It's not often that there are two such prominent exits at the same time. First Bob Crow, now Tony Benn. Let's hope these passings don't come in threes as it is so often said. Tony Benn was a veteran of the Second World War, a stalwart campaigner, a democratic socialist, a diarist, and historian. He was one of the few 'moderates' to see that it wasn't good enough to try and run the system slightly better. Benn had seen the Labour government of the 1960s try to offset a redistribution of wealth by trying to boost growth. In the 1970s Benn saw the Labour Party swallow monetarism and a package of austerity measures for the IMF. In one of the best cases of a person becoming more left-wing as they get older Benn concluded that there had to be a radical opposition for there to be an opposition at all. Benn took a stand against the neoliberal agenda of privatisation and deregulation. And that is why he is referred to as 'divisive'.
Nothing marks out the predominance of liberal Oxbridge graduates in the commentariat than the use of 'divisive' as a pejorative. There is nothing inherently wrong with sparking a division. If anything we have too little division in the trilateral consensus in Whitehall and we could do with much more dissensus. In fact, that would be to understate the dire stasis we're enduring right now. The liberals at the BBC (let alone the conservatives there) want to believe that Benn cost Labour the election with the potency of his 'dangerous ideas'. It's impossible for them to imagine that the combination of the Falklands war, Callaghan's record in the 70s, the SDP insurgency, and the ineffectuality of the Labour leadership, set Michael Foot for defeat in 1983. Foot was then succeeded by Neil Kinnock, who led the Labour Party with much greater concessions to Thatcherism. It's no coincidence that the SDP evolved into the Liberal Democrats who now share a bed comfortably with David Cameron. Only such mush-heads could find the word 'consensus' beautiful.
Tony Benn has been forgiven in his old age as he was no longer a threat to the system. His passing has been greeted with qualified statements of '... even if you didn't agree with him' and the like. Unlike Bob Crow, who was very much a figure of the 21st Century, the late Anthony Wedgewood was one of the most significant British socialists of the latter half of the 20th Century. This connects him with the post-war settlement and its breakdown in the 1970s and 80s. It's precisely because this man stood up to the Thatcherites and the rightward shift in the Labour Party that he can't simply be mourned without hesitation. The past is scary and historical reflection is even more terrifying. It's inconvenient. One might ask uncomfortable questions. Some would like to know why the IMF bailout was received and the package of austerity measures, implemented under Callaghan, if it were unnecessary as Mr Benn claimed and Denis Healey confirmed. Not only does it raise troubling questions about the way our society was transformed in the 1980s, it raises troubling questions about what is going on in government right now.