Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Tony Benn 'best thing that ever happened to Chesterfield'

Published on
by Benjamin Mackay (author), Huiyue Zhu (author)

"If I rescued a child from drowning, the press would no doubt headline the story: 'Benn grabs child."' Tony Benn said this in 1975 in response to how the media demonised him as a loony leftie hellbent on turning Britain into a Soviet satellite state. In the 1970s and 1980s he was a bogeyman for the press. But, over the years his image changed, and in a world where politicians don't seem to stand for anything anymore, he stood out principled, pipe-smoking and passionate.

On Thursday 14 March 2014 Tony Benn passed away. Most writers and commentators expressed their admiration and respect for him. Some commentators, like Times writer Matthew Parris, couldn't resist writing, that Benn was "a deluded leftwinger who spent much of his life and endless guile working to turn Labour into some kind of East European socialist party." But on the whole the response has been respectful and the admiration for him immense.

Benn, who spent much of his political life as MP for Chesterfield, was a popular figure in North Derbyshire. The flag at Chesterfield Town Hall flew at half mast on Friday. Councillor Julie Lowe said: "Tony Benn was the best thing that ever happened to Chesterfield. He embodied what socialism is meant to be and not some watered down horrible imitation of it."

Chesterfield MP Toby Perkins said: “Chesterfield was proud to have him as our MP, and he was fond and proud of Chesterfield in equal measure. No history book of politics in the second half of the 20th Century could ignore the contribution he made or the passions he arose."

He stirred up passions because he held controversial opinions and he was not afraid to do so. He campaigned against Britain's membership of the EU, he campaigned for nuclear disarmament and he opposed Britain's involvement in both the Falklands War and the Iraq War. These are just some of the issues that caused him to become such a divisive figure.

But he also became admired, because he connected to people and he had no problem speaking up for what he actually believed in. If you watch an average episode of Question Time, the politicians on it resemble automatons. They repeat soundbites and policy lines and nothing they say is going to be exciting or passionate or controversial. And there are reasons for why they do that, because as Benn's political life shows, politicians who stand up and support unpopular campaigns have a very difficult time in the media.
Professor Matthew Flinders at the University of Sheffield writes:

"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."

Even the Prime Minister said, "Tony Benn was a magnificent writer, speaker and campaigner. There was never a dull moment listening to him, even if you disagreed with him."

Chesterfield local Roger Flint said: "He was a great MP for Chesterfield and a man of principle who cared about the  people who he represented in Parliament."

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