It was during this month in 1925, that a great hero of the left was born. He would go on to change the constitution of Britain itself, be one of the great left wing voices of Labour as it began to shift towards New Labour and go down as a national political treasure in Britain. But his death last year has not stopped his ideas from spreading, nor has had ended the adoration so many on the left have for him. His name was Anthony Neil Wedgewood Benn, better known simply as Tony Benn.
Benn was born into a very political upper class family, with his parents and grandparents being involved with the Liberal Party (a precursor to the Liberal Democrats) and the Labour Party for generations. During the Second World War, his father was made a Labour peer and he was brought to the House of Lords, while Tony served in the Home Guard and the RAF. His father’s peerage would haunt him for years to come.
After a brief job at the BBC, he became the MP for Bristol South East in 1950. Ten years later, his father died and Benn was made Viscount Stansgate and was barred from the House of Commons. It took him three years and two by-elections in Bristol South East before Benn could return to the House of Commons and renounce his title. In 1964, he was part of Harold Wilson’s cabinet as minister of technology and was committed to branding Labour a party for the modern age. In the 1970s Labour government, Tony Benn began to shift further towards the left, but divisions began to open in the late 70s. When former Prime Minister Harold Wilson was replaced by James Callaghan, it was evident the party was being shifted to the right by both Callaghan and his Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey as they sought to remove the welfare state as they knew it.
Then in 1979, Thatcher came along. Labour was in chaos as Callaghan was replaced by Michael Foot. He tried in 1981 to challenge Healey for the deputy leadership but lost by the tiniest margin. By the 80s, he was a well known left wing figure in Labour and spoke out against capitalism itself, coming close to getting the party to reject capitalism altogether. He once said, “We have tried to make capitalism work with good humane Labour governments and we have not succeeded, because it cannot work, because it rests on injustice!”
The 1983 election saw an increasingly socialist Labour Party crash, with Benn losing Bristol South East to the Tories. He would be out of the Commons for just under a year before Chesterfield, a mining town in Derbyshire, voted him in as their new MP. He proudly stood alongside Arthur Scargill during the 1984-1985 miners’ strike, when Thatcher showed her true colours. Benn was still very much committed to socialism following and as small swings to Labour developed in 1987 and Thatcher left disgraced following a coup de tat in the Tory Party. It was following her departure he made another amazing speech which can be viewed below.
When Tony Blair became leader, Mr Benn, who was a beloved figure at Labour conferences was consigned to the audience as New Labour was born. Benn later resigned in 2001 because he wanted “To spend more time on politics.” Chesterfield later fell to the Liberal Democrats and remained yellow until 2010 when they welcomed Labour’s Toby Perkins with open arms. He was a fixture of protests against Iraq and for jobs as well as going on numerous speaking tours, attracting massive crowds. Someone who had once been called the most dangerous man in Britain had become a national treasure, addressing the Oxford Union, hoping his ideas would one day be admired by generations. He sadly passed away on the 14th of March 2014 at the old age of 88. Many touching tributes came from all sides of politics. The best I ever saw however was from one Dennis Skinner.
Tony Benn may have passed on, but this has not stopped the admiration many on the left, including myself. His legacy will live on through many throughout the world. A great man, a hero of the left and the best leader Labour never had.