Tony Benn: an appreciation

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 was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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This entry was posted in News and Obituaries.


  • If you look at my comment in the previous thread you will see some remarkable similarities with Stephen Tall’s here, especially the final part from each of us.

    As both are timed within 60 seconds of the other I guess neither of us can be accused of plagiarism.
    Maybe it just says something about the strength of Benn’s Five Democratic Questions.

  • Indeed I would find it hard to put a cigarette paper between myself and Tony Ben. However I still end up falling on the side of the LibDems. I’ve never been a member of a union, and I think there should be room for free marketeers to enliven the economy.

    With regards to foreign matters, I don’t think he pushed his case hard enough! Global peace should only strengthen ourselves ultimately, or else we are assuming we are dependent upon a system of inequaltiy.

  • Malcolm Todd 14th Mar '14 - 11:23pm

    I don’t know how you roll a cigarette with papers that thick, Dan…

  • David Cloke 15th Mar '14 - 1:00am

    What I think is so interesting about those five questions of those with power is that they seem to me to be fundamentally Liberal questions.

  • Interesting that there is renewed support for nationalisation of various industries, including rail ( it was recently re- nationalised by an administrative ruling that declared Network Rail to be so, not even by an Act of Parliament which it should have been) The private train operators are merely Government contractors providing services in accordance with the Government’s detailed requirements.

    In his autobiography the late Herbert Morrison, a keen supporter of nationalisation, said that this was the great failure of the Labour Government and caused more complaints than any other single problem and was one of the main reasons for the defeat of that Government in 1951. People do not like others making profits but they do not want badly run loss making services even more. If you think our banks are bad I suggest a visit to a bank in a Communist country.

  • nvelope2003 15th Mar '14 - 1:00pm

    I meant to add – why is there this obsession on the left with nationalised railways when 90% of transport use is by road yet you rarely hear any demands for nationalising road haulage. Either the left is living in the past and still think the railways are vital or they know only too well what the consequences of nationalised road haulage could be like empty super market shelves. And why is there no demand for nationalising retail businesses like supermarkets ? Strange really but there you go.

  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Mar '14 - 2:59pm

    It isn’t only “the left” who like the idea of nationalised railways. The vast majority of the public do, including – somewhat amazingly – most Tory voters :-

    There is a similarly huge majority in favour of nationalising the energy companies. And let’s not even mention Royal Mail…

    Those (like, apparently, yourself) who think state-owned companies are a terrible idea should perhaps explain how EDF manages to supply energy to millions of British homes and is having money thrown at it by the government to secure our future supplies, while all the time making huge profits for the French taxpayers who own it. Are the French stupid, or are we?

  • nvelope2003 15th Mar ’14 – 1:00pm
    I am guessing by your comments that you are too young to remember when all sorts of operations were nationalised. If I am wrong I apologise, but I cannot explain your views any other way.
    One of the best banks I have ever had dealings with was the Post Office Savings Bank, which I think might have been set up by Gladstone. No doubt someone will correct me if I am wrong.
    Up until the 1970s the retail pub industry in Carlisle, which had been ‘ nationalised’ by Lloyd George during the first world war ran quite successfully. I expect Gareth Epps might point out how the private sector Pubcos do not do quite so well at running pubs, or even a party in a brewery.
    Thomas Cook the retail travel agent used to be nationalised, and ran quite successfully for some years.
    The Forestry Commission another Lloyd George nationalised industry ran very well for decades under government control.
    Similarly people were not that unhappy with the water in their tap coming from nationalised industries, as I think it still does in Scotland (?). Since water privatisation we have had to swing between hose-pipe bans and floods because there is no sensible countrywide planning or proper investment in flood control , and the private companies who are motivated by profit do not provide such a reliable service.
    Similarly gas and electricity as they are now provided by rip off private sector sharks provide gas and electricity at greatly increased prices with no discernible improvement in service. Although “service” is a bit of a nonsense for someone like me who lives in a house bult in Victorian times, so my gas pipes and electricity supply were all fitted long before the private companies came along. What service have they provided to me since privatisation that I did not get before?
    And then there is the NHS, state schools, etc etc
    I think the privatisation of the telephone service may be the exception but because it coincided with huge technological change it is less easy to make a judgement. Other countries which maintained their nationalised telephone companies also benefited from the technological change so I guess the jury is out.

    In summary you really should not believe the Thatcherite version of history. Nationalisation was not and is not an exclusively left wing concept. It was not universally popular, quite the opposite. Many European countries had nationalised industries even though they had never had socialist governments. Thatcher was successful in bribing people with their own money by offering “shares” in newly privatised companies. Who still owns those shares now and as small share owners what actual influence do they have? Thatcherism was of course also guilty of the demutualisation and deregulation of the buildin socities and the banking industry, that particular chicken came home to roost in 2008.

  • Apologies that last bit should have read —
    In summary you really should not believe the Thatcherite version of history.
    Nationalisation was not and is not an exclusively left wing concept.
    It was not universally unpopular, quite the opposite.
    Many European countries had nationalised industries even though they had never had socialist governments.

  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Mar '14 - 5:07pm

    A characteristically excellent post by @John Tilley.

    I’ve always believed that “capitalists” and “socialists” do not exist outside the world of political obsessives. The vast majority have always known that a mixed economy is the way to go.

  • nvelope2003 16th Mar '14 - 3:31pm

    The public say they want nationalisation but when we had it people did not like the nationalised industries. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. I am not ideologically wedded to private ownership but when I worked in private industry everything was much more efficiently run than when I worked in the public sector. Private companies made profits and paid huge amounts of tax. Public sector undertakings were subsidised and paid no tax.
    In any case my query was about the railways which were the dominant mode of transport when they were in private ownership until 31st December 1947 and since then have been in decline until they were privatised in 1997. In the US private freight railway companies carry at least 42% of goods, even in Argentina privatising freight operations resulted in an increase in carryings until the present government restored state control, but elsewhere, including in Europe railway freight is in a pretty dire condition under state control and EU attempts to abolish the state monopoly have been thwarted by the sort of people who benefit from it as in the UK Co-op. They do not seem to mind that like killing all the elephants for their tusks state control will leave no railway freight at all until someone starts the whole thing again under private enterprise which started it in the first place. I was in fact born when the GWR, SR, LMS and LNER were still in existence and travelled on a GWR train.

    Polls have also shown that a majority of the public would like the restoration of the death penalty for murder and the re-introduction of grammar schools, the latter by a huge majority. Majorities are also found for an end to war and other similar objectives.
    Will those who post here be campaigning for the death penalty and if not why not ?
    Recent research aimed at denigrating selective education in fact found it was beneficial for those from poorer backgrounds where there was a selective system but we do not have one here as most grammar schools are in predominantly middle class areas so many of the pupils are middle class. Well what a surprise !
    I guess those who are set in authority over us are afraid what might happen if those uppity children of the poor were actually able to get the sort of education my friends and I got free of charge 60 years ago. Yes they could compete for the top jobs with the children of the rich – how awful, the world (or some people’s privileged world) might end. And a good thing too.

  • nvelope2003 16th Mar '14 - 3:42pm

    The railways are an alternative means of travel to the predominant road system. Why should a system which carries such a small proportion of travel be owned by the state. It made some sense when they were the dominant form of transport but not now.
    If we are to have a state owned system then it should be operated for reasons other than commercial ones. Some of those lines which were closed by Lord Beeching such as the Exeter to Plymouth via Okehampton route which would give an alternative to the route via Dawlish which has been closed for weeks after the sea washed the track away, should be re-opened to serve North Devon and Cornwall but I will not be holding my breath even though it only requires the reinstatement of one third of the route as the other two thirds are still in use. One can but hope.

  • @ nvelope2003
    Were you thinking of Starbucks or Amazon when you said — “Private companies made profits and paid huge amounts of tax.” ???
    As for railways – you lost me when you mentioned the UK Co-op in the context of EU deregulation.
    There are many members of the Liberal Democrats who know far more about railways than I do and I rather hope one of them will respond to you in detail. If only so that I can cross their name off in my ‘Ian Allan book of Liberal Democrats’.
    I would warn you against swallowing a Thatcherite history of the railways.
    Perhaps because I was one of those uppity working class children who went to a state Grammar School.

  • Alex Macfie 16th Mar '14 - 9:09pm

    There is a plan by a co-operative called Go-op to run passenger trains between Westbury and Birmingham via Swindon and Oxford under open-access rules. It’s been in the pipeline for several years, with not a lot of progress; that is the only link between the Co-op and railways that I am aware of.
    I find it shocking that the DfT has so much control over franchised passenger rail operations in the UK in our ostensibly “privatised” railway. Personally I prefer the British Rail immediately before privatisation, state-owned but run at arm’s length from government, so it was railway people, not civil servants, making the major decisions.
    We should be thankful that we still have integrated ticketing throughout the British rail network, with through ticketing between every pair of stations and ticket inter-availability on shared routes, as this was not how the Major government originally planned to privatise the railways. EU regulations on passenger rail services tend to emphasize competition at the expense of ticket integration; thus, for example, we have the absurd situation that between Brussels and Cologne there are two operators running trains that are roughly evenly spaced, but with completely separate ticketing. It’s as if between York and Edinburgh East coast and Cross Country didn’t accept each other’s tickets at all. But that’s the sort of thing we would have been landed with if the railways had been privatised the way the Tories had originally planned to.

  • nvelope2003 16th Mar '14 - 9:10pm

    Many of the members of my extended family worked on the railways as signalmen, drivers, guards, track workers etc. I heard quite a lot about things which went on under nationalisation. Those who did not work there worked on the buses, in the police, as prison officers and in other public services as I myself did. I am not against public service, on the contrary it is in my blood, but do not think that nationalising things is going to improve them. As Harold Wilson said about it – bringing Marks and Spencer up to the standards of the Co-op

    My reference to the Co-op was to the vested interests in that organisation which, like those who want to preserve the inefficient and out dated practices of the railways, do so because they are making a living out of them and by doing so have brought it down and are stopping the Co-op from achieving their potential in winning new business( or in the case ofthe railways from gaining new traffic and reducing pollution and road congestion) It is an example of what can happen to businesses which are not operated in a business like way. Of course some private firms also become complacent but they do not last long when that happens and new firms come along to take their place as Poundland, the 99p shop etc have replaced Woolworths. This renewal will never happen if the inefficient are cushioned by tax payer subsidies or by the state borrowing money .

    Most UK companies pay large amounts of tax. That is why British companies like Costa are not so happy about foreign companies like Starbucks avoiding their tax liability.

    I did not like Mrs Thatcher although she did a few things which were necessary but selling off council houses, however popular (like nationalisation is now supposed to be) was wrong and has left the country with a shortage of social housing. It would have been better to have given those tenants who wanted to move the money for a deposit on a new house.
    We must be wary of indulging what may be a temporary popular enthusiasm for certain policies until the issues have been fully discussed. I heard a Labour front bencher trying to tell a younger member that nationalising the railways would not deal with the problems but would make the Government get the blame for them whereas now it is all the fault of FGW, SWT etc I must confess that on my local railway the service is immensely better than it was 20 years ago. We cannot be the only ones.

  • Nvelope2003
    I agree with you on council housing. I also agree with you on restoring the Exeter to Plymouth rail route via Okehampton.

    There are many rail routes in the South West that should be restored. The economies of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerest would improve enormously with the restoration of rail; but I don’t anticipate any private company doing any such thing.

  • nvelope2003 21st Mar '14 - 4:36pm

    Well I do not think any private company will rebuild closed railway lines unless they get a subsidy for it but since the nation seems to have accepted the principle of subsidising the railways then that is the only way it will be done, though I believe Chiltern have restored some links without subsidies.

    Many bus services get subsidies because bus companies work the system and I know how they do it. Sometimes they continue to operate the services even when the subsidies are withdrawn.

    I heard someone saying that railway lines would be almost impossible to reopen because some track had been built on but although I would not be happy about demolishing people’s property, buildings are being knocked down daily, even historic ones, for road widening and HS2 will require extensive demolition including Euston Station.

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