I have been a “Bennite” (which became a considerable term of abuse in the 1980s) since the 1960s. I was brought up in a Labour household in which the premiership of Harold Wilson was the sun and Mr Benn was the brightest of the many stars clustered around that Labour cabinet. There were so many stars – James Callaghan, Roy Jenkins, Barbara Castle, Tony Crosland, Richard Crossman, Dennis Healey, George Brown – but even in that company, the young, fresh-faced, bursting with ideas Wedgwood-Benn (as he was then known) stood out.
For us he seemed to exemplify the “white-hot heat” of the “technological revolution” – Mr Wilson’s wheeze for disguising his socialist purpose from a hostile media and the “Gnomes of Zurich” who, even then with their financial power had the means of destroying any real Labour government. Mr Benn was brim-full of innovative unorthodoxy, and seemed just what the doctor ordered.
From his heroic (and successful) fight to remain in the Commons upon the death of his father Viscount Stansgate, through to the Hovercraft, Concorde, TSR2, nuclear power, special edition postage stamps, all the while tape-recording his own interviews and speeches, he was every inch the “young Lochinvar”. Dashing, romantic, eloquent, unafraid.
The “technological revolution” cooled, the crucible crumbled, but my love for Tony Benn never did, which is why his recent death at the age of 88, surrounded by his family whom he loved with extraordinary zeal, is not just any other passing and has caused, unusually for me, the cancellation of a raft of important engagements.
I first met Tony Benn (as he was by then) at the Labour conference in Blackpool in 1974. I was 20 years old, the Secretary of Dundee West Constituency Labour Party. Whilst I was expressing my hero-worship of him, he told me that I was the youngest constituency party secretary in Labour Party history. It made that badge seem much brighter.
We remained in touch throughout the 1970s as Benn emerged as the most important, most popular, socialist – as opposed to mere Labour – figure in Britain in the 20th century. When Mr Wilson and then Mr Callaghan’s governments (1974-79) ran into more and more troubled waters, it was Tony Benn who became the parliamentary focus of the fight for an “alternative economic strategy”.
On the eve of the Devolution Referendum in 1979, Mr Benn addressed a huge Yes Rally in Dundee’s Caird Hall, attended by over one thousand people on a bitter winter’s night, The speech he gave – the tape-cassette of which he sent me and which I still have – was quite simply the greatest speech for the socialist idea I have ever heard, bar none. In the vast cavernous auditorium his rolling cadences; his masterful command of the English language; his thinly-coded attacks on the collapse into financial orthodoxy of his cabinet colleagues; the clarity of his call for the unity of working people on this island whilst supporting Home Rule within it; his unbelievably powerful case for democracy in our economy as well as our institutions still ring in my ears as I write this. It was a tour de force, even by his standards, and no one who was there will ever forget it.
Many of the words, concepts and imagery he used that night I still use in my own speeches today. Earlier, he had posed in my home for pictures with my then baby daughter, Lucy, today a mother of four. Later, he would do the same with her babies. His kindliness as well as his courage, intelligence, eloquence marked him out as head and shoulders above all of the political class, then as now. If you can imagine the kindly old gentleman who sat at the back of the carriage in The Railway Children waving his handkerchief at the children, coming to their aid in their tragedy; that was the kind of man Tony Benn was.
Just before he launched his campaign for the Labour Party’s Deputy Leadership in 1981, Benn called my house. “Thish ish Tony Benn,” he told my astonished then wife who thought it was a friend of ours playing a prank. “Oh yeah, right,” she said.
He asked me if I would support his campaign. I was a full-time Labour organiser and the Chairman of the Labour Party in Scotland at the time and he knew it might put my job at risk. He promised to look after me should the worst happen and a job at his side if he won.
Without hesitation, I supported him and threw myself into the campaign as the Scottish organiser. It proved a bitter and divisive battle, crystallising existing divisions within the movement and, when Neil Kinnock and a group of left wing apostates who included Robin Cook backed a “soft-left” rival John Silkin to split the Benn vote, created new divisions – some of which never healed.
The Labour Party had never seen a mass exercise within its ranks quite like it, and has since taken steps to ensure it never will do again. Thanks to democratic reforms within the party pioneered by Benn himself the choice would be made, not merely by MPs, but by the rank and file of the party and the unions then affiliated, enthusiastically, in their millions. Benn chased every vote. Though supposedly handling Scotland, I travelled with Benn the length and breadth of the country. If you’d believed the media, Benn was then, literally, mad, bad and dangerous to know. If you believed the evidence of your own eyes, he was the most exciting and inspiring leader in the land.
I remember one occasion in particular, in a motorway service station near Liverpool. We stopped for tea and toast (Benn rarely ate real food). Tony, me and Hugh Wyper, the then legendary Scottish union leader, and Hugh’s wife. First, virtually every person in the station came over to greet him. Then, wearing their aprons and chef’s hats all the kitchen staff did the same (alas there were no camera phones then so each person had to get a time-consuming autograph). Then people started coming in from the petrol-station forecourt, leaving their vehicles unattended. Then Tony gave an impromptu speech. It felt like a popular revolution. And maybe it could have been.
At the height of his campaign, when he seemed to be about to carry all before him, Benn was struck down by an obscure illness, the Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which attacked his nervous system, confined him to bed and left him shaky on his legs for the rest of his life. It seemed suspicious at the time, and it still does now. Especially after what happened to Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and other left wing leaders in Latin America.
For that to sound less fanciful one must recap on what Benn might possibly have done. He might have won the deputy leadership of a Labour Party then regarded as a natural party of government. And quickly thereafter, become its leader. He would have pulled Britain out of NATO and the EEC. He would have scrapped Britain’s vastly expensive, unaffordable and essentially useless nuclear programme. He promised public ownership and workers control of the commanding heights of the British economy. He would have nationalised the banks and many other industries including pharmaceuticals. He would have mounted a profound challenge to the rich and powerful in Britain and beyond, AND he had mass popular support in doing so.
The media hysteria had to be experienced to be believed. Think Scargill, Livingstone, Crow, add it all together and double it. It was that bad. Whole pages in serious newspapers were given over to cod-psychologists making the case that Tony Benn was, literally, insane.
But Benn-mania was taking on Beatles levels in the ranks of Labour. With the whole Labour establishment against him, as well as the whole of the British ruling class and its media echo-chamber, Benn was winning. As we gathered on the eve of the fateful Labour Conference in the Brighton conference centre the buzz was simply electrifying. When the result came and the right-wing candidate Dennis Healy was announced the winner by the hair of an eyebrow – well less than 1% – a result achieved only by the votes of a raft of Labour MPs, traitors who promptly defected to the now-forgotten SDP – the rest of us lost our heads. But Tony kept his, taking his brilliant and beautiful American wife Caroline by the hand and walking to the nearest fish and chip shop on the Brighton sea-front for a rare slap-up.
Kinnock picked up his 30 pieces of silver later and is now an establishment clown (along with his wife) in the House of Lords. The remnants of the SDP (which helped keep Thatcher in power for a decade), now serve in David Cameron’s Tory government.
Benn lost his Bristol seat due to boundary changes in 1983, was re-elected in Chesterfield with the support of the Derbyshire Miners (he was, among other things, the most whole-hearted of the Miners supporters) before “giving up parliament, to spend more time on politics” and continued to the end to support the socialist alternative to barbarism and war. He died and will forever live as the Honorary President of the Stop the War Coalition, leading the greatest mass movement in British history. He was the greatest leader Labour, and Great Britain, never had.
In Shakespeare’s words “He was a man, take him for all in all; I shall not look upon his likes again.”
Originally written for redmolluca.net (reprinted with the permission of the author)