There have been some heartfelt and heartwarming tributes to Tony Benn today from people across the political spectrum, but it is necessary to unpick some of the narrative that is woven into these tributes. The main one that is heard is that despite being a principled politician, his principles somehow meant that Labour was cast into a desert of irrelevance in the early 1980s. Of course, taken at a journalistic canter (rather than a trot) this is how it must seem too many commentators. But as usual, British commentary is obsessed with British affairs and cannot see outside of the very limited snow globe of its own perceptions. The point about Tony Benn was, however, that he represented not just a "die-hard" left within the Labour Party but was part of a general European movement that saw the dissolution of all sorts of political certainties and the emergence of many new parties. As usual, however, the surface appearance of something is taken out of context and also taken to be a straightforward reflection of a political reality. Political reality, however, is never what it seems.
If I might add my own political tribute, then his book Arguments for Socialism was the first British political text I bought, and when I showed it to my Uncle Pid (from the posh side of the family) he said that I shouldn't read it because Wedgwood Benn was "a traitor to his class." That was it for me. I became a Bennite there and then and joined the Labour Party.
More importantly however, this was not my first political experience. While I was stationed in Germany in the army between 1978 and 1981 I got heavily involved with the emerging Green movement, which itself represented -- amongst many other things -- simply the German expression of a worldwide movement which at the time we called Ökopax (Ecology+Peace). The antinuclear sentiment which gave renewed vigour to CND, the opposition to rightward-moving moving Social Democrats, the rise of an independent and radicalised women's movement, the shift towards alternative ways of living and being, of getting out of the rat race of industrial society, of thinking about the environmental impact that we were having on the planet, all of these were common across the political spectrum of Europe. A look at any of the scruffy dressed fifty-something men and women who go around looking as though were in The Clash is all you need to figure out the archaeology of that time. Tony Benn was merely the representative of a small part of this general new European cultural and political movement within a traditional Labour Party context.
The reason that this had the effect that it did in Britain is that our essentially undemocratic electoral system meant -- and continues to mean today--that in order to have any hope of real political effect it is necessary to fight within one of the established parties for an alternative political route.
Mrs Thatcher had managed to turn the Tory party from a relatively patrician centrist/Christian Democratic movement into a more dynamic and market orientated right-wing party. Benn was the Left's equivalent of this and, although he came within a hair's breadth of winning the deputy leadership election against Denis Healey, it never really stood a chance within the established political spectrum. The real tragedy is that it stood even less of a chance outside of the established political spectrum. And in many ways this was Tony Benn's real tragedy, that he remained wedded to an essentially nostalgic and romantic Loachian view of the British Labour movement. The great thing we should take away from Tony Benn's death this morning is that many of those issues which we fought over in the 1970s and 80s are returning now but this time underpinned by the necessity to develop a real pan-European struggle against austerity and the role of the ratings agencies, bankers and corporate bureaucrats. The political priorities of the 1980s are now complemented by an economic struggle that will develop into something much greater. The death of Tony Benn is the end of an era, but it also comes at the beginning of a brand-new one.