Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1189, (20 - 26 March 2014)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1189, (20 - 26 March 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Dissenting minister

Tony Benn (1925-2014)

By the end of World War II, Britain was jittery with fears of losing its empire, but he had no qualms about that and many in Britain considered him unpatriotic. He refused to be cloistered in the colonialist mentality of many of his compatriots.

For some of us, from former British colonies, Anthony Wedgwood Benn had an extremely special appeal. His controversial statements and policies invariably caused general consternation in his homeland. Generally, it was Western women who sympathised with our cause for national liberation and economic emancipation from neo-colonialism. Benn was among the few exceptions of British men who championed the cause of the colonial underdog.

Benn hailed from a long line of heavyweight politicos. His grandfathers were Liberal MPs, as initially was his father, William Wedgwood Benn. Aged just 25 when he first entered parliament, in 1960 Benn’s father passed away, leaving Benn the heir to a peerage, and thus disqualifying him from remaining in the House of Commons. Benn nonetheless stood as a candidate in the resulting by-election in 1961, which he won in spite of the disapproval of his own Labour Party. The seat was awarded to his runner up, because legally Benn was disqualified as a peer. In 1963, Benn was able to formally renounce his peerage (the first peer to do so after a change in the law with the Peerage Act of 1963). When his runner up in 1961 took up a peerage, Benn won the subsequent by-election and returned to the Commons.

The cloak-and-dagger political intrigue of post-war British politics with Labour pitted against the Conservatives gave Benn the chance to metamorphose into an iconic figure, and curiously enough a mainstream British historical figure.

“The Dissenting Minister” and “Mr Zig-Zag Loon” managed miraculously to command tremendous influence in British and international politics. His political acumen was formidable.

Labour leader Ed Miliband paid tribute to Benn dubbing him as the “champion of the powerless”. Benn’s son, Hilary, is a member of Miliband’s shadow cabinet. So not only did Benn uphold the family penchant for politics, he was instrumental in passing it on to the next generation.

“If we can find the money to kill people, we can find the money to help people,” was one of his most famous statements. It summed up his worldview. Benn, who died at the ripe old age of 88, was an MP for more than 50 years and served in cabinet throughout the 1970s.

When I interviewed him in Cairo a decade ago he pointed out that he, too, was a journalist (Benn worked as a BBC radio producer, 1949-50). He was being modest. He was a broadcasting expert. Indeed, he wore many hats at different stages of his life.

Benn was a celebrated diarist, and his A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine is an insightful and fascinating read. His Common Sense was a sensation. As British Postmaster General from 1964-6, the republican — in the British as opposed to the American sense of the appellation — Benn attempted to introduce “non-traditional” designs such as landscapes, portraits of composers, to stamps, as he abhorred the “rather boring” Queen’s head. Alas, he faced stiff resistance from Buckingham Palace and conservative quarters.

Yet, one cannot reduce Benn to a royal-baiter. He gave Britain more than one jolt and he was in turn dismissed as a meddlesome devil. Euro-sceptics derided him for his pro-Europe stance. A Labour legend, still, Benn became disillusioned with Labour Party politics and advocated the Alternative Economic Strategy developed with Stuart Holland and Judith Hart — two leftist British politicians who like Benn held a plethora of radical ideas.

His strident tone shocked many at home and abroad. Seriously, how many high profile British politicians with ministerial portfolios aim for the removal of the Queen’s head from stamps? And he was equally vehement in his views on British foreign policy. He vociferously argued against the NATO intervention in Libya that ousted Muammar Al-Gaddafi. It was said that he had a “nonconformist conscience” — whatever that is.

In reality, that was a slur. He did have a conscientious generosity of spirit, a benevolent bravado that endeared him to millions across the globe.

He had his way, albeit not always. “Tony Benn spoke his mind and spoke up for his values. Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, everyone knew where he stood and what he stood for,” noted Miliband.

Yet, for all his leftist leanings, he was a practical politician. For instance, upon entering the cabinet as minister of technology (1966-70) he backed the development of the Anglo-French supersonic airliner, the Concorde, not least because it would be partly constructed in his Bristol South East constituency.

“I think there are two ways in which people are controlled. First of all frighten people and secondly, demoralise them,” he aptly pointed out. Considering the crises in North Africa and the Middle East, his words are particularly poignant at this historical juncture.

Benn told me that like his father, as he matured in age he became all the more leftist. It reminded me of my own father, who espoused ever more leftist ideals as he grew older. We chuckled at that analogy.

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