Our instant reaction on hearing of death is one of sadness. Tony Benn, who died aged 88 on 14th March this year, received the usual cross-party tributes and eulogies from both friends and enemies. He was variously described as a crusader for the left, uncompromising in his views, and an inspiration whose influence stretched beyond traditional party politics – a great loss to politics and the left in particular.
Benn himself, however, was more prepared for the end, not wallowing in despair but simply noting the inevitability of being ‘switched off’ at some point. In fact, optimism was a recurring theme in Benn’s writing and speaking long before this year, and we at Radical Tea Towel don’t think this aspect of his character has received enough attention. It is likely a key reason for his success as political grandee and spokesperson for the left – and is arguably what he most wanted to be remembered for.
Benn believed that the history of the left and of society had to be seen in terms of the great progress achieved, and that frame of reference provided optimism for the future of those seeking progressive change. A pessimistic frame, meanwhile, would only ever be self-fulfilling. In his famous interview with comedian Ali G in 2000, Tony Benn warned of the dangers of society conforming to the lens through which you view it.
BENN TO ALI G: “You’re not living in the real world my friend, you’re living in a world where everybody is just so bloody greedy that there’s no hope of building a better society and that’s why we’re in a mess… You think they are lazy, greedy, don’t want to work, you call women bitches and then you are asking me about a society that’s happy. Well I’ll tell you what, somebody will shoot you someday because you treat them like an animal.”
After initially feeling angry once he was told the interview was a hoax, Benn concluded that the video was in fact educational in that, along with others in the Ali G series, it would encourage people to look again at their own prejudices surrounding the issues raised. An optimism lacking in fellow, more conservative, interviewees. Continue reading