Tony Benn, the politician formerly known as 2nd Viscount Stansgate, died last week at the reasonably ripe age of 88. He was one of the last honest men in a country regarded by her foes as perfidious and by her own people as steadfast, and lately described by a Russian cad as “a small island that nobody pays any attention to.”
Twenty, thirty years ago, I used to shuttle a good deal between London and Rome. Arriving at Fiumicino and settling into a taxi, I invariably struck up a conversation with the driver that always ran along the same lines. “So, are there any honest men in Italian politics?” Without hesitation the driver would reply that no, there weren’t, and then, just as predictably, go on to postulate that this was a universal problem with politicians the world over: “They’re all crooks.” My trap never failed, because that was my cue to gloat: “In England we have some honest politicians.”
A tussle over terminology would ensue. “Honest? Like, how honest?” “Like,” I would say, twisting the knife in the driver’s neck, just about where he’d always have one of those massagey beady ruglike devices of vaguely Oriental provenance, “like, if I were going to jail, and had to leave all my worldly goods in somebody’s safekeeping, there are more than two people in Parliament I can think of who’d give my stuff back to me twenty years later.” Actually, I was fibbing about there being more than two. The two I had in mind were Norman Tebbit and Tony Benn.
Interestingly, because this gives an insight into what made England what England was, no wider partisan divide than the chasm between these two men can be imagined, even if one throws in Attila the Hun, Daughters of the American Revolution, the John Birch Society, Trotsky, Marcuse, and Hillary Clinton. And yet there they were, side by side in plain sight, two men of whom, whatever one’s political allegiances, it could never be said that they were crooks.
A Labour stalwart and sometime Cabinet minister, Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn – as he had been christened but refused to be styled – was a socialist. Scratch a socialist, and you will find a champagne socialist. Scratch a champagne socialist, and you will find a crook. Tony Benn was the kind of socialist who would not drink champagne so he could look at himself in the mirror and say: “I’m not a champagne socialist.”
I never met the man, and I regret it. I did once meet Norman Tebbit, in the lobby of a London gambling club, and rushed to help him on with his coat – to the irritation of the coatcheck girl, who figured my servile gesture would lose her the tip. “This is something I want to tell my grandchildren,” I explained. “How I once helped Norman Tebbit on with his coat.” She said she didn’t know the name.