Tony Benn: how will history remember the Labour stalwart?

Veteran Labour politician Tony Benn has died at the age of 88.

Benn, who became an MP in November 1950 and served in the cabinet under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, died at his home in west London on Friday 14 March. He became secretary of state for industry in 1974, and went on to become secretary of state for energy. He retired from parliament in 2001.

Here, leading historians and political commentators share their thoughts on Benn’s legacy:

Politics. Personalities. pic: 3rd October 1977.  Anthony Wedgewood-Benn , (Tony Benn) born 1925, Labour MP. at the Labour Party Conference. Credit: Popperfoto.com Ref: PLP

“Courteous, charming, funny and impassioned… one of the most inspirational figures in post-war British politics”

Like Enoch Powell, Tony Benn is remembered for his time on the backbenches and in opposition rather than for what he did in government.

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He may have overseen the development of Concorde and colour television, campaigned for co-operatives and against pirate radio, given Britain its first ever referendum – all these things and more – but it was when he was out of office, after the election defeat of 1979, that he was at the peak of his influence.

During Margaret Thatcher’s first term in power, Benn worked tirelessly to bring the Labour Party, and ultimately the country, round to his vision of socialism. He failed in that endeavour, of course, but in the process he revealed himself to be one of the most inspirational figures in post-war British politics.

Courteous, charming, funny and impassioned, he was equally at home in the television studio as he was on the platform of a protest rally. “If only I could speak like that,” yearned a young Tony Blair, exposed to Benn’s eloquence.

My suspicion, however, is that long after the political battles of the 1980s have been consigned to the history books, Benn’s great legacy will be seen as his diaries. Even in their truncated published form, they are an extraordinary literary triumph, as comprehensive a chronicle of a man’s life as any we have.

It’s a self-portrait with more warts than he probably realised, as well as being a fine source of gossip, rumour and opinion. He was the Horace Walpole of the 20th century.

Alwyn W Turner is an associate lecturer at the University of Chichester, and the author of Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s.

“He acquired respect and grudging admiration even from those who had once branded him as a threat to British democracy”

Tony Benn was a hugely controversial character, but also one of the most prominent political figures of the latter half of the 20th century.

He was reviled by Conservatives and derided by his ‘moderate’ Labour colleagues, but revered by many on the Left, where he was viewed as one of the party’s few genuine socialists. Yet he always rejected the cult of the individual, insisting that politics should be about ‘policies, not personalities’.

Whereas many Labour parliamentarians move towards the centre as they get older or experience political power, and thus become seduced by the political establishment, whose respect they pathetically crave, Benn’s political career followed the opposite political path. Having renounced the peerage which he inherited in 1963, he was initially a ‘technocratic’, ideologically non-aligned minister in the 1964–70 Labour governments, but subsequently moved to the Left during the 1970s.

This ideological shift was partly due to his disillusion with the Wilson, and then 1976–79 Callaghan, governments, which he believed had merely propped up capitalism, instead of seriously pursuing socialism.

What compounded such leadership ‘betrayals’ and ‘sell-outs’, he believed, was the power of the civil service and other unelected elites who steered Labour governments towards the centre ground.

Benn thus spent the 1980s urging the party to adopt much more radical ‘socialist’ policies, and thereby provide a clear ideological alternative to Thatcherism. However, Labour’s crushing defeat in the 1983 election suggested that the British working class was not clamouring for ‘true socialism’, and thereafter, the Labour leadership moved steadily away from the socialist policies favoured by Benn, until it embraced the Thacher-lite approach of Blair.       

Benn continued to write books and pamphlets, and speak at hundreds of rallies, festivals and support progressive political causes right up until the very end of his life. His socialist views never waned, but his image or media portrayal suggested that he had mellowed, and he appeared a more avuncular figure.

As such, he acquired a degree of respect and grudging admiration even from those who had spent the 1980s branding him as an extremist and a threat to British democracy.”

Peter Dorey is a professor of British politics at Cardiff University. His research focuses primarily on trends in British politics since 1945, and on contemporary public policy in Britain.

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“His writings, speeches and concern for humanity will persist as his epitaph”

Tony Benn was a revered figure of old socialist ideas, a familiar figure identified by his distinctive voice, his mug of tea and pipe.

He was an accepted dissenting figure whom many admired, even if his ideas on Britain forming a siege economy to protect jobs, nationalisation, constitutional reform, unilateral disarmament, and withdrawal from the Common Market, were not always widely accepted.

It was not always so, for the right-wing press regarded him as the most dangerous person in Britain in the 1980s; the right-wing of the Labour Party criticised him for challenging Denis Healey for the deputy leadership, and Harold Wilson felt that he immatured with age.

Indeed, Benn’s political career – whether as minister for technology, industry secretary or energy secretary – was undistinguished. His real contribution was as a chronicler of his times, keeping and publishing diaries since the 1960s, lecturing, and campaigning with the oppressed.

Despite his Liberal background, he was greatly influenced by the Independent Labour Party, to which his father and mother belonged. This party shaped his commitment to religion, his teetotalism, and his focus upon the concerns of community.

He liked to challenge authority, often asking those in power how they had got in power, and how they could be removed. He was a constant campaigner for social causes.

He did not greatly shape British politics, feeling that little could be achieved through parliament, but his writings, speeches and concern for humanity will persist as his epitaph.

Keith Laybourn is a Diamond Jubilee Professor at the University of Huddersfield. He has carried out extensive research into the Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party.

“He gave voice to the unpopular conviction that politics matter: that ‘issues’ count for more than ‘personalities’”

Tony Benn was a fascinating, contrary figure: the son a Viscount who renounced his title to speak on behalf of the working classes; the modernising technocrat of the 1960s who pioneered television campaigning, yet later derided Blairite modernisation as a media fabrication. He was the unfailingly courteous individual who provoked remarkable levels of personal animosity; the scourge of the establishment – Britain’s most dangerous man, according to press enemies in the 1970s and 1980s – who in old age became a national treasure, enthralling live audiences with his wit and wisdom in touring shows across the country.

In death, warm tributes have been paid to Benn’s many strengths and virtues. He was a gifted communicator, a great parliamentarian, the embodiment of a proud radical tradition that stretches back to the Chartists and the Levellers.

Above all, perhaps, he resolutely gave voice to the unpopular conviction that politics matter: that ‘issues’ count for more than ‘personalities’.

But the jury remains out as to how far Bennite socialism was responsible for splitting Labour in the early 1980s, thus confining the party to the electoral wilderness for a generation.

Looking back on that unhappy period, those activists who revered the charismatic Benn attribute Labour’s woes to the defectors who jumped ship, the moderates who departed to form the SDP.

Others, though, point the finger of blame at – and find hard to forgive – the ‘loony left’ and its divisive champion, the inveterate rebel who because of temperament and tradition could not resist rocking the boat until it almost sank.”

Kevin Jefferys is a professor of contemporary history at Plymouth University, and editor of the biographical essay collections, Leading Labour and Labour Forces.

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“His views on racism, globalisation and apartheid struck a chord with a disillusioned and politically apathetic public”

Students of contemporary history often bemoan the fact that British politics is currently bereft of ‘conviction’ politicians. Looking to the not-so-distant past, even those who loathe Margaret Thatcher grudgingly admire the fact that she stuck resolutely to a long-held set of principles.

The same students recognise the same conviction in the political beliefs of Michael Foot, Nye Bevan, Enoch Powell and a handful of others who occupied the centre stage of British politics in the formative post-war decades.

Long before his death, Tony Benn had already earned admiration and respect for the stubborn adherence to his own political views and ideals. Of course that stubbornness, as well as those views, ensured that Benn did not reach the very pinnacle of British politics.

He did not lead Labour, because his views were often at odds with party elites. In the Labour movement he was loved and loathed in equal measure. By the late 1970s the technocrat of the 1960s was viewed as a political dinosaur for espousing a political philosophy that was by then unfashionable (if, indeed, it ever was).

Some in the Labour party refused to forgive Benn for his interventions in the early 1980s. The 1983 election manifesto – ‘the longest suicide note in history’ – bore all the hallmarks of ‘Bennite’ thinking, and Labour paid the price for espousing it in the miserable decade that followed.

As ‘old’ Labour transformed into ‘new’, his influence in the party diminished long before his retirement in 2001. But future generations of historians may well note that it was in his twilight years that Benn’s legacy was consolidated. The anti-war sentiments that earned derision in the 1960s, 70s and 80s earned Benn huge admiration and respect following Britain’s ‘illegal’ intervention in Iraq in 2003, and his views on racism, globalisation, apartheid and a host of other prominent issues struck a chord with a disillusioned and politically apathetic public.

But Benn didn’t espouse these views to win friends or earn admiration. He was proud of the fact that he didn’t say anything he didn’t believe in ‘to get on personally’. His published diaries not only provide us with an invaluable snapshot of life in the political jungle, but also an insight into a man who, above all, never lost faith in the capacity of human beings to do the right thing, even when all evidence pointed to the contrary.

He once argued that ‘if we can find money to kill people, we can find money to help people’. It would be all to easy to dismiss such a statement as romantic and fanciful, but as he also argued, ‘hope is the fuel of progress and fear is the prison in which you put yourself’.

We can all hope that in death, as in life, the legacy of Tony Benn promotes the hope of a better world.

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Dr Andrew Edwards is a lecturer in modern history at Bangor University.