Dare To Be A Daniel: memories of Tony Benn

CJ Stone and Tony Benn at the Gulbenkian Theatre Canterbury, January 2011
CJ Stone and Tony Benn at the Gulbenkian Theatre Canterbury, January 2011
My article about the Criminal Justice Bill which came out in July 1994
My article about the Criminal Justice Bill which came out in July 1994
Arthur Scargill: "an overweening sense of self-importance"
Arthur Scargill: "an overweening sense of self-importance"

Repetitive beats

I first met Tony Benn in 1994 at a march and rally against the Criminal Justice Bill which was then passing through Parliament. This was the bill which was attempting to outlaw various forms of protest, criminalising trespass for the first time in British history. It had specific provisions against ravers, against squatters, against hunt saboteurs and against gatherings above a certain number on both public and private land. Famously it included the definition of music as “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”.

There were three marches against the Bill that year, and I had been involved since almost the beginning. My name was one of three to be registered at Scotland Yard as the organisers of the first protest, in May. The next two were organised by the Socialist Workers Party, in July and October, and they had managed to get some high-profile speakers, including Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill. It was on the back of my involvement with the campaign that I was invited up onto the stage at one of these later marches.

I saw Tony Benn. He was standing on his own reading a paper and I immediately went up to shake his hand. There was no hesitation. How often do you get to meet a national hero face to face?

I forget what I said exactly. I think I asked permission to shake his hand and said that I had always been a great admirer of his. I do remember his reaction, however. He took my hand, looked me in the eye, and was immediately asking me questions about my own life and personal circumstances.

I was writing a column in the Guardian Weekend at the time, which he had seen. “Yes, I've read it,” he said. “Very interesting.”

What struck me was how open he was. He was paying attention to me. It was direct human to human contact. I felt that I mattered to him, that he was genuinely concerned. Later I tried to get the attention of Arthur Scargill, who was on the same platform. Scargill was surrounded by reporters, all firing questions at him. My little Dictaphone was one of a number of listening devices all pointing towards his head.

I tried to ask a question which showed that I was on his side, but he was aggressive in his response. I was just another reporter to him.

That was the great difference between them. With Scargill I sensed defensiveness and vanity, an overweening sense of self-importance. He obviously loved the attention. He was like an intellectual pugilist glorying in the rough and tumble of the political struggle. I got none of that with Benn. He had a quiet presence about him. There were no barriers. His socialism came from the heart. He saw all human beings as equal, all human life as equally valid. Or that’s how it felt to be greeted by those candid, clear eyes of his.

I took a small lesson from that encounter which I have carried around with me ever since. I realised that what was important wasn't so much your ideas as how you lived them. It’s not what you say that matters, it’s what you do. Benn was one of those people who embraced the world, whose words came out of a genuine human concern for others, a genuine belief in the possibility of change. Unlike most politicians, you sensed his words not as an attempt to dissemble or to misdirect, but as the simple truth springing from an authentic place. From the place of the heart.

Noam Chomsky, American dissident. Benn liked the idea of being on the same bill as Chomsky. It made him feel that he was in good company.
Noam Chomsky, American dissident. Benn liked the idea of being on the same bill as Chomsky. It made him feel that he was in good company.

Lord of Misrule

The next time I met Benn was about six years later, in October 2000. I was working on a book at the time, about the protest movement. It was called The Lords of Misrule. I wrote to him at the House of Commons requesting an interview. I had by this time also managed to secure an interview with Noam Chomsky, the great American linguist and political dissident, and I mentioned this in the letter. I think it was this that swung it for him. Benn liked the idea of being on the same bill as Chomsky. It made him feel that he was in good company.

I knocked on the door of his house in Notting Hill and was shown into a spacious basement room lined with books and his famous tape archive. I recorded the interview on my Dictaphone, as did he on his. We were recording each other. Consequently I occupy a tiny space in Benn’s extensive archive, something of which I am genuinely proud. It’s like I am written into the pages of history by this, even if it’s only as a footnote.

He was very easy to spend time with. He made a pot of tea which he brought out on a tray, along with cups and saucers, a sugar bowl with sugar lumps and milk in a jug, which he laid on the table between us. After this he filled his pipe and lit it. I think he made two pots of tea while I was there, and puffed on his pipe most of the time. I have a feeling that the tea service was one of those utilitarian green sets, like the ones you used to get on British Rail.

We talked about a variety of things. We talked about globalisation, about protest, and about what happens to politicians when they step into the political arena. Why do they often end up compromised, I asked?

“Because the establishment rewards you, don't they,” he said. “Very, very richly. If you take the four members of the SDP - Jenkins, Owen, Williams and Rogers - they all became members of the House of Lords. That really is something isn't it? If you're a trade unionist who goes along with the government, you become Lord Murray, Lord Chappell, and a lot more weighty. Patronage is a very powerful force.”

He talked about his experiences of the media.

“If you step out of line they assassinate you,” he said. “It's a long time ago now, but they used to sit in the garden and ring the front doorbell. There were twenty film crews and when my kids went to school they used to swear and hope they'd swear back. Media harassment amounts almost to political assassination. Very, very unpleasant. And that's another factor because if you want a good press you've got to do what the editor of the Guardian wants, or the editor of the Independent or the Times.”

This is one of the reasons why politicians become more right-wing as they get closer to the sources of power, he suggested: media harassment. It’s actually a form of bullying in which the children of recalcitrant politicians are targeted.

We talked about religion and politics, a subject I'm particularly interested in. It seemed that Tony Benn shared my views on a lot of these subjects and that he considered himself as part of the English Dissenting tradition, as do I.

“I was brought up on the bible,” he told me, “but I'm not practicing. First of all I think that the moral basis of the teachings of Jesus - love thy neighbour - is the basis of it all. Am I my brother's keeper? An injury to others is an injury to all, you do not cross a picket line; and that comes from the book of Genesis and not the Kremlin. My mother brought me up on the Old Testament. In the conflict between the Kings and the Prophets – the Kings who had power, and the Prophets who preach righteousness - I was taught to believe in the Prophets and not the Kings.”

And, once more, just as on that first occasion, he ended up asking questions about me.

“I find these discussions very interesting,” he said. “Tell you what, I want to know all about you. How old are you?

“I’m 47. I've been a single parent. My son's now 20. He's now got himself a flat on his own. He's left me,” I said, bemoaning my present predicament.

“What have you done all your life?”

“Bits and pieces, really. Bit of a drifter, I suppose. I've done lots and lots of jobs. Active in the Labour Party for a while. Briefly. I left the Labour Party over the Poll Tax, because they said we had to pay the Poll Tax and that then they'd get in and repeal it. But if we hadn't actively fought against the Poll Tax, the Poll Tax would still be here wouldn't it?”

Needless to say he agreed with that.

“Well Kinnock was furious with me. I didn't pay the Poll Tax till the abolition was announced. I wouldn't tell anyone else not to pay because they would be taking a risk I wasn't taking. Yes, the Poll Tax was very important.”

And so it went on, a wide-ranging discussion about all sorts of things. It was clear we were enjoying each other’s company and I was only sorry it had to end.

The book was never finished but the interview was published in Red Pepper, and on the LabourNet website. I've also recently put in up on my blog, as a memorial.

It was very soon after this that his wife, Caroline Benn died, on the 22nd of November 2000, just over a month after I met him. She died of cancer. She must have been upstairs the whole time I was there, and it’s a testament to his graciousness that he had time for me at all in the midst of this personal crisis.

I saw him again briefly, at a political rally in Parliament Square not long after this. It may have been May Day the following year. The police had kettled us in, and there were barricades stopping us from escaping. Benn had come out of the Houses of Parliament to see what was going on and was at one of the barricades arguing with the police officers. He was making sure that the protesters were being treated properly. I called out in greeting and he said hello, obviously recognising me from before. I said I was sorry to hear about his wife, at which point he turned away as his eyes filled up with tears.

Tony Benn meeting postal workers in the Gulbenkian Theatre January 2011
Tony Benn meeting postal workers in the Gulbenkian Theatre January 2011

Tony Benn at the Gulbenkian

Royal Mail delivery office closure

The last time I met him was in the Gulbenkian Theatre in Canterbury in January 2011 where he was making a public appearance. By this time I’d become a postal worker and I was involved in the campaign to keep our delivery office open. Someone from the campaign had contacted Benn and he had agreed to meet us before going onstage that evening. There were about 15 or 20 of us there to meet him. We made quite a spectacle marching through the lobby in all our fluorescent Royal Mail gear. It was like piece of performance art. People were staring after us, wondering what was going on. They were expecting us to start handing letters around. After that we set up our banners and waited. Someone went to find him, and then there he was, coming out of the dressing room. He caught sight of me in my uniform and smiled broadly, making a bee-line for me.

We shook hands and I reminded him of our previous meeting. I gave him a copy of one of my books. He was as gracious as always, listening to me with careful attention and fixing me with his eyes. My only regret is that I didn’t have the presence of mind to introduce him to my colleagues who were eagerly waiting for the opportunity. I know they would have loved to have spoken to him. I’m afraid I’m a little bit touched by the Scargill disease in this, more in touch with my own vanity than with the concerns of my neighbours. It’s why I would never make a good political leader.

After that the press took over and we were shuffled about this way and that to provide photographs for the newspapers. He was obviously used to this, to being shovelled around like a shop window dummy to fit in with the image. He didn’t seem to mind. Anyway, it was good publicity for the cause, and we all appreciated his time. After this he went back to prepare for his show.

And that was the last time I met him face to face. We did have an email exchange later. I’d asked him for a quote which we could give to the newspapers in support of our campaign. This is what he wrote:

"The Post Office is a public service and it meets our needs throughout the country through the delivery of mail and at post offices where advice is available for those who need it. The Campaign to Save the Post Office from privatisation is one we should all support. Tony Benn."

Of course I was saddened by his passing, so close on the heels of the death of Bob Crow, another shining light of the left, but I don’t think it would be right to regret his demise. Old age and death come to all of us in the end, and it’s how we live our lives that matters.

Tony Benn remained an inspiration to the last, showing dignity and grace even in the midst of his final illness, telling us all not to fear our end.

I will leave him to sum up his own life in a few of the words he spoke during our interview.

We’d been talking about his religious views and I’d told him of my interest in the English Dissenting tradition, and of the origin of the word “Protestant”, from protest.

This was his response:

“Oh yes. I've got a picture on the wall over there of Daniel in the lion's den. Have you heard that story? In the bible there's a man called Daniel, and he went into a lion's den. They said, you'll be eaten up. He wasn't. And my Dad used to say to me, dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone, dare to have a purpose firm, dare to let it known. An old testament story. And I found that picture in the YMCA in Nagasaki, and I took out my camera and I photographed it. So you see, all the political battles we fight now were fought in the name of religion in the past. That's why it's so important to study religion. Martin Luther against the Pope was the same as the Campaign Group against New Labour. I didn't know that Protestantism came from protest, because that entirely marries in with my understanding of what you're doing. You're challenging unaccountable power.”

Goodbye Tony. I believe that your spirit will live on and will continue to visit us in our actions as we abide by your instruction to challenge unaccountable power.

© 2014 CJStone

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Comments 17 comments

parrster profile image

parrster 2 years ago from Oz

"I realised that what was important wasn't so much your ideas as how you lived them. It’s not what you say that matters, it’s what you do."

Fantastic stuff, thoroughly enjoyed this personal insight of a great man and glimpse into your own. Thanks for posting.


CJStone profile image

CJStone 2 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Hello Parrster, glad you enjoyed this. Yes it was a great privilege to have met the man on so many occasions.


Tenerife Islander profile image

Tenerife Islander 2 years ago from Tenerife

This makes fascinating reading, Chris, and I will be sharing it at Facebook! What an honour to have met him like that, and more than once!


CJStone profile image

CJStone 2 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Four times altogether Steve. Yes, he was truly a great man.


shane collins 2 years ago

Lovely article Chris, interesting points about the old testament. Mr Benn used to come and speak at the Glastonbury Speakers Forum for years, as you say he had time for anyone, we fed him lots of tea, in fact he had a kip in my tent a few years ago before speaking.


CJStone profile image

CJStone 2 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Hello Shane, thanks for your comment. Yes I thought his observations about the Old Testament were interesting too. Made me understand where the Dissenters were coming from. I've always thought of myself as a Dissenter too. How old was he when he kipped in your tent? He was never a man to stand on ceremony was he?


Grace 2 years ago

Wonderful article about a wonderful man. We probably won't see the likes of Tony Benn or Bob Crow again, more's the pity.

.


CJStone profile image

CJStone 2 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

All the more reason to keep up the struggle Grace. Without Bob and Tony around, it's up to us to finish the job. Glad you liked the article. It was a privilege meeting him.


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 2 years ago from UK

I've always been an admirer of Tony Benn. I haven't always agreed with all of his political ideas, but the man genuinely cared about people, and his politics always seemed to come from the heart. You don't often see that level of sincerity and compassion in any walk of life. So lovely to hear your perspective. You're lucky to have met him.


CJStone profile image

CJStone 2 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Thanks Amanda. Yes, that was my impression, that he was a sincere and honest man, something rare in most people these days, doubly rare for a politician. I do feel privileged to have met him.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 2 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Chris, "Tony Benn" was only a name until I read this. Of course this hub wasn't meant to tell us as much as a book length biography, but I do believe you gave us the essence of Tony Benn The Man, and for that I thank you.

I had to chuckle that you mentioned the root word of Protestant is protest. The same thought struck me recently while wading through a thick history of the English Civil Wars and a Cromwell biography. So much chaos and destruction over which religion was the "true" religion! Unfortunately the U.S. is going through much the same idealogical battles at the moment, and I can't help but think that "liberty of conscience" will eventually prevail here, too.


CJStone profile image

CJStone 2 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Hello JamaGenee, just looking through the piece I realise it's written on the assumption you already know who he is. I suspect he's not so well known in the US as he is here. I'd sincerely advise you go an look him him and find out more about him. Meanwhile, I'll put in some links so people from other countries can get to know him a little better too. He was an inspiration to a whole generation of British people.

What the "protest/protestant" connection reminds us is that it is only through making our dissent known that things will change for the better. It was true in the 17th century and it's true now.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 2 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Yes, I only vaguely knew of Tony Benn as "an inspiration to a whole generation of [Brits]", a term that could apply to any number of people. (The Beatles, for example.) So again, thank you for introducing non-Brits to Mr. Benn. Any links will be appreciated and followed! I also foresee having to find space for another biography on my already-crowded bookshelves! ;D


CJStone profile image

CJStone 2 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

I've put links in for several obituaries in case you want to read them JamaGenee. The word "socialist" is an insult in the US I hear. Over here it's a respected way of doing politics, and Benn was the greatest of our post-war socialists.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 2 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Thank you for the links to the obits, Chris. Yes, "socialist" is an insult over here, mostly thanks to the whacko U.S. senator McCarthy and his "hearings" on Communism in the early 1950s that were nothing more than witch hunts to further his career. Edward R. Murrow is credited with bringing McCarthy down, but with all due respect to Murrow whom I admire greatly to this day and who was an inspiration to an entire generation of budding journalists, he simply gave McC the opportunity to bring himself down.

I've ordered a copy of Tony Benn's "Dare To Be A Daniel". I like to learn about public figures' early lives before delving into their works later on. I also ordered a copy of his diaries 1940-1990 (one volume, abridged), and will digest those before moving on to his other books. I did read the first chapter of "Daniel" online and was totally blown away! Can't believe I was totally unaware of this wonderful man whose philosophies so nearly mirror my own until now!

btw, I hear the privatization of the Royal Mail isn't the great deal it was touted to be, but we knew it wouldn't be, right? Republicans in Congress have been itching to privatize the U.S. Postal Service, but *so far* to without success.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 2 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Chris, I'm ashamed that it's taken so long to get back to HubPages to tell you how much I thoroughly enjoyed "Dare To Be A Daniel", which I read shortly after my previous comment. What a fascinating man Tony Benn was! After reading the book, I regretted even more not knowing about him until he'd already passed.

I also purchased the annotated copy of his diaries (from the 1940s through the '90s?), but Real Life has prevented me from reading it, so it's now in a pile designated for reading on long, cold winter nights when I'll have time to savor each and every page.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 2 years ago from The English Midlands

I met Tony Benn in Birmingham at a book signing. My Mum and I each bought a copy of 'Arguments for Socialism' and stood in line just to share a brief conversation and receive a couple of signatures. I was impressed :)

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