The world of politics has lost a fine character today; Tony Benn, a staunch participant of the left passed away today, aged 88, having retreated from politics over the last few years and succumbing to illness.
I remember my introduction to Tony Benn as a first year student studying Government and Politics; our teacher, who would often tell us about the various politicians he had met, told us about his encounter with Tony Benn. He was met with confused looks and asked ”You guys know who he is, right?” I had certainly heard his name, but had no real idea of who he was. Just around the same time, Blair and Bush decided to attack Iraq, and then I heard Tony Benn take to the stage and denounce the war and its architects; from then on, I definitely knew who he was. On February 16th 2003, the day on which people had gathered for the largest protest ever in the UK, Tony Benn captured the mood of the public in a way that none of the other speakers could. The prevention of the war was the first objective, but Benn articulated our sentiments – that this was also about justice elsewhere in the world, the establishment of a Palestinian state, greater democracy and transparency in seemingly democratic countries as well as an end to neo-imperialism.
He is the last of those rare political dinosaurs, the conviction politician, whose numerous mantras included “say what you mean, mean what you say, and let people be.” In his lifetime, Tony Benn was the very few people to take his own advice – he said what he meant when he took to the Commons floor to denounce the first Gulf war tearing into US hypocrisy for their invasion of Panama and Grenada, and for their previous support of Saddam Hussain. One of his most memorable moments on TV involved broadcasting the DEC’s Gaza appeal when the BBC had refused to broadcast it.
What I perhaps found most admirable about Benn was his pragmatic approach to the Westminster party political structure. He might have been staunchly Labour whilst in parliament, but he saw no qualms in breaking away from party policy if it challenged his own convictions. He just as readily tore into his own colleagues as he did with the right-wingers that loathed him. That is most certainly a rare quality in politics today: having watched numerous politicians on Question Time, you can’t help but feel as if they have all swallowed the same script. Benn was very conscious of this and, as he said in a 2008 interview, the only thing he would have been ashamed of was if he had said anything he did not believe in.
Despite his privileged birth in which he met many prominent personalities, including Mahatma Ghandi, Benn had an empathy that many a politician struggles with today. It was seemingly ironic that a man of his station would often pull his party towards the people it was set up to fight for. He was not a champagne socialist nor was he a rabble rouser who shouted from the fringes of the party. In fact, the more entrenched into the parliamentary system he became, the more radical he became, so much so that he left Parliament to devote more time to politics, as he clearly believer that the arena for political change extended far beyond Westminster . He often lamented the socialist movement; the problem, he would say, is that there are “far too many socialists and not enough socialists in the Labour party”.It seems that rather than ‘tying their ropes together’, they were far too busy attacking each other. This certainly has some resonance for the Muslim community in Britain today, a community of which he was a friend. He continuously challenged the ‘war on terror’ narrative and the resultant demonisation of Muslims, a portion of which he blamed on the media stating “The media in Britain tend to support government policy in general and they create government policy by creating a demand for things to be done and so there is a very close relationship”, he asserted. In our present context we would certainly agree with that. What we also need more of are nuanced, conscientious and passionate politicians, not careerists who ride the waves for fear of rocking the boat. It seems the Tony Benn has left behind a legacy that few politicians could ever compete with.