Tony Benn stood up in the House of Commons, his white hair neatly parted from left to right. On his neck lay a red and black tie, tucked neatly into his three-piece suit. In between his index finger and thumb lay a white piece of paper. It was March 2001, and Benn proceeded to articulate one of his most famous quotes in the chamber: “The House will forgive me for quoting myself,” Benn started, “but in the course of my life I have developed five little questions. If one meets a powerful person — Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates — ask them five questions: what power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” Benn then concluded with his trademark sibilant S’s: “If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”
These five simple but important questions summarised Benn’s political life. A committed socialist, democrat and one of Labour’s longest serving MPs, Benn became an icon for the left, in part due to his unwavering commitment to socialism and the Labour Party as a vehicle for political change. Yet Benn’s commitment to the socialist cause was not a constant theme in his early political career. It was his experiences in the Wilson and Callaghan governments that moved him further to socialism over time, a political position he would retain and develop over the next four decades.
The early cause began in 1965. The Labour Party had won a general election a year earlier under Wilson, and Benn was appointed as Postmaster General. Originally content with living within the limitations that government imposed, by 1970, things had changed. The Labour Party had lost the general election, and Benn thought the loss as Wilson’s punishment for betraying the ideals of the Labour Party. “The disappointments of the Wilson governments he felt acutely, and unlike some in that government, he didn’t…move to the centre and say we must get a progressive centre left consensus and not be too radical about it,” Lord Hennessy said, “…he thought the best of the left dissenting tradition had been stifled by the managerially minded Harold. And Tony, the romantic, came to the fore. Those tunes then stayed the predominant ones for the rest of his life.”
Benn recorded his afflictions with the Wilson government in his diaries, summarising the four lessons he learned: “First, how the permanent civil servants work to preserve their policies against any minister who wants to challenge them or their power; [second], how the [Labour] leader ran the party as almost as if it were his personal kingdom; third…the power of industrialists and bankers to get their way by the use of the crudest form of economic pressure; and fourth…the power of the media [in ensuring] the events of the day are always presented from the point of view of those who enjoyed economic privilege.” He concluded that Britain was only superficially government by MPs, and that parliamentary democracy was little more than a “means of securing a periodical change in the management team.”
By 1974, Wilson successfully returned to government. Aware that Benn potentially presented problems by sitting on the backbenches, Benn was appointed Minister of Industry. Wilson believed that the harsh realities of the economy would have compelled Benn to a more realistic position, but the opposite was true: Benn saw the answer to Britain’s economic problems lying in more state control and planning. Benn drew up a far-reaching industry bill to achieve such aims. The bill itself was later criticised by the media and his own cabinet, including his own civil servants.
“He would come in furious, storming…he’d want to do something, he’d have some plan, and he’d say Wilson’s stopped it,” said Joe Ashton, Benn’s parliamentary aide between 1975 and 1976. Benn often believed that the civil service conspired with Wilson to prevent his reforms from going any further. The response from Wilson to Benn’s radicalism was to reaffirm his commitment to ministerial responsibility, this time in writing. Benn agreed, but the rift between Wilson and Benn only grew wider. By 1974, Benn’s radicalism was in full flow, the result of his experience of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, co-operatives and public ownership. By the mid to late 1970s, it became clear to Benn that society was ultimately constructed among class lines: “The real division in society is between those who create the wealth by working and those who own the wealth,” Benn remarked. “Those who own the wealth have far too much power and they used it to control those who create the wealth.”
Benn’s criticism of the Labour Party continued into the late 1980s. When, in 1987, the Labour Party lost another general election under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, Kinnock was convinced the result showed the Labour Party had not changed enough. Benn, however, thought it had changed too much, and that the party needed to follow socialism. “The impression created now…is that the Labour Party at the top is in a panic stricken route, and is anxious to say almost anything to pick up votes,” Benn said at the Labour Conference in 1987. “People don’t know what the Labour Party is about at all.”
Years later, in 1996, Benn revealed his true feelings about Kinnock and his leadership: “I would have been utterly ashamed if I had followed the course of…Kinnock, giving up everything [I] believed in in order to get the leadership.” Benn thought Kinnock as unprincipled, and that this was not only a political mistake, but a moral outrage.
For Benn, it was always better to be principled and righteous than to be powerful and an oppressor, or even a traitor of one’s principles. “I was brought up on the Bible by my mother who told me about the age old-conflict between the kings who had power and the prophets who preached righteousness,” Benn said. “She taught me to support the prophets against the kings, meaning that each of us had the responsibility for learning to differentiate between good and evil and make that our guide for action.”
Benn’s mother, Margaret, was a feminist and theologian, and had a profound influence on Benn’s religious leanings from a young age. She had imparted into him the beliefs, narratives and actions of Jesus Christ, leading Benn to conclude that Jesus had a “radical political importance” on his life. Benn emphasised the Jesus that advocated social justice and egalitarianism, and believed it was a “great mistake” to assume the teachings of Christianity were outdated in modern Britain. When Benn became agnostic later on in his life, he still emphasised Jesus as “the prophet, not Christ the king,” and reiterated the interconnections between Christianity, radicalism and socialism.
For Benn, the radical movements in Britain’s history also played a key role in his thought, seeing them as the forerunners of British socialism. He paired his religious conviction with the events of the Peasant’s Revolt and groups such as the Levellers, the Chartists and the Diggers. It was from these that Benn continued the dissenting tradition, questioning authority and power wherever it reared its head. “I’ve never thought we can understand the world we lived in unless we understood the history of the church,” Benn once told the Catholic Herald. “All political freedoms were won, first of all, through religious freedom.”
The Levellers, a political movement during the English Civil War, had argued against bondage and unjustified hierarchy in Christian terminology, arguing that “the relation of Master and Servant has no ground in the New Testament; in Christ there is neither bond nor free.” The Levellers also argued that “there is no ground in nature or Scripture why one man should have £1000 per annum, another not £1. The common people have been kept under blindness and ignorance, and have remained servants and slaves to the nobility and gentry. But God has now opened their eyes and discovered unto them their Christian liberty.”
So, when Benn attended an anti-poll tax rally in March 1990 at Trafalgar Square, it made sense why he spoke in such similar terms. Benn stood firmly and defiantly in the tradition of the Peasants Revolt, and continued to speak directly to scripture to justify his radicalism and commitment to equality and justice. For most of his life, Benn used Christian morality and historical teachings as a guiding compass for his politics, just as the radical political factions of the left had done hundreds of years ago. Christian non-conformism was a bedrock for Benn and his beliefs, infused into his political DNA.
Despite a disdain for extreme inequality and wealth, Benn was no stranger to privilege. His father, William Wedgewood Benn, had been the former Secretary of State for India between 1929 and 1931, himself the son of Sir John Benn, a British politician in the London County Council for Kennington. In 1942, William was raised to a peerage as Viscount Stansgate, a title Benn inherited: Benn’s older brother, Michael, had been next in succession, but an untimely death in World War 1 resulted in Benn as the heir apparent.
When William passed in 1960, Benn later received a letter containing his national insurance cards from the House addressed to “Lord Stansgate”. Under law at the time, peers of the United Kingdom automatically became members of the House of Lords and could not sit or vote in the other chamber. Despite attempts to enter Parliament, Benn was barred: the Speaker proclaimed to Benn that “I have made an order, my Lord, that you are to be kept out of the chamber,” and stated that force would be used if necessary to prevent Benn from entering the Commons.
Benn did everything he could to fight for the right to renounce his title and once again enter the Commons. Benn gained support from Winston Churchill, who contributed five pounds to his cause and wrote a letter stating that he was in favour of sons having the right to irrevocably renounce peerages inherited from their fathers. When the inevitable by election for Bristol South East was called, Benn defiantly stood to retain his seat.
For Benn, a key issue in that campaign was that of liberty. “On what grounds are you fighting this election?” an interviewer asked Benn. Benn, smoking, periodically removed the pipe from his mouth to respond: “Well, I think on two grounds really. First of all, the ground of personal freedom. Freedom for me to give up a title that I don’t want, and freedom for my constituents to choose their own member of parliament.” When Benn won with seventy per cent of the vote, Benn was still not entitled to sit in the Commons. The electoral court found his Conservative opponent, Malcom St Clair, the victor, while a Select Committee set up to consider the issue concluded that no change could be made to the law, since the peerage was a “personal dignity annexed to posterity and fixed in the blood.”
Benn became known as the “reluctant peer” by some in the press, but Benn’s response was to prove to the people that he was not a member of the aristocracy at all. He asked a doctor to extract his blood and put it in a vial to prove it was not blue, and claimed that he was not a “reluctant peer” but a “persistent commoner”.
Benn continued his campaign outside Parliament, and within two years, the Conservative government changed the law. The Peerages Act 1963, which allowed individuals to disclaim their peerages, became law shortly after six o ‘clock on the 31 July 1963. Benn became the first peer to renounce his title, doing so at 6.22pm that day. Benn returned to the Commons after winning the Bristol South East by-election on the 20 August that same year.
“He hated the idea that because of blood, you could be in a position to change legislation…he really couldn’t stand it,” a friend said. “He thought it was an anathema…he thought it was an outrage. And that’s what fuelled him.”
For many on the left, it not only reiterated Benn’s commitment to their cause, but also extraordinary persistence and courage. “He fought back each time he was turned down and just went on,” Shirly Williams said. “I think it was impressive…this kind of terribly, complete determination coupled with Charm.”
Ben ultimately sought to escape not poverty, but privilege. “He believed that the working class wanted him to drink out of a big mug, and if possible, wear a cloth cap,” Lord Hattersley said. “That’s because he went through life immensely embarrassed by Westminster [School], New College [Oxford], son of a peer, millionaire, which we heard very little of during his lifetime.”
Benn’s contempt for the House of Lords revealed something else in his early political journey: his loathing of unelected, illegitimate authority. For Benn, authority and hierarchy was only legitimate if it could justify itself. Otherwise, power belonged to the people.
It was for this reason why he held a distaste for the European Union and large corporations. “There was no doubt that my period in the ministry of technology drove me to think about how people could fight back against big organisations, and although I was involved in all sorts of complicated things…my real interest was in the development of a political system that would allow people to control their own lives…” Benn claimed.
Britain’s continuing membership of the European Community for Benn meant the end of Britain as a self-governing nation. It was an anti-democratic organisation of the type he despised: “My view of the EU has always been not that I am hostile to foreigners, but I am in favour of democracy. I think they are building an empire…and I don’t want that.” Benn’s argument against the EU was a left-wing one, one that went to concerns of sovereignty and democracy.
In Benn’s world, politics had to emanate from and be subject to the people, not distant bureaucrats in Brussels. It was for this reason why he was a staunch supporter of the British parliamentary tradition. Benn believed that only real change could occur by a transformed Labour Party that was genuinely committed to policies that would not only move wealth and power towards working people, but help institutionalise and legitimise the building of a radical popular democracy. “We shall never change society unless we start to do it ourselves by directly challenging unaccountable power now exercised over us…this is not an appeal for violent revolution…it is an appeal for a strategy of change from below to make the parliamentary system serve the people, instead of serving the vanity of parliamentarians…” Democracy was, in his words, a “do it yourself business.”
“War is an easy thing to talk about,” Tony Benn observed in the House of Commons in 1998, once again standing in a three-piece suit with a striped tie. “There are not many people of the generation that remember it…but I was in London in the Blitz in 1940 living in the Milbank Tower, where I was born…every night, I went down to the shelter in Thames House. Every morning, I saw the dockland burning. Five hundred people were killed in Westminster one night by a land mine. It was terrifying.
Aren’t Arabs terrified? Aren’t Iraqi’s terrified? Don’t Arab and Iraqi women weep when their children die? Does bombing not strengthen their resolve?
What fools we are to live in a generation for which war is a computer game…and just an interesting little Channel Four News item.
Every member of parliament tonight, who votes for the government motion, will be consciously and deliberately accepting responsibility for the deaths of innocent people if the war begins, as I fear it will.”
Benn was speaking out against a parliamentary motion to bomb Iraq on the 17 February 1998, and this was part of a larger problem he had with the political system: one which had an unrelenting desire for neo-liberalism and imperialism.
Benn took aim not only at his own party throughout his political career, but also the Conservatives, who he believed had played a major role in Britain’s inequality and social injustice. “The Conservative version of national unity rests upon the creation of an illusion that the rich are kind and that only if working people would be restrained, we could all raise our living standards together…” Benn said, “…in an unending bonanza of capitalist growth fuelled by some ‘necessary inequalities’ to provide the profits mainly needed for investment.” Benn named this the master illusion of British politics — and at the time, stated that “if we cling to that illusion, we shall condemn ourselves to the continuation of the present sterile stalemate in British politics. Destroy that master illusion and the democratic reform of our savagely unjust society becomes possible.”
For Benn, the media was equally to blame in ensuring Conservative hegemony in the political system. He listed in his diaries the various acid tests used by the Establishment by which all political leaders were to be, in his views, judged before they could command the support of editors, television anchors and radio commentators. Among them included an “opposition to the links binding the trade unions to the Labour Party,” and the “denial of the existence of class as a factor in British politics.”
Benn held a particular grievance towards Margaret Thatcher, who he believed was arguably the most influential prime minister, and not for the right reasons. Benn believed that the left had ceded too much ground to Thatcher, who had changed the parameters of political debate entirely. In 1990, he proposed a “Margaret Thatcher (Global Repeal Bill), which he said could “go through both Houses in twenty-four hours.” The aim of the Bill had been to reverse the politics of the Thatcher government, which, he claimed, had “propagated rotten values”, likening them to an infection — in his own words, a “virulent strain of right-wing capitalist thinking…”
Thatcher’s legacy, he believed, equally extended to his own party. During an interview with the Big Issue, Benn argued that New Labour itself was a Conservative idea. The party had entrusted everything to market forces, and that was fundamentally anti-Labour. While accepting progress and good achievements had been made by Blair, he noted that Thatcher herself once said that her greatest achievement was the creation of New Labour. “Under the banner of modernisation,” Benn wrote, “many of the policies of the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s reappeared.”
In the end, Benn ultimately identified the very reasons for New Labour’s success as contributing to its downfall in 2010. Benn argued that Gordon Brown’s defeat had been brought on by the alienation of New Labour from its natural base of supporters, and a creation of a general sense of cynicism about British politics, such as Iraq (which he considered a war crime), from which the nation was still suffering.
“When I look at New Labour,” Benn said, “I wonder whether it was like trying to fire a bonfire on a frozen lake: it looked marvellous — bright lights, shining white — but you melted away your own support.”
Tony Benn stepped down from the House of Commons in 2001, choosing, as he once said, to “devote more time to politics.” By the time Benn retired, he took with him five decades’ worth of experience as a parliamentarian. He completed his transition from the “most dangerous man in Britain” (The Sun asked if his vehement left-wing views — as well as his “weird vegetarianism” and obsessive tea drinking — made him the “most dangerous man in Britain”. His old cabinet colleague, Tony Crosland, once remarked that he even found Benn a tiny bit “cracked”) to a national treasure. Benn himself was unimpressed with his new label, and even in his old age, had his wits about him: “Once I was called the ‘most dangerous man in Britain’, now I am told I am a national treasure. This is the final corruption in life: you become a kindly, harmless old gentleman,” Benn said. “I am kindly, I am old, and I can be a gentleman, but I am not harmless.”
Benn later found a cause in the Stop the War Coalition and took to the streets to March against the Iraq War. In 2003, at the age of seventy-eight, Benn held one hundred and forty-two political meetings, two hundred and thirty-five radio broadcasts, as well as one hundred and fifty television appearances. The Speaker gave Benn the freedom to use the Commons’ Library and to sit in the Peer’s Gallery to listen to debates, “without the humiliation,” as Benn put it, “of being a Lord.” Benn was equally a prolific diarist. He wrote practically every day his thoughts on British politics from 1950 onwards, publishing one point five million words to the public over the years.
How are we to assess Tony Benn’s legacy? In conventional terms, Benn was undoubtedly an unsuccessful politician. As a cabinet minister, Benn failed to pass any major legislation in his name. The worker co-operatives he supported all failed, as did his Industry Bill, which received intense criticism. Benn’s Alternative Economic Strategy was also rejected by his own cabinet. Denis Healey, the former chancellor of the exchequer, once noted that Benn’s achievement had been the Concorde supersonic airliner, now defunct but then “an aircraft…used by wealthy people on their expense accounts whose fares are subsidised by much poorer taxpayers.”
Benn failed to twice to become leader of the Labour Party. He failed to become deputy leader. And he was, to many, an abrasive figure, someone who clashed repeatedly with every single Labour leader to the bitter end: Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair. Wilson once remarked that Benn became immatured with age, whilst Joe Haines, chief press secretary to Wilson, stated that Benn “symbolised the sort of left-wing nuttiness that nearly destroyed the Labour Party in the late 1970s and early 1980s.” Lord Hattersley stated similar views: “[Benn] will be remembered by people as…the totally irresponsible, who had no consistent view of what policy should be, was immensely concerned with his own image and status, was a bad team player, and was probably, more than anyone else, responsible for keeping Labour out of government between 1979 and 1997.”
Yet on the other hand, in many respects, Benn was a forward thinker, ahead of many other politicians during his time. He was able to push through major constitutional change in 1963 and railed against many of the political problems facing governments in the 21st century: the Iraq War, growing corporate power, a backlash against globalisation, and a kickback against international institutions such as the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Benn’s legacy also stretched beyond that of Blair’s. While many had previously argued that the ideas with Bennism had all but disappeared, policies such as nationalisation, higher taxes and egalitarianism returned under Jeremy Corbyn, himself a mentee of Benn.
Towards the end of his life, Benn became hugely admired for his principles and commitment to the Labour Party, in a way that he never managed as a member of parliament. “I’m pretty convinced that Tony Benn thought to his dying day, that in the end, what he really believed motivated people and what mattered to society would prevail,” a friend said. “In that way, he was a prophet as much as he was a politician.”
Benn ultimately saw change as coming within the Labour Party and Parliament, not necessarily outside of it. Indeed, Benn never broke away from the Labour Party, even during the Labour governments of 1967 and 1979, which raised unemployment and cut benefits. “I thought opposing it from the inside was the best thing to do,” Benn once said. In the end, Benn’s legacy involved the continuation of a working-class struggle rooted in radicalism, a scepticism of authority and a commitment to social justice.
In December 2008, Benn himself summed up his own approach to politics: “From the beginning of time, there have been two flames burning in the human heart. The flame of anger against injustice, and the flame of hope you can build a better world.”
“And my job at eighty-three is to go round is to go round fanning both flames…”
Anthony Neil Wedgewood Benn, 1925 – 2014