ONE OF THE GENTLEMAN of the Left has died this evening, Melbourne time; Tony Benn — a stalwart of the hard Left of Britain’s Labour Party, and a rank socialist to boot — has passed on after a short illness, aged 88. In life, he drew respect from across the political spectrum for the forthright nature of his views; he was an opponent with whom conservatives differed vehemently, but was nonetheless well liked. Above all, he was a character.
Whilst I detested his politics and despised most of his world view, I have always — always — liked Tony Benn enormously.
Whilst I’m not going to write at great length upon his death this evening, I nonetheless wanted to at least say a few words to mark the passing of one of the real characters (and true gentlemen) of politics; Benn was never going to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, but he does deserve credit for the influence his ideas exerted on Labour policy in Britain and, indirectly, across the world.
An ardent advocate for the abolition of the monarchy and republicanism in Britain for decades, Benn — who inherited a peerage when his father died — will perhaps be most instantly remembered for his anti-establishment and republican gestures, such as engineering two by-elections in two years in his seat in Parliament to enable him to renounce the peerage (this drawn-out adventure was necessary to ensure the procedures followed were legal), and later in the early 1990s with his “Commonwealth of Britain” bill which aimed to abolish the monarchy and transform Britain into a federal republic.
Benn’s lasting contributions on policy, however, were ones that failed to generate sensational headlines; a minister in the governments of Harold Wilson (both times) and Jim Callaghan, the reforms and ideas Benn pursued in areas such as industry policy, industrial relations, welfare reform and relations with Europe have proven durable, and still underpin to a great degree the platform of the Labour Party today.
Indeed — to put this into a local perspective — some of his views were eerily similar to those pursued by the Gillard government, with the caveat that at least Benn had some class about him even if his ideas, necessarily, did not.
And he was a vigorous and enthusiastic opponent of Margaret Thatcher for decades, although it goes without saying that Margaret clearly prevailed in their “battle of ideas.”
I have always liked Benn — despite his socialism, which is odious no matter the cloak it wears — because he could be funny, witty, and was an intensely interesting figure to listen to.
He also was able to articulate why he held the views he did, rather than simply marking out a position and deploying spin and/or abuse in its defence: a lesson some of his antipodean contemporaries would do well to emulate.
It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the tributes pouring in from political opponents in the UK — my people — are heartfelt in their sincerity that on a personal level, he will be greatly missed.
Not everyone who disagrees with you in politics is, viscerally, an enemy, even if their pursuit of ideas that you find repugnant is ruthless and relentless: in other words, as readers will have heard me say on numerous occasions, politicians are people too, and that human factor comes first when the battle over ideas is done.
Certainly Benn exemplifies this. For those not familiar with either Benn or his work, over six decades, I strongly recommend doing your homework.
Tony Benn was a class act. I wish him rest in peace.