Tony Benn’s career

March 23 2014

A good account of Tony Benn, the veteran English socialist who died on March 14, is Tristram Hunt’s Speaker’s Lecture from 2011. Video.

(On the centenary of the 1911 Parliament Act the present Speaker of the House of Commons set up some annual lectures with invited audiences in the State Apartments, his Palace of Westminster residence. Other apartments are used by the Lord Speaker, the head of upper chamber since it ceased, in 2006, to be the Lord Chancellor. The 2011 series was on twentieth-century parliamentarians.)

Hunt places Benn in the English Puritan and dissenting tradition. Much of what he says had been said by Benn himself in interviews and books, especially in the rather charming early chapters of his 2004 autobiography, Dare To Be a Daniel, whose title quotes a Salvation Army hymn.

His background contained religion and politics. On his father’s side, he came from a line of radical Dissenters: Congregationalists. His mother became a Congregationalist later in life, having been Anglican. He himself was an agnostic, but with sympathy for religion in its inward form, including Islam.

Antecedents (apologies if there is too much detail here, but it matters):

An ancestor, William Benn (1600-81), was an ejected minister.

His great grandfather, the Reverend Julius Benn (c 1826-83), was a Congregationalist Minister in Manchester and then in the East End of London. He nominated James Bryce, Toynbee’s friend, as the Liberal MP for a Tower Hamlets constituency (not the one I’m about to mention).

His grandfather, Sir John Williams Benn, (1850-1922), sat on the London County Council from its foundation in 1889 until his death, in the Progressive Party. Was active in the 1889 Dock Strike. Liberal MP for St George in Tower Hamlets 1892-95 and for Devonport 1904-10. Chairman of LCC 1904-5 and leader of the Progressives on the Council 1907-18. Knighted 1906. Created baronet 1914. Married Elizabeth (Lily) Pickstone, who was distantly related to Josiah Wedgwood, though, as Hunt says, the scholarship on that is unclear.

The Wedgwoods produced, in Tony Benn’s father’s generation, a notable Parliamentarian in Colonel Josiah Wedgwood, great-great-grandson of the potter. His work led to the establishment of the History of Parliament Trust.

Tony Benn’s father, William Wedgwood Benn, 1st Viscount Stansgate (1877-1960), born when Disraeli was Prime Minister, was Liberal MP for St his father’s old constituency in Tower Hamlets 1906-18. Government whip under Asquith 1910-15. Served in the war in Near East and Italy. Member for Leith 1918-27. In opposition to Baldwin in first part of 1924-29 parliament. In 1927 resigned from the Party and from Parliament. Came back as Labour member for Aberdeen North 1928-31 in Ramsay MacDonald’s second government. Secretary of State for India 1929-31. Refused to follow MacDonald into National Government coalition with the Conservatives. Lost seat in ’31 election. Member for Gorton near Manchester 1937-42. Raised to peerage as Viscount Stansgate 1942. Vice President of Allied Control Commission charged with reconstructing democratic government in Italy 1943-44. Secretary of State for Air under Attlee 1945-46. Then backbench Labour peer. Like his son, he became more left wing as he grew older. For a charming snippet of a BBC interview with Lord Stansgate and the young Benn in 1959, start at 6:30 in this BBC Radio 4 portrait of Benn by David Davis.

Tony Benn’s father and grandfather were effervescent characters. The strongest religious influence on him was his mother, Margaret Wedgwood Benn (née Holmes), 1st Viscountess Stansgate (1897-1991), a Scot and daughter of a one-time Liberal MP. Although from a Calvinist background, she became an Episcopalian as a child. Her family moved to London before the First World War. There she became an Anglican. She married the much older William Wedgwood Benn in 1920. In the ’20s she was member of League of the Church Militant, predecessor of the Movement for the Ordination of Women. In the 1940s she moved from the Anglican Church to Nonconformity. In doing so, she embraced the dissenting Benn tradition. In 1972, at the age of seventy-five, she became the first President of the Congregational Federation.

She read him Bible stories night after night. Taught him that the stories were about the struggle between prophets and kings and that he ought in his life to support the prophets. Righteousness over power. Emphasised individual autonomy and the priesthood of all believers. Whatever her nominal affiliation, “Tony Benn was nurtured a Dissenter.” (Hunt.) “Dissenters think for themselves and claim the right to do so, even in matters of faith.” (Dare To Be a Daniel.) “I was brought up on Bible stories – I absorbed the Christian ethic by a form of osmosis. It was a real influence in my life.” (Catholic Herald.) Religion was sharply to be distinguished from power structures of religion.

The Benn household on Millbank was teetotal and full of clocks. All time was God’s time. For Dissenters, keeping a diary was a kind of daily accounting, a literary opening-up to God, a profit and loss account of supposed shortcomings and achievements. The agnostic Benn kept one obsessively for most of his life and felt uneasy if he went to bed without having written it.

“Two competing inheritances: Parliament and Puritanism, the constitutionalism and the crusading, were apparent from the start.” (Hunt.)

The Labour Party, which his father had joined in 1927, had strong roots in Nonconformity. So did the Trade Union movement. Michael Foot had a religious and political background that was similar, but with a more bookish vein.


Westminster School in its countryside exile. Oxford. RAF. His brother Michael was killed in 1944. Brief stint as BBC radio producer. Married Caroline Middleton DeCamp in 1949. “My socialist soul-mate.”

He entered Parliament in a by-election in 1950 (Stafford Cripps had stood down in Bristol South East on grounds of ill-health) and had nearly a year of Attlee’s abortive second term before the Conservatives came back for thirteen years. He was the Baby of the House for a day (succeeded by an Ulster Unionist, Thomas Teevan, who was two years younger but took his oath a day later and died at the age of twenty-seven). He never became its Father.

He defended the right of free thought and free speech in Parliament, unfettered by the party system and the whips.

His father died in 1960. Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn inherited his peerage, became the 2nd Viscount Stansgate and was deemed to have vacated his seat in the Commons. (He was not “blue-blooded”. His father got his peerage in his sixties and held it for eighteen years.) A by-election was held. Benn stood. A Conservative came a poor second. Benn arrived to take his seat, but was physically prevented from entering the House.

“I am not a reluctant peer but a persistent commoner,” he said at a press conference in November 1960. He had known that his term in the Commons was limited by the duration of his father’s life, but he now fought to renounce his peerage. His campaign (to which Toynbee sent a letter of support) led to the Peerage Act of 1963 (not to be confused with the Life Peerages Act of 1958). It was, as Hunt says, an epic constitutional struggle, an extra-parliamentary campaign fought for the right to remain an MP, exposing a fault-line which ran through Benn’s career. He revered Parliament and much of his politics was done outside it.

In the Wilson Labour Government of 1964-70 he served as Postmaster General and later as Minister of Technology. In the Heath era, when Labour was in opposition, he was chairman of the Party for a year.

In 1973 he announced that he wished to be called not Anthony Wedgwood Benn, but Tony Benn.

In the Labour Government of ’74-79 he was Secretary of State for Industry, then for Energy. He campaigned strongly against EEC membership in the referendum of 1975, though he had been pro-European a few years earlier.

Harold Wilson resigned as Leader of the Party and Prime Minister in March 1976. Benn withdrew from the second ballot of the leadership contest and supported Michael Foot. James Callaghan eventually won, but kept Benn in his ministerial post.

Thatcher came into office in 1979. Benn’s cabinet career (1964-79 with a break) was over. During Labour’s years in opposition (1979-97) he was the party’s most prominent left-wing figure.

His early politics, as Hunt says, though he embraced all the Labour orthodoxies of 1945, were not far removed from the practical municipal socialism of his grandfather. His later politics were nourished by his discovery of the seventeenth-century radicals. He paid homage to Marx, but on Desert Island Discs in January 1989, the start of the year which would do so much to undermine the traditional left, chose Das Kapital as his book, not having read it in full. The Bible was already there. How much the leftist movements of the ’60s and ’70s all over Europe owed and did not owe to Marx is an interesting question, but it seems to me that Benn’s debt was indirect, and less than his debt to Christianity.

He never used the word “revolution”.

Benn’s political legacy, some think, was to have kept Labour out of office between 1979 and ’97. Many of the most generous comments on his death came from Conservatives.

He was an internationalist, but, by the early ’70s, anti-EEC. He believed that the world could be made better, and that the engendering of pessimism was a tool of entrenched interests for keeping people down. And that improvements had happened before as a result of struggle. Perhaps he underestimated how happy most people are now – or how stupefied by entertainments which are foisted on them to make sure that they remain docile consumers. The well-fed majority in Western societies don’t want leftist ideologies any more than religion. And are aware of the failure of the Left elsewhere and prefer to trust in the likes of Bill Gates and Muhammad Yunus.

Nevertheless, Benn did appeal to people to whom so-called traditional politics are alien. His connection with a new generation was an achievement of his post-Parliament years. Perhaps he left some ideas about where the Left can go from here.

The experience of Cabinet office pushed Benn to the left, from technocrat to radical socialist, and strengthened his distrust of patronage and power structures. He came to regard Parliament as “a means to an end, a weapon in a broader political struggle” (Hunt). Politics was a campaign.

“During the Labour Party’s period in opposition in the 1950s our other great dissenting hero, Michael Foot, had sought solace in the literature of the eighteenth century, writing of the great political tussle between the Duke of Marlborough and Robert Harley, with Jonathan Swift, his great hero, centre stage. Tony Benn in the 1970s returned to the seventeenth century, and there he found the true meaning of his Puritan inheritance. In the words of John Lilburne and the Levellers, of Winstanley and the Diggers, and the English radical Reformation of the late 1640s, Benn found a profoundly prescient political voice. […] Benn immersed himself in the Putney Debates, the New Model Army and the Agitators, the struggle over the franchise between the grandees and the Levellers and the inspiration of Colonel Rainsborough. […] Benn started to quote from the Levellers’ 1649 manifesto, An Agreement of the Free People of England. […] Part of the Levellers’ critique was that Parliament was as dangerous a power as King Charles I […].” (Hunt.)

Other random Bennite sympathies: Thomas Paine, Luddites, Robert Owen, Tolpuddle Martyrs, Chartists, Charles Bradlaugh, Taff Vale railwaymen, suffragettes, minersPentonville Five, Greenham Common women.

“He recalled that back in 1900 his grandfather John Benn, Liberal Home Ruler, was even then being denounced as supporting ‘terrorism’ because of his Gladstonian and Parnellite sympathies.” (Catholic Herald.)

What role did Parliament have in a world controlled by the WTO, the IMF, GATT, America, NATO and the EU? And the whips? The power of prime ministers now exceeded the divine right of kings. Where was the Parliament of Speaker Lenthall?


Callaghan resigned as Labour leader in October 1980. His deputy, Michael Foot, was elected as his successor. Denis Healey beat Benn to the deputy leadership by less than 1% of the vote. Neil Kinnock and some others abstained.

In 1981 Benn developed Guillain-Barré syndrome. He recovered, but it left permanent effects. Some suggested he had been deliberately poisoned.

A secession of four right-leaning former Labour cabinet ministers from the shadow cabinet in 1981 led to the formation of the SDP, the Social Democratic Party. (The Liberals formed an alliance with them in the same year and merged with them in March 1988 to form the Social and Liberal Democrats. A minority of Social Democrats refused to join the Liberals and survived as a rump until June 1990. Since October 1989 the merged party has been called the Liberal Democrats.)

In line with Bennite thinking, the 1983 Labour manifesto, which Gerald Kaufman called “the longest suicide note in history”, called for unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the EEC, abolition of the House of Lords and the re-nationalisation of recently denationalised industries. Thatcher got her second term.

Benn lost his Bristol constituency (now reorganised as Bristol South) in the election, but he won Chesterfield in a by-election in the following year.

He dissented, in the House of Commons, from the general celebration of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which was seen by Parliamentarians as the foundation of modern parliamentary democracy. 1688 was “a plot to get rid of a Catholic king”, and it had left out Catholics and women. It had no popular element to it. (Catholic Herald.) Did he think the people wanted Catholics enfranchised?

The long Conservative ascendancy (1979-97) ended with the election of Labour under Blair – which meant the virtual abolition of Labour. Consistent Thatcherite conviction politics were followed by the wan era of Major and then by the New Labour years of focus groups at home and feverish conviction politics abroad.

His wife Caroline died in 2000.

He decided not to stand at the 2001 general election. “I am leaving Parliament to devote more time to politics.” He became a fixture on protests and demonstrations.

He was President of the Stop the War Coalition from its foundation in 2001, ten days after 9/11, until his death.

He had rooted oaken strength in the face, like Vaughan Williams, another English pilgrim. His first choice of music on Desert Island Discs in 1989 was Bunyan’s To Be a Pilgrim as set by Vaughan Williams: I presume that this will be played at his funeral. But with that plainness he was, one feels, not free of self-love. But so what? Others on the left had the same combination. He was sentimental and, judging from the diaries, much given to tears. He was a happy man. His jokes, when he made them, were good.

Is it possible to get right to the top in politics if you are so interested in your own archive? If you constantly write a diary, tape every interview you give, sometimes even carry a tape recorder into the House of Commons and cabinet meetings? (Benn filed papers like his father, using the Dewey decimal system.)

Benn was admired for his honesty and courage, but seemed, like most of the old Left in Britain, to be living in a world of his own. Does economic sophistication ever belong to socialism? He had not been free of admiration of Stalin, Mao, Castro and others, but one’s final impression is of a good man. There was a simplicity and naivety and a tendency to ramble. At the end of his life he seemed to become more concise.

He published nine volumes of diaries, running from 1940 to 2009, when he stopped. From 1966, instead of dictating them to a secretary, he started taping them. The published volumes contain only a small fraction of the whole.

“‘Who are your heroes?’ SIMON OSBORNE, EALING, LONDON. ‘Teachers. Kings, prime ministers, presidents and emperors come and go, but teachers including Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha, Galileo, Darwin, Marx and Freud explain the world, help us to understand it and encourage us to think it out for ourselves.’” (Independent.)

Home in Holland Park Avenue: “a room crowded with the artefacts that touch the heart of Tony Benn: Keir Hardie’s chair, busts of Marx and Lenin, decorative plates commemorating Gladstone, folksy miners’ lamps galore, and laughing photographs of Tony and Caroline Benn with their five grandchildren.” (Catholic Herald.)

Moving late BBC interview: a state of grace. Last public appearance.


History of the British Labour Party

History of the socialist movement in the United Kingdom

Trade unions in the United Kingdom.

Benn diaries, published by Hutchinson:

Years of Hope, 1940-62 (1994)

Out of the Wilderness, 1963-67 (1987)

Office without Power, 1968-72 (1988)

Against the Tide, 1973-76 (1989)

Conflicts of Interest, 1977-80 (1990)

End of an Era, 1980-90 (1992)

Free at Last!, 1990-2001 (2002)

More Time for Politics, 2001-07 (2007)

A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, 2007-09 (2013)


Dare To Be a Daniel (2004)


Letters to My Grandchildren (2009)

Articles, manifestos, polemic, essays

11 Responses to “Tony Benn’s career”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    A friend emails about Benn and Gerry Adams, but the words may apply to his attitude to others:

    “I found it hard to escape the sense that his was an intellectually comfortable position, the consequences of which he would not have to bear. His comfort level with Gerry Adams always blinded me because I spent so many nights [in Belfast] rigid with fear, lying just below the window sill while the lovely Gerry hid from the police/army in the home of his sister across the street.

    There were many times when the supposed hard men of the IRA ran rings around whatever toff showed up. Especially a toff who had tried to cast off his toffness.”

    I think the comfortableness of Benn with himself is quite a telling point. It’s what I was skirting around when I used the word self-love.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    I suppose Nonconformity, with its certainties, even with its self-examinations, could easily nurture hypocrisy and smugness. Perhaps it injected more of those things into English society than the upper classes ever did. Hunt uses the word egoism at one point in his lecture.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    In the fascinating Davis documentary (link above), Benn tells the story of Keir Hardie’s arrival in the House of Commons in 1892 wearing a flat cap.

    Policeman: “Are you working on the roof?” “No, I’m working on the floor.”

  4. davidderrick Says:

    The fundamental problem with the English constitution, for Benn, is that the Crown yields its prerogative to ministers, not to Parliament.

    In the long term, Benn might be seen as a continuity-figure, a bridge between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first.

    Milliband: “He thought big about the world and about Britain.” A soundbite but true.

  5. davidderrick Says:

    Polly Toynbee not so pro-Benn:

    Hostile Amazon review by Richard Heller of Jad Adams’s biography and of Benn’s policies and egoism in 1981

  6. davidderrick Says:

    From Letters to My Grandchildren:

    “The Labour Party is a coalition that has moved under different leaders from left to right. It is not a socialist party but it has always had socialists in it, just like the Church of England which has always had some Christians in it.”

    “When you arrive in any country, you should always ask yourself, Who runs the joint?”

    “Looking back on my life I have come to appreciate the crucial importance of encouragement, remembering the teachers who encouraged me, and the experienced MPs who did the same when I arrived as a youngster in parliament. When you are encouraged you can do so much better, and when you are put down you know the motive – to keep you under control.

    “That is why the powerful encourage cynicism because cynicism helps to keep people away from progressive movements.”

    “Encouragement is the most important thing that can be given: a teacher at school who offers encouragement gives his pupils the faith to carry on, and the old should encourage the young rather than complain and put them down.”

    “Having been to hundreds of polling stations in my life, I have come to regard them as almost sacred in character. With a stubby little pencil attached to a piece of string, voters can put a cross on a ballot paper that will remove an MP from parliament, or a government from power, without killing anyone.

    “There are people all over the world who would give their life to get rid of their government, and here you can do it with a pencil if you act collectively.”

    “Every night when I go to bed I am relatively more ignorant than when I got up that morning.”

    “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?”

    The first nine minutes of this Newsnight tribute are worth watching (the rest is Newsnight at its worst); the last part of that section reminds us what an unattractive figure Healey was and is:

    Quoted there, no source given:

    “If we can find the money to kill people, we can find the money to help people.”

    “It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

  7. davidderrick Says:

    Four House of Commons speeches in the early ’90s:

  8. davidderrick Says:

    The Benn persona was a construction, perhaps, but in the end half aristocratic and half working class.

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