Socialist Worker

Tony Benn Will and Testament is a moving portrait of his life and politics

The modest documentary Tony Benn Will and Testament, made shortly before his death, is a reminder of his socialist politics, argues Sarah Ensor

Issue No. 2421

The film looks at different episodes in Benns life and the campaigns that he was involved in (Pic: Dani Bora)

The film looks at different episodes in Benn's life and the campaigns that he was involved in (Pic: Dani Bora)

This poignant film was Labour politician Tony Benn’s last chance to lay out his own history and political philosophy.

Benn begins looking back through a collage of memories, quoting the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. 

He is an exhibit in his own museum, standing with his pipe in a hall of other iconic images. 

Benn lived a long and interesting life, including spending 47 years in parliament.

Benn describes joining the RAF as soon as he was old enough.

He remembers being on a troopship heading for Africa in 1944 and promising the commander that a meeting about “war aims” would not be political. 

But when he was learning to fly in colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) he witnessed the racist oppression imposed by the British Empire. 

He became political and was elected as a Labour MP in 1950.

The film has lots of great footage from campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s against British imperialism and apartheid in South Africa.

In the early 1960s, Benn was a middle of the road supporter of prime minster Harold Wilson’s “modernising” agenda.  

But he was radicalised by the rising tide of class struggle and moved further left as he got older. 

The film covers many struggles, including strikes, riots and anti-war demonstrations. 

There is a lot about fighting in elections, but also about the rising tide of workers’ struggle in the 1970s.

Benn is shown addressing the Upper Clyde ship building workers. They held a mass work-in when the shipyard was threatened with closure. He says it was because of them that he really came to embrace socialism. 


Benn talks about nuclear weapons and why he wanted to be a politician to make sure they were never used again. He kept up his belief in the United Nations to the end.

We see footage of him being interviewed on ITV demanding to know why it doesn’t cover striking miners during the Great Miners’ Strike. 

Then in another clip he does it again on the BBC in 2009, demanding to know why they wouldn’t show the 2009 Gaza Appeal.

When the BBC refused to answer, he read out the appeal while the presenter tried to talk over him.

In the film Benn often stands talking to the camera in his kitchen. The old fashioned room itself seems to say something.

The man who was young when the plain cupboards were new stands in sharp contrast to the expenses scandal MPs with their glitzy houses and designer kitchens. 

The film itself is quite a modest—it doesn’t make a fuss about his political diaries that he recorded daily since the 1960s. 

Nor is it a whitewash, as he also lays out some mistakes he made and hints at others. 

Lots of people on the left won’t necessarily agree with Benn’s version of his history.  

But Benn insists that the great lesson of socialism is that the main struggle in society is between those who create wealth and those who control and own it. 

The film’s final seconds show Benn telling a packed meeting “the alternative is still socialism or barbarism”. 

We can all certainly agree on that.

Tony Benn Will and Testament
Directed by Skip Kite
Out on limited release
For Socialist Worker’s obituary of Tony Benn go to


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Tue 16 Sep 2014, 18:01 BST
Issue No. 2421
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