Monday, 17 March 2014

Farewell to Tony Benn

The death of Tony Benn, the leader of Labour's Left in the 1970s and 1980s (above), is an occasion of genuine sadness. Not just for his family, of course - to whom he was devoted - but to the wider political nation, too.

Yes, almost everything he said about the domestic economy was decisively rejected by the voters. Yes, the extremism of many Bennites - poorly disguised entryists who wanted to take over the Labour Party among them - turned off voters in their droves, ensuring that Mrs Thatcher had as long as she wanted decisively to change British society. The absurd and ridiculous claim that he would have turned the United Kingdom into a kind of European North Korea is a pretty offensive one for such a committed House of Commons man, it's true, but perhaps the UK would have looked a lot more like Yugoslavia or East Germany - to most citizens' detriment.

Even so, Mr Benn's legacy and contribution will probably be rather more subtle than can be measured in terms of mere party political success or the endurance of particular economic policy platforms. His analysis of power - of how decisions are really made amidst the 'hidden wiring' of the British constitution, and in the smoke-filled rooms beloved of powerful private and public sector players, was persuasive indeed - and is becoming much more popular once more. Why should the monarch, the House of Lords, top civil servants and chief executives make decisions about your life as a citizen that you're never told anything about? Why can't you elect such people, and then sack them if you don't like what you hear? It's a compelling case. It's one that the faux neo-liberal radicalism of the 1980s never really attacked, seizing on one set of unelected barons - trade union leaders - without attacking vested interests as a whole. Certainly a Miliband administration would have been much more to Mr Benn's liking than anything we've known since 1979. A young Ed Miliband used to work for Mr Benn, and his attacks on energy companies, betting shops, supermarket chains and payday lenders have a strong feel of Bennery about them.

And then there's the diaries. As the BBC's Political Editor, Nick Robinson, has pointed out, it's here he'll make his decisive and enduring contribution to public life. Historians - including this one - have lived with them for years. They're extraordinary - by turns touching, frightening, funny, silly and deeply resonant. They often gave more away about Benn himself than the great diarist may have thought, as the reader wondered exactly how the people reported to be in the room say the young technocrat and then the left-wing firebrand. But they were honest: he meant what he said as he said what he meant. They were mercifully free of the stench of hindsight and the suspicion of re-writing. The reason the Wilson and Callaghan years spring to life is the contribution of Benn's diaries, alongside those written by Barbara Castle and Richard Crossman. Without them, we'd have only a cut-and-paste job from the National Archives and contemporary memoirs, with all the corridor gossiping and office-door rows left out. He injected life into the present, and he's likely to go on providing colour to the past for many years.

In an age of diminished trust for politicians, that's what people were flocking to his popular one-man shows to hear: someone who was incorruptible, even if they haven't agreed with a word he said in his heyday.

It's not a bad epitaph - and it's a better writeup than many of our present leaders will get.

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