Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn, better known simply as Tony Benn, was a bit of an anomaly. We may never see anyone else like him, certainly not in the near future. He was, for those unaware, a British politician, but he was one that it was okay to like. He seemed to be a decent bloke, quite happy in his standing as a member of the Labour Party, though equally happy to oppose any party line that he strongly disagreed with. When Labour became New Labour, the form it still holds to this day and one far removed from its roots, Benn moved further away.
He’s been called the most dangerous man in Britain, a madman, an embarrassment, and much, much more. He’s a man who has received death threats through the years, and reacts with joy on camera when able to tell viewers that he received one quite recently, after a bit of a dry spell.
I’d love to say that everyone would warm to the man, despite their political beliefs, but I fear that’s not true. What I can say is that the people who dislike Tony Benn the most are, most probably, the people who I try to avoid throughout my life. He was a man who moved through politics with the genuine intention of improving Great Britain for the people. This is a man who gave up his birthright, who wanted to renounce his peerage, because he doesn’t believe in such ancestral rights (and the furore THAT caused is detailed here).
Mixing plenty of archival footage with words direct from the man himself, who often speaks directly to the camera, Tony Benn: Will And Testament isn’t just a fitting tribute to a great man who I hope is not quickly forgotten. It’s also, worryingly, a terrible reminder of where things have gone wrong, in both modern politics and also a Britain that seems to have lost the Great some time ago.
Consider a scene in which Benn discusses, and I’ll try to paraphrase it well enough, how Hitler cunningly blamed an invisible enemy to gain political power. That way led to anti-semitism and, of course, WWII. World leaders pointing the finger of blame at other sections of society to gain political power (read = points)? I think people can look around and see parallels there.
Then there are the pillars of the United Kingdom that Benn was, rightly, very proud of. He held a variety of roles in his political career, including Postmaster General, and seemed to do his best in all of them, but he was most proud of the decisions that came from above to create a National Health Service and the welfare state. He saw those things as triumphs from a Labour government. Yet the welfare state is now being squeezed of life, the National Health Service has been broken up and sold off, in a variety of ways, and Royal Mail was privatised just two years ago.
Looking at how Britain bounce back so brilliantly after the war effort puts the dealings of today into even sharper perspective. There were no austerity measures. The world wasn’t run in service of the financial institutions back then, at least not to the degree it seems to be now. Money was invested into the country, and the results speak for themselves.
If this comparison between the now and then seems unnecessary, I’d have to disagree. This documentary, and full marks to Skip Kite for putting it all together, shows how Benn has lived his life by not only tracing his own trip through politics, but also the landscape that shifted and changed around him.
You shouldn’t discuss 20th century politics without discussing Tony Benn, and vice versa. Tony Benn: Will And Testament reminds us, and makes us thankful, for that.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: SKIP KITE
STARS: TONY BENN
RUNTIME: 90 MINS APPROX