THE death of Tony Benn is a watershed in British politics.
He was the last truly great parliamentary socialist, and a man of courtesy, decency, principle, integrity and vision.
And he was a true hero of mine.
During my years as a newspaper journalist I was fortunate enough to interview Tony three times, and each interview was a joy.
Unlike many of his contemporaries – including former chancellor Denis Healey and ex PM Jim Callaghan – he did not waffle over his time in office or make excuses and like younger MPs he did not obscure with sound bites or spin.
Instead he told things as they were and imprinted his vision of equality and fairness in words of insight and candour.
The interviews were all in the 1990s, so during the latter time of his 50 years as a member of parliament, but he was still fresh and relished argument and fought for justice.
After each interview I felt like I had been speaking with a friend.
And I have another reason for loving Tony Benn.
In 1994, 41 MPs signed an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons praising my year-long investigation into the link between the test firing of depleted uranium tank shells and local clusters of cancer.
The same tank shells provided a link to Gulf War Syndrome in the first Gulf War.
Some of my political heroes signed that EDM including Alan Simpson, Ken Livingstone and Dennis Skinner. But the sixth signature on that motion was Tony Benn. His name next to mine was like a personal shield of honour. A treasure I will keep till the grave.
Tony was true fighter for ordinary working people from the moment he was elected an MP in 1950. He was a privileged and educated aristocrat turned man of the people.
From his successful fight to remain in the Commons upon the death of his father Viscount Stansgate – a Viscountcy which Tony was to be forced to inherit – through to the Hovercraft, Concorde, TSR2, nuclear power, special edition postage stamps, tape-recording his own interviews and speeches, he was every inch the dashing, eloquent and unafraid hero.
Tony Benn was one of the few British politicians who became more left-wing after having actually served in government.
When Labour lost power in the 1979 General Election, Tony became the authentic voice of the radical left with the press coining the term Bennite to describe the policies espoused by those resisting attempts to move the Labour Party to the middle ground.
As such, he became a bogeyman for the right in British politics, with delegates to Conservative conferences displaying Ban the Benn badges in the style of CND’s Ban the Bomb logo.
Later in life he became a folk hero as well as a campaigner for a number of causes, particularly opposition to UK military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He was blamed by many for contributing to Labour’s lack of electoral success during the 1980s.
Tony Benn was a totem for those who rejected the shift to the right widely seen as necessary if the party was to regain power.
This shift was eventually completed under Tony Blair, who pushed through the abandonment of clause IV and redefined Labour as a party comfortable with privatisation and free market economics.
Tony Benn was unrepentant in his opposition to the changes saying: “We are not just here to manage capitalism but to change society and to define its finer values.”
With a typically memorable turn of phrase, Tony then signalled the end of his parliamentary career in 1999, when he announced he would not be standing for re-election at the next general election. Asked whether he would be taking his place in the House of Lords, the former Viscount Stansgate replied: “Don’t be silly.”
His final speech to the House of Commons as MP was an appropriately eloquent farewell, in which he talked widely on his view of the role of parliament and the wider question of democracy.
He said: “In the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person – Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates – ask them five questions: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.
After his retirement from parliament, Tony became the public face of the Stop the War coalition.
In one edition of BBC TV’s Question Time, his exchanges with US Republican John Bolton included this broadside: “I was born about a quarter of a mile from where we are sitting now and I was here in London during the Blitz. And every night I went down into the shelter. 500 people killed, my brother was killed, my friends were killed. And when the Charter of the UN was read to me, I was a pilot coming home in a troop ship: ‘We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.’ That was the pledge my generation gave to the younger generation and you tore it up. And it’s a war crime that’s been committed in Iraq, because there is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber. Both kill innocent people for political reasons.”
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.
Tony’s legacy must now be a catalyst for the left and working people.
The UK is the sixth richest country on Earth, but now has half a million people dependent on food banks; wages haven’t fallen for so long since the Victorian era; the next generation faces being poorer for the first time in a century.
“The flame of anger against injustice and the flame of hope that you can build a better world” is what drives social change.
Appropriately Tony Benn once said: “Modern Britain does not lack anger, but the left’s real mission is surely hope. Charismatic and inspiring leaders will inevitably be mourned. But the injustices that drove them don’t die, and so neither will the need to continue their fight.”
Rest in Peace Tony, you were a legend in your own time.