Thought for the Day - 15/03/2014 - Brian Draper

As soon my friend heard the news about Tony Benn yesterday, he was on the phone to me, sharing contagiously how he’d seen the politician live, at the Tolpuddle Festival, and how his whole talk had been based on that great Biblical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

It was Harold Wilson who said that the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than to Marx, but in returning every year as he did so faithfully to Tolpuddle, Tony Benn affirmed his own great admiration both for the workers movement itself that began there, and the roots it had so firmly planted in Christian non-conformism. “I was brought up on the Bible,” he once told Third Way magazine, “and I regard Jesus as my teacher.”

This, from a man who was constantly out among the people, in places such as Tolpuddle. “Like John Wesley,” he once said, tellingly, “I just do meetings.”

And surely it was this kind of personal affinity which gave resonance to the words of this already eloquent orator. That, and the conviction that his actions should speak even louder than any fine words. “I’d be [most] ashamed,” he told Jim Naughty in a recent interview, “if I ever thought I’d said anything I didn’t believe in, to get on personally.” Behold, perhaps, the lamentably rare voice of integrity.

That his was also a voice which issued, in the end, from beyond the mainstream of politics, was in part at least because he loved to listen most to the very voices he found there - to black voices, women’s voices, gay voices, as well as to so many ordinary constituents. A voice of one crying in the latter-day political wilderness, without doubt; but for Tam Dalyell yesterday, there was something positively Biblical about this: “Prophets were educators,” he observed on this programme, “kings were those who had power; and Tony Benn was definitely a prophet.”

His words, not mine, and they don’t make him a saint, of course - more of a pain, in the traditional prophetic sense; but certainly, his well-documented passion was in representing people, not using politics to manage them.

After a standing ovation back at that Tolpuddle festival, a lengthy queue of well-wishers waited patiently in the sunshine for their turn to remind the speaker where they’d previously and personally encountered him, and remarkably, I’m told by the friend who sat close by listening, Tony Benn could place every one of them.

On this programme yesterday, we heard Tony Benn himself say, ”If I had an epitaph, I would like it to be, ‘He encouraged us.’ Such a simple hope, in the end - but inspiring in itself, from a man who tried to give people a voice, through the gift of his own.

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