Sunday, March 23, 2014

Straight from the Heart

On the morning of Friday 14 March I experienced one of those moments that will never fade from my memory. Cup of tea in hand, I was just about to settle into the armchair next to the radio when a sudden change in tone in the Radio 4 news presenter’s voice caught my attention. She paused momentarily and then solemnly announced the death of Mr Tony Benn. A wave of blunt pain rose up through me. Putting the tea aside I breathed deeply and the pain shifted into the deadweight that is grief.

Unlike Mr Benn’s bereaved family and friends, I can’t say that the loss of this gifted politician and inspirational leader is personal, but it feels like that. It feels as if part of me has been torn away, leaving behind an emptiness that has persisted since the news of his death. It is true that we have lost a unique and historical figure, a “national treasure” as he was called in his latter days, but it is largely nostalgia which explains my reaction. His importance for me dates back to my student days, when politics and protest formed as much a part of my education as my studies did. Again and again Tony Benn gave voice, as eloquently and passionately as only he knew how*, to the socialist politics I believed in. His words brought clarity and conviction to the muddled left-wing discourse in my head, and he became central to many of the causes I supported.

That was the era of the Sandinista revolution and the spread of Euro communism, when it made sense to hitch-hike to Greenham Common and show solidarity with the women camping there in protest against the Cruise missiles base. It made sense to walk in the People’s March for Jobs, to join the campaign in favour of the miners’ strike and to have fun at the Marx with Sparks festival in London. Crucially, the music scene caught the mood of the times and brought the language of class politics right into mainstream media. Without bands like the Jam and the Clash the struggle might have been grimmer; it wasn’t. Their energy infused the potential for change with a momentum that I still recall thirty years later.

The campaigns and the music were all very well, but without credible and articulate leaders with access to power the Left risked losing focus. For many of us Tony Benn provided that focus. Of course, as the “figurehead of the Lunatic Left,” as he was labelled by the tabloid press, Mr Benn was repeatedly ridiculed and vilified. This was a man who was elected to the UK parliament no less than 15 times, who formed part of the Labour cabinet and very narrowly missed being elected leader of the party in 1981.** His voters, constituents and a significant section of the Labour Party certainly didn’t share the tabloid view; they had sufficient trust in the man to elect him into positions of power. By a tiny percentage, Tony Benn failed to become Labour leader in 1981 and possibly prime minister thereafter. The opportunity came and was lost.

Tony Benn2.jpgThose years, when socialist politics were alive and vibrant, have been eclipsed by the rise of Thatcherism, the demise of trade union influence and the growth of a society in which greed is exalted and encouraged. This is the UK today. It wasn’t always like this and for those of us who recall a time when politics and policies were different, our memories, and our lives too, are that little bit lonelier now that Tony Benn has gone.

TONY BENN 1925 – 2014

*  David Dimbleby describes Tony Benn’s oratory style as “mesmerising.” (BBC Radio 4 5.00 news, Friday 14 March)

** Denis Healey won the contest by 1 vote (Healey 50.4 / Benn 49.6)

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