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Tony Benn: Maudlin Remembrances

John Rentoul

tommcnally 195x300 Tony Benn: Maudlin RemembrancesTom McNally, political secretary to James Callaghan, Labour MP 1979-81, SDP 1981-83, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and Justice Minister until last year, to the Mile End Group in December 2006:

One of the reasons why I want to live a long life is to be around when Wedgie pops his clogs and they all start maudlin remembrances of what a great old man he was and I have to remind them what a treacherous bastard he was!

There have been some cloying obituaries, but there have been many fair assessments of Tony Benn’s career too. Andy McSmith’s in The Independent was affectionate but balanced. Matthew Parris in The Times (pay wall) was not affectionate. Here is a taste:

Why do we who are not of the Left collude in rebranding hard-left bruisers and Marxist nutters as patriotic poppets? These rascals seldom return the compliment. Here’s how Boris Johnson’s “fighter and man of character” mourned another fighter: “I won’t shed one tear over her death . . . as far as I’m concerned she can rot in Hell,” said Bob Crow when Margaret Thatcher died.

I confess to slight stirrings of respect for the unsentimentality of the Left: not for Crow’s stupid opinion or Benn’s poisonous beliefs, but for their refusal to dissemble about people they thought bad for our country. Given their beliefs they were right to hate Margaret Thatcher. She would have hated them; in death as well as in life.

But enough of two wrongheaded men who would have dragged Britain on to the rocks if they could. They achieved nothing. The waters will now close over their heads. The more interesting question is why so many moderate Britons are reluctant to say what we really think about the dead icons of the Left?

Tom Doran’s post here yesterday was a dispassionate account of Benn’s record, including his admiration for Mao, which most of Benn’s admirers ignore and out of which he failed to grow. (One commenter said that Benn’s “contributions to shaping our future and reshaping our world are literally incalculable”, with which it is impossible to disagree.) And Joan Smith in today’s Independent on Sunday concludes:

Much as I hate living in a world where Cameron is prime minister, I’m awfully glad I did not live in one run by the late member for Chesterfield.

Tom McNally would agree with that.

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  • newfriendofed

    “What we really think’ is a difficult concept. The fact of someone’e death can make us more rather than less thoughtful in working out what we think of them, perhaps because they are no longer in a position to resist whatever we say.

  • Pacificweather

    Mathhew Paris! Is that the best you can do?  The man is as maudlin about Thatcher as no others are about Benn.

    In his ‘dispassionate’ piece about Benn, Tom Doran concludes, “I merely want people to ask themselves what the adoption of Benn as a political role model actually says about the Labour movement. ”  

    If you take any past politician how many would stand as role models today.  William Wilberforce perhaps but certainly not Brown, Blair, Major, Thatcher, et al.  How dispassionate is it to take some one of a past era (even the recent past) and pretend they are some kind of role model for today.  Tony Benn would have laughed if anyone had suggested anything so ridiculous.  Can a politician take a point of principle and support it through decades?  Wilberforce did and finally won but had he died earlier would it be fair to say he achieved nothing because other politicians looked to their pockets rather than the care of fellow human beings.  Did Bob Crow achieve nothing as Matthew Parris contends?  Ask the train drivers.

    Let’s leave obituaries to the likes of those like Andy McSmith who have the talent and the common humanity to write them.

  • JohnJustice

    Tony Benn was a bit like Big Ben of the Parliament he was so devoted to, good to hear when he struck the right note but horribly dissonant when he didn’t.


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