Saturday, 15 March 2014

Tony Benn [1925-2014] our greatest tribune

Tony Benn was the reason I got involved in politics.
Growing up in Motherwell in the early 80's he inspired me to join the Labour Party. The first political campaign I ever took part in was his candidacy for deputy leader. I threw myself into it with everything I had. And I can recall as if it were yesterday the excitement I felt getting up early one Sunday morning to go into Glasgow to hear him speak at the University. He was electrifying in that understated style he had. It was the first time I had seen him 'live' as it were and I was overjoyed when I met him that first time.
Meetings were organised throughout Britain to help get him elected. Those I attended were exhilarating with hundreds and hundreds of people crammed in to hear him outline the socialist case for transforming Labour. I remember travelling all the way down to Aston Park in Birmingham [on an overnight bus laid on by the Ceramic workers union] on my own to hear him speak at a rally against mass unemployment. I had to 'stowaway' on the Scottish Labour Party Executive coach to get back home and wasn't in the least surprised to find the other 'passengers' backing his opponent Dennis Healey. I was heart-broken when he it was announced live on BBC TV that he had lost the vote by the slenderest imaginable margin. And like many others I was furious with those five so called 'left-wing' Labour MP's who had abstained and effectively cost him victory. In a sign of what was to come for Labour Neil Kinnock was one of them!

Tony Benn was the anti-establishment figure in that contest and remained so throughout the rest of his life. Strange really as he was the son, and grandson, of established Labour MP's and inherited the title Viscount Stansgate as a young man. Yet as he learned more and more about the world around him he became more and more left wing. The reverse is true for most Labour MP's. His enemies, and there were many of them, inside and outside the Labour Party, reviled him. They referred to him sneeringly as 'Anthony Wedgewood Benn'.

I met Tony many times over the last 35 years and learned a great deal from him, always grateful for his advice. As I look back proudly at the many platforms I shared with him - speaking out against the poll tax or against the war- like millions of others I realise I could have listened to him all day. Personally warm, friendly and supportive, above all I remember his patience and courtesy. Many's the time I would call him for advice or asked him to come and speak at some event or meeting I was organising.
Yet ironically it is a meeting we had in his Edinburgh hotel in August 2006, following Tommy Sheridan's lunatic and disastrous court action, that sticks in my mind most of all. For he was on that occasion to contradict the legendary advice he used to give all Britain's competing socialist groups to 'tie your ropes together'. On that balmy summers evening drinking endless cups of tea he explained how he had followed the case and insisted the SSP needed to break with Sheridan after his shameful conduct in the Court of Session. As it happened Tommy Sheridan left the SSP days later and saved us the bother.

The world today is a poorer place without Tony Benn. He is mourned by millions of working class people throughout Britain because he inspired us all. He explained the nature of the world we live in and the need to change it. We have lost our greatest tribune. And we owe his family an immeasurable debt today in their hours of sorrow for having shared him with us. His intellect, his integrity, his courage, his boundless energy, his solidarity, his friendship and character are sadly missed. He put all of them at the service of our socialist movement for half a century. Farewell dear comrade and friend. Rest assured 'La lotta continua'.