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Despite his faults, Tony Benn was a real Big Beast

14 March 2014

14 March 2014

I suppose you could argue, if you were a conservative, that Tony Benn’s greatest contribution to public life was helping to render Labour unelectable for thirteen years. There’s quite a few within Labour who might wryly argue the same thing, frankly. And plenty more who had grave doubts about the man’s ‘principled’ devotion to Socialism, a principle which seemed to visit itself on him, suddenly, in the early 1970s, when he saw the base of the party was swinging wildly to the left. He had previously been a pretty moderate and competent minister under Harold Wilson. Later he was to become a sort of cartoon bogeyman for the red top press, a role in which he revelled.

I interviewed the chap a year or so back and he was terribly frail. You could not doubt his utterly unflinching belief in political debate, in ideas, in lessons to be drawn from history. Nor his charisma, his oratory, and extraordinary influence over a large-ish swathe of Labour opinion (including me, I voted for him as deputy leader in 1981, I think it was). He was unquestionably a Big Beast, of which there are so few around these days.


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  • HenryWood

    I kept writing to Mr Benn asking why the McCrone Report was buried by the governments he was a part of. I’m still waiting for a reply.

  • Ridcully

    All credit to Rod for allowing comments on this article. If only some of his colleagues here weren’t so craven. Even the bloody Telegraph, notable for disabling comments on certain “sensitive” topics has allowed comments on its articles regarding Benn’s death.

  • Neil Saunders

    It’s worth remembering that Benn was somewhat to the right of centre while serving in Harold Wilson’s 1960s governments – as PMG and Minister for Technology he was very much a technocrat. Benn was a rare counterexample to the usual tendency of people to drift to the right as they get older (or, in novelist John Braine’s case, richer and more famous), and his subsequent leftward drift was both relative (as the centre of politics moved to the right after Thatcher) and absolute.

    • Ridcully

      “He immatures with age.”
      Harold Wilson.

  • Richard

    There is a quote in the diaries abiut a discussion with a Chinese commie about the human cost of Mao’s Great Leap Forward. It was worth it was the conclusion. Benn was morally corrupt monster.

  • Daniel Maris

    Why do we need Big Beasts? When I want a plumber to fix a leak I don’t think I need a “Big Beast” plumber. I just want someone who can competently fix the leak. When I think about someone to govern me, I just want someone competent, not a “Big Beast”.

    It’s time we moved on.

    We need a referendum based democracy. We don’t need politicians who wish to write their names into history. We just need to take control of our destiny.

    • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

      Do you have the time and expertise to read and understand every piece of legislation?

      • Daniel Maris

        No, that’s what politicians and civil servants are for. But I am competent to make a decision on whether we should be in or out of the EU, whether we should have capital punishment, grammar schools, mass immigration and so on – the big things that affect our lives.

        There are different ways referenda can operate – eg. calling on parliament to do something, or approving legislation or being asked whether the people wish the parliamentarians to draw up legislation.

        Are you saying that Swiss people read and understand every piece of legislation?

        • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

          I know from looking at California’s experience of referendums that the side with the most money almost always wins.

          And unless we’re going to set a minimum threshold for turnout and results referendums become ridiculous. If 51% of people on a 23% turnout called for bringing back hanging would that be a compelling case?

          • Daniel Maris

            There would be nothing wrong with setting turnout limits in my view e.g. 50% turnout.

            California’s referendum democracy has always seemed to me to be rather an add-on element. It needs to be more thoroughgoing, as in Switzerland, if it is to be successful in my view.

      • gerontius

        “Do you have the time and expertise to read and understand every piece of legislation?”

        It is quite clear that our MPs don’t.

        • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

          Indeed, they have their own areas of expertise and defer to colleagues or the whips on others. Which is essentially what the public would do.

          • Ridcully

            Which, in a roundabout way, is an argument in favour of referenda. If MPs have to seek the advice of experts then why not the public?

            • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

              Because if the result is substantially the same, why go through the rigmarole?

              • Ridcully

                Why not?

    • shebamurphy

      We need big beasts in politics because people need heroes. We need statesmen whose oratory can hold us in thrall. We need the direction they can point to and the hope that they can inspire in us. People need leaders. The biggest problem with this country today is that we are governed by a bunch of uninspired, uninspiring juveniles.

    • Ron Todd

      Stalin was a big beast. Mao was a big beast. Do we want more of them?

  • Mark McIntyre

    ANWB – British Politics Premier Paradox ! RIP.

  • Wessex Man

    why are all my comments being taken down?

  • Wessex Man

    I don’t believe this, my post about Tony Benn has been taken down, yet it was in no way offensive and certainly not as anti Benn as Joe hayne’s remarks about him on Radio 5 Drivetime.

    It seems to me that the Spectator is becoming evermore politically correct by the week.

    • Wessex Man

      My thoughts’ let’s see if I can phrase it in a different way so as to keep it here. He was at one time quite an effective Post Master General, he then took an extreme left turn in my opinion and wanted to turn our country into a Soviet Style Russia, wanting to nationalise everything left right and centre.

      He has spent the years since losing, will trying to be Michael Foot’s deputy sniping the party establishment. Bearing in mind that this party’s establishment included Blair, Brown, Balls and Reid, he may well have had a .point

      • Wessex Man

        It should be remembered that the post war nationalisations weren’t a success and helped to do away with heavy industry in this country every bit as surely as anything Maggie Thatcher did!

        • Wessex Man

          That our industrial base was highly uncompetitive with the rest of the World and the price was payed. Have all our politicians forgotten how our country was branded the sick man of Europe?

          • Wessex Man

            now I wonder if these comments will still be here Saturday?

  • Ron Todd

    He called his son Hillary then sent him to a state school. He was just another rich upper class socialist with no idea what life is like for the working class.

  • Tron

    When I saw the Richard Curtis film about the radio pirates, The Boat That Rocked, I was waiting to see how they handled the fact that Tony Benn closed them down.
    The pirates represented freedom, innovation, youth and giving the public what it wanted, not what the BBC and the Government decided was good for them.

    How would Curtis and and his leftie mates deal with the fact that all this freedom and fun was stopped by Benn, now a hero of the trendy left?

    Like all socialists, they just rewrote history and said The Tories did it.

    • La Fold

      Is that true?! Ha ha ha ha

      • Tensor

        Completely true. I loathed Benn for that reason initially, and never saw a reason to revise my view.

        Of course lies, repression and an grossly inferior copy are what socialism specializes in.

    • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

      Curtis is a bog-standard metropolitan liberal who has long been the butt of jokes for his ludicrous portrayals of what he thinks ordinary life is. To call him a socialist is just lazy.

      A wonderful eviscerating of his dreck from Monkeydust
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKSGdByaUIA

  • Wessex Man

    You’ve only to study the picture of ‘Uncle’ Tony Benn above to see his total inflexibility as an earnest young socialist, why it could almost have been taken in Red Square.

    Stop making heroes out of inept fools promoted above their ability, who in the 50s, 60s and 70s wrecked this country’s industrial base!

  • tjamesjones

    c’mon rod stop censoring me, it’s *funny*

    • rodliddle

      I don’t have the ability, clearance, or willpower to censor anyone.

  • La Fold

    A lot of what Tony Benn I was always thought was very simplistic and or naive. I believed him to be neither so I always thought he was a bit disingenious and in turn somewhat calculating, granted though they seem to pre requisites for politicians.
    It is interesting to note in the week that Bob Crow and Tony Benn pass we are not seeing CEOs and “Right wing” activists organising street parties.

    • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

      It was the Tory government that organised a street party when Thatcher died with their not-quite-state funeral.

      • James Strong

        Yes, it was a significant mistake to elevate a politician to that staus, leaving Churchill aside of course.
        Those of you who were in favour of the not-quite-state funeral for Lady Thatcher, would you give the same to Tony Blair if he dies tomorrow?
        If the answer is ‘no’ then I contend that the difference must be one of political allegiance, i.e. it’s OK for my side but not for your side.
        That’s quite wrong if you believe the nation stands above the government. Kim Jong Un doesn’t believe that.
        That is the major function of oeurmonarchy, to separate the role of Head of State from head of government.
        Politicians are our employees, entitled to be treated with respect and courtesy but never adulation.

        • Ron Todd

          That seems to assume that Blair was the equal of Thatcher.

          • James Strong

            How do you sparate them?
            Time spent as PM? Roughly equal.
            Elections won? Equal.
            To say that Thatcher was superior to Blair is to make a political judgement. That is not an unreasonable judgement, I personally loathe Blair, primarily for committing UK forces to war for vanity rather than to defend Britain, but admit that it IS a political judgement.
            Why then should a politician from one side of the divide deserve a not-quite-state funeral if one from the other side doesn’t?

        • MikeF

          The case for giving Margaret Thatcher a semi-state funeral derived not from her domestic policies but from the fact that she led the government that took action to recover British territory – the Falkland Islands – after it had been invaded and occupied by a foreign power.

      • Ridcully

        Heh, saw what you did there.
        “Shields up Sulu, maximum deflection!”

        • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

          More of a Picard man myself.

          • Ridcully

            Patrick Stewart is certainly a decent actor (although quite an arrogant sh*t in real life by all accounts), but I found it hard to take him seriously as a captain when his position on the bridge was shared with his First Officer and the ship’s counsellor!
            Running a ship by committee? Kirk would never have stood for it.

            • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

              Eh, he seems to use his celebrity to raise money for shelters for domestic violence victims, I can stomach a bit of arrogance.

              Apparently Troye’s seat was meant to be occupied by Data (so him and Riker would be representing the logical and emotional extremes of Picard’s reasoning) but one of the producers took a shine to her.

      • La Fold

        Oh bore off. Is that the best answer you’ve got? Probably, cause you know its true.

        • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

          If Mrs Thatcher had been laid to rest after a day or two in a private memorial service somewhere I doubt there would have been the level of reaction. What her cultists desired however was a fortnight of singing her praises unopposed, both in the Commons and outside it. It was the devotees that inspired the heretics.

          As I say, if this is a reaction by those on ‘the Left’ to any Tory PM, where were the parties when Heath died?

          • MikeF

            Not so – the ‘party’ in Trafalgar Sqare had been long planned quite specifically for the first Saturday after her passing.

            • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

              I didn’t say there would have been no reaction, I said there would have been less. Individual actions by bored members of the SWP/CPGB/Judean People’s Front will always occur. They are no more representative than Christian Voice are of the churches, or the Traditional Britain Group are of conservatives.

              Regardless, once the government had decided to recall Parliament and hold a not-quite-state funeral, they had politicised the issue. Once you politicise, you can’t argue that others have no right to comment.

              • MikeF

                Where have I ever said that anyone has ‘no right to comment’. I am an Englishman and I will defend anybody’s right to comment on anything. I don’t even argue that people should have no right to do things that others find ‘offensive’ – whether that be burning a copy of the Koran or throwing a party to mark the passing of a public figure they dislike. But in the case of the former I will criticise it as facile and exhibitionistic and in the latter as puerile and vicious.

                • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

                  And I view the state-sponsored triumph through the streets of the capital of a deeply divisive figure to be staggeringly inconsiderate at best, and maliciously vindictive at worst.

  • telemachus

    Tony was like Arthur Scargill and Bob Crow a genuine socialist
    And he had a streak of humanity
    One of my most treasured possessions is the tapes read by him of his diaries
    Magnificent
    *
    He is also number one in my electronic archives of speeches
    (Martin Luther King is number one)

    • Hexhamgeezer

      Indeed he had a streak of humanity…just not a very wide one.

    • Daniel Maris

      I always liked Martin Luther Kings’ speechifying…but now, ever time I hear his voice, a small intrusive voice will be whispering in my ear: “But Telemachus likes him too…”

  • MikeF

    Tony Benn was a far more astute politician than he is given credit for. His great skill was to spot bandwagons just as they were starting to roll and to jump on them early enough to give impression that he had helped set them in motion. To put it another way he was able to pose as a lone voice of principle when in reality he was always playing to a crowd. The problem is that it was often not a very nice crowd.

    • Marie Louise Noonan

      So was he playing to the crowd during WWII when he ‘enlisted in the Royal Air Force as an aircraftman 2nd Class’? That was some band wagon, wasn’t it?

      • MikeF

        I would have thought it patently obvious I was referring to his political activities in the 70s and 80s. As for Benn’s willingness to enlist in this country’s armed services in time of conflict I would never disparage that in his case or in that of any other individual – whatever I might think about how he acted in public life later in his career. I trust you would accord the same courtesy to, say, Brigadier (though initially only Private) John Enoch Powell.

  • saffrin

    Big Beats 40 years ago, what’s he done since?
    Labour – NuLabour, where was he?

  • Walter Ellis

    The cliches about Benn are bound to be, er, trotted out now that he has gone to the great Conference in the sky. But the thing is, they are, for the most part, appropriate. I disagreed with, I suppose, 60 per cent of what he stood for, but more to the point, he was one HUNDRED per cent sincere. He was also a good family man and enjoyed the company of all sorts of people, no matter their class. I may be wrong about this, but I think he had a sneaking regard for Enoch Powell. If so, it would have been for much the same reason as he admired (with obvious qualifications) Margaret Thatcher: both were conviction politicians who wanted the best for their country. Benn had no religious convictions; he was entirely rooted in the real world. His final days were lonely and uncomfortable. But at least he knew that, in spite of his utter failure to build a Socialist society, he had made people think and left his mark, not least through his diaries and late-life public appearances. Not many can say that.

    • gerontius

      “but more to the point, he was one HUNDRED per cent sincere.!

      So am I for that matter, but I wouldn’t let either of us run the country.

      • http://ajbrenchley.com/ Swanky

        You’re too good for it, G, but I’d have you run the country if I could.

        • gerontius

          Well it’s kind of you to say so.
          And you put on my favorite hat to say it.

    • Daniel Maris

      No, I don’t accept he was 100% sincere. Did he give away the royalties on his books? That might have been a token of socialist sincerity.

      For a socialist, he seemed way too concerned about the personal advancement of his own children to the exclusion of others. If he can be so concerned to advance his own children, well surely everyone else can…and that is most certainly not socialism.

      If he was “sincere” as you say, then the sincerity only kicked in, in his late forties – rather an old age to become a conviction politician. A more reasonable appraisal would be that he was “incredibly inconsistent” – indeed unbalanced.

      What I disliked most about Benn was his gimlet-eyed refusal to debate matters. His patrician manner of assertion was to my mind the antithesis of how a democratic politician should behave.

      There was definitely insanity in the Benn gene pool and I think he displayed signs of instability (paranoia, delusions of grandeur etc):

      “Margaret Rutherford’s father, William Rutherford Benn, suffered from mental illness.[2] During his honeymoon he had a nervous breakdown and was confined to an asylum. He was eventually released on holiday and on 4 March 1883, he murdered his father, the Reverend Julius Benn, a Congregational church minister, by bludgeoning him to death with a Worcester Spode chamberpot. Shortly afterwards, William tried to
      kill himself as well, by slashing his throat with a pocketknife.[3] After the
      murder, William Benn was confined to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Several years later he was released, reportedly cured of his mental affliction.However he was re~admitted to Broadmoor in 1904.

      Margaret Rutherford was born in 1892 in Balham, the only child of William
      Rutherford Benn and his second wife Florence, née Nicholson. Her father’s
      brother Sir John Benn, 1st Baronet was a British politician, and her first cousin once removed is British politician Tony Benn. As an infant, Margaret
      Rutherford and her parents moved to India. She was returned to Britain when she was three to live with an aunt, a professional governess Bessie Nicholson, in Wimbledon, London, after her pregnant mother, Florence, committed suicide by hanging herself from a tree.[4] Her father returned to England as well. His continued mental illness resulted in his being confined once more to Broadmoor in 1904.”

  • JimmyLinton

    Probably the best piece written in the wake of the erstwhile Viscount’s passing, so far. A very good, balanced summary.

    • shebamurphy

      Yes, I agree.

  • Sean L

    I think that’s wrong: Benn’s ideas were a the expense of historical facts. If he’d paid any heed to the lessons of history he couldn’t have stuck with his ideas. If anything he was utterly unflinching in his *denial* of the lessons to be drawn from history. You could even argue that precisely as ‘history’ moved to the ‘right’, at least in terms of the means of production in the orthodox sociaiist sense, Benn himself went ever further to the left. RIP

    • john p reid

      True, swinging to the Left under Bevan in 1951 put labour out for 13 years, and Benn never paid the lesson, and did the same to the party in 79′ seeing 18 years out of power

      • Shazza

        Let’s hope that Red Ed and comrades continues the tradition and puts Labour out of power for at least 30 years.

        • john p reid

          I think it’s centre left, trade unionist, Social democrats,who think labour are too right wing, who are the ones responsible for labours low poll ratings, there maybe a few Blairites who’ve jumped ship ,that have seen labours vote fall in the last 8 years ,but not enough to see labours vote fall much

    • Ron Todd

      When the likes of Benn argue for workers control workers ownership or workers power he want people like himself to exercise power in the name of the workers but not necessarily in a way that would benefit the majority of workers.

  • asalord

    Mr Benn was anti-EU and anti-Scottish independence.
    He must have been the kind of person much beloved by Spectator readers.

    • Wessex Man

      Trust a really nasty piece of s**** like you to try and expliot the death of a public figure!

    • Wessex Man

      Trust you to try and make someone’s death a reason to bring up Scottish Independence!

  • Eyesee

    Well he certainly left socialism a while ago, if he ever had it. To me, he was just a totalitarian who enjoyed privilege. He was very much in the mould of a 1950’s Soviet politician. What he appears to have taught Labour though, is that it is necessary to hide Marxist tendencies from the public. Being open about it backfired on Benn so Balls, Miliband etc are more careful. Same Command and Control mindset, even less honesty.

    • E Hart

      Eyewash, Eyesee. He was a socialist, though not doctrinaire; he was a rock solid democrat; he loathed the Soviet Union’s travesty of a “workers'” paradise; he was upfront about what he believed; he hated the “Kremlin-like” and unaccountable European Commission and ECB and he favoured the idea that the UK needed to have a degree of economic sovereignty (i.e. there was no virtue or sense in flogging off state assets at knock-down prices). God, even Macmillan believed that. Also, I don’t think for moment he was interested in the state ownership of SMEs, newsagents, shoe shops, bookies, nail bars, hairdressers, pubs, supermarkets etc. etc.

      As you don’t appear to know or remember anything about him, here is a refresher course: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ETqOvBKnKdk

      Notice the prescience of the man. Was he wrong about anything in this speech? Are we a high-skilled productive economy? Are councils more or less powerful under a government that purports to want to reduce central control? We’ve got an economy built on the unskilled, property and retailing. Transnational corporations control the means of production and what tax they are prepared to pay. Our economic and political bollocks are hanging up on plaques in the boardrooms of these companies.

      He’s also on the note when he remarks that the great Thatcher project unleashed a monster which now controls us (not with political or popular consent because you can’t have that when you’ve relinquished any control). What do we do now? We do as we are told by people, organisations and corporations outside any effective popular accountability or political control. A real triumph for popular democracy, representation and economic viability, huh? If there are two things this country sadly lacks, they are “command and control” over anything.

      • Ridcully

        “…he was a rock-solid democrat.” A rock-solid democrat who believed in a big-government regulatory state. if he really believed in both of these things then it shows just how naive he really was: “yes, let’s have an almighty state that controls every aspect of people’s lives, but it had jolly well better behave itself or else….. well, or else!”

        • E Hart

          He believed in the electorate and the democratic process. He also believed in UK political and economic sovereignty, he didn’t think it was a good idea to relinquish control to either unaccountable transnational corporations or other unaccountable organisations like the EU, World Bank, IMF etc. If you can find any evidence that he was really interested in nationalising everything from Chicken Hut to Jewsons, please present it.

          Naive? It is rather naive to believe that transnational corporations should have our national interest at heart. Is that democratic control? Look what happens when we control nothing. We end up nationalising debt and bank rolling errant PLCs. No nationalised steel plant, mine or utility in history has cost as dear as the banks.

          • Ridcully

            “If you can find any evidence that he was really interested in nationalising everything from Chicken Hut to Jewsons, please present it.”
            Well he certainly got quite worked up about a certain pirate radio station that fell outside of state control.
            As for the banks, they shouldn’t have been bailed out.

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