17 March 2014

Tony Benn: Outspoken, Principled and Too Easily Ignored

Last week Tony Benn died.  He was  the longest serving MP in the history of the Labour Party.

For those who don't know him, to give you a sense of the man, when he left the House of Commons in 2001 after more than 50 years as an MP he said it was to "devote more time to politics" -- a terrific riposte to the politicians who leave Parliament, usually in disgrace, to "devote more time to their families" or perhaps it was a condemnation of the UK parliamentary system which he felt was too focused on spin and not enough on the issues. More great quotes here.

He was also a keen diarist (he would surely have been a blogger) and I recommend the 1991-2001 edition in particular.

I've been catching a lot of commentary about him on the radio talk shows as I drive the kids to school and back.  He clearly divided people.  On the one hand:  "A toff who doesn't speak for working class people like me." and "His failure to help Labour towards the centre ground let in politicians like Margaret Thatcher." On the other: "A politician who spoke his mind and upheld his convictions" and "one of the most charismatic and wide ranging thinkers in politics".

Back in 2006 we invited him to IDS to be interviewed by Natasha Kaplinsky as one of our 40th Anniversary celebrations (above picture).  He was a great internationalist, never a Little Britain type.  It is no coincidence that one of his sons, Hilary, was the Secretary of State for International Development (a good one at that).

I have always admired him, not necessarily for his politics (I share some of his views, but he was too radical for me) but for his convictions.  And of course for his mischievous sense of humour.  When, in 2003, the newspapers reported his "platonic" relationship with Natasha Kaplinsky (daughter of one of IDS' most famous Fellows, Raphie Kaplinsky) and 40 years Benn's junior, he wrote a tongue in cheek letter to the newspaper saying he was outraged at the article assuming the relationship was platonic.

I do think his unwillingness to compromise was a shame.   Preserving principles while compromising to make deals--can anyone do that?  Not easy, but I wished he had tried a bit harder.  I would have loved to have seen him wield some real power.  He was too easy to ignore, and that was a great pity.

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