News broadcasts in the UK today have included the news of the death of Tony Benn, the former Labour politician, and plenty of people have been paying tribute to him and to his long and illustrious parliamentary career as well as his subsequent career as an activist, writer and public speaker. Appreciations of him have come from former colleagues, friends and even those who, in political terms at least, were his enemies.
Being a member of my parents’ generation, Tony Benn was already an established part of the British political scene long before I began to take an interest in it. In my younger days, his brand of socialism had little appeal for me. Although not a natural conservative, I was also sceptical about many Labour policies and approaches to life. And of all the mainstream Labour politicians, especially those who made it to ministerial rank, he symbolised (to me at least) the hard-core left of the party.
Nevertheless, it clearly came across that even his political opponents had a tremendous respect for the man. He gained a reputation for clear thinking and clear speech. But what came across most clearly was that he believed every word he spoke. Indeed, he is on record as saying that he would never say anything he didn’t believe. In a context renowned for individuals telling others what they want to hear, Tony Benn stood out for never trimming his sails to the wind. He spoke without fear or favour. And his words were backed up by his actions as he laid aside many of the trappings of his privileged upbringing and background in order to serve the cause of others.
Tony Benn himself acknowledged that his thinking and activity owed much to his mother and the radical Christianity she taught him from an early age. For her, it was the prophets of the Bible rather than the kings and the powerful who were important. Kings always pursued power whereas prophets acted righteously. And these were the values that drove not only Benn’s career but his life.
In time, I came to respect Tony Benn as well. I didn’t always agree with his politics but his character was admirable. And as I get older, I find myself perhaps rather more in tune with his vision than I once was – the search for a fairer society where people care for each other and where abilities and resources are used for the common good rather than the benefit of the few.
In this season of Lent I am reflecting not just on my own spiritual discipline, but on what God requires of us in the way of righteousness, that is our social relationships with others in all sorts of aspects. How do we care for the weak and vulnerable? What practical steps can we take? How can we ensure a greater degree of justice and fairness in society? How does this impact on our economic relationships?
And I pray that I, like Tony Benn, might be known as a person of integrity whose thinking, speaking and doing are consistent with one another.
So today I thank God for Tony Benn and pray that he might rest in peace.