Tony Benn: no spin, no false sympathy, no nonsense

Mar 14, 2014
Annalisa Barbieri

One of the Left’s most influential and charismatic figures – with film star looks to boot

Editor's note: Tony Benn's death was announced this morning. He was 88.

I HAVE no special anecdote about the former Labour MP and Cabinet minister, Tony Benn, who is, as I write, still alive, just very ill and very old. No personal vignette to share that would show I know anything more about him than most other people.

Thus it seems sentimental, false even, to feel sad about someone I don’t know personally. And yet, the news that he’s seriously ill in hospital, and aged 88, makes me feel really sad, and a little destabilised.

People like Benn are like drawing-pins in a map of humanity, keeping us grounded, safe, the right way up. You feel that as long as they are around, nothing really bad can ever really happen.

He never speaks anything less than commonsense, in between pipe-puffs. He brooks no nonsense, seems afraid of no-one and, even at 88, has more balls than the entire current Cabinet.

Despite the right-wing press doing its best to portray him as a left-wing loony (they invariably photographed him from below at conferences to achieve the mad-eyed look) he is a really good-looking man. Try to find the picture of him from 1961, in front of the Houses of Parliament, when he was fighting for his right to abandon his peerage (his father was Viscount Stansgate) so that he could sit in the House of Commons, to see what I mean.

He was handsome enough, not that it really matters, to have gone into films. He even has the perfect matinee-idol middle name of Wedgwood. If he had, he could now have found himself advertising coffee in his silver beard years, but instead, he is, or was until very recently, a powerful political voice, prolific writer and charismatic anti-war campaigner.

Although his political career was largely before the advent of social media, you just know that Benn would never have had to delete a tweet because he’d gone back on his word. I imagine, to Benn, spin is simply a setting on a washing machine, or what you do in a dance move.

There was a certain ‘screw you’ belligerence to him: he’d look a punter in the eye and tell them what he thought and to hell with it. At least you know where you are with that. There’d be none of that head cocked in faux sympathy, nodding without really listening, all the while with an eye on public opinion in the middle distance, beloved of most of today’s politicians.

Even on the Daily Mail site today, below-the-line comments say things like: “He’s the only political voice I trust”.

When he dies, which I hope is a long, long time in the future (as we post this, he’s just spent a fourth night in hospital, and there have been reports that he’s improving), I wonder who else we will ever be able to say that of. And that thought scares me, more than a bit.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Disqus - noscript

I worked in the Civil Service during the 1960s and 1970s. Although Mr Benn was usually charming it has to be said that he was utterly incompetent. Many of the policies he promoted were disastrous and reflected his complete ignorance of how the economy performs. By sticking to political dogma that was popular with trade union leaders the country went through a long period of malaise for no good reason.

Tony Benn: no spin, no false sympathy, no nonsense. Mr. Benn may be as “nutty as a fruitcake” but such is common with politicians. Not aligning myself with his views one thing demands respect is his “sticking to his views”.

I'm sorry that Tony Benn is seriously ill, but that is no excuse for writing an article as nonsensical as this. I am far from being a right-winger - I've never voted Tory in my life - but any politically aware person who was around during the 1960s, 70s and 80s knows that Benn was a disaster in virtually everything that he did.

While in government, he was stunningly inept at running the departments of which he was supposedly in charge. Yet as the same time, he vaingloriously established workers' co-operatives (using public money, but without public oversight) and he ostentatiously joined violent picket lines like that outside the Grundfoss premises. In doing so, he actively encouraged union dinosaurs such as Arthur Scargill, Clive Jenkins, Ken Gill, Jack Jones and the rest, who failed to listen to the social-democratic opinions of most of their members, brought the country to its knees, and led directly to the rise of Thatcherism.

As if that were not enough, he was a major cheerleader in Labour's lurch to the left in the early 1980s , and a key figure in the creation of the 1983 Labour Party manifesto, - described, correctly, by Benn's colleague Gerald Kaufman as "The longest suicide note in history. In its turn, that led to the creation of the Social Democratic Party, which robbed Labour of much of its talent, and to the unmerited rise of halfwits like Blair.

It's simply not good enough to defend Benn by saying that he was steadfast in his views and would brook no counter-argument. Most of his views were wrong - and he would not listen to anyone who argued against them.

As I say, it's sad that Tony Benn is seriously ill. I hope he recovers, or that if he dies of this illness that his passing is peaceful and without pain. But make no mistake: his political legacy, such as it is, is almost entirely without merit.

Why does "sticking to his views" demand respect? He would have demanded respect if he had recognised that most of his views were wrong.

I served in the Army during messrs Benn and Foot's era - they were both widely viewed in military circles, at that time, as posing a real threat to national security - they espoused unilateral nuclear disarmament in the face of a stated intent by the Soviet Union (together with the military capability to do so) of political and military domination of Western Europe.

It is open to conjecture what might have been the signal to the Soviet Union, sent by Britain, had we adopted Benn's, frankly, naive, stance and abandoned our nuclear deterrent - however, I tend towards the view that we were safer, in that uncertain era, to ignore Benn and Foot.

"posing a real threat to national security"
"espoused unilateral nuclear disarmament"

Pick one.

...your point being???

..."charming" as Benn might have been, this country could ill-afford this man's self-indulgent and narcissistic posturing. As you rightly say, Beth (and I am sure that you were in a far better position than was I, to judge) Benn was quite the dreamer - an incompetent and rather smug idealist.

That unilateral nuclear disarmament would have improved, not harmed, national security, and still would today.

...that is a moot point, anos. The organisation - "Peace Through Nato" regularly held public debates on this very subject throughout the '80's. To this day there are very much polarised opinions on the issue of unilateral nuclear disarmament.

My own view is that for as long as Britain remains a "Forward Operating Base" for the United States, we will require a nuclear deterrent. I have no real admiration for the US - especially that country's naive and aggressive evangelical foreign policy and their obdurate support of continuing Israeli land grabs from the Palestinians.

However, facts are facts - and for as long as we are seen to be close allies of the US, we will remain a nuclear target. We simply cannot afford to ignore that reality.

I find it difficult to square many of the comments below with the veteran politician Tony Benn. I did once meet him and can vouch for his charm. But more importantly, agree or disagree with his political views and policies, throughout his career and more specifically since the late 1970s, he stood out as a politician of principle with a clear vision of the kind of Britain he wanted. In a democracy of course his views can be rejected, but it remains the case that he made his vision plain - none of the kind of dissembling and spinning, soundbites and poll watching that we now associate with nearly all front line politicians. Tony Benn trusted the voter to make up their own mind when they had considered the arguments. Now that is something anyone who truly believes in democracy - left and right - can admire. The British political landscape will be an impoverished place without the figure of Tony Benn sucking his pipe and dispelling his always deeply considered, thoughtful, and reasonably delivered viewpoints.

Should Tony Benn's time on this earth finally be up , I hope that he will find the great worker's utopia some where up above. The colour will be red ,the pearly gates a picket line and pipe tobacco in abundance. I wish him well

Perhaps you have forgotten, but the Civil Service must remain politically neutral (note also the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975), in order to subsequently carry out the policies of the government of the day. Therefore the narrow minded opinion you have expressed, is in breach of a constitutional convention. You're view is inconsistent with that of the popular electorate, to whom you (as a civil servant) are accountable to, by your work for the Ministers. In the Parliamentary system of the UK, it is the Minister who is responsible for the actions of his/her department to Parliament, therefore "incompetence" would, by virtue of Individual Ministerial Accountability.
Thoughts are with Tony Benn at this time.

I've met Tony Benn twice, he is a wonderful, honest, warm man with fantastic intellect and wit. This was a lovely article to read and I fully agree with your sentiments. Get well soon Tony and continue showing the rest of the sorry lot what it means to have some integrity.

This piece chimes perfectly with much other comment today (the day that Tony Benn's death was announced). Whether you see him as a rock of Labour principles or as a loose cannon, a politician that actually stands for something definite is surely a worthwhile voice in a time when you can barely slide a piece of paper between the current main names ...