Saturday, March 15, 2014

My Log 415 March 15 2014: Tony Benn dies in England: brilliant orator, firebrand radical, true heart of the original British Labour Party

English: Meeting in London against identificat...
English: Meeting in London against identification cards in the UK, on 2 July 2005. From left to right Tony Benn, Shami Chakrabarti, ?, George Galloway (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
James Keir Hardie was an early democratic soci...
James Keir Hardie was an early democratic socialist, who founded the Independent Labour Party in Great Britain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Plaque recording the location of the formation...
Plaque recording the location of the formation of the British Labour Party in 1900. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Portrait Picture of Tony Benn
Portrait Picture of Tony Benn (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The British left-wing leader Tony Benn who began life as Anthony Wedgwood Benn, then was elevated to become Viscount Wedgwood when he inherited a peerage granted to his father, and who renounced the peerage and actually changed these matters for ever in Britain by successfully arguing his right to renounce his peerage through a complex and somewhat antiquated legal system, has died at the age of 88.
His death has evoked an outpouring of tributes to a man whom many regarded as the last of a dying breed, a man who knew what he stood for, and who had mastered brilliantly the art of telling people exactly what it was.
I spent eight years of my life writing about politics in Britain, and at one point in the 1960s I was commissioned by The Sunday Times --- at that time one of the best newspapers in the English-speaking world --- to write a profile of this controversial politician.
So I met him several times, interviewed him at some length, and talked to others who were friends and political enemies, and from it all I developed an intense admiration for a man who always stood on the side of the poor and disadvantaged and who was so positive in nature that he instilled hope in hundreds of thousands of people --- as is evident from the many ordinary people who have written to newspapers expressing their admiration for him over this weekend.
When I wrote my profile he was already being treated by the right-wing as a leader of what they called “the loony left” --- a habit that grew in succeeding generations, as he watched his beloved Labour Party basically turned into something else, a different party espousing different, more right-wing ideas, when it was taken over by Tony Blair, a man whom he along with many others never considered to be a left-wing leader.
At the time he was just approaching a peak  in the role consigned to him by the establishment, that of a half crazy believer in the outmoded --- as they saw it --- doctrine of socialism, the very doctrines that had stimulated the formation of the Labour Party by the British trades union movement at the beginning of the last century.
On the right there was a similar bogeyman, Enoch Powell, whose warnings against the impact of colored immigration into Britain were already resounding among people of that ilk. But Powell was a considerable man, an intellectual not to be brushed aside lightly, and he had been a friend of Benn when they were both members of the House of Commons.
Enoch Powell told me: “He is the greatest master in Britain of the ethical sermon” --- a verdict so demonstrably right on the mark as to be almost astonishing.
Benn told me: “I have always thought that the accession to power of a Labour government in Britain should be as much as possible like Castro marching into Havana”. A quote that encapsulates his enthusiastic radicalism, his slightly naïve optimism, and his determination to be to the left of everyone else.
As part of my research for the piece I read most of the transcripts of he case he argued in court for the renunciation of his peerage  He and others told me he had an unusual method: he seldom read books, and depended on people in his support team to read them and tell him the salient points. Thus, he had not read the actual ancient legal rulings relevant to the cause he was defending; but his supporters in a neighbouring room were keeping up with the argument, and were feeding him information that was likely to be of use to him as the argument unfolded. So, when one of the ancient judges would interrupt him, as they did on an average every ten minutes or so over several days asking him about all sorts of abstruse legal points --- for example, if the point he was making was not superceded by some ruling from, say, 1642, Benn would be able to come back by saying, “That may be very true My Lord, but was not that judgment itself modified by a later ruling delivered in 1723 (or thereabouts.)”  This extraordinary mental agility was at once his greatest strength, and possibly one of his major weaknesses, My theory was that it meant for example, that newspapermen of Fleet Street as it was then, found Benn hard to warm to simply because he was demonstrably cleverer than they were, quicker on his feet as it were, and ready always with a devastating rebuttal to any of their criticisms.  One thing I learned about journalists during my life among them was that they can be quite resentful of people who are cleverer than they are, and I believed that explained a good deal of the bad press that Benn normally attracted
He really believed, when he was elevated to a minor position in the first Wilson government --- it was Postmaster general --- that Labour should be carrying through a veritable revolution in thinking about government and how it related to the people of Britain. He told me, for example, that when the government declared a boycott of the white-supremacist, illegal government of Southern Rhodesia headed by Ian Smith, that really meant they should have no official dealings with that government, Yet one day, across his desk came some document proposing business-as-usual between the two governments. He stopped it right there. He could not approve it because it violated the declared objective of the government of which he was a member.
It was this aspect of the man,  that he meant what he said, that is the characteristic most commented upon by people who have written to the newspapers since his death.
The other admirable thing about him was the clarity and forcefulness with which he expressed himself: as one might gather from Enoch Powell’s description, he was a wonderful speaker, and it is this, again, that hundreds of people have paid tribute to this weekend: he could express himself with such clarity, his oratory was so persuasive that it is clear from the hundreds of letters I have read that ordinary people felt inspired by him, by the strength of his convictions, and the hopefulness with which he always left his audiences.
Although when his political career began 60 years ago he was an ordinary, moderate MP, as he developed his oratorical skills and began to understand his place in British politics, he became more and more radical.
Several people have recalled that he had offered five questions he said should be asked of any person of great power, whether /\Stalin,  Rupert Murdoch, Margaret Thatcher or anyone else.
1. What power have you got?
2. Where did you get it from?
3. In whose interest do you exercise it?
4. To whom are you accountable?
 5. How can we get rid of you?

Anyone who could not answer the last of these questions, he said, could lay no claim to being a democrat.
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1 comment:

  1. Nice piece Boyce. I really enjoyed your accounts of British politics in your Media Maverick memoir, and when I heard about Benn's death on NPR I figured you'd soon be posting something about him. Dana Magliari.