Tony Benn was almost entirely ineffectual – and usually wrong

Independent on Sunday, 16 March 2014

He was wrong about the UK’s membership of the EU, with some of his speeches from the 1970s sounding like a precursor of today’s Ukip rhetoric

I ought to know by now that death sanctifies: even Margaret Thatcher, one of the most divisive prime ministers of the 20th century, was presented as statesmanlike after her demise. I wish I could say it’s mainly the right which is guilty of this form of collective amnesia but it isn’t, a point brought home to me by the glowing obituaries of Tony Benn. Even the Prime Minister felt he had to say something, hailing the former Labour Cabinet minister as a “magnificent writer, speaker and campaigner”. David Cameron could have added, but was either too tactful or too canny to say so, that Benn was an almost entirely ineffectual politician.

I’m happy to accept he was much loved by his family, although on the one occasion I had direct dealings with him – I was trying to invite him to address a meeting – his behaviour on the phone struck me as slightly paranoid. He pulled off the singular feat of managing to be wrong on an astonishing number of issues, and I suspect that’s the real reason why the right liked him. He could be guaranteed to say things which made the left appear naive, petty and idiotic.

Benn was wrong about the UK’s membership of the EU, with some of his speeches from the 1970s sounding like a precursor of today’s Ukip rhetoric. Much more recently, he offered uncritical support to the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a rabble-rousing speech which revealed that he did not understand the meaning of consent in cases of alleged rape. It took him 18 months to apologise.

Even when he was on the correct side of an argument, it was usually for the wrong reasons. Like Benn, I opposed the Iraq war, but I don’t share his view that every instance of humanitarian intervention is a form of Western imperialism. Indeed his attempt to stop the war early in 2003 by visiting Baghdad and “interviewing” Saddam Hussein for Channel 4 News is toe-curling to watch. Benn appears completely out of his depth, trying to talk to one of the world’s worst mass murderers about “paths to peace”. Nor did he do much better in a private meeting with Saddam’s deputy, Tariq Aziz – a key figure in the regime for a quarter of a century – whom he remembered in his diary as “a nice guy”.

The episode is as naive in its own way as Benn’s interview with Ali G, which lumbers to an end without the veteran politician realising he’s speaking to a fictional character. But then Benn veered between sentimentality – he had a romantic view of early Christian radicals, such as the 17th-century Levellers – and a degree of solemn self-belief which didn’t allow for someone taking the mickey.

It was a Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, who observed rather brilliantly that his former Cabinet colleague was someone who “immatures with age”. Much as I hate living in a world where Cameron is prime minister, I’m awfully glad I did not live in one run by the late member for Chesterfield.


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