Saturday, 15 March 2014

Farewell Tony Benn: did you know that you had me leading a mob for about 15 minutes? I didn’t like it one little bit.

So requiem in pace Anthony Wedgwood Benn, aka Tony Benn, everyone’s all-round good guy, pipe smoker, vegetarian, teetotaller and born-again lefty. Actually, that last might be a tad unfair, but he did seem to drift further to the left as his career progressed.

To be honest I thought he had a tendency to waffle a bit, but in the list of political sins, that comes in at a lowly 192nd and in comparison with the other sins is eminently forgivable. I can boast two slightly tenuous connections.

The second was in 1980 or 1981 when I was working as a sub-editor on the Birmingham Evening Mail. When someone left, usually heading for what was then known as Fleet Street because all the national papers still
had their offices there or nearby, he or she would have a ‘leaving do’ and when one such leaving do was announced, I thought it would be a good idea to invite the Queen, the then prime minister and Tony Benn along. So I sent all three an invitation.

I didn’t, of course, expect any other them to accept, but I reckoned it would be a good wheeze to read out their apologies for not being able to attend at the do, as in ‘the Queen is sorry to say she can’t attend tonight, but wishes you all the best in your future career’.

After sending the invitations I received, in due course and as I hoped, letters thanking me for the invitation but, regretfully, turning it down from Buckingham Palace (‘Her Majesty the Queen has commanded me to thank you for ...’) and from some flunkey at No 10 Downing St.

But I didn’t hear from Tony Benn, not at least for several months. I then received a handwritten note along the lines of ‘Dear Patrick, thank you so much for your kind invitation and please forgive me for taking so long to reply. By now the event will have passed, but I hope you all had a good time and your colleague was given a good send-off’. The note was signed ‘Cheers, Tony’. I was rather impressed that he could be bothered to write a personal note.

A lot has been said in his praise since he popped his clogs a day or two ago and I should like to add that he was mercifully a lot less phoney than some politicians. But now to my first tenuous connection.

. . .

Tony Benn began life as the 2nd Viscount Stansgate, but I should swiftly explain that he wasn’t from some ancient noble family as readers of this blog in Arkansas and San Diego might assume. His father, also an MP, was created the 1st Viscount Stansgate by the post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee because it was short of peers for the House of Lords (Britain’s second chamber) and in those days so-called ‘life peers’ weren’t yet created. So Benn’s dad received a hereditary title and Benn inherited it when his father died. He was by this time also an MP, but as ‘nobles’ couldn’t sit in the House of Commons, he resigned his seat. There then followed a legal battle in which he finally won the right to relinquish his title and as Anthony Wedgwood Benn - no hyphen - he was re-elected to the Commons.

At the time Labour were in power with Harold Wilson as prime minister and as well as doing some good things, establishing a lot more universities being one, they were also making a pig’s ear of other matters and weren’t universally popular. This was also the era of Sixties student politics when being ‘working class’ became very trendy (after several decades of everyone trying to emulate ‘their betters’ and sound ‘posh’, they now tried to do the opposite) and Labour were thought not to be left-wing enough.

One particular gripe was that the government was trying to get rid of the ‘pirate radio’ ships in the English channel - Radio Caroline and, I think, Radio London were two - which did a very good job in making the BBC sound fusty and ante-deluvian - and the then Anthony Wedgwood Benn, as Postmaster General, was the minister in charge of dealing with them. So he wasn’t very popular with young folk and most certainly didn’t have the lefty appeal of his later years.

I was studying at Dundee University and at one point, it was 1970 I think, Benn was due to come to the university and give a speech. This was due to be held in the big lecture hall of the newly built Department of Social Sciences and Letters (‘social sciences’ were the new thing then). And for whatever reason I suggested to my friends that we should hold a demo during his speech. The odd thing was that I was not in the slightest bit political, had nothing against Benn and merely thought it would be a great way to have a laugh.

So about 20 of us went along and sat in the row right at the back looking down on Benn at the podium and began chanting Give Peace A Chance. The Vietnam War was at its height and although Labour and Harold Wilson had very wisely indeed turned down the US’s invitation to get involved, they were still, somehow, thought to be responsible and culpable. I seem to remember that our chanting and demo caused such a racket that Benn had to abandon his speech, but I really wouldn’t swear to it.

What is more pertinent is that our gang of demonstrators of which I was the acknowledged ring leader then retired to the students’ union, and this is where it all got very odd indeed. For the initial group of 20 or so had by
now swelled as word got around of what we had done and what was until then just group of good-natured young men who were just having a laugh quickly - surprisingly quickly - changed into a mob baying for trouble and blood.

It was utterly bizarre. It was as though the mob, because it was most certainly a mob by this time, had taken on a personality of its own, and a very frightening personality is was. What can we do now, they were asking each other, and they didn’t need a cause or reason to do anything, all they wanted to do was cause trouble and disruption. And, dear reader, I who had initially set the ball rolling, wanted nothing to do with it, so I made my excuses, as we say, and left.

As it turned out the mob did nothing because whereas until then they had someone taking charge - me - they now had no one and (as I have learnt since in other ways, such as organising a weekly five-a-side football match) without a leader of some kind almost all folk are curiously helpless if not dealing with their own private affairs and very quickly revert to being the sheep they are 99pc of the time.

So there you have it: I was once a rabble-rouser, although I stress that I was a very reluctant one. Not that Tony Benn, who later sent me that polite note, knew.

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