On Wednesday night I stood up from my seat at the speakers’ table and made my political debut. The occasion was a pro independence meeting in
on a cold, misty night. About
a hundred or so were there in the audience to witness my efforts. Less than 48 hours after I
resumed my seat, the early morning news channels broke the news of the death of
Tony Benn at the age of 88. Lockerbie Town Hall
Is there a reason for those two pieces of information to be included in the same paragraph? Absolutely, though Tony would never have had any inkling as to why. The fact is that at the very start of the 33 year road that delivered me to a lectern in
was Tony Benn. Lockerbie
I’ll rewind the clock all the way back to a crisp winter night in1980. Maggie Thatcher had been in Number 10 for just over a year and already her wrecking ball was starting to do its worst across the industrial heartlands of the North. Kenny Dalglish was leading the line for Liverpool and the Soviet tanks had ground to a halt in the heat and dust of
Nelson Mandela still had the thick end of a decade of prison time to serve out.
Reagan was in the White House and Brezhnev was in the Kremlim. And me? I was
getting my head around being a Afghanistan lad amidst
the cords and tweeds of a whole bunch of Etonians and Harrowvians. It was my
first term at Magdalene Collage, Blackburn
and for a while it felt like the dark side of the moon. Cambridge
I had spent the previous few months travelling across Africa in an old army
truck and my eyes had been opened so
far that I barely had any lids left. There had been a whole lot of reality
checks. What the absolute, utter emptiness of the desert looked like. What a
starving village looked like. What a military dictatorship looked like. What a
war zone looked like. It all looked a whole lot different from the rain drenched
valley where the terraces and cotton mill chimneys of Bedford Blackburn
cowered and waited for Thatcher to do her worst.
After the heat, light and mayhem of Africa came the cotton wool suffocation of
at the time when Brideshead Revisited took the coutyards and fantasy into the
living rooms of millions. Everyone wanted to be Sebastian Flyte. Everyone
wanted a teddy bear in their room. Everyone wanted to drink themselves into
oblivion and beyond. Cambridge
Not a thing made any kind of sense. Well. Not quite. Jumping into my VW Beetle and trundling up the A1 and over the M62 once a fortnight to take up my place on the Kop to watch King Kenny still made sense.
Hindsight tells me that I was 19 and completely and utterly confused. A fish out of water. Like Joe Strummer said around that time, I was all lost in the supermarket, I could no longer shop happily.
Then the word flicked around that Tony Benn was coming to town. He was down to appear in a debate at the Cambridge Union where he would take on Sir Keith Joseph, Maggie Thatcher’s very own Josef Goebbels. Maggie’s in house attack dog. Maggie’s very own evil genius.
The event was always going to be a slam dunk sell out, so we took no chances. We pitched up about an hour before the doors opened and already the queue was impressive: as was the police presence. This was a new experience for most of the lads, but it was old hat for me. From the age of six I had been turning up at football grounds hours before the kick off to make sure I didn’t have to suffer the misery of seeing the gates closed in my face.
What were my politics? I had none. I merely had a whole lot of completely different experiences, none of which seemed to fit into a coherent whole. My life had become a chaotic mess of jigsaw pieces and they showed no signs of ever being slotted together. I had absorbed plenty of the propaganda of the time, and there certainly was plenty of it to absorb. Those were the days of the Cold War and Trade Union Power and the IRA. The Sovs had stormed into
Afghanistan, the Unions had all but shut the
country down a year earlier and the
had recently atomised eighteen Paras at Warrenpoint. Every day we were told
about all of the Bogeymen who threatened everyone and everything. The Red Peril
from Provos .
The Reds under the bed at home. And the Irish nutters across the water. Did I
believe it? Not really. Lots of different voices had already made me doubt
almost everything that I had been told. Graham Greene, John Le Carre, Martin
Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi, Joe Strummer. And more than everything else, I had a
nagging gnawing guilt that all of the starvation and savagery I had laid eyes
on in Moscow Africa was pretty well all down to us. Our
greed. Our violence. Our robber baron instincts.
It all made the picture postcard smugness of
seem like a
screaming lie. And now here was the prospect of watching one of the greatest
bogeymen of them all in the flesh. In 1980, the media left nobody in any doubt
about Anthony Wedgewood Benn. He was Cambridge ’s
man. He was a threat. He was a fifth columnist. He was the man who would
welcome the Red Army’s T62 tanks with open arms when they rumbled into Moscow Trafalgar Square.
He was the man who would light a flare to guide the Spetsnaz paratroopers onto
the roof of . There were many
hints and suggestions that he was basically insane and the best thing for
everyone would be for him to be locked away in Broadmoor for ever and ever. Buckingham
All of this of course made the prospect of seeing what he as actually like absolutely unmissable. The atmosphere inside the Union that night was uncannily similar to a
Liverpool v Man
United game. Lines were drawn. Hostilities were huge. A fight was always a
matter of seconds away. Everyone was in uniform. The Reds wore old overcoats
and second hand granddad shirts and free Mandela T shirts. The Blues were clad
in cord trousers and checked shirts and Harris Tweed jackets. Those were the
days were lines were always clearly drawn. Punks and Rockers. Workers and bosses.
Socialists and Capitalists. Ban the bomb or bless the bomb. Those were the days
when street riots were a weekly occurrence. The evening news would not be the
evening news if it didn’t carry pictures of lines of policemen stretching and
straining against mobs of angry guys with perms, donkey jackets and long
And most of the papers were in agreement that the main man behind the bottle throwing street mobs was none other that the right honourable Anthony Wedgewood Benn.
At the appointed time the gladiators appeared and the electricity cracked around the venerable old hall. It was two a side. In the Blue corner, Keith Joseph and a tweedy looking lad with thinning hair and the look of someone who was heir to half of Buckinghamshire. In the Red corner, Tony and a lad in a combat jacket complete with a CND badge.
The rules of engagement were laid out by the Chair who also encouraged the audience to try to be civilised. Then it was time to kick off proceedings. I cannot for the life of me remember the topic of the debate. No doubt it revolved around the rights and wrongs of one of Maggie’s flagship policies. I remember being somewhat in awe of the lad who was first up to speak. Christ, he must have been laying eggs. This was the student of the left and to my eyes he made a hell of a start. I very much doubted that I would have been able to remember how to open my mouth and speak had I been in his shoes. The three debaters who were waiting their turn were seated in well worn
style leather seats and all of a sudden Keith Joseph started thumping his hand
on the chair arm. It wasn’t loud enough for anyone to be able to say anything, but it
was a country mile louder than a gentle tap. It sent out a message to the
gallant young speaker. As in, just who the hell do you think you are you
horrible little toe-rag? All the while he wore a small smile of dismissive
disdain. The thumping Tory hand was more than enough to throw the lad
completely off his stride and when he sat down, he had the look of someone
yearning for the ground to open up and swallow him. Tony gave him an avuncular
pat on the back. Been there. Done that. It’s a dirty, dirty business but when
you have experienced the stomach churning terror of flying combat missions
against the Luftwaffe, it doesn’t seem quite so bad. Chesterfield
Next came the student in tweed. He was word perfect, polished and utterly machine-like: an advert for what a £10,000 a term education churns out. The Blues roared and the Reds jeered when he was done.
And then Sir Keith took centre stage. He was groomed and fluent and flaunted a brain that was razor sharp and then some. He was pitch perfect and super smooth and at the end of his speech the Blues tried to take the roof off whilst the Reds hissed out their loathing. For a moment he stood stock still and absorbed it all. You could tell that he relished the hatred every bit as much as the adulation. Here was the embodiment of the British Establishment, soaking it up in the very heart of the British Establishment. A knight of the Realm. A Tory Grandee. A man who’s life long mission was to keep a thumb on the heads of the masses. I couldn’t stop thinking about a line from John Cooper Clarke’s epic song ‘
a ballad to the tragedy of the terraces of the North.
‘Keith Joseph smiles and a baby dies in a box on
And then it was time for Tony. He was immediately different from Keith Joseph in every respect. He wasn’t remotely wired. Listening to him was as comfortable as donning a pair of favourite slippers. And Christ he was funny. It took him under five minutes to have the whole hall eating out of his hand. And for twenty minutes or so, everything made absolute sense. When he was done the Reds cheered. And the Blues cheered. Everyone cheered. Everyone except Sir Keith and the heir to half of Buckinghamshire.
Simple. We all knew we had been privileged to spend time in the company of someone who was genuinely special. His sheer unrelenting warmth and humanity shone through. Some people pretend to care. Some people genuinely DO care, and Tony was such a person in every respect.
After that night, I always fumed at the malignant spite the media threw at him for year after year until the Establishment found a safe pair of Labour hands in the form of Tony Blair and then it was deemed safe to turn Tony into a National Treasure.
And now he is gone and he will be very greatly missed. Leaders like Tony Benn are as rare as Giant Pandas. What would
like now had Tony Benn led us through the wild years of the 1980’s instead of
the Iron Lady? Would the bankers have been allowed to crash the economy? Would
millions be reduced to near slavery on zero hour contracts? Would the poor be
hammered into the ground by the media and the Welfare Reforms? Would we be
mourning hundreds of young soldiers sacrificed in illegal wars? Britain
I doubt it.
Maybe under Tony’s stewardship,
might have evolved into
something like the Scandinavian countries we now admire so much. But he didn’t
and we didn’t and we are where we are. Britain
I am simply glad to have had the chance to see him in action all those years ago when the world was a very different place. I sometimes wonder whether it was Tony who set me out on the path I have taken these last 33 years. Maybe without his guidance I might have sold my soul for the big bucks the City was offering to anyone emerging from
back then. No books written and no
charity managed. Instead a house in Cambridge Surrey
and a bank account full of bold, black numbers. And lots of noughts! But Tony
was right. Selling out your soul for a few lousy quid is never a smart play. So
thanks for that Tony. I hope you are now in a place where the Establishment
allow you a level playing field.
I’ll finish off with a quote from Mahatma Ghandi which appears on the ‘Wings over
website. It seems more or less completely right. Scotland
"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they come to fight you, and then you win."