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reckoned writing or taping the diaries added about an hour’s extra work to every day but they are now an invaluable historical document of Benn’s own career and the Labour Party’s history, particularly during the Wilson, Callaghan and Foot years.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