Tony Benn was one of the most mesmerising and divisive figures in the mainstream of postwar British politics. An establishment insider who became a rebellious leftwing outsider, a cabinet minister turned street protester and reviled prophet of capitalism’s demise, he nonetheless managed in old age to become something of a national treasure. “It’s because I’m harmless now,” he would explain.
In the course of a 60-year career in public life which left a more lasting impact on the constitution than on the direction of governments or their policies - first as Anthony Wedgwood Benn, briefly as Viscount Stansgate, and from 1973 as plain Mr Benn - he was both loved and loathed in equal measure by countless voters who had never met him.
As such Benn stood in a long line of upper-class, nonconformist radicals with a moral crusader’s unsettling zeal, as recognisably English as a character out of Anthony Trollope or even PG Wodehouse. His former Oxford tutor, later his Notting Hill neighbour and cabinet colleague, the cerebral Tony Crosland, was devoted to him even though he accused Benn - known to some intimates as “Jimmy” - of working so hard that “he creates endless crises”. Crosland would say affectionately: “Nothing the matter with him except he’s a bit cracked.”
It was a lack of any direct dealings with their troublesome, often self-righteous colleague which characterised many of “Jimmy’s” more ardent admirers in the opinion of detractors less forgiving than Crosland. To them he symbolised disastrous and rancorous splits in the 1970s and 80s, a decade of unrealistic self-indulgence made worse when fellow-leftwingers, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock led the party. Between the left and Roy Jenkins’s rightwing SDP split, it cost them power for 19 years.
Surviving Bennites and their leftwing allies in the unions and grassroots labour movement were quick to counter criticism with praise for his far-sighted warnings against globalisation or unaccountable corporate power and his resilient optimism, after Benn’s death at 88 was announced on Friday. With the possible exceptions of Aneurin Bevan and Arthur Scargill on the left and Margaret Thatcher or Enoch Powell on the radical right, no mainstream postwar political figure aroused such partisan loyalty - or fear.
Throughout his adult life Benn was also a prolific keeper of what became nightly diary notes, later tape recordings, the basis of eight very readable volumes of diaries, the last published in 2013 as A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine. They provided insights into both his happy family life - married for 50 years to Caroline, an American of similar outlook - and Benn’s take on the politics of the day, both high and low, plus gossip. In old age, the diaries were augmented by live performance on stage and TV, where he was as much a hit in the Tory home counties as in Labour heartlands. Even his worst enemies did not deny he was an excellent mimic who could be very funny.
The final diary entry concludes on a characteristically upbeat note that (also characteristically) merged both streams of the narrative: “I’m now waiting for the great-grandchildren to come along, as I think every younger generation brings fresh ideas into the world.” By this stage his son Hilary had achieved the rare dynastic feat of becoming a third generation Labour cabinet minister and one granddaughter, Emily Benn, had already been a Labour parliamentary candidate at 20.
With hindsight Benn’s most lasting impact on politics has been his leading role in giving party activists - even in a reluctant Conservative party - a role in choosing their leader and in making “jobs for life” MPs more accountable via routine reselection procedures. Potentially of more significance in the future is another of his campaigns, to introduce referendums, a device that had previously been despised in Britain as a tool of despots.
Not for the first or last time, the practical outcome of his initial success - the 1975 referendum on UK membership of the then European Economic Community (EEC) - proved less satisfactory to him. Despite his prediction of victory on the morning of polling day, the cross-party No campaign, in which Benn was one of seven cabinets ministers to oppose Harold Wilson’s Yes campaign, lost by a margin of 2-1. Benn’s switch from youthful pro-Europeanism to hostility remained unswerving until his death. For him, as for Tory Eurosceptics, the core issue was national sovereignty.
Repeatedly defeated by events and the electorate over the big issues, Benn enjoyed lesser ministerial successes, including a key role as minister for technology (1966-70) with the merger of ailing car firms into British Leyland (1968). It was part of an interventionist strategy that saw a similar solution in ICL, the new national champion created from computer mergers. As postmaster general (1964-66) he oversaw the introduction of the Girobank and famously commissioned some stamp designs that did not include the Queen’s head. She inspected them without complaint, but No 10 phoned with a veto as soon as Benn was back at his desk.
When energy secretary (1976-79) he obtained better terms from the new North Sea oil companies than his Tory predecessors. He had been switched from the industry brief (1974-76) after a series of clashes with colleagues and officials, not least over his support for workers co-ops as an alternative to closure. He later claimed that during the 1974 election Whitehall had prepared three files for their incoming minister: one Tory, one Labour, the third marked “Labour, if not Mr Benn.”
Catalyst for change
Friends said the workers occupation of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) yards in Glasgow in 1971 was the catalyst which convinced Benn that under-performing British industry needed more radical remedies than postwar Croslandite social democracy offered. A decade later newly elected François Mitterrand briefly flirted with a similar strategy in France. By that time the industrial militancy and social disorder of the 1978-79 “winter of discontent” had already delivered to Britain the Thatcherite option.
Enemies such as the chief whip, Michael Cocks, viewed Benn as a cabinet member disloyally destabilising his own minority government with barely-coded speeches and briefings. Cocks would later write that Benn threw his lot in with the hard left - including the highly sectarian Trotskyite Militant Tendency, “entryists” who had infiltrated Labour’s ranks - only because he realised he could never win the leadership without wresting the election process away from Labour MPs alone. One result was the 1981 electoral college which Ed Miliband currently seeks to reform. Another was the Liberal-SDP alliance, now the Liberal Democrats and now in coalition with David Cameron. Activist participation in policy-making, another Bennite demand much changed in the Blair era, remains to this day.–Guardian