I have previously lauded Tony Benn on several occasions here, paying tribute to his words, actions and bolt upright stance for fairness and democracy. Now he’s departed, to join his beloved wife Caroline, I cannot let the moment pass without further mention of the man’s brilliance. Tony Benn loved to rock the political boat, and right up until the day he is buried he continues to do so, as his body will rest overnight in Parliament’s chapel before his funeral – an honour only previously given to Margaret Thatcher – a tribute criticised by many parliamentarians.
The Queen (clearly a closet socialist) gave permission for the bestowal after it was suggested by Speaker John Bercow to the Benn family. The Daily Mail has obviously jumped on this anti-Benn bandwagon, with a series of quotes from MPs of all political persuasions, detailing reasons why only Thatcher was deserving of such an honour.
Tony Benn spent over 50 years serving in the House of Commons, retiring from parliament in 2001 saying he wanted to “spend more time on politics”, and his remaining years were spent touring the country speaking to packed audiences. Reading the bile printed in the Daily Mail, in particular the offensive comments by its readers it would indicate that he was loved and hated in much the same was as Thatcher. He’d probably like that. As a perfectly-worded tribute I’ll go along with a Mr Ian Rennie who commented this in the Huff Post:
Brilliant man. The kind of politician they don’t make any more.
Born into an aristocratic family, he actually got the law changed to remove his peerage because he thought political power should derive from the will of the people not from hereditary privilege. A tireless fighter for social justice and a fairer society, his “5 questions to power” should be fundamental in any discussion of democracy and accountability.
He lived to see all his political predictions come true, and he lived to see the establishment try to de-fang him. They never succeeded. Don’t remember the version of him they’re going to try and sell you, remember him as a crusader, a socialist, a passionate and committed democrat who managed to combine these things with being an exceptional social historian and perhaps the greatest diarist of his generation.
We need more like him, and we’re unlikely to get them.
My top five Tony Benn quotes:
1. “You know, when I was born in 1925, women were not allowed to vote til they were 30. Men were so arrogant they patted the women on the head and said, you’re not quite mature enough til you’re 30, and women didn’t get the vote because men woke up one moning and said we’ve been a bit unfair to the wife?! The Suffragetes chained themselves to the railings, one of them in the House of Commons, they were arrested, they were convicted, they went to prison, they went on hunger strike, they were forcibly fed, and in such a row that women got the vote but it all came out of the detemination of people to be properly represented and the Labour Party emerged from all that because when their trade unions had been established and the vote was there then working men and women said now we want to be represented in parliament, and Keir Hardie, one of the early Labour members of parliament, said the Labour representation committee is Labour’s answer to the federation of masters and trusts, and that’s where my convictions are about. People speak, if you hold the views I hold, as if you were a rebel. I’m not. I’m a traditionalist. But of a different tradition. Not the tradition of bowing and scraping to somebody better than yourself but the tradition of fighting for human rights and democracy and freedom and internationalism.”
- “It seems to me that the most powerful religion of all, much more powerful than Christianity, Judaism, Islam and so on, is the people who worship ….money! That is really the most powerful religion and the banks are bigger than the cathedrals, the headquarters of the multinaional companies are bigger than the mosques or the synagogues. Every hour on the news we have the business news?! Every hour! It’s a sort of hymn to capitalism… the idea that money is what it is all about!”
3.”You see there are two flames burning in the human heart all the time. The flame of anger against injustice, and the flame of hope you can build a better world. And my job at 83 is going round and fanning both flames…because people need encouragement. Everyone needs encouragement if you’re going to do the best you can.”
4. “I was born about a quarter of a mile from where we are sitting now and I was here in London during the Blitz. And every night I went down into the shelter. 500 people killed, my brother was killed, my friends were killed. And when the Charter of the UN was read to me, I was a pilot coming home in a troop ship: ‘We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.’ That was the pledge my generation gave to the younger generation and you tore it up. And it’s a war crime that’s been committed in Iraq, because there is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber. Both kill innocent people for political reasons.”
- “After the war people said, ‘If you can plan for war, why can’t you plan for peace?’ When I was 17, I had a letter from the government saying, ‘Dear Mr. Benn, will you turn up when you’re 17 1/2? We’ll give you free food, free clothes, free training, free accommodation, and two shillings, ten pence a day to just kill Germans.’ People said, well, if you can have full employment to kill people, why in God’s name couldn’t you have full employment and good schools, good hospitals, good houses?”
and because it’s Tony Benn and because I can, I have to slip in this as a 6th… Tony Benn aged 83:
“That is the worst corruption, to become regarded as a kindly, harmless old gentlemen. Well, I am kindly and I am old, but I am not harmless… I got a death threat last year. Hadn’t had one for years. I was so chuffed.”
Finally a short tribute to Thatcher, who as Tony Benn so succinctly put it “knew the price of everything and the value of nothing”…