When my radio alarm clock woke me this morning, I was unsurprised but deeply saddened to hear of the death of Tony Benn.
I was 18 when I met Tony Benn for the first time. I stood up, nervously, to ask him a question at a fringe meeting at Labour Party conference in 1995. I asked him his views on Christian socialism. He gave a long and rather indirect answer, which mixed criticisms of the hierarchical nature of churches with appreciation of the teachings of Jesus.
He also said, “Of course, there are some Christians in the churches, just as there some socialists in the Labour Party.” It’s a sentence I’ve never forgotten.
Later in the conference, I queued up to ask him to sign my copy of his latest book. After signing it, he shook my hand, looked at me directly with his amazingly bright eyes and said “Look after yourshelf, Shymon”.
I met Tony Benn on another two occasions. The last time was when he spoke at the Yearly Meeting of British Quakers in 2011. He was very frail and hard of hearing but his handshake remained firm as I introduced myself as a news reporter for The Friend, the independent weekly Quaker magazine.
Tony Benn was not a Christian. Nor was he an atheist. Compared to many left-wing radicals, he was surprisingly positive about Christianity.
I dare say that most of Benn’s supporters are unaware that his mother, Margaret Benn, was the first president of the Congregational Federation, formed in 1972 by those Congregationalist churches that voted against merging with the Presbyterian Church of England to form the United Reformed Church.
In my late teens, I read one of Benn’s most famous books, Arguments for Socialism. In an early section on the history of British socialism, he portrays radical Christian movements in the middle ages and early modern times as forerunners of socialism.
There are some on the left who make these links but who suggest that such movements were not really Christian, that they simply used Christian terminology because they were familiar with it. Tony Benn never made that mistake. The book quotes the passionately Christian words of the fourteenth-century priest John Ball and the seventeenth-century activist Gerard Winstanley, showing how their Christian faith inspired their belief in sharing the world’s resources. Benn was similarly positive about radical Christian faith in countless other writings and speeches.
I thank God for Tony Benn. However, Benn would be the first to acknowledge that he is one among many. He refused to accept that change happens because of influential individuals, constantly reasserting his socialist conviction that only movements of ordinary people can really change things. I think this faith underscored all his other views – on peace, democracy and economics.
Tony Benn was a man who believed in people. It’s a rare thing in a cynical, celebrity-driven age. The best way to remember him is to show the faith that he showed in the power of justice working at the grassroots, whatever religion or theology we may (or may not) attach to it.