Benn, Anthony Neil Wedgwood [Tony], second Viscount Stansgate
- Jad Adams
Benn, Anthony Neil Wedgwood [Tony], second Viscount Stansgate (disclaimed for life) (1925–2014), politician, was born on 3 April 1925 at 40 Grosvenor Road, Westminster, the second of three surviving sons of William Wedgwood Benn (1877–1960), politician, and his wife, Margaret Eadie, née Holmes [see Margaret Eadie Wedgwood Benn] (1897–1991), religious campaigner. His paternal grandfather was Sir John Williams Benn, founder of what became the Benn Brothers publishing company; his maternal grandfather was Daniel Turner Holmes, schoolmaster, lecturer, and politician. Benn’s father and both his grandfathers were members of parliament and he was brought up in a family in which political engagement was the norm.
Childhood, education, war service, and marriage
Benn’s mother claimed her infant son omitted the phase of mouthing individual words and went straight on to speaking sentences, which was doubtless an exaggeration, but does suggest that the fluency that distinguished him at every step of his career was apparent from an early age. As a child he was taken by his father, by then a cabinet minister, to meet the Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald and see the trooping of the colour from 10 Downing Street. William Wedgwood Benn as secretary of state for India also took his young son to meet M. K. Gandhi, who was in London in 1931 for the second round table conference.
William Wedgwood Benn had first been elected to parliament in 1906 at the age of twenty-eight as Liberal MP for St George’s in the East and Wapping. After war service, and unwilling to endorse Lloyd George and therefore uneasy in the Liberal Party, in 1927 (by now MP for Leith) he crossed the floor to join Labour, resigning his seat at the same time as a matter of principle (and not contesting it at the subsequent by-election, in deference to the existing Labour candidate, who failed to win the seat). He went on to represent Aberdeen North (1928–31) then Manchester Gorton (1937–42) for the Labour Party. Principles were strong in the Benn household; when Tony Benn’s parents married in 1920 a condition William imposed on Margaret was that she should stop drinking alcohol as he wished his children to be brought up teetotal. They were, and Benn and his brothers maintained abstinence from alcohol all their lives.
Margaret Wedgwood Benn, a member of the League of the Church Militant, was a passionate advocate of the ordination of women. Despairing of progress in the Anglican church, she left it to become a Congregationalist like her husband. The religious ethos in which Benn grew up, therefore, was in line with Congregationalist teaching, focusing on the individual’s relationship with God, the primacy of the individual conscience, and the congregation itself making decisions about its future, admitting no higher authority. A secular version of this doctrine was to pervade Benn’s political thought throughout his life.
Benn (known within the family as Jimmy, by friends as Tony, but more widely at this stage and for much of his political life as Anthony Wedgwood Benn) attended Gladstone’s School in Cliveden Place, Belgravia, and Westminster School, where his academic record was adequate if not exemplary, though he distinguished himself in the debating society. His education was interrupted by the school’s wartime evacuation to Lancing, then Bromyard. He had already joined the Air Training Corps; his elder brother Michael (b. 1921) had joined the air force and trained as a pilot; William Wedgwood Benn also joined up as a pilot officer and went to work in the air ministry.
Benn joined the Labour Party on his seventeenth birthday in 1942. His father had, earlier that year, been elevated to the peerage by Churchill, who wanted to increase Labour representation in the House of Lords to improve the working of the coalition government. He took the title of Viscount Stansgate, after a holiday home the family owned in Essex. William Wedgwood Benn had consulted his eldest son, Michael, whose intention of going into the church would not be impaired by a peerage; but had not consulted Tony, whose intended career as an MP certainly would be brought to a halt if he were to accede to the peerage. Michael Benn’s death on active service on 22 June 1944 brought about the situation where Tony was next in the line of succession.
In the meantime Benn had started to attend New College, Oxford; but as soon as he was eligible he volunteered for the air force and trained as a pilot cadet. His training took place mainly in Southern Rhodesia, where he made a point of studying native culture and colonial politics. His lifelong habit of smoking a pipe began during his war service. He qualified as a pilot in March 1945 and was posted to Egypt. When the war in Europe ended, he joined the Fleet Air Arm to engage with the war in the Pacific; on demobilization in 1946 he returned to New College to continue his education.
It was at this stage in his university life that Benn met Roy Jenkins, Tony Crosland, and other future Labour leaders with whom he was to serve in government. He was elected president of the Oxford Union in 1947. The Union was invited by the American Speech Association to send three speakers to debate across the USA for four months from October 1947. Benn went with Sir Edward Boyle and Kenneth Harris, chosen to represent Labour, Conservative, and Liberal opinion. They visited forty-three states and took part in sixty debates, an experience that honed Benn’s abilities, in the opinion of Harris, who said that Benn’s presentation at the beginning of the tour had been long and dull, ‘pedestrian stuff, as if he’d got it out of some handbook. Within a month or so we had a very different Tony Benn when he got up to speak. He got funnier and funnier as we went on, he argued well, marshalled his facts well … His abilities were considerable before, but they were heavy, they could bore people. After America he was brilliant’ (Adams, 48).
Back in Oxford (where he took the war-shortened course in philosophy, politics, and economics, graduating with a second-class degree in 1948), Benn made the acquaintance of Caroline Middleton De Camp (1926–2000), via an introduction from an American debating companion. She came from a prosperous family of lawyers from Cincinnati, Ohio. She was attending Vassar College, New York, but was in Oxford for a summer school, and was due to leave in two weeks. On the day before her departure, Benn asked her to marry him. He later purchased the bench on Magdalen Bridge on which he proposed and had it placed in front of the family home they were eventually to buy at 12 Holland Park Avenue, Kensington. They were married on 17 June 1949 at the Church of the Advent in Cincinnati; Caroline was to be Benn’s main confidante and guide for more than fifty years. They had four children, Stephen (b. 1951), Hilary (b. 1953), Melissa (b. 1957), and Joshua (b. 1958).
After their marriage the young couple settled in London, where Benn secured a job with the BBC, working as a producer on programmes including his own invention, ‘Let’s Get this Straight’, where he would ask difficult questions of politicians, in this way making the acquaintance of leading figures across the political divide.
Early career as an MP
Benn was seeking a parliamentary seat and pursued a vacancy in Bristol South East, caused by Sir Stafford Cripps’s resignation through ill health. At the selection meeting he triumphed over the other two candidates, and at the by-election on 30 November 1950 was elected to parliament for the constituency to which he was to be connected for the next thirty-three years.
Great things were expected of Benn. His oratorical skills were respected from the point of his maiden speech which, against the convention that such speeches should be uncontroversial, he made about the nationalization of iron and steel. He became a favourite panellist on Any Questions?, BBC radio’s live political comment programme on which he showed himself to be in line with the liberal causes of the day: against fox-hunting, the colour bar, and hanging. He abstained on the issue of health service charges which led to the departure from the government of Nye Bevan and Harold Wilson, but he was not a typical left-winger, and voted for Hugh Gaitskell and not Bevan in the leadership contest of 1955. He learned parliamentary tactics by working with the ‘Bing Boys’, a backbench ginger group from the right and left of the Labour Party using procedural means in the House of Commons to raise political points, named after Geoffrey Bing.
Benn’s experience as a radio producer and his undoubted communications skills resulted in his putting his experience of broadcasting at the service of the Labour Party. In this way he first had direct connection with the higher reaches of the party, helping Gaitskell with his first television broadcast as chancellor of the exchequer, and Hugh Dalton with a party political broadcast. Dalton confided a description of Benn at this time to his diary: ‘very useful, moves through life like a cat, attractive, has reserves and sense of humour, but not quite to be trusted’ (Dalton, 575).
Benn became a leading member of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, in the company of the veteran anti-colonialist Fenner Brockway, among others. He met and engaged with the future leaders of Africa including Kenneth Kaunda, Kwame Nkrumah, Hastings Banda, Julius Nyerere, and Joshua Nkomo. He was also deeply involved in the case of Seretse and Ruth Khama, who both became close family friends, Seretse Khama serving as godfather to Benn’s daughter, Melissa, at a time when racial prejudice was common and frequently crudely expressed. Benn said he knew what he should do if his daughter wanted to marry a black man, ‘I should ask her godfather to have a stern talk to her’ (Bristol Evening World, 18 June 1957).
Benn was well placed from his position at the Movement for Colonial Freedom to play a leading role in opposition to the Eden government’s Suez adventure. Gaitskell was equivocal and seemed to be siding with the government when Benn went to see him with similarly minded colleagues. Gaitskell wrote in his diary, ‘Tony Benn … although talented in many ways, a good speaker and a man of ideas, had extraordinarily poor judgement. He is the last person in the world I would go to for advice on policy’ (Gaitskell, 567). However, Gaitskell was soon to follow exactly the line Benn was proposing in his attack on the government. Benn played a crucial role in negotiations over securing an opposition broadcast from the BBC for Gaitskell to respond to Anthony Eden’s broadcast attempting to justify the Suez invasion. Gaitskell made a powerful case, virtually accusing Eden of lying in every single statement. He wrote to Benn, ‘If it was effective, this was largely due to you, both for the general plan which you suggested and for much of the drafting’ (Benn Archive, Gaitskell, 4 Nov 1956), so his earlier dismissal of Benn’s abilities has to be qualified. Benn’s prominence over this matter led to his appointment as Labour’s second spokesman on the RAF in 1957. This promising beginning was brought to an end by his opposition to nuclear weapons, the use of which he felt he could never countenance, so he quietly resigned in 1958 after a year on the front bench.
Benn did more than anyone else to modernize the electoral broadcast, engaging with every part of what had been stolid to-camera presentations by politicians. He emphasized the use of images and music, and a blending of style with political content. He introduced twelve broadcasts in 1959, and it was said that if the reception of television programmes were the only factor involved, Labour would have won the 1959 election. He was elected to Labour’s national executive for the first time that year. His colleague Michael Foot said of him, ‘No one in Labour Party history – not even Herbert Morrison in his heyday – applied his mind and energies more assiduously to the work of the Executive’ (Foot, 111). It was while he was on the executive that he first came into a close working relationship with trade unionists. Gaitskell made him shadow transport minister in November 1959, from which position he argued for compulsory seat belts, harsher penalties for drunken drivers, and annual roadworthiness tests for vehicles, all of which became law in subsequent decades.
The Labour Party was divided over nuclear weapons policy at its conference in September 1960, and Benn resigned from the national executive over its refusal to support a compromise between the parliamentary leadership and the unions that he had proposed. The event is of importance only because it was the last time Benn resigned in order to influence policy. ‘I regretted having done it immediately’, he later commented (Adams, 154).
The peerage campaign
Benn’s father died at the age of eighty-three in 1960, depriving Benn, as he said, of a father, teacher, and friend. Benn was automatically disbarred from the House of Commons, as he was assumed to have become a peer, as second Viscount Stansgate. A first attempt at freeing Benn from the obligation to go to the House of Lords had already been made in 1955, with his father. Benn asked the Personal Bills Committee for permission to bring the Wedgwood Benn Renunciation Bill, which was refused. His father then attempted to introduce a similar bill in the House of Lords, without success.
After his father’s death Benn took advice from his old colleague Geoffrey Bing, now attorney-general of Ghana but visiting London. They worked out a procedure: Benn would not apply for the writ of summons which would establish him as a peer, would not send his father’s death certificate and his birth certificate to the House of Lords to prove his right to assume the peerage; and would in fact draft an instrument of renunciation, to show that he rejected the peerage. Benn received no support from Gaitskell, who if anything wanted a new, young peer in the House of Lords; but he stimulated considerable press interest in this curious story of what journalists called ‘the reluctant peer’ and he called ‘a persistent commoner’.
Labour Party policy was for the abolition of the Lords, so reform which helped to bring the institution up to date was resisted. Benn decided to make his campaign multi-party, with a group comprising Barbara Castle for Labour, Jeremy Thorpe for the Liberals, and Gerald Nabarro for the Conservatives. He was at pains to widen the campaign so it did not seem a personal boon, ‘to take this particular constitutional absurdity as a symbol of a deeper malaise in Britain today: our failure to adapt ourselves to modern life, our fear for the future and our nostalgic preference for living in the cosy afterglow of past glories’ (Sunday Dispatch, 12 May 1961).
A Committee of Privileges report and a House of Commons debate gave Benn no relief, and an election for the seat of Bristol South East was called. He gained the support of his constituency in a campaign for the voters of Bristol South East to say that they and not parliamentary tradition should choose their MP, and that they were prepared to elect an MP who would be disbarred, following the tradition of John Wilkes, Lionel Rothschild, and Charles Bradlaugh, whose examples Benn cited. He successfully canvassed support from leading figures in the arts and sciences, including Kenneth Tynan, John Osborne, Augustus John, Sir Basil Spence, Benjamin Britten, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Arnold Wesker, Cecil Day Lewis, A. J. Ayer, Jacob Bronowski, and C. P. Snow.
Benn mounted a by-election campaign of great energy and enthusiasm, often campaigning and holding meetings from 6 a.m. to midnight. At the election on 4 May 1961 he received 23,275 votes to the Conservative candidate’s 10,231. He now attempted to enter the House of Commons by the MPs’ entrance, having first ascertained from the speaker, Sir Harry Hylton-Foster, that he would be prepared to prevent Benn’s entering by physical force, which Benn tested in a staged attempt at entry in front of the press. Benn conceded to the doorman that he would only desist to avoid an undignified scuffle, but he had staked his claim to entry.
In further rejections, a seven-hour debate in the House determined that Benn was not permitted to address the House from the bar, and that he could not take his seat. Benn took advice from Michael Zander that he should fight the petition brought by the Conservative Party to unseat him from the seat he had won, on the grounds that he was disbarred. Benn represented himself at the election court, at the Royal Courts of Justice, despite having had no courtroom experience. He spoke for twenty-two hours, citing centuries of peerage law. Sir Andrew Clark represented the Conservative candidate whom Benn had beaten, Malcolm St Clair. Inevitably the court decided against Benn, and St Clair took the seat as MP for Bristol South East. Benn felt a victory in having compelled his opponents ‘to take the law to its own penal absurdity. This is what it really means: a man who has got only just over a third of the votes (in fact he won 30.5 per cent) is now in Parliament’ (Benn Archive, lecture at New College, Oxford, 19 May 1961). Crippling costs were awarded against him, however. Zander organized a public appeal which was widely supported, including by Sir Winston Churchill.
A more liberal attitude in the Conservative Party with Iain Macleod as leader of the House of Commons led to the setting up of a select committee to consider the peerage issue. Reporting in December 1962, it recommended permitting renunciation. Benn used his skills to try to influence the cabinet via members such as Enoch Powell, whom he knew well. He explained that he would keep the issue alive by fighting Bristol South East again, without revealing that the Labour Party had explicitly told him not to do so. ‘These threats are much easier to make than to carry out’, he confided to his diary. The government caved in with the Peerage Bill and Benn became number one in the newly created Renunciation Register. St Clair stood down, and in a by-election on 20 August 1963 (opposed only by a ‘National Fellowship’ candidate and two independents) Bristol South East re-elected Benn as their MP.
Benn’s victory had a greater effect in the Conservative Party than in Labour, with Lord Home and Lord Hailsham becoming Sir Alec Douglas-Home and Quintin Hogg respectively in order to be candidates for the Conservative Party leadership on Harold Macmillan’s resignation. Labour MPs were less impressed by Benn than the media and party members, and his national fame was not reflected in his popularity with the back bench. As previously, he again failed to be elected to the shadow cabinet by his colleagues.
Political life began to impinge on family life in that the four Benn children were at private schools. To continue this into secondary schooling would mean decades of endorsing a system of privilege in education which neither parent supported, and implicitly undermining Labour policy, which was in favour of comprehensive schools. Caroline Benn in particular supported comprehensives, which seemed to her no different from the high school system she had grown up with in the USA, and she became a leading advocate of them nationally. In 1964 the two older boys left Westminster Under School and started at Holland Park School, where the other children were to follow. Caroline was to serve on the governing body of the school, which became something of an advertisement for comprehensives at a time when they were held in suspicion by some, before their expansion under governments of both parties in the 1960s and 1970s.
Harold Wilson appointed Benn as postmaster general after narrowly winning the election of 1964. With his energetic working in shirt sleeves beside his pint mug of tea, Benn was not the sort of minister the civil servants had grown to expect; he determined he would bring the post office into the modern age. He wrote more than 100 official minutes to his senior staff in his first year at the post office, on subjects as various as the design of pillar boxes and free telephones for the elderly.
The post office remit covered the mail service, the telecommunications network, the Post Office Savings Bank, and all television and radio broadcasting. By the time his period of office was over, both posts and telecommunications were making a profit; and he presided over such notable events as the opening of the Post Office Tower and the launch of National Giro, a bank which allowed post offices to compete with commercial banks. An enduring achievement was the introduction of pictorial stamps. Benn had hoped he could reach an agreement with the palace that pictorial stamps need not carry the queen’s head on them; a compromise was reached on a silhouette of her head. Benn’s pictorial stamps stimulated artists in the production of miniscule images and expanded the philatelic trade to such an extent that he was later able to boast that the income this idea had generated for the nation paid his lifetime’s parliamentary and ministerial salary thousands of times over: his career had been ‘cost effective’.
More negatively, Benn promoted the Marine Broadcasting (Offences) Act 1967 which banned offshore ‘pirate’ radio stations. A more creative response would have been to license commercial radio stations, which was the approach of the next Conservative government. It made him unpopular, and not only with the young; his cabinet colleague Richard Crossman wrote that, despite Benn’s abilities, ‘he has at times a kind of mechanical non-conformist self-righteousness about him which seems to come out even more strongly in office’ (Crossman, 227).
Minister of technology
After Labour’s re-election in March 1966 Benn was returned to the post office but appointed to the cabinet post of minister of technology in July. It was a rapidly expanding ministry, taking a key role in an economy which was to be planned by government. Benn’s job was partly as a cheerleader to inspire industry conferences in the merits of training and productivity. ‘Technology serves a higher purpose than mere production’, he said; ‘it offers us a hope for the future’ (Benn Archive, speech to European Organisation for Quality Control, 6 June 1967). His enthusiasm was derided by some cabinet colleagues who did not consider him sufficiently intellectual for the post, but Harold Lever, who worked with him as financial secretary to the Treasury, said, ‘He was a tough negotiator and a ruthless pursuer of his ends, much better than his detractors’ (Adams, 266).
‘Mintech’ had responsibility for the atomic energy industry (about which Benn was at this time a great enthusiast), computers, electronics, telecommunications, machine tools, and merchant shipbuilding. It absorbed the Ministry of Aviation in February 1967, making Benn responsible for the development of Concorde, a passenger plane which would fly at twice the speed of sound. Britain’s future intentions in Europe were underlined by co-operation with the French in designing, building, and flying the plane. It had been agreed as part of a deal between Harold Macmillan and President Charles de Gaulle in 1962 and was based on the reasonable premise that passengers would be prepared to pay for faster travel. The US and the Soviets were working on a similar basis. Concorde was fated to cost vastly more than its projected development costs and to be cursed by the refusal of nations to allow overland flying because of disturbance from the sonic boom as it broke the sound barrier. However, backing out would have incurred severe penalties and cost thousands of high-tech jobs (not a few of them held by people in Benn’s constituency in Bristol); the plane was also popular with the public, though a vociferous campaign argued for its abandonment. Benn had previously opposed Britain’s entry into the Common Market, believing it would make British economic planning difficult, but he was temporarily converted while in office and spoke at a cabinet meeting on 30 April 1967, giving what Barbara Castle called a ‘passionate speech in favour of a technologically united Europe’ (Castle, 249).
In the spring of 1968 Benn felt that he had to make his contribution to the rising mood of radicalism. He wrote in his diary, ‘I am going to make a series of speeches between now and the conference in which I really lay down quite clearly the direction in which I think the party ought to move’ (Benn, diary, 1 April 1968). His most dramatic speech was made on 25 May at the annual conference of the Welsh Council of Labour, where he outlined conditions necessary for the redistribution of political power from institutions to the individual. His six points were freedom of information legislation; improved data collection by government; the holding of referenda; the opening up of the mass media to minority views; the encouragement of representative organizations such as pressure groups and trade unions; and devolution of power to regions and localities. He ended by saying that ‘Beyond parliamentary democracy as we know it, we shall have to find a new popular democracy to replace it’ (Benn Archive, speech to Welsh Council of Labour, 25 May 1968). The speech put him at the forefront of progressive thinking, and indeed by the year 2000, with the passing of the Freedom of Information Act, all of these objectives had been reached to some degree, though in some cases, such as the government collecting data on individuals, they were no longer necessarily considered benign.
Benn followed this with a series of speeches on industrial democracy, leading to clashes with Wilson, who argued that Benn was breaching cabinet responsibility. Benn responded that this could only be the case when there was a policy; here he was discussing matters which had not been considered by the cabinet. It was one of many disagreements with Wilson over Benn’s public persona. For his part Benn disdained Wilson’s underhand behaviour, complaining in his diary that the prime minister had ‘none of the boy scout, public school virtues. Maybe I overstress these, but there is a certain lack of character in him’ (Benn, diary, 3 April 1968).
After Labour’s defeat in 1970 Benn stood for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party against Roy Jenkins; his low poll (46 against 149 for Jenkins) showed once again what little currency he had with his parliamentary colleagues. Friends advised him that to assume leadership in the party he must compromise, but he was not prepared to do so. ‘I would rather stand up for what I believe’, he wrote (Benn, diary, 6 August 1968). He became increasingly outspoken in Labour’s opposition years from 1970 to 1974, allying himself with various radical causes. He became the first male politician to declare himself in favour of the women’s liberation movement, and supported such radical measures as Upper Clyde Shipbuilders taking over the yards when the government refused further funding. He drew closer to the unions, learning the principles of working-class solidarity from such experienced colleagues as Eric Heffer. Another parliamentary colleague, Jack Mendelson, a former lecturer, taught Benn working-class history, and Benn was in future speeches to rouse the late twentieth-century Labour movement in the spirit of the Diggers, the Levellers, and the peasants’ revolt. The spiritual values which informed these revolutionaries made them immediately attractive to Benn and led to his work on Christianity and socialism, included in his first published book, Arguments for Socialism (1979).
Benn’s personal life was shorn of its middle-class trimmings at the same time. He dropped the Wedgwood from his name (it had been a pretentious addition from previous generations, to imply a stronger family connection than there actually was with the famous pottery manufacturer). He was now to be known as Tony Benn everywhere, as he frequently had been anyway (though some opponents continued to call him ‘Wedgie’ Benn). He also dropped reference to his public school education and his Oxford college from his Who’s Who entry. He made no attempt to democratize his accent, which was, like his bearing, aristocratic throughout his life.
Benn made one of his most far-reaching interventions in the context of Edward Heath’s government’s decision to enter the Common Market, which took place on 1 January 1972. Labour (including Benn) supported entry, but Benn said that the people should be heard; there should be a referendum on the issue. The public, the press, and party colleagues were not supportive of the idea initially, but the shadow cabinet was eventually brought round and it became party policy, at which Jenkins resigned as deputy leader, a self-inflicted blow from which his career never recovered. It was entirely Benn’s doing that Labour went into the 1974 election with a policy of having a referendum on continued membership of the Common Market, and therefore garnered all available anti-Common Market votes, including those of Enoch Powell and his supporters, whom he advised to vote Labour.
Industry minister and energy minister
Benn was made industry minister in Harold Wilson’s new government of 1974, to carry forward the government’s proposed National Enterprise Board, public ownership, and planning agreements with industry. The objective was co-operation between government, trade unions, and management, but Benn found himself increasingly reduced to asking for more public money to prop up ailing British companies. Three workers’ co-operatives which he backed failed to thrive, being known by Treasury officials as ‘Benn’s follies’.
Benn was obliged to confront the inexorable decline in manufacturing industry, which occurred whichever government was in power. In 1975 this was attempted with Benn’s Industry Bill, which proposed widespread nationalization, leading to new and sometimes hysterical attacks on Benn from industry and the press. In the event the Industry Act was not in force until after Benn had left the department, and all the supposedly radical interventions in industry for which Benn was excoriated in the press were conducted under legislation enacted by the previous Conservative government.
Wilson sought to emasculate the Bill, leaving Benn’s departmental civil servants free to consider that they were still loyal to the elected government even if they were dilatory on their minister’s objectives. Benn formulated an argument that, drawn from a limited pool of family, school, and university backgrounds, senior civil servants comprised a permanent conservative force at the centre of British life, who had power whichever government was elected. Meanwhile Wilson increasingly resented Benn’s open expression of opinion, which he considered to be an attempt to position himself for a leadership bid by speaking to the wider labour movement over his head. ‘It is simply not acting as a member of a team’, Wilson warned him (Benn Archive, Harold Wilson, 4 July 1974).
Benn was a leading figure in the campaign against continued membership of the Common Market, which he now once again opposed, explaining that seeing its undemocratic workings as a minister had turned him against the institution. He was now subject to extreme criticism from an almost entirely pro-Common Market press, including false stories about Benn and his family which were given by his enemies to newspapers and were sometimes run unchecked. His attitude to the press became increasingly critical and adversarial during the 1970s and 1980s. Few would dispute that at this time of his career Benn was the foremost political orator in the country, but it was insufficient to sway the nation; in the referendum of 5 June 1975 voters decisively backed continued membership. Benn was weakened politically, giving Wilson his opportunity to demote the troublesome secretary of state to the energy department, still a cabinet post but one of less seniority.
After some misgivings Benn accepted the post and was able to take a major role in ensuring that the profits for the extraction of North Sea oil were shared by the oil companies with the taxpayer. This national income, amounting to 25 per cent of oil revenues, was to bankroll government spending in the 1980s. His negotiations with industry attracted the admiration of people such as Lord Kearton, chairman of the British National Oil Corporation. He also entered again into the complexities of nuclear policy for which he was no longer an enthusiast, reflecting ‘growing uncertainties about the economics of nuclear power’, as he reported in a paper to cabinet (Benn Archive, ‘Nuclear Power’, 2 May 1977).
As energy minister Benn was able to reinforce his relationship with the miners, for whom he had a profound respect. Kearton remarked that, for all his abilities, Benn’s ‘Achilles’ heel was that he thought anyone who was a union shop steward was a good man. He was too idealistic where the unions were concerned’ (Adams, 374).
Conflict in the Labour Party
Benn was popular with the party rank and file, coming first in the constituency section of the poll for the national executive, a position he held for a decade. The political landscape was being changed by such organizations as the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, which campaigned for rule book changes to the party which would make MPs and a Labour government more responsive to the wishes of the membership. They called for mandatory re-selection of MPs; for the leader to be elected on a wider franchise; and for the manifesto to be under the control of the party and not solely the parliamentarians. All of these issues were hotly debated in the years that followed Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979. Benn was the hero of the left in the internal battles of the Labour Party, but by backing the mandatory re-selection of MPs he put further distance between himself and his parliamentary colleagues, who resented being made to ‘jump through the hoop’ of re-selection even if their constituencies had no disagreement with them.
More than twenty Labour MPs followed the ‘gang of four’ out of the Labour Party to the new Social Democratic Party, founded in March 1981, which split the anti-Conservative vote throughout the period of Margaret Thatcher’s ascendancy. The Labour left, and therefore Tony Benn as its tribune, was in decline. Conflict in the Labour Party came to a head with the first election under the new rules in September 1981 when Benn and Healey competed for the deputy leadership. It was an acrimonious contest, given wide publicity far in excess of the importance of the post involved, because it was taken as a battle for the soul of the Labour Party. When Benn went into hospital in May 1981 with neurological symptoms (later diagnosed as Guillain-Barré syndrome) it was seriously questioned whether he had been poisoned. In the election the Labour Party’s soul was shown to be evenly divided, with Healey winning by less than 1 per cent. Neil Kinnock, formerly seen as a left-winger, was a decisive opponent and thus positioned himself as a future leader.
Benn moved towards moral rather than strictly political positions, in future years campaigning against nuclear weapons, the Falklands War, the Gulf War in 1991, and the invasions of Afghanistan and of Iraq. He enjoyed genuine enthusiasm from the left, from Quakers and other religious thinkers who supported his anti-war stances, and notably from young people, but he was never again to have a ministerial position or a senior post in the Labour Party other than as a member of the national executive, from which he was voted off in 1993.
A boundary re-assignment did away with Benn’s Bristol South East constituency before the 1983 election, in which he stood unsuccessfully for the newly created constituency of Bristol East. He was devastated to lose his constituency. He was a rarity among MPs in genuinely enjoying constituency surgeries, where he treated those who came to see him like part of an extended family. He was bereft that he would no longer see them. When the seat of Chesterfield fell vacant later that year, however (the Labour incumbent, Eric Varley, having resigned in order to become chairman of Coalite plc), he put himself forward and was selected, winning the subsequent by-election in March 1984, in time to be an MP for a mining constituency at the time of the cataclysmic mining strike of 1984–5, in which his solidarity with the striking miners was exemplary.
The Benn diaries
As part of his mission of ‘speaking out for socialism in the eighties’ Benn decided in 1985, on his sixtieth birthday, to publish the diaries he had been keeping since he was a teenager. This task of keeping a daily diary sometimes added two hours to an already arduous working day. It was a burden that he valued both as a record of events and an aid to the contemplation of them. He said, ‘when you have a diary you get three bites at your own experience: when it happens, when you write it down and when you read it later and realize you were wrong’ (personal knowledge). In order to get the diaries into publishable shape he began an enduring professional relationship with Ruth Winstone, who was charged with editing what was at that stage 10 million words of typescript into a series of volumes to be published by Hutchinson. The project eventually reduced 15 million words into nine printed volumes, published over a twenty-six-year period.
The diaries, to which Benn continued to add until near the end of his life, were one of the longest accounts of public and private life ever published in Britain. The first, Out of the Wilderness (1987), covered the period of the election of the Wilson government and Benn’s first taste of office between 1963 and 1967. Publication was non-consecutive; a volume dealing with his diaries from 1940 to 1962 was published in 1994. The last to be published, A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine (2013), took Benn’s diary entries up to 2009, with a memoir of the years to 2013. Some of the enduring interest of the diaries is not Benn’s political life but his lively interest in the people around him; he would collect stories from other travellers on train journeys, record cases from his constituency surgery, or draw thumbnail sketches of people he had met outside buildings on his frequent smoking breaks.
‘More time for politics’
In the 1990s Benn continued as a voice of the left in the Labour Party, where focus groups had replaced policy discussions; he was not sorry to leave Labour’s national executive after thirty-five years of service. The culture of the party had become uncongenial to him; he complained that their papers ‘look more like the board room minutes of a private company’ than those of a political party (Adams, 454). He felt this was symptomatic of the managerial culture he believed was being imposed on British society by politicians who had abandoned principle for short-term electoral gain.
Benn’s life darkened with Caroline’s diagnosis of cancer in 1995, from which she died five years later. It had been an unusually happy union, particularly by the standards of most political marriages, and Benn never fully recovered his cheerful demeanour after her death. The commiserations for his wife’s death became combined with congratulations for the fiftieth anniversary of his first election to parliament, on 30 November 2000. His parliamentary colleagues now included his son Hilary, who had been elected to the House of Commons as MP for Leeds Central in 1999. Benn senior retired from parliament in 2001, saying in words he attributed to Caroline that it would give him ‘more time for politics’.
In the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, Benn flew to Baghdad and interviewed Saddam Hussein on camera, asking him point blank if Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the casus belli of the Western allies, to which Saddam truthfully replied he did not. Benn was not an admirer of Saddam, he said; ‘I don’t know whether I believed Saddam or not. The one thing I knew was that I didn’t believe Bush or Blair’ (Powell, xvi). The television broadcast reinforced Benn’s position as a world authority and a voice for peace in the Middle East. He was president of the Stop the War Coalition and addressed the national demonstration against the war on 15 February 2003, which, though estimates disagreed on the exact number (the police estimated in excess of 750,000 attendees while the organizers assessed the figure as 2 million), was the largest demonstration ever held in Britain. There were similar protest meetings in sixty countries around the world.
In the twenty-first century Benn was seen as a principled survivor. He had never been more popular with the public, and even the press now warmed to him. Recognizing that there was an audience for Benn, the theatre impresario Clive Conway set up a show, ‘An Evening with Tony Benn’, with the 75-year-old Benn giving a talk on democracy and world politics. For the second half of the evening the paying guests, frequently in large, sold-out venues, would ask questions of Benn as he sat in an armchair on stage with his trademark mug of tea beside him and a pipe in his hand. Among his favourite pieces of advice was the questions he said must be asked of anyone in power: ‘What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interest do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?’ (Adams, 482).
When other politicians had long since abandoned public meetings, Benn was still packing audiences in, with young people prominent in the demographic. One key to his continued success was that he was always willing to listen; in old age he listened to the arguments of his grandchildren who, he said, convinced him to support the legalization of cannabis, about which he had been equivocal. He was now frequently to be seen in the company of glamorous young women, including the journalist Jemima Khan, the actress Saffron Burrows, and the newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky.
Benn collapsed at the Labour Party conference in Brighton in 2005 and was fitted with a pacemaker. He went into hospital for a routine operation in July 2009 and there made his last diary entry. The operation was accompanied by a health collapse from which he never fully recovered, though he raised himself to such events as a rally to oppose the bombing of Libya in 2011, where he approached the platform hesitantly but in front of an audience was transformed: he was as humorous, lively, and strident as ever, speaking without notes on a complex issue of world politics.
Unable to keep up the large family house on Holland Park Avenue, Benn moved to a warden-assisted flat around the corner in Chartwell House, Ladbroke Terrace, in 2011 and died there on 14 March 2014, surrounded by his family. The speaker of the house, John Bercow, allowed Benn the honour of ‘resting’ overnight in the chapel of St Mary Undercroft in the House of Commons, only the second person (after Margaret Thatcher) to be permitted such an honour, before his funeral at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, on 27 March.
After Benn’s death commentators were as divided as they had been in his life, with critics (from left and right) arguing that his had been a negative influence, such as that he ‘arguably marginalised the party for a generation’ (Daily Telegraph, 15 March 2014). He was admired across party lines for his oratory, though not for his judgement. Reports agreed on his charm, and that he was an endearing family man and a principled politician. Commentators respected the fact that he kept personal abuse out of political controversy. His former parliamentary colleagues valued his example that it was possible for a politician to be widely respected even when he was saying challenging or unpopular things. His former colleague Tam Dalyell called him ‘the most successful political prophet in British history’ (The Independent, 16 March 2014). Many, including those with whom he had disagreements, spoke of his inspiring campaigning, fulfilling the promise he wanted as his epitaph: ‘he encouraged us’.
Benn’s enduring political achievements were the Peerage Act allowing renunciation, which fatally damaged the hereditary principle in the House of Lords, and the referendum on the Common Market in 1975. When he proposed a referendum it was thought of as a bizarre notion; but the promise of it succeeded in returning the Labour Party to power in 1974, and was an essential precursor to the referendum of 2016. Culturally Benn’s contribution is the vast work of his diaries, which are a monument to a life of passionate engagement, and also the chronicle of a middle-class family. Both characteristics make them enduringly valuable.
Tony Benn stood in a continuing tradition of articulate dissent. He was in an older historical mould than his contemporaries. He would not have been out of place on a platform with John Stuart Mill. With his comfortable background, superior abilities, passionate social commitment, and effortless style, he appeared as the last of the nineteenth-century radical whigs.
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