Tony Benn, who has died aged 88, was one of the last truly socialist politicians left in Britain, writes Abdelbari Atwan. A vociferous supporter of the Palestinian cause, a most outspoken opponent of western meddling in Arab affairs, he was also a personal friend. To me – and to many others – he was a true comrade.
He was always there when it mattered – at the launch of my first book, for example – despite a hectic schedule that would have killed a man half his age. Benn was a Labour MP for 50 years and was a cabinet minister under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. Unlike many of his fellow politicians, his actions matched his words.
He was born into an aristocratic family, but early in his career denounced the unfair advantage of inherited rank. Determined to give up his peerage (he would have become Lord Stansgate) he championed legislation – finally passed in 1963 – which allowed him to renounce his title. “I am not a reluctant peer,” he told a challenger. “I am a persistent commoner.”
Tony Benn was unusual among politicians (and the general public) in that he moved more to the left than to the right as he got older. The more injustice he observed, he said, the more fiercely he felt the call to fight it. When he was 83 years-old, he hi-jacked BBC radio 4′s flagship morning programme Today in support of the people of Gaza shortly after the 2008/9 Israeli Operation Cast Lead onslaught which killed 1,330 and left a million and a half people without shelter, water or electricity.
The BBC was the only station to refuse to broadcast an aid appeal for the children of Gaza and Tony Benn had been invited to comment. Instead, he challenged an astonished Ed Stourton to throw him out, and delivered the appeal himself, including address and payment details. He repeated his action on BBC television shortly afterwards accusing the BBC of capitulating to Israel.
Stop the War
Benn became president of the highly influential Stop the War movement which mobilized two million people to march through London in protest at the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Discussing the subsequent insurgency, he outraged many when he declared, “There is no moral difference between a stealth bomber [plane] and a suicide bomber. Both kill innocent people for political reasons.”
Tony Benn always saw the wider political picture – he argued against the military intervention in Libya and strongly opposed one in Syria. One of his last interviews contained some piercing analysis of neo-colonialist interference in the Arab Spring. In his earlier years the media liked to portray Tony Benn as “the most dangerous man in Britain” but more recently he was seen more as a “national treasure”… something he found amusing, telling a Telegraph journalist, “I might be kindly and old, but I’m not harmless.”
He was a truly inspiring person to know, disciplined and principled, a teetotaller and vegetarian. I remember him best, not speaking – and he was one of the greatest living orators – but listening. He always had time for the many people who approached him, strangers, opponents, comrades, whoever they were; he would give them his undivided attention before answering, often with wit and humour.
He made it his mission to encourage others, bolstering their sense of their own power. “There are two ways in which people are controlled,” he used to say. “First of all frighten them and then, demoralize them.” Asked how he would like to be remembered he said, “What we need in the world is more encouragement. I would like ‘Tony Benn, he encouraged us’ on my gravestone. That would be all I would need.”
Tony Benn is survived by his four children Hilary, Joshua, Melissa and Stephen.