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Tony Benn – a titan of our movement

Tony Benn and a miners bannerOn the day of Tony Benn’s funeral, Jeremy Corbyn fondly remembers his fellow rebel MP and close friend Tony Benn – including their late-night escapade to put up a commemorative plaque to Emily Wilding Davison in a parliamentary broom cupboard.

The death of Tony Benn is devastating to me, obviously to his family and to millions all around Britain and the world who recognised him as a friend, an honest man, and someone who passionately believed in the cause of socialism and humanity.

Tony was an MP for 50 years, with only a very short break between a sad defeat in Bristol East in 1983, and his election to Parliament as MP for Chesterfield nine months later.

His contribution to Parliament was magnificent in every way.  He saw it as an institution to be revered and supported, but which he wanted to make more effective.

He was a real democrat who understood the broad sweep of history and how today’s parliamentary democracy is a product of the Peasants’ Revolt, the English civil war, the Great Reform Act of 1832, the Chartists and the radical movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Tony was a minister in the 1964-70 and 1974-79 Labour governments.  A far-thinking postmaster general, he went on to become minister of technology.

He recognised Britain’s need to develop high-quality cutting-edge engineering as the way forward, and through his personal intervention he saved the Concorde project from cancellation in 1974.

As minister for industry in the second Wilson government, Tony developed the lessons of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work in 1971 as a way of defending industry from the predators who only saw assets to be stripped.

As secretary of state he steered through the public ownership of shipbuilding and aircraft manufacture, supported the Triumph Co-operative at Meriden and spoke at enormous Institute for Workers’ Control conferences.

I worked at the Engineering Union in the early 1970s and Tony came to our offices to seek support for his industrial strategy because he felt he was being obstructed by the dead hand of officialdom in Whitehall.

He encouraged us to produce a blueprint for workers’ control of British Leyland. Sadly, he was moved on from his ministerial position before this bold move could take place.

Some of those who vigorously opposed Tony in the 1980s have surfaced again in the aftermath of his death, and are retrospectively trying to blame him for Labour’s 1983 election defeat.

Let me be clear, the manifesto on which that election was fought would be highly appropriate today to deal with the finance and banking crisis that has been visited upon the poorest people in Britain and, indeed, across Europe.

The real reason for Labour’s 1983 defeat was the defection of a number of leading figures in the Labour Party to the SDP, allowing Thatcher to be re-elected on the same vote as she had achieved in 1979, while calling it a triumph.

When the miners’ strike took place in 1984-5 it coincided with Benn’s election campaign in Chesterfield – and what a pleasure it was to campaign with him there, where he was elected and subsequently re-elected.

The miners’ strike in many ways saw Tony at his finest, tirelessly travelling the country supporting picket lines and the Women Against Pit Closures, managing to unite inner-city struggles with the mining communities and always bringing a strength of internationalism into all of his speeches, regardless of the fact that it might be at 5am on a freezing picket line with an enormous menacing police presence threatening the miners and their families.

Tony, apart from being a great writer of diaries and a highly optimistic political philosopher, was fascinated by discussions and ordinary people’s stories.

For a time in the late 1980s we held meetings of the Independent Left Corresponding Society, so named in memory of the radical correspondence societies during the dark days for radicals in Britain in the early part of the 19th century.

These meetings which included such luminaries as Ralph Miliband, Jim Mortimer, Tariq Ali and Hilary Wainwright, took themes for discussion about party structures, the development of democracy and the effectiveness or otherwise of trade unions. In many ways this was my university education.

Tony never shied away from supporting equality, anti-racism and causes that didn’t get much attention from the media or the political Establishment.

He supported the black community in Bristol when they boycotted the buses in 1959 because of the racism in the recruitment of drivers and conductors. He wanted to negotiate and talk with Sinn Fein when it was being isolated and ostracised.

Before the outbreak of the Gulf war in 1991 he went to Baghdad with Edward Heath to try to obtain some kind of agreement, and memorably said when the war started that George Bush Snr had declared himself at war with humanity.

Tony later was hugely active in the foundation of the Stop the War Coalition in 2001 and was president at the time of his death. He had been an inspirational figure at every rally, particularly the million-plus rally in Hyde Park on February 15 2003. Right up to the end Tony was supporting and speaking at peace events.

An imaginative thinker, he founded the Coalition of Resistance as a way of uniting people in opposition to the austerity programme being promoted by George Osborne and David Cameron whose method of restructuring society remains to increase inequality and to concentrate wealth in the hands of the minority.

I have so many personal memories of Tony. I first met him in the late 1960s as a young activist and it’s been a privilege and honour to work with him on so many causes for so long.

My memories include little vignettes of life such as, at a moment of enormous tension in Brighton as Tony was about to lose the deputy leadership of the Labour Party election, he was frustrated that he couldn’t get a cup of tea because the kettle wouldn’t work. I suggested that this should not have been a problem for him as a former technology minster, at which he smiled.

Later, when my eldest son Ben was just a few months old, I brought him into Parliament, and he sat on Fenner Brockway’s knee in the parliamentary cafeteria while Tony fed him and talked to him, both of them oblivious to what was going on around them as they concentrated on each other.

Tony had a great sense of history and wanted Parliament to commemorate those who had made a difference, including Emily Wilding Davison and her census-night sojourn in the broom cupboard under Westminster Hall.

I had the pleasure of helping Tony put the plaque up late one evening after the house had finished its business for the day.

We went to Tony’s car and collected the plaque and an electric drill and as we made our way via the crypt a policeman approached us.

I thought the game was up and we’d be asked about the drill and electric tool box, late at night.

While I was trying to dream up the appropriate explanation to offer, the policeman approached and simply offered to carry our bags for us.

Tony told him that we were on our way to the chapel, at which point the policeman offered to escort us but Tony insisted on privacy.

On another occasion we went to Belfast to observe a “supergrass” trial, where the juries did not exist and the judge made a decision on the basis of evidence given from an informer who in return was given anonymity, a change of identity and a very large sum of money to start a new life.

When we arrived we went and queued up with other families to go into the public gallery and the court master saw us and said he’d find a space for us in the well of the court.

Rather undiplomatically he explained that in the public gallery one couldn’t see or hear anything because the glass screen was scratched and there was a very poor PA system.

When we reached the well of the court, to the chagrin of our host, there were no seats available until the empty 12 seats in the jury box were spotted and we duly sat in them.

The barrister for the defence spotted an opportunity and announced to the judge that he was surprised at how small the new jury was but that he was happy to accept its wisdom.

Tony leaves behind the books and wonderful diaries he wrote and the enormous admiration and the friendship of millions of people.

He died with his family around him and while it is desperately sad for all of the family, his children Hilary, Stephen Melissa and Josh, he also leaves behind a wider family who he loved and adored.

At a Stop the War conference in the Emmanuelle Centre late last year, he was treated with overwhelming warmth and reverence by the international gathering.

He realised his legacy is a belief in people, progress and our abilities to shape our own lives, not leave it to the powerful and the wealthy.

Thanks, Tony, for everything that you did and the path that your writings will continue to show about how to bring about change. It was been one of the great privileges of my life to have known you so well and worked with you on so many causes.

This article also appeared in the Morning Star

10 Comments

  1. John Reid says:

    Jeremy, regarding g the SDP, do you have proof, that the 3.3 million less people who voted Lsbour in 1983′ that 79 were physically forced by the SDP to not vote labour(by the way, only about 2m actually switched, the other 1.3million ex labour voters stayed at home in 83) or was the r Eason that millions of labour voters didn’t vote labour in 83 was because they didn’t agree with the manifesto, and although it hurt them, they had to feel that if the Tories won, due to not voting labour, they just couldn’t bring themselves to do it, as to r the miners strike, I recall Benn put through a commons motion, that all those who got criminal records due to the strike should be Aqutted,even those who killed a Taxi driver David Wilkie, where does calling for criminal convictions for killing stop, would Benn have called for lee Rigbys killers to be Aquitted?

    1. Kevin Joyce says:

      Excellent article by Jeremy on Tony Benn. I saw him speak many times in Durham at both the Gala (I’m a Durham miner’s son) and latterly at the Gala Theatre a couple of years ago. As for this reply by john reid – yes the presence of the SDP split the Labour vote (they were the new kid on the block back then…possibly paid for by an American slush fund). Also, the Falklands Factor that whipped up nationalist hysteria (Gotcha!) played its part in Thatcher’s re-election in 1983. John reid, have you read any of the recent revelations from Thatcher, published after the 30 year rule, that show the levels of class hatred that fuelled Thatcher’s attack upon the working class in that era? If you had, and Benn was close enough to the mining communities in that era to hear their view on it, then you would surely see Tony Benn’s rationale in seeking amnesty/acquittal for those who received criminal records. As Billy Bragg said back then, “Which side are you on?” Presumably you were on the side of Ramsay McKinnock? as Arthur Scargill referred to him? That is to your everlasting disgrace.

      1. John Reid says:

        Actually I was 10 so I wasn’t on anyone’s side at the Falklands, regarding calling Kinnock Ramsay Mc Kinnock, I recall the Sun called Scargill Mine Fuhrer, whatever revelation, that Thatcher was going to shut down more puts than first admitted, Scargill didn’t ballot his members ,he single handedly turned around public sympathy,from supporting the miners 10 years earlier, to by the end f 1984 losing sympathy into them,

        The SDP didn’t split the labour vote, labour having policies that millions of ex labour voters,couldn’t bring themselves to vote for split the labour vote

  2. David Pavett says:

    Enough of this effusive adulation already! When is Left Futures going to call a day on it? It makes the left look so pathetic that praise has to be heaped in this extravagant way. This reveals its lack of focus and lack of agreement on basic concepts. Hero worship then comes in to fill the vacuum.

    I am convinced that Tony Benn was a thoroughly decent person with strong socialist convictions. It is reasonable to remember him for that. But when he is made into a politician of great discernment and judgement that is another matter.

    The miner’s strike episode illustrates the problem well. Benn gave uncritical support to Scargill and the NUM leadership but was that really what was needed. Do you say to a friend who is clearly about to walk over a cliff edge “keep going I am with you all the way”?

    I can admire Tony Benn for his long-standing commitment to a future socialist society and his instinct to support people in struggle for their rights and improvement of their conditions of life. I just feel that his memory is best served by comment which doesn’t go so far over the top that it makes him into something that he wasn’t.

    I suspect that he would have preferred sober analysis of his achievements and his failures to uncritical praise for everything that he did. We do not need saints to pursue the cause of socialism.

  3. Robert says:

    Reid for god sake mate he was buried to day just for once why not just sit back and watch a socialist laid to rest, do not be a [xxxxx] all of your life.

  4. John Reid says:

    Robert, you think me correcting factual mistakes on the day of his funeral ,make me a Pratt,that’s your choice,Benn was a stickler for arguing what one believes in, including for Taxi driver to working miners David Wilkie ,murderers to have their convictions over turned,personally I disagree,

    I was at his funeral, it made me sick to see Gerry Adams there, come to think of it,a Robert for years you were putting stuff up about dancing on Thatchers grave

  5. SANDRA CRAWFORD says:

    Good article – he made mistakes as he was willing to admit himself, but if only we had a few like him to take his place Labour would be definitely be on the right road for next years election.
    Only one error in the article – the Conservative vote went down by 685,374 in 1983! The SDP were mostly culpable!
    1979:-
    Conservative 13,697,690
    Labour 11,532,148
    Liberal 4,313,811
    1983:-

    Conservative 13,012,316
    Labour 8,456,934
    Liberal/SDP Alliance 7,780,949

    1. SANDRA CRAWFORD says:

      To blame for Labour’s loss of the GE in 1983, that is.

      1. Robert says:

        Sadly History is more blunt then that Benn lost the election they will say due to a suicide note, you wait for John to wake up.

    2. David Pavett says:

      I am afraid that having a “few like him” would definitely no put Labour on the right road. That would require a Labour Party functioning as a serious Party of the left and that cannot be a matter of a few notable activists. It has to be based on the actions of very large numbers of people working within a democratic party of the left with clear socialist objectives. In other words it has to be something rather different to today’s Labour Party.

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