Tony Benn met Mahatma Gandhi when he was 12, knew and defended Nelson Mandela when the embrace of the anti-apartheid struggle was seen as a radical act, began his fifty years of service in the British Parliament when Winston Churchill was the leader of the conservative opposition and left after Tony Blair became prime minister, renounced his inherited title as the 2nd Viscount Stansgate so that he could continue to serve in the people's parliament (declaring “I am not a reluctant peer but a persistent commoner”), ushered in a new age of popular communications and connectivity as Britain’s pioneering Minister of Technology in the 1960s and 1970s, championed cooperatives and worker ownership as Britain’s Minister of Industry in the 1970s, battled not just Margaret Thatcher but the compromising leaders of his own Labour Party on behalf of the working class in the 1980s and finished his almost 60 years of public life as an international leader of the opposition to the wars of whim and folly that have stolen so much of the promise of our time.
Benn was a proud radical, an anti-colonialist, a socialist without apology and the inspiration for generations of activists, organizers, parliamentarians, presidents and prime ministers around the world—including the current leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, who responded to Benn’s death Friday at age 88 with mourning for the loss of an “iconic figure of our age.”
Yet, across the quarter-century that I knew him, Benn identified most proudly as a small “d” democrat, a tireless promoter of a power-to-the-people ethic that placed its faith in the great mass of humanity rather than billionaires, media moguls and political powerbrokers.
The last time that Tony and I appeared together at a public event—a symposium in London put on by Britain’s brilliant Campaign for Press and Broadcast Freedom that recalled his famous declaration that “broadcasting is really too important to be left to the broadcasters”—he reminded me of his belief that those in positions of economic, social and political power should always be asked five questions:
“What power have you got?”
“Where did you get it from?”
“In whose interests do you use it?”
“To whom are you accountable?”
“How do we get rid of you?”
Benn asked these questions everywhere he went. I saw him write them on the chalkboards of classrooms and lecture halls. I heard him repeat them at rallies, protests and marches.
I think his favorite of the questions—as a political figure who delighted the give and take of campaigning, the debates, the canvasses, the counts in his initial constituency of Bristol South East and in the historic mining constituency of Chesterfield that he represented in the final decades of his remarkable career—was: “How do we get rid of you?”