Review: Tony Benn: Will and Testament

A tribute to an important figure in the history of the Labour Party, Skip Kite’s film occupies (funnily enough) a corrective middle ground. It’s a fuller and more sympathetic job than the BBC’s awful documentary that aired just after news of Benn’s death in early 2014 (Tony Benn: Labour’s Lost Leader, should you want to know), a film in which useful testimony by historian Peter Hennessy and others shares screen time with the blabberings of Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley, who between them allege that Benn did more than anyone to make Labour unelectable between Thatcher and the election of Blair in 1997. Their comments amount to a shameful act of arse-covering: what they say of Benn is actually true of themselves. Kite’s film is geared too much in the opposite direction: it’s almost worshipful. The access the filmmaker had to Benn during his final years, shown in snippets of sound-bitey interviews, probably skews the film in that direction — more (read: any) analysis of his career would have been appreciated. There’s also the cringeworthy digital set: a CGI room in which the past’s paraphernalia does some visual contextualising for a viewer. Needlessly. The result is easy viewing, which contradicts exactly Benn’s statement about the power of his ideas: he warns against viewing him as an old, kindly gentleman, insisting that he’s not harmless. His life and work attest to that: Benn fought to take up his seat in parliament, having inherited a peerage from his father Viscount Stansgate; he takes up ministerial roles as the secretary for technology and later energy, which help to shape his view of what technological improvements will mean for industry, and therefore for its workers; as he moves left after 1970, he becomes both (and neither position is an accurate description of him) bogeyman and saint; after retirement, having spent a career pissing off his own party as much as his enemies, he “devote[s] more time to politics”, involving himself in a score of political movements. But Benn’s arguments do more than this summary, or the film, could ever account for. He tried not only to argue for the workings of a democracy to benefit its electorate, but to interest the political culture in questions of ethics rather than attend solely to matters of economics. His books, the polemical and the diaristic, are essential reading at a moment of extreme division within the Labour Party; and his life’s work, in its generosity and abundance, should’t be forgotten or go unhonoured. (Oh, and vote Labour, folks.)

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