This week’s news in Britain has been dominated not by the clash of nations or the continuing stand-off on the borders of Ukraine. Rather, it has been dominated instead by the death of two leading figures of the British left. The death at the start of the week of Union leader Bob Crow and at the end of the week of the former Labour party minister Tony Benn, has provided an opportunity to dwell not only on their individual legacies, but on the state of the left and politics as a whole.
Despite both men being hugely controversial figures – banes of the tabloid media in particular – both have received fulsome praise even from their political opponents. Within minutes of the news of Bob Crow’s death, his opponent in the recent London tube strikes, Mayor Boris Johnson, was keen to pay tribute. In part this was just the exercise of good manners. But it is also emblematic of something else. The obituaries of both men have been noticeable by their focus on principle.
True Bob Crow’s principles included a decade and a half long stretch (from the 1980s-1990s) in the Communist Party of Britain. And in Tony Benn’s case they included a large quantity of doctrines so far to the left that they undoubtedly assisted the government of Margaret Thatcher to achieve its successive election victories. The radicalism of the policies of both men is not in doubt. Anymore than was the general public’s distaste for such politics whenever offered to them at the ballot box.
But the reactions to the deaths of both men, from even their most doughty political foes, has kept coming back to the fact that they had principles in the first place. As though the holding of any principles is now to be considered remarkable and necessarily admirable.
There may be something in this. It is true that in all the Western democracies a sense has grown that we have entered a period of managerialism in our political systems. This is not necessarily such a bad thing as is sometimes made out. Better to have a politics of the middle ground dominated by moderate managers than a politics of the extremes dominated by hungrily competing ideologues. But debate over the last week is also a reminder that a dose of principle, consistency and even unpopularity is not wholly to be feared.
Neither Crow nor Benn ever managed to pose a threat to the mainstream of politics and perhaps it is for that reason that their ideas – however misguided – can be looked at fondly even while not admiringly. But the clear hunger for principle of any kind – even of such an unpopular stripe – should be worthy of note for our politicians. A very different political figure, Enoch Powell, famously wrote in his study of Joseph Chamberlain that, ‘All political careers end in failure.’ That may be true. What is certain is that all political careers have failure somewhere in their trajectory. Whether someone was right or wrong on the great questions of the day is what matters most. But as the judgements of our age become clearer it appears that to have felt strongly on anything at all is now enough to be ranked with honour.