WHEN Tony Benn visited the Scottish Parliament in August 2003 to meet Labour MSPs, he was received as an icon even though few of his colleagues actually agreed with anything he said.
First Minister Jack McConnell’s Scottish Labour was modern, managerial, and decidedly centrist. Benn was an old leftie whose politics seemed to belong to another time. But he was Tony Benn, one of the most recognisable faces of 20th century British politics, and there was real excitement that he’d come to Edinburgh.
In fact, Benn had more in common with members of another party, then represented at Holyrood. And so, having completed his scheduled Labour group meeting, he wandered downstairs to take afternoon tea with members of the Scottish Socialist Party.
For then MSPs Carolyn Leckie and Rosie Kane, and activists Barbara Scott and Catriona Grant, this was the stuff of dreams. Benn represented to them socialist politics of principle and integrity.
When it was announced on Friday that Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn, formerly 2nd Viscount Stansgate, had died at the age of 88, those four women began sharing on social media a photograph of themselves with him. The meeting, they all agreed, had been a high point in their careers. To sit with him had been an honour.
Meanwhile, tributes from colleagues and mainstream opponents, alike, while respectful and affectionate, made clear that this was a man whose political positions were not widely shared. Those paying their respects – from Labour and other parties – spoke of his belief in what he said and did, adding that cliché “whether you agreed with him or not”, which should always be taken to mean that the speaker did not.
None of those SSP members from that photograph is now active in party politics. The Scottish Socialists, having been built around the personality of Tommy Sheridan, collapsed with his fall from grace as a perjurer.
The party’s politics – though SSP members believed with a passion in what they were doing – were a difficult sell, so far were they from the mainstream. And so it was with Benn’s.
Once set free from government – he had been a Cabinet minister under Labour prime ministers Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan – Benn moved further left, further from power. Wilson’s waspish analysis was that Benn “immatured with age”.
In shifting his position, Benn became something of a public hero; not because his politics appealed – in fact, his increasingly radical left-wing politics were of the sort that both allowed the Conservatives to dominate throughout the 1980s and necessitated the modernisation of the Labour Party in the 1990s – but because he refused to compromise on that in which he believed.
This is not, in itself, something which we should value particularly highly. It is often easier, after all, to stick to one’s guns (even if they are pointed in the wrong direction) than it is to find common ground with those with whom we disagree. Self-belief is all well and good, but it doesn’t equate to greatness.
Much, too, is made of the fact that Benn was a prolific diarist and archivist, publishing several volumes of (I’m afraid, rather dry) memoirs and collecting thousands of documents which related to his time in public service. Of course, it is useful to have such papers and to read one perspective on the history of the times in which he lived, but it’s wrong to characterise what might be seen as a display of ego as an act of selflessness.
But hush my cynicism for, although I refuse to join the chorus singing of Benn as a saint, I do see his passing as representative of the loss of something precious in politics: the willingness to be different, to chart an alternative course.
If we set aside the dominating influence of the independence referendum for a moment and examine the politics of the main Holyrood parties (yes, even the Tories) we find little to distinguish them from each other.
There are good, cautious, pragmatic reasons for this: politicians understand the need to attend to the wishes of the majority of voters and, since the majority of voters sit in the centre, with pretty “small c” conservative views, then parties adapt their plans accordingly.
The downside to this is a lack of creative tension and rigour in the debate over the solutions we find to problems that need addressed.
The photograph of Benn with those four SSP women was a reminder of the value of real diversity in politics, not because we are likely to find answers from either the far left or right but because those outwith the mainstream – with their determination to challenge consensus – ensure greater scrutiny of the decisions parliament makes.
Holyrood is a poorer place today than it was when Benn visited, when there were a fistful apiece of Greens and “Trots” as well as a representative of the Senior Citizens Party and a member who’d been elected on a manifesto of opposing hospital closures. It was a rainbow parliament, reflecting a spectrum of views and demonstrating a willingness among Scots voters to take a punt on outsiders.
Now Holyrood, just like Westminster, is a greyer institution where, although there are good and creative members, parties are rigidly managed, and the desire to be different or rebellious is dealt with swiftly.
Benn was a fascinating man. His political journey defied the natural order of things which rules that the older we get, the more conservative we become. He became a giant figure in 20th century politics despite making very little mark with his own actions. His real legacy of change can be seen in the reactions of those in Labour who saw his left radicalism as electoral poison and drove the party in the opposite direction.
But while I am firmly of the view that Benn was wrong about most things most of the time, I am glad that he served, advancing his ideas, doing so with good grace and good humour, and making us think a little bit more deeply about what we believe in.