Friday, 14 March 2014

Memories of Tony Benn

As Postmaster General, with not a mug of tea in sight

The death of Tony Benn at the age of 88 has been announced, and no doubt there will be extensive coverage of his achievements and failures.  As loathed by some as he was admired by others, the polarised opinions were summed up in his name.  Those who disliked him would often refer to him as Wedgewood Benn, as if he had somehow really never stopped being 2nd Viscount Stansgate inside.  It was a way of trying to suggest that his privileged background meant that he wasn’t the man of the people that he tried to pretend, and there was an air of hypocrisy about him.  That the effort made them look foolish, and Benn all the more principled, seemed to escape them.  Yet I feel some ambivalence to him myself, admiring the sincerity of his views while questioning his political nous on occasion.  To mark his passing, I would like to record some anecdotes that help to sum up his complexities.

The first time I saw Tony Benn in person was at an event held at Central Hall, Westminster, in London, on 17 March 1980.  This was a period of deep crisis in the Labour movement, and I was one of the fortunate 2,600 able to get a ticket to listen to a range of speakers debate ‘The Crisis and Future of the Left’, a meeting modestly described in its subtitle as ‘The Debate of the Decade’.  Organised by the Labour Co-ordinating Committee (LCC), Tony Benn MP was present along with Stuart Holland MP and Audrey Wise (who had lost her seat the year before), representing the left wing of the Labour Party; while Tariq Ali of the International Marxist Group, Paul Foot from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Hilary Wainwright, billed as a ‘socialist feminist’, all represented the revolutionary left.  Peter Hain chaired and tried to keep order.

It was quite an evening, and fortunately Pluto Press issued a booklet containing edited transcripts of the talks (The Crisis and Future of the Left), and the LCC put out an edited audio tape.  This was a time when people could still call each other ‘comrade’ without self-consciousness, and Benn could argue that the Labour Party was a ‘Socialist party’ with a straight face.  I wasn’t really there to hear Benn or his Labour Party colleagues, and I wasn’t to join the Labour Party for another three years.  I was primarily interested in hearing Tariq Ali, but looking at the transcripts I think Paul Foot, who preceded Benn, probably gave the best value: ‘Comrades I find it very difficult to follow Stuart’s rather interesting account of Gramsci in the thirties, because I find myself preoccupied by the problems which beset us now,’ before laying into Benn’s Arguments for Socialism, which he characterised as The Confessions of Tony Benn.

 The evening was a rowdy one, and just before Benn got up to speak, Hain was commenting: ‘I realise that there are some would-be football referees in the audience but I hope you will allow the debate to continue.’  Benn had barely said a sentence when he was interrupted by what the transcript refers to as ‘Lot of heckling here and sound of whistle blowing.’  It would seem that the audience was not prepared to cut much slack for someone so closely associated with a failed government that had let in Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives.  Benn decried the splintering of groups on the Left, giving the SWP as an example, but only a year later the Labour Party’s own ‘Gang of Four’ wreckers and splitters went off to form the ill-fated Social Democratic Party.   I remember enjoying the evening, but feeling that it generated much more heat than light, and debate of the decade or not, we were in for a ghastly eighteen years.

I joined British Telecom (BT) at the beginning of 1984, just in time to see it privatised later that year.  Benn had been Postmaster General in 1964-66, when BT was part of the Post Office, and the whole lot was a government department.  BT and the Post Office separated in 1981, and although we were working in telecommunications and the culture was beginning to change, a lot of those I was working with were old Post Office hands, some of whom looked back to past times with some wistfulness.  Benn’s period of office was naturally recalled as he had been a significant presence, and a great story circulated which, though probably not true, summed up the affection he aroused.  This was that tea was brought to him at his desk by a flunky every day on a silver tray.  Being a great tea drinker (the verdict on Benn reported to God, according to the Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell, was ‘he drinks a lot of tea, Lord, but he’s clean [i.e. honest]’) Benn objected to the miserable little cup that his tea arrived in, and he asked instead for a mug.  A mug was duly substituted for the cup – but it was still borne in on a silver tray.

I actually met Tony Benn briefly in the late 1980s.  I was working in BT’s corporate exhibitions group and was on a train returning from York, where I had been to discuss a forthcoming event.  We stopped at Chesterfield, Benn’s constituency, and he got on.  He passed down the carriage, to my surprise going in to the first class section.  Somehow I assumed he would show disdain for such bourgeois distinctions, though possibly he wanted some peace to record his diary.  I thought it might be nice to collect his autograph, and debated whether to bother him.  Deciding I would, I jumped off the train as soon as we arrived at St Pancras and waited by the barrier.  As he approached I attracted his attention and asked for his autograph.  I thought he might be busily brusque, but he was extremely charming.  ‘What do you do?’ he asked as he signed my piece of paper.  It was rather embarrassing to say, as somehow working for BT at that moment felt like fraternising with the enemy, and I remember exactly how I phrased it: ‘I work for BT, for my sins.’  He leaned towards me confidentially, and said: ‘When we get back into power, we are going to renationalise BT.’  From my perspective that seemed extremely unlikely, and it struck me that, while well-meaning, he was out of touch with political realities.

My final encounter with Tony Benn was as a member of an audience when he visited Cambridge in May 2003, and spoke in the Cambridge Union Chamber.  He had left Parliament in 2001 to ‘devote more time to politics’ (and sell a few books, from what I could see, some of which grace our shelves).   He was promoting his latest, Free Radical, and had the crowd eating from his hand.  His oratory was still potent, but somewhat vague I thought.  My wife asked him a question on political engagement and received a generalised reply that failed to answer her point.  We concluded from this and other answers that he had a large number of stock responses he could pull off the shelf to deal with any contingency, but was less good at engaging with detailed analysis of specific issues.  Still,he stimulated debate, whatever he said, and was a great flag waver for the causes in which he believed.  After the Cambridge Union talk my wife queued up to get our copy of his book signed.  I didn’t bother to join her, and regret it enormously as I shall never have another chance.  I could have taken the opportunity to ask when we were likely to see BT renationalised.