Tony Benn was a lovely guy. I once got chatting to him on the Circle Line going home from work: I got on at St. James’ Park and said “Hey, you’re Tony Benn!”, and we chatted until he got off at Notting Hill Gate. He was just like that. Great company, totally unspun, absolutely principled. And, even better, he wore tweed jackets and smoked a pipe.
Unfortunately, he was a bloody awful cabinet minister, and the government he last served ultimately tested beyond destruction the post-war consensus, paving the way for Thatcher and all that came with her. He was one of the prime reasons for that. In the mid 1970s Britain was a more economically equal country than it has been before or since; there was never a better time for a young adult from a poor background to come of age. It was rapidly on the way to becoming a more inclusive society of minorities as well. EEC membership was helping British industry discover new markets, and Britain was finally catching up with the rest of Western Europe on living standards after a lost generation.
Instead we have British industry decimated and the added-value parts of the ecomomy verging on financial services monoculture; traditional mediating institutions broken by the double-headed ego-hydra of Thatcher and Blair; the poor being demonised even after a generation of having their living standards slashed; the young virtually shut out of home-ownership unless they’re fortunate enough to have parents who can help. And all because Tony and his allies were fighting a civil war in the Labour Party on the wrong side of history, underwriting a modus operandi in trade union politics that was anything but democractic, and preventing the Callaghan government pursuing any sensible industrial relations policy.
He was a lovely guy, though. A life lived in public inevitably leads to judgement by strangers in a manner few of us must confront. Rest in peace, Tony.