Daniel Hannan on Tony Benn:
I was surprised to find myself choking up when I heard that Tony Benn had died. It's hardly as if we were friends – though he did give me one of the most useful pieces of advice I've ever had: "Young man, never give yer audience yer sheckond besht shpeech just because you're bored with yer besht one."
Still, I can't shake off the sense that we have lost the last survivor of a Homeric age – an age when elections decided the destinies of nations, when ideologies clashed at the ballot box, when politics was a vocation rather than a career.
To put Tony Benn in Canadian terms imagine Ed Broadbent with about 50 additional IQ points, then shift him about twenty feet to the Left. Needless to say that Mr Hannan, despite his obvious respect, is delighted that Tony Benn never got anywhere near the levers of power. Still the deeper point stands, Benn conducted himself on a rather higher plane than modern politicians.
There is a temptation among history minded people, such as myself and Mr Hannan, to look upon the past with a certain wistfulness. False nostalgia is always a concern. A wider view suggests that the quality of men and women in public life waxes and wanes. It would be hard to imagine the inter-war period, dominated by pragmatists such as Ramsay Macdonald and Stanley Baldwin, as a Homeric Age. Yes, of course, Churchill was there too, though for much of the time in the political wilderness. For most of the 1930s the future saviour of the Western world was regarded as an aging crank. Not exactly Achilles in his tent.
All that said the modern age does look a bit threadbare. Mr Hannan is right to point out that our politics, in pretty much every part of the Anglosphere, is about nothing at all. A small outcropping of ideas and convictions does appear from time to time, carefully avoided by the leaders of the large political parties. They are quite content in the morass of pragmatism. This is more than the distemper of the times.
While the birth and reformation of the welfare state was accompanied by great clashes of ideas, and brought to the fore those capable of debating those ideas, its management is an inglorious affair. It doesn't work particularly well and getting it to work with even marginal competence is a dull and thankless job. How many politicians rise to power by slightly reducing wait times for hip replacements?
When the major players in the game all agree on the same basic ideas, there isn't much of a debate. This is why so much of modern political discourse is about personality. Everyone agrees that government should be mother, father and older brother to everyone in the land, the only point of disagreement is to what extent. Petty disagreements lead to petty politics and petty politicians.