Tony Benn was a man of great principle. He was a veteran left-wing MP, campaigner, anti-war spokesman and former Cabinet Minister. He died at his home in London aged 88. His four children said he lived a “long, full and inspiring life” and always sought to “change the world for the better.”
Tony Benn was a “conviction politician” said Ed Milliband, current leader of the Labor party. His convictions strengthened as he grew older and his passion never diminished. Having started in parliament aged 25, when he retired in 2001 he announced he wanted “to spend more time in politics.”
Born Anthony Neil Wedgewood Benn, he became a peer of the realm on the death of his own father. Under the British constitution this meant he could only sit in the House of Lords and no longer in the House of Commons. He famously renounced the title in 1963.
Among the tributes for him today, David Cameron has said that “He was a magnificent writer, speaker, diarist and campaigner” and that there was “never a dull moment” when listening to him, even if one fervently disagreed with what he was saying.
There was never any doubt what Tony Benn stood for. His unwavering commitment to the left and his refusal to flinch from supporting any cause he believed in, no matter how unfashionable, became his living legacy. Few deserve the epithet of “Great Man” but this is a description coming through repeatedly as respects are paid today. “He cut through the grey political jargon and spoke in a language that made sense. A great man.” says one tweet; another, “Tony Benn is the only man I ever allowed smoke a pipe in my church. RIP. Great man.”
He should have been, by birth, an establishment insider, but he remained resolutely a radical and an outsider, whose outspokenness often made him unpopular even with his own side. He saw it as his duty to educate, to reform, and to this end, he continued to speak at places like West End theatres and the Glastonbury Festival, where he could access wider audiences. Michael Eavis, the founder of Glastonbury, said today that they had been privileged to have him appear so often at the Left Field Tent, and that even his opponents “could not resist his charm” as he spoke so well.
He ultimately became a “national treasure” liked and respected by all, often topping opinion polls for most popular politician. His trademark pipe and cup of tea were symbols as well-known as Chaplin’s ‘tash and cane or Churchill’s cigar.
This was not always the case. He attracted his fair share of extreme vilification in the six and a half decades he was in public office. For a long time his name would never appear without the accompanying text “loony leftist.” The Sun was a newspaper that particularly loathed him and once dubbed him “the most dangerous man in Britain.” (Aware that the press had knives out for him, he taped all his own interviews.)
Neither was he often successful in his campaigns. He was against Britain staying in the Common Market (now called the EU) but the referendum of 1975 voted to stay in. Nor did he persuade the electorate to reject nuclear weapons, or adopt a “siege economy” model as an alternative to Thatcher’s free markets. He took the Queen’s head off the stamps, but it was promptly reinstated. He backed the miner’s strike but the mines were closed. He was a zealous supporter of Concorde, but it ceased to fly during his lifetime. He opposed the Falklands war, Nato intervention in Kosovo and the war in Iraq and marched with the million strong demonstrators, but all of these “Stop the War” movements did not halt the deployment of forces. “All war represents a failure of diplomacy” he lamented.
Benn always kept the courage of his convictions through all setbacks and said that “issues not personalities” were what mattered. It was a curious contradiction that his own personality was so big that it could not help but belie that maxim. As an ideological zealot, it is safe to say that he was one of the last of a dying breed. He was inextricably associated with his beliefs and became a household name that way.
In some ways, inadvertently, he seemed to pave the way for others to accede to higher office. His fight to relinquish his title allowed the 13th Earl of Home to do likewise, and he became Tory Prime Minister. His championing of Clause IV, the commitment of the Labor party to nationalism, was what later won Tony Blair sweeping victory. He was never focused on his own personal progress, he took unpopular hard-left lines and was never afraid to challenge anyone. When the Blair government came in, he made it clear it was very far from the socialist leadership he had always dreamed of. He did not get on with either Harold Wilson or Neil Kinnock, both also huge disappointments to him as Labor leaders.
He wrote in his diary every night and these have been published in several volumes, the latest A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine covered the years 2007-9 where he is still seen to be working as hard as ever. He concluded hopefully that he was waiting for the great-grandchildren to come along as “every new generation brings fresh ideas into the world.”
Tony Benn was a devoted family man who was pre-deceased by his wife of 50 years, Caroline, in 2000. He was proud of his son Hilary who also became a Labor MP, though not a Bennite; and his granddaughter Emily, who stood as a candidate in the 2010 general election, making her the fourth generation of the Benns to have entered politics. He was a man of great principle, who never wavered. RIP Tony Benn.
By Kate Henderson