Tribute to Tony Benn in Parliament Today

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab):

Tony, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), founded the Socialist Campaign Group, of which I am the chair. I apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who cannot be here today because he is in Geneva as part of a human rights delegation.

Tony inspired my generation. We did not just respect him; as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover said, we loved the man. I want to go back to what my hon. Friend said about the longest suicide note in history, because it is interesting that it has come up time and again among the commemorations of the past week or so.

I want to go back not to the manifesto of 1983, but to Labour’s programme of 1982, which was the Bennite programme, and virtually all of it was written by Tony Benn. It is worth looking back at what it said. It was absolutely prophetic. It basically said, “We will create a society that is more democratic, more fair, more just and more equal.” How would we do it? Tony’s ideas in that programme were straightforward: we would undertake a fundamental, irreversible shift in the redistribution of wealth and power. How would we do that? Through a fair and just tax system, tackling tax evasion and tax avoidance, taking control of the Bank of England, preventing speculation in the City and the banks because it could be dangerous to our long-term economic health, and creating full employment. That is what he was about. That is what he inspired us to do.

It is interesting that he said we should invest in housing, health and education; give all young people the opportunity to stay on at school with an education maintenance allowance; and make sure that they had a guarantee of an apprenticeship or training and the opportunity to go to university, not by paying a fee but on a grant. That was his programme in 1982. It was prophetic and years in advance of its time. He said that what we needed to create the wealth was an industrial strategy—a manufacturing base based on new technology and skills. Actually, I remember him talking in one of his speeches about alternative energy sources, well in advance of the debate about climate change. The programme also included equal rights for women and for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

What else was he committed to? He lost a brother in the war, so he was committed to peace. And bravely, courageously, he called for inclusive talks in Northern Ireland—for everyone to get around the table to secure peace. He also said that we needed to control the arms trade and that no more arms should be sold to dictators in the middle east for them to use as weapons against their own people and to destabilise the region. Of course, he also argued for unilateral nuclear disarmament, which I continue to support and which remains a popular cause for many.

He was a European—sceptical about the European Union, but a true European. I found that inspiring. He inspired my generation and he inspired generations to come. What a world we would have created if we had listened to him. But more important, what a world we can create now if we listen to him.

Solidarity and go well, comrade. You made a significant contribution to all of our lives. I hope we will be able to implement the lessons you taught us, when Labour next gets back into power.

 


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