It is not often upon hearing about the death of a politician you stop in your tracks to think, ‘the world really is a poorer place with their passing’. The death of Baroness Thatcher last year was, of course, one such occasion. Tony Benn’s death this morning is another.
I first met Tony Benn when I became active in the Labour student movement in the early nineties. Having lost out on the leadership bid to Neil Kinnock, and being strongly opposed to the Party’s transition to the centre-left, it’s fair to say he was no longer the pivotal figure in the Party he had been in the sixties and seventies. Yet there was no doubt in my mind I was in the presence of someone whose importance to Labour remained enormous. Indeed, for many he has always embodied the spirit of the socialist principles upon which the Party was founded.
Tony Benn was a man who lived and breathed politics. A man of integrity who held firm convictions from which he would not deviate even when the weight of popular opinion was seen to be against him. Compromise was not in his lexicon and for aficionados of Labour Party history there is absolutely no denying that he was a divisive figure; witness his staunch opposition to the UK’s membership of the EEC (now the EU), his fierce battle with Denis Healey for the Deputy Leadership in 1981 (where he lost by a margin of 1%) and his vocal support for Sinn Féin and the unification of Ireland.
Photo: I, Isujosh
He never worried about being unpopular if he believed his position was right. He abhorred war and was unafraid to oppose military intervention when Argentinian forces occupied the Falkland Islands. He was a vocal supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament when many in the West were convinced that our nuclear deterrent was vital in holding back Soviet expansionism. And he was a leading voice in the Stop the War Coalition against the invasion of Iraq. But only a fool would have accused him of cowardice. After all, this was the man who served as a pilot in the RAF during the Second World War, whilst still a teenager.
But, having left Parliament in 2001 and due to illness and frailty having naturally appeared less and less in the public eye in recent years, what is Benn’s legacy? Two of his four children, Stephen, Hilary, Melissa and Joshua, have pursued careers in politics and one is a renowned feminist author. He leaves behind a wealth of articles and speeches that demonstrate his consummate skill as an orator. And of course, for anyone interested in politics, whatever their political persuasion, his Diaries are a must read, providing an insight into someone who could operate at the highest level, yet always retain a sense of and reach into the traditional socialist Labour grass-roots. Yet, perhaps most important of all, Tony Benn was and remains a fiercely powerful reminder of the values and beliefs at the very heart of the Labour Party.