Tony Benn was one of the most charismatic and influential politicians in post-war Britain.
He renounced his peerage to remain an MP, he was described as one of the few politicians to move to the Left after serving as a minister, and there was the no small matter that he represented the former constituency of Bristol South East for a total of 30 years.
Despite all his achievements, Benn never forgot that his first duty as an MP was to serve those who had elected him and to prove the point, it’s worth noting that although he understandably had a deep mistrust of reporters and newspapers, he always responded to calls from this newspaper when it involved local issues and constituency casework.
Benn, a pilot during the Second World War who worked briefly as a radio producer with the BBC, first became an MP in 1950 after he was selected as the Labour candidate for Bristol South East. He succeeded Sir Stafford Cripps who stood down due to ill-health.
In those early days in Parliament, Benn held middle-of-the-road views. He did not shift to the Left until the end of the 1970s after his experience as a cabinet minister.
In 1964, Benn became Postmaster General in Harold Wilson’s first Government, overseeing the opening of the Post Office Tower in London and proposing without success that stamps should be issued without the Queen’s head.
Two years later, he became Minister of Technology and therefore responsible for the development of Concorde in Filton and only a stone’s throw from his own constituency where many aircraft workers lived.
He also dealt with the merger of several car companies to create British Leyland and the Government’s programme of industrial reorganisation.
In Wilson’s second Government, Benn was made Industry Secretary and in 1975, he was appointed Energy Secretary after an unsuccessful campaign for a No vote in a referendum to join Europe. Benn hated the EEC (European Economic Community) with avengeance because he believed it was bureaucratic and centralised and dominated by the Germans.
It was during this tenure that Benn showed his first signs of shifting to the Left. He opposed a move to seek a loan from the International Monetary Fund to ward off an economic crisis, suggesting instead an “alternative economic strategy” which would have relied much less on outside borrowing.
Benn’s idea was rejected by the Cabinet and by the end of the 1970s, he had moved to the left wing of the party. His opponents insisted that a Bennite Government would lead to an Eastern European style of communism yet he was adored by Labour activists who wanted to see him become the party’s leader.
In 1980, two years after Margaret Thatcher had become Prime Minister, Benn made an important speech at the Labour Party’s annual conference in which he outlined that he wanted to see a Labour Government that would nationalise industries, control capital and implement industrial democracy “within weeks” of taking power. He would also return all powers from Brussels back to Westminster and abolish the House of Lords.
Benn supported Sinn Fein and a unified Ireland and in 1982 during the Falklands War, he said the dispute should be settled by the United Nations instead of the British Government sending a task force to the islands.
Benn was notorious by now among most Fleet Street editors who pilloried the doyen of the Left at every opportunity.
After Labour’s third successive defeat in a general election in 1987, Benn had a third attempt at the party leadership but lost heavily to Neil Kinnock.
One of his last parliamentary campaigns before he retired in 2001 was to put forward a Bill to abolish the monarchy in favour of a republic but it never achieved a second reading.
After he retired, he became president of the Stop the War Coalition which saw him oppose the Iraq War and which led to a visit to Baghdad in 2003 to meet with Saddam Hussein that was shown on television.
He was also a prolific diarist, publishing the ninth and last volume in 2012. By this time, Benn was an outsider looking in and grieving for a party which he believed had died.
He was disgusted by Blair, disappointed by Brown and convinced by May 2008 that he would not see another Labour Government in his lifetime.
He wrote: “I feel bereaved that the Labour party has gone that wrong. It has died. It's been assassinated by Blair and Brown."
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