An extraordinary sense of bleakness has descended on me at the news of the death of Tony Benn. It feels to me, and I hope I might be proved wrong, that he was the last authentic manifestation of the politics of hope in this country, and that we are now a bereaved people, whether or not we fully realise it.
Whenever Tony Benn spoke, the thing which always shone through for me was his absolute commitment to human welfare and fulfillment, to the exclusion of any other consideration. Whether some of his specific policy proposals were workable was not the point. In everything he said and did, he upheld the principles which must guide humanity if it is not to self-destruct – people and their fundamental needs come first – systems power-structures and policies exist to serve people, not the other way round.
There is much talk about “conviction politics” but this elides a hugely important distinction. Conviction is often destructive, when it is rooted (as it so often is) in fear, prejudice, or hidden agendas (such as the preservation of special interests). Hitler was a conviction politician, so was Stalin. There’s a surfeit of “conviction” in the dreary recitation of fixed positions which substitutes for political debate in most of the world’s media. Only when explicitly guided by principle, morality, and a complete absence of self-interest, does conviction become fruitful. Tony Benn was compelling to, and respected by, millions precisely because he so obviously pursued his deeply held beliefs wherever they took him, with depth and oratorical genius. His loss of institutional power within the Labour Party and parliament gave him a different – and probably much deeper - power in his later years, a power to win hearts and minds across the political spectrum by encouraging people to take hold of and reflect on fundamental truths about the purpose of society and the politics which serve it.
It is sad that the more generous and clear statements about Benn have often come from outside the Labour Party. Too many within the Labour Party are unable, even now, to see him as anything but the person who (in their eyes) kept them out of power for so long and split the party. That is a narrow and small-minded response from people besides whom Benn was a giant.
For being a tireless crusader particularly against the havoc that British militarism has wreaked around the world, I salute his memory, and hope that I may remain as tireless in this cause as he was in his late eighties. In common with millions of others, I was present at the massive demonstration against the Iraq War on February 15th 2003. Tony Benn was, for me, an essential voice at that demonstration, who epitomized and manifested – not only in London but across the world - the deeply held values that brought us there.
This short documentary about February 15th 2003 contains a number of appearances by Benn, including an extract from his speech of that day. It is a suitable testament to his legacy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ysva-csAg8A