I woke up this morning to the news that Tony Benn had died. I am in my mid-Fifties now and I suspect I will never again have the feeling of witnessing history I had one day in 1981 when I listened to the result of the deputy leadership election between Benn and Denis Healey. My memory is that I heard it live outside on portable radio while working on a building site. I think my memory must be playing tricks because I can’t imagine that in those days the Labour Party conference would have been broadcast live even on radio. But whatever, I certainly heard it and like a lot of other people didn’t immediately realise that his impressive share of the vote – he got over 49% – still meant that he hadn’t won. The mathematically obvious fact that to win a two horse race requires over 50% didn’t register until after the second figure was read out.
For a second or so I thought he had won. It was an exciting thought. He was committed to leaving both the EU and NATO and to dismantling the UK’s nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union was still very real at this point. He was planning to nationalise banks and the like. And prior to the Falklands it still looked very much like Labour were going to win the next election. Thatcher’s government still appeared to be both heartless and incompetent. (And of course, with the benefit of hindsight we can now be sure that it indeed was.)
I don’t think that any other vote in any election since then has ever seemed so significant. That one really seemed to mean something. We’ll never know how the Benn version of socialism would have worked out for Britain. I have a feeling it wouldn’t have turned out much like either its detractors or its enthusiasts supposed it would. I imagine a left wing radical government would have shared at least one thing in common with the radical right wing government we actually got. Ideologues are rarely good managers so I have a feeling that the eighties would still have seen Britain’s economy performing below par.
But people with ideas at least are worth listening to. I always found that Benn had something to say and and an interesting way of saying it. And they also give you a choice. It really mattered to get to the voting booth when a Thatcher or a Benn was about. Since then things have calmed down. This is probably for the best in many ways – there is something to be said for stability. But I find it hard to concentrate when Milliband or Cameron are talking. I can’t even work out what the other lot are for. I wouldn’t notice if they disappeared and were replaced by supply teachers.
So I am sad to see the end of a true radical. Whatever else you think about him, he was a significant historical figure. We won’t see anyone quite like him again.