Tony Benn

Nationalised treasure and man of conviction

Tony Benn,  1925 -  2014Tony Benn, 1925 - 2014
A decent chap? Probably, but a clever politician? That's not so clear. The death of Tony Benn has brought forth fulsome praise for him as a man and a character. Those with long memories will recall when he joined a cause he became the cause. An ideal radio and TV performer Benn never travelled without his pipe or a ready quip, the press loved both. Benn was not our first national treasure but was in a perverse way 'nationalised' very early on in his political career. It was in this form that he took up the cause of opposing European integration. As Helen Szamuely points out he was on the losing side in 1975. It would be wrong to make out he alone was responsible for the defeat but he was very active. So on the one hand he gets praised for his energy but on the other was too easily seduced by the media and his part of it.

And so to Tony Benn's consistent and ideologically pure euroscepticism that began long before the word was invented. There can be no doubt about its sincerity or that he was motivated to a great extent by a love for Parliament and parliamentary democracy. He was also motivated by a fear that, once in the EEC, Britain would never become the socialist country he wanted it to be. That, together with his rather intimidating way of speaking (he was the original swivel-eyed loon before he became the benign elder statesman) meant that the BBC used him freely to scare people. It worked. Benn's participation in the NO campaign in the referendum of 1975 contributed to its heavy defeat.

Numerous and rather quaint going on sad stories abound concerning his head-over-heels love of anything working class, as Wikipedia explains he was not above rewriting his past to create a better personal profile in this respect. The romance of the strike and working class struggle caught him off balance when he backed the Meriden based Triumph motorcycle company over the Norton company of Wolverhampton. This was during a very difficult period for UK motorcycle manufacturing when a proper analysis on engineering capability was called for. But Benn sided with the strikers gathered around the brazier at the factory gates. He was wrong again. Within a short space of time motorcycle manufacturing was over and all the factories closed.

Eventually what Benn would have thought of as the devil incarnate, some capitalists, bought the Triumph name and restarted production. The brand still exists is well respected for the quality of its products and whisper it low........ makes a profit! David Davis did a wonderful BBC radio tribute to him describing him as a conviction politician. That's rare nowadays and so it was fitting that Davis, very much driven by his convictions and so, like Benn, never to become the Leader of his party spoke up for him.

But then all those years ago politics was a very different thing to now. In fact many more politicians held strong views then than do now. Benn was not alone, he was much like Enoch Powell. But then as now the media treated the former as a national treasure and the latter with caution. Time moved on and so Benn's reputation was enhanced as Powell's was trashed. Yet both made enormous mistakes.