To say “I once met Tony Benn and I saw him speak dozens of times and thought he was wonderful” is not to say much. I met and saw Tony Benn during his golden age, after parliament. He spoke to millions of people in this time the vast majority of them, I’m sure, were moved and inspired by him like I was.
His willingness to travel up and down the land, to speak to anyone and everyone, from army officers to far-left activists, helped popularise the socialist idea and keep it in public life at a time when there has been no mass party willing to do the job. No man can substitute for an organisation and we are where we are as a society today. Despite Benn’s best efforts the vestiges of the post-war consensus, that society, through the state, would ensure the well-being of all its members, are being torn apart pitilessly. This consensus was the closest thing we have ever known to socialism.
Tony Benn’s public life begs the question what is power for? When he observed last year that all political careers end in failure but that his ended earlier than most I got a sense of sadness and self-reproach behind his charm and tenacity.
He was a large part of the labour movement for fifty years. Despite being a ‘reformist’ he was worth as much if not more than the untold numbers of Lenin wannabes. His final years away from parliament saw him marginalised from power, no longer the ‘most dangerous man in Britain’. Those years were a reckoning. Tony Benn’s road did not lead to a lasting egalitarian democracy either. He went back to the start and he began again, which, I suppose is the greatest example he set. While he may have been marginalised from power he was right in the midst of the people.
The only tribute worthy of Tony Benn would be to take his vision of socialist democracy and make it real and permanent, sooner rather than later.