There have been many fine tributes today to Tony Benn, who sadly passed away this morning. Like many others, he was a personal inspiration at an early stage in my political development and he will be sorely missed by all democratic socialists.
I first met Tony Benn at a rally in London when I was 15 years old and a very keen Labour Party Young Socialist. This was one of my very first big political events and what struck me was his ability engage with the audience as if you were having a one to one conversation with him. Much has been written about his oratory, but it wasn’t the tub thumping, barnstorming style. He had that rare ability to speak in measured tones and still grip the audience.
His political analysis was often, but not always, right. If I had a disagreement with him it would usually be about strategy and tactics rather than policy. I was listening to a clip on BBC Radio Scotland this morning of him speaking in parliament in the 1980’s. He was condemning the Thatcher government for valuing an economy that put finance capitalism above the skills of workers. What today we would call rebalancing the economy. There can be few greater tributes in politics to be proved so right that even your political opponents have adopted your analysis.
I have a well thumbed copy of ‘Tony Benn - Arguments for Socialism’ edited by Chris Mullin on my bookshelf. It has remained there long after other books of that generation have gone to the Oxfam bookshop. As Chris Mullin says in the introduction, “Tony Benn is one of the most articulate exponents” of democratic socialism. While the book does indeed make an articulate case for democratic socialism, Tony himself said, “the most important socialist teacher of all is experience”. Or as Jimmy Reid put it, "He had more conversions on the road to Damascus than a Syrian long-distance lorry driver". He didn’t do dogma.
It was that experience that took him on a journey from the rise of fascism to the present day. I have heard him speak of seeing Mosley strutting through the streets of London with the black shirts. As powerful a radicalising experience for him, as it was for his father. In Scotland, that experience included the Upper Clyde work-in and the impact it had on his own approach to public ownership.
I last met Tony Benn in Glasgow last year, when he met the Executive Committee of the Keir Hardie Society (he was our President) prior to speaking to a packed Royal Concert Hall. Despite poor health, he was as sharp as ever and had a really good grasp of Scottish politics. His questions were incisive and he was great company.
What comes through in all his writing is the central place of democracy. As he put it, “To create the conditions that will allow the people to do it themselves is the central task of leadership today” - or one of my personal favourites, “we have to choose between socialism and barbarism”.
No one will ever doubt on whose side Tony Benn was on. RIP comrade, we will miss you greatly.