Though I’m writing this piece on our Left Watch blog, it might equally feature on Majority Conservatism – for few people helped to deliver more stonking majorities to the Conservatives than Tony Benn in his heyday.
Like many people on the eurosceptic right, I had the good fortune of meeting Benn a number of times and found him a memorable ally against Brussels. As every other article about him today will rightly note, he was ceaselessly polite, constantly charming and gratifyingly prone to issuing memorable quotes regardless of whether his audience was a million people or just one young activist.
To the modern eye he broke the mould: a brazen, aristocratic ideologue in age of middle class triangulation and third ways, a Marxist who believed in democracy above all things. But if those things seem so alien today, it’s not because he was a one-off but because he was the last of his kind.
The left was once a democratic movement, before it sold its soul to the long march through the institutions. They now prefer to trust in quangocrats and the EU to push through their policies rather than trust the people to decide, a moral failure which deeply grieved him.
Nor was it always so rare for the upper classes to be political crusaders. Indeed, Benn was the last in a lengthy tradition of aristocratic extremism – from Byron sailing to Greece to battle the Ottomans to the remarkable Mitford sisters, who split bitterly between communism and fascism, toffs used to be as likely or even more likely to hold an ideological torch than the rest of us.
Benn’s memorial is that he kept those traditions alive for so long, even as his fellow leftists and aristocrats abandoned them.
His good manners and respect for his opponents were another way in which he stuck to the high ground even as others sank into the gutter. When Margaret Thatcher died last year, his comments were characteristic:
“Although I thought she was wrong, she said what she meant and meant what she said. It was not about style with her; it was substance – I don’t think she listened to spin doctors, she just had a clear idea and followed it through. I remember her at the funeral of MP Eric Heffer. I was asked to make a speech and as I was waiting, there was someone behind me coughing. It was Mrs Thatcher, and at the end I thanked her for coming and she burst into tears. She had come out of respect for someone whose opinions she disagreed with.”
It’s unimaginable that he would have given anything but short shrift to the idea of protesting at her funeral or celebrating her death – justly, the right’s response to his passing is similarly one of mourning for a lost opponent.
Perhaps some might have felt differently if he had ever got into Downing Street – though I tend to think the right is reliably more civil than some of our enemies.
Benn himself would have snorted at the dishonesty of a Tory simply commemorating him in terms of those topics on which we agreed, like civil liberties and the EU. Until the last, he maintained an utterly flawed belief in mass nationalisation, central control of the economy, untrammelled union power and mass redistribution.
In short, had he ever gained power the outcome would have been economic disaster. When Adam Smith told Sir John Sinclair that “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation”, he meant it as a reassurance that even the worst leaders would struggle to destroy the natural instinct for growth and prosperity. If anyone had the dedication and belief system to deliver the great deal of ruin necessary to actually finish the job, it was Tony Benn.
Nonetheless, it was a threat that never came to pass.
That, ironically, was the true proof of his principles. Almost all the elements of his ideology which he held most dear were rejected by the people – but he held the right of the people to decide above them all.