Wednesday, 19 March 2014

If only Tony Benn had been more influential

Bob Crow and Tony Benn in the space of four days – it’s been a sad week. It’s tempting to reach for the cliché that “we’ll never see like their again”, but I hope that isn’t true.
Still more fervently, I hope the principles both men lived their lives by come to seem less “maverick” and more the common pattern.
After 35 years of British politics dominated by unbridled cynicism, it would be nice to think that real concern for the common weal of real people might have its turn.
I never met either man personally, though I heard Benn speak more than once and was always enthused by him. His honesty, compassion, integrity, fundamental decency always shone through.
His death feels like the loss of a favourite uncle.
His former leader, then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, once said of Benn that he “immatures with age”. 
Apart from it being a nice instance of Wilson’s under-rated wit, it’s not quite clear how he intended the remark. I’d like to think it was meant kindly and, at least in part, as a compliment.
It’s certainly true that Benn retained into old age a capacity to get on with people of all ages and backgrounds. And that he continued to dream, never succumbing to the dreary “realism” of accepting capitalist greed.
He was, all who knew him well or slightly seem to agree, an extremely nice man. Which may not be the most effective quality in a politician.
At the height of his fame, Tony Benn was routinely ridiculed in the mainstream media – a fate he shared with most on his wing of the political argument.
The only better speaker I’ve ever heard was Neil Kinnock, a man as committed to the cause as Benn and probably a sharper intellect.
I remember hearing Kinnock in the 1980s give an absolutely brilliant 80-minute speech – without notes – to a trade union rally. Even as we stood to applaud at the end, I remarked to the person with me: “They’ll pick out 20 seconds for the news tonight that will make him sound like a pillock.” And of course they did.
Labour politicians have always had a rougher ride from most of the media than their Tory counterparts. And Kinnock, like Benn, was a throwback to an earlier age, when genuine oratory counted for more than the soundbite.
The shift from intelligent speech to sloganeering has arguably dumbed down politics, giving us a succession of empty vessels.
Benn was not empty. He was a thinker, and he cared.
He never forgot his mother’s advice that every political question was also a moral question.
And he never wavered in his belief that politics should be about the issues, not the personalities – ironically, coming from one of the great characters.
Though at various times I have disagreed with him – on Europe, on nuclear power, on Julian Assange, for instance – he could always argue his case. And he was not too big to change his mind, and admit that he’d changed it – on Europe and nuclear power, for instance.
One obituary, less glowing than most, described him as an “ineffectual” politician. If that’s so – and perhaps it is – it’s more damning of politics than of him.
Others described him as “highly influential”. If only.


The first time I heard Bob Crow on the radio I could hardly believe my ears.
Here was a trade union leader sticking up for his members, apparently effectively, and using the term “socialism” as if it wasn’t a dirty word.
It was almost as if Margaret Thatcher and her prolonged savage assault on the working people of Britain had never happened.
Inevitably, the right-wing press tried to portray him as a dangerous nutter, but he was neither of those things.
A good friend of mine met him at the annual union rally at Burston in September 2012.
When Crow began to speak, Paul’s young daughter was transfixed.
Paul recalls: “When he had finished she came up to me and asked, ‘Where can I find Bob Crow? I want to talk with him.'
“She scuttled off and after a few minutes I thought it best to try and find her. There, by the RMT stand, was my girl and Bob Crow, nurturing a well-deserved bottle of Bulmer’s, deep in conversation.
“Thinking he’d want to unwind at this point and not hear how my daughter had taken on the Brownies and refused to pledge allegiance to the Queen, I asked if everything was OK and he said ‘She’s fine’ and on they carried chatting. She was thrilled.
“It says a lot about the quality of a man and his sense of shared humanity that, with everything else going on at Burston, he had the time to listen to a little girl he had never met before.”
Bob Crow will be missed.

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