Tony Benn A Great British Thinker
by Mark Horner
Mon 17th Mar 2014
Tony Benn, the former British MP known to millions, has passed away at the age of 88. He died peacefully on 14 March 2014 at home surrounded by his family. He was granted a long, active and fruitful life. A life he dedicated to family and public service.
He was very British. The quintessential square peg in a round hole, the free spirit and independent thinker whom fate enlivened by assigning him to an era of modernisation. A man born into privilege, the son of Viscount Stansgate, educated at Westminster School and Oxford University and yet he was a man who preferred socialism to elitism.
Tony lived his life in harmonious unison: he was not a man split into public and private personae. Throughout his life, what you saw is what you got. Or as the Americans would say, Tony was a straight talker. The peerage he inherited he viewed as an inconvenience as it required Tony to vacate his seat in the House of Commons. As soon as the law permitted, he renounced the title, the first peer to do so, and returned to sit in the Commons amongst his fellow commoners. Tony's integrity and commitment to egalitarianism led him and his wife, Caroline, to enrol their children in to a state school (Holland Park School). Indeed, with Tony his talk followed the straightness of his thought to the letter or to borrow from Goethe, Tony mapped his thoughts on to his tongue.
Success opened its door to Tony in his desire to contribute to family life and public service. A man who a mere nine days after meeting Caroline DeCamp proposed to her. Their marriage was 'made in heaven', and ironically so given that Tony was agnostic. Tony's marriage was a partnership of mates. He famously and endearingly referred to Caroline as “my socialist soulmate”. A marriage that produced four children (Stephen, Hilary, Melissa and Joshua), and lasted 51 years until Caroline fell victim to cancer.
In his contribution to public service, Tony was equally successful. He argued his case as he thought fit, uninhibited by hierarchy, legacy and ornament and so displayed the virtues that made Britain great. During Tony's five decades in parliament and afterwards there were many definitive arguments to which he turned his mind, including: membership of the EU, the influence the media and bankers have on government, the Miners' Strike, Afghanistan, Iraq and whether or not the UK is a democracy in name only. His thoughts are documented in his books, below.
And as with many great thinkers, fate typically denies them the opportunity to lead. While Tony attempted to climb the leadership ladder, fate had its own plan. The fullness of time reveals that fate saved Tony from the burden of leadership and assigned him the task of eloquently engaging the public and parliament in the dialectic or Socratic method of debate. Fate decrees that for some people success lies not in turning their hand to leadership but in turning their mind to the moral side of the debate so as to challenge social imbalance, restrain arbitrariness, honour the separation of powers and defend the rule of law. Tony Benn was such a person.
Tracing Tony's career in Westminster confirms that geometry exists in politics: in politics a thinker makes a point by talking in straight lines, whereas a leader arrives at a point by talking in diminishing circles. And Tony Benn may rest in peace knowing that when history writes his page it will judge him to be a great British thinker!
Tony Benn's books include:
Office Without Power: Diaries 1968-72 (1988)
Common Sense: New Constitution for Britain (1993)
Free Radical: New Century of Essays (2003)
More Time For Politics: Diaries 2001-2007 (2007)
A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine: The Last Diaries (2013)
Here is an Amazon.co.uk link to details of Tony Benn's books