Tony Benn is dead at 88, and for many it feels like the last great gentleman of British politics has passed on. With him goes a certain honesty and honour that’s difficult to locate in many of the preening, polished, disingenuous new breed of politicians that inhabit the House of Commons these days. Until today it seemed feasible that Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn would go on forever such was his vitality and energy, but alas he is gone, and coming on the heels of Bob Crow’s untimely demise, it could be judged to be a disastrous week for the left. More than anything it’s a sad day for humanity, whichever way you might lean politically, because a great man who connected us to the more compassionate side of our post-war past has departed.
Benn might have been old, but the straight-talking, humane and egalitarian message he continued to convey right to the end was always one of positivity and hope, even in the face of stultifying mendacity and corruption. Cynicism was his enemy, and that openness transcended age and class. He was born in 1925, but he maintained a youthfulness of spirit that spoke to the generations that followed in a way that shames MPs half his age. Here are 10 examples of why Tony Benn never lost touch with youth and contributed to culture of all sorts.
He maintained positivity
In a moving piece called The Idealism of the Old from his Letters To My Grandchildren: Thoughts On The Future (2009), Benn said: “Young people are often considered as either idealistic or cynical and apathetic, while the old are often pessimistic. To my surprise and delight I am rediscovering idealism as I enter my eighty-fifth year… I am happy to confess that the visions I had as a youth for peace, justice and democracy worldwide have become more important to me now that I have had eighty-plus years of experience and I cannot be dismissed on the grounds that when I grow up I will see things differently.”
He was never self seeking
It’s no secret that Benn came from privilege, but he renounced his hereditary peerage in order to remain in the House of Commons, and his campaign was instrumental in the creation of the 1963 Peerage Act. Like all the best people he turned down honours from the establishment; in Bowie’s case it was a knighthood, in Lennon’s it was a CBE. Benn disclaimed the title Viscount Stansgate.
He was beloved of the people
A large cross section of people have been paying tribute to the man from all walks of life this morning. Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand said: “The world is a poorer place without Tony Benn.” Lauren Laverne was just one of hundreds who tweeted quotes from the great man: “Truth still has value, both in politics and our society”. Gary Lineker said: “RIP Tony Benn. That rare breed of politician, who never clambered aboard a bandwagon in his life.” Comedian Josie Long said: “RIP Tony Benn. Have faith in people and in the future and try to make a difference like he did.”
The world is a poorer place without Tony Benn.
— alex kapranos (@alkapranos) March 14, 2014
He didn’t take any shit from Ali G
He was always engaged
In 2011 Benn met up with Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers to discuss socialism, war, fascism, Cuba and a bunch of other subjects for an illuminating video piece on The Quietus. He also revealed his passion for folk music.
He was tireless
This morning my Facebook was filled with people recounting personal encounters with the man, posting pictures of themselves with him and some who’d even shared podiums with him. This is because he was a tireless campaigner and one of those politicians who wasn’t afraid to knock on doors. He was happy to get his hands dirty, and his feet too, as a regular speaker at the Glastonbury Festival.
He was open to new ideas (even from his children)
“I never liked meat,” he said in a 2006 interview with The Independent, “and my son Hilary, 30 years ago, said: ‘If the world ate the grain instead of feeding it to animals and killing them, there would be enough food for everybody.’ That moment my wife and I became vegetarian and I never touched meat since.”
He wasn’t judgemental
In the same interview with The Independent he was asked about John Prescott’s affair, which was tabloid fodder at the time. “No comment,” he fired back. “Judge not that you be not judged”.
He was always willing to upset the status quo
Some have tried to paint him as a divisive figure, though as pointed out by Derek Hatton on the BBC this morning, more often than not “as time went on, people realised he was right.” Benn took it upon himself to put up plaques in the House of Commons – “quite illegally, without permission,” Benn said. “I screwed them up myself. One was in the broom cupboard to commemorate Emily Wilding Davison… We have to be sure that we are a workshop and not a museum.”
He was a fabulous orator
Tony Benn communicated so well with the people not just because he was eloquent, but also because the words carried such substance. He famously foresaw the consequences of going to war with Iraq in 2003 and was vocal about it in parliament. He was also president of the Stop the War coalition. YouTube is full of his speeches set to music.
It’s not just the end of an era at Westminster, it’s also a sad day for Britain. Maybe his energy and compassion might yet inspire a new generation, disenfranchised with the way things are run. RIP Anthony Neil Wedgwood “Tony” Benn, hero and legend.