ACCORDING to some of the avalanche of obituaries mostly extolling him, Tony Benn was a ‘champion of Britain’s powerless’, ‘a conviction politician’ and ‘standard-bearer of the unrepentant Left’.
Not dissimilarly, Bob Crow, hard-line leader of the UK’s Rail, Maritime and Transport workers’ union (RMT), was actually a Mister Softie – not to be confused with the ice cream vendor of that name – and a far, far cry from the uncompromising, bulleted-headed bully he was caricatured as by Right-leaning tabloids, notably The Sun and Daily Mail.
To expand this theme further, self-proclaimed culinary genius, Clarissa Dickson Wright, of Two Fat Ladies TV show fame – or, to give her handle its full flamboyance: Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmeralda Dickson Wright – who recently expired, aged 66, was a great British eccentric, not the nasty, opinionated loutess, who thought badger scratchings would make a ‘supah’ bar snack.
Personally, my own life would have been mildly enhanced if all three had never drawn breath. But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that they added a splodge of colour to Brtain’s otherwise bland horizon, even if the depths of repulsion were plumbed at times.
So much has been expended eulogising Benn, who died earlier this month at 88, it seems churlish to put the boot in; nonetheless I will, if only in the cause of balance.
Because, for all his synthetic charm and contention democracy was the lodestar of his life, Benn – a.k.a. Anthony Wedgewood Benn, briefly the second Viscount Stansgate and Pipeman of the Year, 1993 – brazenly schemed to be the wrecking ball of the British Left and, in truth, espoused Leninism as the noblest political philosophy.
Not an iota of a notion that spewed from his maverick – some would say reckless – lips actually worked. And his insistence on adopting failed, extreme socialism backfired to pave the way for Margaret Thatcher’s laissez-faire revolution, so unelectable was Benn’s ghoulish vision of what the Labour Party should be.
He was, as Adam Boulton, Sky TV’s political editor and Sunday Times columnist, aptly categorised him, ‘a poisonous irrelevance’, who put self-aggrandisement above loyalty to the cause and imagined all those around him were intellectual inferiors.
A more stinging critique, perhaps, came from Harold Wilson, the then Labour Prime Minister, who said of Benn in the 1970s, ‘He immatures with age.’
Yet, mourning his passing, socialism’s usual suspects queued up with effusive tributes…‘an iconic figure’, raved Labour leader, Ed Miliband; ‘A principled politician and activist,’ chorused IRA apologist, Gerry Adams; ‘He remains an inspiration’, insisted hard-Left singer, Billy Bragg.
Even ex-PM Gordon Brown, whom Benn judged wasn’t fit to run a corner shop, joined in the adulation, plus a few nostalgia-addled Tories.
At least Crow, who died suddenly, aged 52, when at the zenith of his intimidating powers, was a genuine class warrior, though some viewed it farcical that he continuing living in a council house when drawing a £135K-a-year salary, plus generous perks.
The bane of every train and Tube commuter’s life, Crow couldn’t be faulted for serving RMT members, regardless of his ‘strike ballot first/talks later’ strategy often going beyond the call of negotiation table propriety.
Describing himself as a ‘Socialist Communist’, he forever demanded Britain’s railways be renationalised, denouncing their sell-off as ‘vandalism’ that just put money into shareholders’ pockets.
What the firebrand failed to address was why the number of rail-users doubled after privatisation or why his militant activism failed to gain traction across the rest of the trade union movement.
With an ego threatening to dwarf London’s St. Pancras Station, Crow could be excused for fighting to improve the lot of his members – even if their pay rises came at the expense of other jobs in the transport sector – but not when he elbowed his bulk into mainstream politics.
Hectoring Tony Blair for squandering ‘a massive landslide from an electorate hungry for change’, he accused the thrice-elected Labour PM of accelerating ‘the growing gap between rich and poor’ and vehemently opposed the European Union.
Crow’s red skies thinking embraced the reintroduction of capital punishment, abolishing the monarchy and nominating for UK President – you’ve guessed it – one Tony Benn, whom the trade union baron exalted as a ‘true representative of working people.’
Had she not been a real-life ogre, Dickson Wright could have been created by P.G. Wodehouse, after a particularly nightmarish LSD trip. If only in girth, she was certainly a match for the author’s prize sow, the Empress of Blandings.
Not that physique is the issue here. In fact, it certainly played no small part in her TV series hitting a peak audience of 3.5 million, despite the London Evening Standard’s Victor Lewis Smith lambasting the Two Fat Ladies – the other being the slightly less plump and plummy Jennifer Paterson, who died in 1999 – ‘as thoroughly ugly personalities.’
At risk of sounding endearing by resorting to first-name terms, Clarissa had a ‘Krakatoa’ of her temper and was obnoxious for various other reasons, not least her view of non-meat eaters as ‘manky, little vegetarians’ (I’m all for T-bone and chips, by the way). Fulsomely bosomed, she didn’t like bras, either.
No, despite her grand-mumsy image, Clarissa was a bombast, for years fuelled by so gargantuan an intake of alcohol as to make a two-tonne stud bull senseless – in fact she drank herself to bankruptcy – who rarely had a kind word to say about anyone or anything, except ‘country blood sports’.
Meanwhile, so cholesterol-saturated were they, her recipes were a ticket to heart disease.
Understandably, there will be some who disagree with my uncharitable views on the trio of personalities I’ve cited. Contrarily, I suggest an informed majority will concur.
But, writing in the Daily Telegraph, Martha Gill last week took issue with those who slate the reputations of the departed, condemning them as ‘cowardly’. To support her claim, she referred to the obscure, ancient moralist, Chilon of Sparta, who asserted it was wrong to speak ill of the dead, since they’re no longer around to defend themselves.
What sinks Martha’s contention is that, in death, Benn, Crow and Dickson Wright have all have been elevated to cult status, which they didn’t deserve in life.
So it begs the question: Are we Brits such a purblind, forgiving lot, we’re inspired to pay respects to persons who, in life, were basically pains in the nether regions?
This perverse sense of Anglo-Saxon fair play appears to be an obsessional acquiescence to our naïve belief that there’s good in all folk…it’s just that we sometimes fail to recognise it until they’ve slid off the plate.
Conversely, it also smacks of arrant hypocrisy.