Friday, 14 March 2014

Tea, Tears And Tony Benn

A Pipe, a Pot of Tea and Our Tony
LIKE MANY on the left I have been left reeling this week following the tragic deaths of two legendary characters of the British labour and trade union movement.

On Tuesday we lost RMT leader and class fighter Bob Crow. A devastating blow to the union movement, he represented a determination to fight for working people that is missing from the leadership of most other unions.

We barely had time to register this sad loss when news hit on Friday morning that iconic left-wing former Labour MP and Cabinet minister Tony Benn passed away after a long fight against serious illness.

Whilst both men certainly reflected the widest possible antithesis of the class system; a rail track worker at one end and son of a Viscount at the other, they both had one central objective in common; a determination to fight injustice and make the world a fairer and better place for all.

One other characteristic they both shared, in death, was the outpouring of respect showered on them, even from unexpcted quarters such as the reactionary press, and the revisionist and Tory political classes; the very people who had attacked  and mocked them; had attempted to crush both them and the movement they held dear; had been confirmed enemies of, in every sense and in every way. Of course we should not be surprised by the fraudulent platitudes that spew from these class enemies, but we must give them credit for recognising these men reflected something that they themselves will never achieve in their snearing and contemptious lives; the genuine admiration and reverential respect held amongst the British people. It is no exaggeration to categorically state that even prior to death they had both become National Treasures. This makes the tributes from the right-wing even more ironic as they have spent the post-war generation trying to convince us there is something terribly un-British about socialism, social justice and fraternity of working class struggle. One thing they must now never, ever, be allowed to forget it that Socialism is as British as a pot of tea, a pipe and Tony Benn!

Much has already been spoken and written about Tony Benn, which can be found reproduced elsewhere, so I'll just share my experiences with the great man (despite my close family ties to the NUR/RMT I sadly never met Bob Crow) and finish with my favourite quotes. But firstly on to the important subject of tea...

The Royal Society of Chemistry published research results in 2003, timed for release on the centenary of the birth of writer George Orwell, who would roll over in his grave if he heard the news, that they claimed (erroneoulsy in my humble opinion) that tea should be poured into the cup AFTER the milk (madness, I know!) During his lifetime Orwell is quoted as hating three things: fascism, totalitarianism and people who poured milk into the cup first, with the tea crazily following after.

Research project leader Dr Andrew Stapley took three years and two months to reach such a bizarre conclusion. But thankfully our Tony came to the rescue of common sense in tea making. Reportedly an "Englishman who drinks NINE litres of tea a day" (a staggering
27,375 gallons in 60 years!) Tony explained the only logical way to make a brew:

"Heavenly! Terrific taste, but I still agree with Orwell. First you have to pour the tea and then milk. Indeed, how else to determine how much milk will be needed to achieve the perfect colour?" asked Comrade Benn.

The first time I met Tony was at a Labour Party Conference in Brighton when Labour's traitorous leadership were yet again fully embroiled in their witchunt against Militant, the Marxist tendency within the Labour Party. I was sat with the Militant editorial board (despite being expelled from the party back in 1983 it was a small and pleasing anomally allowing them press passes that could not be refused) when Tony popped into the bar and made a beeline for the Militant camp. Militant's Political Editor Ted Grant jokingly told him that "he'd be next" before introducing me; proudly boasting that I was the youngest delegate at the annual conference (he who has the youth has the future and all that jazz), confirmed Militant supporter and LPYS activist. One thing both men had in common was an incredible patience and interest in the younger generation. They both encouraged and supported young people and, even in debate, would listen and value your ideas and opinions even if they differed from their own.

Over the years I had reason to correspond with Tony regarding the various causes I was involved in from Anti-Apartheid to YTURC to the Anti-Poll Tax Federation and was astonished, as countless others can also testify, that he managed to find time to respond personally to all contact; always expeditious, always courteous and always fraternal.

The last time I saw him was in the ornate surroundings of Portsmouth's Victorian New Theatre Royal on his tour, Writing On The Wall, with folk guitarist Roy Bailey. Admittedly it was more of an urbane lecture for Guardianistas then a rousing revolutionary rally (more so even then a promotional book event he had given at the somewhat more youth-orientated Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms several years earlier)  but, even in advancing years, the twinkle in his eye, the honesty and passion in his voice and the peerless wealth of historic and political knowledge shone through. The fact that he merrily smoked his pipe on the stage in such opulent and plush surroundings, well after the smoking ban came into force, was a testiment to a fiery, rebellious soul that could not be subdued, even against the tyrannical and despotic arm of the anti-smoking lobby. Irony of ironies the show was promoted by a leading lobbyist for ASH, the oppressive anti-smoking 'charity'; and even they dared not tell Comrade Benn to extinguish his pipe. But then again, who would have the temerity let alone the courage?!

Will we see the like of Tony Benn again? Well the labour movement isn't as leaderless and spent as bourgeois commentators would have us believe; the likes of Dennis Skinner, John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn, Mark Serwotka and Jerry Hicks provide an unbroken thread, way back to the Levellers, the Diggers and the Tolpuddle Martyrs, in the proud tradition of socialism and class struggle in Britain. And thank God for that!

 Tony Benn: In His Own Words...
  • It is wholly wrong to blame Marx for what was done in his name , as it is to blame Jesus for what was done in his.
    • The Benn Heresy (1982)
  • If we can find the money to kill people, we can find the money to help people.
    • Interview with Michael Moore in the Movie Sicko (2007)
  • An educated, healthy and confident nation is harder to govern.
    • Ibid (2007)
  • I think there are two ways in which people are controlled. First of all frighten people and secondly, demoralize them.
    • Ibid (2007)
  • People in debt become hopeless and hopeless people don’t vote. They always say that that everyone should vote but I think that if the poor in Britain or the United States turned out and voted for people that represented their interests there would be a real democratic revolution.
    • Ibid (2007)
  • Choice depends on the freedom to choose and if you are shackled with debt you don’t have the freedom to choose.
    • Ibid (2007)
  • I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world, because if you have power you use it to meet the needs of you and your community.
    • Ibid (2007) 
  • Well I came across Marx rather late in life actually, and when I read him, two things: first of all I realised that he'd come to the conclusion about capitalism which I'd come to much later, and I was a bit angry he'd thought of it first; and secondly, I see Marx who was an old Jew, as the last of the Old Testament Prophets, this old bearded man working in the British Library, studying capitalism, that's what 'Das Kapital' was about, it was an explanation of British capitalism. And I thought to myself, 'Well anyone could write a book like that, but what infuses, what comes out of his writing, is the passionate hostility to the injustice of capitalism. He was a Prophet... 
    • Interview with John Cleary (23 February 2003)

1 comment:

  1. That was a pleasure to read, thank you for taking the time to write it :-)