Tony Benn was a great champion of working people. Loved seemingly universally, it troubled him in later life that he could be well regarded by the Sunday Telegraph. “If I’m a national treasure in the Sunday Telegraph, something’s gone wrong,” he said in the last diaries, concerned that he had become irrelevant.
I interviewed Tony Benn a few times over the years. He never had any pretensions, picking up the phone himself and saying "come over tomorrow morning."
On the last occasion three years ago at his house in Holland Park, he was fragile but still a lucid thinker. The aim of the interview was to look at contemporary issues and particularly a point he made in his diaries of 1977 about political change running in 40 year cycles, with the Thatcherite neo-liberal model taking over in 1979 from the social democratic corporatist model set in place by the post war Clement Attlee Labour government. Prior to Attlee, there had been the great reforming Liberal Government of 1908 and then before that the corn laws upheavals of the 1870s. Tony did not have a clear idea of what the next change would be but lived in the belief that it was coming soon and would be for the better.
Tony was first and foremost a democrat, with a real believer in the potential of education and the human spirit.
He believed strongly in the teachings of Jesus and the gospels but had little time for organised religion. No doubt much of his formation in social justice came as a result of his non-comformist Christian upbringing. He notably parallaled Christians in the Church with socialists in the Labour Party - both distinct minorities.
Many of Tony Benn’s ideas are as relevant today as they were many years ago when he first raised them. He never trusted the nuclear industry, recalling how they had lied to him when a minister about an accident that happened at a power station in the 1950s.
Tony was also an opponent of the European Union, as presently constructed. He objected to the transfer of powers from sovereign states, the lack of accountability and the fact that it was basically run by bankers. In his opposition to Europe he found many allies on the Tory right, not least the late Alan Clark. The rationale for opposition was different but both were united in the ultimate goal.
Tony’s life was a journey that took him from the centre to the left of politics. In the 1950s he was very much the spin doctor in chief for then Labour leader Hugh Gaitskill. He began to move left in the 1960s and 1970s when serving in office under first Harold Wilson and then James Callaghan. Tony seemed to despise Wilson coming to the conclusion that he stood for nothing much beyond personal political survival. A bit harsh maybe.
Hostilities broke out toward the end of the Callaghan government of the late 1970s, with a virtual civil war ensuing after defeat in 1979. The group of left wing thinkers congregated around Tony, coming up with radical new socialist policies for government.
Tony lost the deputy leadership contest with Denis Healey in 1981. The soon to become SDP founders, staying just long enough to cast their votes for Healey in what proved a narrow victory.
He stayed on as an MP, losing his Bristol seat in 1983 but then being elected the following year for Chesterfield. After 50 years, he finally left Parliament in 2001, notably quipping that he wanted to spend more time on politics.
There were others no doubt glad that Tony never became leader of the Labour Party. It was said that the security services were frightened that Tony Benn would become Prime Minister as they had nothing on him. It was Benn upon whom Chris Mullin based the character of Harry Perkins, the left wing Prime Minister in his book A Very British Coup.
Tony gives a brilliant account of life in and out of government in his diaries running from 1940 to 2010. The only sadness is that the final diaries: A blaze of autumn sunshine were cut short by illness, preventing a day to day account of the Coalition. He instead summarises things in effectively a 20 page essay.
In the diaries he also reflects on his life, being driven to try to improve life for humanity generally. He does though have some pangs of guilt as to whether he spent too much time on work and should have given more to his wife and family. He was struck hard by the loss of his wife Caroline in 2000 but had immense pride in all of their children.
He strikes up some important friendships in later life such as with newsreader Natasha Kaplinski and actress Saffron Burrows. Ruth Winstone, who brilliantly edited the diaries was also a steadfast friend for much of his life. Ruth was there on the day of my last interview with him. Tony though showed me out and I can still remember that kindly considerate man framed in the doorway waving goodbye. Though true to form I bumped into him again the next day at the TUC march in Hyde Park.
All who have known Tony Benn will value the experience, a truly selfless person who tried to make the world a better place for all who live in it.
Paul Donovan, Dangan Road, Wanstead