Dare to Be a Daniel: Memories of Tony Benn
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.
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 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.
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