What Our Politicians Can Learn From Tony Benn


Tony Benn, socialist and leader of the UK’s Labor left for so many decades, died earlier this week. A darling of the British left, Benn was known for his generosity, both to his constituents and to Conservatives on the Opposition benches.

I last heard him speak when, at the age of 84, he addressed the annual rally to remember the Tollpuddle Martyrs, those Dorset agricultural labourers who formed the first rural trade union in order to try to improve their appalling working conditions.

Benn reminded the Tolpudddle crowd that politics needs vision to advocate the freedoms inherent in universal human rights, and requires perpetual struggles to protect the vulnerable and to afford them dignity by radically improving their life chances.

So what can the life of this highly principled human being and orator teach Australian politicians? One answer lies in a quick appraisal of Benn’s values compared to those of the current operators in Canberra.

In defiance of the relentless negativity of partisan politics, Benn hoped to inspire. "I’d like to be remembered as somebody who encouraged people." he once said. "On my tombstone, ‘Tony Benn: he encouraged us’ would be a wonderful thing."

A brief survey of the Australian political scene reveals such sentiments to be sadly lacking.

The Australian Prime Minister has a penchant for swagger and chest beating, as shown in the claim that we don’t want a wimp running Immigration. In charge of education is a man whose supreme value appears to be a faith in childish smarm.

Benn's desire to elevate politics contrasts the petty cycle of revenge generated by the current Australian Government, demonstrated by the Royal Commissions into the pink bats affair and alleged union corruption.

The unfavourable comparison doesn't just apply to members of the Coalition. Last week I listened to an interview on ABC’s Radio National as a speaker tried to justify sending asylum seekers to Manus Island and Nauru, spruiking his tough stance towards vulnerable people. When the interview ended I realised he was not, as I had assumed, a deputy to the evangelical bully who is in charge of the immigration portfolio, but in fact the Labor Party’s spokesperson on immigration.

Again, Benn provides a point of contrast. His commitment to the philosophy and language of non-violence emerged from a realisation that if domestic and foreign policies are based on a fascination with the use of force, the human costs are infinite and the destruction irreparable.

When he was Secretary of State for Energy, Benn was quoted as saying the he thought nuclear power was a cheap, safe and peaceful use of atomic energy. Then he explained, "My experience of running it as Minister was that I was wrong on all fronts: it’s really about the bomb."

Can you imagine anyone in the Australian Parliament with enough humility to discuss so candidly their own evolving thinking?

Quick to admit when he was wrong and always gutsy enough to apologise to others, Benn thought that people of his generation had made a complete hash of the world. This left him with a genuine respect for young people. He was romantic enough to believe that they would strive for justice, a goal which included the responsibility to protect a precious but fragile environment.

A long-time campaigner for nuclear disarmament, Benn challenged assumptions about militarism — including large budgets for armaments — and asked whether it really provided security. He led British opposition to the war in Iraq and castigated Prime Minister Tony Blair for his deceit about weapons of mass destruction and for his opportunistic alliance with President George W. Bush. He would surely have said the same about Prime Minister John Howard.

Humour depends on insight into your own absurdities, a determination never to be overcome by self-importance, plus an ability see the ironies of life. Throughout his life Tony Benn displayed those qualities. Indeed, he found it difficult to fathom how government policies could be allowed to become so destructive and why the architects of such policies could not, or would not, laugh at themselves.

The humanity and humour of Tony Benn was as out of place in Westminster as it would have been in Canberra (in order to stay in the House of Commons he rejected an hereditary peerage). When asked why he decided to quit the British Parliament, Benn explained, "I want to devote more time to politics."

His enthusiasm for relationships with his constituents showed his respect for public service and for that age old principle — now sadly forgotten — that policymaking should be about the dominance of altruism over egoism.

Australian politicians may make a few hand wringing eulogies as a tribute to the life of Tony Benn but it would be better if they resolved to learn from him and to emulate at least some of his qualities. Such change could improve every citizen observer’s mental health and the political culture of all of the nation’s parliaments.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.