As Tony Benn passed away recently and the obituaries rolled in, rightfully commemorating a life of great service to the working class, one is left to wonder at the vacuum created by his passing. This article will not reiterate here a chronology of his life, his career as an MP and cabinet minister, the policies and institutions he helped establish. Instead, it will take a few words to draw attention to some of the beliefs he articulated with clarity and a persuasive rhetoric that few others managed.
Throughout his speeches and writings he would reiterate the need to ask the powerful five questions:
1. What power have you got?
2. Where did you get it?
3. In whose interests did you exercise it?
4. To whom are you accountable?
5. How can we get rid of you?
To which he would add: “only democracy gives us that right. That is why no-one who has power likes democracy and that is why every generation must struggle to win it and keep it; including you and me, here and now” (2005).
These are words most people can relate to, yet few rarely consider their meaning and implication. It strikes at the heart of what a democracy should mean: the voting system, the accountability of what those in power promise and what they actually do, what (and whose) interests these people represent and whether this creates conflict within their public role, and the role of central and local government in the administration of services and policies that affect everyone on a daily basis. The idea that governments and politicians should seek to be truly representative of the people that elected them appears to be a self-apparent truth, yet one Tony Benn wholeheartedly followed and many others have neglected.
Benn’s fundamental faith in the intelligence and integrity of people was at the heart of his political beliefs and socialist outlook. He did not believe in verbally attacking individuals but instead sought to deconstruct and analyse the institutions and structures that encapsulated them. He would not castigate the Queen for her role in the monarchic system but recognised her as a victim of circumstance; instead, taking issue with the hereditary structure of monarchy and peerage: “If I went to the dentist and just as he started to drill, he said, ‘by the way, Tony, I am not a dentist myself but my father was a very good dentist,’ I wouldn’t be altogether happy”.
It was through such intelligent, insightful and oft-humorous remarks that Tony Benn was able to engage large numbers of people from diverse backgrounds and show them a vision of a world that could, and should, be better. The absence now in British politics of his social and political commentary will be sorely missed and the vacuum it creates on the Left will be one that is not easily filled.