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reckoned writing or taping the diaries added about an hour’s extra work to every day but they are now an invaluable historical document of Benn’s own career and the Labour Party’s history, particularly during the Wilson, Callaghan and Foot years.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 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 in Opposition 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, 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 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 last 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,

  1. 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.

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Book Review: Tony Benn A Biography by Jad Adams

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Few people who have ever lived can claim to have enjoyed as long and diverse a political career as Tony Benn.

Today, Benn is a socialist lion in winter, bearded, in poor health and approaching his ninetieth year. He ceased writing his celebrated diary four years ago. He has been a widower for some thirteen years now and has been out of parliament for almost that entire period. With the notable exception of Denis Healey, almost all of the other leading political figures of the Sixties and Seventies (Wilson, Callaghan, Heath, Jenkins, Whitelaw, Thatcher) are now gone.

There is more to Benn than longevity although his endurance is certainly worth dwelling on for a moment. Benn was born in 1925 and as a child was introduced to the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Ramsey MacDonald, David Lloyd George and even Sir Oswald Mosley by his father, a Secretary of State for India in the second Labour Government. Benn himself first entered parliament during the last days of Clement Attlee’s hugely successful government during the reign of George VI. Benn would never be Father of the House: his spell in parliament was interrupted twice, first by the battle to renounce his peerage between 1960 and 1963 and again for a year following the loss of his seat largely due to boundary changes in the 1983 General Election. But he would still be in parliament during the age of Tony Blair and William Hague. And from 1963 onwards (and intermittently from the Forties), he kept a diary.

The young Anthony Wedgewood Benn, as he then was, is easy to like. Dynamic, energetic and youthful, he made his mark through regular appearances on Any Questions?, a major role in condemning the 1956 Suez Crisis and a position on Hugh Gaitskell’s front bench. But it could so easily have ended in 1960 with his father’s death.

His father had slightly thoughtlessly accepted a peerage assuming Benn’s older brother who was bent on a career in the church would eventually inherit the title which would forbid the holder from serving as an MP. But his brother, Michael, died during the war, a personal tragedy that affected the future politician deeply. But there was also now a practical problem. Benn would inherit the title Viscount Stansgate and when he did so would no longer be able to serve as an MP. Fortunately, on his father’s death, despite the obstruction of the likes of Macmillan and Rab Butler as well as some in his own party, Wedgewood Benn was only able to renounce his peerage after an epic three year battle to change the law. An odd side effect was that Lord Home was thus able to renounce his peerage a few months later. Anthony Wedgewood Benn was thus inadvertently responsible for the brief premiership of Tory Sir Alec Douglas Home.

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Benn enjoyed perhaps his most productive period in government as Postmaster General during the first Wilson Government. He opened the Post Office Tower, facilitated the creation of the giro scheme, the flight of Concorde and put the postal service firmly into profit despite intense resistance from a conservative (and often Conservative) civil service. Less happily, he introduced the ban on pirate radio stations (something he later regretted) and a scheme to remove the Queen’s head from the British stamp was thwarted despite Benn getting the impression (falsely) that the Queen herself was happy to go along with it.

A change undoubtedly overcame Benn after Labour lost office in 1970. The experience of power seemed to make him more keenly socialist, not less (Harold Wilson claimed he “immatures with age”). Certainly, there was a change in attitude with Benn valuing the educational benefits of the politician’s role more highly. It was also at this point that he went officially from being Anthony Wedgewood Benn to just Tony Benn.

The Seventies and early Eighties were certainly Benn’s heyday. The levels of media interest in him were huge. A substantial amount of effort was put into unsuccessful efforts to find evidence that either Benn or his American wife Caroline were super rich and thus supposedly hypocrites (they were not). At one point, Benn’s children were verbally abused by photographers as they went to school. On another occasion, Benn witnessed his rubbish being taken away by a man in a limousine.

Benn was clearly viewed by much of the media and security services as a socialist bogeyman: “the most dangerous man in Britain”. Many on his own side fell out with him too. Leftists such as Michael Foot were more interested in establishing agreement within the party than Benn was and his unsuccessful bid for the Deputy leadership in 1981 was seen by many as hugely divisive.

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It is possible to view Benn’s career as a long and unsuccessful campaign to become PM. But this is probably misleading. Even allowing for the fact that they were being written for posterity, Benn’s diaries reveal little interest in power for power’s sake. At any rate, he never came close. He scored well in the 1976 leadership contest but didn’t come close to Foot or the victor Callaghan. He refused to stand in 1980 when he might well have won as the leadership contest ballot rules were being changed imminently. He felt any leader elected under the old system would quickly become irrelevant. He might have beaten Kinnock in 1983, had he not lost his Bristol seat in the 1983 election. He was returned as MP for Chesterfield in 1984. His bid for the leadership against Kinnock in 1988 was never likely to succeed and was more to promote his own arguments than anything else.

The last thirty years have inevitably been ones of declining influence for Benn even as the gradual publication of his diaries has boosted his reputation. He had little time for Kinnock or Blair was notable for his opposition to Iraq and became a familiar elder statesman-like figure whether appearing on Question Time, meeting up with the likes of Billy Bragg or his friend the actress Saffron Burrows or being duped by Ali G.

This updated version of Jad Adams’ excellent biography from Biteback, jumbles chronology a little in the updated chapters. But it remains a worthy companion piece to Benn’s own diaries (the final volume of which A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine will be reviewed here shortly) and is a comprehensive tribute to one of the great political lives of the last century.

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