ANTHONY NEIL WEDGWOOD BENN (3 April 1925 – 14 March 2014),
originally known as ANTHONY WEDGWOOD BENN, but later as TONY BENN, was
a British politician, writer, and diarist . He was a member of
parliament (MP) for 47 years between the 1950 and 2001 general
elections and a Cabinet minister in the Labour governments of Harold
James Callaghan in the 1960s and 1970s. Originally a
moderate, he was identified as being on the party's hard left from the
early 1980s, and was widely seen as a key proponent of democratic
socialism within the party.
Benn inherited a peerage on his father's death (as 2nd Viscount
Stansgate ), which prevented his continuing as an MP. He fought to
remain in the House of Commons , and then campaigned for the ability
to renounce the title, a campaign which succeeded with the
1963 . He was an active member of the
Fabian Society and was its Chair
from 1964 until 1965. In the Labour Government of 1964–70 he served
first as Postmaster General , where he oversaw the opening of the Post
Office Tower , and later as a "technocratic"
Minister of Technology .
He served as Chairman of the Labour Party in 1971–72 while in
opposition , and in the Labour Government of 1974–1979 , he returned
to the Cabinet, initially as Secretary of State for Industry , before
being made Secretary of State for Energy , retaining his post when
James Callaghan replaced Wilson as Prime Minister . When the Labour
Party was again in opposition through the 1980s, he emerged as a
prominent figure on its left wing and the term "Bennite" came into
currency as someone associated with radical left-wing politics. He
Neil Kinnock for the Labour leadership in
Benn was described as "one of the few UK politicians to have become
more left-wing after holding ministerial office". After leaving
Parliament, Benn was President of the
Stop the War Coalition from 2001
until his death in 2014.
* 1 Early life and family
* 2 Early parliamentary career
* 2.1 Member of Parliament, 1950–1960
* 3 In government, 1964–1970
* 4 In government, 1974–1979
* 4.1 Move to the left
* 5 In opposition, 1979–1997
* 6 Prior to retirement, 1997–2001
* 7 Retirement and final years, 2001–2014
* 8 Illness and death
* 9 Diaries and biographies
* 10 Plaques
* 11 Legacy
* 12 Styles
* 13 Bibliography
* 13.1 Diaries
* 14 See also
* 15 References
* 16 External links
EARLY LIFE AND FAMILY
Benn was born in London on 3 April 1925. He had two brothers,
Michael, who was older, and David, a specialist in Russia and Eastern
Europe. Their father, William Wedgwood Benn , was a Liberal Member of
Parliament from 1906 who crossed the floor to the Labour Party in 1928
and was appointed
Secretary of State for India by
Ramsay MacDonald in
1929, a position he held until the Labour Party's landslide electoral
defeat in 1931. William Benn was elevated to the
House of Lords
House of Lords with
the title of
Viscount Stansgate in 1942 – the new wartime coalition
government was short of working Labour peers in the upper house. In
1945–46, William Benn was the
Secretary of State for Air in the
first majority Labour Government .
Margaret Wedgwood Benn (née Holmes, 1897–1991), was
a theologian, feminist and the founder President of the Congregational
Federation. She was a member of the League of the Church Militant,
which was the predecessor of the Movement for the Ordination of Women;
in 1925, she was rebuked by
Randall Davidson , the Archbishop of
Canterbury , for advocating the ordination of women . His mother's
theology had a profound influence on Benn, as she taught him that the
stories in the Bible were based around the struggle between the
prophets and the kings and that he ought in his life to support the
prophets over the kings, who had power, as the prophets taught
Benn asserted that the teachings of
Jesus Christ had a "radical
political importance" on his life, and made a distinction between the
historical Jesus as "a carpenter of Nazareth" who advocated social
justice and egalitarianism and "the way in which he's presented by
some religious authorities; by popes, archbishops and bishops who
present Jesus as justification for their power", believing this to be
a gross misunderstanding of the role of Jesus. He believed that it
was a "great mistake" to assume that the teachings of Christianity are
outdated in modern Britain, and Higgins wrote in The Benn Inheritance
that Benn was "a socialist whose political commitment owes much more
to the teaching of Jesus than the writing of Marx". Later in his
life, Benn emphasised issues regarding morality and righteousness, as
well as various ethical principles of
Nonconformism . "I've never
thought we can understand the world we lived in unless we understood
the history of the church", Benn said to the
Catholic Herald . "All
political freedoms were won, first of all, through religious freedom.
Some of the arguments about the control of the media today, which are
very big arguments, are the arguments that would have been fought in
the religious wars. You have the satellites coming in now – well, it
is the multinational church all over again. That's why Mrs Thatcher
pulled Britain out of
UNESCO : she was not prepared, any more than
Ronald Reagan was, to be part of an organisation that talked about a
New World Information Order , people speaking to each other without
the help of Murdoch or Maxwell ." According to Peter Wilby in the New
Statesman , Benn "decided to do without the paraphernalia and doctrine
of organised religion but not without the teachings of Jesus".
Although Benn became more agnostic as he became older, he was
intrigued by the interconnections between Christianity, radicalism and
socialism. Wilby also wrote in
The Guardian that although former
Stafford Cripps described Benn as "as keen a Christian as I
am myself", Benn wrote in 2005 that he was "a Christian agnostic" who
believed "in Jesus the prophet, not Christ the king", specifically
rejecting the label of "humanist ".
Both of Benn's grandfathers were Liberal Party MPs; his paternal
grandfather was John Benn , a successful politician, MP for Tower
Hamlets and later Devonport , who was created a baronet in 1914 (and
who founded a publishing company, Benn Brothers ), and his maternal
Daniel Holmes , MP for Glasgow Govan . Benn's contact
with leading politicians of the day, dates back to his earliest years.
He met Prime Minister
Ramsay MacDonald when he was five years old,
whom he described as: "A kindly old gentleman leaned over me and
offered me a chocolate biscuit. I've looked at Labour leaders in a
funny way ever since." Benn also met former Liberal Prime Minister
David Lloyd George
David Lloyd George when he was twelve, and later recalled that, while
still a boy, he once shook hands with
Mahatma Gandhi ; in 1931, while
his father was
Secretary of State for India .
Second World War
Second World War , Benn joined and trained with the Home
Guard from the age of sixteen, later recalling in a speech made in
2009: "I could use a bayonet, a rifle, a revolver, and if I'd seen a
German officer having a meal I'd have tossed a grenade through the
window. Would I have been a freedom fighter or a terrorist?"
In July 1943, Benn enlisted in the
Royal Air Force
Royal Air Force as an aircraftman
2nd Class. His father and elder brother Michael (who was later killed
in an accident) were already serving in the RAF. He was granted an
emergency commission as a pilot officer (on probation) on 10 March
1945. As a pilot officer, Benn served as a pilot in South Africa and
Rhodesia . He relinquished his commission with effect from 10 August
1945, three months after the
Second World War
Second World War ended in Europe on 8
May, and just days before the war with Japan ended on 2 September.
After attending Mr Gladstone\'s day school near Sloane Square, Benn
Westminster School , and studied at
New College, Oxford ,
where he read
Philosophy, Politics and Economics and was elected
President of the
Oxford Union in 1947. In later life, Benn removed
public references to his private education from Who\'s Who ; in 1970
all references to
Westminster School were removed; in the 1975
edition his entry stated "Education—still in progress". In the 1976
edition, almost all details were omitted save for his name, jobs as a
member of parliament and as a Government Minister, and address; the
publishers confirmed that Benn had sent back the draft entry with
everything else struck through. In the 1977 edition, Benn's entry
disappeared entirely, and when he returned to Who's Who in 1983, he
was listed as "Tony Benn" and all references to his education or
service record were removed.
In 1972, Benn said in his diaries that "Today I had the idea that I
would resign my Privy Councillorship, my MA and all my honorary
doctorates in order to strip myself of what the world had to offer".
While he acknowledged that he "might be ridiculed" for doing so, Benn
said that "But 'Wedgie Benn' and 'the Rt Honourable Anthony Wedgwood
Benn' and all that stuff is impossible. I have been
Tony Benn in
Bristol for a long time." In October 1973, he announced on BBC Radio
that he wished to be known as Mr.
Tony Benn rather than Anthony
Wedgwood Benn, and his book Speeches from 1974 is credited to "Tony
Benn". Despite this name change, social historian Alwyn W. Turner
writes that "Just as those with an agenda to pursue still call
Muhammed Ali by his original name ... so most newspapers continued to
Tony Benn as Wedgwood Benn, or Wedgie in the case of the
tabloids, for years to come (some older Tories were still doing so
three decades later)."
Benn met Caroline Middleton DeCamp (born 13 October 1926, Cincinnati
, Ohio, United States) over tea at
Worcester College, Oxford
Worcester College, Oxford , in 1949
and just nine days after meeting her; he proposed to her on a park
bench in the city. Later, he bought the bench from Oxford City Council
and installed it in the garden of their home in
Holland Park . Tony
and Caroline had four children – Stephen , Hilary , Melissa , a
feminist writer, and Joshua – and ten grandchildren. Caroline Benn
died of cancer on 22 November 2000, aged 74, after a career as an
Two of Benn's children have been active in Labour Party politics. His
eldest son Stephen was an elected Member of the Inner London Education
Authority from 1986 to 1990. His second son Hilary was a councillor in
London, stood for Parliament in 1983 and 1987 , and becoming Labour MP
for Leeds Central in 1999. He was Secretary of State for International
Development from 2003 to 2007, and then Secretary of State for
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs until 2010, later serving as
Shadow Foreign Secretary (2015–16). This makes him the third
generation of his family to have been a member of the Cabinet , a rare
distinction for a modern political family in Britain. Benn's
Emily Benn was the Labour Party's youngest-ever
candidate when she failed to win East Worthing and Shoreham in 2010 .
Benn was a first cousin once removed of the actress Margaret
He became a vegetarian in 1970, for ethical reasons, and remained so
for the rest of his life.
EARLY PARLIAMENTARY CAREER
MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT, 1950–1960
Following the Second World War, Benn worked briefly as a BBC Radio
producer. On 1 November 1950, he was selected to succeed Stafford
Cripps as the Labour candidate for Bristol South East , after Cripps
stood down because of ill-health. He won the seat in a by-election on
30 November 1950 .
Anthony Crosland helped him get the seat as he was
the MP for nearby South Gloucestershire at the time. Upon taking the
oath on 4 December 1950 Benn became "
Baby of the House
Baby of the House ", the
youngest MP, for one day, being succeeded by Thomas Teevan , who was
two years younger but took his oath a day later. He became the "Baby"
again in 1951, when Teevan was not re-elected. In the 1950s, Benn held
middle-of-the-road or soft left views, and was not associated with the
young left wing group around
Aneurin Bevan .
As MP for Bristol South East, Benn helped organise the 1963 Bristol
Bus Boycott against the colour bar of the Bristol Omnibus Company
Black British and
British Asian drivers. Benn said
that he would "stay off the buses, even if I have to find a bike", and
Harold Wilson also told an anti-apartheid rally in
London he was "glad that so many Bristolians are supporting the
campaign", adding that he "wish them every success".
Benn's father had been created
Viscount Stansgate in 1942 when
Winston Churchill increased the number of Labour peers to aid
political work in the House of Lords; at this time, Benn's elder
brother Michael was intending to enter the priesthood and had no
objections to inheriting a peerage . However, Michael was later killed
in an accident while on active service in the Second World War, and
this left Benn as the heir to the peerage. He made several
unsuccessful attempts to renounce the succession.
In November 1960, Lord Stansgate died. Benn automatically became a
peer, preventing him from sitting in the House of Commons . The
Speaker of the Commons, Sir
Harry Hylton-Foster , did not allow him to
deliver a speech from the bar of the House of Commons in April 1961
when the by-election was being called. Continuing to maintain his
right to abandon his peerage, Benn fought to retain his seat in a
by-election caused by his succession on 4 May 1961. Although he was
disqualified from taking his seat, he was re-elected. An election
court found that the voters were fully aware that Benn was
disqualified, and declared the seat won by the Conservative runner-up,
Malcolm St Clair , who was at the time also the heir presumptive to a
Benn continued his campaign outside Parliament. Within two years,
though, the Conservative Government of the time, which had members in
the same or similar situation to Benn's (i.e., who were going to
receive title, or who had already applied for writs of summons),
changed the law. The
Peerage Act 1963 , allowing lifetime disclaimer
of peerages, became law shortly after 6 pm on 31 July 1963. Benn was
the first peer to renounce his title, doing so at 6.22 pm that day.
St Clair, fulfilling a promise he had made at the time of his
election, then accepted the office of Steward of the Manor of
Northstead , disqualifying himself from the House (outright
resignation not being possible ). Benn returned to the Commons after
winning a by-election on 20 August 1963.
IN GOVERNMENT, 1964–1970
In the 1964 Government led by Harold Wilson, Benn was Postmaster
General , where he oversaw the opening of the Post Office Tower , then
the UK\'s tallest building , and the creations of the Post Bus service
Girobank . He proposed issuing stamps without the Sovereign 's
head, but this met with private opposition from the Queen . Instead,
the portrait was reduced to a small profile in silhouette, a format
that is still used on commemorative stamps.
Benn also led the government's opposition to the "pirate" radio
stations broadcasting from international waters, which he was aware
would be an unpopular measure. Some of these stations were causing
problems, such as interference to emergency radio used by shipping,
although he was not responsible for introducing the Marine
Broadcasting Offences Bill when it came before Parliament at the end
of July 1966 for its first reading.
Earlier in the month, Benn was promoted to
Minister of Technology ,
which included responsibility for the development of
Concorde and the
formation of International Computers Ltd (ICL). The period also saw
government involvement in industrial rationalisation, and the merger
of several car companies to form
British Leyland . Following
Enoch Powell 's 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech to a
Conservative Association meeting, in opposition to
Harold Wilson 's
insistence on not "stirring up the Powell issue", Benn said during
the 1970 general election campaign:
The flag of racialism which has been hoisted in Wolverhampton is
beginning to look like the one that fluttered 25 years ago over Dachau
and Belsen . If we do not speak up now against the filthy and obscene
racialist propaganda ... the forces of hatred will mark up their first
success and mobilise their first offensive...
Enoch Powell has emerged
as the real leader of the Conservative Party. He is a far stronger
character than Mr. Heath . He speaks his mind; Heath does not. The
final proof of Powell's power is that Heath dare not attack him
publicly, even when he says things things that disgust decent
The mainstream press attacked Benn for using language deemed as
intemperate as Powell's language in his "Rivers of Blood" speech
(which was widely regarded as racist), and Benn noted in his diary
that "letters began pouring in on the Powell speech: 2:1 against me
but some very sympathetic ones saying that my speech was overdue".
Harold Wilson later reprimanded Benn for this speech, accusing him of
losing Labour seats in the 1970 general election.
Labour lost the 1970 election to
Edward Heath 's Conservatives and
upon Heath's application to join the
European Economic Community , a
surge in left-wing
Euroscepticism emerged. Benn "was stridently
against membership", and campaigned in favour of a referendum on the
UK's membership. The Shadow Cabinet voted to support a referendum on
29 March 1972, and as a result
Roy Jenkins resigned as Deputy Leader
of the Labour Party .
IN GOVERNMENT, 1974–1979
In the Labour Government of 1974 Benn was Secretary of State for
Industry and as such increased nationalised industry pay, provided
better terms and conditions for workers such as the Health and Safety
at Work Act 1974 and was involved in setting up worker cooperatives in
firms which were struggling, the best known being at Meriden ,
Coventry , producing Triumph Motorcycles. In 1975 he was
appointed Secretary of State for Energy , immediately following his
unsuccessful campaign for a "No" vote in the referendum on the UK\'s
continued membership of the European Community (Common Market) . Later
in his diary (25 October 1977) Benn wrote that he "loathed" the EEC;
he claimed it was "bureaucratic and centralised" and "of course it is
really dominated by Germany. All the Common Market countries except
the UK have been occupied by Germany, and they have this mixed feeling
of hatred and subservience towards the Germans".
Upon the death of
Mao Zedong in 1976, Benn described Mao as "one of
the greatest – if not the greatest – figures of the twentieth
century: a schoolteacher who transformed China, released it from civil
war and foreign attack and constructed a new society there" in his
diaries, adding that "he certainly towers above any twentieth-century
figure I can think of in his philosophical contribution and military
genius". On his trip to the Chinese embassy after Mao's death, Benn
recorded in an earlier volume of his diaries that he was "a great
admirer of Mao", while also admitting that "he made mistakes, because
Harold Wilson resigned as Leader of the Labour Party and Prime
Minister in March 1976. Benn later attributed the collapse of the
Wilson government to cuts enforced on the UK by global capital , in
particular the International Monetary Fund. In the resulting
leadership contest Benn came in fourth out of the six cabinet
ministers who stood – he withdrew as 11.8% of colleagues voted for
him in the first ballot. Benn withdrew from the second ballot and
Michael Foot ;
James Callaghan eventually won. Despite not
receiving his support in the second and third rounds of the vote,
Callaghan kept Benn on as Energy Secretary. In 1976 there was a
sterling crisis, and
Chancellor of the Exchequer
Denis Healey sought a
loan from the
International Monetary Fund
International Monetary Fund . Underlining a wish to
counter international market forces which seemed to penalise a larger
welfare state , Benn publicly circulated the divided Cabinet minutes
in which a narrow majority of the Labour Cabinet under Ramsay
MacDonald supported a cut in unemployment benefits in order to obtain
a loan from American bankers. As he highlighted, these minutes
resulted in the 1931 split of the Labour Party in which MacDonald and
his allies formed a National Government with Conservatives and
Liberals. Callaghan allowed Benn to put forward the Alternative
Economic Strategy , which consisted of a self-sufficient economy less
dependent on low-rate fresh borrowing, but the AES, which according to
opponents would have led to a "siege economy", was rejected by the
Cabinet. In response, Benn later recalled that: "I retorted that
their policy was a siege economy, only they had the bankers inside the
castle with all our supporters left outside, whereas my policy would
have our supporters in the castle with the bankers outside." Benn
Winter of Discontent
Winter of Discontent on these cuts to socialist policies.
MOVE TO THE LEFT
By the end of the 1970s, Benn had migrated to the left wing of the
Labour Party. He attributed this political shift to his experience as
a Cabinet Minister in the 1964–1970 Labour Government . Benn
ascribed his move to the left to four lessons:
* How "the Civil Service can frustrate the policies and decisions of
popularly elected governments"
* The centralised nature of the Labour Party which allowed the
Leader to run "the Party almost as if it were his personal kingdom"
* "The power of industrialists and bankers to get their way by use
of the crudest form of economic pressure, even blackmail, against a
* The power of the media, which "like the power of the medieval
Church, ensures that events of the day are always presented from the
point of the view of those who enjoy economic privilege"
As regards the power of industrialists and bankers, Benn remarked:
Compared to this, the pressure brought to bear in industrial disputes
by the unions is minuscule. This power was revealed even more clearly
in 1976 when the
International Monetary Fund
International Monetary Fund secured cuts in our
public expenditure. ... These lessons led me to the conclusion that
the UK is only superficially governed by MPs and the voters who elect
them. Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means
of securing a periodical change in the management team, which is then
allowed to preside over a system that remains in essence intact. If
the British people were ever to ask themselves what power they truly
enjoyed under our political system they would be amazed to discover
how little it is, and some new Chartist agitation might be born and
might quickly gather momentum.
Benn's philosophy consisted of a form of syndicalism , state planning
where necessary to ensure national competitiveness, greater democracy
in the structures of the Labour Party and observance of Party
Conference decisions. Alongside an alleged twelve Labour MPs, he
spent twelve years affiliated with the Institute for Workers\' Control
, beginning in 1971 when he visited the Upper Clyde Shipyards, arguing
in 1975 for the "labour movement to intensify its discussion about
industrial democracy ".
He was vilified by most of the press while his opponents implied and
stated that a Benn-led Labour Government would implement a type of
Eastern European socialism, with
Edward Heath referring to Benn as
Commissar Benn" and others referring to Benn as a "Bollinger
Bolshevik ". Despite this, Benn was overwhelmingly popular with
Labour activists in the constituencies: a survey of delegates at the
Labour Party Conference in 1978 found that by large margins they
supported Benn for the leadership, as well as many Bennite policies.
He publicly supported
Sinn Féin and the unification of Ireland ,
although in 2005 he suggested to
Sinn Féin leaders that it abandon
its long-standing policy of not taking seats at Westminster
Sinn Féin in turn argued that to do so would
recognise Britain's claim over
Northern Ireland , and the Sinn Féin
constitution prevented its elected members from taking their seats in
any British-created institution. A supporter of the Scottish
Parliament and political devolution , Benn however opposed the
Scottish National Party and
Scottish independence , saying: "I think
nationalism is a mistake. And I am half Scots and feel it would divide
me in half with a knife. The thought that my mother would suddenly be
a foreigner would upset me very much."
In British politics during this period, the term BENNISM came into
use to describe the conviction politics , economic, social and
political ideology of Tony Benn; and an exponent or advocate of
Bennism was regarded as a BENNITE.
IN OPPOSITION, 1979–1997
In a keynote speech to the Labour Party Conference of 1980, shortly
before the resignation of party leader
James Callaghan and election of
Michael Foot as successor, Benn outlined what he envisaged the next
Labour Government would do. "Within days", a Labour Government would
gain powers to nationalise industries, control capital and implement
industrial democracy; "within weeks", all powers from Brussels would
be returned to Westminster, and the
House of Lords
House of Lords would be abolished
by creating one thousand new peers and then abolishing the peerage.
Benn received tumultuous applause. On 25 January 1981, Roy Jenkins,
David Owen ,
Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers (known collectively as
the "Gang of Four") launched the Council for Social Democracy, which
became the Social Democratic Party in March. The "Gang of Four" left
the Labour Party because of what they perceived to be the influence of
Militant tendency and the Bennite "hard left " within the party.
Benn was highly critical of the SDP, saying that "Britain has had SDP
governments for the past 25 years." Benn speaking at the
Glastonbury Festival in 2008
Benn stood against
Denis Healey , the party's incumbent deputy leader
, triggering the 1981 Deputy Leadership election , disregarding an
Michael Foot to either stand for the leadership or abstain
from inflaming the party's divisions. Benn defended his decision
insisting that it was "not about personalities, but about policies".
The result was announced on 27 September 1981; Healey retained his
position by a margin of barely 1%. The decision of several soft left
Neil Kinnock , to abstain triggered the split of the
Socialist Campaign Group from the left of the Tribune Group . After
Argentina invaded the
Falkland Islands in April 1982, Benn argued that
the dispute should be settled by the United Nations and that the
British Government should not send a task force to recapture the
islands. The task force was sent, and following the
Falklands War ,
they were back in British control by mid-June. In a debate in the
Commons just after the Falklands were recaptured, Benn's demand for "a
full analysis of the costs in life, equipment and money in this tragic
and unnecessary war" was rejected by
Margaret Thatcher , who stated
that "he would not enjoy the freedom of speech that he put to such
excellent use unless people had been prepared to fight for it".
For the 1983 election Benn's Bristol South East constituency was
abolished by boundary changes, and he lost to
Michael Cocks in the
selection of a candidate to stand in the new winnable seat of Bristol
South . Rejecting offers from the new seat of Livingston in Scotland,
Benn contested Bristol East , losing to the Conservative 's Jonathan
Sayeed in June 1983.
In a by-election, Benn was elected as the MP for Chesterfield , the
next Labour seat to fall vacant, after
Eric Varley had left the
Commons to head
Coalite . On the day of the by-election , 1 March
1984, The Sun newspaper ran a hostile feature article, "Benn on the
Couch", which purported to be the opinions of an American
psychiatrist. In the period since Benn's defeat in Bristol, Michael
Foot had stepped down after the general election (which saw a return
of only 209 Labour MPs) and was succeeded in October of that year by
Neil Kinnock .
Newly elected to a mining seat, Benn was a supporter of the 1984–85
UK miners\' strike , which was beginning when he returned to the
Commons, and of his long-standing friend, the National Union of
Arthur Scargill . However, some miners considered
Benn's 1977 industry reforms to have caused problems during the
strike; firstly, that they led to huge wage differences and distrust
between miners of different regions; and secondly that the controversy
over balloting miners for these reforms made it unclear as to whether
a ballot was needed for a strike or whether it could be deemed as a
"regional matter" in the same way that the 1977 reforms had been.
Benn also spoke at a
Militant tendency rally held in 1984, saying:
"The labour movement is not engaged in a personalised battle against
individual cabinet ministers, nor do we seek to win public support by
arguing that the crisis could be ended by the election of a new and
more humane team of ministers who are better qualified to administer
capitalism. We are working for a majority labour government, elected
on a socialist programme, as decided by conference." This guest
appearance was considered one reason why Benn did not become a member
of Labour's Shadow Cabinet.
In June 1985, three months after the miners admitted defeat and ended
their strike, Benn introduced the Miners' Amnesty (General Pardon)
Bill into the Commons, which would have extended an amnesty to all
miners imprisoned during the strike. This would have included two men
convicted of murder (later reduced to manslaughter) for the killing of
David Wilkie , a taxi driver driving a non-striking miner to work in
South Wales during the strike.
Benn stood for election as Party Leader in 1988 , against Neil
Kinnock , following Labour's third successive defeat in the 1987
general election , losing by a substantial margin, and received only
about 11% of the vote. In May 1989 he made an extended appearance on
Channel 4 's late-night discussion programme After Dark , alongside
among others Lord Dacre and Miles Copeland . During the
Gulf War ,
Baghdad in order to try and persuade
Saddam Hussein to
release the hostages who had been captured.
Benn supported various
LGBT social movements , which were then known
as gay liberation ; Benn had voted in favour of decriminalisation in
1967. Talking about
Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act , a
piece of anti-gay legislation preventing the "promotion of
homosexuality ", Benn said:
if the sense of the word "promote" can be read across from
"describe", every murder play promotes murder, every war play promotes
war, every drama involving the eternal triangle promotes adultery; and
Mr. Richard Branson's condom campaign promotes fornication. The House
had better be very careful before it gives to judges, who come from a
narrow section of society, the power to interpret "promote".
Benn later voted for the repeal of
Section 28 during the first term
of Tony Blair's
New Labour Government, and voted in favour of
equalising the age of consent.
In 1990 he proposed a "
Margaret Thatcher (Global Repeal) Bill", which
he said "could go through both Houses in 24 hours. It would be easy to
reverse the policies and replace the personalities—the process has
begun—but the rotten values that have been propagated from the
platform of political power in Britain during the past 10 years will
be an infection—a virulent strain of right-wing capitalist thinking
which it will take time to overcome." In 1991, with Labour still in
opposition and a general election due by June 1992, he proposed the
Commonwealth of Britain Bill , abolishing the monarchy in favour of
United Kingdom becoming a "democratic, federal and secular
commonwealth ", a republic with a written constitution. It was read in
Parliament a number of times until his retirement at the 2001 election
, but never achieved a second reading . He presented an account of
his proposal in Common Sense: A New Constitution for Britain . In
Tony Benn also received a
Pipe Smoker of the Year award,
claiming in his acceptance speech that "pipe smoking stopped you going
In 1991, Benn reiterated his opposition to the European Commission
and highlighted an alleged democratic deficit in the institution ,
saying: "Some people genuinely believe that we shall never get social
justice from the British Government, but we shall get it from Jacques
Delors . They believe that a good king is better than a bad
Parliament. I have never taken that view." This argument has also
been used by many on the right-wing Eurosceptic wing of the
Conservative Party , such as
Daniel Hannan MEP . Jonathan Freedland
The Guardian that "For , even benign rule by a monarch was
worthless because the king's whim could change and there'd be nothing
you could do about it."
PRIOR TO RETIREMENT, 1997–2001
In 1997, the Labour Party under
Tony Blair won the election. Despite
later calling Labour under
Tony Blair "the idea of a Conservative
group who had taken over Labour" and saying " set up a new political
New Labour ", Benn's political diaries Free at Last show that
Benn was initially somewhat sympathetic to Blair, welcoming a change
of government. Benn supported the introduction of the national minimum
wage , and welcomed the progress towards peace and security in
Northern Ireland (particularly under
Mo Mowlam ). He was supportive of
the extra public money given to public services in the New Labour
years but believed it to be under the guise of privatisation .
Overall, his concluding judgement on
New Labour is highly critical; he
describes its evolution as a way of retaining office by abandoning
socialism and distancing the party from the trade union movement,
adopting a presidentialist style of politics, overriding the concept
of the collective ministerial responsibility by reducing the power of
the Cabinet, eliminated any effective influence from the annual
conference of the Labour Party and "hinged its foreign policy on
support for one of the worst presidents in US history".
Benn strongly objected to the "immoral" bombing of Iraq in December
1998, saying: "Aren't Arabs terrified? Aren't Iraqis terrified? Don't
Arab and Iraqi women weep when their children die? Does bombing
strengthen their determination? ... Every Member of Parliament tonight
who votes for the government motion will be consciously and
deliberately accepting the responsibility for the deaths of innocent
people if the war begins, as I fear it will."
Several months prior to his retirement, Benn was a signatory to a
letter, alongside Niki Adams (Legal Action for Women), Ian Macdonald
Gareth Peirce , and other legal professionals, that was published
The Guardian newspaper on 22 February 2001 "condemning" raids of
more than 50 brothels in the central London area of
Soho . At the
time, a police spokesman said: "As far as we know, this is the biggest
simultaneous crackdown on brothels and prostitution in this country in
recent times", the arrest of 28 people in an operation that involved
around 110 police officers. The letter read:
In the name of "protecting" women from trafficking, about 40 women,
including a woman from Iraq, were arrested, detained and in some cases
summarily removed from Britain. If any of these women have been
trafficked ... they deserve protection and resources, not punishment
by expulsion. ... Having forced women into destitution, the government
first criminalised those who begged. Now it is trying to use
prostitution as a way to make deportation of the vulnerable more
acceptable. We will not allow such injustice to go unchallenged.
RETIREMENT AND FINAL YEARS, 2001–2014
Benn about to join the March 2005 anti-war demonstration in
Benn did not stand at the 2001 general election , saying he was
"leaving parliament in order to spend more time on politics." Along
Edward Heath , Benn was permitted by the Speaker to continue
House of Commons Library and Members' refreshment
facilities. Shortly after his retirement, he became the president of
Stop the War Coalition . He became a leading figure of the
British opposition to the War in Afghanistan from 2001 and the Iraq
War , and in February 2003 he travelled to
Baghdad to meet Saddam
Hussein . The interview was shown on British television.
He spoke against the war at the February 2003 protest in London
organised by the Stop the War Coalition, with police saying it was the
biggest ever demonstration in the UK with about 750,000 marchers, and
the organisers estimating nearly a million people participating. In
February 2004 and 2008, he was re-elected President of the Stop the
He toured with a one-man stage show and appeared a few times each
year in a two-man show with folk singer Roy Bailey . In 2003, his show
with Bailey was voted 'Best Live Act' at the
BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards .
In 2002 he opened the "Left Field" stage at the Glastonbury Festival
. He continued to speak at each subsequent festival; attending one of
his speeches was described as a "Glastonbury rite of passage ". In
October 2003, he was a guest of
British Airways on the last scheduled
Concorde flight from New York to London. In June 2005, he was a
panellist on a special edition of
BBC One 's Question Time edited
entirely by a school-age film crew selected by a BBC competition.
On 21 June 2005, Benn presented a programme on democracy as part of
the Channel 5 series Big Ideas That Changed The World. He presented a
left-wing view of democracy as the means to pass power from the
"wallet to the ballot". He argued that traditional social democratic
values were under threat in an increasingly globalised world in which
powerful institutions such as the
International Monetary Fund
International Monetary Fund , the
World Bank and the
European Commission are unelected and unaccountable
to those whose lives they affect daily.
Tony Benn and Giles
Fraser speaking at
Levellers ' Day,
Burford , 17 May 2008
On 27 September 2005, Benn became ill while at the Labour Party
Brighton and was taken by ambulance to the Royal Sussex
County Hospital after being treated by paramedics at the Brighton
Centre. Benn reportedly fell and struck his head. He was kept in
hospital for observation and was described as being in a "comfortable
condition". He was subsequently fitted with an artificial pacemaker
to help regulate his heartbeat.
In a list compiled by the magazine
New Statesman in 2006, he was
voted twelfth in the list of "Heroes of our Time". In September 2006,
Benn joined the "Time to Go" demonstration in Manchester the day
before the start of the final Labour Party Conference with Tony Blair
as Party Leader, with the aim of persuading the Labour Government to
withdraw troops from Iraq, to refrain from attacking Iran and to
reject replacing the Trident missile and submarines with a new system.
He spoke to the demonstrators in the rally afterwards. In 2007, he
appeared in an extended segment in the
Michael Moore film
comments about democracy, social responsibility and health care,
notably, "If we can find the money to kill people, we can find the
money to help people."
Wikinews has related news: WIKINEWS INTERVIEWS: TONY BENN ON U.K.
A poll by the BBC2 The
Daily Politics programme in January 2007
selected Benn as the UK's "Political Hero" with 38% of the vote,
beating Margaret Thatcher, who had 35%, by 3%.
In the 2007 Labour Party leadership election , Benn backed the
John McDonnell in his unsuccessful bid. In September
2007, Benn called for the government to hold a referendum on the EU
Reform Treaty . In October 2007, at the age of 82, and when it
appeared that a general election was about to be held, Benn reportedly
announced that he wanted to stand, having written to his local
Kensington and Chelsea
Constituency Labour Party offering himself as a
prospective candidate for the seat held by the Conservative Malcolm
Rifkind . However, there was no election in 2007, and the
constituency was subsequently abolished. Benn on the cover of
Dartford Living, September 2009
In early 2008 Benn appeared on Scottish singer-songwriter Colin
MacIntyre 's album The Water , reading a poem he had composed himself.
In September 2008, he appeared on the DVD release for the Doctor Who
The War Machines with a vignette discussing the Post Office
Tower ; he became the second Labour politician, after Roy Hattersley
to appear on a
Doctor Who DVD.
Daniel Hannan ,
Douglas Carswell and David Cameron
praised Benn in 2008. In their book The Plan, Carswell and Hannan
write that "Historically, it was the left that sought to disperse
power among the people. ... It was the cause of the
Levellers and the
Chartists and the Suffragettes, the cause of religious toleration and
meritocracy, of the secret ballot and universal education", adding:
These days, though, the radical cause should have different targets.
The elites have altered in character and composition. The citizen is
far less likely to be impacted by the decisions of dukes or bishops
than by those of Nice or his local education authority. The employees
of these and similar agencies are, today, the unaccountable crown
office-holders against whom earlier generations of radicals would have
railed. Yet, with some exceptions – among whom, in a special place
of honour, stands
Tony Benn – few contemporary British leftists show
any interest in dispersing power when doing so would mean challenging
public sector monopolies.
Cameron also said in 2008 that, alongside
George Orwell 's Nineteen
Eighty-Four , Benn's Arguments for Democracy was "a very powerful book
which makes the important point that we vest power in people who are
elected, and that we can get rid of, rather than those we can't".
Benn was invited by
Richard Branson and
Peter Gabriel to join The
Elders , an advocacy group comprising
Nelson Mandela , Mary Robinson
Jimmy Carter .
At the Stop the War Conference 2009, he described the wars in Iraq
and Afghanistan as "Imperialist war(s)" and discussed the killing of
American and allied troops by Iraqi or foreign insurgents, questioning
whether they were in fact freedom fighters, and comparing the
insurgents to a British Dad\'s Army , saying: "If you are invaded you
have a right to self-defence, and this idea that people in Iraq and
Afghanistan who are resisting the invasion are militant Muslim
extremists is a complete bloody lie. I joined Dad's Army when I was
sixteen, and if the Germans had arrived, I tell you, I could use a
bayonet, a rifle, a revolver, and if I'd seen a German officer having
a meal I'd have tossed a grenade through the window. Would I have been
a freedom fighter or a terrorist?"
In an interview published in Dartford Living in September 2009, Benn
was critical of the Government's decision to delay the findings of the
Iraq War Inquiry until after the General Election, stating that
"people can take into account what the inquiry has reported on but
they’ve deliberately pushed it beyond the election. Government is
responsible for explaining what it has done and I don't think we were
told the truth." He also stated that local government was strangled
Margaret Thatcher and had not been liberated by
New Labour .
In 2009 Benn was admitted to hospital and An Evening with Tony Benn,
scheduled to take place at London's
Cadogan Hall , was cancelled. He
performed his show, The Writing on the Wall, with Roy Bailey at St
Ashford, Kent , in September 2011, as part of the arts
venue's first Revelation St Mary's Season. In July 2011 Benn was
awarded an honorary doctorate from the
University of Glamorgan ,
Tony Benn speaking at the Tolpuddle Martyrs\' Festival
and Rally 2012
Tony Benn headed the "coalition of resistance", a group with was
opposed to the UK austerity programme . In interviews in 2010 with
Amy Goodman on
Democracy Now! and 2013 with
Afshin Rattansi on
RT UK ,
Benn claimed that the actions of
New Labour in the leadup to and
aftermath of the
Iraq War were such that the former Prime Minister
Tony Blair should be tried for war crimes . Benn also claimed in
2010 that Blair had lost the "trust of the nation" regarding the war
In November 2011 it was reported that Benn had moved out of his home
Holland Park Avenue , London, into a smaller flat nearby that
benefited from a warden. In 2012 Benn was awarded an honorary degree
Goldsmiths, University of London . He was also the honorary
president of the Goldsmiths Students\' Union , who successfully
campaigned for him to retract comments dismissing the Julian Assange
rape allegations. In February 2013 Benn was among those who gave
their support to the People\'s Assembly in a letter published by The
Guardian newspaper. He gave a speech at the People's Assembly
Conference held at Westminster Central Hall on 22 June 2013.
Tony Benn reiterated his previous opposition to European
integration . Speaking to the
Oxford Union on the alleged
overshadowing of the EU debate by "UKIP and Tory backbenchers", he
I took the view that having fought that we should now work with
them, and co-operate, and that was my first thought about it. Then how
I saw how the European Union was developing, it was very obvious that
what they had in mind was not democratic. ... And the way that Europe
has developed is that the bankers and the multinational corporations
have got very powerful positions, and if you come in on their terms,
they will tell you what you can and cannot do. And that is
unacceptable. My view about the European Union has always been not
that I am hostile to foreigners, but that I am in favour of democracy
... I think they're building an empire there, they want us to be a
part of their empire and I don't want that.
ILLNESS AND DEATH
In 1990, Benn was diagnosed with chronic lymphatic leukaemia and
given three or four years to live; at this time, he kept the news of
his leukaemia from everyone except his immediate family. Benn said:
"When you're in parliament, you can't describe your medical condition.
People immediately start wondering what your majority is and when
there will be a by-election. They're very brutal." This was revealed
in 2002 with the release of his 1990–2001 diaries.
Benn suffered a stroke in 2012, and spent much of the following year
in hospital. He was reported to be "seriously ill" in hospital in
February 2014. Benn died at home on 14 March 2014, surrounded by his
family, less than a month shy of his 89th birthday.
Benn's funeral took place on 27 March 2014 at St Margaret\'s Church,
Westminster . His body had lain in rest at
St Mary Undercroft in the
Palace of Westminster
Palace of Westminster the night before the funeral service. The
service ended with the singing of "
The Red Flag ". His body was then
cremated; the ashes are expected to be buried alongside those of his
wife at the family home near
Steeple, Essex .
Figures from across the political spectrum praised Benn following his
death, and the leaders of all three major political parties (the
Conservatives , Labour and the Liberal Democrats ) in the United
Kingdom paid tributes to Benn on his death.
David Cameron (Conservative leader and Prime Minister) said:
... he was an extraordinary man: a great writer, a brilliant speaker,
extraordinary in Parliament, and a great life of public and political
and parliamentary service. I mean, I disagreed with most of what he
said. But he was always engaging and interesting, and you were never
bored when reading or listening to him, and the country a great
campaigner, a great writer, and someone who I'm sure whose words will
be followed keenly for many, many years to come.
Deputy Prime Minister,
Nick Clegg called Benn a "astonishing, iconic
figure" and a "veteran parliamentarian, he was a great writer, he had
great warmth and he had great conviction ... his political life will
be looked back on with affection and admiration".
Leader of the Opposition and Labour leader
Ed Miliband , who knew
Benn personally as a family friend, said:
Tony Benn will be remembered as a champion of the powerless,
as a conviction politician, as somebody of deep principle and
integrity. The thing about
Tony Benn is that you always knew what he
stood for, and who he stood up for. And I think that's why he was
admired right across the political spectrum. There are people who
agreed with him and disagreed with him, including in my own party, but
I think people admired that sense of conviction and integrity that
shone through from Tony Benn.
DIARIES AND BIOGRAPHIES
Benn was a prolific diarist: nine volumes of his diaries have been
published. The final volume was published in 2013. Collections of his
speeches and writings were published as Arguments for Socialism
(1979), Arguments for Democracy (1981), (both edited by Chris Mullin
), Fighting Back (1988) and (with Andrew Hood) Common Sense (1993), as
well as Free Radical: New Century Essays (2004). In August 2003,
London DJ Charles Bailey created an album of Benn's speeches (ISBN
1-904734-03-0 ) set to ambient groove .
He made public several episodes of audio diaries he made during his
time in Parliament and after retirement, entitled The Benn Tapes,
broadcast originally on
BBC Radio 4. Short series have been played
BBC Radio 4 Extra . A major biography was written by
Jad Adams and published by Macmillan in 1992; it was updated to cover
the intervening 20 years and reissued by Biteback Publishing in 2011:
Tony Benn: A Biography (ISBN 0-333-52558-2 ). A more recent
"semi-authorised" biography with a foreword by Benn was published in
2001: David Powell, Tony Benn: A Political Life,
Continuum Books (ISBN
978-0826464156 ). An autobiography, Dare to be a Daniel: Then and Now,
Hutchinson (ISBN 978-0099471530 ), was published in 2004.
There are substantial essays on Benn in the Dictionary of Labour
Phillip Whitehead , Greg Rosen (eds), Politicos
Publishing , 2001 (ISBN 978-1902301181 ) and in Labour Forces: From
Ernie Bevin to Gordon Brown, Kevin Jefferys (ed.), I.B. Tauris
Publishing , 2002 (ISBN 978-1860647437 ).
Michael Moore dedicates his
book Mike's Election Guide 2008 (ISBN 978-0141039817 ) to Benn, with
the words: "For Tony Benn, keep teaching us".
During his final years in Parliament, Benn placed three plaques
within the Houses of Parliament. Two are in a room between the Central
Lobby and Strangers\' Gallery that holds a permanent display about the
suffragettes . The first was placed in 1995. The second was placed in
1996 and is dedicated to all who work within the Houses of Parliament.
The third is dedicated to
Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison and was
placed in the broom cupboard next to the Undercroft Chapel within the
Palace of Westminster
Palace of Westminster , where Davison is said to have hidden during
the 1911 census in order to establish her address as the House of
In 2011 Benn unveiled a plaque in
Highbury , North London, to
commemorate the Peasants\' Revolt of 1381.
In Bristol, where Benn first served as a member of parliament, a
number of tributes exist in his honour. A bust of him was unveiled in
Bristol's City Hall in 2005. In 2012 Transport House on Victoria
Street, headquarters of
Unite the Union 's regional office, was
Tony Benn House and opened by Benn himself. As of
2015 he appears, alongside other famous people associated with the
city, on the reverse of the
Bristol Pound 's £B5 banknote.
Benn told the
Socialist Review in 2007 that:
I'd like to have on my gravestone: "He encouraged us." I'm proud to
have been in the parliament that introduced the health service, the
welfare state and voted against means testing. I did my maiden speech
on nationalising the steel industry, put down the first motion for the
boycott of South African goods, and resigned from the shadow cabinet
in 1958 because of their support for nuclear weapons.
I think you do plant a few acorns, and I have lived to see one or two
trees growing: gay rights, freedom of information, CND. I'm not
claiming them for myself but you feel you have encouraged other people
and see the arguments developing. I'm not ashamed of making mistakes.
I've made a million mistakes and they're all in the diary. When we
edit the diary – which is cut to around 10 percent – every mistake
has to be printed because people look to see if you do. I would be
ashamed if I thought I'd ever said anything I didn't believe to get
on, but making mistakes is part of life, isn't it?
Tony Benn has been cited as being a key mentor to future leader of
the Labour Party
Jeremy Corbyn , with his Shadow Chancellor John
McDonnell commenting that "they would discuss everything under the
sun. Jeremy was very close to Tony right up until the end." Corbyn
was first elected leader a little over a year after Benn's death.
* Anthony Wedgwood Benn, Esq. (1925 – 12 January 1942)
* The Hon. Anthony Wedgwood Benn (12 January 1942 – 30 November
* The Hon. Anthony Wedgwood Benn, MP (30 November 1950 – 17
* The Rt Hon. the
Viscount Stansgate (17 November 1960 – 31 July
* Anthony Wedgwood Benn, Esq. (31 July – 20 August 1963)
* Anthony Wedgwood Benn, Esq., MP (20 August 1963 – 1964)
* The Rt Hon. Anthony Wedgwood Benn, MP (1964 – October 1973)
* The Rt Hon. Tony Benn, MP (October 1973 – 9 June 1983)
* The Rt Hon.
Tony Benn (9 June 1983 – 1 March 1984)
* The Rt Hon. Tony Benn, MP (1 March 1984 – 7 June 2001)
* The Rt Hon.
Tony Benn (7 June 2001 – 14 March 2014)
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Socialist Campaign Group
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