did he relocate to the mining constituency of Chesterfield, where he won a by-election in 1984, a seat he held until his retirement from Parliament in 2001.

Even after the left was crushed and marginalised in the late 1980s, he remained loyal to Labour – and I think mistakenly so - but he never capitulated to New Labour thinking.

Tony Benn’s death is a very great loss. He is sadly missed.

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