Tony Benn always divided politicians into signposts and weathercocks: those who hold firm to deeply-held principles and point the way forward, or those who flap about in response to events. Benn was most definitely a signpost.
He rose to fame due to his brave decision to renounce his father’s hereditary peerage. He did so in defiance of the law of the land, and battled until this feudal system was ended in 1963. Thereafter, Anthony Wedgwood Benn was just plain Tony Benn.
By that stage, Benn had become a rising star of the Labour Party, appearing in slick party election broadcasts with Hugh Gaitskell and Woodrow Wyatt at the 1959 election. He found favour under Harold Wilson, and was made Postmaster General when Labour won in 1964. However, it was Benn’s next job as Minister of Technology that he enjoyed the most, starting a lifelong fascination with all manner of gadgets.
Benn actually began his political life as a moderate centrist. It was only in the late 1960s and early 1970s that his views shifted to the left. He soon began to call for the nationalisation of all major companies and for withdrawal from the European Economic Community, which Edward Heath had joined in 1973. Harold Wilson, facing huge splits in his party, called a referendum in 1975, making the fateful decision to allow his Cabinet to pick either side of the debate. Benn joined other leading figures of the left, including Michael Foot and Barbara Castle in a passionate no campaign. Outgunned and underfunded, they lost.
Wilson had chosen to side line his old ally, and it was in this period that Benn was portrayed in the Conservative tabloid press as a bogeyman figure. He claimed that his rubbish had been raked through by the security services. My own mother wrote to relatives in America at the time, genuinely worried that ‘Wedgie’ Benn (a favourite nickname of his opponents) was going to take over the country. Early in 1975, as Secretary of State for Industry he penned the ‘Alternative Economic Strategy’ which proposed creating essentially a siege economy, imposing tariffs on imported goods. A year later, he bitterly imposed the public spending cuts imposed by the Labour Chancellor, Denis Healey.
The early 1980s saw Benn wield his greatest period of influence over the Labour Party. In what became known as the Bennite Ascendancy, leftist elements took over local Labour parties, attempting to deselect more right-wing Labour MPs. Several left in disgust to form the breakaway Social Democratic Party. In September 1981, Benn stood for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party against the right-winger Denis Healey. He lost by less than one percent.
However, Benn’s left-wingers now wielded enormous sway in the National Executive Committee (NEC), the party ruling body. The culmination of his influence was the radical 1983 Labour manifesto which called for the nationalisation of the banks, unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the EEC. Gerald Kaufman, on the right of the party, famously dubbed it ‘the longest suicide note in history’. The Labour Party was crushed at the 1983 General Election.
Neil Kinnock spent the next nine years trying to win back control of the party from the left. Benn routinely stood for the party leadership until 1988 when Kinnock raised from 5% to 20% the threshold of MPs required to put themselves forward as a candidate. No Labour leader has been challenged since. Gradually, Kinnock won back control of the party from Benn. By the 1992 election, only Benn and his friend Dennis Skinner were left on the NEC.
That didn’t mean that Benn gave up. His skills as an orator in the House of Commons were still legendary. During the parliamentary ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, I vividly recall sitting in the Commons gallery, silently stamping my feet at Benn’s oratory, even though I disagreed with every word he said. A favourite phrase in relation to Europe was: ‘These powers are not ours to give away.’ In that distinctive, slushy voice of his, he would take a stand over the ‘ishoos’ (issues) of the day.
Nevertheless, Benn had many faults. He rarely stuck to collective Cabinet responsibility under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. He was neglectful of his constituencies, losing Bristol East in 1983 and running down his later seat of Chesterfield (which he held from 1984) so badly that it was taken by the Liberal Democrats on Benn’s retirement in 2001.
Benn stood down from the House of Commons, saying he wanted to devote more time to politics. It was a revealing insight into the extent of his marginalisation that he felt he could achieve more outside the House of Commons than within it. In many respects, he was correct. His political diaries, kept since a schoolboy in the autumn of 1941 right through his political career, and lovingly edited by Ruth Winstone, will remain one of his most enduring legacies.
In his retirement, Benn bitterly opposed many of the changes that Tony Blair wrought on the Labour Party. In 2003, he was particularly virulent in his opposition to the Iraq War. I had the great luck to interview Benn for a book I was writing about John Smith. At the time, the firefighters’ union were taking industrial action, and Benn railed that Blair was ‘lighting fires in Baghdad’ but wasn’t prepared to pay people properly to put them out at home. That was one of the infuriating things about Benn: he always twisted the conversation around to his agenda, regardless of the question you asked him.
In his dotage, Benn was at his most charming. A younger generation saw him as harmless figure who believed in his principles. He even went on a hugely successful one-man tour of the country. ‘Dare to be a Daniel’, he told packed audiences, reflecting his deep religious faith.
But Benn wasn’t a harmless figure. My mother was right. Had Denis Healey not won that Deputy Leadership contest in 1981 by ‘the hair of an eyebrow’, the Labour Party under ‘Wedgie Benn’ would have descended into a mire of dogma from which it would never have recovered.
Mark Stuart is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Nottingham.