LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE (Lyttleton Theatre, London)

poster

Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play was part of the great rediscovery of the English Revolution. Nearly a century ago Edouard Bernstein thought it worthy of wider understanding among German socialists. From the 1930s historians like David Petegorsky, Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton unearthed the deeds and words of the common people who had ‘turned the world upside down’. Their wartime generation faced a supreme crisis in 1940 and found inspiration from a forgotten English tradition.

Levellers in our time

The post-war generation revived interest in the Levellers, Diggers and others who had struggled to find a democratic and egalitarian way ahead in 1649. Appropriately, a great outburst of pamphlets and events greeted the 350th anniversary of the last stand of the Levellers at Burford and the Putney Debates (convened by the Parliamentary Army Heads after Charles Stuart’s final defeat). BBC Radio 3 broadcast the Debates in 2008, Light Shining was revived by the Arcola Theatre in 2010, 2012 brought to the Hampstead Theatre Howard Brenton’s 55 Days brilliantly juxtaposing Oliver Cromwell’s revolutionary will and Charles’s fatuous arrogance. In 2015 the Levellers’ Association celebrated the 400th birthday of the Leveller John Lilburne. Burford’s Levellers’ Day is alive and well, right in David Cameron’s back yard.

Churchill’s play begins with the common people, then turns epic, as Cromwell presides over a generous exposition of key moments in the Putney Debates which occupied several days in late 1648. She boldly uses the protagonists’ own words which in their dramatic impact surpass the words of any playwright. Cromwell’s great foresight in calling for minutes preserved them, notably Colonel Rainsborough’s famous outburst ‘…the poorest he that is in England has a life to live, as the greatest he’. Taken with records of Charles Stuart at his trial and execution a few weeks later we have contemporary expressions from both sides in the first modern revolution.

 

Mental horizons

The second half belongs to the common people. We see Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers setting up utopian communes. Their settlement at St. George’s Hill, Surrey was a political fact. Here the dramatist reaches beyond the records for her characters are mostly fictitious. At Putney, Rainsborough, Edward Sexby (an Army Agitator, or shop steward) and others had called unavailingly for male suffrage. By showing the propertied class crushing the Diggers, Churchill skilfully illustrates that without it there can only be economic continuity. Sadly, we know more of the deeds of these people than we do of their words. In imagining them, Churchill avoids the kind of mistake Shaw would have made, remembering that this is 1648-9. Characters may be creating the modern world but they inhabit a universe bounded by Christian thought. Might a heavenly king might be defeated and deposed like an earthly one? They could not say so. Instead, the Revolution unleashed Millenarianism – anticipation of the Second Coming. As illustrated in Ben Wheatley’s recent film A Field in England (2012), the Left Wing of the Revolution looks superstitiously backwards as well as radically forwards.

England’s Robespierre

Churchill (like Geoffrey Robertson and John Rees in the excellent programme notes) reminds us that even the most radical wing of the revolution did not advocate women’s emancipation. Early on we meet a woman preacher who inspires fear among the common people; later an imagined female character challenges the Diggers’ male-centric universe in words and behaviour. Churchill is also one of many playwrights depicting a stage Cromwell. This complex man is shown attending to the debates with the utmost seriousness, as indeed he did. He was the English Robespierre, recently voted the greatest Englishman. He is a year away from a brutal Irish campaign. We know that he will bloodily crush the Levellers within six months, yet here – surely accurately – we see a revolutionary leader, capable of the boldest deeds yet consulting widely (in his view seeking the Will of Providence) when unsure of the way. 55 Days (another play that hopefully will also be periodically revived) brilliantly explored the paradox of revolution: you have to do the unthinkable to show the future what is possible. In May 2015, after an election chucked away by timidity and lack of vision Churchill’s play reminds us that England too can be radical and that history turns the page on even the blackest defeats.

 

 

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When Labour had an identity

IN REVIEW

NYE: THE POLITICAL LIFE OF ANEURIN BEVAN

By Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds (IB Tauris, 2015), 316 pp. ISBN 9 781780 762098

 

Towards the end of Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds new biography, we see Nye reflecting on the 1959 election defeat. His last Conference speech affirmed that the future belonged to Labour, a view none of today’s leadership candidates can confidently hold. The author, newly-elected MP for Torfaen, will have plenty of time in Opposition benches to reflect on these two polls, one from the dawn of consumerism, the other after years of austerity.

Outside Wales, Bevan is remembered only as founder of the NHS (not a bad monument!). His several biographers (including Michael Foot) diverge widely in their assessment. This dynamic man began as a miner but ambition and conviction speedily propelled him into local government and (aged just 32) into Parliament. For 30 years he was unmatched in combining authority in the House with compelling extra-parliamentary advocacy.

Bevan and Benn

Among modern Labour politicians only Tony Benn – from a very different background – excelled in both. Each was a man of power, though Benn had 11 years in Cabinet to Bevan’s six. Of the great socialist orators we cannot hear Hardie, MacLean or the young MacDonald. Bevan’s conference speeches and rally orations survive, most memorably his savage destruction of Eden’s reputation during the Suez fiasco.

These two contrasting individuals had something else in common.  They should both have become leaders of their party.  But Labour, conservative to its roots, fears brilliance.  Each of them, just by being there, provoked a coalition of mediocre bullies – many of them second-rate union leaders – to block their path.  This fear of charisma doomed Labour to a succession of Gaitskells and Kinnocks, leaders quite unable to assemble winning majorities.

Aneurin Bevan

Tony Benn smoking his iconic pipe in 1981

Lost Leaders

 

Eclectic Leftist

Ideologically Bevan was firmly on the Left. Nationalising the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy was a central conviction; his final illness removed him from the scene just as the dogmatic Gaitskell launched his attempt to delete Clause IV of the party’s then constitution. It is inconceivable that he would have joined in though Thomas-Symonds, who can seem uncomfortable with this, points out that he was a critic of ‘Morrisonian’ state corporations. Contrast his view of nuclear weapons. Though not a party to Attlee’s secret decision to build a ‘British’ bomb he saw them as sustaining British socialist influence in the world. One of the most moving passages of Foot’s book describes how Bevan turned devastatingly on the unilateralists – his own closest political friends – at the 1957 conference. Thomas-Symonds is more neutral.

This same mercurial figure was a well-known bon viveur with friends on the Right, a powerful journalist (though author only of one book, In Place of Fear), and unafraid to take Beaverbrook’s coin. He was briefly expelled from the Party for advocating a popular front and attempts were again made to get rid of him for factionalism in the 1950s. (In fact he was an incorrigible individualist; his failure to organise against a brutal Right demoralised his friends and the wider Left.) He was a serious internationalist, committed to freedom for the colonies even if it meant opposing his own party. Had he lived – he died as Deputy Leader – he might well have succeeded Gaitskell after the latter’s death in 1963 and led Labour to victory the following year (though Thomas-Symonds fairly observes that Harold Wilson might already have been better-placed to succeed).

But the NHS was his great achievement, and if we don’t get the passion with which he drove it through the parliamentary process we do get the pragmatism that finally allowed him to bring it off. What a colossal achievement it was to bring together the various health providers under one umbrella without compromising the basic principles the whole Attlee government was determined to incorporate. Facing appalling opposition from the BMA (which happily sees the world differently these days) he stuck to his last: it was a great triumph of political will. No Briton under 70 is not in his debt.

The editors might have helped the author, cutting out repetitions here and there. This Bevan is not the familiar one from newsreels or Michael Foot’s flawed romantic hero, but a pragmatic – even a diminished – Bevan. Certainly he was not the ‘intransigent ideologue’ of legend, but any observer, friendly or hostile, of Bevan’s career could only conclude that he was driven by conviction. Thirty years on, a party desperate for office traded its beliefs for office. It has just paid a heavy price. What withering scorn Nye would have hurled at it.

This is an edited version of a review that will appear in the June 2015 number of Labour Briefing.

 

BRECHT DE-FANGED

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Royal Opera House, Covent Garden)

March brings a Kurt Weill score with libretto by Bertolt Brecht, from 1930 Leipzig, just as the Weimar Republic started to die. London’s Royal Opera House (ROH) took 85 years to catch up with a rollocking modernist production supporting Jeremy Sams’ street-wise translation. Has it made up for lost time?

The opera might be considered a morality tale. Three crooks on the run found a settlement where anything goes: one, the widow (and brothel madam) Begbick, has seven ‘girls’ available.  Four Alaskan lumberjacks also arrive seeking a better life.  Given the location (‘Amerika’) this might be the Puritans’ ‘shining city on a hill’, the perfectible Susquehanna society of Southey and Coleridge, a socialist utopia.

But Brecht doesn’t do bromides.  At first the utopian project founders on its economic contradictions and an excess of rules (‘no happy songs after nine o’ clock’). One lumberjack, Jimmy McIntyre (Kurt Streit), becomes so disillusioned he calls for re-foundation of Mahagonny as a city of licence.  You can have your dream provided you can pay: it is a bourgeois republic of rights, a new Sodom where men find food, sex, fighting and drink.  The crooked accountant Fatty eats himself to death; Depression-era queues await Begbick’s girls; lumberjack Alaska Joe briefly tastes boxing glory before dying in a bare-knuckle fight.  The only two female ‘characters’ are Begbick (an underpowered Anne Sofie von Otter), a maker of markets and Jimmy’s girlfriend Jenny (Christine Rice), a woman on the make. The waitresses assisting Fatty’s gastro-suicide are in supportive roles.  Begbick’s other girls don’t even have names,

When free-spending Jimmy can’t pay his whisky bill, there’s a reckoning.  In court he finds Begbick presiding.  Earlier she took a bribe to acquit a murderer because no injured party had come forward to complain! But Jimmy is skint so gets blamed for crimes he has not committed.  Worse, for buying whisky without paying – his only property crime – he is condemned to death.  The law exists solely to ensure the process of exchange is unimpeded: justice itself is merely another traded commodity. The only capital crime is to lack the means of exchange. No one who has drunk with Jimmy now offers their own money to save him.  Jenny betrays him too and returns to whoring. A commentator sneers that the opera audience wouldn’t stump up either, and the Covent Garden cameras switch to the expensive stalls front row to underline the point. Jimmy gets the chair, his electrocuted body mangled like Christ’s on the cross.

The classically-trained Weill was not a musical revolutionary.  His slightly older contemporaries – Schoenberg, Bartok, Berg – all pushed the boundaries more.  Even Brecht smocked his conservatism. But Mahagonny brilliantly references a range of musical modes from Beethoven to jazz, anticipating his Hollywood years when he was a father of the musical.  His lyrical gifts are heard in Jenny’s haunting ‘O Moon of Alabama’. Weill and Brecht also produced the sung ballet The Seven Deadly Sins and The Threepenny Opera, debunking high culture and holding a mirror to the venal audience.  We don’t need to imagine them, only look at Georg Grosz’s Weimar caricatures. The Brownshirts demonstrating at Mahagonny’s premiere and disrupting later performances knew what was going on.  In 1933 Brecht and Weill (who was Jewish) left Germany just in time.

pillars-of-society-by-george-grosz

Georg Grosz, The Pillars of Society (1926)

Sometimes the ROH production of Mahagonny forces its audience to think, not wallow.  Begbick’s giant lorry is straight out of a Calais truck-park. Spun round it’s a nightclub where a virtuoso black pianist plays jazz.  Spun again it’s a brothel shuffling men queue for.  Clever graphics depict the stock market and a hurricane that menaces – but hilariously avoids – Mahagonny. The Jimmy/Jenny romance ends with his money and is barely redeemed.   But did the audience leave unsettled? Perhaps Mahagonny comes too early in Brecht’s career for this question, and it was after all a co-production. And in our era, when no-one at HSBC is to blame and we still haven’t sent any bankers to the chair, perhaps we are unshockable.  Our reality makes this dystopia tame, for all the jokes and virtuoso singing.

(This is an edited version of a review to appear in the April 2015 number of Labour Briefing)

Not exercise but pleasure

‘Innocent and healthy disciplines may degenerate into pure pleasure…’ (Iris Murdoch)

 

I stopped full-time work in January and was looking forward to daily swims at Park Road in its open-air swimming pool – the ‘lido’ – Olympic-sized and landscaped. Though heated, its ancient system often creaked; I have swum in 17 degrees on cold summer days. But there it was, every Summer.

In 2014 the new owners of this complex began an ambitious – and needed – refurbishment. They foolishly started lido works just before its traditional summer season. Closure then ran on and on, leaving outdoor swimmers either bereft or forced to use the (overheated) indoor pool half its size. I hate steamy, noisy indoor swimming but knew it was that or nothing. This compromise lasted until 12 September, when the indoor pool closed for its own upgrade. I gave up swimming in despair, hoping for a better 2015. Then the miracle: on 26 October the lido re-opened and we are promised it until indoor refurbishments are complete (target date January 2015).

At first the heating of the water had a limited impact. Swimming in 17 or 18 degrees is possible of course: hardy year-round swimmers keep going at much lower temperatures. But at that level swimming is slow and pleasure limited. It feels more like mere exercise. (I intend this phrase as an insult. The three physical exertions in my life – habitually fast walking, cycling, and outdoor swimming – are all aesthetic pursuits. If they make me fitter or slimmer, so much the better but my motive is outdoor enjoyment.) However in the second week of re-opening the water temperature began to climb, just as the air temperature began to fall. It now hovers around 20 degrees. As the sunny but chilly mid-November mornings began I saw what in a quarter of a century of lido swimming I had never seen: steam rising from the pool.

 

 

Steamy fantasiesunnamed

In her 1983 novel The Philosopher’s Pupil Iris Murdoch imagines an English town whose inhabitants are bonded by their common experience of outdoor swimming. Ennistone is a spa with warm springs feeding its Outdoor Bath (’said to be the largest outdoor swimming pool in Europe’) to 26-28 degrees all the year round. ‘Everybody swims’ from six-week babies to the aged who ‘swim, unashamed of their bodies, pot-bellied men and ancient wrinkled women’. These real swimmers are sniffy about the indoor bathers who use much hotter water. Because swimming is universal, the skins of Ennistone citizens have a perpetual healthy sheen.

Here in Hornsey we are near to two year-round open air swimming resources. Parliament Hill (on Hampstead Heath) boasts a huge lido utterly unheated. I revere its hardy regulars who will break ice to get into it for their daily watery fix. I can only admire the Winter patrons of the Highgate Ponds elsewhere on the Heath where I once swam in waters I subsequently found were 14 degrees. I haven’t been back.

In Hornsey our newly-available warm swimming water is engineered and hasn’t the fame of the Heath’s resources. But people are responding to the unfamiliar boon of outdoor winter swimming without the pain. True there are those who must thrash madly up and down but our spacious lido can accommodate them as well as those who insist, quite unnecessarily, on wearing wet suits. For the rest of us this aquatic heaven is a place for rhythmic movement, without pain, effortless and weightless under a blue November sky. We are the Chosen Ones who like Murdoch’s Outdoor Bathers can feel superior to the faint-hearts for whom it is indoor heated or nothing.

(600 words)

Martin Upham

 

THE JAMES PLAYS (Olivier Theatre, London) by Rona Munro.

 

James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock; James II: Day of the Innocents; James III: The True Mirror

Rona Munro’s epic survey of the reigns of three fifteenth century Stewart kings suggests a certain view of her country’s history and its peculiar identity. James I evolves from politically impotent poet to repressive king. As child and adolescent he is a prisoner of the English court, taunted by a thuggish Henry V for his peaceful ways. A lover of beauty and author of the celebrated The Kingis Quair, he recoils. Once on the throne, he discovers that only pitiless government is feasible: he must rule alone and harshly. This however provokes a violent reaction and his eventual murder by threatened nobles.

Enter James II, child-witness to the butchery of his father, pitched into kingship before his time, haunted by blood. This play pivots on the murders of two Earls of Douglas – Scotland’s second highest family. William the sixth earl is killed by regents in the king’s name: James does not instigate, but certainly acquiesces. When king in his own right he himself stabs William the eighth earl (a childhood friend) in full view of the Court. A curious feature of this, the least successful play, is that William provokes James to his own murder, clearly understanding that one of them must fall. By finally wielding the knife, James – a timid fearful figure – endorses this view of kingship. His act is explicitly blessed by the murdered 6th earl’s widow.

The real James II was blown up by one of his own cannon, another violent death – if accidental – heralding another minority ruler, the eight-year old James III. The first two Jameses act as tyrants after exhausting all other possibilities. James III asserts absolute right from the outset: he is indifferent to financial, political or moral constraints. Like his father and grandfather he is an aesthete – we see him luxuriating in music, appreciating poetry, yearning to build a cathedral, considering a pilgrimage. But he will not brook contradiction and this finally provokes a rebellion supported by his own son and death on the battlefield.

This third play is dramatically the most successful, perhaps because the plot turns not just on the personality of the king but also on that of his consort. Each James married a foreign princess – English, French, Danish. The first two do not appear as real players, but Margaret of Denmark was a highly political figure who probably delayed the final fatal uprising against her husband and ultimately secured the succession for her eldest son, the future James IV. It is Margaret who comes closest to drawing explicit political lessons from the impasse between feckless king and truculent nobles. ‘You’ve got fuck all except attitude’ she tells them.

Politically this is the most troubling aspect of the trilogy. The first two plays appear to suggest the only way to govern turbulent medieval Scotland was via a brutal tyranny. The king cannot be first among equals, whatever his nobles think. They are an unlovely lot who must be brought to recognise the royal will without driving them into rebellion.

It is further implied that a monarchy is intrinsic to Scotland’s identity. There is evidence for this in the country’s royalism during the 17th Commonwealth: Scots were prepared (like the medieval nobility) to resist a Stewart king but they rose against a republic, later restoring a Union of Crowns to England as well as Scotland. In the next century, restoration of the Stewart line was the only programme of the three Jacobite revolts. Come up to date and last month’s referendum campaign: only smaller parties advocated a republic. Perhaps this was not merely a tactic as some supposed?

The James Plays depict a distinct Scots identity that predates Union of Crown and Union. The historical Scotland was hard to govern, perhaps because the nobility (we scarcely see the common people) had an enhanced sense of right. Their monarch was ‘King of Scots’, very different from the English version resting on feudal landed right. One is left wondering how the Union has lasted as long as it has.

 

 

 

TONY BENN: will and testament

It’s hard not to be moved by the filmed tribute to Tony Benn premiered nationwide. We see the gaunt old man, facing up to his own end, mourning his lost wife Caroline, reflecting on a turbulent life that mingled great achievements and good fortune with a degree of public and personal hostility few politicians experience. Even the film reviews show these feelings are not yet dead. The source of such reactions lies in the quite recent past, but a past that has not yet found its historian. Today people can casually refer to the ‘Winter of Discontent’, a fertile myth that conveniently captures a certain view of the political world, consoling the intellectually lazy. They talk of how Neil Kinnock made Labour electable and attribute the 1997 election victory to New Labour. Such fantasies are like the work of a Tesco accountant only using black ink. To assess Tony Benn’s appeal you have to get beyond this sloppiness. Why did he face such hatred?

A generation born after World War Two came to adulthood and political awareness in the 1960s. The fortunate 10% of it that attended the universities – new or expanded in anticipation of their coming of age in greater numbers – probably reached the former later and the latter earlier. Those of us attracted to the Left perceived Antony Wedgwood Benn (as he then was known) as a figure embodying modernity, a characteristic he shared – less ambiguously – with Labour’s new prime minister Harold Wilson. As political understanding grew and Wilson became more right wing, so Benn’s reputation suffered on the emerging British Left. ‘Modernity = Socialism’ had lost its magic.

Heath’s unexpected victory of 1970 changed everything. Tony Benn perceived the widespread disillusionment with continuity politics and moved to express it. Such a trajectory was infeasible for the older Tribune Left which owed a primary loyalty to Michael Foot. This Left was primarily a parliamentary phenomenon. What distinguished Benn was his willingness to turn outwards and talk to excluded forces. The film features the UCS sit-in, a dramatic example to be sure, but actually only one of many. The 1970s were years of industrial and political struggle: two national miners’ strikes and, eventually, a 24-hour general strike called by the TUC. In Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon the engineering and transport unions had new leaders willing to countenance industrial action and apparently also content with parallel radicalism in the Labour Party.

Here we reach the first of our sources of opposition to Benn. Before the 1974 election he had industrial allies in seeking to radicalise Labour’s programme (and thus, it was hoped) the manifesto. But once Wilson’s frail second government was formed union leaders’ instincts were to sustain it. They were moreover of the same generation and outlook as Foot who, from 1974, was the most important government minister after Wilson. The 1975 referendum campaign obscured this fissure by briefly uniting the entire Left. After that, and with Benn demoted by Wilson, the fissure became a chasm.

The best way to track this would be to watch filmed records, if they existed, of the Tribune rallies at the Labour Conference. In 1975 both Benn (then Industry minister) and his Minister of State Eric Heffer the one obliquely, the other more directly, set a critical tone. But the platform also included government loyalists. The final speaker was Michael Foot, who spoke for almost an hour. It was dazzling oratory, but almost devoid of content save for one central idea: Labour must keep the power. When the same double acts were featured the following year, the critique of the Labour government (now headed by the egregious Jim Callaghan) was so much more marked that Jones was moved to storm onto the platform demanding the right to speak.

There is a direct line from this reaction to the role of the abstainers in Labour’s Deputy Leadership campaign of 1981. In their view Cabinet ministers were supposed to spend their time celebrating actual existing Labour government and not to point to what might be. This is ludicrous at any time. In the era of what became minority government and the 1976 intervention of the IMF to rewrite everyone’s election manifesto it was plain daft. The loyalist/abstentionist refusal to redefine the role of a Left that had stagnated since Bevan’s time is the first source of spite directed towards Tony Benn. Spiced with the envy of those who feared Benn blocked their path to the leadership, it became a poisonous brew.

He had polled well in the March leadership 1976 election to succeed Wilson, reflecting a growing popularity in the constituencies. The film is surprisingly silent on the struggle for democracy which convulsed the Labour Party in those years. Perhaps this may reflects a personal view of its significance in his life? In fact he had by the later 1970s become a unique figure by marrying authority in the party to advocacy outside it. There were wide disagreements on the content, even the need, for constitutional changes to the Party, but Benn’s growing authority allowed a movement to coalesce around a small number of demands. The general election defeat of 1979 unleashed union power against the new Conservative government, but it also unmuzzled Benn and his allies who now could hardly be accused of rocking a boat that had disappeared beneath the waves.

The period that followed, lasting from 1979 to about 1985 saw Tony Benn the object of public vituperation equalling, if not surpassing, that suffered by Bevan in the 1940s and 1950s, ironic since Foot had succeeded Callaghan as party leader. The 1981 defection of the Gang of Four removed Benn’s most honest opponents from Labour and followed speedily a conference decision to establish a new electoral college to the elect the leader. It was the enemies who did not defect who proved more dangerous. Foot was unopposed under the new system, but Benn stood for the Deputy Leader post. The Labour Right stopped at nothing, including electoral fraud, to gain the narrowest of victories for Denis Healey. In this contest the decisive role was played by 37 Labour MPs who abstained, too gutless to vote for Healey and too jealous to vote for Benn. At a rally that night Margaret Beckett acidly observed that in politics you have to choose. Naturally it was an abstainer who won the 1983 contest to succeed Foot as leader. Neil Kinnock, envious, evasive, mediocre, proved a catastrophic leader who masterminded two election defeats. Benn, who had lost his Bristol seat in the 1983 election rout, was ineligible.

This great exponent of parliamentary practice and upholder of parliamentary rights had eclipsed even Foot who by 1974 was exhausted and had only rhetorical tricks left. The paradox is that this combination of exploitation of parliamentary potential allied to external agitation actually drew large numbers into politics. It would be possible to write a history of the seventies and eighties which presents him as the saviour of parliamentary politics. Despite the (rather good) joke – we hear him repeat it in the film – about leaving Parliament to devote more time to politics, he was an outstanding parliamentarian. He was frequently denounced for undermining Parliament. This inaccurate view traduces his respect for the long suffrage struggle. What he had come to understand however was that only marginal change was possible in the absence of pressure from outside Westminster.

If his failure to play the parliamentary game motivated his many Labour enemies, there were social causes that extended beyond politics. Tony Benn was a patrician. He was, in the most accurate sense, a Labour aristocrat, the son of a Labour peer and grandson of a Liberal politician. National prominence first came to him via a battle to renounce his peerage – Hugh Gaitskell’s supportive statement is one of the many telling clips in the film. When victory was finally won and his election was recognised, his acceptance speech to the electors of Bristol south-east anticipated the politics of twenty years later: ‘you have defeated the Conservative cabinet…you have defeated the House of Lords…by your own power’.

To the Establishment such formulations smelled of trahaison des clercs. But the hostility went deeper. A radical odyssey, getting more left-wing rather than right wing through age, was not what was meant to happen. Labour could accommodate prophets, men of power, even those who moved from one role to the other. But here was a man whose early ambitions had been achieved more easily than most and could at any point have made his peace with the Establishment; he did not do so. Instead he used his prominence to feed a mass movement. To those whose idea of leadership consists in lowering expectations this was mere irresponsibility. We can see where this has led us by looking at Scotland and a Labour Party quite unable to explain how a social-democratic SNP has been able to do all things it said could not be done.

The final source of opposition to Tony Benn lay in objections to his use of history. As a Cabinet minister in the 1960s and (especially) the 1970s, he had to find a political language to communicate with an extra-parliamentary audience. The convention of Cabinet responsibility requires ministers to support, at least not to oppose, government policy. The trick therefore was to play a full and engaged part at the top table while encouraging those excluded from it, to continue to be a man of power while not confusing it with office. Churchill constantly brooded on comparisons – sometimes making them explicit – with earlier periods of British history. Trotsky was said by Lenin (who ought to know) to be constantly looking at his role in history.

Whether Tony Benn did the same I do not know, but he certainly knew enough to feed a mass movement with examples from the past. At the Durham Miners’ Gala, at Tolpuddle, at Burford he honoured the radical or socialist tradition. Sometimes merely turning up there and making a speech was enough but he went further. To hear him addressing the major rallies of the 1970s was to hear surveys of the Labour past pregnant with lessons. A new 1931 – a real danger both in 1968 and in 1976 – was a favourite but he could also be playful as when Andy Bevan, Labour’s young newly-appointed Trotskyist Youth Officer was told his inaugural address would have sounded to Stafford Cripps like that of ‘a vicar at a Fabian tea party’. He became a master of walking the fine line, outwitting – through sheer ability – those who sought to gag him.

These days everyone acknowledges that the political class is unrepresentative and out of touch. It would be nice if those who have since 1994 argued that the only possible Labour government is one which doesn’t do much showed a little humility. They might like to acknowledge that we have lost a rare politician who could get a hearing from ordinary folk in the age of the Westminster clone.