Tony Benn, 1925-2014

Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn has passed away at the age of 88. A member of Parliament for decades, Mr. Benn was that rare bird, a politician who would compromise on tactics, strategies and issues but who was perfectly inflexible on principle. His far left views were unwelcome in many places, but Mr. Benn spoke for a part of Britain and the world that rarely gets a hearing, those on the short end of the stick.

That Mr. Benn would go into politics was almost inevitable. His grandfather sat in Commons as a Liberal MP, and his father was also a Liberal member until he crossed the floor to sit with Labour. His dad’s work meant that the younger Mr. Benn met people like David Lloyd George and Mahatma Gandhi. His mother, Margaret Holmes, was a feminist and campaigner for female priests in the Church of England. This was all prior to World War II.

While their politics were radical, Mr. Benn’s parents were quite traditional when it came to raising their boy. He attended Westminster School, where Christopher Wren, John Locke and Edward Gibbon were educated. Mr. Benn tried to hide this in his biographical information due to its upper-crust connections. He read philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, where he wound up as president of the Oxford Union. He married an American girl, proposing after a 9-day courtship, and went to work at the BBC.

In 1950, he won a by-election and entered the House of Commons. However, the elder Mr. Benn had been created Viscount Stansgate during the War, and Tony Benn’s older brother Michael died during that conflict. As a result, when the first Viscount Stansgate died, Tony Benn was in the awkward position of being a member of the House of Lords, which he called “the British Outer Mongolia for retired politicians.” Peers may not sit in Commons. He was not ready to retire nor move from the animals in Commons to the vegetables in Lords, and he eventually forced a change in the law that allowed peers to give up their titles.

Until the millennium, Mr. Benn sat on the left of the House and of the Labour Party. Yet his ideals and his political pragmatism made him a contradiction in many ways. He supported Sinn Fein and a united Ireland, opposed the Falklands War, and backed the miners strike in 1984. Yet he was also the Transportation Minister responsible for the supersonic passenger plane, Concorde. He was the man who shut down the pirate radio stations that broadcast from off-shore, bringing BBC Radio 1 into being. He pushed for workers’ co-ops to keep struggling businesses afloat; Meriden in the Midlands kept making Triumph motorcycles as a result.

Mr. Benn lost in his attempt to prevent Tony Blair’s New Labour idea from taking over the party. In someways, Bennite solutions had become obsolete. In 2001, he gave up his seat in Parliament, “to spend more time on politics” as he put it. He was president of the anti-Iraq War group Stop the War. After 2001, he was better known as a diarist than politico, but he never stopped being the man the right loved to hate.

“This idea that politics is all about charisma and spin is rubbish,” he once said. “It is trust that matters.” And another Bennism, “The only things I would feel ashamed of would be if I had said things I hadn’t believed in order to get on. Some politicians do do that.” Note the use of the conditional.

Tony Benn was wrong about a great many things in his career. He was also a patriotic Briton who cared deeply about his nation and devoted his life to making it a better place as he defined it. The UK could do with more of those.