The Public Gallery: Remembering Tony Benn

By - Thursday 20th March, 2014

In a guest edition of the Public Gallery, regular reader David White remembers Tony Benn, who died last week at the age of 88

“It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause…and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you” – Tony Benn

I first met Tony Benn in April 1979. He had come to Croydon Central to speak in support of Labour’s campaign in the general election, due a couple of weeks later, in which I was the candidate. At the time, he was Energy Secretary. He packed out the hall at Rowdown School, New Addington.

A couple of things particularly struck me. First was Benn’s energy. He was speaking in eight different constituencies that day. The second was that he had the rare knack of being able to speak, apparently without any notes or particular preparation, and make everyone feel he was speaking directly to them.

No doubt when he got home after that long day he wrote up his diaries. These have now been published in eight volumes, and are generally accepted to be among the best political diaries of his age.

After his visit in 1979, Tony came back to Croydon on many occasions to speak. He had a further Croydon connection – his son Stephen and his family now live in the borough.

What is Tony Benn’s legacy?

Firstly, Tony was a great democrat, whether campaigning for reform of the House of Lords, calling for democratic change in the Labour Party, or challenging unelected bodies such as the EU Commission. He urged people always to ask those in power who put them there and how they could be got rid of. His philosophy was well-grounded in history and he was very knowledgeable about movements such as the Levellers and the Chartists.

Secondly, he was a great socialist. In the late ’70s and early ’80s he was prominent in the campaign for an “alternative economic strategy”, based on redistributing power in the workplace and communities. He wanted the Labour Party to be a socialist, not social democratic, party.

Thirdly, he was a champion of peace and freedom. He was a strong supporter of the campaign against apartheid and, unlike the leaders of both main political parties, he opposed the Iraq War.

Some have said that he failed in his objectives. To an extent, this is obviously true. The Labour Party leadership didn’t become socialist, but was instead taken over (for a while) by Blairite New Labour. However, when I hear people today calling for things like the renationalisation of rail and the energy companies, public involvement in the banking sector, and an end to military adventures like Iraq, I am reminded that Tony’s ideas have borne fruit.

Tony left parliament in 2001, “to spend more time on politics”, after almost fifty years as an MP. He spoke to rallies, to the Durham Miners Gala and also to audiences who probably would not previously have liked his views, at venues such as our very own Fairfield Halls in Croydon. As Tom commented in last week’s TPG, Benn had begun to transform from “the most dangerous man in Britain” into a “national treasure”. He himself, however, always had the same reply when he was called ‘a harmless old gentleman’: “I’m certainly not harmless!”

Above all, I think Tony’s lasting legacy is one of hope and inspiration. Someone on my Twitter feed said it best: “We loved him for his tenacity, and his care for the ordinary folk.”

A great many of us did love him. Now, we shall miss him – but we shall go on being inspired.

David White

David White

David lives in Park Hill, Croydon. Until his recent retirement he was a solicitor specialising in elderly client matters. He is a member of the Labour Party.

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  • Mario Creatura

    Lovely piece David. Very well said.