I once asked my mum why she disliked Tony Benn, since their politics were so similar. She said it was more that she didn't trust him. I sort of know what she meant. His life appeared to be a series of happenings without much connection. The spitfire pilot. The go-ahead technocrat and arch Labour moderniser. The man who cast aside the trappings of aristocracy for the mantle of the diggers. The socialist insurgent. The wandering prophet, very much appreciated in his own church halls and community centres. It looked from the outside like a bundle of random identities and sometimes it made him seem like a high-minded neo-Victorian version of Timothy Leary, with tea instead of acid. There's also a latent 'Ballardian version' of his life: the rogue pilot with a vision for humanity. Set the controls for the heart of the sun.
Look at it harder and it begins to make sense. It's absolutely in line with a certain strand of modern British history that an ex-RAF officer should take an enthusiasm for technology into government. And while it might be unusual that someone should be turned from being 'on the right of the middle of the road' into a socialist by his experience as a Labour minister, it's certainly not in any way bonkers. It is in fact entirely logical if you start from the point that humanity will embed socialism through the enlightened application of technological change and then try and manage the process within the existing economic system – assuming the Socialism bit remains important to you. And while, to my mind, old Tony wasn't the most appealing spokesman for a combination of political libertarianism and hard socialist economics, I didn't notice anyone else with anywhere near his prominence putting that view forward. Which is a shame, because Bread and Roses, in some combination, is what the left should generally be after.
Counterfactual: If Benn's politics had stayed as they were in the fifties and sixties, he'd probably have gone over to the SDP, and maybe would have ended his life wincing and sniggering along with all the current outrages. Or maybe he'd have just keeled over after sucking in the pelf from various directories and consultancies. Instead, he used his generous pension and the proceeds from books he wrote himself to go round the place with a megaphone raising hell, or at least passionate applause among the earnest and herbivorous. This is at some level how we think a retired politician should behave. It's on the right side of the distinction between a politician in a democracy and a democratic politician. It's why he was generally popular and drew so many tributes from his political enemies. He lived a better life than they live, or intend to live. He saved them the trouble.
It helped that he could be right. I saw a clip of him on Channel 4 just now saying that as a minister he had tried hard to make capitalism work in a way that delivered economic justice, but came to realise that it could not, because it depended on injustice. And now here we have a government that is almost entirely based on the premise that expanding injustice is necessary for the benefit of capital and that, anyway, most people don't really deserve justice. It may be that people's sense of justice isn't particularly strong in matters unrelated to their own immediate interests. But we just lost someone who wanted to make it stronger and did his best to try and make that happen.