Some people are born to be troublemakers – in the best possible sense of that word. The veteran Labour politican Tony Benn, who died yesterday at the age of 88, was certainly one such. The kind of trouble he made was the kind of trouble many more of us should make in this life: he was prepared to stand up and say what needed to be said, usually in no uncertain terms, and often much to the discomfort of the government of the day (and even his own party, at times).
While reading the many tributes that have been made to this principled man in the immediate aftermath of his death, I was reminded of the role he played in paying tribute to someone else, another determined and impassioned individual who stood up for what they believed in – the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, who is remembered by an unusual memorial plaque in the House of Commons (see text below). I first encountered the story of this once secret plaque and Benn’s part in it from the MP and ex-Green Party leader Caroline Lucas, who told it at a Climate Rush event commemorating the suffragettes in 2010, and it has intrigued me ever since:
IN LOVING MEMORY OF
EMILY WILDING DAVISON
IN THIS BROOM CUPBOARD EMILY WILDING DAVISON HID HERSELF, ILLEGALLY, DURING THE NIGHT OF THE 1911 CENSUS.
SHE WAS A BRAVE SUFFRAGETTE CAMPAIGNING FOR VOTES FOR WOMEN AT A TIME WHEN PARLIAMENT DENIED THEM THAT RIGHT.
IN THIS WAY SHE WAS ABLE TO RECORD HER ADDRESS, ON THE NIGHT OF THE CENSUS, AS BEING “THE HOUSE OF COMMONS”, THUS MAKING HER CLAIM TO THE SAME POLITICAL RIGHTS AS MEN.
EMILY WILDING DAVISON DIED IN JUNE 1913 FROM INJURIES SUSTAINED WHEN SHE THREW HERSELF UNDER THE KING’S HORSE AT THE DERBY TO DRAW PUBLIC ATTENTION TO THE INJUSTICE SUFFERED BY WOMEN.
BY SUCH MEANS WAS DEMOCRACY WON FOR THE PEOPLE OF BRITAIN.
Notice placed here by Tony Benn MP.
“I must tell you, Mr Speaker, that I am going to put a plaque in the House. I shall have it made myself and screwed on the door of the broom cupboard in the Crypt.”
It’s a great story, but it’s more than that. It says a great deal about the kind of person Tony Benn was. A tenacious and principled man who was happy to speak his mind, as the very fact that he was so determined to commemorate this event (even secretly) – and that he considered it to be important enough to memorialise – shows. Like many from across the political spectrum, I have long admired the principled stance he maintained all the way through his political life – and this memorial to Emily Wilding Davison is but one example of the way his democratic and socialist principles were so important to him.
I never met the man himself, but I saw and heard him speak at countless rallies and he was always fascinating. I suspect we might not always have agreed on everything had we ever met, but, quite frankly, that really doesn’t matter. The accounts I have read over the last twenty four hours from those who did meet him all point to a man who was fascinated by people and who would always find time to speak to those who buttonholed him – and, unlike most modern politicians, who would really listen to and absorb what he was being told, whether he agreed or not.
Tony Benn was the kind of politician you just don’t see any more. Writing in The Guardian yesterday, Gary Younge points out exactly what it was that made Benn the kind of politican we should see more of:
He advocated for the weak against the strong, the poor against the rich and labour against capital. He believed that we were more effective as human beings when we worked together collectively than when we worked against each other as individuals. Such principles have long been threatened with extinction in British politics. Benn did a great deal to keep them alive.
And it’s now our job to continue to keep these principles alive in the face of the current political climate…