Saturday, 14 March 2015

Tony Benn's Best Legacy

It's March 14th, which means it is one year to the day that Tony Benn died. Unfortunately, despite an abundance of honesty and integrity in Tony Benn, there are numerous silly quotes for which he has notoriety. Here's one of my favourites, and one of the most well known:

"Every time I see a homeless person living in a cardboard box in London, I see that person as a victim of market forces."

To see how foolish that statement is, consider an alternative statement I made up which makes the same kind of error:

"Every time I see a car accident, I see that person as a victim of good driving".

Sounds silly, right? It is, but it's no sillier than Tony Benn's comment. Car accidents usually occur when there is an absence of good driving in that particular situation, not because someone is a victim of good driving. You can only be a victim of bad driving not good driving. Driving is a good thing, with lots of benefits - it is when driving goes wrong that there are aberrations that are felt by those involved in accidents.

Similarly, market forces are an overall good thing because they create prices based on people's desire for goods and services. A homeless person has not been the victim of market forces - he or she has more likely been the victim of a lack of opportunity to play an active role in the free market.

But even that might not tell the full story. I've met lots of homeless people who clearly are where they are for all sorts of drastic reasons - nothing at all to do with the free market. Many are homeless because of bad decisions in their personal lives, or mental health issues, or adverse life situations - all sorts of reasons - some beyond their control, some not. It goes without saying that we should do all we can to help people who've fallen on hard times, and show them love and kindness too - but to ascribe homelessness to 'market forces' is to say something outrageously facile, which will ultimately help no one.

I disagreed with just about all of Tony Benn's politics, but he did leave us with at least one good legacy. One of the shrewd observations he made was in metaphorically dividing politicians into weathercocks and signposts.

Weathercocks will assess the political climate, gauge public opinion, dip their feet in the political waters and test the temperature before deciding which position to adopt. They are panderers - reflecting the weather rather than going for any metrological change.

Signposts on the other hand are people able to change the direction of politics - they point in the direction they think people should go and they stick more firmly to their principles. They are not always right - Tony Benn, for example, was pointing his in the wrong direction - but the metaphor is not about efficacy of policy, it is about personality, character and integrity, and Tony Benn had it in abundance even if his medicine was poison.

Sadly, most politicians are weathercocks - they are chameleon-like - fading into the colours of those whose vote they want to win and whose party to which they want to be wedded. You will see them crank up their weather-cockery even more so in the coming weeks leading up to the election.

* Photo courtesy of