“I think I knew Tony Benn better than you. He would have been very sad to see a granddaughter who was once of the Left become a traitor to socialism family notwithstanding.”
“@Emily_Benn deserved it. Tony Benn was very proud of her feminism. It is good that he is no longer alive to see her.”
“If I had a son & a granddaughter that totally trashed my whole political-legacy, I’d do a bit of spinning too. Emily & Hilary Benn are a disgrace; standing on the shoulders of giants, pissing on the people that made him great.”
These are just a few of the tweets that came Emily Benn’s way last week. Emily stood for parliament in 2010 and was elected a councillor in 2013. She has been vocal critic of Corbyn’s stance on anti-Semitism in Labour. She is also Tony Benn’s grand-daughter. And Hilary Benn is her uncle.
Corbynistas feel that they have ownership of Tony Benn’s legacy, because Corbyn expresses in vulgarised terms the substance of Benn’s analysis of domestic and international affairs – patriotic nationalisation programmes at home, complemented by an ‘anti-fascist’ foreign policy abroad, dramatised in particular around the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Benn’s love of popular democracy and plans for the distribution of economic power were ideas that have an ancient place in England’s radical tradition – drawing on the 17th century Levellers, who advocated for common ownership of land, and the 19th century Chartists, who wanted to expand the franchise to working men. But this honourable tradition has mutated into Corbyn’s narrower creed – a distrust of international elites, often articulated in crude ‘greedy banker’ slogans. And Benn’s legitimate focus on the genuine injustice meted out to the populations of the West Bank and Gaza has been transformed into a picture of conflict in the Middle East that coagulates around an outsize caricature of Israel’s historical role and its historic links with American foreign policy.
I should say I have some personal stake in this. My great great grandfather was Sir Ernest Benn, brother to William Wedgwood Benn, Tony Benn’s father. When his brother Will joined the Labour Party, Ernest was so appalled that he told him to take a long cruise for his health – funnily enough, not all Benns think the same way. Ernest was a proto-libertarian. In the late 20s, he founded The Individualist Bookshop, which morphed into the Institute of Economic Affairs, the thinktank that did more than any other to illustrate and popularise Thatcherite ideals and policy-making.
In 1925, Ernest Benn wrote ‘The Confessions of a Capitalist’, a robust defence of laissez-faire capitalism, which was still in print twenty years later. Until his death in 1954, he wrote endless pamphlets excoriating ‘collectivist’ forces of all stripes. He had a zeal for politics that came from the same nonconformist source that owed so much to the strict personal morality of nineteenth century Methodism, and which is also reflected in his nephew Tony Benn’s illuminating comments on what he had learned from the Old Testament: “The bible is the story of the Kings who had power and the prophets who preached righteousness and she [my Mother] taught me to support the prophets and not the Kings.”
Quite apart from all that, Tony Benn’s view on Israel changed markedly over his lifetime. Towards the end of his life, he became a trenchant advocation of Palestinian rights (without ever slipping into anti-Semitic language), but early in his career he was broadly supportive of Israel, and considered accepting an invitation to give the annual Balfour Lecture: “I always feel sympathetic to the Jewish aspirations”, he wrote.
It’s quite possible to argue that a history of 20th century British politics can be traced through internal differences of opinion within the Benn family. And it’s a complex story, burnished by all sorts of Benns – right wing Benns and left wing Benns and hippy Benns and arty Benns and fun Benns and boring Benns and stupid Benns and wonderful, funny Benns – and it’s bigger and more interesting than that offered by self-appointed ‘Bennite’ fanatics.