It is difficult to sum up the emotions I feel at the death of Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn – better known as Tony Benn. He was unquestionably one of the great political iconoclasts of XX-Century British politics – a man of firm conviction and probably one of the Left’s most erudite and sympathetic advocates. No student of politics, whether Left or Right, could help but admire his dogged idealism. I agreed with Tony Benn on virtually nothing and I firmly believe he was completely wrong about pretty much everything. I shared his distaste for the undemocratic and unaccountable European Union and I held him in great affection for his simple, palpable love of the democratic process – in particular, his love of Parliament as an institution. He was, if nothing else, a great Parliamentarian. I did, however, abhor his socialism and I could never share his abominable republicanism. But he was undoubtedly a ‘conviction politician’ – much like his nemesis, the late Baroness Thatcher, but without her so-called ‘divisiveness’ (because, of course, unlike Lady Thatcher, he never actually wielded real power).
Tony Benn will be lamented by his former partisans on the Left but will be equally mourned by many Conservatives, who long for the days when the differences between our politicians were straightforward and obvious. Though not always as straightforward as one might think! Consider that Lady Thatcher was the daughter of a Lincolnshire greengrocer, whose only claim to a ‘political pedigree’ was her father’s brief stint as an Alderman and Mayor of Grantham. On the other hand, Mr Benn – known for the first few decades of his life as ‘Anthony Wedgwood Benn’ (sometimes nicknamed “Wedgie Benn”) – was upper-class, public school and Oxford-educated (a fact he later had removed from his entry in Who’s Who), and came from an impeccable political dynasty. Both his grandfathers, Sir John Benn and Daniel Holmes, had been Liberal MPs. His father, William Wedgwood Benn, was also a Liberal MP, who crossed the floor to Labour and served under the first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, as Secretary of State for India (he was later created the 1st Viscount Stansgate in 1941 and served as Secretary of State for Air during the Second World War). The young Tony met Ramsay MacDonald when he was five and also met such luminaries of yesteryear as David Lloyd George, Sir Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and Mahatma Gandhi.
He will possibly be best-remembered for his long fight to renounce his father’s peerage. When Lord Stansgate was ennobled, Mr Benn had an elder brother, Michael, to succeed to the title. Michael Benn planned to enter the priesthood and had no objection to inheriting a title but, sadly, he was killed on active service as a pilot during the war (he and Tony were both in the RAF). Tony was first elected to Parliament in 1950, as MP for Bristol South-East (replacing the dying former Labour Chancellor, Sir Stafford Cripps) and was, for a time, ‘Baby of the House’. Ten years later, Lord Stansgate died and Mr Benn disagreeably inherited the title as the 2nd Viscount Stansgate. By the laws of the time, he was automatically excluded from the House of Commons as a peer. Refusing to sit in the House of Lords (of whose abolition he was a lifelong advocate), the new Lord Stansgate fought and won the subsequent bye-election, but his victory was declared invalid and the Tory runner-up, Lt-Col Malcolm St Clair, was declared the winner. Eventually, Mr Benn got his way with the 1963 Peerage Act and Mr Benn was finally able to disclaim his unwanted viscountcy, becoming the first person ever to do so. Colonel St Clair did the honourable thing and ‘took the Chiltern Hundred’ and Mr Benn was returned to the Commons in the subsequent bye-election.
He went on to serve, it must be said, with limited distinction in the Wilson and Callaghan Ministries as Postmaster-General (where he notably tried to have the Queen’s head removed from stamps), Minister of Technology, Secretary of State for Industry and Secretary of State for Energy, moving gradually more and more to the Left as he went. He was undoubtedly one of the great iconic figures of the Left in Britain during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Who can forget the character of Sir Humphrey Appleby in the series Yes, Minister, who would denounce things he particularly disliked as “a Bennite solution”? I am possibly biased but, in my view, Lady Thatcher won all the great ideological arguments of the 1980s and Mr Benn’s political outlook has become more and more irrelevant as time has worn on – particularly when Michael Foot retired as Labour leader and was replaced by the moderniser and proto-Blairite Neil Kinnock. He later stood against Mr Kinnock for the Labour leadership, losing by a huge margin. Tony Benn was briefly out of Parliament in 1983 when his Bristol seat was abolished and he lost the new Bristol East seat to Tory Jonathan Sayeed. But he returned to the Commons the following year in a bye-election in Chesterfield to replace the recently ennobled former Labour Employment Secretary, Lord Varley.
The resolutely ‘Old Labour’ stalwart finally retired from the House of Commons in 2001, after fifty years, in his own words; “to spend more time on politics”. A factor in his decision may also have been the tragic death of his beloved wife, Caroline, in 2000. One of the exceptional things about Mr Benn, however, is that he is probably one of the few MPs to have retired from Parliament and actually grown in stature, rather than sunk into obscurity. One other example I can think of is Ann Widdecombe but, while she did it by going on a popular TV show, Mr Benn did it by becoming an elder statesman for the anti-war movement and a pin-up for unwashed Lefty twenty-somethings across the land. The same year he stood down as MP for Chesterfield, he became President of the Stop the War Coalition, a position he retained until his death. He was also a regular on the lecture and public-speaking circuit. I myself heard Mr Benn speak at the London School of Economics some years ago and there is no denying he was an extremely engaging and cerebral speaker. A teetotaller, vegetarian and agnostic, he remained an articulate and enjoyable advocate of naff ideas right to the very end. He was also a prodigious diarist, releasing eight volumes of political diaries.
The Benn political dynasty also continues. His eldest son, Stephen (incidentally, on his father’s death, now the 3rd Viscount Stansgate), was a member of the Inner London Education Authority in the late-‘80s. His younger son, Hilary, is MP for Leeds Central and served in the Blair-Brown Cabinets. Touchingly, the elder Benn went into the chamber for his son’s maiden speech and wept tears of pride – though, it must be said, Hilary Benn once famously described himself as “a Benn, not a Bennite”. Tony Benn’s granddaughter, Emily, at the age of just 18, was the Labour candidate for East Worthing & Shoreham in the 2010 General Election (the youngest candidate) and is currently a candidate for Croydon Council in upcoming local elections.
Tony Benn once said, “Politician are divided into two categories: signposts and weathercocks. The signposts point the way they think you should go. They may be pointing in the wrong direction and you can choose to follow them or not but, if you come back in a month or a year’s time, they’ll still be pointing in the same direction. A weathercock hasn’t got an opinion – until they’ve studied the polls and the focus groups. I’ve no time for weathercocks; I’ve a lot of time for signposts, regardless of their political direction”.
I thought Tony Benn usually pointed in the wrong direction. Nevertheless, I had a lot of time for him. In an age when so many of our politicians have become dull, identikit clones warbling the same tedious sound-bites and platitudes, Mr Benn, with his pipe clamped firmly between his death, and his soft plummy voice, was a lightening bolt of conviction and steadfastness to his ideological beliefs. Our polity is the poorer now that he is gone but I take comfort in the knowledge he is at last reunited with his beloved wife, to whom he became engaged in 1948, just nine days after they first met. Regardless of our political differences, he was an inspiring individual, a great parliamentary character and someone who, despite our differing political traditions, inspired me to enter politics and fight for the causes I believe in.