Researchers, lecturers and tutors have paid tribute to Goldsmiths Honorand the Rt Hon Tony Benn who has died at the age of 88.
The former cabinet minister and veteran left-wing campaigner had a close relationship with Goldsmiths, visiting the campus numerous times to talk to students and staff as well as being awarded an honorary degree at the University in September 2012.
When he was awarded his honorary degree, Goldsmiths' Orator Professor Alan Downie described him as "a ‘conviction’ politician, popular almost regardless, it seems, of one’s political predilections".
An inspiration and a truly remarkable man
Professor Downie added: "When, in 2007, BBC2’s The Daily Politics programme conducted a poll to find the UK’s ‘political hero’, Tony came top, beating Margaret Thatcher into second place, a fitting comment on his political career."
Goldsmiths academics have spoken of Mr Benn being an 'inspiration' to their work and research, and a 'truly remarkable man'.
Mr Benn became an MP in November 1950 and served in the cabinet under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. A major figure on the left of the party, he narrowly missed out on the deputy leadership in 1981 and was a popular public speaker, anti-war campaigner and political diarist.
Below are some of the tributes in full.
Professor Richard Grayson, Head of the Department of History:
"A lot of people are going to begin their comments about Tony Benn are going to begin with "I didn't often/always agree with him but..." I'm one of those, even though since last September we have been members of the same party.
"My 'but' is that I have a number of very fond recollections of brief encounters with him and they all contribute to a memory of him as one of those rare major figures in public life who would give anyone the time of day. Ironically, his focus on policies not personalities made him a pleasant person.
"I first had any contact with him when I was working for the Liberal Democrats in 1991-2 between undergraduate and postgraduate study. I invited a number of people from across parties to the party's 'Youth and Student Day', an event for around 1500 school students held annually at Westminster Central Hall. One of the first to reply was Tony Benn, in a handwritten note which I still have, saying that he'd be delighted 'subject to the uncertainties of life'.
Always polite and, above all, interested in people
"Anyway, he came, and on arrival in the area reserved for speakers immediately asked if he could go and buy anyone a cup of tea, which he insisted on doing and did for a number of people. I'd hired (yes, hired, it was 1992) a mobile phone (the size of a small brick) for the day and also taken along my copy of his 'Arguments for Socialism' to sign. I asked him to sign which he did and nodding towards the book and then the phone said, 'You've got all you need for the modern world now'. Just those few words summed up everything he thought about how society could advance – technology and socialism.
"A few years later (roughly 1995-6), I wandered into Blackwell's in Oxford to buy a copy of a volume of his diaries, which I needed to use as a published primary source to teach a seminar. I got downstairs to the Politics section n the Norrington Room, and to my surprise there was Tony Benn tucked away in a corner signing a pile of various copies. So I bought the one I came in for, and a couple of others, and we had a bit of a chat about diary-writing. He also had a crystal clear memory of the Youth and Student Day back in 1992, such as who had been on the panel with him.
"Move on to about 2004 and I did early Sunday chat once or twice on the now defunct ITV News Channel. One time I got involved in a discussion about spin, explaining (well, defending it really) that Labour and the Liberal Democrats were so wary of the media because of the way that the Tory media would distort policies. I said that New Labour especially had been scarred by the actions of the Left in the 1980s which gave the media all the excuses it needed to present Labour as unelectable. Out I came into the green room only to find Tony Benn there who gave me a hard look up and down. The producer said to him, 'Did you hear that? What did you think?' Short reply - 'Well, I viewed it with interest.'
"Always polite, always interested in discussion, debate and, above all, people."
Professor Des Freedman, Department of Media and Communications and Secretary of Goldsmiths UCU:
"I lost count of the number of times Tony Benn came to speak to staff and students at Goldsmiths - against the War in Iraq, in support of Palestine, against nuclear weapons, in support of student campaigns and against austerity.
"I remember his dramatic entrance into the Great Hall at our huge rally against the increase in tuition fees in November 2010 where the whole audience rose to greet him. He had to be helped to the stage and then delivered the most powerful tirade against the government's destructive plans for higher education and called for solidarity to defeat the 'reforms'."
His proposals have been crucial to my own research
"Some broadcasters are now describing him as a 'unifying figure' but he had no wish to be united with those who took us to war or attacked our working conditions. As a lifelong socialist and as president of the Stop the War Coalition and the Coalition of Resistance, his message was that genuine social change would not be delivered to us through the good grace of MPs but through the actions of ordinary people.
"His analysis of what he often called the 'consensus media' and his proposals for media reform from the 1970s onwards have been crucial to my own research into media policy. The best way we can remember him is to put into practice the consequences of his memorable phrase that, just as 'broadcasting is too important to be left to the broadcasters', politics is too important to be left to the politicians."
Professor Marjorie Mayo, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Social, Therapeutic & Community Studies (STACS):
"He was such an inspiration to me over many years, as a politician of absolute integrity, committed to the advancement of democratic strategies for peace and social justice. He was tireless as an activist. And he was an incredibly warm person, always kind, tolerant and supportive to others."
Professor James Curran, Department of Media and Communications:
"Tony Benn was not into himself, and much loved by his wife and family – something that is quite rare among top politicians. At the centre of his politics was a strongly ethical sense of right and wrong that was typical of Old Labour (and different from the more theoretical orientation of continental socialism).
"As soon as he travelled left, he was exposed to an avalanche of hostility that did not deter him. A truly remarkable man: brave, idealistic, divisive and out of step with our neo-liberal times."
Dr John Price, Associate Lecturer in Modern British History:
"I can’t entirely remember the first time I heard Tony Benn speak as I have seen him on some many different occasions over so many years. It was probably in the mid-90s in Trafalgar Square at a CND rally but my most vivid and endearing memories of him stem from more recent times.
"He was a stalwart and highly respected linchpin of so many events that I have attended or been part of. I respected the dignified and reverential manner in which he would lead the wreath laying at the annual Levellers Day commemoration in Burford Churchyard. At the height of the Stop the War movement I heard him passionately address meeting after meeting and was always impressed by the way he would remain calm and articulate even in the face of often hostile criticism. Something particularly close to my heart, but perhaps less well known, was Benn’s collaboration with the musician and folk singer Roy Bailey to produce the album Writing on the Wall; a poignant combination of stirring words and haunting music reminiscent of Ewan MacColl’s Radio Ballads. Benn and Bailey’s touring performances won them the ‘Best Live Act’ at the 2003 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and the show has remained a firm favourite ever since.
The millions of people who derived hope from his indomitable spirit and inspirational words will miss him
"In the last eighteen months, despite his fading health, he was still a familiar face at key events, not least his appearance at Goldsmiths to receive his Honorary degree. Two abiding memories will stay with me; the enormous, prolonged and heartfelt ovation that he received at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival in 2012, which lasted almost as long as his address to the crowd, and the very last time I saw him, at the launch of Robb Johnson’s Gentle Men album at the Tabernacle in London. Benn often cited Johnson’s Winter Turns to Spring as one of his favourite songs of all time and its ever-hopeful message that, no matter how harsh and dark the times may be, the green shoots of hope will eventually emerge, sums up, for me, the essence of everything Benn stood for.
"The causes that he supported will miss him, the events that he regularly attended will miss him, the millions of people who derived hope from his indomitable spirit and inspirational words will miss him and the everyday people, like me, who he would take time share a cup of hot strong tea with will miss him. Yet through all this we should try to remember the words of the Labour Activist and songwriter Joe Hill, ‘don’t mourn, organise!’, and continue to try and make this world more like the equal and collaborative one that Tony Benn strived for."
Goldsmiths Students' Union
"Goldsmiths students voted to make Tony Benn an honourary president because he spent his life arguing on the side of the oppressed and exploited, very memorably by standing with Palestinians when the BBC was distorting the truth about Israel's attack on Gaza. As a comrade we challenged him when we disagreed, and congratulated him when we thought he was right. It can seem difficult to replace such a fighter, but we don't despair, we organise. The best celebration of his memory is a celebration of all those who resist."
Natalie Fenton, Department of Media and Communications
Tony Benn: socialist, comrade, friend: John Rees on a life well lived.
I have spent a lifetime as a political organiser and for as long as I can recall if I wanted to get something moving the first phone call I would make would be to Tony Benn.
If there was a Stop the War Coalition march or meeting to be organised I rang Tony Benn. When we launched the People’s Assembly with a letter to the Guardian, the first call was to Tony Benn.
When we opened Firebox, the socialist café and event space, Tony Benn did the honours. When the Leveller’s Association got a plaque to Thomas Rainsborough put up in the Wapping churchyard where he was buried, Tony Benn was there to make the dedicatory speech.
When Tony Benn was part of any project you knew, and tens of thousands of others in the labour movement knew, that it was worth doing. He was, when all else is said and done, simply a brilliant and relentless campaigner. Now, when his death forces me to look back, I realise that he has always been there.
To this day I can still remember the shock of watching the local TV news bulletin in the West Country when I was a teenager and seeing Tony Benn interviewed at Bristol Temple Meads station as he arrived in his Bristol constituency. The questions were the usual ‘aren’t you dividing the Labour Party Mr. Benn?’ stuff. Tony simply refused to answer any of them, but just gave totally different answers. So, in reply to that question, he said something like ‘No, I’m completely opposed to nuclear weapons!’. And so it went on, question after question.
That determination to get his views across despite the institutional conservatism of the media stayed with him all his life, as the devastating BBC interview over the Gaza appeal showed.
I can remember the shock and disappointment of reading, while I was still at school, that Harold Wilson had removed Benn as Industry minister and replaced him with the now deservedly forgotten figure of Eric Varley. It meant an end to the experiments in workers control, like the Meriden Motorcycle Co-opertive. Whatever the limitations of those experiments, they are the most radical thing that any Industry minister has ever thought of doing, let alone actually done.
That was the thing about Tony Benn. He was a lot tougher than he appeared. He had to be. I remember driving back with him from a Stop the War rally, in Coventry I think. We were talking and then there was a pause in the conversation. Then Tony said, ‘Do you know what the most powerful word in politics is?’ Then he said, ‘It’s the word No’. ‘If you say No’, he continued, ‘then the other person has to go away and change their plans’.
Perhaps that’s why he liked about the huge ‘No’ placards that the Stop the War Coalition produced, designed by his old friend, the artist David Gentleman. David first knew Benn from the time when Benn was Postmaster General and commissioned David to produce the first stamps in this country that weren’t dominated by the Queens head.
Tony thought persuasion and humour was the key to any socialist argument. But he could never have been the socialist he was without anger at the system. Just take a look at one of his best ever speeches in the Commons about the miners struggle against Thatcher.
A kind and considerate man
Tony Benn was a kind and considerate man, very like another late friend, Paul Foot. He had the habit, characteristic of activists but not of establishment politicians, of being directly available on the end of his own phone. There was no office or secretarial barrier. If you wanted him to do a meeting, you just asked. If he could, he would.
Tony Benn’s politics had depth because he had a sense of history. His Writing on the Wall performances with Roy Bailey were a terrific evocation of this country’s radical tradition. I remember one of the last of these at Counterfire’s Dangerous Times festival in the Rich Mix centre in Shoreditch. The audience were whooping with delight at every song and reading.
He was a great Leveller, and a great friend of the Levellers. He wrote and spoke about them, was a stalwart supporter of the annual Levellers Day march in Burford.
And, of course, he was his own and the ages historian. The Benn Diaries are, in and of themselves, a huge political, literary and historical achievement. A little disconcerting when you were with him of course…knowing that you’d be written up at the end of the day. But he was unfailingly generous, at least to me. After one Stop the War rally Tony wrote in his diary, ‘John Rees made a classic socialist speech about the international class struggle. It made me feel a bit stick-in-the-mud.’ Kind, but wrong. I never heard a Tony Benn speech that was ‘stick-in-the-mud’.
He kept his own archive, and not just of the audio tapes from which the Diaries were produced. He had videos going back to his earliest days as an MP in Bristol battling to renounce his title and winning (totally illegally) a by-election there. When we made a four part interview about his life for the Islam Channel we had to have them converted from Betamax in special studios in Wardour Street!
I first met him when I interviewed him for Socialist Worker back in the 1980s and I invited him to speak at the Marxism Festival year after year. He was resolutely Labour, of course. More so for nostalgic reasons towards the end I think. But he always paid tribute to Marxism as a body of ideas and to the role of Marxists in the movement. He detested sectarianism and, especially in moments of intensified struggle, like the miners’ strike or the Stop the War movement, he found it beyond belief that anyone would stand aside from a united struggle. He used to joke about one left paper that it ‘preached unity on page one and spent the next 16 pages attacking everyone one else on the left!’.
At the height of Bennism in the Labour Party it was commonly and rightly said on the revolutionary left that Tony’s combination of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggle would end in the subordination of the latter to the former. That was generally been true, but it wasn’t that case with Tony Benn himself. In the end he acted as if, and believed that, the movements of the class were primary, and party affiliation secondary. You can see that all shining through in the one of the last and one of the best interviews he did with a huge audience at the Southbank centre last year…and he joke at the end is a typical self-deprecating show stopper!
In the end, that was the secret of his popularity in every corner of the labour movement. He had the right friends, and the right enemies. Little known but his doctor once told him that a recurrent health problem was a long term result of an attempt to poison him.
But even some of his opponents could not help but admire him. The launch of his last diary, the magnificently titled A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, was held in the Speakers House at the Palace of Westminster. At it the speaker, John Bercow, sang in Tony’s honour the entirety of Alex Glasgow’s ABC of Socialism…in a perfectly mimicked imitation of Tony’s accent.
Tony disliked the ‘harmless national treasure’ status he seemed to have achieved. But it rested on the firm foundation of affection among millions of working people, the result of decades of struggle against the system.
In the end he said he was not afraid of death. Perhaps that’s what comes at the end of a life well lived. A life where you choose the right side, the right class, and socialist politics. And fight for them till the end.