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5 February 2013

Cheered by a death
threat: an evening
with Tony Benn

David Donnison

Tony Benn, once described by Tory news media as 'the most dangerous man in Britain', is somewhat depressed when the same papers now describe him as 'a national treasure'. However, he was greatly cheered recently by receiving a death threat: 'the first I've had for years'.

He told us these things in the main auditorium of Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall where he drew a crowd of 1,800 people – one of the biggest audiences for any act in this year's Celtic Connections festival. At the age of 88 and clearly feeling it, this may be the last of his performances that we shall see.

The show began with radical songs by Sheena Wellington and Arthur Johnston, but soon led into selections from a film, 'Will and Testament', that is being made about Benn's life. After pictures of him and his family during his childhood and youth, it took us to many of the great rallies and demonstrations of the Labour movement: James Maxton speaking on Glasgow Green, the 1945 election campaign, Arthur Scargill at Orgreave, Jimmy Reid and the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, peace demonstrations, and Benn himself speaking on such occasions.

Then he came on stage, sat down, poured himself a cup of tea, chatted with his vast audience and answered their questions for an hour – ably chaired by comedian Mark Thomas. His loving comradeship with his wife and his overwhelming grief at her death were movingly conveyed. Some of his best remembered quips were coined by her – 'I am leaving parliament to devote more time to politics' was one of them.

His words stay in the mind. 'In Labour Governments we did our best to make capitalism work in a civilised way. And we failed. It never can work. It will always exploit and oppress the people.' 'Whether you win or lose in a campaign is not the point. Were you there? Did you join the fight for justice? Those are the questions to ask.' 'Looking to the future, we have to choose between socialism and barbarism. I've made my choice.' 'My job is to give people hope. Without hope they'll give up.'

More than once he said, 'When Margaret Thatcher was asked what her greatest achievement was she answered "New Labour"'. Nevertheless, 'we should stick with the Labour Party: it's the only instrument we have for making the world a better place'. No – we should not be disillusioned about parliament: 'if we convince the people, the MPs will have to listen'. The convictions of an old-fashioned, Old Labour democrat.

His powerful bond with this audience had many strands. Most of them were middle-aged or elderly Clydesiders – many, I guess, with long years of work in the skilled, masculine, manufacturing and mining industries that formed the back-drop to much of the drama in Benn's life. Many, like him, had experienced the loss of life partners who had been their comrades in the movement. At her bedside and with all their family around them, Benn had said to his dying wife: 'If you’re ready to go, you can leave us', and she died. (You could hear the sympathetic intake of breath all round the hall.)

Above all, Benn celebrates the millenialist politics – conviction politics – to which these people have devoted so much of their lives. He validates their conviction that the task of politics is to make the world an altogether better place, with new values and class relationships – particularly for those whom it now treats most harshly.

Like him, they would be contemptuous of the idea that politics consists of identifying the few swing voters in a few marginal constituencies, finding out what they want, and offering it to them at a lower price in taxation than competing parties promise – encouraging among voters the delusion that we can have Scandinavian-quality public services at American levels of taxation. 'Supermarket politics' we might call it. Or 'New Labour'.

It is ironical that although the worlds they sought to create were radically different, the style of Margaret Thatcher's politics was much closer to Tony Benn's than to Tony Blair's. And not less effective. She was the most successful conviction politician we have had since Clement Attlee.

The meeting concluded with more songs – ending, of course, with '…man to man, the warld o'er, shall brithers be…' – and rapturous, all-standing applause.

I left, grateful to have shared in what may indeed prove to be Tony Benn's 'last will and testament', but wondering whether in 20 years time – when I and half those in the hall will be dead – their brand of conviction politics will be recreated or even remembered. Recreated perhaps with a new agenda in the form of a greener politics, which certainly demands new values and human relationships – a change that may be spurred on by the extreme weather, the tsunamis and floods, the oil wars and water wars brought about by our continuing destruction of the planet on which we have to survive or perish. In the face of these problems, supermarket politics can only lead to disaster.

David Donnison is professor emeritus in urban studies in the University of Glasgow. His books include 'Policies for a Just Society' and 'The Politics of Poverty'