thank you letter to tony benn

I just wanted to drop you an email and thank you for changing my life.

You gave a talk in 1997/8 in Westminster Hall to a group of A-level economics students, alongside Kenneth Clarke (the current Lord Chancellor) and some other less glamorous speakers.

You spoke last. The others all stood up and repeated the standard economic pieties about growth and deregulation etc and, coming from a public school and a conservative (and Conservative) background, at the age of 17 I was a dyed-in-the-wool monetarist - very much on the libertarian right. As was pretty much everyone I knew, who taught me or who up til that point I had met.

Then you spoke and eloquently proceeded to contradict everything the others had said and talked about the history of the labour movement (the fight for the vote, for trade unions) and about a kind of politics that put people first, rather than simply being concerned with the Market and its demands, the price it inflicts on its victims and about class issues. I was barely aware at that point that there was even a debate. The facts appeared to be plain to me and since my milieu was intellectually and socially Thatcherite, I was quite shocked to hear these pieties questioned and in a manner that demanded further thinking, I could follow your reasoning and it was clear that what you were saying made sense - it made me question everything I had up to that point been raised to believe was simply the fact of the matter.

I was so astonished I sought you out as you left the stage - as did a small coterie of perhaps six or seven of us. You sat yourself down on in an alcove and filled your pipe (in those days of course one could still smoke inside!) as we youngsters surrounded you and questioned you. The other members of the group, apart from me, would probably have called themselves left wing and there focus was the fear that there was No Alternative (as Thatcher said 'There Is No Alternative') and that your kind of thinking was in retreat - what hope was there for the left was the theme.

I stood there and listened, fascinated as you pointed out that what seemed to us concrete, was in fact, in flux. The reality of American power and hegemony and the dominance of the market were, you pointed out, simply things that seemed concrete. You deftly explained how the world had looked in your grandfathers time and your fathers time - how the world had looked before the first world war and after, how the USSR had risen and fallen and that at any given point in history certain elements of society seemed to be concrete and unassailable facts and yet the reality was in constant flux. Political change was constant and that as we grew older we would appreciate this and understand that we were part of that reality and could participate in shaping it in a new and better way. The only mistake would be to accept defeat by failing to appreciate that change was the only certainty, the only constant, and that the world we would find ourselves in as old men would be a different world than the world as it was that day and that we had a responsibility to be involved in changing it as we saw fit, to have the courage not to to be disheartened to but to strive to make it better.

I never looked back. The impact that meeting had on me, the implications of there being all kinds of alternatives to be thought about explored and implemented, has never ever left me - "The land, the land, the land on which we stand, why should we be paupers with the ballot in our hand?" you said I recall.

I went on to learn more about economics, to study politics, economics and philosophy - from Smith to Marx and from Aristotle to Nietzsche and to undertake a journey that took me from classic bourgeoisie to to at least a critically thinking bourgeoisie! The bombshell of discovering Chomsky was something I would probably never had appreciated had it not been for that chance encounter. I realised that my drive for liberty put me in fact more on the libertarian left than right, because it was people I cared about and not metaphysical phantasies such as 'money' and the 'market' I have since heard you talk many times and it is always a joy to hear your wisdom, charm and enthusiasm ring out from your speaking or your writing - the constant challenge to "dare to be a Daniel".

So, please accept my gratitude and my best wishes for your continued health and work - long may it continue!

The valuable moments you have already shared with me will never be forgotten and the impact of what you said, as much as anything else the moral force, has shaped me.

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