I owe Tony Benn a great deal. While he was Minister for Technology between 1966 and 1970, Mr. Benn created a British equivalent to IBM, International Computers Limited. Although its history was not trouble free, it was a success story; it was there that I began my working life after I graduated from University. It was there also that I was first introduced to the internet. In short, it was my experiences at ICL that enabled me to build my career and the interesting life that followed. Without Tony Benn, it’s entirely possible that I could have begun my journey at another point, but that’s not what happened. Tony Benn was a champion of modern technology, and thanks to him being the person that he was, I am the person that I am today. He encouraged me.
It was with this debt in mind that I went to see the cinematic précis of his life, “Will and Testament”. I had seen the build up to this film via social media: while I was certain it would be an excellent tribute, I wasn’t entirely sure what form it would take. In the main, documentaries tend to be somewhat staid affairs, their interest lay mostly in the material they present rather than the cinematography. “Will and Testament” is quite different: we are first shown a close-up of Tony Benn’s gentle visage as he stands by the shore on a grey day. He is old, but his eyes are clear and just underneath a layer of calm and tenderness is his obvious determination. We are shown other images: we see his home in Holland Park with its red front door slightly ajar. We see a virtual study, a façade with a fireplace and a variety of newspaper front pages hanging from the ceiling: they are the monuments to the media’s view of him, referring to him as the “most dangerous man in Britain” among other denigrating epithets. We are shown a representation of Benn’s office: the lights are somewhat dim, the state of the office is somewhat disheveled and dusty. There is a model Concorde on his desk, a small Union flag, an old fashioned tape recorder, and a mug with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament symbol and the legend “Make Tea Not War”.
With this stage set, we are taken through his life with the help of photographs and film clips. First, we’re informed that his radicalism did not come from nowhere, his mother, for example, campaigned for the ordination of women. Benn’s convictions, we’re told, stem from a belief that all political questions are moral questions, and there is invariably a right and a wrong answer. He was taught that the Bible was full of struggles between prophets and kings, with the prophets always taking the side of righteousness. It was this side that Benn was encouraged to take.
Benn learned to fear and loathe war early in life; he saw it up close as a boy and while serving in the Royal Air Force during World War Two. This service was often unappreciated and forgotten: indeed, when he criticised the needless waste of the Falklands War in the House of Commons, Mrs. Thatcher suggested that he owed his freedom to speak to those who had fought for it.
It was the war that inspired him to go into politics, though it was not a particularly easy path for him: he inherited a peerage and had to campaign in order to be able to renounce it. From that point on, it could be said he was in opposition to the established order even when he became a government Minister.
The film presents some fascinating “what ifs”. One of the most intriguing is what may have happened if Benn had continued as Minister for Energy. He was responsible for the creation of Britain’s oil industry, and thanks to his efforts the UK reaped the benefit of what lay beneath the North Sea. However, Labour lost the 1979 general election and it was Margaret Thatcher who cashed in. Rather than save the money (as Benn intended) or invest it in modernising British industry (as Benn also wanted), she used oil revenues to fund unemployment benefit (after she caused British manufacturing to collapse) and tax breaks for the well off. We suffer from this legacy today; one of the questions which animates the Scottish independence movement is what precisely happened to the endowment that Benn arranged for them.
Another intriguing “what if” stems from Benn’s ideas on re-organising British industry. I suspect that his vision of full blown “workers control of factories” was probably a pipe dream, but a more collaborative model, as exists in Germany today, was definitely possible. Perhaps such a system would have had the same positive effects on British industry as it did on Germany’s and Japan’s.
The most moving part of the film covers the period just after he became MP for Chesterfield. This was at the time of the Miners’ Strike and his new constituency was directly affected by the turmoil. His response to the threatened extermination of the coal industry by Thatcher’s government may have been the culmination of his career: it brought together his compassion for the working class, his experience with the energy industry (he stated clearly that coal will be required when the oil runs out) and his tireless radicalism. We see the police beat miners with truncheons: this footage brought out gasps and sobs from the audience at the showing I attended. Benn forcefully spoke out for the miners at every opportunity, locking arms and marching with them in public shows of support. His dedication to the cause was obviously appreciated in the aftermath: in perhaps the film’s most beautiful scene, we are shown the annual service of remembrance for the Durham miners, which takes place at Durham’s gothic Cathedral. The miners carry colourful banners as part of the procession which represent their history and their heroes: among them was a deep crimson standard which featured Benn as one of their icons.
The film shows that Benn feared becoming a “national treasure”, i.e. someone respected but not taken entirely seriously. His kindly nature did lend itself to making him into the nation’s radical grandfather, who would espouse socialism as the answer in between being served the sprouts and the turkey during Sunday dinner. Towards the end of his life, he was thrilled by the receipt of a death threat: he hoped to remain “dangerous” and this ominous message was a sign that he had achieved this aim. When he passed, however, the nation, regardless of political belief, mourned.
I emerged from the film with a greater appreciation for Benn: I don’t believe he was always right, nor do I agree with him on everything. As Benn admitted, he made mistakes. He also didn’t always succeed in what he wanted to do: in the case of North Sea oil, this was to our cost. However, he didn’t want his epitaph to be “He was always right” or “He always succeeded”, rather, he desired his tombstone to read “He encouraged us”. He remains a source of inspiration. He encouraged us. He encourages us still.