Friday, March 14, 2014

Tony Benn

I saw Tony Benn speak a few times but beyond what he said to the mass audience I was even more struck by how he treated people individually afterwards. Every personal interaction I saw of Benn's was open minded and enthused, the exact opposite of what you'd expect from a famous, experienced and busy person. He didn't see naive idealism as a fault, rather as the first ingredient for every great historical achievement.

He saw his mission to educate and encourage, but never to lose that core of principle. Thus, whilst he dealt with many issues in detail, he could deal with others in a single short line. Asked about the proposed Graduate Tax, he simply said, 'you don't tax people because they're educated. you tax them because they're rich'. Nothing more to add.

Even it was on telly every night, MPs stayed glaringly quiet about the 1996 Newbury Bypass campaign. A rare exception was Tony Benn who didn't just speak out against the road, he backed the vilified direct action. He put us in the long tradition of English rebellion and said we would be remembered long after the bailiffs, police and spies sent to thwart us were forgotten.

His belief in the power of change outside the walls of parliament led him, even though he was still an MP, to make a formal illicit tribute to Emily Wilding Davison by putting up a plaque in the broom cupboard in which she dodged the 1911 census as part of the suffragettes' boycott campaign.

He believed in action to challenge power. He personally fought the Nazis, he backed so many struggles that have now been proven right. When he left parliament he turned the cliche about 'spending more time with family' around, saying he was retiring in order to devote more time to politics.

When the Labour Party he so adored has failed to support a single strike and the modern generation of professional politicians have never put themselves on the line for anything they believe in, it's easy to believe that they don't actually believe in anything. Tony Benn not only believed in humane principles, he believed in people and refused to fall prey to the weary cynicism of the seasoned campaigner.

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