by Kevin Meagher
Passing away at eighty-eight years of age represents a good innings in anyone’s book. Indeed, it’s a score the late Tony Benn also shares with Margaret Thatcher, which may, on the face of it, seem a provocative comparison.
After all, the two of them were on opposite sides of every major issue of the 1980s: the miners’ strike, nuclear disarmament, Ireland, South Africa, monetarism. But their personalities and approaches to politics were strikingly similar.
They were both driven, uncompromising characters; self-confident in what they said and thought. Equally, they were divisive, impulsive and reckless figures. Yes, they stuck to their guns, but often long after it was sensible to do so.
Both believed in the sovereignty of Parliament. Both were instinctively Eurosceptic. And both were adored by the radical sections of their parties, to the cold fury of the pragmatists.
On a personal level, Benn, like Thatcher, enjoyed a happy marriage and both were noted for the small personal kindnesses that so many other leading politicians are seemingly incapable of offering. Likewise, they exuded that other-worldy quality that surely served to insulate them from the brickbats that were thrown at both of them for so long.
Most of all, Benn and Thatcher were, in that hoary old claim, genuine conviction politicians. It’s an odd phrase that hints at megalomania, but holding to a strong conviction that they are right creates a powerful (and, yes, sometimes delusional) optimism that drives people like Benn and Thatcher to seek to mould their world according to their higher ideals. Hence, both saw their names suffixed with ‘ism’.
So both Thatcher and Benn were cut from the same cloth; ideologues and instinctive optimists who believed that radical political change was possible and that they themselves were best able to lead it. Of course a dose of pessimism is needed too, especially when it comes to recognising that the motives of average voters are nowhere near as lofty.
Indeed, many (including those on his own side) will think Benn utterly destructive in many of the causes he advocated in the 1980s. Yet had he reached political maturity in the 1940s or 1950s, Benn could easily have become Labour leader and perhaps even Prime Minister; eagerly manipulating the levers of a central planned post-war state to build his New Jerusalem.
But not by the 1980s. In Wilson’s cutting term, Benn “immatured with age”, becoming more radical as he met the working class travelling in the opposite direction. Thatcher’s success, in contrast, was down to fortuitous timing.
She was lucky enough to ride the crest of a great sea change in British politics in the late 1970s, one that saw the post-war consensus around the role of the state break apart, bequeathing us both the terrible social inequalities of the 1980s, but also a more aspirational working class which Thatcher ruthlessly courted with policies like the sale of council houses. Had she been espousing her creed in the 1940s, she would have been as redundant as Benn was by the 1980s.
He may have galvanised the left and the victims of Thatcherism, but Benn remained oblivious to the simple mathematics of the parliamentary democracy he so cherished. His response to Labour’s electoral nadir in 1983? It was eight and a half million votes for socialism. Thatcher won 13 million and dominated the rest of the decade.
But a political life is three acts long. The emergence, the crest and the crash, if you will. Benn’s retirement from Parliament in 2001 “to spend more time on politics” merely represented the closing of another chapter of his extraordinary political life. Re-energised, he took his message to the platforms and the streets – the “socialist preacher” that Peter Hain described yesterday.
As Thatcher watered the flowers in her dotage, her ferocious mental faculties waning, Benn was the toast of Glastonbury, Stop the War, anti-globalisation protests marches and a hundred other platforms. The honest politician telling it straight. A one-man reconnection to the disillusioned young. A genial, and very English, radical.
Ultimately, both Benn and Thatcher will be remembered long after their colourless contemporaries have been forgotten. Thatcher will always be our first woman prime minister, but Tony Benn: minister, parliamentarian, orator, troublemaker and inspirer of so many, will also live long in our memory.
If nothing else, his diaries will see to that.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut