RIP Tony Benn

Tony BennAnthony Wedgwood Benn has died aged 88.

Tony championed many causes including nationalisation, unilateral nuclear disarmamemnt, leaving the common market, socialism, and democratic reform of the Labour Party. He renounced a peerage – changing the law in the process – in order to remain a member of Parliament. He left Parliament in 2001 “in order to spend more time in politics”, leaving his Chesterfield seat to be won by Liberal Democrat Paul Holmes.

One of the few not to be taken in by Ali G, Tony was a conviction politician, and an inspiration to many on the left.

Tributes only please in the comments below. Opportunities for more balanced and critical comments will come later – or write a piece for us.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017, is a councillor in Sheffield and is Tuesday editor of Liberal Democrat Voice.

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  • Alisdair McGregor 14th Mar '14 - 8:28am

    I disagreed with Tony Benn on many, many things, but on Trident I absolutely agree with him – It’s sad that for all the hero worship by those on the left, he never managed to take the Labour Party to the point of holding that view as well.

    I have to wonder what he thought of the Labour Party deliberately sinking the reform of the House of Lords in this Parliament though.

    Condolences to the family.

  • I couldn’t agree with him on many issues but he was absolutely a conviction politician. I remember listening to him talk about being anti war, and his reasoning for being so (linked to losing his brother in action in the second world war in which he also served). It was refreshing to hear such a reasoned argument that was probably the polar opposite of political expediency, so different from the empty bandwagon rhetoric of Galloway..

    He was a fantastic public speaker and, as a lesson to today’s politicians of all hues, he didn’t duck questions even where the answers would be unpopular. As some of the older generation of politicians leave us I am constantly left to feel that power rather than principle is now the guiding force…

  • Andrew Houseley 14th Mar '14 - 9:23am

    As a Socialist, Tony Benn was never afraid to acknowledge the mammoth contributions to democracy, fairness and social justice of Gladstone, Lloyd George – his heroes. I’m not sure what his views were as to how two movements could co-exist in one country and for that country’s political process to succsessfully fulfill the ambitions of its people. But that’s something with which we should all continue to grapple..

  • He was also responsible for the last time parliament tried to implement a good policy – LVT in the seventies.

  • Unlike Bob Crow, who died eariier this week, Tony Benn came from a very privileged, establishment background.   He is part of a political dynasty which continues with his children and grandchildren.   Both Tony Benn’s grandfathers, John Benn and Daniel Holmes, were Liberal MPs (respectively, for Tower Hamlets, Devonport and Glasgow Govan). 
    Tony Benn’s father William Wedgwood Benn was a Liberal Member of Parliament who later crossed the floor to the Labour Party, became Secretary of State for India under Ramsay MacDonald in 1929, went into the House of Lords with the title of Viscount Stansgate in1941.   From 1945 to 1946, he was the Secretary of State for Air in the first majority Labour Government.
    Tony Benn’s contact with leading politicians of the day dates back to his earliest years; he met Ramsay MacDonald when he was five, David Lloyd George when he was 12 and Mahatma Gandhi in 1931, while his father was Secretary of State for India.
    Benn’s mother, Margaret Wedgwood Benn (née Holmes) (1897–1991), was a theologian, feminist and the founder President of the Congregational Federation. She was a member of the League of the Church Militant, which was the predecessor of the Movement for the Ordination of Women .   Benn said that Hismother’s theology had a profound influence on him.
    It says something about the bias in the media in this country that this man with such an establishment background was pilloried for much of his life as if he was some sort of Marxist enemy of the state.
    A few things that may not get mentioned in the more mainstream obituaries.   Benn introduced a huge range of postage stamps when Postmaster General, an innovation which was great for stamp collectors but also provided an income stream for the Post Office.   For most of his time in parliament he was a Bristol MP with a constituency vested interest in production of the plane Concorde, or the “flying over-draft” as more cynical observers dubbed it:  Concorde looked great, sounded dreadful and cost a fortune to fly very rich people across the Atlantic.   If the same investment had been spent on the railways in the 1960s and 1970s it would have greatly improved the lives a lot of ordinary working people.   So there is some irony that Tony Benn was a champion of Concorde, the plane for rich people.
    He was as a Secretary of State for Energy in the 1970s responsible for the introduction of the special police force which patrolled nuclear power stations:  it was the first UK police force to be armed as a matter of routine.   Another irony that the man who many will remember as being anti-nuclear was no such thing when he held office in a Labour Government.
    So whilst Tony Benn may in the 1980s have been the man The Daly Mail loved to hate, the reality was somewhat different.

    Tony Benn’s best contribution to politics was his “5 Democratic Questions” —

    “If one meets a powerful person–  Rupert Murdoch, Joe Stalin or Hitler- one can ask five questions: —
    what power do you have?
    where did you get it?
    in whose interests do you exercise it?
    to whom are you accountable?
    and, how can we get rid of you? ”

  • RIP Tony Benn- thoughts with family and those who knew him.

    One of the most powerful speakers I’ve seen. Even where I knew I didn’t agree with him he always spoke with such passion and power that my position always felt challenged, and somehow stronger if it withstood the buffeting.

    He was indeed the champion on many issues we’d welcome, such as nuclear disarmament, and we shouldn’t forget this due to other issues where we disagreed.

    He’ll be long remembered, and I’m not sure how many of our current front-benchers we’d feel the same about.

  • Oh, Tony Benn gone? Sad. I interviewed him about his cousin Margaret Rutherford. Mug of tea and pipe at the ready just as you’d expect…. — Stephen Fry (@stephenfry) March 14, 2014

    Margaret Rutherford’s cousin !!!! How did I miss that?

  • Margaret Rutherford’s cousin !!!! How did I miss that?

    Actually, there’s a definite physical resemblance if you look.

    Her father changed his name from Benn after murdering his father while mentally ill.

  • In answer to his question “In whose interests do you exercise power ? ” clearly in respect of Concorde it was in his own interest as he wished to be re-elected in his Bristol seat. His views were of interest but he does not seem to have implemented any of them when he had the chance. and where the sort of things he advocated have been tried they were not universally successful or at all. I expect that the Co-op would have been the sort of thing he liked but apparently it is now virtually bankrupt because of being run by people with no serious experience of the retail trade but supposedly elected by the members

    One thing which always amused me about him was that he always objected that though he was a committed republican he had to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen but he omitted to mention that the said oath required him to be faithful to her heirs and successors ACCORDING TO LAW so if Parliament declared Britain to be a republic he was fully covered unless he was seeking the overthrow of the monarchy by armed force or some other illegal action. I guess it sounded good to those who supported his views.

  • Julian Tisi 15th Mar '14 - 2:23pm

    @John Tilley
    Thanks for that obituary. Fascinating.

  • @Ian Sanderson. — apologies, I was not aware that the police in Northern Ireland were armed as a matter of routine.

    I do remember the clashes with Roman Catholic civil rights marchers in the late 1960s and the dreaded ‘B Specials’ about which Wiki says this —
    The Ulster Special Constabulary (USC; commonly called the “B-Specials” or “B Men'”) was a quasi-military reserve police force in Northern Ireland. It was set up in October 1920, shortly before the partition of Ireland. It was an armed corps, organised partially on military lines and called out in times of emergency, such as war or insurgency. It performed this role in 1920–22 during the Irish War of Independence and in the 1950s, during the IRA Border Campaign.
    they wee disbanded in 1970.

    I did not realise that the ordinary Northern Ireland police routinely carried guns.

  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Mar '14 - 5:28pm

    My wife brought to my attention some wonderful tributes on Mumsnet of all places. All admirers of Benn will enjoy reading this (at least until some awful Thatcherite woman wades in) :-

    Benn’s intelligence, humour, integrity and compassion made him my favourite of all politicians, living or dead. Greatly missed.

  • I’m going to be contrary here, because although I respect the career, intellect and the articulation of his beliefs that Tony Benn may have so successful in, I’m a little tired of the over-adulation that he had throughout his career. Tony Benn was, according to an article in 1999, secretly looking for a “get-out” for Concorde, and one has to wonder how supportive of the project he would have been had he not represented the particular constituency that he did at that time. Tony Benn was also the man who cancelled Britain’s Blue Streak rocket programme. One wonders whether today, European Space could have been built on a foundation of British technology rather than French technology? We could have been world leaders not just in satellites but in launch vehicles too, and other uses of rocketry. I find it very difficult to respect Tony Benn’s decisions and judgement. As for being the man who was Postmaster General when postcodes were introduced nationally – well, was he no more than the man in the job at the time? Did he invent the idea of our current post code system? I think not. As for his attempts to get the Queen’s head removed from stamps – what sort of waste of energy was that? Were there no more important things in the day-to-day running of GPO, a massive organisation, to think about?

    Lastly, as someone 45-years old, my memories of Tony Benn from the last 20-30 years have been those of watching a a man attempting to get his “Commonwealth of Britain” Bill into parliament, and of watching him on television debates banging on about how as “subjects” and not “citizens” we were a downtrodden lot. You see, at the time I was watching Tony Benn bang on about the injustices of being a “subject”, I picked up my passport and had a look inside it. It clearly said “British citizen” not “subject”. Furthermore, Subject, Citizen…it’s just a word. It means nothing in itself. What really maters is whether Tony Benn’s efforts as an MP did more to enhance and protect our rights, freedom and our prosperity. Not really, that I can see.

  • Stuart Mitchell 16th Mar '14 - 11:07am

    Joe Otten: “Tributes only please in the comments below. Opportunities for more balanced and critical comments will come later – or write a piece for us.”

    Very sad that there are two posters here unwilling to respect that simple request.

  • David White 16th Mar '14 - 2:33pm

    Thank you, dear Joe Otten, for a super piece of writing following the death of Tony Benn. I also thank almost all of those who have commented on your article.

    People who are aware that I describe myself as being on the anarcho-syndicalist wing of the LibDems will not be surprised to read that I admired Mr Benn, or that I supported (still support) much of his political philosophy.

    And yes, I too was at Aldermaston at Eastertide 1958 – and very wet and cold it was! I remain firmly opposed to a British ‘nuclear deterrent’ – no, it’s not a ‘deterrent’; it’s a weapon of vilely wicked potential vengeance.

    May I be permitted an anecdote? It was my pleasure and privilege to be at Oyster Perches restaurant, in Uplands, Swansea, for the party to launch Sir Kingsley Amis’s Booker prize-winning novel, The Old Devils. Knowing my socio-political views, my employers, Century-Hutchinson had seated me as far away from Sir Kingsley as was possible – about ten yards, at the opposite end of a long table. A most entertaining man, Sir KIngsley, having expounded upon the delights of Thatcherism, began to attack both authors and politicians on who did not adore Margaret Hilda. Most of them, he said, naming names, were cowards who would not fight for Britain.

    Finally, the Amis tirades were too much for even such an innately kindly soul as me! First, I pointed out that Alan Sillitoe had, in fact, served his country, during the ‘Malaya Emergency’, before being invalided-out with TB. Then I added that Tony Benn’s pilot brother had been KIA during WW2 while Tony had been too young to serve during the war but was a pilot who saw active service in Palestine.

    Believe it or not, Amis pere took to me. Clearly, he loved an argument. Finally, I enjoyed a wonderful evening with Amis and Wynford Vaughan Thomas (another of our authors) in the bar of the Mumbles Yacht Club. Ooh, but I felt so ill, next morning!

    Too much name-dropping? If so, soreee.

    Anyway, I think that Tony Benn was a potentially great man. The only reason he never became ‘great’ is his admirable refusal to compromise his principles. Sometimes, he was wrong, of course, but he never backed-down.

    Another loss to ordinary folk this week was Bob Crow. He fought for his RMT members and succeeded in maintaining (and even improving) the living standards of his ‘blue-collar’ supporters. Today, there are too few trades unions’ leaders who will challenge exploitative employers, all the way.

    Oh dear, will this result in my final excommunication from the LibDems? I hope not.

  • I disagreed with much of what he said but I admired his resolute determination to avoid unpleasant personal comment about others. He made it a point of principle. Consequently for example he wasn’t ‘t one of those on the left who joined in the tasteless comments about Margaret Thatcher last year . My thoughts are with his family and friends.

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