Tony Benn: 1925-2014

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Tony Benn, who had died, aged eighty-eight was primarily famous for the following things:

He was a Labour MP for longer than almost anyone else.

He represented Bristol South East from 1950 until 1960, then again from 1963 until 1983. He enjoyed a final 17 year stint as MP for Chesterfield from 1984 until 2001. Even after he retired to devote “more time to politics” he maintained a high profile. As a young child, he had been introduced to giants of the early 20th century such as Mahatma Gandhi, David Lloyd George and (less proudly) Sir Oswald Mosley.

Diarist.

He is also known for his diaries which he wrote on and off from his wartime teenage years in the 1940s. He wrote them consistently from his return to parliament in the early 1960s until a bout of ill-health persuaded him to stop writing them in 2009. Benn reckoned writing or taping the diaries added about an hour’s extra work to every day but they are now an invaluable historical document of Benn’s own career and the Labour Party’s history, particularly during the Wilson, Callaghan and Foot years. They have been gradually been published since the Eighties, the last volume A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine appearing only a few months ago. It is reviewed here https://chrishallamworldview.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/book-review-tony-benn-a-blaze-of-autumn-sunshine-the-last-diaries/

The best leader Labour never had?

Benn actually never came especially close to leadership himself. He scored fairly poorly in the 1976 Labour leadership contest (still the only one to occur while the party was in power), most of the left-wing vote going to Michael Foot who came second to James Callaghan. By 1980, when Labour was back in Opposition, he might well have won the leadership contest which was won by Foot. But Benn refused to stand, arguing that with the party’s electoral system about to be updated, any leader would ultimately be a lame duck. In 1981, he launched an unexpected and hugely divisive bid for the party deputy leadership but lost very narrowly to Denis Healey. The contest marked the peak of Benn’s influence in the party and the nadir of the party’s fortunes. Many never forgave Benn for the 1981 challenge.

Benn lost his own seat in the 1983 General Election and was thus unable to compete in the subsequent leadership contest won by Neil Kinnock (who Benn disliked as leader, though they had been friends during the early left wing phase of Kinnock’s career). Benn’s final 1988 challenge to Kinnock was taken seriously by few. Benn’s influence was clearly on the wane and he performed even worse than expected.

The cult of Benn.

In fact, though he clearly wanted the leadership at different times, Benn does not seem to have been primarily driven by dreams of power. In a strange way though, like Enoch Powell on the Right, Benn set the mood of the times (the Seventies) more decisively than actual leaders like Harold Wilson and Ted Heath did. There was intense interest and paranoia about Benn in the Seventies. The Sun labelled him “The most dangerous man in Britain” and Benn and his family were frequently harassed by the press and security services.

The battle of the peerage.

In 1942, Tony’s father, William Wedgewood Benn, also a Labour politician, was awarded a hereditary peerage. It was assumed Tony’s older brother Michael would succeed on his father’s death and as he was intent on a career in the church, this wasn’t seen as a problem. In fact, Michael was subsequently killed in the war. The death was a devastating personal blow to his brother and the family, one that Tony never entirely got over. But it also provided a serious obstacle to his political career as in those days it was impossible to renounce a peerage. Getting out of the Lords and back into the Commons as an MP would be essential if Benn was to enjoy a serious political career.

Indeed, the fact that Benn was known to have an elderly father whose death might at any moment end Benn’s career as an MP, had proved something of an obstacle to Benn securing a parliamentary seat in the first place. Despite this, he won a seat while still in his twenties during the last days of the Attlee Government. Throughout the Fifties, he was recognised as a rising star in the party.

Following the death of his father in 1960, a mighty legal battle ensued. After several by-election wins and inertia from many in his own party as well as the Tory Government, Benn triumphantly returned to the Commons in 1963. An odd side-effect was that Benn’s actions enabled Lord Home to renounce his peerage and become Tory Prime Minister later that same year.

More…

He was born in 1925, the same year as Margaret Thatcher. Both attended Oxford simultaneously and probably met as both were active in student politics. However, there is no record of them meeting at this time.

Benn served in the RAF during the Second World War. He was married to his American wife Caroline for fifty years. His son Hilary Benn was a minister in the Brown government. Although clearly far to the Right of his father, Tony (a vocal critic of New Labour) was always careful not to criticise his son in his diaries or anywhere else.

Benn enjoyed his most successful period in government as Postmaster General under Wilson introducing the giro system, opening the Post Office Tower and perhaps less happily unsuccessfully launching a scheme to remove the Queen’s head from stamps (Benn met the Queen and got the impression she backed the scheme. It seems she did not). Benn also outlawed pirate radio, something he later regretted.

Benn was generally known as Anthony Wedgewood Benn until the mid-Seventies. Critics still called him this until the end of his life in the hope of embarrassing him by drawing attention to his aristocratic background. He is also sometimes referred to as the former Viscount Stansgate, although he never actually used the title himself.

Benn was known for his pipe and compulsive tea drinking.

With the notable exception of Lord Denis Healey (who is 96) and three of the four founders of the SDP, Benn outlived most of his colleagues and opponents.

Friends included Chris Mullin (former MP and author of A Very British Coup), actress Saffron Burrows and newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky.

Benn had many opponents on both the Left and Right. Despite this, he was always recognised for his decency and courteous manner. Perhaps no politician since Churchill has overseen such an enduring and wide ranging career in public life.

Book Review: Tony Benn A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine. The Last Diaries

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“All political careers, unless cut off in mid-stream, end in failure,” wrote Enoch Powell. Margaret Thatcher was famously and dramatically driven from Downing Street by her own party and her own intense unpopularity. Others go more gently into the night and more gradually.

Tony Benn’s influence has been on the wane since his narrow defeat in the 1981 Labour Deputy Leadership contest. The party changed under Kinnock, then Smith, then Blair, then Brown but the former Viscount Stansagate did not change himself. He just grew older. These final diaries find him in his eighties, a widower and out of parliament as the successful Blair era gives way to the more calamitous leadership of Gordon Brown.

Benn seems increasingly a sad figure by this point, increasingly relishing the prospect of death (the sentiment, “I do actually feel as if I am coming to the end of my life” recurs frequently). But the eighth and final volume of his diaries nevertheless remains compelling. He remains friends with the actress Saffron Burrows and the newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky and his political insights remain as sharp as ever whether one agrees with them or not.

Sadly, a bout of ill health in 2009 brought his diaries – which he had written on and off since his wartime childhood and consistently since his return to the Commons in 1963 – to an end. Benn summarises the last five years (which have been dominated by the formation of the Tory-Liberal Democrat Coalition) in the few final pages, a much less satisfying read than the diaries themselves.

But who can complain? Benn’s legacy, in addition to his political achievements (and failings) will undoubtedly be these diaries which have chronicled his own long political career and indeed all political life during the last half century.

Why there are no conservative comedians…anywhere.

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Ooh! Naughty BBC Radio 4! Apparently they’ve been producing approximately five times as many jokes about the Tories as they have about Labour! It seems the Daily Mail were right about the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation all along! Go back to Moscow, commies! If you love China so much (or indeed anywhere that’s actually communist these days. Laos?) why don’t you go and live there? Why don’t you marry Raul Castro? Come on BBC! We know you want to.

Well, no. Actually the BBC have an excuse and to be honest it’s a pretty good one. It seems that there are not enough comedians of a conservative ilk around. Caroline Raphael, Radio 4’s comedy commissioner admits they have trouble recruiting comics from the Right. And before anyone splutters at this, think about it. It may well be true.

I’ve bored Chortle readers on the subject of the dearth of conservative comedy talent before (http://www.chortle.co.uk/correspondents/2011/12/02/14451/clarkson_has_taught_us_one_thing%3A_right-wingers_arent_funny) and do not intend to repeat myself. But last time I did not really seriously consider why there are so few famous funny Tories about.

The obvious explanation is that the Tories are the leading party in government. Were Labour in power there would clearly be more jokes about them as indeed I am sure there were, were a similar study to be have been commissioned before 2010. This also explains why the Sunday Telegraph (who conducted this recent count) also found a larger than expected number of jokes about the Lib Dems.

This doesn’t fully explain why there are five times as many jokes about the Tories than Labour though. That is a wide margin, after all.

Could it be that Labour are less inspiring comedy targets than the Tories are? This too seems plausible. But it also seems odd. If the Opposition is struggling, they would surely provide ripe targets for satirical bullseyes. Spitting image, after all, didn’t let Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party off the hook in the Eighties. Is the public really so enamoured with Ed Miliband as in the days of early Blair or Obama, no satirical barbs can touch him? I very much doubt it.

Is the Beeb itself the problem? It would actually seem not. The issue extends way beyond the BBC. As I’ve discussed before, the entire comedy circuit inclines to the Left, not just the studios of Radio 4.

The Telegraph suggests that the left wing environment of many comedy clubs might be preventing right wing comedy talent getting through. But why should the comedy world be any more left wing than anywhere else?

Telegraph writer Dominic Cavendish suggests this might be because the circuit tends to favour younger comics. But even assuming older people are more likely to be conservative (something I don’t necessarily accept anyway), this doesn’t explain why older comics tend to be more left leaning assuming that they have any viewpoint at all.

It’s not hard to imagine a conservative comedian. The tabloid-sequel views of Jeremy Clarkson would fit the bill even though he’s not technically a comedian. Are we ever likely to see a popular comic who defends the bankers and the Tories and who rails against the unemployed, benefit “scroungers”, the EU and asylum seekers? I don’t know. I’m also disinclined to think many comedians deliberately stifle their conservative views for public consumption. I don’t think they ever had those views in the first place.

Perhaps it’s simply the case that the bohemian creative world of the arts will always spawn more socialist firebrands than conservative cheerleaders.

Or to risk an old joke myself, if you really want to see a bunch of conservative comedians, take a look at the government.

 

 

Three cheers for political correctness!

Few terms have become so debased within the lexicon of political discourse than political correctness. Like the term “liberal” in the United States, the term has become almost an insult. Peter Hitchens describes it as “stern, fierce movement which is completely sane and sets out deliberately to stop us from saying – and thinking – various things. It is not a joke.” Newspapers like Hitchens’ own Mail and the Daily Telegraph routinely blame political correctness for everything under the sun. Some even liken it to the tyrannies of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR.

What are these bold claims based upon? Basically, it comes down to this: Fifty years ago it was acceptable to make sexist, racist and homophobic remarks and jokes in public. Now it isn’t. Most people recognise this as a good thing. The Right have never come to terms with it. So the next time you read any garbage about “political correctness gone mad” remember: that’s all the writer is complaining about. They want to be racist or offensive in some way but society has changed so much it no longer permits them to be so.

That’s all there is to it. And no one is more humourless about it than the modern Right.