My head has been a whirr this week, as my final day at City Hall came and went, amidst leaving cards and speeches and the sense that a significant phase of my life has come to an end. I was a school girl when I first became interested in politics. I’d gone along to a talk that Tony Benn, diarist, campaigner and Labour party politician, was giving on the sanctions against Iraq. I can remember flashes from that evening: a small, humid room, the shuffling of papers, the anticipation of the audience. Most of all I remember how moved I was by Benn’s eloquence and his ability to really connect with the audience. He had a clarity of expression that helped even the very young grasp complex issues.
On Friday, Tony Benn passed away at the age of 88. I am hugely saddened by his death and it was remarkable to me that the man who first inspired my interest in politics died on the day I stepped away from it. The death of a public figure gives rise to a wave of commentary about their person and deeds, and I have watched with interest how those across the political spectrum reacted to Benn’s death. Remembering someone’s life well in the immediate aftermath of their death is a difficult task. Sometimes nostalgia colours perceptions and characters are subsequently whitewashed; at other times poorly timed criticism verges on the distasteful. When we remember those who have passed away, we should strive to reveal them in vibrant technicolour, in all their complexity. Our behaviour and decisions as individuals are borne of circumstances that twist and turn, and no man is without his flaws.
How limited our control is over the memories of us which remain with our children, the imprint we leave on strangers and how history remembers us. For my part, when I remember Benn, I’ll think of the stories I’ve heard of party conferences where he could be found sitting cross-legged on the floor, his pipe in hand, surrounded by young people who hung onto his every word. I’ll think of the plaque that he put up to the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison in a broom cupboard in parliament, where she’d once illegally hidden. I’ll remember that he fought for the right to give up his peerage and how when he quit as a member of parliament in 2001, after serving as an MP for fifty years, he said he was quitting to spend more time on politics. And I’ll remember how he proposed to his wife after knowing her for little more than a week, and decades later tracked down the bench on which he proposed to her so that it could sit at their graveside after they died.
But what I will remember most about Benn isn’t his ideas or even his deeds, but rather his values. I did not agree with him on key issues – his opposition to Europe, for example – but I believed that he would fight tooth and nail to defend his principles, even if they were unpopular, and that he was wholly invested in making society a better place. There has been criticisms of Benn since his passing that he wasn’t very successful as a practical politician. Indeed, Benn’s latterly role outside the central political arena – he last served as a cabinet minister in the 1970s – allowed him to act and speak more freely than others who are constrained by the practicalities of senior positions. I found it joyful that his idealism wasn’t clouded by age. Our world of compromises and secret boardroom deals needs men like Benn, men of conviction and passion, who aren’t governed by fear or self-interest, and who dare to challenge the establishment, even when they are part of it themselves.
Regardless of what history may make of Benn’s politics, I’d like to think he had many qualities we should uphold. It seems that today’s society promotes a cardboard cutout version of success, that we applaud self-interest. In a world of technological prowess we spend too little time talking and listening to one another. I think we can all learn from the humanity and thoughtfulness that Benn showed until the end. We can go a long way with passion, integrity and commitment.