History

Tony Benn smoking his iconic pipe in 1981

Tony Benn

An out-spoken socialist and president of the Stop the War coalition, Tony Benn was Labour’s longest-serving MP. A Member of Parliament for 51 years, Benn served as a cabinet minister in the Harold Wilson and James Callaghan administrations. Benn's campaign to renounce his hereditary peerage was instrumental in the creation of the 1963 Peerage Act.


Photo: Tony Benn in 1981 (BBC)

Introduction

Tony Benn smoking his iconic pipe in 1981 Tony Benn

Highlights from BBC programmes Video (10)

More information about: Tony Benn

Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn was born in London on 3 April 1925, the second son of William Wedgwood Benn and Margaret Benn (nee Holmes). Benn’s political heritage ran deep as his father and both grandfathers had all served as MPs. In 1949 Benn married American exchange student Caroline Middleton De Camp after a whirlwind nine-day romance. They went on to have four children.

Early career

After serving in the RAF during World War II, Benn completed his studies at Oxford. He spent a brief spell as a BBC Radio producer and then entered politics as Labour MP for Bristol South East in 1950. At the age of 25 he was the youngest serving MP.

Young, charismatic and a good orator, Benn became a regular contributor to popular radio discussion programmes and soon became a household name. His politics at the time were considered moderate and he developed a reputation as a moderniser.

Peerage reform

In 1942 Benn’s father had accepted a peerage and was created Viscount Stansgate. After his father’s death in 1960 Benn inherited the peerage and was disbarred from the House of Commons. Benn campaigned vigorously for a change in the law to allow him to renounce his title. He was eventually successful in 1963 and retook his Bristol South East seat.

The Wilson governments

Harold Wilson’s victory in the 1964 general election saw Benn promoted to the frontbench. Under the Labour governments of 1964-1970 and 1974-1979, Benn held several high-profile cabinet positions including Minister of Technology, Secretary of State for Energy and Secretary of State for Industry.

During this period Benn oversaw the construction of the iconic BT Tower in London, the development of Concorde, nuclear energy and the beginnings of North Sea Oil exploration.

Move to the left

In the 1970s, frustrated by the perceived centre-right policies of the Labour leadership, Benn’s politics moved to the left. Becoming a key figurehead of the left wing, Benn campaigned to persuade the Labour Party to commit to socialist plans.

As the decade wore on, the party became deeply divided between the increasingly influential left and the centre-right modernisers.

Challenge for leadership

As his support from the left of the party grew, Benn embarked on a series of challenges for senior positions in the Labour Party. In 1981 Benn challenged Denis Healey for the deputy leadership of the party and lost by less than one per cent of the vote.

The high-water mark of Benn’s influence came in 1983. Benn’s reforms of the party structures meant that the Labour leadership was forced to fight the general election with a socialist manifesto, which Labour MP Gerald Kaufman nicknamed "the longest suicide note in history". Deeply divided, the Labour Party was whitewashed at the election.

Retirement from the House of Commons

In 2001, after 51 years as a Labour MP, Benn retired from the Commons “to spend more time on politics”. In retirement Benn embarked on a series of popular one-man shows to bring commitment politics to a new generation. He continued to write and publish his diaries – often hailed as an unparalleled account of post-war British politics.

In October 2013 he published the final volume of his diaries, A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, in which he discussed the challenges of old age and failing health. He died on 14 March, 2014, aged 88.

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