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Tony Benn- a socialist warrior

Tony Benn one of the great UK politicians from the left died yesterday and UK politics will be the weaker for it. Both his grandfathers, John Benn (who founded a publishing company) and Daniel Holmes, were also Liberal MPs (respectively, for Tower HamletsDevonport and Glasgow Govan).

As someone who grew up in the 1970s with Labour in power and Tony a Minister he was a constant backdrop to my youth. I was inspired at the time by the Liberal Party not Labour who had failed to implement left of center policies – it was the Liberals who had taken much of the space on the left that interested me hence joining the Young Liberals.

Tony saw similar problems but his answers were very much more about extending the power of the state over big parts of industry and people’s lives. I saw government as the big enabler the extension of peoples control over the decisions that impact on their lives but there were many times I agreed with Tony.

The Young Liberals in 1983 published the infamous YL News front page with photos of Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone and the headline “Tony and Ken - The Natural Leaders” expressing the feelings of many of the YLs.  

In 1981 we had seen the creation of the Social Democratic Party with the gang of four and in total 28 right wing Labour MPs leaving to join the  new party in ‘Alliance’ with the Liberal Party. We in the YLs were interested in a realignment of the left not the center of British politics. Infact we supported the Labour MP Chris Smith for the 1987 general election as one of the top ten Young Liberal target seats because he had come out as the first openly gay MP and the Social Democrat standing against him George Cunningham who was anti-gay. Values always important in politics and in that we agreed with Tony. Chris won by a small margin and I hope we in some way helped that.

We found ourselves on the same side of the debate with Tony over defense and in particular nuclear weapons, on the issue of Ireland, though it wasn't until 2005 that he argued the Sinn Fein should take their Westminster seats something I and others did in a meeting with Gerry Adams in 1985. Later many of us found ourselves again on the same side over the issue of the Iraqi invasion and always on the issue of the UN and international law.  I agreed when he said:

“We are not just here to manage capitalism but to change society and to define its finer values.”

I just didn’t agree with some of the policy positions he then took that would do that.

Tony talked of the abolition of the House of Lords – by creating a 1000 Labour peers an echo of Asquith  in 1909, when Lloyd George produced a deliberately provocative "People's Budget". Thought by many people among the most controversial in British history, it raised taxes on the rich, especially the landowners, to pay for the welfare programmes. When the Conservative House of Lords defeated it Liberals threatened to flood the House of Lords with 100s of Liberal Peers.  If the Liberals had had a majority in the 1910 election then maybe they would have done that and the politics of the House of Lords would have been different in the twentieth century. He was more funny about it in later life saying:

"The House of Lords is the British Outer Mongolia for retired politicians."

But there were differences on Europe – not the issue that it needed more democracy but that the best way was to leave the EU rather than reform it. Tony was not a friend of the environment or at least not in the 1970s or 1980s he was very much about supporting UK manufacturing jobs. A problem that we had with Labour all the time as the party was actually more built on Unionism (the party of the Unions) than Socialism.  I loved Tony’s quote on the subject:

“The Labour party has never been a socialist party, although there have always been socialists in it – a bit like Christians in the Church of England.”

As chair of the National League of Young Liberals in 1985 I helped put together a bus to go up to help Max Payne – an appalling choice for the Liberal candidate stand against Tony Benn in the Chesterfield by-election. The YL leadership at that time was clearly to the left of the party and the party itself was convinced we were really coming up to work for Tony and not Max.

The right wing press did what they could to demonize him but he could also see the funny side he said:

“If I rescued a child from drowning the Press would no doubt headline the story 'Benn grabs child'.”

His diaries will be one of his great legacies as they give an insight into being in government and the role that the civil service played in supporting the establishment. The 1964 Labour government coming in to find on many of the Ministers desks papers from their civil servants on why the Labour policy on this or that could not be implemented. Something that prompted Gerald Kaufman to produce the great book “How to be a Minister” and the TV series ‘Yes Minister’.

If you look around the House of Commons today it is difficult to see people who will be remembered much after their time in parliament. Who of them have touched the general public and few have stood and helped address the great challenges of today and tomorrow. Perhaps best to leave the last word to Tony which perhaps explains the words above:

"I did not enter the Labour Party 47 years ago to have our manifesto written by Dr Mori, Dr Gallup and Mr Harris"


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