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Tony Benn Embodied Everything Decent In Society

16/03/2014 18:41 GMT | Updated 14/05/2014 10:59 BST

Tony Benn was the embodiment of everything decent in British society. No other political figure comes close when it comes to the integrity, principle, and dedication with which he conducted himself during a truly astonishing political career lasting over five decades.

His devotion to socialism and socialist ideas were cemented forever by the experience of the Second World War, in which he served in the Royal Air Force. Like tens of thousands of British servicemen and women who played their part in the only honourable war Britain has ever been involved in - to defeat fascism - Anthony Wedgewood Benn (as he was then) returned home determined to make the country he left a land fit for heroes.

The achievements of the postwar Labour government in rolling out the welfare state, which for the first time saw working people enjoy the prominence and respect which their sacrifice in the war deserved, not forgetting their role at home as the authentic wealth creators in society. Full employment, the NHS, decent schools and housing, National Insurance, the state pension - Tony Benn lived through those tumultuous years and you were left with the impression that they remained indelibly imprinted in his heart as an example of who and what the Labour Party existed for.

The renunciation of his peerage and the privilege and emoluments that went with it marked him out early as a man of deep principal, for whom socialism was as much an affair of the heart as the head. As he said in 1960: "I am not a reluctant peer but a persistent commoner."

Also marking him out was his obdurate refusal to budge from his belief that a government's credibility is inextricably linked to the extent it serves the interests of the masses of the people, rather than a connected and wealthy minority. His views on the economy were the same, which is why when the Labour Party began its slow but steady rightwards shift in response to the economic turmoil of the 1970s, Benn remained staunch - not dogmatically staunch, mind, but intellectually and emotionally wedded to the idea that the inherent contradictions within capitalism would only be overcome with a socialist alternative, wherein planning replaces anarchy and human need supplants greed as the primary objective of economic activity.

The Alternative Economic Strategy which he co-authored along with other voices of the Labour left in response to the Sterling Crisis, mapped out an alternative to the gathering clouds of the free market blowing in from across the Atlantic. The word Bennite appeared as part of the British political vocabulary around the same time, deployed as a term of abuse in line with Tony Benn's growing threat to a political and economic establishment that was gearing up for a showdown with the trade union movement over the nation's direction.

By the time Thatcher arrived in Downing Street Labour's dissolution as a party of the millions, in which social and economic justice formed the core of its being, and it rebirth as a party of the millionaires had begun. It was a slow yet steady process of political emasculation culminating in New Labour under the stewardship of Tony Blair - surely an example of the chaos that ensues when an advertising executive finds himself propelled to political leadership. Throughout, even when he wore the title of 'most hated man in Britain', Tony Benn refused to believe that the interests of ordinary working people and those of the rich and powerful could ever be anything other than antithetical. The Third Way espoused by Blair's New Labour was thus anathema, nothing more than a clever sales pitch driven not by political principle but political opportunism.

In his later years, Tony Benn's star shone brightest. A tireless campaigner against the war in Iraq, for Palestinian human rights, for peace and socialism, he was never on the wrong side of the barricades. Up and down the country he travelled week in week out, speaking at meetings, demonstrations, and conferences, an avuncular figure whose pipe came to symbolise the moral rectitude he exuded wherever he appeared.

By this point the Labour Party had become a shadow of its former self, reduced to nothing more than a transmission belt from the House of Commons into the House of Lords and a corporate sinecure for people who'd abandoned the principles that first brought them into politics. Unlike them, Tony Benn never faltered nor betrayed his principles. His legacy as a fierce champion of decency, equality, and justice is assured for all eternity.

Martin Luther King left us in no doubt that "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

In such moments, throughout his long political career, history will record that Tony Benn stood with the people.