Or, Me vrs Tony Benn
Tony Benn is also known affectionately as "Wedgie" Benn, after his middle name, Wedgwood. He was the Labour Party's longest ever serving MP, though many in the hierarchy were glad to see the back of him. Many people, often regardless of political persuasion, admire him for his outspoken views and propensity to defy Party policy for what he thought was right.
He is certainly one of Britain's greatest orators, though only in the way successful magicians are able to distract an audience with an illusion. His arguments are usually well delivered and normally strike a chord with the audience. Yet he sometimes relies too much on panache and his own following to win an argument. The following was a true experience.
Last year (2003), at the University of York, Tony Benn came to give a Stop-the-War speech - essentially saying how the United States was evil and Tony Blair a fool for following George Bush. The first thing I noticed was, as previously mentioned, a lack of dates, figures, quotes, etc. He, like many good speakers do, read without notes but also without evidence. Second he took a call to C-SPAN in the middle of the presentation, which I thought demonstrated his desire to be in the lime-light. He had mentioned the impending call several times beforehand - he had never struck me as a modest sort of chap. Third he lit his pipe and smoked, despite the student "in charge" reminding him the hall was a non-smoking building. I thought this was very ironic, considering a few minutes earlier he had criticised the Americans for playing by a different set of rules than those they expected of other nations.
The final point is perhaps the most important. I asked him that if the conflict was merely about oil, as he had strenuously claimed throughout, then why did the US and UK not just do what they had done in the 1980s - snuggle up to Saddam Hussein and have him pump the oil out and lower the price. Certainly it would have been cheaper than the cost of the war, rebuilding and so forth. Then I mused if oil was at the heart of the matter, at least where France and Russia were concerned. He had built them up as moralistic opponents to the war, so I asked if their stake in the oil fields and debts with the Saddam regime might have influenced their positions?
He was quiet for a moment and gave me a rather nasty look (I was sitting near the front so I could see clearly). He then, unsurprisingly but still dissapointingly, ignored my question and (of course) had many of the mindless students assembled applauding loudly by the end of his point. But I was pleased that a humble person such as myself had made the "great" Tony Benn uncomfortable for even a short time. Or, I mused to myself, is he that "great"? An excellent orator discounts an opponent's argument before establishing his own. Those who ignore it are just politicians (or lawyers, of course - but so many politicians are). So I realised that he was just the same as those in Westminster and Washington DC whom he has always spat so much bile at. He just has a different doctrine. So next time you hear Tony Benn speak, ignore his verbal flourishes, his emphatic gestures and listen to what he's saying. Behind the magic, he's just an ordinary man with a lot of tired, irrelevant ideas.
Tony Benn's own story can be read in The Benn Diaries, 1940-90. The latest edition of his diaries, Free at Last!: Diaries,1991-2001, was released in October 2002. Reviews of both were inevitably mixed, many people feeling they were inaccurate and often smug. I reserve judgement as I have not read either (and do not intend to).
I would like to point out that I do not despise Tony Benn. I just wished to dispell the myth about him to the many, many non-British noders.