David Blunkett: Tony Benn missed his chance to make a real difference

He was charming, persuasive, and sometimes deeply frustrating

Share

Much will be written about the remarkable political contribution of Tony Benn in the weeks ahead. I have been reflecting on what he had in common with another teacher and thinker. Karl Marx.

Both understood and appreciated the significance of history. Both were able to inspire followers by analytical thought. Both, however, reflected the mistake of believing that interpretation of values should not be affected by either change in circumstance or human nature. What I mean by this is the contradictions which led the Tony Benn of the 1960s “technological revolution” – in his role as Technology Minister – to see how critical change would be in a rapidly globalising economy, and then reject those lessons in what he describes as his drift leftwards.

It was Tony Benn’s belief that politics was about people not politicians, and that it was possible in the community and at work to turn engagement into tangible beneficial outcomes, that really caught my imagination from the 1960s.

But paradoxically, it was also the stubborn refusal to see how the world was changing and a scepticism bordering on cynicism about formal politics leading to betrayal that led me to question where the political activist in Tony Benn was taking us.

Charming, persuasive, and sometimes deeply frustrating, what you would learn from Tony Benn was to think for yourself. That in turn, as time passed and the world moved, would lead you away from adherence to what 30 years ago became known as Bennism. That is of course why Melissa, Joshua, Stephen and Hilary thought for themselves. Their dad and their mum were great teachers and proponents of developing a questioning mind.

 

It was not even the apparent unwillingness to compromise which caused my frustration. After all, Tony did not leave the Wilson or Callaghan governments as they implemented policies he detested and refused to implement those he espoused.  No, it was that someone with such a gift for turning genuine understanding of political processes and the gift of oratory to inspire others to want to be involved, should have thrown away the chance to make a lasting difference by seeing adjustment to changing circumstance as an overriding strength rather than in the end a weakness.

Just think what might have been if from the mid 1970s Tony Benn had developed a sufficiently popular alternative to the growing confidence of the political right across the world?

Read more: Politicians of every hue pay tribute
Obituary: He embodied the soul of the Labour Party
Andy McSmith: The Tony Benn I knew
He was socialist to the very end
Andy McSmith: Labour’s lost love
Editorial: His actions damaged causes he championed
Letters: Benn stood up for a fairer society
Twitter remembers Tony Benn

As what became known as the New Enlightenment captured the imagination of our opponents, Labour was still stuck in a bygone era, ceding the intellectual high ground as well as failing to relate to the very electorate Tony genuinely believed he spoke for. In the end, however, there will be a lasting legacy. Contradictions or otherwise, he was entirely right that people in their own lives, by participating in all sorts of ways in the political process (even when they don’t acknowledge they’re doing it), can and must change the world for the better.

Caroline Benn was right. When he left Parliament he did not leave politics and, as we will see, it is his death that will leave politics the less interesting, thought-provoking and inspiring.

David Blunkett was a Labour Cabinet minister 1997-2005ovoking and yes, inspiring.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Advisor is r...

Recruitment Genius: Plant Fitter - Construction Industry

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This well established construction equipment d...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

Recruitment Genius: Factory Operatives

£7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This high quality thread manufacturer ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Bahrainis on an anti-government protest in May  

Hussain Jawad's detainment and torture highlights Britain's shameless stance on Bahraini rights

Emanuel Stoakes
August 1923: Immigrants in a dining hall on Ellis Island, New York.  

This election demonises the weakest

Stefano Hatfield
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003