It’s been three years since Tony Benn left us. For many of the left, both inside and outside the Labour Party, his departure still leaves a huge hole, despite everything that has happened since his death in March 2014. I think about Tony a lot, imagining what his reactions would be – to Brexit; to Trump’s election; to the shifts on the British left, and the schisms that have opened up.
Benn’s formal political career stretched from 1950 to 2001, but he continued as a huge presence after that decision to ‘leave Parliament to spend more time on politics’, especially in the Anti-War movement. In that huge span of 50 plus years, he transformed from the ‘bright young thing of the party’ (with few socialist credentials) to the ‘kindly, harmless, grandfather’ figure that used to annoy him so much. In between, his politics and his career made somersaults and contradictory turns: there were certain themes that stayed with him throughout (like democracy, internationalism and peace) but there isn’t one, consistent, static Tony Benn, no matter how much the media and the right of our Party would like to fuel the myth.
On top of that, nearly all politicians have contested histories and politics – more so those whose careers span decades rather than years. Even Keir Hardie was appropriated as a Blairite hero, at one very bizarre point of our recent history. Bevan’s quote about the language of priorities being the religion of socialism is paraded around to justify all manner of political compromise. Once they are gone, their words and taken out of context so easily, that it’s hard to retrace the steps to find the real person and the real politics. Partly because of the great volumes of diaries he produced, I suspect this will happen less to Tony Benn himself, than with the political legacy he left: Bennism. Because the concept has become so elastic that it accounts for any practice; from the fight for democracy in the Labour Party, to ‘smoke and mirrors’ factionalising, from socialist internationalism to ‘pulling up the drawbridge’; from ‘a kinder, gentler politics’ to the ice pick. But for me, Bennism does have a core, and it has very little to do with politics itself, but instead the way we do politics. That’s what I learned from Tony.
That is not to say that Tony Benn’s politics in his heyday weren’t important, soundly socialist and expertly communicated. They were – but they weren’t especially different from much of the left around at the time, for instance Jeremy Corbyn or Audrey Wise. They were sound, but not spectacular. Unlike the Ken Livingstone of the 80s, who sought to create a new route out of the crisis faced by the left under Thatcherism, Benn instead tried to take us back, to the roots of the movement for our hope and our inspiration. So, perhaps not fundamentally a revolutionary political thinker. But there are important things other than policies, economic models and strategies – and they are about the process of politics: how we conduct ourselves, build our movements and interact with each other. Some no doubt consider this to be fluffy, new left nonsense, but if you listen carefully to Benn, its integral to his philosophy.
Also, as far as I’m concerned, it’s what Bennism is about, at it’s core. Not the alternative economic strategy, not the Euroscepticism, not even the workers’ control, important though all of those aspects were. No, to me, Tony taught us how to do our politics, which is the most valuable and inspirational legacy of all. For me there were five key aspects:
- Benn was a huge advocate of democracy, both within the Labour Party and wider society. He saw democracy as the real danger to entrenched, capitalist power, but importantly, he also advocated being a democrat in the way you practice your politics. Debate – and comradely disagreement – wasn’t a danger that needed to be silenced, it was to be encouraged and nurtured as the source of ideas which often sprang from the ‘boat-rockers’ rather than those with ostensible ‘power’.
- Alongside that belief in democracy, came a trust in people; a faith that people will come to the right conclusions of their own accord. The narrative of the “sheeple’ which has become so lazily commonplace in the age of social media would have been an anathema to Tony. People, no matter what their experience and what their background, should be treated with respect, not condescension.
- His practice also showed that he understood human psychology deeply. Tony Benn was possible the greatest story teller the party has ever known, not because of any rhetorical flourish, but mostly because he could tell the essence of a political situation in the simplest stories about human experience. I think the greatest example of this is his speech, on the occasion of Thatcher’s resignation, about the “socialist train”. What he was teaching us, before Bernie Sanders, was that to tell stories, to connect with people emotionally, is as important if not more, than the hard politics of policy.
- Tony Benn also taught us the vital importance of history – in particular, it is there that we find stories that inspire us and give us strength. His constant return to the Levellers, to Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Chartists wasn’t a coincidence: it was because they offered us simple, understandable emblems of solidarity. We have an enormous and catastrophic ability to overcomplicate what are very simple ideas on the left. Tony understood the currency and power of the simple narrative of “people power”, overcoming ‘David and Goliath’ odds and turning the world upside down.
- Finally, Tony Benn refused to be drawn into any sectarian battles. This isn’t to be confused with the ‘kinder, gentler’ politics we’ve heard so much of recently. Tony wasn’t above the odd faction fight, and he wasn’t naïve about the problems of the left. No doubt, like many of us, he became frustrated at the antics of smaller, factional groups – who often attacked him as vociferously as the likes of Kinnock and Blair. But he never allowed that battle to become a feature, he would always defend the right of people to organise freely and would defend them against witch hunts and purges. He didn’t do that out of a sense of charity, or goodwill, but because he recognised the existential damage that would be caused by going down this road.
For all these reasons, and many more, I miss Tony Benn hugely. To have a fully fit, sharp Tony Benn surveying the present political scene would be pretty bloody instructive. In my view, we have no one with that clear insight, that understanding of how the big picture works, how we relate to each other as socialist and activists – and that is desperately needed. But there’s little point in speculating about that for very long: he’s not here, that’s gone. But what we do have is a legacy, and a series of principles, left in YouTube clips of speeches, in his books, ‘Arguments for Socialism’ and ‘Arguments for Democracy’, and most of all, in the pages of his phenomenal diaries. If people could, on occasion, take a step back from the immediate chaos, intrigue and dirt of the political moment, and consider the legacy of Tony, of what Bennism at its best might look like, I reckon we’d be in a better place – and we might not miss him quite as much.