Tony Benn encouraged me

Labour Grassroots event on Zoom, 9th December 2020. Time was short, and so many people wanted to talk about Tony, which meant that it wasn’t possible to give my full contribution, but here are my notes for the event:

I can remember reading Tony’s ‘Arguments for Socialism’ when I was very young, probably about 16 or 17, and going on marches and rallies where he was speaking, and of course, at the big Chesterfield conferences, but the first time I met Tony Benn was when he came to speak at Leeds University Labour Club around 1991-92. I was chair of the club, so I got to take him for a cup of tea in the refectory at the end. I was sitting there, very spaced out because I was sitting having a cuppa with the great Tony Benn and I can remember, all he wanted to talk about was Dennis Skinner and how fantastic he was. Then he suddenly remembered he had a train to catch in a hurry, so I ended up giving him a lift down to Leeds train station in my little old Panda. The only thing was, I hadn’t even passed my test. Tony said, ‘don’t worry, I’ll be your instructor’. I somehow managed to get him onto his train on time, God knows how.

The second time I met him properly was probably about 20 years later, when I’d just opened the People’s Bookshop in Durham. He was coming to the Gala Theatre in Durham to do a talk and I’d invited to come to the bookshop, but realised he wouldn’t have made it up the stairs. But he sent a message via his editor, Ruth Winstone, to say that he’d like to meet me before the event. When I got there, my heart sank as I could see he was surrounded by local dignitaries, one with a chain on and so on. But whether he guessed it was me or Ruth nudged him, he immediately stopped the conversation, and said: ‘I’m sorry, you’ll have to excuse me, I’ve got to speak to this young man, who owns a radical bookshop. By the way, do you know Ben’s bookshop?’ And then he found a spot where we had a lovely 15 minute chat. He was so kind, and thoughtful, like that – and I think a lot of us have those sorts of memories.

I just want to say one thing about Tony’s socialism, though. I think it’s really important and valuable to watch his speeches. He always claimed he didn’t read much – I’m not sure about that, but I do think his legacy owes much to the oral tradition. He was at his best when he was telling a story, and he does this in many of his speeches. They really are beautifully crafted.

The one that everyone should watch, at least once a day, or whenever you feel a bit down, is on YouTube under the title The Issue is Thatcher. It was given in 1990, on the day that Thatcher announced her resignation. And especially the section when he’s talking about the socialist train, that’s a perfect example of how to inject hope and talk about socialism in clear, accessible ways – it being deeply ingrained in people in the way they related to each other, rather than the selfish, individualism of Thatcherism. Socialism as a moral philosophy. And it’s brilliantly done.

I was thinking about this the other day when my good friend Laura Pidcock did a series of posts about Socialism – Socialism is Love; Socialism is Security and so on. And quite a few people answered by saying, no it is not: socialism is the social ownership of the means of production. And of course, that is right, but it’s not the whole story. Socialism is more than an economic code, it’s a moral philosophy and a way of life, and more than anyone, Tony was able to articulate that, to tell that story.

Marxist economics has its place, of course, but if you’re trying to convince someone, that shouldn’t be your opening gambit. Tony understood that. And if you ask me, that’s the lasting legacy, it’s that he showed us how to do that. We may not all be able to win hearts and minds with the same charm and humour as Tony, but I think that is a key lesson: that we must tell stories and make socialism absolutely relatable.

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