Sad To See You Leaving 2014: Tony Benn

by Jackie_South on December 31, 2014

Tony Benn“If one meets a powerful person 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?”

Whilst many Labour politicians have started off on the left and drifted rightwards after a period of holding ministerial office, Tony Benn is possibly unique in making the journey in the other direction. He started off in the mainstream right of the party, a follower of Hugh Gaitskill and opponent of the Bevanites, but the experience of the party after Gaitskill’s death (he was no fan of George Brown, the right’s candidate to succeed the leadership) and then of ministerial power in the Sixties moved him to the left.

He was one of the truly great Parliamentarians, despite (or perhaps because of) being openly dismissive of the idea that in a democracy it should only be members of Parliament that get to call the shots “Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means of securing periodical change in the management team, which is then allowed to preside over a system that remains in essence intact”. His parliamentary career lasted over fifty years, although he only served 47 of those in Westminster, first entering Parliament following the Bristol South East by-election caused by the resignation of Stafford Cripps in 1950.

The two breaks in that career were both massively significant.

The first changed the British constitution. Benn’s father, former Labour minister William Wedgewood Benn, had accepted a hereditary peerage in 1942 (only the judiciary could be made a life peer before 1958) to increase Labour’s numbers there during the wartime coalition. Tony’s older brother was meant to inherit the title, but his early death meant that when When William died in 1960, it was Anthony Wedgewood Benn (as he was then known) who became the Second Viscount Stansgate. He was therefore no longer able to represent Bristol South East in the Commons and a by-election was called.

Constitutionally, Benn could not renounce the peerage, as he wished to do. He stood in the by-election and won 70% of the vote, but his candidacy was ruled out of order and his Tory opponent was declared the new Member of Parliament. But Benn’s stand drew popular sympathy and in 1963 The Peerage Act was passed to allow Benn to renounce. The Conservative MP (Malcolm St Clair) decently resigned from Parliament and a second by-election was held: Benn ran without opposition from either Conservative or Liberal Parties and returned to the Commons.

Of course, Benn was not the only politician to gain from the Peerage Act. Two months later, Sir Alec Douglas-Home was able to become Prime Minister, renouncing his peerage to stand in the Kinross by-election the following month.

The second career break had less constitutional impact, but massive implications for the Labour Party. Bristol South East was abolished in 1983, and so (now plain Tony) Benn stood unsuccessfully for the more Tory-inclined Bristol East in that year. Labour’s terrible performance nationally was enough to cause Benn’s defeat, and so he was not an MP when Michael Foot resigned his leadership of the party and consequently unable to stand for the post. As the most viable remaining left-wing candidate, Neil Kinnock became the main beneficiary of Benn’s non-candidacy.

Benn’s other legacies were massive. He ensured that the Labour Party’s membership and unions, rather than just Members of Parliament, elected the party’s leader and deputy leader. As postmaster general in the Sixties, he introduced the first stamps that did not consist entirely of the Queen’s head. He also introduced the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, still the main legislation that governs health and safety. Without him, it is unlikely that there would have been a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU (then EEC) in 1975 – not only important for giving the British people a say in that decision but also as the very first UK referendum.

His role as a technical innovator (as Postmaster General and then minister of Technology) and as diarist (his diaries are easily the most complete contemporary record of the inner workings of government and national politics) were also significant.

I was too young to witness most of this: I only remember Benn from the 1980s and from the peak of the Deputy Leadership race that he lost by a hair’s breadth in 1981 his influence gradually waned. But he was still a hugely influential figure in the developing of the political consciousness of my generation. The quote at the start of this post was one that he used on many occasions (I first heard it on Question Time, back in the days when Labour allowed interesting MPs on the programme), and is still one I regularly play in my head as a test of democratic values.

The one time I met him was in 1990 when he visited the LSE whilst Ray, George, Bobby and I were studying there. I spoke to Benn that day. He was approachable, incredibly generous with his time and seemed to be genuinely interested in what I had to say. I still treasure the copy of his Diaries that he signed for me then. I think that is how he came across to everyone who met him: he was one of politics’ genuinely nice guys.

“I used to think the difference between a politician and a statesman was that you had to be dead to be the latter. Then someone let me read my draft obituary.”

Benn may not have been a great statesman, but he was something far more precious than that.

Tony Benn RIP 1925 – 2014

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