Benn’s influence was enormous and wide ranging and he is rightly hailed as one of the great British statesmen of the last century.
But the reaction to Lady Thatcher’s death was both greater and more enduring. For there is no denying it: in the Game of Thrones battle of post-war British politics, she was the victor.
A betting man (or woman) observing the two rising stars at almost any point before the late Seventies would doubtless have favoured the young Anthony Wedgewood Benn to succeed over the young Margaret Roberts. Benn was both the son and the grandson of former MPs. Roberts was of humbler stock and had to overcome both the snobbery and sexism of the times. Thatcher’s biographer John Campbell speculates that the two must have met at Oxford University where both were active in student politics. Neither ever mentioned having done so.
After serving in the RAF, Benn entered parliament at 25. He had already been an MP for almost a decade when the now married Thatcher managed to secure the Finchley seat in October 1959.
Then things shifted, while the young Thatcher impressed many as a junior minister under Macmillan, the death of Benn’s father threatened to end his political career forever. It took three years for Benn to renounce his peerage, a struggle he did not always seem likely to win.
Once back as an MP in 1963, the rest of the decade saw Benn in power achieving most of his political successes as the rising modern technology-obsessed minister in the Wilson Government. Thatcher, in opposition from 1964 to 1970 struggled, her marriage to Denis even wobbling in the mid-Sixties.
The surprise return of the Tories in 1970, however, saw her as the Education Secretary demonised as the “milk snatcher” and alongside Barbara Castle and Shirley Williams becoming one of the most high profile women in politics.
It was at this point, Benn shifted to the Left, dropping the “Anthony Wedgewood” from his name and increasingly angering many of his colleagues on the Left and Right as unlike say, Michael Foot, he increasingly began to favour principles and “ishues” (as he himself would have put it) over party unity and consensus. He became the source of intense media interest. The Sun dubbed him “the most dangerous man in Britain”. Benn claimed he once witnesses a man emptying one of his dustbins and taking it to a nearby limo. It would be amazing if he had not been under security service surveillance.
Thatcher’s victory in becoming Tory leader in 1975, owed itself partly to bravery, partly to luck. Ex-minister Keith Joseph had destroyed his own chances with a desperately inflammatory speech about the working classes and birth control. Thatcher stood in his stead. Few expected her to stand. Few expected her to win (least of all Ted Heath). Few expected her to become PM even after she had become Opposition leader.
Benn faced a much more crowded field in his first Labour leadership contest in 1976. He came fourth but was pleased to do as well as he did.
Thatcher struggled against Callaghan in Opposition. But the Winter of Discontent changed everything and in 1979 she won the election and became the first woman Prime Minister. Benn remained likely to face her as Opposition leader. But he as contrary enough to sit out the 1980 contest (ultimately between Denis Healey and Michael Foot) on the grounds that the leadership contest rules were soon to change anyway. Benn felt any leader would be a lame duck.
The years 1981 and 1982 would settle the battle once and for all. Benn mounted his hugely divisive bid against Healey and the Deputy leadership in 1981. Many in his own never forgave him. He came very close to winning yet Healey survived. Thereafter Benn’s influence which had peaked steadily started to wane.
Thatcher was already deeply unpopular until the Falklands War in 1982 boosted her with a momentum which would propel her through two more landslide election victories and to the end of the decade.
The 1983 election underlined Thatcher’s triumph. She won the biggest post-war Tory election victory of the post-war era achieving a majority of 144. Benn, after twenty years, lost his seat. In fact, his defeat was largely a result of boundary changes. Benn had loyally refused to switch seats. But the result was largely blamed on an overly Bennite manifesto anyway. In retrospect, his defeat was total.
He would return as MP for Chesterfield in 1984. But Labour was now moving inexorably towards a “New Labour” direction. Benn had missed the 1983 leadership contest won by Neil Kinnock. Thatcher would beat Kinnock soundly in the 1987 General Election. Kinnock would soundly beat Benn in his last unnecessary challenge in 1988.
Benn became an increasingly avuncular and much loved figure in old age. His diaries will prove an invaluable historical resource. He remained active well into his eighties. One senses he was a much happier and well rounded figure than Lady Thatcher and had a happier family life. Thatcher, in contrast, had no interests outside politics, no real sense of humour and was unlucky enough to be struck down by dementia. It is thought that she never had a good day after leaving Downing Street in November 1990 until her death last year.
But the Britain we live in today, of a diminished welfare state, high unemployment, strong markets, privatised utilities, a pro-US foreign policy, a modernised Labour Party and a Murdoch-dominated press is recognisably hers and not Benn’s.
Benn achieved much, more than many Prime Ministers have. But this was a battle he could not win.