The news that Tony Benn has died at home at the age of 88 has stimulated intense reflection and discussion about his career. But when reading the obituaries and listening to the various television and radio discussions I cannot help but think that too many commentators are missing the deep and enduring reason that Tony Benn really did become a national treasure. He listened, he spoke and he connected with the public in a way that most contemporary politicians can only dream of.
It’s too easy to focus on the obvious landmarks in a career that spanned well over half a century and overlook the deeper and richer features – often the personal and professional contradictions – that made Tony Benn such a remarkable man. And there is no doubt that he was remarkable. In a period when politicians are increasingly distrusted, reviled – even hated – he was regularly voted the most popular politician in the country.
The burr of his voice, the look on his face, the cheeky smile, the smell of his pipe, the glint in his eye; these were the things that made Tony Benn such a special man; a man of politics but increasingly not in politics.
Tony Benn’s life seems defined by an almost stubborn desire to swim against the tide. His privileged education (Westminster School followed by Oxford University) was rejected at a stroke with the words: “Education – still in progress” in his Who’s Who entry in the early 1970s.
He insisted upon “Tony Benn” rather than the full name, Anthony Wedgwood Benn, he had been given at birth, and later renounced his peerage. In June 2001 he famously left the House of Commons to “spend more time on politics” – and in a sense this decision defined both his personal values and his approach to politics.
In a period when politicians take the temperature of the nation through focus groups and online surveys Tony Benn spent his time talking to and listening to the public in a manner that is curiously rare among today’s professional politicians. Indeed, in a period when the relationship between the governors and the governed is dominated by twitter and blogs and conducted within a fairly narrow model of a market democracy, Tony Benn could often be dismissed (even slightly ridiculed) as a political dinosaur.
But that conclusion in itself would miss the great power he had to captivate an audience, to make people think and reflect upon their assumptions, to inspire a sense of capacity and a belief in change for the better. He could unite social divides and talk sense to the senseless. As he demonstrated in relation to a range of issues – not least in the Stop the War movement – he was a man that would march with the public and was not afraid to stand on the barricades.
Politics for him was not a spectator sport but a vital element of the art of life. It was also an art form that took many forms, as demonstrated by the popularity of his diaries, his poetry, his one-man show and his appearances at events as varied as pop festivals and school assemblies.
Put simply, he possessed the rare gift of being able to connect with the public in a manner that most contemporary politicians simply cannot do.