I am sad to see the passing of that seemingly eternal ‘young Turk’ of British politics, Tony Benn. He lived long enough to survive the vilification and ridicule that was often thrown at him by his opponents and became in the end a bit of a National Treasure, albeit still very much an irritant on the backside of the political establishment. No one, fortunately, seems to have missed the fact that he was a man of integrity and one of the most charming people ever to walk the British political stage.
I was fortunate to have met him on a number of occasions when I worked in television. As a young and inexperienced TV researcher for Granada Television one of my earliest assignments was finding myself seeking a short street-side interview with Tony Benn in the early 1980s when he was almost daily news as the leading spokesman for the left of the embattled Labour Party. He knew that the media was often not his friend so I was somewhat daunted by the disdain that answered my request. Maybe he noticed my reaction because in moments his demonic expression turned to one of mischievousness as he told me not to forget that he’d once been a young broadcaster too, in his days at the BBC, and he said: “don’t forget that i know all your techniques.” When the camera rolled he was every bit as articulate and professional as if he had been interviewed by someone who knew what they were doing. I was deeply impressed that someone in such a dramatic period of his life could find the time for a moment of fellow feeling. I think that was his greatest characteristic.
I met him again on numerous occasions during the 1980s, mostly at the Labour Party Conferences where he was a significant voice during the long years of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative administration when, no longer a cabinet minister, he became the voice of Labour’s socialist conscience or, depending on your viewpoint, one of the main reasons why the Labour Party in those years became unelectable. His oratory at that time was impassioned, focused and remains memorable. I was thrilled to witness it. Again, in my humble position as a media hound, I was consistently surprised by the man. He was very much in the firing line in those days but, in my experience, he always took the time to talk, to treat every question, even unworthy ones, with respect and usually he could still find the time for a joke.
I was still on the scene as a political TV researcher when he decided to take his fight for Socialism even further within the Labour Party by standing for the Deputy Leadership of the party against the equally formidable Denis Healey, who won. Both men impressed me with their charm, their sense of fun but most of all with their intelligence and passion. Britain misses politicians of their intellectual vigour today. I was lucky to be a behind-the-camera witness to those years when battle raged inside the Labour Party to find an electable manifesto to replace the pre-eminence of Margaret Thatcher. The Labour Party fractured before our eyes, splitting down the middle and leading to the the formation of what was to become the Liberal Democrat Party. Tony Benn never wavered in his position on the need for Labour to be a Socialist party and even when Tony Blair became Prime Minister, in 1997, Tony Benn called him the worst leader the Labour Party had ever had. The battle is still raging today and will continue even though Tony Benn has died. History may see him as a failure, a man who failed to make Britain a Socialist country but it will also have to note that he was often right too. He predicted the dangers of a World in thrall to a few powerful international companies and of the consequences of that particularly soulless form of Capitalism for the vast majority of the World’s citizens. If many of his policies failed then his voice of conscience was heard and will be remembered. In many ways he was the Saint Francis of Assisi of the Labour Party. His ideals and his example inspired but as in Saint Francis’ Christian Church, the compromises of politics held sway.
I last saw Tony Benn on 15th February 2003 when I went on a march through London with a million others in demonstration against the Iraq War. I was inspired once more by his oratory and impressed that, after all these years, he still hadn’t given up on his ideals. We lost that cause too but his fiery voice lives on beyond what was then seen as another failed cause. He will, I hope, be honoured one day as the profound voice of a nation’s conscience. He will certainly be remembered and, once more, he was right about that. His meticulous diaries will be read long after many of his opponents are forgotten.
My novel, Stephen Dearsley’s Summer Of Love, was published on 31 October 2013. It is the story of a young fogey living in Brighton in 1967 who has a lot to learn when the flowering hippie counter culture changes him and the world around him.
It is now available as a paperback or on Kindle (go to your region’s Amazon site for Kindle orders)
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