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Death of a radical: Tony Benn, 1925-2014

A British MP for 50 years, the veteran statesman was loved and loathed - but he was the champion of the left.

Last updated: 15 Mar 2014 08:27
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Tony Benn became a familiar face at demonstrations following his retirement from parliament [Reuters]

London, United Kingdom - One day, perhaps in the not too distant future, a British child coming of age will turn to their elders and ask why it is that politicians seem to only serve themselves, the powerful and the wealthy.

And their parent, or possibly their grandparent, will turn to them and say: "It wasn't always like this. Once upon a time, there were politicians like Tony Benn..."

Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn, who has died at his home in London, aged 88, was a member of the British parliament for 50 years. A veteran of the radical left, he was frequently described by left-leaning Brits as "the best prime minister we never had".

Born in 1925, he was a pilot during World War II, an experience which left him with profoundly anti-war views - views he later spoke about with the eloquence for which he was to become known.

'We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.' That was the pledge my generation gave to the younger generation - and you tore it up.

- Tony Benn, BBC Question Time, March 22, 2007

As a figure of the left, and as president of Britain's Stop The War Coalition, he was frequently invited to appear on the BBC's Question Time. In 2007, as violence continued to plague Iraq following the US and British-led invasion, the then 82-year-old memorably told the show's panel and audience that he had been brought up not far from the studio in which they sat.

"I was here in London during the Blitz," he said. "And every night I went down into the shelter. Five hundred people killed, my brother was killed, my friends were killed. And when the Charter of the United Nations was read to me, I was a pilot coming home in a troop ship: 'We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.' That was the pledge my generation gave to the younger generation - and you tore it up. And it's a war crime that's been committed in Iraq, because there is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber. Both kill innocent people for political reasons."

Tributes

Politicians of all stripes have been queuing to pay tribute to the former Labour MP once described by The Sun tabloid newspaper as "the most dangerous man in Britain".

"The death of Tony Benn represents the loss of an iconic figure of our age," said Labour leader Ed Miliband. "He will be remembered as a champion of the powerless, a great parliamentarian and a conviction politician. Tony Benn spoke his mind and spoke up for his values. Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, everyone knew where he stood and what he stood for.

"For someone of such strong views, often at odds with his party, he won respect from across the political spectrum. This was because of his unshakeable beliefs and his abiding determination that power and the powerful should be held to account."

It was this belief in democratic accountability that cemented his appeal across such a wide circle of admirers. He once remarked in the House of Commons that, upon meeting a "powerful person", one should ask five questions: "'What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?' If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system."

What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?

- Tony Benn, House of Commons, March 2001

Benn was not without his critics, however. In the 1980s, he was considered too radical for the Conservatives, and too divisive for the Labour party.

"He may be charming and great company, but he's also an extremist, a hardline socialist who, given the chance, would have left the country even more ruined than it otherwise was in 1979," wrote right-wing journalist Ed West in 2009.

"Born into the post-Nonconformist liberal elite, he's also the worst kind of hypocritical privileged leftie, advocating socialism and near-pacifism from the comforts of his house in Holland Park."

Reformist and radical

It is true that Benn was born into privilege. When his father, the Viscount Stansgate, died in 1960, Benn inherited the aristocratic title. His campaigning for reform of the peerage system, which had begun long before the legacy was passed to him, eventually resulted in a law allowing hereditary peers to renounce their titles - and Benn did so 22 minutes after the law was passed.

He returned to parliament's House of Commons, winning a by-election the following month - August 1963.

In government, as the country's postmaster general, he campaigned to remove the Queen's head from stamps issued in the UK. He later became minister for technology, and spearheaded the political efforts behind the development of the Concorde, the famed joint British-French supersonic passenger jet aircraft.

Benn told reporters he had no fear of death: "I just feel
that at a certain moment your switch is switched off and
that's it. And you can't do anything about it." [Reuters]

But despite leading such cross-channel cooperation, Benn detested the notion of the European Union - known then as the European Economic Community. Citing concerns over national sovereignty, he told the British cabinet in 1975: "The Common Market will break up the UK because there will be no valid argument against an independent Scotland, with its own Ministers and Commissioner, enjoying Common Market membership. We shall be choosing between the unity of the UK and the unity of the EEC."

With this position, Benn won favour - though it remains to be argued whether or not he desired it - from many among the Conservative party's right wing.

With little regard for his new-found support from the opposing benches, Benn increased salaries in nationalised industries, helped create the Health and Safety at Work Act, and set up workers' cooperatives.

Dennis Skinner, a fellow veteran Labour MP, said in a statement: "I will remember him as a great member of parliament, a political activist, a great diarist, an MP who believed not only in parliamentary activity but also in extra-parliamentary activity... He was one of the greatest assets the Labour Party has ever had. He was a campaigner and a teacher. His whole idea was about trying to influence people, not just in parliament but outside too."

Quasi-retirement

He was first elected to parliament in 1950, where he represented the south-western city of Bristol for 30 years. He spent a further 17 years as the MP for Chesterfield. But frustrated at politicians' inability to get involved with grassroots projects, he retired from parliament in 2001 - famously "in order to spend more time on politics".

It is wholly wrong to blame Marx for what was done in his name, as it is to blame Jesus for what was done in his.

- Tony Benn, "The Benn Heresy", 1982

He became the elder statesman of the left, a familiar face at demonstrations, puffing away on his pipe, or taking a brief rest from the marching to chat with anyone and everyone who wanted to speak with him. He addressed protests and television audiences with as much fervour as activists a quarter of his age. Crowds rallied in their thousands to hear him speak at the 2002 Glastonbury festival - a music event more commonly associated with hard rock, soft drugs and fields of mud - and he went on to address each Glastonbury festival thereafter.

Singer-songwriter Billy Bragg struck up a friendship with Benn, bonding over a shared love of tea and social justice.

"Tony was responsible for educating me about the English radical tradition," Bragg posted in a Facebook tribute on Friday. "During the miner's strike, he gave me a copy of his 1984 book Writings on the Wall: a Radical and Socialist Anthology 1215-1984. Having got most of my politics from pop music, it was a real eye opener, not only introducing me to the Levellers and the Diggers, but the Luddites and the Chartists too.

"I heard him speak many times since then and he never failed to connect whatever issue he was talking about with the tradition of radical dissent both here and abroad. I shall raise a pint of tea to him tonight here in Australia and hope that I may emulate him by becoming more radical as I grow older."

Tony Benn, who had been ill since suffering a stroke in 2012, died peacefully at home, surrounded by his family, on March 14, 2014. He is survived by his four children, Stephen, Hilary, Melissa and Joshua.

1590

Source:
Al Jazeera
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