Tony Benn: Dare to be a Daniel

Peter Wilby in The Guardian:

Tony-Benn-family-009No politician in history has left such a comprehensive account of himself and his times as Tony Benn. From his mid-teens until almost the end of his life, he kept, with one short break, a daily diary of the events he took part in, the people he met and the thoughts that ran through his mind. The full archive runs to an estimated 20m words. The published diaries, extracted by his devoted editor Ruth Winstone, fill 11 volumes. Winstone also edited a brief but revealing memoir of his early life and family. What do these publications – a small fraction of the total archive – tell us about Benn and the influences that shaped his political career?

…He drifted away from religion but not from Christian principles. In his memoir, he wrote: “I certainly was not influenced by atheistic arguments, which were extreme and threw doubt on the value of the Bible and the historical truth of Jesus's life.” He specifically rejected the label “humanist”, saying in 2005 “I'm a Christian agnostic … I believe in Jesus the prophet, not Christ the king.” He objected to how the established churches used power structures to build their own authority and particularly to the doctrine of original sin, which was “destructive of any hope that we might succeed together in building a better world”. On the walls of his office, he hung a Salvation Army hymn that had been sung to him by his parents:

Standing by a purpose true,

Heeding God's command,

Honour them, the faithful few!

All hail to Daniel's band!

Dare to be a Daniel,

Dare to stand alone!

Dare to have a purpose firm!

Dare to make it known.

Dare to be a Daniel was the title chosen by Benn for his early life memoir. According to the Biblical story, Daniel braved and survived a night in a den of lions rather than renounce his faith. This sense that one must remain true to one's faith and bear witness whatever the odds is the key to understanding Benn's political career, its failures as well as its successes. The lesson he took from his upbringing – and particularly from his father, whom he adored and admired – was that he must always do and say what was right, regardless of whether or not it left him alone in the world. David Runciman's argument, in his book Political Hypocrisy, that “liberal democratic politics are only sustainable if mixed with a certain amount of dissimulation and pretence” would have been incomprehensible to Benn.

More here.