Like the prophets, in whom he was immersed in his childhood by his deeply moral and Christian mother, Tony Benn was misunderstood, feared and rejected by his own generation who perceived him as threatening their cosy consensus. Like the prophets he asked questions and raised complaints which they preferred not to hear, and when he challenged their power base by appealing directly to the constituency parties, the trade unions and the industrial working class, they consorted to destroy him. But those questions remain as poignant today as they were then. The central question of course is: what is the Labour Party for, what is its function, and is it performing that role as robustly as it can in support of those it represents? Conviction politics is like a coiled spring; unless the pressure is kept up to maintain its integrity and its force, it steadily relaxes and becomes absorbed by the institutions of conservatism that surround it.
Tony Benn asked those questions and relentlessly pursued the answers with a genius for campaigning and a restless energy that was unstoppable. By the end of the oil-driven inflation of the 1970s Labour had accommodated the demands of capitalism by paving the way for the monetarist economics that dominated the Thatcher regime, and in despair and anger at this surrender Benn took on the Labour Establishment, losing only by the whisker of 0.85% in the Deputy Leadership vote in 1981. He has been accused of being divisive. But politics is about power, and you cannot challenge the prevailing ideology and the power structure that maintains it without being divisive. Thatcher was divisive both within her own party and in the nation, but sought to impose the domination of her class by eradicating huge swathes of manufacturing industry and destroying working class resistance. Tony Benn was divisive only in recalling the Labour party to its fundamental duty of advancing the interests of ordinary working people against an oppressive economic system, as he demonstrated by championing Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, the Pentonville 5 and the NUM strike. Through his passion for democracy, transparency and accountability, he wanted to build up the people’s confidence, not crush them.
Tony Benn was a passionate believer in national sovereignty. He railed against the IMF for running Britain’s finance, against the Common Market Commission for running Britain’s legislation, and against NATO for running Britain’s armed forces with the US holding the codes for Britain’s nuclear weapons programme. He was equally a passionate believer in the redistribution of power and was ahead of his time in strongly advocating freedom of information, local (electronic) referenda, media regulation, and regional development – all of which are likely to come to pass in time. Above all he was the architect of the Grand Design, the big picture politics that should inspire every generation to renew and refresh, and his example and his leadership will continue to inspire this and future generations to do just that.