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March 14, 2014

Tony Benn, 1925-2014
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 09:31 AM * 31 comments

He was Old Labour, the real thing, pre-Blair: suspicious of business and its interests, a supporter of working people, passionate about justice, anti-war, pro-equality. He put up plaques to suffragettes and supported marriage equality. He gave up a peerage to stay in the Commons, then left public office when he thought he could do better by direct organization.

The quote of his that’s kicking around Twitter today is his Five Questions:

If one meets a powerful person—Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler—one can ask five questions:
  1. What power do you have?
  2. Where did you get it?
  3. In whose interests do you exercise it?
  4. To whom are you accountable?
  5. And how can we get rid of you?
Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.

I know that the art of purity test design is to make one that is both noble to the listener and passable by the speaker, but this is a good one. We should ask it more often, in his memory, as a reminder to ourselves, and as a goad to the powers that be.

Rest in peace. And thank you.

Comments on Tony Benn, 1925-2014:
#1 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2014, 10:21 AM:

The old Victorian Non-Conformist Conscience personified. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

A very strange man in many ways, and in some ways not quite the person his myth made out, or his millions of fans hoped he was. But there's time to talk about that later.

Right now, between him and Bob Crow, there is a huge hole in the Left in Britain. Lets hope nothing happens to Dennis Skinner, Ken Livingstone, or Bob Holman.

#2 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2014, 11:03 AM:

Verso have posted the text of Benn's introduction to A Common Treasury, a collection of the writings of the seventeenth-century radical Gerrard Winstanley.

Kings and political leaders are remembered for the ideas they imposed on those they governed, but all real progress comes from ideas that begin at the bottom and force their way to the top. For example, the demand that women be given the right to vote was first ignored by the powerful. When the campaign grew, it was denounced as dangerous and the suffragettes were imprisoned, some went on hunger strike and were forcibly fed by wardresses. Then when the argument had been won you could not find anyone in power who didn’t seem to be claiming that they thought of the idea in the first place.
The early seventeenth century launched into the public domain arguments about freedom and equality and democracy which we would now all regard as normal--even though at the time they were considered totally destructive of the status quo.
Benn believed to the bottom of his heart in the power of argument to eventually change the world. I think he would have been amused but also annoyed at all the "we shall not see his like again" bloviation now being emitted on the occasion of his death. He would have said, yes you will, keep arguing.

#3 ::: Miramon ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2014, 11:24 AM:

I wasn't much aware of Benn until today, but he certainly seems to have been quite a guy, comparable perhaps to Aneurin Bevan, another great leader on the left from the previous generation.

It's a shame that the modern Labour party is practically cryptoconservative. In fact, the whole range of current British political choices viewed from the outside is horrible. Is it possible the leading 4 parties in the UK are worse than the leading 2 in the US? That may be going too far, not sure....

#4 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2014, 11:54 AM:

He was democratic socialism incarnate. The kind of representative people needed, bristly on behalf of ordinary working people. He argued for socialism with both dignity and passion.

#5 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2014, 11:54 AM:

He was democratic socialism incarnate. The kind of representative people needed, bristly on behalf of ordinary working people. He argued for socialism with both dignity and passion.

#6 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2014, 12:38 PM:

As my friend Thomas says, his death has left a void; now we all have to step up and fill it.

#7 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2014, 01:20 PM:

PNH #2:

"I suppose the process of acceptance will pass through the usual four stages:
i) This is worthless nonsense,
ii) This is an interesting, but perverse, point of view,
iii) This is true, but quite unimportant,
iv) I always said so."
-- J.B.S. Haldane

#8 ::: Matthew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2014, 01:20 PM:

He'll be missed here. He was certainly flawed, and I didn't agree with the man on everything, far from it, but there better be more like him on the way.

#9 ::: Miramon ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2014, 02:16 PM:

MB@8, doesn't seem likely any more of that ilk will be coming from Labour, not unless the leadership is removed somehow.

#10 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2014, 03:46 PM:


#11 ::: James E ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2014, 04:15 PM:

I met Tony Benn once. (I think everyone on the British left has met Tony Benn once). In private, and among groups of strangers, he was exactly as engaging, passionate, charming and funny as he is in public, which is a sign of the man.

Of all things, what boosted his profile and popularity the most among my generation - even before he was a leading light in the anti-Iraq war movement - was appearing on the Ali G show. Where he took the most outrageous statements deadly seriously, and demolished them calmly and plainly and from principle. In an age of Blair and Mandelson that won the respect of a lot of people, I think.

(also, unlike Bob Crow he didn't give me a bruise on the ankle that left me hobbling for a week, but that's another story)

Ken Brown @1: Bob Holman? Is that a typo or my failure to have heard of someone I should have heard of?

#12 ::: Wendy Bradley ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2014, 04:32 PM:

James E #11 Bob Holman is definitely someone you should have heard of: someone who actually walks the walk.

#13 ::: James E ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2014, 04:43 PM:

Wendy Bradley @12: ah! Thanks. I'd heard of his project but had forgotten the name... blame London parochialism. I will try not to forget it twice.

#14 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2014, 08:03 PM:

I purchased a copy of his Commonwealth of Britain bill, delivered to Canada, back before Internet access to legislative documents. It was worth reading, although I think it lacked some important features of a workable constitution.

#15 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2014, 06:42 AM:

Miramon @3: You're pretty much correct except that the conservative consensus in British politics breaks down at the periphery. The Scottish Nationalist Party, for example, is a nationalist socialist party who have successfully occupied Labour's former ideological heartland to the point of winning an outright majority in a parliament established in 2000 with electoral rules specifically designed to prevent majority governments from arising (an achievement that can be laid directly at Tony Blair's door). Also, it's difficult to trust the BBC on matters political when they give UKIP (hard right, zero Members of Parliament) vastly more air-time than the Green Party (left wing, actually have an MP in the Commons).

Tony Benn: let's also recall that he was a champion of Wilson's "White Heat of Technology"; a strong supporter of Concorde, instrumental in the development of the AGR Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor program, and other cutting-edge industrial/technological projects at a time when the government was in the business of having an industrial policy rather than presiding over a deregulated wasteland patrolled by packs of feral bankers and dominated by foreign sovereign wealth funds.

#16 ::: Miramon ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2014, 12:07 PM:

Yah, from everything I hear, the SNP is astonishingly progressive, not something you usually associate with nationalism, but what the heck. I remember a very amusing episode last year which involved Farage having to flee protesters in Edinburgh: "UKIP scum off our streets." I'm not sure that secession really makes sense at this late date, but if they do vote that way, I hope it works out....

#17 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2014, 03:30 PM:

My father had a conspiracy theory that Benn was an agent of the Tory party, sent into the Labour movement to wreck it. This is ridiculous but in certain lights Benn looks less unique when compared to swivel-eyed right-wing 'characters'. He was very friendly with Enoch Powell, whose eccentric path to the Ulster Unionists—and telling voters to vote Labour!—led Lord Hailsham to quip, tartly: He has found a new constituency and a new cause to betray and they have a new leader to desert. Benn was nicer than Powell but had some similar gifts (excellent speaker, a good mind) and some of the same faults (a messianic sense of being The Man Who Speaks Truth, a failure to realise that having a lot of fans doesn't mean you lead an important faction).

Benn's diaries of the 1960s and 1970s are very readable. His famous teetotalism probably helped his career: well into the 80s a high proportion of politicians were pissed almost all the time (Ministers present at cabinets that made terrible decisions often say vaguely in their memoirs that they 'were distracted' or 'felt tired' or 'must have nodded off for a moment') and Benn was inherently energetic anyway.

He was a proud dirigiste from the days when governments were not afraid to intervene: demolishing slum housing and building tower blocks, reorganizing the Butler Act education system into comprehensives (his beloved wife Caroline seemed to see comprehensives as a cure for absolutely everything). At best, enormous amounts of effort and energy went into making life better for everyday people; at worst there was a technocratic philistinism that swept away lots of perfectly good Victorian streets and grammar schools.

He asked a lot of good awkward questions about democratic control of capitalism and I'm very sad that he's gone.

#18 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2014, 06:59 PM:

Steve with a book @ 17: the House of Commons still has several subsidised bars. I've always been in favour of breathalysing MPs. Not when they're driving, but when they're legislating.

#19 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2014, 07:37 PM:

I heard Benn speak once, at a one-day event for sixth-formers (16–19-year-olds). He spoke first, then there was star of the moment Edwina Currie, and finally Dr David Owen, who arrived late. It has only just struck me that Owen's lateness may have been a deliberate ploy to ensure he wouldn't have to have any contact at all with Benn. Sadly, I remember nothing that anyone said, apart from some speculations from Mrs Currie about Mr Gorbachev's reforms. For years I've had Owen labelled in my head as the Lib Dem representative there, but of course that's wrong: he was by then aligned with the residual SDP that had refused to merge with the Liberals. (Turns out that there's still a tiny SDP now, with an adorably awful website.) The centre of politics can be even more fissiparous than the fringes.

An awful lot of Left politics in the UK can leave one feeling pretty grubby; Benn's admirable personal character (high-minded commanding officer of The Awkward Squad) counted for a lot.

#20 ::: Rick Moen ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2014, 02:45 PM:

Benn also hosted a small and charming 'Tour of Parliament" documentary about the workings and social institutions of Parliament that I found on my DVDs of the 1990 BBC series House of Cards (made from the Michael Dobbs trilogy).

If you needed an additional excuse to rematch Ian Richardson's witty turn as Francis Uruquhart, M.P.: You might think that, but I couldn't possibly comment.

Rick Moen

#21 ::: Sam Paris ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2014, 01:03 PM:

"And how can we get rid of you?"

That's disturbing.

#22 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2014, 01:37 PM:

Sam P., #21: I think you're reading the question a bit differently from its intent. Try reframing it as, "Is there a process for replacing you, and if so, what is it and when/how is it invoked?"

Because if there's no process for removing a person from the seat of power, then -- as the quote goes on to say -- it's no longer a democracy, but a dictatorship.

#23 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2014, 01:39 PM:

Sam Paris @21:

It's supposed to be. People in power need to know and acknowledge that their power can go away. Any other system is basically either tyranny or tyranny in waiting.

#24 ::: Sam Paris ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2014, 06:51 PM:

#22 @Lee

Perhaps I am, but the answer for the second two examples (Joe Stalin or Hitler, would appear to be "Wait for me to die.", or "Come after me with such overwhelming military force that I kill myself, surrounded by the rubble of my country." Democracy 'tweren't involved.

So if the answer from a Rupert Murdoch or the Kochs or George Soros or Michael Bloomberg or (insert your favorite hobgoblin here) is "I don't care to be gotten rid of," what then?

#25 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2014, 06:57 PM:

Then, as Benn says, we are not living in a democratic system, and there is work to be done.

#26 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2014, 07:51 PM:

Sam P., #24: Well, if we still have a democratic system, there are ways to remove the power from someone who's still living. Most of them involve the soapbox, the jury box, and the ballot box long before the bullet box ever comes into question.

If in fact the only way to remove someone from power is to kill them, then (as noted) we no longer have a democratic system, and must work to regain it.

#27 ::: Sam Paris ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2014, 08:01 PM:

#25 abi:

But what then shall we do with the unelected we disapprove of in a "democratic system"? Write their names on pot shards and banish the ones who collect the most crockery?

#28 ::: Sam Paris ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2014, 08:16 PM:

#26 @Lee

Are there no limits to "democratic systems?" If we tire of someone we (or some of "we", personally, I think Jenny McCarthy is a waste of space) dislike, how are we to get rid of them?

#29 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2014, 08:36 PM:

Sam Paris @ 28

I think you are reading "how can we get rid of you" as referring to the person, rather than the person's presence in a role. My reading is "If we want a TV personality who isn't an anti-vaccine crank, how can we get the current anti-vaccine crank out?" That's an easy question; stop watching, and convince everyone else to do the same.

Same with all those you list; stop listening to them, or to propaganda they pay for, and convince enough of your fellow-citizens that what they're putting out is propaganda and should be ignored.

You don't get to skip the "convince your fellows" step.

#30 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2014, 10:39 PM:

The trouble is, more money (or fame) gives you a louder voice. That undermines democracy.

So, the hundreds of thousands of people who want Jenny McCarthy to shut up and go away aren't as loud as McCarthy herself, so she gets to be on TV.

It's fine that THAT isn't democratic (and we don't have to watch the show, after all). It's less fine that the Koch brothers have so loud a voice. They really are making our increasingly-alleged democracy into an utter sham.

#31 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2014, 09:28 AM:

SamChevre #29: That actually brings up a more basic problem, which is that it's not just a person's role at the moment that matters. There is a "powerful crowd", a clique -- and booting someone out of their current position doesn't necessarily prevent them from hanging around and influencing people -- G. Gordon Liddy is a classic example. Not to mention "comebacks" such as with Gingrich.

I've just been reading the paperback version¹ of Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein's book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks. While there are a few players who stand out, the basic picture they describe is not one of individual rogues getting out of hand. We're dealing with a concerted attempt by a self-selected group, attempting to capture and utterly suborn the government of America, with no regard to the damage they cause to anyone else.

¹ With new preface and afterword catching up through Obama's reelection.

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