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Expert Comment: Tony Benn (1925-2014)

0119 Prof Bill Jones Friday 14 March 2014

Bill Jones, Adjunct Professor of Politics at Liverpool Hope, looks back on the life of Tony Benn, who died today.

Tony Benn, born into a highly political family, met the Prime Minister when he was only five, was always something of an political obsessive and more than a little eccentric. After serving briefly in the RAF, he entered the Commons in 1950 at a by-election, but upon inheriting his father's peerage (he was Lord Stansgate) was disqualified from occupying  his Commons seat. He thereupon became the inspiration behind the Peerage Act which in 1963 enabled peers to give up their titles; in August of the same year, he was able to re-enter the Commons.

During the 1960s he was seen as a technocratic, mainstream Labour politician but after Wilson's 1970 defeat he moved rapidly to the left, passionately championing industrial democracy and opposing the EEC. When Labour took office again in 1974 he served in Cabinet as Energy Secretary but was open about his new sharply defined left orientation. At this time he began to remove details of his expensive private education from Who's Who. He also began, in effect, to lead a left wing which fully articulated an Alternative Economic Strategy, in fierce opposition to the Callaghan led Labour government. In the wake of Thatcher's 1979 victory, he was effectively the leader of a dominant left wing faction which, with the help of activists pushed through radical reforms of the party's constitution. In 1981 he stood as Deputy Leader against Dennis Healey and only lost by a margin of 1 per cent.

Many blame Benn for Labour's long period in the wilderness after voters comprehensively rejected the radical 1983 manifesto - condemned  as 'the longest suicide note in history' by Gerald Kaufman MP. Benn offered strong support to Arthur Scargill during the momentous 1983-4 miner's strike, maintaining his hostility to the Common Market, the monarchy, the SDP and, not least, the moderate Labour leadership. His challenge to Neil Kinnock in 1988 however, saw him suffer a heavy defeat, a sign, perhaps, that his message to voters and his own party had seriously begun to wane.

Now began a long period of campaigning in favour of his left wing causes, against New Labour and then against Blair's wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and then Iraq. His much loved wife, American-born Caroline, died in 2000 and a year later he famously 'retired' to 'spend more time with politics'. He did this by maintaining his constant stream of diaries - he was an obsessive recorder of everything he saw and heard - and volumes of biography. He also toured the country, answering questions from large and enthusiastic audiences and speaking at causes he championed right up to the end.

He was enormously popular with Labour activists but eventually with the public as a whole. Sir Julian Critchley once told me Tories liked Benn for his 'exquisite manners'; others had less time for him and dismissed his charming facade as hiding ruthless ego-driven political ambition. Yet it could be argued that by the end of his long life he had become something he must have disliked: a 'national treasure'. A Daily Politics poll in 2007 revealed 38% of respondents naming him their political 'hero', compared with only 35% for his old enemy, Margaret Thatcher.               

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