The death of Tony Benn is devastating to me, obviously to his family and to millions all around Britain and the world who recognized 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 recognized 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.
Yet 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 5 a.m. 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 it 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 Sr. 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 program 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.
Jeremy Corbin is a long-time meember of the British parliament from the Labor Party. This article appeared in Morning Star.
Photo: Tony Benn. Wikipedia (CC)