Re: Tony Benn, R.I.P.

by Andrew Stuttaford

Charlie, much as one might sympathize with the loss suffered by Tony Benn’s family and friends, I think that it’s important not to sentimentalize his politics. I remember those all too well from the 1970s and early 1980s, the period in which Benn was most malignly influential, a period in which, for example, he was pushing a role for the trade unions difficult to reconcile with the fine words about parliamentary sovereignty that you cite in your post.

And then there’s this from the late Simon Hoggart (no Tory) in the Guardian last year:

I have just received a tremendous honour, far greater than a KCMG or an appearance on Desert Island Discs. At the launch party for Gyles Brandreth’s new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, I bumped into the satirist Craig Brown, who is reviewing the latest volume of Tony Benn’s diaries. In this he confides to his readers that he “loathes” me. He spotted me at some social function and says that he avoided me. What cheek! Didn’t he realise that I was avoiding him?

To be loathed by Tony Benn is something any political writer of my age would sell their grannies for. I feel humbled by his hatred. He got almost everything wrong – not least the cuckoo behaviour that helped usher in Margaret Thatcher’s long reign.

Or take his trip to the Chinese embassy after Mao’s death, recorded in an earlier volume of his diaries. He says that he was “a great admirer of Mao … he made mistakes, because everybody does”. True enough. I certainly do. But my mistakes do not make me possibly the greatest mass killer in history.

Here are the figures: Number of innocent people who died in the Great Leap Forward, through Mao’s policies for the countryside and from mass executions: between 40 and 65 million. Number of deaths caused by me: 0. But Benn greatly admired Mao.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum and all that but I think we should be grateful for the fact that Benn (who once wrote “congratulations on everything” in the visitor’s book in the Soviet embassy) never achieved the power that would have enabled him, so to speak, to have a go at making some version of those omelets during which, as Walter Duranty observed, eggs tend to get broken.