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      The Legacy of Tony Benn             

Omkar Goswami


Oh, how he would have hated this! To be announced as Anthony Neil Wedgewood Benn, Westminster School and New College, Oxford, president of the Oxford Union and once the second Viscount Stansgate. For all his antecedents, his superb upper class English and his unwavering politeness in speech and manners, he was nothing other than Tony Benn, the flame thrower and conscience keeper of the British Left. How does one describe Tony Benn, member of the House of Commons from 1950 to 1960 and then from 1963 till 2001, and the Labour Party’s most persuasive votary of the Left, who died on 14 March 2014 a tad short of 89 years?

Coming from a wealthy family that had a long background in the Liberal Party politics and public school education, Benn was no Aneurin (Nye) Bevan (1897-1960), son of a Welsh coal miner and a seamstress who grew up in great deprivation to become a champion of working class rights — who created UK’s National Health Service in 1948 and nationalised over 2,600 hospitals as the Minister of Health in the first post-World War II government of Clement Attlee on the ground that “no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means”.

Though close to him in the late seventies and eighties, nor was Benn an Arthur Scargill (1938-), another son a miner and a cook from West Riding, Yorkshire — who left school at 15 to be a coal miner for 19 years, was a member of the Communist Party before joining the Labour Party in 1962, eventually becoming the president of the National Union Mineworkers from 1982 to 2002, and triggering the 1984-85 nationwide miners’ strike that eventually led to Margaret Thatcher putting an end to decades of labour militancy.

What, then, was Tony Benn? Clearly to a manor born, Benn went through many transformations. The first was in the sixties, in the fight to relinquish his hereditary peerage and thus remain in the House of Commons. Benn succeeded in 1963 when the UK allowed renunciation of peerage. The next was his being a ‘state-oriented’ left leaning technocrat under different terms of prime minister Harold Wilson — first as the Postmaster General, then as Minister for Technology and finally as the Secretary of State for Industry followed by Energy. With each position, Benn moved more to the left, increasingly annoyed by smooth-talking, Sir Humphrey Appleby-like British civil servants who could foil policies of elected governments.

By the seventies and early eighties, Tony Benn was the hard-core leftie of Labour, identifying with every grass root militancy that grew in Britain in the times. Nationalisation, increasing the power of trade unions and making them central to all industrial policies, lionising shop stewards, actively supporting the Sinn Fein, opposing the Falkland War, fully backing Scargill in the 1984-85 miners’ strike that almost crippled Britain — all these saw Benn taking centre stage.

In the process, he failed to realise that the workers and the middle class of Britain were getting prosperous, and an environment where the people of sweat had to challenge the toffs to get their just dues was becoming history. Soon, Benn became marginalised in his beloved Labour Party. He lost the battle for leadership to Neil Kinnock; saw Labour in wilderness for over a decade under Margaret Thatcher and John Major; and was cold shouldered by the new Labour of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Benn finally retired from the House of Commons in 2001 and became a part of various fringes that could be counted upon to support the outrageous.

Why did I feel saddened at the news of Tony Benn’s death? Certainly, I never cared for his political positions even in my youth. Yet, I respected him for his honesty; his manners; his common touch; his care for the downtrodden; his conviction-driven transformations; and his reasons to do good. So, for all his foibles, it wasn’t surprising that his funeral service in Westminster was attended by all. For he was truly loved.

Published: Business World, April 2014


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