United Kingdom

Tony Benn: a Socialist I Liked


Credit: lewishamdreamer / Foter / CC BY-NC/

Today it was reported that Tony Benn, the British Labour Party veteran, had died at the age of 88. I'm sad that he is gone, and I'll miss his always interesting and uncompromising commentary on British and global affairs.

Benn had a long and eventful career in British politics, having become a member of parliament at the age of 25 and serving as a cabinet minister under Prime Minister Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. He inherited the title of Viscount Stansgate from his father, which he later renounced, perhaps not wanting to join what he described as the "British Outer Mongolia for retired politicians."

Some readers might think it strange for a libertarian to say that he will be missing a dedicated socialist, but I'm a sucker for great rhetorical skill, which the Labour Party has almost none of these days, and I feel like I have lost an ally on the issues of national sovereignty and peace.

On his blog at The Telegraph, British Conservative member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan wrote that he found himself "choking up" when he heard of Benn's death, and notes that despite his absurd views on economics, Benn opposed institutions such as the monarchy and organizations such as the European Union, NATO, and the House of Lords because of their undemocratic nature. Hannan also notes that Benn was no fan of the Soviet Union, and that, "His socialism was authentically British, rooted in brass bands and the temperance movement and working men's libraries. He never had much time for the bloodthirsty creeds of foreign enthusiasts."

As well as standing up for democratic rights, Benn was a staunch anti-war campaigner, having opposed the Suez war, the Falklands war, and both U.S.-led wars in Iraq. Benn felt so strongly about the war in Iraq that he had no problem saying that Tony Blair, a fellow member of the Labour Party, had committed a war crime.

Benn kept diaries throughout much of his life, and thankfully many of them have been published. One day while I was an undergraduate in Reading, England, I walked into a bookstore to browse. I picked up one of Benn's diaries and read a page at random. An hour later I was still at the store, sitting down next to the bookshelf, still reading. I am aware that this was bad book store etiquette, but Benn lived an amazing life, and he wrote about it very well.

Anyone who has been paying attention to British politics in the last few years must have noticed that the Labour Party does not have many great speakers within its ranks. Every Wednesday at noon, Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband stands in the House of Commons and asks Prime Minister Cameron questions and oftentimes makes the theatre of Prime Minister's Question boring, something I used to think was next to impossible. It is not just Miliband. This week's Prime Minister's Questions featured Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (who was standing in for Cameron, who was in Israel) and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Harriet Harman. Harman did better than Miliband, but is still not nearly as impressive as Benn, who knew how to work the famously combative House of Commons.

Looking around the Labour Party, and the British socialist movement more broadly, it is impossible to find anyone that could come close to filling the space left by Benn, a fact that is both a testament to Benn but also to the sorry state of the British left.

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  1. From Hannan’s piece:

    It was as a 21-year-old, listening to one of Benn’s orations in Trafalgar Square, that I started to ponder how much can be achieved in politics by a man with no prospect of office.

    An interesting thought, especially given the sorry present state of American oratory.

    1. Do you know how else was known for his great oratory skills?

      1. Horsehsack?

  2. You may be a sucker for rhetorical skills, but “He never had much time for the bloodthirsty creeds of foreign enthusiasts.”.
    IOWs, he refused to deal with the results of that which he desired and he was cute doing so?
    I won’t dance on his grave, but…

    1. Just can’t fucking help it, huh?

      1. I have no difficulty dancing on his grave. Fuck this guy. He would have abandoned the Falklanders to Argie despotism.

  3. I feel the same way about Senator Bernie Sanders: a principled socialist who gets it right on some issues like the banksters and crony capitalism.

    1. Same could be said for Patrick Moynihan. I always had a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Moynihan’s rhetorical skills… but I didn’t have much love for his voting skills.

  4. I find the Prime Minister Questions are usually hysterical. I wish we had them here. PMQs seems to take the mask off and turns politics into what it really is — theater(*). Unfortunately, I’m not sure we have anyone over here who can match Hannan’s or Farage’s (neither involved in PMQs, but still) rhetorical skills.

    (*)Except this theater uses my tax dollars. //Sad trombone

    1. Question Time in Congress would mostly be watchable only to see how badly it went.

    2. “Whether I die on the gallows or of the pox depends on whether I embrace your Lordship’s principles or your Lordship’s mistress.”

      “I know that the honorable member is, but in that case, what am I?”

      1. “Why do you not bite me?”

        “I may be drunk, but you are a retard, and I will be sober tomorrow. For half an hour.”

        1. “The Hon. Member has uttered a terminological inexactitude, by which I mean you’re full of shit, mate.”

  5. “Viscount” is by far the coolest title of nobility I’ve ever heard.

    1. I’m rather fond of “Margrave”, myself.

    2. I always wanted Viceroy, but Viscount is good I grant.

      1. Viceroy is only a temp job at the pleasure of the monarch and not a title of nobility at all. Viscount is for life.

        Also a Viscount can be a Viceroy. Many viceroys are much lower ranking than viscount. Hell, in Australia and Canada they’re not allowed to hold titles at all. They can’t even have knighthoods. Viceroys nowadays are superannuated political hacks being rewarded for loyal service by the party in power.

        1. Thisis a Viceroy.

          This is another one.

            1. 🙂

        2. Also viceroys have to actually work. Viscounts have no official duties at all. I don’t think most of them even get to sit in the House of Lords any more.

          1. On the plus side viceroys actually get paid, which is good, even if the gig is only five years.

            On the other hand being a viscount is mostly expense and indebtedness maintaining the huge white elephant of a house that you inherited from your father and can’t sell because the estate is entailed. 🙂

  6. Speaking of rhetorically skilled British politicians, Nigel Farage is incredibly entertaining to watch. And for those unaware, there is an authentic libertarian in Parliament: Steve Baker. He’s an excellent writer, though I’m not sure about his rhetorical skills.

  7. We’re all flawed, some more than others. Yet that doesn’t prelude greatness in other human endeavors.

    1. Hitchens comes to mind for me. I could read his stuff every day no matter how absurd because I admired his writing skills that much.

      1. Watch Hitchens in debate on youtube. Quite often you sense you are watching a battle of wits, in which the other party is unarmed.

      2. Hitches was great because he was a fantastic writer and he often ran counter to the dim-witted progressivism so popular today.

  8. “His socialism was authentically British, rooted in brass bands and the temperance movement and working men’s libraries. He never had much time for the bloodthirsty creeds of foreign enthusiasts.”

    So he was in favor of domestic slavery rather than foreign killin’?

  9. I don’t see what — outside of unusually outstanding rhetoric — distinguishes Benn from the rest of his fellows in British socialism. Sure, EngSoc has always considered the wogs and the wops too unsophisticated to create ‘real’ socialism, and there has always been a certain chauvinism about it — so what? Moreover, I fail to see how the Falklands War — a defense against naked expansionism from a military dictatorship — was a war that should have been opposed by libertarians. What we’re left with is a washed-up would-be socialist tyrant with a couple clever turns of phrase, a class of socialist I have little patience with given how one of their number has occupied the White House for so long.

    1. ^This^ Thanks for putting it so well.

    2. Moreover, I fail to see how the Falklands War — a defense against naked expansionism from a military dictatorship — was a war that should have been opposed by libertarians.

      Amen to that. And to all your comment, really. I can’t really see what would drive that sort of argument other than oikophobia.

    3. This.

    4. +5, Insightful.

  10. I like Socialists – like to throw garbage at them, that is.

    1. I thought you were going to say, “… in a light wine sauce…”

  11. Of course you will. Cosmotarian!!!


  12. Socialists hold economic views that work against my interests.

    Just saying.

    1. Remember good ol’ Uncle Joe? Kind-hearted guy, in a way…

      1. Petticoat Junction

  13. Whoa there is a dude that knows what is going on!


  14. “opposed…the Falklands war”

    Which reminds me of a headline vouched for by the Columbia Journalism Review:

    British Left Waffles on Falklands

    I used to find that as funny as 100 George Carlins.

  15. So, who’s better from a libertarian perspective, Nigel Farage or Tony Benn?

  16. So basically, he was for socialism, which is diametrically-opposed to libertarian principles, but he garners praise from Reason staffers for being an anti-interventionist, a stance which is not dictated by libertarian principles but is merely supported by a subset of libertarians.

    I see the Gore Vidal, Howard Zinn, George McGovern, etc. pattern still holds.

  17. This is one of those things that explains why the left is winning.

    Whenever someone on the right dies, everyone on the left dances for joy/says how terrible that person is, etc.

    Whenever someone on the left dies, seemingly everyone on the right says how wonderful a person that guy was.

    One side is playing hardball, the other side is playing nerfball. And then they wonder why government is bigger than ever, personal freedom is bigger than ever.

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