An obituary written at the time of Tony Benn's passing by John Rees on a life well lived
I have spent a lifetime as a political organiser and for as long as I can recall if I wanted to get something moving the first phone call I would make would be to Tony Benn.
If there was a Stop the War Coalition march or meeting to be organised I rang Tony Benn.
When we launched the People’s Assembly with a letter to the Guardian, the first call was to Tony Benn.
When we opened Firebox, the socialist café and event space, Tony Benn did the honours.
When the Leveller’s Association got a plaque to Thomas Rainsborough put up in the Wapping churchyard where he was buried, Tony Benn was there to make the dedicatory speech.
When Tony Benn was part of any project you knew, and tens of thousands of others in the labour movement knew, that it was worth doing.
He was, when all else is said and done, simply a brilliant and relentless campaigner.
Now, when his death forces me to look back, I realise that he has always been there.
To this day I can still remember the shock of watching the local TV news bulletin in the West Country when I was a teenager and seeing Tony Benn interviewed at Bristol Temple Meads station as he arrived in his Bristol constituency. The questions were the usual ‘aren’t you dividing the Labour Party Mr. Benn?’ stuff. Tony simply refused to answer any of them, but just gave totally different answers. So, in reply to that question, he said something like ‘No, I’m completely opposed to nuclear weapons!’. And so it went on, question after question.
That determination to get his views across despite the institutional conservatism of the media stayed with him all his life, as the devastating BBC interview over the Gaza appeal showed.
I can remember the shock and disappointment of reading, while I was still at school, that Harold Wilson had removed Benn as Industry minister and replaced him with the now deservedly forgotten figure of Eric Varley. It meant an end to the experiments in workers control, like the Meriden Motorcycle Co-operative. Whatever the limitations of those experiments, they are the most radical thing that any Industry minister has ever thought of doing, let alone actually done.
That was the thing about Tony Benn. He was a lot tougher than he appeared. He had to be. I remember driving back with him from a Stop the War rally, in Coventry I think. We were talking and then there was a pause in the conversation. Then Tony said, ‘Do you know what the most powerful word in politics is?’ Then he said, ‘It’s the word No’. ‘If you say No’, he continued, ‘then the other person has to go away and change their plans’.
Perhaps that’s why he liked about the huge ‘No’ placards that the Stop the War Coalition produced, designed by his old friend, the artist David Gentleman. David first knew Benn from the time when Benn was Postmaster General and commissioned David to produce the first stamps in this country that weren’t dominated by the Queens head.
Tony thought persuasion and humour was the key to any socialist argument. But he could never have been the socialist he was without anger at the system. Just take a look at one of his best ever speeches in the Commons about the miners struggle against Thatcher.
Tony Benn was a kind and considerate man, very like another late friend, Paul Foot. He had the habit, characteristic of activists but not of establishment politicians, of being directly available on the end of his own phone. There was no office or secretarial barrier. If you wanted him to do a meeting, you just asked. If he could, he would.
Tony Benn’s politics had depth because he had a sense of history. His Writing on the Wall performances with Roy Bailey were a terrific evocation of this country’s radical tradition. I remember one of the last of these at Counterfire’s Dangerous Times festival in the Rich Mix centre in Shoreditch. The audience were whooping with delight at every song and reading.
He was a great Leveller, and a great friend of the Levellers. He wrote and spoke about them, was a stalwart supporter of the annual Levellers Day march in Burford.
And, of course, he was his own and the age's historian. The Benn Diaries are, in and of themselves, a huge political, literary and historical achievement. A little disconcerting when you were with him of course…knowing that you’d be written up at the end of the day. But he was unfailingly generous, at least to me. After one Stop the War rally Tony wrote in his diary, ‘John Rees made a classic socialist speech about the international class struggle. It made me feel a bit stick-in-the-mud.’ Kind, but wrong. I never heard a Tony Benn speech that was ‘stick-in-the-mud’.
He kept his own archive, and not just of the audio tapes from which the Diaries were produced. He had videos going back to his earliest days as an MP in Bristol battling to renounce his title and winning (totally illegally) a by-election there. When we made a four part interview about his life for the Islam Channel we had to have them converted from Betamax in special studios in Wardour Street!
I first met him when I interviewed him for Socialist Worker back in the 1980s and I invited him to speak at the Marxism Festival year after year. He was resolutely Labour, of course. More so for nostalgic reasons towards the end I think. But he always paid tribute to Marxism as a body of ideas and to the role of Marxists in the movement. He detested sectarianism and, especially in moments of intensified struggle, like the miners’ strike or the Stop the War movement, he found it beyond belief that anyone would stand aside from a united struggle. He used to joke about one left paper that it ‘preached unity on page one and spent the next 16 pages attacking everyone one else on the left!’.
At the height of Bennism in the Labour Party it was commonly and rightly said on the revolutionary left that Tony’s combination of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggle would end in the subordination of the latter to the former. That has generally been true, but it wasn’t the case with Tony Benn himself. In the end he acted as if, and believed that, the movements of the class were primary, and party affiliation secondary. You can see that all shining through in one of the last and one of the best interviews he did with a huge audience at the Southbank centre last year … and the joke at the end is a typical self-deprecating show stopper!
In the end, that was the secret of his popularity in every corner of the labour movement. He had the right friends, and the right enemies. Little known but his doctor once told him that a recurrent health problem was a long term result of an attempt to poison him.
But even some of his opponents could not help but admire him. The launch of his last diary, the magnificently titled A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, was held in the Speakers House at the Palace of Westminster. At it the speaker, John Bercow, sang in Tony’s honour the entirety of Alex Glasgow’s ABC of Socialism … in a perfectly mimicked imitation of Tony’s accent.
Tony disliked the ‘harmless national treasure’ status he seemed to have achieved. But it rested on the firm foundation of affection among millions of working people, the result of decades of struggle against the system.
In the end he said he was not afraid of death. Perhaps that’s what comes at the end of a life well lived. A life where you choose the right side, the right class, and socialist politics. And fight for them till the end.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.