One of the things I have found as I get older is that the rate of people dying around me, who I knew personally, often quite well, as well as well known figures in the public arena I have followed, continues to increase. I take issue with Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony who said that “the evil men do lives after them and the good is oft interred in their bones” Julius Caesar Act 3, Scene 2, since I try to think of the good the newly departed have done and the legacy they have left. Of the public figures who have recently died, a number stand out for me personally; people as diverse as David Frost, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Chuck Colson and John Stott (the last two, known mostly by those from a similar Christian stable as me, have been particularly influential in my own community activism), all for quite different reasons and who have worked in quite different spheres, but all leaving a remarkable legacy. While I look upon these people positively, none are above criticism. The one I would like to focus on now is Tony Benn (3 April 1925 – 14 March 2014).
As a teenager growing up in Southend in the 1960’s, I recall a period when I became very political and decidedly left of centre in my political leanings, influenced by my working class background and an acute sense of what was socially just. I was an admirer of the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson and have strong memories of a number of the key figures in his first government, formed in 1964, which included Tony Benn. Because of his outspokenness, he was often not far from national news in the years that followed and I have taken an interest in his career and his causes since that time. In terms of what he stood for, he could be seen as being enigmatic and very much his own man in what he stood for. When it came to his euro-skepticism and many of his concerns around social justice there was much I was in agreement with although, when it came to his overt pacifism and an over-emphasis on state intervention, I would take issue. What endeared me to the man was not his politics, for I can think of many politicians who I would have more in common with politically, but his character.
When it comes to viewing politicians, my views have tended to oscillate between many of them being cowards, sleaze merchants and opportunists to there being a number who genuinely care and understand, are unafraid to rock the boat when it is necessary and who seek to make a difference in often difficult circumstances. I see Tony Benn as having been in that latter category and, moreover, he was a conviction politician in the purest sense – these days, sadly, a rarity. I have never met the man and the impressions I have of him are based on what others, who have met him, have said and his frequent public appearances and activities.One of my fondest memories was seeing him debating with Enoch Powell, another conviction politician in my second category, yet who was as much to the political right as Tony Benn was to the left. It was refreshing to see the mutual respect the two showed and their often quite similar approaches to getting to the truth and making their cases.
I sensed Tony Benn was an honest man who was keen for the argument to be thoroughly aired and fully debated before he came to a view, content to allow democracy to have the last word, even if in some important areas he was simply wrong, wacky and naive. While I did not share his faith in humanity and his confidence in the democratic process, because of my Calvinistic views on original sin etc., the non-democratic processes that often determine outcomes are usually worse. Having often come up against brick walls myself when encountering official intransigence, when it comes to matters of importance, I can well see, albeit with reservations, why Tony Benn sought throughout his later life to appeal to the common people in order to get things done. This much, and more, became evident when I heard him on Desert Island Discs.
In my opinion, Tony Benn was a decent man. He had honour and integrity. He was prepared to fight for justice, even when it cost him personally. He was courteous and rarely stooped to the level of those who chose to ridicule or vilify him and, if he were to respond, he did so without acrimony. Despite personal attacks and setbacks, he would carry on and was pleased to stand alongside the common people. He was a champion of the people and, latterly, a national treasure. He was a man who enjoyed and saw the importance of family life, who gave the impression that what we saw in public is what we would see in private. He was a humble person with simple tastes, with a common touch despite his lofty position and privileged background (he earlier renounced his inherited title). He sought to serve. I believe he had a Non-Conformist Christian faith, which appeared to be more aligned to Christian Socialism, and this did influence his actions. I might be wrong in some of this, given none of us are that good but, should others come to write my obituary, I would be more than satisfied if as much were said about me.