Tony Benn: an appreciation

by Stephen Tall on March 14, 2014

imageSummer 1993. I’d just finished my GCSEs and so, like any other teenager, spent the next few weeks reading Tony Benn’s diaries from start to finish. They are an immense achievement, as was his life.

They had a pretty major impact on me: I joined the Labour Party aged 16.The effect wore off in time: I left Labour (in 1999), and the Labour Party left Tony Benn.

1950s’ Benn was the constitutional reformer, battling for the right to renounce the hereditary peerage accepted by his father, William Wedgwood Benn (Viscount Stansgate), so that he could take his seat in the House of Commons. The son of an ex-Liberal MP, the grandson of two Liberal MPs, Benn retained a healthy scepticism towards state power (agonising, for example, over whether child seat-belts should be made compulsory, a move he saw as an infringement of civil liberties).

1960s’ Benn was the thrusting young technocrat in Harold Wilson’s “white heat” government. His record was mixed: he championed technology (he was always an early adopter), became obsessed by re-designing the stamp, and started the fight against pirate radio stations.

1970s’ Benn was the Radicalised Benn, as his early enthusiasm for the EEC flipped to loathing, and he became a thorn in the side of the Labour governments’ (failing) attempts to manage a heavily unionised economy. Benn refused to resign, while making clear his opposition to his colleagues’ policies, and Wilson preferred to keep him in the tent. It wasn’t surprising that he trailed fourth out of six when he tried to replace Wilson as Labour leader and Prime Minister.

1980s’ Benn was his decade of disappointment. His narrow defeat by Dennis Healey for the Labour party deputy leadership in 1981 was followed by defeat in 1983 in his re-drawn Bristol constituency (he’d refused to join the chicken-run to a safer seat, despite offers). More importantly, Labour’s “longest suicide note in history” – its ’83 manifesto – had been comprehensively rejected by the voters.

Though Benn returned, his power didn’t. Labour had started its long march back toward the centre under Neil Kinnock. While Benn was invariably the perfect gent, the same could not always be said of the Bennites: he turned a rose-tinted blind eye to Militant’s increasingly undemocratic antics. When Benn stood for the leadership for the second and final time, in 1988, he attracted just 11% of the votes, Kinnock an overwhelming 89%.

1990s’ onwards Benn began his stately progress to national treasure status. The less powerful he was the more warmly the public embraced him. Over the next two decades he became much-loved (he doubtless hated the phrase, recognising the toothlessness it implied). He retired from Parliament in 2001, memorably quipping it was “to spend more time on politics” (his Chesterfield seat fell to the Lib Dems). A brilliant orator, he became a popular theatre raconteur, the Peter Alliss of socialist politics. And he became an inspiration to a new generation of Bennites, energised by the financial crisis and mobilised through social media.

Tony Benn has died, but his life’s work lives on, including his famous 5 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?”

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.