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You are in: Bristol > People > Profiles > Profile: Tony Benn

Tony Benn

Profile: Tony Benn

Described by some as Britain's foremost socialist - he gave up a hereditary peerage to become the MP for Bristol South East.

His political career has spanned half a century, but it started here in Bristol back in 1950, when Tony Benn became the Labour MP for Bristol South East .

When he took up his seat in 1951, Tony Benn became the youngest MP, or "Baby of the House".

But Tony Benn was the son of an hereditary peer. His father had been created Viscount Stansgate in 1942.

Tony Benn had an older brother Michael who had no objections to inheriting a peerage, but Michael was later killed in the Second World War, and this left Tony Benn as the heir to a peerage.

He made several attempts to remove himself from the line of succession but they were all unsuccessful.

Tony Benn at the 1976 Labour Party Conference

The 1976 Labour Party Conference

In November 1960, Tony Benn's father died and as his heir he became a peer and as a result he was prevented from sitting in the House of Commons.

Still insisting on his right to abandon his unwelcome peerage, Tony Benn fought to retain his seat in the by-election on 4 May 1961 caused by his succession.

Although he was disqualified from taking his seat, the people of Bristol South East re-elected him.

An election court found that the voters were fully aware that Tony Benn was disqualified, and gave the seat to the Conservative runner up in the by-election, Malcolm St Clair, ironically also the son of a peer.

Outside Parliament Tony Benn continued his campaign, and eventually the Conservative government accepted the need for a change in the law.

The Peerage Act 1963, allowing renunciation of peerages,  became law shortly after 6 pm on 31 July 1963.

Tony Benn was the first peer to renounce his title, at 6.22 pm that day.

Malcolm St. Clair had already given an undertaking that he would respect the wishes of the people of Bristol if Tony Benn became eligible to take his seat again, and therefore he resigned his seat immediately.

Tony Benn

Tony Benn

Tony Benn returned to the Commons after winning a by-election on 20 August 1963 and held the seat for the next twenty years - until June 1983, when the constituency was abolished.

He then went on to become the MP for Chesterfield.

Tony Benn in the 1950s was an MP with middle-of-the-road or soft left views, who refused to become a member of the group around Nye Bevan.

In the 1960s government of Harold Wilson he became Postmaster General. He later became Minister of Technology where he was responsible for overseeing the development of Concorde.

In the Labour government of 1974 Tony Benn became Secretary of State for Industry, but in 1975 he was moved to Secretary of State for Energy.

By the end of the 1970s Tony Benn had migrated to the left-wing of the Labour Party. He attributed this political shift to his experience as a minister in the 1964-1970 Labour government.

"If the British people were ever to ask themselves what power they truly enjoyed under our political system they would be amazed to discover how little"

Tony Benn

Tony Benn's philosophy became known as "Bennism" and in the late 1970s he was vilified in the press although he was overwhelmingly popular with Labour activists. A survey of Labour Conference delegates of 1978 found that by large margins they supported him for the leadership.

In 1981 he stood for election against the incumbent Denis Healey as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, and Denis Healey emerged victorious by a margin of barely 1%.

He stood for election as Party Leader in 1988 and was defeated again, on this occasion by a substantial margin.

In 2001 he retired from Parliament, but remains involved in politics and is a prolific diary writer.

In a list compiled by the magazine New Statesman in 2006, he was voted twelfth in the list of "Heroes of our time"

In October 2007, at the age of 82, Tony Benn announced that he wanted to come out of retirement and return to the House of Commons.

last updated: 04/04/2008 at 11:21
created: 04/04/2008

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