Our instant reaction on hearing of death is one of sadness. Tony Benn, who died aged 88 on 14th March 2014, received the usual cross-party tributes and eulogies from both friends and enemies. He was variously described as a crusader for the left, uncompromising in his views, and an inspiration whose influence stretched beyond traditional party politics – a great loss to politics and the left in particular.
Benn himself, however, was more prepared for the end, not wallowing in despair but simply noting the inevitability of being ‘switched off’ at some point. In fact, optimism was a recurring theme in Benn’s writing and speaking long before his death, and we at Radical Tea Towel don’t think this aspect of his character has received enough attention. It is likely a key reason for his success as political grandee and spokesperson for the left – and is arguably what he most wanted to be remembered for.
Benn believed that the history of the left and of society had to be seen in terms of the great progress achieved, and that frame of reference provided optimism for the future of those seeking progressive change. A pessimistic frame, meanwhile, would only ever be self-fulfilling. In his famous interview with comedian Ali G in 2000, Tony Benn warned of the dangers of society conforming to the lens through which you view it.
BENN TO ALI G: “You’re not living in the real world my friend, you’re living in a world where everybody is just so bloody greedy that there’s no hope of building a better society and that’s why we’re in a mess… You think they are lazy, greedy, don’t want to work, you call women bitches and then you are asking me about a society that’s happy. Well I’ll tell you what, somebody will shoot you someday because you treat them like an animal.”
After initially feeling angry once he was told the interview was a hoax, Benn concluded that the video was in fact educational in that, along with others in the Ali G series, it would encourage people to look again at their own prejudices surrounding the issues raised. An optimism lacking in fellow, more conservative, interviewees.
Interviewed by John Rees at the London Southbank Centre in February 2013, Benn’s characteristic optimism, both for the future of campaigning and for politics, was on display, and this section of the interview does merit quoting at length as it’s so typical of him:
REES: “What makes you most proud of the history of the Labour Party?”
BENN: “Well I think it is that people together have succeeded in achieving things. When you look at the problems facing us at the moment, they’re formidable: the problems of unemployment which is widespread, the danger of war. And it’s very easy for people to become so oppressed by that, that they think it’s not worth making the effort. Whereas the history of this country, and I suppose of every country in the world, is of successful campaigns that have made progress. That’s how slavery was abolished, that’s how the ban on trade unions was abolished by the Tolpuddle martyrs, how women got the vote. So it isn’t that things will automatically come right, but that if you do campaign, you can win, and that hope that you can win, is what makes you proud of what’s been achieved.”
QUESTION FROM AUDIENCE MEMBER: “What advice do you give young people who want to go into politics – particularly the Labour Party?”
BENN: “Well I do get letters from people saying ‘Dear Mr Benn, I’m writing to you because I’d like to go into politics. I haven’t decided which party to join.’ [laughter] … I think what you have to do is discover what cause you believe in and attach yourself to it. It might be the anti-war movement, or the coalition resistance – attach yourself to the movements in which you believe, throw your weight in with them, you will learn from them and then you will acquire the experience you could use to campaign for the things you believe in. But the main thing is to get rid of pessimism, because pessimism is a weapon used deliberately by the right to frighten people off from attempting anything. ‘You’re unrepresentative, you’re just causing trouble, it’ll never work, the whole system’s corrupt’. And that is designed to drive people from pessimism into inactivity.” [emphasis added]
Another example of his optimism for the left was Tony Benn’s interview with Iain Dale, during which he said that he wanted his gravestone to depict the fact that he’d encouraged people. “I would like to be remembered for having encouraged people. It sounds very innocent, but if you have given people confidence that they can do something, that is a real achievement.” Benn’s optimism extended to the hope that Obama’s Presidency would encourage change from beneath.
“Now I know what the world is like, I realise the importance of having a dream.” – Tony Benn, interview with Iain Dale, 2009
Tony Benn inspired us at the Radical Tea Towel Company to always make sure we focus on the messages of hope, rather than despair, which come from history’s radical thinkers!
We’re thinking of making a tea towel with an image of Tony Benn, and we’re looking for a short quotation that reflects his undying optimism. Do you have any suggestions? We’d love to hear them in the comments below.
UPDATE: we made the tea towel and Benn’s wisdom now lives on in kitchens throughout the land!