Tony Benn (1925-2014)
March 14, 2014 5:08 AM   Subscribe

Acknowledged to be one of the few British politicians who became more left-wing after having actually served in government, former veteran left-wing campaigner Tony Benn has died at home aged 88. Tony was a British Labour Party politician and Member of Parliament (MP) for 50 years, and a Cabinet Minister under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. His legacy can be seen in postage, in the powerful five questions, the speeches he gave, and his diaries.
posted by Wordshore (84 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Massive quake in the Overton window.
posted by runincircles at 5:08 AM on March 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by the quidnunc kid at 5:13 AM on March 14, 2014

posted by ominous_paws at 5:16 AM on March 14, 2014

A truly great statesman, and I very much hope he was not the last of his kind.

He held to his core principles throughout his political career.

People before rulers
No power without accountability
No right to power

As the world has moved, he has consistently been on the right side of history.
posted by Combat Wombat at 5:24 AM on March 14, 2014 [9 favorites]

posted by PippinJack at 5:26 AM on March 14, 2014

Tony Benn on the slave trade: "New Labour wouldn't have abolished it. It would have tried to regulate it under Ofslave."

posted by dumdidumdum at 5:26 AM on March 14, 2014 [32 favorites]

I didn't know of him until the UK side of my twitter feeds lit up with tributes.

Clearly a good man, and we are clearly worse for his passing.

And, you know, I think he's another person that would find a moment of silence inappropriate. You want to memorialize Tony Benn? Work and speak to make this a better world.
posted by eriko at 5:26 AM on March 14, 2014 [10 favorites]

posted by monkey closet at 5:33 AM on March 14, 2014

They say "these things come in threes", so after Bob Crow and Tony Benn it's nice to know Blair, Ed and the rest of New Labour will be sleeping extremely fucking soundly tonight.

I'd like to thank him for his service, a life well lived.
posted by fullerine at 5:35 AM on March 14, 2014

One of the nicest men I ever had a cup of tea with.

posted by sweet mister at 5:36 AM on March 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

'A good and honest man who almost brought the Labour Party to ruin' (Eric Hobsbawm on Tony Benn).

If he'd won the deputy leadership in 1981 (as he very nearly did) the results would have been catastrophic. But he was a thoroughly decent man who never forgot that politics is about people. I remember one left-wing activist saying that if he contacted Benn's office, he knew that within 15 minutes the phone would ring and a voice would say: 'Tony here; how can I help?'
posted by verstegan at 5:38 AM on March 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Christ, Bob Crow and Tony Benn. Not a good week for British socialism.
posted by Decani at 5:39 AM on March 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by aesop at 5:41 AM on March 14, 2014

No dots. No silence. Take that time, find an injustice in the world and DO SOMETHING!

Sign an online petition

Email an elected representative

Handwrite a letter to a councillor/MP/representative/senator

Go to a demonstration

Send a letter to a prisoner

Give some money to people who are changing the world. They're not hard to find.

But, if you can't do any of that - and Tony would understand - then wait.

Wait until you next see a small injustice. A tiny one. And raise your voice. "Excuse me...she was first....."

That's enough.

But think. Please think. People before power. That's all.
posted by Combat Wombat at 5:42 AM on March 14, 2014 [26 favorites]

posted by edd at 5:44 AM on March 14, 2014

posted by acb at 5:45 AM on March 14, 2014


A loss for us all.
posted by amil at 5:48 AM on March 14, 2014

posted by andraste at 5:48 AM on March 14, 2014

A great man who didn't led his loyalty to the Labour Party stand in the way of his principles, when New Labour found it necessary to join the American War on Iraq.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:03 AM on March 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by HandfulOfDust at 6:16 AM on March 14, 2014

posted by devon at 6:18 AM on March 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

If he'd won the deputy leadership in 1981 (as he very nearly did) the results would have been catastrophic.

posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:22 AM on March 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

A force for good whose chronicling of UK politics may well be his greatest legacy. When interviewed by the press he would also record the interview as he did not trust the press and considered them to be enemies of the people.
posted by asok at 6:23 AM on March 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

posted by TheophileEscargot at 6:23 AM on March 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by Bromius at 6:24 AM on March 14, 2014

posted by fight or flight at 6:27 AM on March 14, 2014

posted by anagrama at 6:28 AM on March 14, 2014

posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:29 AM on March 14, 2014


RIP Tony. I saw him speak at a CND rally when I was a kid. He was inspirational.
posted by jiroczech at 6:32 AM on March 14, 2014

Apparently he left his mark on the Parliament in more ways than one. (But sadly, maybe his 'secret plaques' were the most lasting effects...)

posted by oneswellfoop at 6:38 AM on March 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

If he'd won the deputy leadership in 1981 (as he very nearly did) the results would have been catastrophic.


Well, for one thing the Labour Party would have become unelectable and probably fallen apart. Then British politics would have ended up as a choice between the Tories and a party of ineffectual right-leaning social democrats.

...wait a minute...
posted by Segundus at 6:39 AM on March 14, 2014 [15 favorites]

The man was a legend. There's lots of stories about him being passed round on Twitter, but this is the one that stood out for me:

Tony Benn said in the House of Commons in 2001:
"I have put up several plaques—quite illegally, without permission; I screwed them up myself. One was in the broom cupboard to commemorate Emily Wilding Davison, and another celebrated the people who fought for democracy and those who run the House. If one walks around this place, one sees statues of people, not one of whom believed in democracy, votes for women or anything else. We have to be sure that we are a workshop and not a museum."
posted by zoo at 6:39 AM on March 14, 2014 [28 favorites]

Great quote:

The Labour party has never been a socialist party, although there have always been socialists in it – a bit like Christians in the Church of England.
posted by gimonca at 6:41 AM on March 14, 2014 [17 favorites]

posted by lalochezia at 6:45 AM on March 14, 2014

posted by Mister Bijou at 6:54 AM on March 14, 2014

What's also amazing about Tony Benn is, that like Michael Foot, he came from a very privileged background and actually had to fight to stay in the house of commons after his father died and he was forced to inherit his title.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:55 AM on March 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by kumonoi at 6:57 AM on March 14, 2014

a sweet man
posted by communicator at 7:10 AM on March 14, 2014

posted by Monkeymoo at 7:15 AM on March 14, 2014

From the comments in the Grauniad:
"Whenever I was buying flowers in a shop he frequented in Notting Hill Tony Benn always persuaded me to get a bigger bunch on the grounds there can never be too much happiness. A great man."
posted by runincircles at 7:21 AM on March 14, 2014 [12 favorites]

posted by pinacotheca at 7:26 AM on March 14, 2014

posted by Cash4Lead at 7:28 AM on March 14, 2014

posted by foleypt at 7:29 AM on March 14, 2014

If we can find the money to kill people, we can find the money to help people.

posted by MCMikeNamara at 7:34 AM on March 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

posted by idb at 7:34 AM on March 14, 2014

At least for now we still have Dennis Skinner.
posted by epo at 7:48 AM on March 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by colie at 7:52 AM on March 14, 2014


He will be much missed.
posted by immlass at 8:15 AM on March 14, 2014

posted by yellowcandy at 8:40 AM on March 14, 2014

(Truly) Great speaker, good writer, terrible politician. On nearly every policy position he took, from industrial policy to the cold war, history has proven him to be wrong. I suppose it is to his credit that he maintained many of these positions, in the face of evidence to the contrary. Even for socialists, his political legacy is challenging. The role of the Bennites in pushing the Labour party to the left in the 1980s, led to the SDP and Labour's worst defeat. You could say he had a key role in solidifying Margaret Thatcher's government, which in turn brought about the Blairites in Labour he disliked so much.
posted by prentiz at 9:03 AM on March 14, 2014

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.

Here's hoping. A great man, and I will miss his contributions. No full stop from me since he was extraordinary.

posted by arcticseal at 9:11 AM on March 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am working on an article about William Morris today - and then comes the news of Tony Benn's passing. Blooming poignant. I don't have many heroes but Tony Benn was one. We've lost a real fighter today.
posted by kariebookish at 9:33 AM on March 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by Grangousier at 9:47 AM on March 14, 2014


We need more people of principle in politics, sorry to see a great one gone. RIP
posted by Joh at 9:58 AM on March 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by scody at 10:27 AM on March 14, 2014

posted by Iridic at 10:45 AM on March 14, 2014

posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 11:09 AM on March 14, 2014

He wished me good luck on my wedding day. Our party was at a pub just up from the House of Commons, and I saw him walk past. He was always a hero of mine, so I rushed out to say hello. I was obviously a bit refreshed, so he asked what I was doing. I told him I'd just got married, he shook my hand and congratulated me, declined a beer ("I'm really looking forward to a cup of tea") and continued on his way.
posted by Pericles at 11:10 AM on March 14, 2014 [11 favorites]

I can't be very sad that an 88 year old man has died with such a rich humanitarian legacy. So don't go round feeling sad, go round feeling the joy of all the personal stories quoted above, and go round believing that you can change things and refusing to take no for an answer. This is a fitting celebration of a life lived to the full, by someone who took every ounce of privilege and power he had and used it for the best possible purpose.
posted by ambrosen at 11:41 AM on March 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

On nearly every policy position he took, from industrial policy to the cold war, history has proven him to be wrong.
Shit, I've experienced the wrong history again.
This keeps happening.
posted by fullerine at 11:48 AM on March 14, 2014 [16 favorites]

look at Cameron and Osborne and Clegg and Miliband - weak, weak, conviction-free leaders, and puppets of big business. They are not worthy. A real loss.

posted by the_very_hungry_caterpillar at 11:48 AM on March 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

posted by marienbad at 12:02 PM on March 14, 2014

It seems vanishingly rare in this skeptical age to hear talk of a politician being 'inspiring', but it's a sentiment you hear expressed repeatedly about Tony Benn. He will be a sorely missed voice of non-conformism in these post-ideological times in UK politics, where the acceptance of unfettered market forces proceeds virtually unopposed.

posted by Rufus T. Firefly at 12:05 PM on March 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by NailsTheCat at 12:16 PM on March 14, 2014

posted by brundlefly at 1:07 PM on March 14, 2014

posted by ZipRibbons at 1:32 PM on March 14, 2014



> On nearly every policy position he took, from industrial policy to the cold war, history has proven him to be wrong.

On the contrary, on most of the policy positions he took, history has proven him to be right. I'd say that we ignored his warnings, and the current dire state of the world's workers is entirely because we did.

The Cold War is a particularly good example. Benn's claim that the military and industrial might of the Soviet Union was dramatically overstated turned out to be entirely true. He was entirely right to oppose Star Wars and the dramatic military build up of the US and UK during the 80s - the Soviet Union simply wasn't producing enough stuff and would have collapsed at about the same time regardless.

If we owe the peaceful end of the Soviet Union to anyone, it's to one person - Mikhail Gorbachev, one of the greatest humans of our time.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:21 PM on March 14, 2014 [9 favorites]

My father assures me that Tony Benn flew out to Iraq on the even of the gulf war and rescued a plane load of the British civilians that were still there (some worked for his construction company). He gave Saddam a list of the names and negotiated their safe passage home.

He really was a hero.

"If we can find the money to kill people, we can find the money to help people."
posted by Dr Ew at 3:26 PM on March 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

Whenver I see that Ali G clip I just think "you can't cheat an honest man." The world would be a better place if it was made of Tony Benns.
posted by Summer at 4:08 PM on March 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by homunculus at 4:26 PM on March 14, 2014

posted by knapah at 5:27 PM on March 14, 2014

Posting from the US — one of the bonus features on the UK House of Cards DVD set is a short documentary with Tony Benn conducting a video tour of the House of Parliament. He shows one of the brass plaques he had put up. The time he had inherited a peerage and was prevented from sitting in the House of Commons was described, and his efforts to renounce his peerage (he displays a vial of blood he says he'd had drawn to demonstrate that it in fact had not turned blue). Staffers throw a birthday celebration for him with a cake decorated for 'Big Benn'.
posted by rochrobbb at 5:34 PM on March 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

He came to speak at Southwark College when I was there in 1977 — for a gaggle of about 15 students from a rather nondescript further education college. I have no recollection of who organized it nor any idea why he bothered; it can’t have been worth his time. We were in a small classroom in the Cut and he didn’t “speak” he just sat on a desk in our midst and discussed things with us. He was incredibly gracious and lucid, taking a bunch of naive, pimply teenagers and their ideas seriously, and gently persuading us by the force of his arguments. I disagreed with him about a bunch of things, but he was personally truly impressive.

The world would be better if more people, of all political persuasions, behaved like him. He may well have been on the wrong side of some political battles (moral battles are a somewhat different proposition), but the most successful politicians are seldom the nicest people.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 11:38 PM on March 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by cotton dress sock at 12:47 AM on March 15, 2014

posted by lucien_reeve at 4:50 AM on March 15, 2014

I admired this man. So sorry to hear this...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 11:39 AM on March 15, 2014

Growing up in the antipodes I didn't know of Tony Benn, but I lived in the uk at the start of the Iraq war and he was in the media a lot. So I learnt a bit about his background, and found myself impressed.
My best wishes to his family and those still carrying the flag in the UK. I hope his passing helps to redouble efforts at this time when the left seems hopeless. My guess is he would be speaking passionately for more involvement and grass roots action.
posted by bystander at 4:06 AM on March 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by Pouteria at 5:27 AM on March 16, 2014

This is Guy Rundle's obituary, which I thought was quite informed and interesting
When Margaret Thatcher died, the House of Commons was given over to a six-hour session to eulogise her (Winston Churchill had got an hour or so), her flag-draped coffin was hauled down the Mall on a gun carriage to St Paul’s cathedral -- and protesters who held long-promised "Maggie’s Dead" parties were accused of politicising her demise. The logic of the ceremony was explicit: Thatcher had saved Britain from itself, fusing conservative politics to crown and church, as the Right.

It is both a source of relief and of profound melancholy that the death of Labour Party politician Tony Benn (pictured) has been greeted with nothing like the fierce divisions occasioned by Baroness Thatcher’s departure. Relief because Benn’s genial, expansive and overwhelmingly optimistic vision was rightly deserving of universal honour in a way that Thatcher’s politics-as-warfare could not; melancholy because the kindnesses paid to him by his enemies was a measure of the failure of his core project, which was democratic socialism in the post-war period. There was a period -- in the mid-to-late 1960s -- when something like that was possible in Britain, and again in the mid-'70s. That it never happened was due more to Benn’s Labour colleagues than to the Tories themselves -- and it was the failure of Britain’s top-down social democracy to take that next step that created the political vacuum that Thatcherism would fill.

Thus Benn, an MP for 50 years, a tireless campaigner, a diarist and an orator of immense skill, has had nothing but praise in The Spectator and The Daily Torygraph for his big heart, his championing of the radical traditions, the Levellers, the suffragettes, and did those feet in ancient times, etc, with the praise reaching down to the condescending, if not satirical -- with the historian Dominic Sandbrook remarking that of course everyone loved Tony but if he’d had his way, Britain today would look like North Korea, etc, etc.

It’s an absurd lie, but it's a measure of the strange politics of Britain -- a place where real political difference once presented itself, yet where the main players were so closely bound up with each other that the fights of yesteryear become, in retrospect, panto -- that such a thing could occur.

Benn was born Anthony Wedgwood-Benn, son of the Viscount Stansgate, who was, of all things, secretary of state for India. Benn flew as a pilot in World War II and took a seat in the 1950 Parliament at age 24. He was a moderate, statist, Labour member -- I once heard him at a book launch say he had never read Marx until he was in his late 40s -- and he began to move leftwards in the early '60s. By the time that Harold Wilson took power in 1964, Benn was a convinced socialist, committed to the notion of a nationalised industry policy that would drive a genuine push towards equality.

He had big battles -- to try to create a form of socialist modernisation in British industry -- and small ones, such as, when postmaster, trying to get designs other than the Queen's head on stamps. In a second stint in the '70s, he introduced the first health and safety legislation, and a bunch of other small reforms. It was at that time that he earnt the affection of the Right by being an opponent of UK entry into the European Union, from the Left position that it was a move by the European corporate elite to bypass local democracy.

But opposition to the EU was in conjunction with his other cause, which was an economic system that was both publicly owned and had a degree of worker participation and control. In the '60s, Benn had become convinced that the problems associated with nationalisation of industry had to do with the bureaucratisation of the process and the lack of dynamic involvement by workers in their own industries, which tended to reproduce old class divisions. He was blamed for creating the money sink that was vehicle manufacturer British Leyland; but he also created the consolidated state-owned mainframe computer company ICL, which even the Thatcher government maintained as a viable concern. Indeed, the portrayal of Benn as some sort of woolly big-hearted idealist, knitting socialism while singing Dirty Old Town, does him a particular disservice. Benn was one of the few Labour people who took seriously the notion that Harold Wilson had put forward -- that the "white heat of technology" would create the conditions where socialism could be created.

"... even those who honour Benn from the Labo(u)r side of politics treat him as little more than a mascot."

Wilson was serious about improving people's lives, but not about changing the structures of power. Benn was, and he believed that public ownership, and then social ownership, would unleash social dynamism and innovation. Benn worked with the management theorist Stafford Beer to try and design complex systems whereby social enterprises could be managed without recrudescing into bureaucracy or sliding into disorganisation. (In the early '70s, when Labour was out of power, Beer went to Chile to help the Allende government establish the "Cybersyn" government, which would use mainframes -- connected by telexes! -- to create real-time market simulators to run a cyber-socialist system. This answer to the problems of socialism enumerated by classical liberals such as Hayek was destroyed by the '73 coup which violently instituted neoliberalism, with the enthusiastic support of, erm, Hayek and other champions of freedom. But that's another story ... )

Benn had as much resistance to these innovations from the traditional trade union leadership as he did from the corporate sector -- and even more. Union leaders such as Jack Jones saw Benn not as excessively leftist, but insufficiently so. They were sufficiently, vestigially Marxist to believe that the revolution would create socialism, and that in the interim, their task was to maximise wages share (both Jones, the Trade Union Congress leader of the time, and Thatcher's eminence grise, Sir Alfred Sherman, had fought in the Communist Party brigades in the Spanish Civil War. The UK is a hella strange place).

The lack of a social compact obliged the unions to chase individual wages gains when an inflation spiral set in, and workers became disengaged from the fate of the general economy. By the time that the country had slid into the “winter of discontent”, Thatcher’s argument for individualism and privatisation came to look like the sort of freedom and autonomy Benn and hoped would come from a genuine collective involvement in life.Benn’s reputation for woolliness came from what happened next. Thatcher squeaked through a first term, and after winning a second term, began the share-owning privatisations and battle with the miners’ union that would decisively shift the political culture of the UK. Benn continued to insist that a further Left program — embracing workers’ collectives, etc, etc — would draw out a majority vote from the 40% or so of eligible voters who never bothered to turn up. His earlier focus on detail and on the difficulties of creating a socialist system has been subsumed in his later romanticism, as he played up to the role of charismatic leader. By the time he left Parliament in 2001 — “to have more time for politics” — the Labour Party around him was utterly unrecognisable.

With New Labour committing the party to market supremacy, it was easy to blame Benn and his cohort for Labour’s wilderness decades. Yet what caused such a precipitous drop in Labour’s 1983 vote was the departure of the rebel groups who formed the Social Democratic Party and appeared to have taken 6 million votes from Labour — which might have been enough to get them a narrow win or a hung Parliament in that election. That can be overstated — it’s quite possible that Labour wouldn’t have got all those 6 million votes back. But there is something a little rich about Benn and others being blamed for Labour’s failure to get back in, or close, by those whose direct action split the vote.

In the aftermath, as these possibilities disappeared from the political landscape, what were political defeats gained a retrospective gloss of historical inevitability — so that anyone who had championed anything relatively innovative or liberatory was seen as a smock-wearing dreamer. Had Benn managed to move the Labour government Leftwards, there would have been huge problems ahead — not least that of capital raising in what was becoming an increasingly global market. But it might also have given enough people a stake in the viability of homegrown industry — as occurred in Germany and Scandinavia — to lay the basis for an economic reconstruction, rather than a scorched earth policy.

Had the UK done that then, like Germany, it would have had a viable high-tech industry sector, a more engaged populace, and more evenly distributed prosperity. Instead, the neoliberal destruction of the “workshop of the world” left it dependent on banking and services, wholly focused on the south-east, and creating a vast excluded class of people with diminished lives. It will take another decade or so before people are really willing to admit what a disaster Thatcherism was for the country, both economically and socially.

Meanwhile, even those who honour Benn from the Labo(u)r side of politics treat him as little more than a mascot. There’s something absurd about some people celebrating Benn — who, in his post-parliamentary years threw ample support behind the UK Greens and chaired the Trotskyite-run “stop the war” committee for a decade — when they would have assailed him as a disaster in real life. Benn is the current ALP’s favourite type of “ideas politician” — dead, and thus with no new ones. This is a party that is cheering itself up by celebrating a minority vote victory, with government dependent on independents, in the last state it holds. Wave that red flag. Any more losses and the most senior Labor politician will be an SRC president at a teachers’ college in the Riverina, and the next campaign launch will have to be squeezed in between a meeting on queer toilets and the film club screening of Eraserhead.

Do they care? When Labor last had to reconstruct itself in the post-Whitlam period, it drew on a range of writers and thinkers inside and outside the party to reformulate its ideas, published as the Labor Essays volumes. The process succeeded because the party thought it mattered. Nowadays the reverse is the process. Labor’s “intellectuals” feed off the party, not vice versa — for prestige, for position, for meaning in otherwise unremarkable academic careers. A good proportion of their frontbench are so enamoured of an unrestrained free market, and so relaxed about the depending inequality in Australian life, that they would rather the coalition was in power than that the left of their own party had access to the national economy. Even better is the coterie of a sort of Labor-branded hipsters — who also draw more of their identity from Labor than they put in, by way of reform — more interested in defining themselves against the Greens than redefining their party. Their energy could be better spent.

Let’s face it, most in Labor are relying on the old Labor right standby — turn taking — in an era when they have not merely been turfed out of office, but decimated in several states to the degree that they barely function as a parliamentary party. Yet through it all, a delusional serenity attends, espoused especially by those who have News Corp contracts and are — for reasons that can only issue from a deep masochism — still accorded a role in the party’s life. There is no urge to new ideas or party reform in the current ALP, because there are few things about Australian society that the leadership of the ALP wants to change. They honour someone like Tony Benn by adopting and adapting his maxim, staying out of power to guarantee permanent irreversible stasis.

Ach, to hell with it. Here’s a finale from Benn, the only man who ever got the better of Ali G. That, better than any flag-draped gun carriage, will bear him off to a half-built Jerusalem …
posted by wilful at 7:31 PM on March 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

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