Tony Benn, the veteran British socialist has died, aged 88. Like Margaret Thatcher, whose death last year I wrote about in another post, he was one of the figures who defined the politics of my youth, although of course he was far less successful and influential than her. As Benn got older he morphed from his status in the right-wing press as ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’ to being considered a national treasure, in a way that Thatcher never did. That was to cease to take him seriously, but it explains why, whereas her death provoked very polarised reactions his got a more eulogistic response. Thus his death has produced a lot of, to me slightly nauseating, comment from the right about how they didn’t agree with him but respected him. In some ways, it would be more respectful for those who disagreed with him to denounce him, as happened with Thatcher.
Benn was an interesting figure for many reasons. One is that he represented a version of the left – the far left, if you like – which grew not out of Marxism but a kind of Christian socialism (it is not clear that Benn, himself, was a Christian, but he grew up in and was influenced by it and seems to have been diffusely religious). His memoir, Dare to be a Daniel (2004), in its very title as well as its content reflected this. In a strange kind of way he embodied some of the ‘Victorian values’ that Thatcher herself professed to admire: hard work, dedication to duty, moral commitment, independence of mind. But, really, the tradition of Christianity he exemplified was that of the diggers and levellers and those various strands of radical Christianity described in Christopher Rowland’s (1988) book of that name. It is a tradition quite different to the kind of conformist moralism that Thatcher evoked and sought to enact.
Another reason for interest is that he had a very strong sense of history. His diaries and memoir are saturated with an understanding of, in particular, the history of the British Labour Party, its achievements and limitations (of which – to link my two points - he remarked that it had never been a socialist party but had always contained some socialists, just as the Church of England had always contained some Christians). Again, this developed out of his childhood, growing up in a family embedded in the Labour Party. He was one of a literally dying breed of politicians who was formed by the experience of the Second World War (his elder brother was killed in it, and Benn himself served in the RAF), and by the socialism of the post-war Attlee government. As I wrote in my ‘review’ of the Ken Loach film The Spirit of ’45, the experience of war provided both a moral case for a better society but also pointed to the tools of collective endeavour and central planning that would deliver it.
These are very much organizational issues, of course, and relevant to the choices that still face us. Benn stood for a form of collective endeavour that was different (by being collective) to neo-liberalism and (by being non-marxist) to communism. And his engagement with radical Christianity is in some ways reminiscent of the kind of liberation theology that finds an echo in Critical Management Studies’ interest in emancipation. Oh, and we should also note that he was an heroic smoker - the 1993 'Pipe Smoker of the Year', no less.