Jackie, George, Tony Benn and Me

by Ray_North on March 15, 2014

Unknown-2It must have been the spring of 1991. We were counting down to graduation. Our finals were a matter of weeks away and we were already starting to think of life after University, life after education, life as an adult.

And it was scary.

We had grown up in the Thatcher years – the ethos of the 80s had been greed and privatisation and cuts and low taxes for the rich and an undisguised scorn for anything provided by the state. That was the reality of the big bad world that was waiting for us.

We used to get quite a few visiting politicians at the LSE. And occasionally we’d go and listen to them. Funny, I can’t remember any of them now. Not a single one and not a single message that they tried to convey.

Except one.

Tony Benn.

He was a guest speaker in the Spring of 1991, and George, Jackie and I dutifully turned up to listen to him. We were in one of the big lecture rooms rather than the more famous Old Theatre. It was full. Students sat on the floor and on desks, their bags and books draped around them.

He stood up without much fanfare and spoke to us for an hour. I say speak – it was more than that, he inspired us for an hour. He enthused us with a sense of belonging, a message of hope.

The ethos of the individual being the only important thing is wrong he told us. The economics of simple privatisation and unchecked capitalism was flawed he said. A political theory without any notion of people and society would always lead to inequality and waste. He poured scorn on the idea that innovation could only occur within an purely capitalist Thatcherite economy and reminded us of the massive progress that had been made under the Labour government of the 1940s when the idea of state and society and equality and everyone working together were at the fore.

We loved it. We clapped and cheered when he sat down and Jackie went up and asked him to sign his diaries and we had a brief word with the man. And even in the quick conversation we had afterwards it was clear that this was a man who had believed every word he had said to us, every single word, this was not a politician who was posturing or lying or playing to the crowd this was a man who had true convictions.

And how right he was.

We all graduated a few months later. We went out into a world where the economy continued to be dominated by the notion that the individual was more important than the collective, where private capital was more important than the state, where the rich should be encouraged to become richer in the hope that some of it might trickle down. Until we have now reached a period in our history where inequality and poverty are more profound than ever before.

Perhaps we should have all listened to Tony Benn a bit more carefully.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Killingworth March 15, 2014 at 9:30 am

Indeed. I don’t have a Tony Benn memory (well, actually, I do: I was a Labour councillor in London at the time Ted Knight was taking Lambeth’s Labour group over the edge by refusing to set a budget – a colleague wrote to Benn who replied that Labour councillors should stay within the law) so here’s my archetypical Thatcherism anecdote.

It’s about 1986 and my kids, then 5 and 4 (or so) had had their week-end with me and we were on our way on Sunday lunchtime to meet their mother at the Hackney Trades Club of which we were members. My son found a £20 note lying in Dalston Lane. After I’d gotten over my shock, I suggested we put it in the charity box. Both son and daughter looked at me as though I was the biggest idiot in town. Ah, Thatcherism…


George_East March 15, 2014 at 11:35 am

Yes – one of the best and most inspiring political speakers I’ve ever heard. Puts the current crop to shame.


Fionauk512 March 15, 2014 at 12:31 pm

I never met him, but admired his strength of character and principles. I listened to him in the Leftfield. He spoke about things that mattered not with a view to a sound bite or some faux concern designed to provide some media face. For me the country feels the poorer for his passing and I was taken aback by how emotional I felt at the news of his death. I went to teach my first lesson of the day , discussing ideas of social justice and democratic processes with a lump in my throat and the weight of his words on democracy seemingly hanging in the air, albeit unbeknownst to the pupils. Some lessons stay with you, and that will be one.

His kindness has been widely reported and my partner who did meet him once talked with him about me and how angry I was with a certain public figure who had insulted Teaching Asistants by some crass, unthinking remark in the press. He gave him a note to give me which just said. ‘For Fiona in peace’. I still have it.


Eddie Kaye March 15, 2014 at 12:59 pm

I concur. I never met the man, but saw him speak once. He held the room like no orator I saw before or since.


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