For nearly a century, Labour MPs have been going to Parliament to change the world, but have ended up changing only themselves. Tony Benn is unique. He went to Parliament to change himself, but has ended up determined only to change the world. This extraordinary conversion has taken place not on the backbenches, where a young socialist’s revolutionary determination is often toughened by being passed over for high office, but in high office itself. Indeed, the higher the office Tony Benn occupied, the more his eyes were opened to the horror of capitalist society, and to the impotence of socialists in high office to change it.
And in his book, The Vote:
Any workers fighting redundancy, any school standing up for the comprehensive system, any persecuted foreigner seeking asylum could rely on his active support. Again and again, he deliberately abandoned his base in Parliament and worked among those who, he hoped and believed, would one day trigger a new Chartist agitation, and a revolution from below.
In 1999, after two years of the Blair Government, he made a historic announcement: he would not be standing for Parliament in the 2001 general election. He would be leaving Parliament 'in order to devote more time to politics'. His own enormous experience in the highest places in the land drove him to the conclusion that the place to fight was in the lowest: that any future for an egalitarian socialist society rested not on what happened in Parliament but on the resistance and determination of the workers and the poor.
Despite his age and the cruel death from cancer of his wife, he continued resolutely down the path he had set himself: to argue and agitate for change from below.