benn’s legacy assessed

The Legacy of Tony Benn
By David Morgan
The death of Tony Benn in March this year robbed the left of its most outstanding and popular representative. For decades a thorn in the side of the establishment and a scourge of capitalism, militarism and imperialism, Benn famously gave up being an MP after 50 years ‘’to spend more time on politics’’.
An inspiration for generations, Benn was a rare figure in many respects; he moved to the left as he got older to become a spokesperson for all peoples in struggle for justice and a better society in Britain and all over the world.
Always a strong internationalist, Benn’s voice was raised against political injustices in apartheid South Africa, Pinochet’s Chile and the atrocities inflicted by American imperialism on Vietnam and Iraq. He was a friend of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua and supported the rights of Palestinians and Kurds.
Benn was a tireless campaigner and countless good causes could always rely on his unswerving support. Right to his last years he kept a full diary of activism, appearing on public platforms at small meetings and huge rallies of hundreds of thousands such as the demonstrations against the war in Iraq.
Admired as a superb debater with a firm grasp of the issues and for his remarkable ability to communicate complex arguments, Benn made the left’s ideas sound like common sense. For this he was intensely disliked by the establishment and regarded as a ‘’class traitor’’ in some quarters because he identified so strongly with workers, the poor and the oppressed.
While in his twilight years, the establishment sought to reclaim him as ‘’a national treasure’’, Benn resisted and remained outspoken to the end. He stood firm in his belief in the need for a fundamental shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people, in Britain and the world over.
The Socialist History Society cannot claim any unique association with Tony Benn although he did deliver an A L Morton memorial lecture for the society some years ago. But on hearing of the sad news of his death, the society felt it appropriate to organise a seminar to begin an assessment of his enduring influence.
This was the theme of the successful event held at Conway Hall on 26 April; not only was the meeting room packed to capacity, the speakers were entertaining, moving and insightful. If success can be judged in financial terms alone, it can be mentioned that the society collected £100 in donations from individuals who attended the meeting.
The event, chaired by the SHS Secretary, consisted of speeches from people who had worked closely with Benn. It opened with brief readings by Penny Dimond, Deborah Lavin and Greta Sykes of poems on themes of war, peace and struggles for social justice that reflected Benn’s various commitments.
The speakers covered Benn’s activities as a politician, campaigner, Cabinet minister and comrade in the political struggle. Their tributes were greeted enthusiastically and stimulated a lively and well informed discussion.
Stan Newens, a colleague of Benn’s when an MP, received a standing ovation for his generous assessment of Benn’s courage as a minister in implementing innovative ideas and responsiveness to the demands of workers.
He praised Benn’s successful battle to renounce his peerage and resume his career as an elected politician.
Stan however was not an entirely uncritical follower of Benn, maintaining that his decision to launch his deputy leadership campaign against incumbent Denis Healey in 1981 was badly timed and only resulted in splitting the left.
Duncan Bowie, reviews editor of Chartist magazine, looked at the influences on Benn’s political outlook tracing his radicalism back to his Nonconformist family background.
Bowie also referred to Benn’s early interest in the wartime Common Wealth Party of Richard Acland and J B Priestley and how their ideas of ethical and cooperative socialism remained influential on his outlook throughout his life.
Benn was also a rare example of a leading Labour politician who was prepared to engage seriously with the ideas of Marx, another aspect of his legacy that was worthy of note.
Keith Flett, London Socialist Historians’ Group, insisted that Benn’s activism outside Westminster politics must be seen as a key aspect of his legacy and an inspiration for future generations.
Another aspect of Benn’s legacy was his belief in the need to learn from history, a point emphasised by most of the speakers. Indeed, it should not be forgotten that Benn was an influential populariser of the ideas of the Levellers, Chartists and Suffragettes.
Keith Flett could not resist remarking on Benn’s humorous side and how he often displayed a mischievous nature seen on one occasion in 1969 when he apparently annoyed Cabinet colleagues by unexpectedly appearing at a meeting wearing a full beard!
Lindsey German, Convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, reflected on Benn’s courage as a peace activist citing his reaction to Gordon Brown’s attempt to ban rallies in central London during a visit by US President George Bush – Benn turned up at a rally wearing his war medals as a calculated act of defiance.
Ms German was dismissive of The Guardian’s depiction of Benn’s career after 1983 as one of political failure which, she said, was totally to misunderstand his public role as a popular exponent of socialist ideas which had a real resonance with masses of people.
Kate Hudson, CND general secretary, examined Benn’s long opposition to nuclear weapons from the petition against the H-Bomb in the 1950s to the arrival of Cruise missiles in the 1980s and the campaign against Trident today.
While a strong supporter of CND, Benn was often critical of the peace movement for being ‘’too middle class’’ and its lack of a socialist analysis, she said, drawing on evidence from his published diaries.
Ms Hudson also shared her memories of Benn’s kindliness as a person, an aspect of his character that needed to be stressed.
Prof Willie Thompson remarked on how Benn remained influential long after he was out of office. He pointed to his ability to advocate new ideas such as when Benn urged the labour movement to build bridges with environmental activists.
He said he had come to the conclusion albeit reluctantly that had Benn been able to lead the Labour party in power after a general election victory the nature of the political system in Britain would never have permitted him to implement his radical programme.
Prof Thompson summed up Benn as a politician who upheld the values of democracy, socialism and humanism in difficult circumstances and felt that his example would continue to influence people as they look for an alternative to the failed mainstream politics.
Stan Newens felt that Tony Benn’s name would live forever in the collective memory of the labour movement. The SHS is proud to have made its own small contribution to ensuring that Benn’s legacy remains alive and his ideas are more fully understood.
Two of the advertised speakers, Stefan Dickers and Jon Lansman, were unfortunately unable to take part due to illness and their contributions would surely have been insightful. Nevertheless, the seminar was able to convey a large part of Tony Benn’s unique contribution to the labour and socialist cause. Long may his memory and example endure.

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June 2014

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