Friday, March 14, 2014

Mr Benn: a childhood stalwart

My childhood took place in Britain in the 1970s. As a consequence, until the age of 15, I was mostly exposed to the colour grey. That's because the skies were permanently leaden, we only had a black and white television set for most of the decade, and the news on it was dominated by politicians and thundering trade unionists droning on about strikes and three-day weeks at factories building astonishingly poor cars.

Amid this lugubrious landscape strode Anthony Wedgwood Benn. With his bullet-hole dark eyes, angular skull and trademark pipe, coupled with old-school oratory and counter-cultural politics (born into privilege/ passionate socialist/renounced his hereditary peerage within 20 minutes of a law being passed allowing him to do so), he loomed enormously in my unconscious political upbringing, even if I had no idea what he was doing there.

Perhaps it had something to do with these attributes making him the ideal muse for newspaper cartoonists and TV impressionists. Either way, his death, announced this morning, has transported me back to my pre-adolescent gloom.

On reflection, however, it's clear to see how, compared to today's political so-called heavyweights, Benn was a colossus. Living outside of the UK for almost 15 years, I have watched British politics blandify. The current crop of party leaders - Cameron, Clegg and Miliband - could change places with each other and no-one would notice. Add Nigel Farage, UKIP's bug-eyed, crackpot Neil Young to this Crosby, Stills and Nash of politics and the picture doesn't improve (and by the way, what is Farage doing being only 49 years old but looking and behaving like a permanently enraged Daily Mail reader in his 70s?).

Benn, we must now conclude, was a politician of unquestioning conviction. Actually, let's just say he was a politician in the very best sense of the phrase. An MP for 50 years, he retired from politics in 2001 to, famously, "spend more time on politics". And thus he did - long into old age, maintaining his anti-war drumbeat, standing for a political left that may have become unfashionable and even irrelevant in the post-Thatcher, ad agency-groomed Blair era. But the point is, he stood for something. He spoke his mind. He made his point.

There has been no shortage of politicians of every persuasion lining up to pay tribute. David Cameron gave his customary, vacuous two penn'orth ("There was never a dull moment listening to him, even when you disagreed with everything he said."). Current Labour leader Ed Miliband had a more meaningful statement to make, pointing out that Benn "spoke his mind and spoke up for his values", adding, critically, that his strong views were "often at odds with his Party".

That made him a prominent member of the British Left's 'awkward squad'. But the former baronet, who changed his name from Anthony Wedgwood Benn to the more populist Tony Benn, took the view that democratic British politics needed a stronger role in shaping the country and preventing the excess of corporate, old school tie influence. "If the British people were ever to ask themselves what power they truly enjoyed under our political system," he once argued, "they would be amazed to discover how little it is, and some new Chartist agitation might be born and might quickly gather momentum".

Latterly, he put forward an even stronger view, rubbishing the idea that politics is all about charisma and spin. "It is trust that matters". Amen to that.

I'm no political thinker and have, at best, a crude pub bore's view of politics. There were plenty of things that were wrong with the Labour Party Benn stood for, even more so when he lurched further to left to support Michael Foot, marginalising the movement and keeping them out of office. But no one should dismiss or deride his stance as foolhardiness.

The platitudes - even the thin ones - do hold consistency to the fact that, left or right, Tony Benn was a master parliamentarian. "Although he had passionate feelings he didn't let himself turn into a sour partisan like a lot of politics today," Dame Shirley Williams told the BBC today. "Look at Prime Minister's Questions and what you get is a kind of football terrace effect without much thought. Tony did think about things, you see he thought about them carefully. And if he disagreed he would lay out his reasons for disagreement."

Whether they wear a red rosette or a blue one, Britain could do with more politicians like Tony Benn. At least they wouldn't be grey.

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