The veteran Labour politician Tony Benn has this morning died aged 88. As is the case, even for Bob Crow, his family have my sympathies. So what to make of Wedgie? This may rather surprise you.
Anthony Wedgwood Benn was an aristocrat who renounced his seat in the Lords to fight for what he believed in from the House of Commons. And he certainly had strong beliefs. During the 70s and 80s as Energy Minister in the appalling Callaghan Government and then in opposition he tried to swerve the Labour party violently to the left and he almost succeeded. He did his part in making Labour utterly unelectable and thus gave the blessed Margaret a good stretch in office. For that he deserves our eternal gratitude.
My grandfather, Sir John Winnifrith, was a Bennite. After retiring from the Civil Service he was for the first time in his live, as head of the National Trust & War Graves Commission, able to speak his mind. And thus in the 1975 EU referendum campaign he found himself now and again speaking on the same platform as his hero. Their reasoning for opposing staying in the Evil Empire was that it was a construct to make rich farmers and industrialists richer at the expense, largely via food prices, of the working classes.
I am not sure that I follow their logic but at least I could agree with my Grandfather and Benn on one thing, the EU was a bad thing.
In his declining years Benn came to be seen as a bit of a National Treasure. His grief and dignity after the death of his wife 14 years ago warmed even the blackest of hearts. His pipe and endless mugs of “workers tea,” his dotty eccentricity were seen as loveable. They were. Rather like Michael Foot, the passage of time meant we all forgot his barking mad ideas and destructive divisiveness of the 70s and 80s. Instead we just thought of Benn as great English eccentric who was underneath it all rather a charming man.
Wedgie was wrong about almost every issue he spoke about but he was a man of utmost principle. He genuinely cared for those less fortunate than him and wanted to create a better world for them. As one of the last politicians who did actually fight in a war (WW2), his opposition to wars that could not be justified was unswerving.
Thankfully his ideas on a whole range of issues were never implemented as they would simply have made everyone poorer. On the Cold war, Benn was simply wrong. It was Thatcher and Reagan – whom he opposed bitterly – who liberated Eastern Europe.
But in an age when politicians are guided by focus groups not by principle and are chosen by Central Committees to be dull clones; a principled, intelligent, honest, interesting, caring and charming man like Benn is a real rarity.