special disco mention #22: Tony benn
This was going to be about INVENTOR OF THE WEB Tim Berners-Lee and his riding up on a white horse, declaring the need for greater internet security and privacy. It was going to be about him seeming like a rare good egg, the kind of much-needed mensch disappearing from existence in the cold, paranoid 21st century we inhabit. But then Tony Benn died. And Tony Benn really, REALLY is that man: A principled, eloquent, gutsy politician who’s brand of honest, impassioned politics fell totally out of vogue in the morass of shiny suits and whitened smiles that was Tony Blair and Nu Labour. That led onto the nu tories and even the nu liberals – all of them, a shameless bunch of pr men (and, very occasionally women) masquerading as politicians. Tony Benn lived through that time, but belonged to another.
I’m lucky enough to have two personal memories of Tony Benn – the first is meeting him as a twelve year old boy through his wife, Caroline, who was a great woman in her own right and one of the governors of my comprehensive school. She was a lovely woman who’d regularly pop her head round the door of classrooms and have a mosey around to see how we were getting on – she was very involved. One day, she came into our art class – a sea of splattered paint and scattered brushes – and wandered around complimenting us on our hideous creations. I was aware of who she was because my mum and dad are serious dyed-in-the-wool socialists and, as such, Tony Benn was a hero in our household – almost deified. After the class it was lunch time and a couple of us strolled down to the foyer with Caroline – there waiting was her husband, who appeared like a slightly disheveled Doctor Who like figure with a massive scarf (sans pipe, he was in a school foyer after all) and a slightly baffled look on his face. We were introduced and I got a bit flustered and said something bizarre like ‘my mum and dad love you’. I remember him laughing that off nervously, but he was very warm and approachable – something like the best grandad you could possibly hope for. When I got back home and told my parents they glowed with pride that I’d met the man.
Years later, when the fire service were on strike he chaired a tiny little meeting in Westbourne Park to attempt to drum up support from the local community for the strike. He was thin and frail (and, we found out afterwards, very ill) but he stood there in front of a crowd of about 20 people and lit up the room with his passionate, utterly sensible ideas. It dawned on me then that Tony Benn wasn’t in politics for any of the reasons that almost everybody in the modern era enters politics for. There was no desire for power, for fame, for influence in itself. Here he was – old and ill in front of an audience of half-interested people in a tiny community hall and yet he spoke as though his life depended on it, as though he was in parliament. He was in politics because he had a genuine, unshakable desire to make a positive difference to society. Let’s not forget the man was born into relative aristocracy (he inherited the Viscount title from his father but later disowned it), he had it sorted – there was no real personal gain to going into politics, he could of just sat back and cruised the ‘titled’ existence – going to an endless swirl of soirees and hunting game. But he didn’t – he fought tooth and nail for the principles he believed in and he carried on right up until his death at the age of 88. If anyone, ever, was deserving of a special disco mention, it’s Tony Benn – a politician that puts all of these power hungry assholes of today to absolute shame. RIP.