Ian Clayton column - Gentle acts of subversion

Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn'Tony Benn, former Labour MP'December 1983
Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn'Tony Benn, former Labour MP'December 1983

I’ve often wondered how we would view politicians if we didn’t know their politics.

For instance, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Tory Kenneth Clarke. I don’t think I could ever vote for him, but when I heard him on Desert Island Discs, I became an immediate admirer. He picked Bessie Smith, Little Richard, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker: what’s not to like about a bloke with taste like that? I liked Tony Benn for all sorts of reasons and I was sad to hear that he’d died.

About 20 years ago I was a guest of a mate of mine, former Wakefield MP David Hinchliff, at the Houses of Parliament.

He gave me a tour round and stopped outside a broom cupboard. He told me that during the night of the census in 1911, the suffragette Emily Davidson had hidden in the cupboard, so when she filled her census form the following day, she could write her address as House of Commons.

Emily, of course, was killed by the King’s horse at the Derby in 1913, when she tried to attach a suffragette rosette to the horse’s bridle as it came round Tattenham Corner.

David also told me that many years later, Tony Benn sneaked into the broom cupboard, with a screwdriver, to install a plaque he had made to mark Emily’s role in campaigning for votes for women.

Tony Benn was questioned about this once, I think on Songs of Praise, and he said he’d done it because there were a lot of statues and monuments in Parliament to men who neither believed in democracy or the right of women to vote and with this little gesture he was helping to redress the balance.

I like small acts of decency like this; gentle acts of subversion done without permission or authority. This story came into my mind last week when I heard that Tony Benn had passed on.

I met Tony Benn twice and on both occasions I was impressed by his learning, good manners and wit. Once he was in an audience to hear me speak and the second time I went to hear him speak.

The first time I met him was in Parliament. I had edited a book about homelessness to promote the work of a charity in Leeds called St George’s Crypt. The crypt was in the part of Leeds represented by Hilary Benn, Tony’s son and he invited us to come and launch the book in London.

He also brought his dad along. I was given the job of speaking about the work of the crypt and I read some selections from the book. Tony Benn came up afterwards and shook my hand. He said “You have a very clear way of speaking young man, have you ever considered politics?”

I was as red as a beetroot and too shy to say anything back, so I just shrugged my shoulders and thanked him for coming. Not long after that Tony Benn was touring with his friend, the folk singer Roy Bailey. They had a show called The Writing on the Wall.

This was after he had left Parliament to concentrate, as he said, “more on politics”. I saw the show at Cambridge Folk Festival one Sunday lunchtime.

It was brilliant, a mixture of Tony Benn giving history lessons about the struggles of ordinary people, from the peasants’ revolt to the Tolpuddle Martyrs, from the votes for women campaign to conscientious objection, while Roy Bailey sang songs about each.

After the show the two old veterans were selling cassette copies of their show and signing them. I went up to the little table and shook hands again with Tony Benn.

I mentioned I came from Featherstone and wondered aloud if Tony might one day include a talk about the Featherstone Massacre in his show.

On this occasion Mr Benn seemed lost for words and there was a big queue of people waiting to get cassettes signed so I didn’t pursue the idea.

Imagine my surprise, then, when about an hour after, Tony Benn came and sat on the grass next to me and said: “I like your idea young man. It was 1893 I believe and two coalminers were shot and killed and Cunninghame Graham the great Scottish orator came to speak at their funerals.”

There aren’t too many politicians like that these days. Tony Benn was old school: he believed in what he was talking about and he wasn’t afraid to say things he knew some people wouldn’t like.

Look at the way modern politicians go all around the houses to find a way of saying something in order to make people believe that what they’re saying is right and then when you analyse it they have actually said nothing at all.

For the record, when he was on Desert Island Discs, Tony Benn picked Joan Baez, Bach’s Cantata 208 and Ralph Vaughan William’s adaptation of the hymn He Who Would Valiant Be.

Brains, daring, standing up for the disenfranchised and musical taste to boot: now that’s what you call a politician.