From LSHG Newsletter 52 (Summer 2014)
With the funeral of Tony Benn he sadly himself starts to become part of history rather than an historical actor.
His Diaries will be an important historical resource. The eleven published volumes represent a fraction of his total archive. It is to be hoped that just as the papers of Mrs Thatcher are being deposited in an academic archive and made available on-line by the Thatcher Foundation, so Benn’s equally if not more important- not least for its longevity- documentation can be made accessible to the public in its entirety.
However Tony Benn was a rarity amongst modern politicians in that he also had a sense of history and specifically labour and democratic history.
Media commentary after his death suggested that he did not have a grasp of historical perspective when was a Labour Minister in the 1960s. Rather his experience of power led him to reflect on lessons that might be learnt from a study of the past.
Benn was not an historian, and nor did he claim to be.
He did not spend his time researching matters in archives or wondering if a study of history might throw up distinctly awkward questions for present practice.
He did understand the historical context he which he operated.
I’m grateful to Professor Owen Ashton, the Editor of the invaluable Merlin Press Chartist Studies series, for reminding me how much Benn focused on the Chartist movement.
Ashton argues that Benn was in the tradition of dissenting ‘Gentleman Leaders; who were radical ‘Friends of the People’. In the nineteenth century one might look to figures like Henry Hunt who spoke at Waterloo, William Cobbett and the great Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor who became MP for Nottingham, as broadly comparable figures.
Benn himself saw the Chartists in the context of a broad democratic heritage including the Peasants Revolt the English Revolution of the 1640s and the Suffragettes of the early years of the twentieth century. It was an historical list he often spoke about and recounted in a 1999 article for History Today
He became he a regular attender at the TUC’s Tolpuddle Festivals in July- he attended in 2013- and that was very much part of his awareness of labour history. He was also to be found often at the Durham miner’s gala for the same reason
His Diaries also contains several references to the Chartists. He wrote in 1981 about Paul Foot’s book Red Shelley and argued that Shelley’s influence on Chartism and the working class movement had been all but hidden.
More poignantly in his General Election defeat in Bristol in 1983, on changed constituency boundaries, he nevertheless paid tribute in his after poll speech to the Chartists and the suffragettes, who had fought for the democracy that had allowed him to stand.
Of course historians can argue that Benn’s understanding was too uncritical perhaps even to a degree hagiographic. Yet that itself misses the times in which Benn was active as a leader of the labour movement.
Very few other Labour MPs or Union leaders knew much if anything about labour history and even fewer made any reference to it when they spoke in public.
The importance of Tony Benn as an educator of the labour movement should not be overlooked. When he spoke at large public meetings and rallies about the Chartists or the Levellers he inspired numbers to go away and find out more about who those people were.
That is why it is so important that his papers are preserved and publicly accessible.