Tony Benn, who died on March 14, aged 88, was the most recognisable political face in Great Britain and beyond. In an age when politics-bashing has become a fad, Benn was the best loved politician around. Even his post-parliamentary career was followed with great interest by the right wing which was his bitterest foe and regularly dubbed him the most dangerous man at different points in recent British history. He won this grudging admiration by virtue of a long life spent in politics and parliament, espousing the case of ordinary folk crushed by unaccountable power and inequality.
Politics and public service ran in his blood. Benn imbibed the love of politics, parliament and puritan radicalism from the family lore (his father was a secretary of state for India under the Ramsay Macdonald’s government). Unlike a majority of politicians who start out radical but end up diluted by the political system, Benn started out moderate and ended up as one of the most visible and consistent political radicals in British public life.
His advent on the political stage was dramatically non-conformist.
Benn created a constitutional precedent by entering the House of Commons rather than the House of Lord by disclaiming his hereditary peerage after a long campaign which ended in 1963. This campaign showed Benn how to be a media-savvy political strategist when this skill was in its early development phase. After serving in the Labour government of the 1960s and 1970s in different ministerial roles with great ability, he turned radical, seeking to expand the Labour party’s socialist-base. This led him to becoming involved in grassroots politics espousing trade union rights and asserting people’s right against corporate and unaccountable political power.
Benn’s radicalism was largely derived from the philosophy of the 17th century Levellers and Diggers movements. These radical movements strove to build popular sovereignty, equality between the sexes and before the law.
Benn argued his case within the Labour party with great eloquence and clarity, winning him huge and devoted following within the party and beyond. In the process, he created a strand of politics which came to be known as Bennism.
With a view to further advancing socialist ideas inside the Labour party, he sought deputy leadership of the party, which he narrowly lost to Dennis Healy, who was on the right of the political spectrum. In 1979, he put forward his political vision in a book Arguments for Socialism. He adhered to his socialist vision with extraordinary fixity.
Amid all these massive ideological fights, he remained a devoted constituency MP, serving his constituents with great zeal and sensitivity. After his retirement, what he missed most about the parliament was the link it had provided to the constituents who offloaded all their problems on him.
He believed the role of the parliament was to act as a buckle between the street and the statute book. Inside the parliament, he showed himself as the best orator of his generation, bringing issues of accountability of executive to the parliament and of the MPs to their constituents with remarkable eloquence. He was instrumental in laying the groundwork for one-member-one-vote procedure for electing the party leader as well as holding the powerful accountable, he held himself severely accountable for each and every minute of the day during his life. At the end of each day he tape recorded his thoughts and doings of the day.
The result of this meticulous routine has been several volumes of widely read political diaries which are worth more than scores of books on politics, philosophy, social movements, anti-colonial movements and new radical ways of doing politics.
Despite his unshakable belief in the parliament and party politics, he left the parliament in 2001 to, as he wittily said, devote more time to politics.
Unlike most of the superannuated parliamentarians, he did not fade away quietly. In the last decade of his life he was a national fixture, travelling up and down the country, educating younger generation on radical ways of changing the world. Above all, he showed through example that socialist causes can be communicated with great clarity and eloquence without projecting a sense of ideological defeatism so common among the left now a days.
He energised Stop the War Coalition and, at its political rallies, he held forth on the grubby politics that lay behind the Western war mongering in recent decades. His oratory and political opposition was instrumental in swelling the ranks of the anti-war movement as evidenced in the biggest anti-war demonstration against the invasion of Iraq.
For me, he remains an iconic radical figure whose belief in radical potential of parliamentary politics and party system was inspiring and hope-enhancing. In pursuing his political vision, he braved the poisonous barbs of the right wing corporate media with great courage and skills. For me, his passing away cuts off my own link to the British Labour party. Like many of my friends, he was the reason I joined the Labour party. He always gave us hope in the potential of politics to change things for the better. To be part of the Labour party under his radical banner was an exhilarating experience.
His demise within three days of Bob Crow, another icon of the British trade union movement, has dealt a double blow to the Left movement as whole in Britain.
British politics will no longer be same without him.
In his last days, the British establishment sought to seal off his influence and pigeonhole him in the category of national treasure. Yet his radical politics goes beyond national boundaries. Bennism is a global phenomenon and so is his anti-establishment brand of politics. Benn’s biography shows us that there is a place in politics for those wishing to change the world for the better and that they should renounce their fence-sitting role and engage in political process. And, above all, dare to be Daniel in politics. This is what he did all his life. Benn always dared to act Daniel until it becomes a second nature. And that distinguishes him from the run of the mill political class.