In the hours and days following the death of Tony Benn, a myth took hold: namely that his detractors couldn’t wait to sing his praises, the caveat being that they didn’t agree with any of his views. We’ve become accustomed to such hypocrisy and there were many odious examples of it in Benn’s case. Yet more odious still, were those that broke cover, once his death was confirmed, to rubbish his reputation on the record, safe in the knowledge that the firebrand who’d bettered them in life and character couldn’t respond.
Benn was once a hugely divisive figure, even his greatest acolytes would have to concede that, but wasn’t there something distasteful about his enemies, little dogs yapping at his heels, to paraphrase the veteran’s description of Neil Kinnock, biting the corpse before it was buried?
“You try and give them a helping hand and they fuck it up”, wrote another leftie, Harold Pinter, and one would have thought the lesser intellects of those that had either triumphed in the ideological struggle or benefited from the iniquitous dividend, would have had the good grace to keep quiet and count their blessings, rather than sit on the coffin lid.
Instead, nothings like Indy columnist Joan Smith, the self-styled political blonde, suggesting a degree of self-deprecation not reflected in her pompous opinion pieces, said she was “happy to accept he was much loved by his family”, which was good of her, before going on to note Benn was wrong on Europe, wrong on freedom of information, even wrong when he was right on Iraq, on the basis that his opposition was a denunciation of imperialism, the bastard.
Smith didn’t deign to share how Benn had got it wrong on Europe, perhaps because that’s hard to illustrate without defending the ceding of powers leant to MPs by the electorate, the lack of representative democracy, the weakening of parliamentary sovereignty and the snapping of economic levers. On Iraq Smith didn’t elaborate, perhaps because whatever your views on regime change and imposing democracy on a sovereign country, it would take a better journalist than Smith to write an impassioned and convincing defence of tearing up the charter of the United Nations, unilateral military action and killing both Iraqi citizens and British Soldiers in order to satisfy the vanity and self-righteousness of the then Prime Minister.
Smith, at least, had none of her own dogs in the fight. Liberal peer Shirley Williams, one of the gang of four who left the Labour Party to form the SDP following the Bennite ascension, did. Benn wasn’t even 24 hours dead when she appeared on Newsnight to frustrate Hackney MP Diane Abbott’s attempts at eulogising the man – the equivalent of a mourner at a funeral heckling from the back pew.
Visibly irritated at Abbott’s fawning and her contention that Benn was a man of the people who’d reached out to many allergic to the political class, she reminded viewers that it was Viscount Stansgate who’d condemned Labour to 18 years of opposition. He’d betrayed the party, she said, by having the audacity to insist it listen to its members, enfranchise the trade union movement and perhaps, given their founding role in the party, give said interests a role in policy making. Bringing the divisions in the party front and centre had been damaging, everyone agreed, but Williams hadn’t quite had the time to mention that her decision to formally split the party, literalising the divisions Benn had highlighted, might have contributed to Margaret Thatcher’s electoral success by splitting the left’s vote.
Perhaps it would have been pedantry to point out that the combined Labour and Liberal-SDP vote was 7% greater than Mrs Thatcher’s in the 1983 election, or that forced to vote for a broad church Labour Party or a couple of smaller, autonomous churches, voters distressed by 3,000,000 unemployed and the widening gap between rich and poor may have held their noses and voted for a united opposition. Yes, Shirley’s hands were clean and the Liberal Democrats that eventually formed from the detritus of the SDP and old Liberal Party, were to prove Benn’s contention that they’d betrayed the interests of working people wrong, by going into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010.
The most generous posthumous praise for Benn splashed from the silk tongue of Scots hack Michael Fry on Radio 4’s Any Questions, a programme the deceased politician enlivened as none of that week’s obituarists could. For Fry Benn’s contribution to British Politics was “nil”. That’s right, nothing, zero, not a jot. This was a disingenuous way of saying that Benn hadn’t succeeded in making the political weather, that he’d lost the big arguments of his day. Alright, he’d successfully and irreversibly challenged the legal status of hereditary power, becoming the first man to renounce his ancestral peerage, but who cared about constitutional matters? Certainly not the pro-independence Michael Fry.
So let me conclude this piece by taking the unusual step of saying that not only has the left lost one of its strongest, most articulate, more inspiring voices with the death of Tony Benn, but that it’s a tragedy compounded by the fact he was right. As he once said of Arthur Scargill, “that man told the truth”. He was right on the need for strong trade unions, right on the democratic deficit at the heart of the European Project, right on the principle of direct representation that underpins our no longer fashionable First Past The Post electoral system, right on nuclear weapons, right on universal benefits, right on Tony Blair’s flippant attitude to war and her casualties and, as his death proved decisively, right on the media’s propensity to provide a truncated, narrow and wholly non-participatory discourse. What illustrated that better than the unchecked distortions his detractors fostered on the public in the hours after his death?