Tony Benn, the renegade British MP who became famous for his hard-Left politics and contrarian mien, has died at 88. Benn was an unreconstructed socialist — a man who spent the sixties and seventies championing every eccentric policy he could dream up and who afterwards steadfastly refused to acknowledge that the world had moved on. He also was that rarest of things: a genuine democrat, whose sound if sometimes naive principles led him to some lonely places. He will be missed.
During the Cold War, Benn was outrageously accused by some conservatives of being a Soviet sympathizer — a charge that revealed more about his accusers than about Benn himself. Undoubtedly, Benn was a man of the Left, and on occasion his rhetoric was almost indistinguishable from that of “the reds.” Nevertheless, the notion that the man would have acquiesced in any form of communist colonization was preposterous and unfair — a truth to which many on the Right woke up during his later years. Ultimately, as Dan Hannan observes, Benn was possessed of a very British politics — one that looked for its inspiration back “through the Suffragettes and the Chartists to the Levellers,” and which had at its heart a loathing of concentrated or unearned power. He was a champion of the legislature against the executive, of civil liberties over the health of the state, and of the ballot box against the unelected. When his Labour party jumped on the EU bandwagon after years of purely expedient opposition, Benn remained appalled.
In 1990, he gave what I consider to be one of the greatest speeches in British parliamentary history, channeling his inner Patrick Henry and explaining to a chamber that had become accustomed to defending the increasing power of unelected Eurocrats on the basis that they were making good decisions that sovereignty doesn’t work like that:
I ask myself why the House is ready to contemplate abandoning its duties, as I fear that it is. I was elected forty-one years ago this month. This Chamber has lost confidence in democracy. It believes that it must be governed by someone else. It is afraid to use the powers entrusted to it by its constituents.
It has traded power for status. One gets asked to go on the telly if one is a Member of Parliament. The Chamber does not want to use its power. It has accepted the role of a spectator and joined what Bagehot called the dignified part of the constitution, leaving the Crown, under the control of the Prime Minister, to be the Executive part. If democracy is destroyed in Britain it will be not the communists, Trotskyists or subversives but this House which threw it away. The rights that are entrusted to us are not for us to give away.
Even if I agree with everything that is proposed, I cannot hand away powers lent to me for five years by the people of Chesterfield. I just could not do it. It would be theft of public rights. Therefore, there is only one answer. If people are determined to submit themselves to Jacques Delors, Madame Papandreou and the Council of Ministers, we must tell the people what is planned. If people vote for that, they will all have capitulated. Julius Caesar said, ‘We are just merging our sovereignty.’ So did William the Conqueror.
It is not possible to support the Government’s motion. I have told the Chief Whip that I cannot support the Labour motion. I invite the House to vote against the Government’s motion and not to support a motion which purports to take us faster into a Community which cannot reflect the aspirations of those who put us here. That is not a nationalist argument nor is it about sovereignty. It is a democratic argument and it should be decisive in a democratic Chamber.
In his own life, Benn often displayed the courage of his convictions. A staunch anti-aristocrat who had been born into the aristocracy, he fought a long fight for the right to give up the ease and security of his lifetime peerage and to run instead for an elected seat in the lower chamber. He won, shedding his privileged position as the Second Viscount Stansgate in order to become the modest Tony Benn MP. Having done so, he then proceeded deliberately to make his own life more difficult, leading a successful campaign to institute more open and involved selection and re-selection processes for candidates (think primaries of a sort), and working to reduce the grip that incumbents had upon their seats.
Sometimes he could he obnoxious. His attitudes toward Israel and the United States could be ugly (despite this, he married an American), and his endless desire to nationalize anything that moved veered into the obsessive and the downright wide-eyed. For this, he paid a price: mocked mercilessly by his critics; abandoned by many of his friends, who sought to distance themselves from anything that smacked of a “Bennite solution”; and relegated to the margins of party politics for most of his career. His friend and former Oxford tutor, Anthony Crosland, even went so far as to explain that there was “nothing the matter with him, except he’s a bit cracked.”
He once bought me a beer when he came to speak at the Oxford Union (he didn’t drink) and, although we agreed on very little outside of the EU, he was charming and engaging and unique. I subsequently went to see him speak three times, shaking my head throughout but secretly enjoying the show.
Ultimately, I suppose, I liked him because he was a rebel and because even when he was spectacularly wrong, he served as a useful safety valve and a reliably antagonistic voice — useful things in any free society. The Telegraph’s Tim Stanley recently related a story that I think summed the man up:
Tony Benn once smoked a pipe at a Cambridge Union debate. Was told, “It’s no smoking.” He replied, “Ah, but I do.”
Rest in peace.