Tony Benn, RIP

I’ve just heard that Tony Benn has died at the age of 88. Back in the early 1980s, I learned to regard him as the face of all things evil in British politics. Then, in the mid-1990s, I did a series of long radio debates with him. We strongly disagreed on air, but got on well when the microphones were turned off. I found him generally courteous and interested in ideas. Though they jarred with his belief in a large state, he’d inherited a number of libertarian views from his Liberal Party background. We shared a contempt for the new political class as it emerged in the 1980s. We had a jolly time together at a Eurosceptic conference in 2005. We last spoke early in 2013, when we spent an hour together in a taxi, and he assured me that Michael Foot would probably have seen the funny side of how I portrayed him in The Churchill Memorandum.

He had a long and generally a happy life. He was never short of money. So far as I can tell, he remained of sound mind to the last. Lamentation would be appropriate for the passing of a much younger and less generally fortunate man. But I will note his death, and observe that our politics might have become less plasticised had he become Labour Leader in 1983. He hardly ranks with Enoch Powell, whom he admired. Even so, he was a man who usually said what he believed, regardless of what others thought of it.

Let him rest in peace.

11 responses to “Tony Benn, RIP

  1. By coincidence, I happened to watch an interview of him by Andrew Neil on Youtube a few days ago. One interesting aspect to me was that he said his radicalism had been much increased by his experience in government, in which he realised that the power had gone elsewhere. It was no longer in the elected government, but in the EU, in the IMF, or America (defence), or large corporations, and so on.

    So although his ideas and solutions were far removed from those of libertarians, one can appreciate a certain commonality of the perceived problems that need to be addressed. Unlike I think many here, I have a certain admiration for the old left, despite my disagreement with their solutions. I prefer them to the New Left in many respects. For instance, Attlee’s administration was, I think, at least trying to do the right thing, even if it didn’t work out as expected; they wanted to create a decent country in which people had decent homes and medical attention, and pensions, and so on.

    The current mob aren’t even trying to do the right thing.

    • I agree. The argument with the old left was over the means to a common end. The new trash have entirely different ends, and these are so awful that they need a new language of euphemism to let them be discussed.

  2. Strange, I happened to watch a clip of him talking about Powell a few days ago myself.

  3. David McDonagh

    Yes, he was a complete, or almost complete innocent, Sean. He truly thought that the state was a very good thing.

  4. I have no personal axe to grind. However–he would have sold us out to the Soviets if he had had the chance. That should also be remembered.


    I always found him thoughtful and articulate – more than can be said for the current wonks running parliament. It will be a duller place without him.

    jan Sent using Hushma

  6. Very much of curate’s egg of a politician. I applaud his belief that sovereignty matters, that politics can only be democratic within the nation state and his consequent unshakable opposition to the EU. He was sound on maintaining, as far as possible, national self-sufficiency in vital products such as energy and food. He understood that public utilities should as a matter of principle be in public hands.

    Against those virtues are placed such vices as believing the unions could do no wrong, that state control was a panacea for virtually any part of the economy, that unilateral nuclear disarmament for Britain would be best for the country, and being none too particular about whom he associated with on the hard left including the Militant Tendency and Scargill.

    Very naive in many ways with a decidedly thin grasp of history. For example, he would frequently portray the 17th Century Levellers as prototype Christian socialists. In fact, they would have been opposed to just about everything socialists stand for, they being a movement primarily of the small independent man, people who stood on their own feet.
    At the level of his personal life Benn was a dreadful hypocrite. He inherited considerable wealth and was content to live the life of a rich man. This sat very awkwardly indeed with his hard left politics.

    A personal anecdote. I was at university with Benn’s eldest son Stephen. We weren’t what I would call friends, but we shared many a history tutorial and seminar so I got to know him quite well. A completely different personality to his father, he being rather quiet and reserved and decidedly uninterested in politics. RH

  7. A well written obituary.

    I would not have been so kind. But the man is dead – may he rest in peace.

  8. “To thine own self be true”. Was that Aristotle? Our maths teacher was fond of quoting the phrase, though I’m not sure why. It certainly applied to Tony Benn – he had no eye for focus groups, opinion polls or anything. He fought passionately for the things he believed in – how many of today’s politicians can say the same.

    Robert Henderson I must take issue with your statement that “At the level of his personal life Benn was a dreadful hypocrite. He inherited considerable wealth and was content to live the life of a rich man. This sat very awkwardly indeed with his hard left politics.”. I firmly believe that his inherited wealth was the CAUSE of his socialist leanings. In fact, inherited wealth, and the concomitant sense of guilt about the proverbial ‘working man’ that often accompanies it, is often the wellspring of socialism in this country. It is perceived by both parties as ‘unfair’ that one man should have more than another, especially when he gets it for free. This is why socialism is not so rife in the United States, where there is no primogeniture and ‘inherited wealth’ on the scale we know it hardly exists. Alexis de Tocqueville made this point in ‘Democracy in America’ (I mean the point about inherited wealth, not about socialism!). And of course Envy of the wealth of others barely exists in the US.

    Most politicians one tends to broadly agree or broadly disagree with. Tony Benn was an exception. I disagreed 100% with him about most things but agreed 100% with him about others. He was a fine man and will be missed.

  9. Hugo – To thine own self be true
    This above all: to thine own self be true,
    And it must follow, as the night the day,
    Thou canst not then be false to any man.
    Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!

    Most humbly do I take my leave, my lord.

    Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78–82

    As for Benn, whatever his motivation it does not excuse him his hypocrisy. If he was not to be a hypocrite, he should have used his inherited money to benefit the poor and/or promote the cause of his brand of socialism.

  10. I dunno. There are plenty of Champagne Socialists out there, but I can’t see Benn as one of them. I believe he was genuinely motivated by concern for the ‘working man’, and a sense of unfairness that he should have life so easy while others had to toil in order to eke out a meagre existence. I personally think he was totally misguided, but that’s not the point – he was sincere in his beliefs. I also find his sentiments rather odd – I personally couldn’t care less whether someone has more money, or less money, than I. But ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ seem to be the watchwords of the day. And of course I wasn’t born into privilege, so I have nothing to feel guilty about (not that I would feel the least bit ‘guilty’ even if I were!).