Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Tony Benn was a great Socialist

I have been a libertarian since university but in politics I hold the greatest contempt not for those who have diametrically opposed political beliefs but rather for those who insist on always occupying the so-called "middle ground." At university one of my best friends was a revolutionary Marxist. He used to joke that "come the revolution you'll be first up against the wall...bang, bang, bang!" My response was always, "not if I get to you first!" We both knew that neither of us was entirely joking and that, given the right circumstances, we might one day find each other on opposite sides of a fight that involved more than just rhetoric, but we were best mates nevertheless and liked nothing more than a heated political debate. Occasionally we found common ground, such as our contempt for crony capitalism and religious conservatives.

When I lived in the UK in the 1980s there were two politicians whom I admired. Both towered over their peers in the philosophical sense. Margaret Thatcher, of course, was the first of these. The other was Tony Benn. The former Viscount Stansgate (for Tony Benn had renounced his peerage in the 1960s so he could sit in the House of Commons) was a doctrinaire Marxist and as such, I had little in common with him politically. But I admired his principled beliefs and his forthright manner in expressing them.

Benn believed in a pure, democratic Marxism that is, in my analysis, as illusory as fairy dust. He stuck to his principles, even when they put him in conflict with those who would ordinarily be his allies. He detested the Soviet Union and he was as much a thorn in the side of the Labour leadership as he was to the Tories. I had the impression that there was a reluctant mutual respect behind the open contempt between Benn and his political nemesis, Margaret Thatcher. Certainly, he had a sense of humour where Thatcher was concerned, introducing to parliament in 1990 a private members' bill entitled the Margaret Thatcher (Global Repeal) Bill.

Tony Benn died last week aged 88. I tip my hat to him as that rarity in politics these days - a man of principle and courage. Give me a Tony Benn any day over the unprincipled likes of Tony Blair, David Cameron or John Key.

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