Editor's letter on Tony Benn: Trying to do justice to a man who spent a life fighting for it

Our coverage reflects a character who had much more texture than was afforded by the caricature which his enemies propagated

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Morning all. British politics woke up today a colder, smaller, and poorer place after the passing of Tony Benn, the greatest socialist MP of his generation. Coming just days after the death of Bob Crow, who fought for similar ends through different means, this week will inevitably be remembered as the end of an era.

Benn and Crow inhabited and shaped political traditions which have no chance of governing Britain any time soon. The ideological battles of the 20th century have cooled. In Benn’s day, Parliament was a crucible in which irreconcilable visions of state, market and society were represented and fought for; today, for all that they would deny it, the differences between party leaders on opposite sides of the green benches are comparatively slight. We have said goodbye to socialism, for the foreseeable future at least.

It was another Tony – Blair, with whom Benn fought brutally over Iraq – who came to embody the sequential rather than adversarial nature of British government, which today’s Coalition continues. In one of his many intellectual crutches, Blair would say that you can look at politics in terms of right and left, or you can look at politics in terms of right and wrong. Yet Benn – who arguably had more success outside Westminster than inside it – belonged to an age when you could do both at the same time.

His was a deeply moral political project. Scarred by the horror of war, and animated by visions of a better England, Benn spent six tireless decades trying to improve the lot of the poor. He thought no society in which the rich inherited vast wealth, paid their way to a better education, or escaped the obligations of social membership was a just one, and justice – working out the right thing to do – was above all his life’s work. For that alone, he deserves huge admiration.

 

Enoch Powell, one of few  British politicians of the past century who could match Benn as an orator, wrote in his biography of Joseph Chamberlain that “all political lives… end in failure”. That would be too harsh an assessment of Benn; but on the page opposite we argue that he was wrong on many matters, and ultimately damaged both the Labour Party and the working class of which he was such a champion.

Our coverage today tries to do justice to a character who had much more texture than was afforded by the caricature of a tub-thumping leftist which his enemies propagated. By all accounts, he was a man of character. On pages 6 to 9, Andy McSmith recalls a “towering figure, strong-willed, intelligent, and stubborn, with an extraordinary fund of experience”, and Mark Steel and David Blunkett pay tribute to a man who inspired their affection and loyalty.

At times like this, headlines come under acute pressure to do justice to their subject. There is a lot of weight in the fourth and final word of our front page headline, but we went with “maverick” because it seemed to capture the best of this English hero: radical, outspoken and courageous. Tony Benn was a giant and a gentleman, whose death diminishes us all. This newspaper commends his spirit to the living.

Read more:
The Tony Benn I knew was an intriguing, complex and towering figure
Gifted as a speaker and political educator, but his politics were flawed

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