I HAVE no special anecdote about the former Labour MP and Cabinet minister, Tony Benn, who is, as I write, still alive, just very ill and very old. No personal vignette to share that would show I know anything more about him than most other people.
Thus it seems sentimental, false even, to feel sad about someone I don’t know personally. And yet, the news that he’s seriously ill in hospital, and aged 88, makes me feel really sad, and a little destabilised.
People like Benn are like drawing-pins in a map of humanity, keeping us grounded, safe, the right way up. You feel that as long as they are around, nothing really bad can ever really happen.
He never speaks anything less than commonsense, in between pipe-puffs. He brooks no nonsense, seems afraid of no-one and, even at 88, has more balls than the entire current Cabinet.
Despite the right-wing press doing its best to portray him as a left-wing loony (they invariably photographed him from below at conferences to achieve the mad-eyed look) he is a really good-looking man. Try to find the picture of him from 1961, in front of the Houses of Parliament, when he was fighting for his right to abandon his peerage (his father was Viscount Stansgate) so that he could sit in the House of Commons, to see what I mean.
He was handsome enough, not that it really matters, to have gone into films. He even has the perfect matinee-idol middle name of Wedgwood. If he had, he could now have found himself advertising coffee in his silver beard years, but instead, he is, or was until very recently, a powerful political voice, prolific writer and charismatic anti-war campaigner.
Although his political career was largely before the advent of social media, you just know that Benn would never have had to delete a tweet because he’d gone back on his word. I imagine, to Benn, spin is simply a setting on a washing machine, or what you do in a dance move.
There was a certain ‘screw you’ belligerence to him: he’d look a punter in the eye and tell them what he thought and to hell with it. At least you know where you are with that. There’d be none of that head cocked in faux sympathy, nodding without really listening, all the while with an eye on public opinion in the middle distance, beloved of most of today’s politicians.
Even on the Daily Mail site today, below-the-line comments say things like: “He’s the only political voice I trust”.
When he dies, which I hope is a long, long time in the future (as we post this, he’s just spent a fourth night in hospital, and there have been reports that he’s improving), I wonder who else we will ever be able to say that of. And that thought scares me, more than a bit. ·
First published in The Week on 13th February 2014. Tony Benn died a month later.