The doctrine of common grace assures us that it is impossible to be 100% wrong about everything. Give him his due the late Tony Benn did his best to overcome common grace.
Beginning as a technocratic moderniser in the Wilson government’s effort to forge a new Britain in the ‘white heat of technology.’ Benn championed Concorde, the Post Office Tower and British Leyland. The future was rosy, until it all went pear shaped as it became evident that his innovations were all too often white elephants.
For someone who came from a political family, his father Viscount Stansgate had been a Liberal then a Labour MP, Benn consistently misread politics with an aplomb which was breathtaking. As he got older this became ever more pronounced. As Harold Wilson remarked, Tony ‘immatures with age.’ Even when at the height of his political career insiders knew Tony Benn couldn’t be trusted. In the early 70’s Henry Drucker in a lecture at Edinburgh University claimed that even the Labour Party would never elect a raving lunatic with ‘revolving eyeballs’ as leader.
Yet the political landscape in Britain altered so much that in 1981 Tony Benn came to within a hairsbreadth 0.8% of beating Dennis Healey for the job of deputy leader. Benn became a standard bearer for the hard left in the Labour Party and helped create the conditions which tore the Labour Party apart and saw the birth of the breakaway SDP.
Michael Foot, whose leadership Benn consistently undermined, was of the opinion that Benn ‘was not to be trusted.’ Benn’s one lasting legacy will be his voluminous diaries which record in detail the political events of the day and his part in them. In contrast the diaries of his contemporaries reveal a blundering operator who throughout his career was profoundly distrusted by his colleagues, Benn was seen as the loose cannon who could sink any ship.
Benn’s charge to the left helped ensure the victories of Margaret Thatcher. He vociferously supported president-for-life Arthur Scargill of the NMU as Scargill aided Margaret Thatcher in the destruction of the British coal industry. All the while Benn conveniently ignored the fact that he had been a member of the Wilson government which had closed more mines than Thatcher ever did.
Probably Benn’s greatest talent was not his much praised oratory but his ability to denounce his rivals in the Labour Party. Always willing to organise back bench rebellions when he was outvoted in Cabinet Benn, the man of principle, never actually went so far as to resign on principle.
Heavily influenced by Christian socialism Benn saw himself as a prophet ever ready to challenge the kings. During his Desert Island Discs interview, he asked to take to the imaginary island two books he had never read in their entirety: The Bible and Das Kapital, by Karl Marx. “Those two books – the moral teaching and the political analysis – are the two great influences, whether we know it or not, in our century.”
Benn was brought up an idealist by his feminist theologian mother and in later life became a romantic, a left wing Don Quixote ever ready to tilt at windmills for some lost cause. Eventually he resembled nothing more than the cartoon character Mr Benn the suburban commuter who would enter a fancy dress shop, purchase a costume and exit through a back door into a fantasy land where he would be a cowboy, pirate, astronaut, cook, caveman, whatever adventure was appropriate to the costume he was wearing that day.
Today eulogies for someone who appears a genuinely likeable man on a personal level abound. His wild schemes forgotten, his perpetual feuding fading from memory we remember the devoted family man who saw himself as a prophet for his age. Benn’s final reinvention late in life as an avuncular national treasure, pipe smoking, tea drinking elderly relative dispensing dollops of left wing wisdom clouds us to the fact that, amusing as he was in his latter years his policies were resoundingly rejected by the British people in successive general elections and did more harm to the Labour Party which he loved than the Tories ever managed.