Britain was rocked on Friday by the tragic news of the death of Tony Benn. The radical Labour politician, an MP from 1950-2001, became a hero of the British left, particularly after the 1970s.
Benn had a privileged background: as a child he attended the elite Westminster School, earning a place to study PPE at New College, Oxford. His father, William Benn, was Secretary of State for India in the first Labour government, whilst Benn himself was in line to inherit a seat in the House of Lords, as 2nd Viscount Stansgate. Most people growing up in a family of such wealth and status would develop a narrow understanding of the world, unable and eventually unwilling to see life through the eyes of working people. But not Tony Benn.
Benn was elected as the MP for Bristol South East in 1950, at the tender age of 25. He quickly developed a reputation as a modern, witty and charismatic figure. He was gifted in the older political art of public speaking, but equally so with the television camera- something of an advantage in ’50s Britain, where most of the political class remained “telephobic”.
During the first decade of his political career, Benn was what we would come a “young, up and coming” politician associated with the centre-ground of the Labour Party. This began to change in 1960, when Benn inherited the Viscount Stansgate title and was disqualified from the House of Commons (people may not sit in both the Lords and the Commons). Benn attracted support from the Labour grassroots when he campaigned for the right to renounce his title, and succeeded after three years of hard campaigning. Famously, he renounced his seat in the Lords just 20 minutes after the legislation permitting it was passed. Quite literally, he could not wait until the ink was dry to return to the electoral scene.
Benn ascended to frontbench politics upon the election of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964. As Postmaster General, Benn implemented a number of innovative policies, such as the National Girobank (a state-owned bank, operating out of Post Offices, which extended low-cost services such as current accounts to those left out by other banks, especially the working class) and Postbus, which saw post vans doubled up as buses to improve public transport in rural areas. A touch of radicalism also began to creep into Benn’s politics, with his (unsuccessful) attempt to have postage stamps redesigned sans the iconic portrait of the Queen.
It is said that people tend to become more right-wing as they get older, as the pain of life squeezes out any trace of idealism or hope. In Benn we have the rare case of a Cabinet minister becoming more left-wing and spirited as time progressed. He attributed this to his experience as a Cabinet minister in the first Wilson government convincing him that conservatism was woven into the very way government and the Labour Party worked. That is a debate that we could have for ages, but it undoubtedly showed in Benn’s conduct as the Secretary of State for Industry upon Labour’s return to power in 1974. His one-year tenure in that role saw the government dabble in industrial democracy (fostering worker co-operatives); a more friendly approach with the trade unions; and the passing of the Health and Safety Act, which remains largely intact today. Though “health and safety” is much derided today as a manifestation of the “nanny state”, we should remember how important it is to guaranteeing decent working conditions and public spaces for everyone.
Who knows what other achievements Benn could have made in reforming the British economy if he had had longer to work on it. He was reshuffled to Energy, undoubtedly a demotion intended to punish him for his role in the “No” campaign in the referendum on Britain’s staying in the European Economic Community and his increasingly critical tone towards government policy. All it did was give Benn the spare time to lead internal opposition towards the IMF-imposed austerity programme from 1976. It was at this time that he made his first bid for Leadership of the Labour Party, following the resignation of Harold Wilson. At the time, the Leader was elected solely by Labour MPs, who were much more conservative than grassroots members. Consequently, Benn came 4th with just 11% of the vote.
His resignation from the Labour frontbench following its defeat in the 1979 marked the peak of his power but not of his profile. Benn was the subject of brutal attacks by the press, branding him part of the “loony left”- the growing left wing of the Labour Party advocating policies that were polar opposites of Thatcherism. But it was Benn that the Establishment feared, for if any politician could sell a radical manifesto to the country it would be Benn, not the likes of Michael Foot or even Ken Livingstone. When Tony Benn spoke of unilateral disarmament, withdrawal from the EEC and unprecedented redistribution of wealth; it scared the Establishment because he might just have made it happen. We don’t know what the world would have looked like if he had actually secured the leadership of the Labour Party in the 1980s, if Bennite-style “socialism plus” had been offered to the electorate, but this great intellectual and fighter was not the focus of the Left’s attention for no reason.
At the outset of the 1980s, Benn looked like he was destined for the top of British politics, as the ideology he devoted his career to was in the ascendency. Imagine how it must have felt a decade later when his party was moving in the “wrong” direction (seemingly irreversibly), his supporters had become a weak force in the Labour Party and he was increasingly written off as a “loon”. In his shoes, most of us would have left politics, or the Labour Party. Tony Benn fought on, unafraid to cause trouble on the backbenchers were he sought fit. On several occasions, he attempted to introduce legislation that would abolish the monarchy and the House of Lords. It’s a wonder that he served on the backbenches for four years of New Labour government without a serious run-in with Tony Blair, who is in many ways Benn’s opposite. Pragmatic rather than ideological. Vacant rather than philosophical. Smooth rather than honest.
Tony Benn left the House of Commons in 2001, “in order to spend more time on politics”. He served as President of the Stop the War coalition and later the Coalition of Resistance against Cuts and Privatisation. He was a busy writer, authoring several perceptive books and articles on topics as diverse as socialism, the British constitution, history and activism- as well as publishing his diaries, which he kept studiously from his early twenties to his death. He released his final volume, A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, last year. If you haven’t read any of his works yet, I strongly recommend you do so: they offer a sharp, honest and witty account of the thoughts of a truly brilliant mind and a snapshot of a political stage that has transformed over the past sixty years.
Tony Benn will be remembered as a political hero who contributed greatly to British politics and to socialist thinking. His belief in doing what is right instead of what is convienient, and his commitment to achieving something bigger than day-to-day wrangling over headlines and opinion polls, is what marks him out as a politician with a difference. The best way to honour his memory is to take up the fight for social justice where he left off.
We will miss Tony Benn.