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Tony Benn's Funeral: The Conflict Between Politicians' Words of Praise and Everyday Actions

26/03/2014 17:01 GMT | Updated 26/05/2014 10:59 BST

The psychology of Mindfulness recommends a useful technique to help you prioritise the values you'd like to live your life by: think of the things that you'd most like your friends and family to say about you at your funeral. Try to practice those behaviours - "they were always kind and thoughtful" - that you think would sound good when said in front of a large gathering of your nearest and dearest whilst ditching those you'd rather left unsaid.

The recent deaths of Bob Crow and Tony Benn, whose funeral is this Thursday, have provided a bucket-list of phrases that most of us would be honoured to have said of us at our departing. Adversaries and friends from across the political spectrum have been united in praising their honour, bravery, and, perhaps most importantly of all, their vision and belief in doing what was right for the people they represented - whether it was union workers, constituents or dyed-in-the-wool socialists. I'm just waiting for the Cameron-Clegg-Miliband Tony Benn funeral selfie to go viral this Thursday.

All well and good in theory, but it can sometimes stick in the throat to hear these politicians eulogising about "honour" when they seem so short of it themselves.

Boris Johnson described Bob Crow as a "man of character" - this coming from the Mayor who reneged on his own promise to Crow's union workers that he wouldn't close underground ticket offices. Nick Clegg praised Tony Benn for being a "fervent defender of what he believed in", seemingly forgetting his own paltry commitment to defend students from a hike in tuition fees. And this is before we get into the grand machinery of politics which places the interests of corporate lobbyists above the general public and is happy to pry and snoop on Joe Bloggs' emails in the name of counterterrorism.

How can our political leaders justify, in their minds, such a wide chasm between their words and deeds? Part of it comes down to political jostling and the need to ensure that your offerings, no matter how empty, are quoted in the papers and retweeted in the twittersphere. That's just political expediency. And, of course, these words can help to confer a good reputation simply by association: the simple equation that Tony Benn = Good and David Cameron thinks Tony Benn = Good must mean that David Cameron = Good.

Yet, for a gap the size of the Grand Canyon to have developed between many politicians' daily behaviour and the values they preach, something much more fundamental must be going on.

As Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential campaign slogan said, "It's the economy, stupid". Whether we like it or not, the principles of capitalism, competition, profit, and cost-benefit analyses have pervaded pretty much every aspect of our national culture. Every political decision is made with a reading of capitalist economics (or should that be The Economist?) firmly in mind.

Tony Benn and Bob Crow inhabited a different world of political thought. Benn wanted to be remembered as an educator, as someone who encouraged people to create the world they wanted to see. For him, there were higher goals in life than endlessly generating profit for a few wealthy business owners. Bob Crow believed wholeheartedly that he could improve the lives of the workers he represented. What united them was their belief in the immense power of collective action and the capacity of the state to do good.

If you hold ambitions such as these today you often feel like you're swimming against the economic tide. Benn was only justified in their continued pursuit of these goals because he was of an older generation. IpsosMori's research found that those who have memories of pre-1945 Britain are far more likely to express pride in the welfare state than Generation Y. The latter are not inherently more selfish - they've just had the idea that "we are all capitalists now" rammed down their throats by the corporate media.

Unfortunately the mantra of capitalism is difficult to align with the political spirit effused by Benn and Crow. Privatisation brings every decision down to the individual - where in that is there the capacity to see beyond the horizon and hold a wider ideal of what government and politicians can achieve? Ends now justify means - so long as the ends mean the profit line points upwards on your Excel spreadsheet. Clegg, Cameron et al are locked in a competitive war that their own economic principles have created - one which does not reward the behavioural attributes they so enthusiastically ascribed to Benn and Crow. If today's politicians really want to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Benn (and have a decent send-off to boot) they need to change path and follow the road towards a completely different model of society.