Tony Benn was a political inspiration to millions. He campaigned passionately throughout his life for democracy, socialism and peace. A man of great compassion, he was a brilliant orator and a wonderful diarist.
As a schoolboy my love of football was surpassed by my passion for politics. When I arrived at Bristol University in 1966, one of my joys was hearing a succession of famous politicians address lunch-time meetings of students. Tony Benn was a local MP and was a regular speaker at the students’ union. When the Labour Club visited the House of Commons, it was Tony Benn who showed us round and I got the chance to meet him briefly.
In Government, Labour ministers inevitably become more right-wing. Tony Benn was the exception. He grew more left-wing in Government. As a student, I too found I was moving leftwards. It was a time of student rebellion, and I participated in sit-ins at the University, marched against the Vietnam War and thrilled at the possibility of a socialist revolution in France. I was disillusioned with the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and flirted with revolutionary socialism. I wrote to Tony Benn, explaining my frustration with the Government of which he was a part. I received a four page reply. Tony Benn treated my arguments seriously, agreed with some of them and rebutted others. He was a busy Cabinet Minister, and I remember being impressed by the fact he had taken the trouble to answer in such detail.
If Tony Benn had remained a centrist Labour politician, the man who was dubbed a ‘whizz kid’ as a youthful Postmaster General, might well have become Prime Minister. Even despite becoming more leftwing, and his subsequent vilification by the media and many politicians (including those in the Labour Party) he came within a whisker of defeating Denis Healey for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in 1981. Two years later, following boundary reorganisation, he lost his parliamentary seat in Bristol at the 1983 General Election. Although he was only out of Parliament for a few months before winning the Chesterfield by-election, it meant he could not contest the Labour leadership. Had he been able to do so, he might well have defeated Neil Kinnock and who knows how history might have changed?
After leaving University, I corresponded from time to time with Tony Benn – wishing him success when he stood in leadership or deputy leadership elections or sometimes writing about some issue I felt particularly strongly about. I always received the courtesy of a reply, often handwritten and always signed by him. And I heard him speak from time to time. And, of course, I often watched his great parliamentary speeches on tv. With the exception of Europe, I nearly always agreed with him.
In 1979, I started working full-time for the Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment (STOPP). Tony Benn was one of our sponsors. From time to time he would make a useful intervention on STOPP’s behalf. One notable occasion involved a case in Wales: two boys had been suspended from school when, following the caning of one of them, her mother had said she did not want her children to be caned again. She was actually fined for not sending her children to school, and the boys were taken into ‘care’.
This was a Labour-controlled Counci. So Tony Benn wrote to the Leader of the Council reminding him that Labour Party policy was opposed to ‘corporal punishment’. The Council Leader replied: “The Trade Unions in Mid-Glamorgan have asked us not to take precipitate action…we have loyalties to the principle of collective bargaining..”
Tony Benn fired back: “To imply that you are maintaining ‘corporal punishment’ in response to the demands of collective bargaining is, to put it mildly, absolutely ludicrous. You might as well argue that, owing to a failure to get executioners to agree, capital punishment should remain”.
Tony Benn, a great fighter against injustice. He will never be forgotten.