Hundreds of people came to the see the preview of Tony Benn: Will and Testament in Chesterfield. Many of us had known Tony Benn as our MP and campaigned alongside him. It was very emotional to see him standing in his kitchen, smoking the famous pipe and talking directly to us. These were the thoughts and images he wanted us to remember as he faced the end of his life.
The director, Skip Kite, had been given access to Benn’s personal photograph and film archive, which he combined with news footage and interviews. Kite wanted to show the “human face behind the political mask”. So there is testimony about Benn’s love for his family, especially his respect for his wife Caroline, and about the pressures politics put upon his family.
But the main thrust of the film is political. It records the dominant struggles of the left during Benn’s life. There are clips of strikes and demonstrations, the struggles against apartheid, nuclear weapons and imperialist wars.
At the preview Labour activist Lynn Pardo said even though she knew Tony well she was surprised by how much she learned from the film. “It showed a man who was willing to change his mind in the light of the evidence.”
The experience of national service alongside working class people and seeing first-hand the horrors of British imperialism in Rhodesia made him more radical. Visiting Glasgow in 1971 during the shipyard occupations taught him that workers could win and run factories themselves. This pushed him to the left in the Labour Party and convinced him of the possibility of socialism.
The film’s most interesting omission is Benn’s campaign for deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1981. This was at the high point of “Bennism” when thousands of people were attracted to his meetings. He came within a whisker of winning — 49.5 percent to 50.5 percent.
What followed was the push towards New Labour. Benn is scathing about Kinnock’s betrayals, calling him the “grandfather of New Labour”. He also rebukes Tony Blair, reminding us that Margaret Thatcher felt Blairism was her greatest achievement!
There is no call in the film for people to join the Labour Party. Benn talks constantly about the need for socialism as the only solution to the problems of the world, when “those who create the wealth own and control it.” The clips of Benn taking on the media over its coverage of the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 and the struggle in Gaza remind us what we have lost — a truly great tribune of the oppressed.
Benn told his agent in Chesterfield, Tom Vallins, he hoped “we have done a good job” with the film. I think they did. The audience at the Edinburgh International Film festival this summer certainly thought so. They voted it best film. It deserves a very wide audience.