Obituary: Tony Benn PC, politician

Tony Benn. Picture: PA
Tony Benn. Picture: PA
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Born: 3 April, 1925, in London. Died: 14 March, 2014, in London, aged 88.

Tony Benn was an MP for 50 years and served in the Cabinets of both Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. His time as Postmaster General saw the opening of the Post Office Tower in central London, and he was a strong advocate of technology while Minister of Technology.

Throughout his career Benn questioned colleagues in the Labour Party and during the 1980s was the party’s prominent figure on the Left: Bennites vied with Thatcherites in UK politics. Bennites were certainly far removed from the emerging Blairite wing of the party.

Benn emerged as the leader of the radical Left of the party in the 1970s. He believed, for example, that the Scottish Socialist Party should play a major role in Scottish politics. He approved of the SSP’s goals and told Colin Fox of the SSP some 30 years ago that “there are too many socialist parties and not enough socialists”.

Benn was controversial and many of the policies he championed were derided within his own party. The Tories caricatured him as Bogey Benn, but he was admired for his honesty and straight talking and was often voted Britain’s most respected MP.

Benn was a well-known figure in Scotland. He played a key role in the campaign to save the Clydeside yards from the proposed closure by the Heath government in 1971. In 1969 he received an honorary degree from Strathclyde University and visited Scott Lithgow’s Kingston yard that same day for meetings with management and shop stewards.

His support for the workers on the Clyde was unequivocal. In 1971 Benn was in the forefront of a march through Glasgow in support of the Clydeside work-in. “When UCS (the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders) said they were going to go bankrupt,” Benn recalled, “I saw Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie. They decided to take the bold step of having a work-in, instead of a strike.”

Stunned by the public support for the workers, Heath announced a £35 million injection of cash into the shipyards. The experience left a deep impression on Benn and he admitted: “My political outlook was heavily influenced by the role played by the trade unions in the Clydeside shipbuilding industry.”

Other important political campaigns in Scotland included his outright opposition to the poll tax and Margaret Thatcher’s decision to single out Scotland for its implementation a year before the rest of the country. Benn argued such a political manoeuvre “was perceived by the mass of the Scottish people as a colonial punishment for daring to defy her”.

Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn was formerly the 2nd Viscount Stansgate; his father was a Liberal MP for Leith while his mother, Margaret Eadie, was born in Paisley and was a famous theologian who campaigned to allow women to occupy senior positions in the church. His maternal upbringing, Benn said, had a great bearing on his life.

Benn’s grandfathers were Liberal MPs, one for Glasgow Govan, so he grew up in a political environment. After Westminster School he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at New College, Oxford and was president of the Union in 1947, having served with the RAF in South Africa during the war.

In 1950 he was adopted as the Labour candidate for a by-election in Bristol, and was duly elected. When his father died in 1960 Benn automatically inherited the title and immediately renounced it because it required him to give up his seat in the Commons. He fought the ensuing by-election, and even though he was disqualified from retaking his seat, he promptly won the ballot.

The government accepted the anomaly of the situation and introduced the Peerage Act, which allowed the renunciation of peerages, and Benn returned to the Commons in 1963. Within a year Wilson appointed him Postmaster General, and he introduced the Girobank. In 1966 as Minister of Technology he was much involved in developing Concorde.

Back in government in 1974, firstly as Minister for Industry then at Energy, Benn’s industrial reforms were beset by the severe national economic downturn. He was no lover of the EEC and in his diaries he wrote scathingly that it was “bureaucratic and centralised and it is really dominated by Germany”.

His experience at UCS certainly hardened his left-wing views and at the 1980 party conference he outlined radical plans for the party. “Within days a Labour Government will nationalise industries, control capital and implement industrial democracy,” he said. Benn received a tumultuous reception but the backing of the party’s hierarchy remained lukewarm.

He only lost the vote for the deputy leadership in 1981 by a whisker but it was significant that his barn-storming oratory failed to strike home with the voters.

Because of boundary changes in Bristol he was not adopted by the new constituency. It was a measure of his reputation in Scotland that Benn was invited to stand in Livingston but instead he contested Bristol East, which he failed to win. In 1984 he won the by-election in Chesterfield and gave enthusiastic support for the controversial miners’ strike.

However, his friendship with Arthur Scargill rather rebounded on his judgment and he failed to make much impact in the party’s leadership election in 1988 against Kinnock.

Benn wrote and lectured widely and his clarity of mind and originality of thought never failed to stimulate. As his friend and colleague in the House, Sir Tam Dalyell, told The Scotsman yesterday: “Every night, however hard his day had been, Tony spent up to two hours writing his diaries. They will undoubtedly be more generous than Richard Crossman’s and will be a hugely reliable source for historians of the second half of the 20th century.

“During his involvement with UCS Tony gave great hope to the West of Scotland community.”

He remained a maverick. He strongly opposed the Kosovo war and during the Gulf War visited Saddam Hussein to negotiate the release of hostages.

In 1992 he tried to introduce a bill in the Commons to abolish the monarchy. On retirement he typically explained: “I am leaving parliament in order to spend more time on politics.”

He certainly remained active – he was president of Stop the War in Iraq, opposed the war in Afghanistan and published his extensive diaries. In 2007 a BBC poll voted Benn UK’s Political Hero, beating Margaret Thatcher.

The following year Benn was a guest on the Oban-born folk singer/songwriter Colin McIntyre’s album The Water, reading Pay Attention to the Human, written by Benn.

Benn remained a great lover of copious mugs of tea, his pipe and an argument. He was blessed with a muscular mind and, some argued, more fascinated by the theory of politics than its practicalities. He certainly infuriated, irritated and motivated in equal measures. He was a political free spirit and remained defiantly his own man, refusing to follow this month’s fashion.

In an interview with The Scotsman in 2012 Benn admitted that “splitting up Britain would divide me in half with a knife”. He recalled the challenging days with the UCS and said: “I always loved Scotland. I’ve always felt very much at home in Scotland. They are very serious and friendly people.”

Benn married Caroline de Camp in 1949. She predeceased him and he is survived by their four children, one of whom, Hilary, is shadow secretary of state for communities and local government.