It was possibly the worst bit of news for the left in Britain to wake up to. Not just the left though – millions of others who respected Tony Benn’s rare commitment, passion and principle. It’s been a week of huge blows to all those who seek a fairer society this week, with the passing of Bob Crow too.
I was lucky enough to hear Tony speak, again like millions of others, at a host of political events over the past few years. He was the man whose Diaries convinced me of the need for a radical politics when I was 17 – a politics that was unreservedly socialist. And what is socialism but democracy extended into the economic sphere? It was his drive for an unapologetically ideological politics in a supposedly non-ideological world (though one dominated by neoliberalism) that inspired many. The need for us all to ask ourselves – ‘which side are we on?’.
The speech I will remember most was in the crowded Central Wall of Westminster at the launch of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity last year. Here he recounted how he had stood in that same hall in 1945 next to newly-elected Clement Attlee amid a wave of support for progressive values – universal health care, homes and jobs for all, a decent outcome in the workplace through collective bargaining.
Here’s the speech – www.thepeoplesassembly.org.uk/rip_tony_benn
I can’t add anything else to the hundreds of articles and blogs that have already been written, but my own personal experience of being inspired, as a young person in a right-wing world, by someone who championed the cause of working class people. He was what the Labour Party should always have been but that never really was. One of my friends put it better than others: he was the ‘final ember of the soul of the Labour Party.’
Though always a Labour member, he was of course fiercely anti-Blairite. But Labour’s right-wing turn occurred way before 1997.
For Greens like me, here’s a snippet from him in 1989, following an NEC vote: “[Labour] have abandoned unilateralism [re. disarmament], and however we dress it up, we are going to keep the bomb. That is catastrophic, because lots of people are just not going to support Labour – they’ll vote Green or something. I think the Labour Party may be in a state of terminal decline.” In terms of principles, he couldn’t have been more prescient.
Because it’s not just Labour socialists mourning his passing. It’s Greens and progressives from across the movement and the world. And it’s also Young People, angry and poor but with no political figures to turn to in this modern age.
Here’s what I wrote for the Young Greens’ site: “Tony Benn was a man of immense courage, conviction and honesty. He was an inspiration to millions of people throughout his lifetime, including thousands of young people today who were introduced to ideas of social justice through his tireless campaigning, speaking across the country to those disenchanted with the legacy of Thatcherism that lives on today through austerity politics.
“His passion for a truly democratic society, not one dominated by corporate greed, is one that Young Greens share, and the progressive movement has lost a great figure today.
“The Young Greens send our deepest sympathies and condolences to Tony Benn’s family and friends.
“We can only hope that we as political young people today can carry on his vision for a fairer society.”
In 1990 Benn said: “With the disappearance of socialism from the international agenda, we are getting back to great-power politics, to nationalism, to racism, to imperialism, and to all sorts of other unattractive xenophobic characteristics.” With the rise of far-right parties across Europe, he couldn’t have been more right. It’s time to bring back radical progressive politics.
If we can live up to 1000th of the principle and hope that Tony Benn stood for, we should be proud. There’s no one left like Tony.
Rest in Peace, comrade. I raise my pipe to you.