I never actually met Tony Benn. That’s a shameful thing for an historian of the British left to admit. And I do regret it. There’s really no excuse. He had a reputation for extraordinary generosity in giving up his time to talk to anyone with an interest in Labour history – over large mugs of tea and whilst, of course, making his own recording of their discussions, for his archive.
But, though I never got to sit down and have a conversation with him, I did hear him speak from a platform on several occasions. And, in doing so, I think I saw him in his element. For me, he’ll always be associated with the first time I encountered him and his oratory: a summer gathering in a garden in a picturesque town in the Cotswolds. Levellers Day in Burford.
Levellers Day is – by any measure – a curious event. In May, every year since 1975, the Oxford Industrial branch of the Workers’ Educational Association has organised a commemoration for three 17th-century soldiers who were executed outside the parish church for their political radicalism. Burford today is a gentle, honey-coloured stone, antiques–and-tea-shops sort of place. But, for one day a year, the radicals return.
The main street through the town is closed to traffic, occupied instead by a procession of banners, trade unionists, peace campaigners, Woodcraft Folk, green anarchists, folk musicians and families. It’s more a saunter than a march. On reaching the churchyard, wreathes are laid in tribute to the three men at the heart of it all, remembered and honoured as pioneers of democracy and freedom. Then, it’s back to the main venue, for more sitting around on the grass, listening to music, and talking about politics.
The event attracts an impressive roster of speakers: union leaders, campaigners, red vicars and, of late, even a few Labour historians. Tony Benn was a stalwart supporter from the start. The Levellers were amongst his heroes. He regarded them as part of a democratic tradition stretching back to the Bible, and forward to the modern Labour movement: a tradition that, as he argued in the 1970s, ‘has retained its vitality in the intervening centuries and which speaks to us today with undiminished force’.
He had a strong sense of being part of that long history: an extended genealogy of radicalism that celebrated pioneers and dissenters, people who upheld religious freedom and agitated for political rights. People who were often misunderstood – sometimes even martyred – in the process of standing up for their beliefs.
Benn wasn’t martyred for being one of history’s troublemakers. Instead, he has ended up being labelled (repeatedly so, over the past few days) as ‘a national treasure’. No one said that about the Levellers. He lived long enough to establish a new image for himself, distanced – for a younger generation at least – from the more visceral controversies in which he had been involved in the 1970s and 1980s.
Reminders of that earlier Tony Benn (indeed of Anthony Wedgwood Benn, as he was for much of his life) have resurfaced amidst the obituaries and tributes. His reputation as ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’. His role in the destructive internal conflicts over the direction of the Labour party.
And so, his own place in history is now under debate. His life overlapped with a large part of the history of the modern Labour movement. In one of his last interviews, he remembered back to the days of Ramsay MacDonald’s second Labour government – an administration in which Benn’s father served as a minister. Tony Benn went on to hold political office himself, but never any of the major posts in government. Even within his party, he served as chairman, but failed in bids for the leadership and to become deputy leader.
In all the big controversies in which Labour became embroiled, he was there – usually on the losing side, either at the time or in the long run. Nationalisation, nuclear disarmament, Britain’s place in Europe. And he kept records of it all. His published diaries, and the vast archive of taped testimony that he accumulated, may well end up securing his place in history – far more than anything he achieved as a politician.
Benn began his career as a doer – an electoral strategist, bringing Labour to the cutting edge of mass-media campaigning, embracing a high-tech future in his ministerial roles overseeing technology, power, energy, telecommunications. But in his later life, he was definitely on the side of the dreamers and the prophets. Politics isn’t always about getting things done. Dreamers can make an impact too.
That was why Tony Benn cared so much about the notion of a radical tradition. It was an inspiration, and perhaps even a solace. It suggested that principles were ultimately more enduring that policies, and reinforced his belief in the importance, and persistence of democratic values. These readings of history can make academic historians uncomfortable. When the British left identifies and cherishes its heroes from the past, it often has to detach them from historical complexities in the process.
How much common ground could there really be between those rebel soldiers of 1649 and the modern-day crowds that gather in their memory on Levellers Day? A great deal, if you follow Benn’s arguments. And ultimately that is one of the things that marks him out as such a remarkable voice in recent politics.
His view of the past was a romantic history, passionately partisan. It informed the way in which he thought about politics, and it infuses so many of his speeches. History certainly mattered to Tony Benn. And when he spoke from a platform, he made his audiences care about it too.
Clare Griffiths is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield, specialising in the twentieth-century history of the British left.
Header image: Tony Benn speaking at Levellers Day, Burford (2008) [Wikicommons]
Inset image: Plaque in Burford commemorating three Levellers shot by Oliver Cromwell [Wikicommons]
 From his speech at Burford in 1976, reprinted in Arguments for Socialism (1980), p.29.