Sunday, 16 March 2014

Tony Benn - a personal tribute

I only met Tony Benn a few times, but he had a profound impact on my life and my politics, as he had on so many other people.  His death this week has inspired a lot of words (some of them a tad hypocritical and some of them downright rude and disrespectful).  This short article is not an appreciation of Benn's incredible life and career (that will come in a future article) but is instead a collection of memories. Please excuse the personal nature of this.

Tony had always been there, on the television and the radio and in the newspapers when I was a child.  I was a left-leaning youth, inspired by a combination of intensely disliking Margaret Thatcher's government policies, straight-forward morality and common sense.  Like most of my friends who thought about such things, I was anti-nuclear, pro-Labour, concerned about the environment and an opponent of elitism and privilege.  Tony Benn had always been there, but one day I started listening properly and realised here was an incredibly eloquent and serious politician saying things that other politicians didn't say.  I quickly realised that radicalism did not have to go hand in hand with cynicism; that there was a real alternative, although it was a difficult one.  I assume I was in my mid teens at the time.

In the first year of my A Levels I saw an advertisement that Tony Benn was going to be speaking at a bookshop in Leeds and signing copies of the newly-released edition of his Diaries (End of an Era, 1980-1990).  I persuaded a friend from school to go with me. I later learned that friends with whom I was later to work closely in student politics were also present that evening.

Tony spoke passionately and without any notes and took questions, all of which he answered directly and at some length.  The friend who I went with said that he agreed with every word, but wondered whether an orator of similar skills might not have persuaded him of a completely different case.  That was not how I felt.  I was hugely impressed by the way Tony spoke, but what I was really interested in was what he said.  It was content, not form, that really impressed me. His analysis of the 1980s and the Thatcher era, that had only recently come to an end, made complete sense to me.  It seemed so obviously right that I found it hard to understand how anybody could hear the arguments and reach a different conclusion.

I bought the diary, and Tony signed it "For Duncan, In Unity, Tony Benn". He smiled and said "good night, God bless" and I went home a Bennite.  I read the book in a couple of nights, spell-bound by it.  I then read everything else I could find about the politics of the 1980s (particularly early 80s Labour difficulties) to see how Tony's view fitted in with other "versions" of the story.  I then bought all the other volumes of the diaries and, as a result, certainly knew more about the detailed debates of Labour cabinets in the 1960s and 70s than any of my school friends!  It also changed how I reacted to the news and current affairs.  A vague, moral, natural and instinctive egalitarianism and radicalism had been augmented - if not replaced - by an analysis.  I started reading Marx.  When I passed the people selling left-wing newspapers on roadsides, I started buying them, reading them, realising that I agreed with some of them and strongly disagreed with others.

I was furious about the pit closures. I had a more complex and equivocal reaction to overwhelming events in Eastern Europe than the news suggested I should have.  I began to question things I had once taken for granted, including elements of my religious beliefs (beliefs that had no doubt contributed to my pre-Bennite, nascent ethical socialism).  During this time I corresponded with Tony and he sent me articles of interest, or petitions to take around the school and send back to him.  It was an unusual kind of early political activism, but I had not realised I could join the Labour Party before I was 18.  I joined on my 18th birthday, only to discover I could have joined years earlier.

By this time we had already lost the 1992 election - something I took badly.  My analysis was at odds with the mainstream Labour analysis, as it was to remain so!  For me it was that Kinnock didn't offer a radical enough alternative to Major.

When I first joined the Labour Party, Tony Benn was a marginalised figure, but not a marginal figure.  He was on the National Executive Committee, and he always spoke at conferences.  As such, I joined the Labour Party as a rebel, a "lefty"; a Bennite.  I had few if any illusions in it and, as such, can honestly say I have never been disillusioned by the Labour Party despite profound disagreements over the years.

When I got to York University, I immediately joined the Labour club and became very active.  My correspondence with Tony continued and included, at this time, fairly regular invitations for him to come and speak at the university.  In my second year, I was elected External Secretary (along with my great mate and comrade Neil Ormerod) and I kept writing "that" letter (along with similar ones to people like Dennis Skinner and Alan Simpson).  Alan Simpson came along and spoke to us about Clause IV and later came again to address an anti-racism festival.  Dennis Skinner didn't come but called me at home to explain why.  I was out and my (non-political) friend, H, answered the phone and was not entirely convinced it was Dennis Skinner on the phone.  He took the message anyway ("I see Parliament as a full-time job...")  Tony always replied that he would like to come and speak to us, had a very busy diary and would try and fit us in.  All through the same time (and I think for a year longer than me) another mate, Jago Parker (who became Internal Secretary when we became External Secretary - we were far too anarchic to have a Chair) had also been writing to Tony and, when he was elected President of the student union, he asked him to come and speak to the first Union General Meeting of his presidency, and Tony agreed.

So it was October 1995 when he came to York.  Jago met him and Neil and I went to see him in Jago's room in the halls of residence.  Oddly we were both pessimistic, I recall, and were worried that something would have occurred to mean that he couldn't come.  As we got to Jago's door we heard that unmistakable voice from inside saying "well, I'm a vegetarian too".  We had to run into the stairwell and calm down!  I remember us all talking for quite some time before the first meeting.  I had a carrier bag full of diaries, books and videos which Tony signed for me.  I was worried that this might have made me seem a bit of a "fan boy" but I was not alone, and he was characteristically charming about it.  I tried out the only joke I knew that involved socialism and tea and he said he hadn't heard it before.  He laughed politely, but it never made it into his speeches!  (Why do Marxists drink herbal tea?  Because proper-tea is theft). 

Other friends joined us for that chat and I remember my mate Mike - a Biology student - raising some scientific issue and being amazed that Tony knew about the topic in such great detail. He was clearly so very interested in the world that if something caught his interest he would find out everything he could about it.  People have commented in recent days about how certain he seemed about various issues, despite expressing occasional doubts in his diaries.  I don't think he reached his positions rashly at all, but he certainly approached most as moral questions and as such there was a right position and a wrong one.  I think that was one of the things that appealed to me, and one of the things that might alienate those that see politics more in terms of negotiations than morality.

We took Tony across to the Labour meeting. It was the best attended meeting we ever had (and we were a popular political society with quite well-attended meetings most weeks). It was certainly the only time the Vice Chancellor came to a Labour meeting!  It was a great meeting - an inspirational and encouraging speech, followed by the usual lively questions. 

Neil and I had to phone Tony a taxi and the taxi firm took a lot of persuading that we weren't joking when we said we were booking it in the name of Tony Benn...

So many of my university friends talk about the union general meeting from that evening.  It was a landmark evening in so many of our lives.  When the news of Tony's death came through, my Facebook news feed was full of recollections of that evening.  We counted 900 people at the meeting - the University Central Hall was the fullest I ever saw it.  Tony had to get a train at a particular time and I remember being frustrated that many of the union's executive officers all gave long wordy reports before his speech (presumably pleased to have the chance to talk to a big audience)!  Walking with Tony after the meeting he spoke with great approval of these speeches that had so irked me!  He also quietly suggested we should stop trying to call the union building the Tony Benn Building.

As we walked with Tony out of the hall, some tory came across and asked some rude question which Tony answered with the sort of polite put-down that many a stand-up comedian could do with perfecting.

Tony was worried he might miss his train and the taxi wasn't there when we got to the place we'd asked for it to come.  Somebody offered him a lift and he accepted gratefully, asking me and Neil to wait and explain to the taxi driver.  I confess that, while we waited for a few minutes, we were impatient to return to the meeting and in the end thought "who's going to believe Tony Benn wanted a taxi from York uni!"  It was only later we discovered that Tony had got a taxi up from the station with the same firm, so there's probably a taxi driver somewhere in York who ended up believing all the tabloid demonization of Benn.  Sorry.

As we packed up, I finished Tony's flask of tea (now cold).  It was really milky and sweet.

Years later, when the Free at Last diaries were released, I asked Tony what he had recorded in his diary on that day (as it wasn't included in the published edition).  He very kindly sent me the typescript of the day and it's a treasured memento.  I transcribed it and shared it with other friends who remembered that evening.

I met Tony on several other occasions, at public meetings, conferences, protests and demonstrations, at an educational conference and even briefly at a folk festival.  He helped me with research questions, and offered support and words of encouragement during campaigns.  But I never had another chance to ask all the questions I had, to discuss the causes we had in common or his thoughts on the future of the Labour Party.  I wish I had, but I don't think Tony Benn would want those people who he encouraged and inspired to spend long mourning.  He would want us to learn from him and keep the flames of confidence and hope burning. It is ironic that one of the most memorable and enduring messages of Tony's was that what matters in politics is policies and issues, not personalities.  He was, of course, one of very few great personalities in the politics of the second half of the 20th century.  But he was absolutely right.  Just as the free-market, neo-liberal, right-wing politics of Margaret Thatcher were not buried with the personality last year, neither has the alternative been buried this week.  The best memorial that we can give Tony Benn is to keep fighting, keep questioning, keep putting people before profit.  For me, Tony Benn developed the idea of democratic socialism more than anybody else in Britain.  Let us use his words, his ideas, his spirit and his encouragement to make that idea a reality.