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March 14, 2014 / ultrafox1963

Iconic, idiosyncratic and influential – Tony Benn 1925-2014

Tony Benn - as devoted to his pipe as he was to his family, country and party.

Tony Benn – as devoted to his pipe as he was to his family, country and party.

Much of Britain has been plunged into mourning with the news that Tony Benn has passed away at the age of 88.

The son of a Liberal cabinet minister (who subsequently joined Labour), Benn attended Westminster School and Oxford University before serving in the RAF during World War 2. He followed his father into politics and was first elected to Parliament at the age of 24 in 1950.

Benn was brought up in a world of privilege and understood its meaning and effects perfectly. He was never afraid to denounce it – which is why he was so hated, feared and reviled in his prime by the powers-that-be.

He was the first person in British history to REFUSE a place in the House of Lords. Upon succeeding to a hereditary peerage, following the death of his father, he spent years and many court cases trying to give it up. Eventually his campaigning brought about a change in the law and he was re-elected to the House of Commons in August 1963 – the first MP elected in my lifetime.

Benn served in several Labour cabinets between 1964 and 1979. However the careerist ethos that prevailed – then as now – among his fellow Labour MPs at the time did not always sit well with him. He fought successfully for a referendum on the EEC (later the EU) – another first in British politics – though the outcome didn’t quite go as he planned, with a majority of two to one against withdrawal.

His ideas and principles , particularly those calling for increased public accountability, earned him legions of followers and admirers. But they also aroused the undying enmity of the Murdochs, Rothermeres and their ilk, who took every opportunity to demonise and vilify him, and the causes he espoused, in the pages of their publications.

Sadly, there were elements in the labour movement, and the upper reaches of the Labour Party, who were only too willing to do the bidding of these anti-social forces. They conspired to deny him the deputy leadership of the party in 1981, and the consequences of that bitterly-fought contest would help to deny Labour office for many years afterwards.

When Benn lost his seat in Labour’s catastrophic 1983 general election defeat it was a grievous blow to him and the party, not least because this cleared the way for Neil Kinnock (whose motivational qualities were rather less extensive) to assume the party leadership.

But a by-election in Chesterfield the following year gave him the chance to make a glorious return to the Commons. Though a student at Essex University at the time (where I was involved in my own election campaign – which I gladly sacrificed) I became one of thousands who worked in his campaign and help him see off the challenge of the SDP and their media backers.

Within days, the National Union of Mineworkers came into conflict with the government. As the newly-elected MP for a mining area, Benn was tireless in his efforts on behalf of his constituents, speaking at meetings all over the country in their support, and championing the NUM cause in Parliament and elsewhere when the elected party leadership often appeared embarrassed, even ashamed, in doing so.

Sadly the defeat in that struggle led to a ferocious counter-offensive by Kinnock and his allies which set the left back years, and helped prolong the Tories’ period in office. Benn found himself increasingly marginalised in Parliament and in his own party, but his powers of oratory ensured he would command an audience wherever he travelled.

Years after his retirement from Parliament in 2001(in order, as he famously put it, to “spend more time in politics”) he underwent a nationwide tour with folk singer Roy Bailey which played to packed houses all over the country.

Although he was revered by generations of socialists, and will remain so for many more to come, Benn’s dignity, steadfastness and generosity earned him respect from across the political spectrum, including the present occupants of Downing Street. Those who met him, as I did on several occasions, recognised that his company was a great honour and pleasure.

Benn survived the era of “New Labour” – which he and many others rightly regarded as an abomination, and resisted many attempts to forsake the party to which he remained devout throughout his adult life.

His faith was rewarded in 2010 when the party, via an electoral process which he had championed and pioneered several decades previously, elected Ed Miliband as leader. This action has already brought profound political effects upon party and country alike during the past four years, and will continue to do so for many years to come.

As with Nelson Mandela and Bob Crow, Benn may have left us, but his spirit, together with the ideas and principles that he lived by, promoted and defended, will live on forever.

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