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Tony Benn: 1925-2014

A giant of socialism dies peacefully at home

Tony Benn was a lion-hearted activist in the front ranks of Britain's labour and progressive movement.

He was loved and revered by millions of working people, despite vicious Establishment attempts to ridicule and destroy him.

His name will live on in history as one of Britain's greatest campaigners for socialism and democracy.

When he became a major threat to the ruling class in the 1970s and '80s, the gutter press called him mad, likened him to Hitler and dubbed him the most dangerous man in Britain.

He was bugged and targeted by MI5, and even his dustbins were regularly sifted for evidence by snoopers.

Such was the atmosphere of hate and fear that, when he fell ill with the debilitating Guillain-Barre syndrome in 1981, his friends and supporters suspected that the CIA had somehow put poison into his favourite giant tea mug, from which he famously imbibed many times each day.

Yet he survived all this only to become even more radical.

Wherever people were in struggle, Benn was there to support and advise them.

From the great miners' strike of 1984-85 to the huge Stop the War demonstrations to small but vital local campaigns, Benn was always to the fore, making inspiring speeches, patiently chatting with young and old and puffing his pipe.

Born into a well-to-do political dynasty, he first came to real prominence in the early 1960s when he fought - and won - the right to renounce his hereditary peerage.

While so many of his contemporaries became communists or leftwingers when they were young, and then conveniently sold out, Benn started out on the centre-right of the Labour Party and then moved, in several stages, dramatically to the socialist left.

His move to the left was spurred on by bitter lessons from his time as a Cabinet minister in Labour governments from 1964 to 1979.

He learnt how ruthless the capitalist class is in seeking to maintain its position, aided and abetted by top civil servants.

He stated in one of his voluminous series of published diaries: "As a minister, I experienced the power of industrialists and bankers to get their way by use of the crudest form of economic pressure, even blackmail, against a Labour government."

He retired from the House of Commons in 2001 "to devote more time to politics" after 50 years as an MP for Bristol South East and then Chesterfield.

Benn came to love the Morning Star. He was one of its most avid supporters, and proudly published a collection of his regular columns for the paper in a book entitled Free Radical.

He told readers in one of his columns that "speaking for myself, I would far rather be an honorary member of the National Union of Mineworkers as I am - membership number 001 - than be in the House of Lords."

Yet he confessed that he had not read the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels until he was aged 51.

He eagerly consumed the classic work over Christmas 1976 after receiving it as a present in his stocking from his beloved wife Caroline.

He wholeheartedly embraced Marx's passionate hostility to the injustices of capitalism and discovered that he shared many of his views.

He also drew inspiration from Britain's proud radical tradition and great movements such as the Levellers, the Chartists and the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

A decade after first reading Marx, he acknowledged that "in the long catalogue of people, known and unknown, who have contributed by their courage, and their intellect, to the advancement of humanity, Karl Marx must be listed among the greatest of them all."

 

Nevertheless, Benn was always wary of highly organised or democratic centralist parties, while at the same time hailing the huge contribution of communists and Marxists in Britain and around the world.

He was at his happiest in broad alliances for protest or change, and he eagerly embraced the People's Charter and People's Assembly.

He had boundless faith in change coming up from the grass roots once the mass of the people could be roused into action.

Anthony Wedgwood Benn was born on April 3 1925. He simplified his name to Tony Benn when he reached his late forties.

His father, William Wedgwood Benn, was a Liberal MP who went over to the Labour Party soon afterwards and was given a peerage in 1942 with the title Viscount Stansgate.

He was secretary of state for air from 1945-46 in Clement Attlee's post-war Labour government.

Both of Tony Benn's grandfathers also spent time in Parliament as Liberal MPs.

His mother Viscountess Stansgate, joined the Labour Party together with her husband in 1927.

She was a prominent Christian theologian who campaigned for the ordination of women and for dialogue between Christians and Jews.

In the midst of a family so deeply immersed in politics, young Tony met many leading political figures of the day, including Lloyd George, Mahatma Gandhi and Attlee.

Later he recalled how "as a five-year-old, I met Ramsay MacDonald when he still was the Labour PM and he gave me a chocolate biscuit, so I have been a bit suspicious of all Labour leaders with chocolate biscuits ever since."

Benn went to the privileged Westminster School and then New College Oxford and was elected president of the Oxford Union.

During the second world war, he served in the RAF. His elder brother Michael was killed in 1944 while serving as an RAF pilot.

After the war, he worked as a TV producer and pioneered the use of more modern publicity and propaganda techniques by the Labour Party.

He married Caroline Middleton DeCamp in 1949, who became a leading educationalist and campaigner for comprehensive schools, and died in 2000. They had four children, Stephen, Hilary, Melissa and Joshua.

Elected as Labour MP for Bristol South East in 1950 at the age of 25, Benn failed to join the left grouping led by Aneurin Bevan.

He confessed a quarter of a century later in his diary: "There is no doubt that in the years up to 1968 I was just a career politician and in 1968 I began thinking about technology and participation and all that.

"It wasn't particularly socialist and my Fabian tract of 1970 was almost anti-socialist, corporatist in character with a democratic theme - management and labour working together."

When his father died in November 1960, Benn fought long and hard for the right to abandon his peerage.

He was immediately expelled from the House of Commons, but despite this the electors of Bristol South East voted for him at a by-election.

Barred once again by the antiquated system, he fought on until victory with the passage of the Peerage Act in 1963, which allowed him to take up his seat at yet another by-election in August of that year.

In 1964, at the age of 39, Benn became postmaster general in Harold Wilson's Labour government. He upset the Queen by suggesting that stamps should be issued without the sovereign's head.

In 1966 he entered the Cabinet as minister for technology, showing great enthusiasm for the Concorde supersonic airliner project and championing British industry.

His most turbulent years followed his appointment as industry secretary in Harold Wilson's 1974 Labour government.

He was downgraded to energy secretary in 1975 after he fought tooth and nail for an ambitious industrial policy and also energetically campaigned for a No vote in the referendum on Britain's membership of the EEC.

Benn argued passionately at Cabinet meetings that Britain's new-found oil and gas wealth must be used as part of a co-ordinated strategy to boost the economy.

He demanded implementation of industrial policies set out by both the Labour Party and TUC.

His demands were brushed aside by Wilson's Cabinet, and the government lurched to the right, embarking on a disastrous course of public spending cuts and wage curbs and going cap in hand to the IMF for a huge loan.

 

It was the beginning of the end for the Labour government, but Benn carried on the fight within the movement as a member of the Labour Party national executive, on which he served from 1959 to 1994.

He was responsible for introducing the crucial phrase into Labour's 1976 programme, promising "to bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families."

Benn stood for the party leadership when Wilson resigned in 1976. He received just 37 votes in the first ballot and Callaghan went on to win the contest.

In 1981, he challenged Denis Healey for the post of deputy leader. Amid scenes of high drama, Healey scraped in by a margin of less than 1 per cent.

Benn's Bristol South East constituency was abolished by boundary changes in 1983, and he lost the selection contest for the safer seat of Bristol South. He fought Bristol East instead, but the Tories won by a majority of 1,800 in a shock result.

He was re-elected to Parliament at the Chesterfield by-election the following year.

In 1988, Benn's fortunes reached a low ebb when he challenged Neil Kinnock for the Labour leadership and lost by 88.6 to 11.4 in the electoral college.

He tirelessly carried on the fight for progressive policies inside and outside Parliament, steadily gaining more and more respect from friend and foe alike.

He demonstrated a superb knowledge of parliamentary procedure and constitutional matters, and when he retired from the Commons in 2001 he was given the unusual privilege of a special pass from the speaker giving him free access at all times.

Apart from his tremendous role as the best-known labour movement activist in the land, Benn also reached out to a new audience with his touring one-man show and his two-man show with folk singer Roy Bailey.

All this when he was battling severe deafness and heart disease.

Benn showed his essential spirit in his 1984 introduction to Writings on the Wall, an anthology of radical and socialist speeches, poetry and prose through the centuries.

He declared that the most priceless gift of all was hope.

"For our greatest enemy is the fear that our opponents seek to instil in our minds to force us to accept the unacceptable, and so to paralyse our will and render us incapable of thinking out the alternative or working to bring it about," he wrote.

He added: "We all have it in our power to deny them that victory and to establish a better society by our own efforts, provided that we remember our own history and the lessons of unity and courage that it teaches us."

 

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