Tony Benn

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Tony Benn speaking in London, June 2004

The Right Honourable Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn (born April 3, 1925), known as Tony Benn, formerly 2nd Viscount Stansgate, is a British politician regarded as being on the left of the Labour Party.


Family background

Born into a family with a strong, radical dissenting tradition in which enterprise and public service were combined, Tony Benn was taught to believe that the greatest sins in life were to waste time and money. Tony Benn's father William Wedgwood Benn was a Liberal MP who defected to Labour and was later elevated to the Lords. Both his grandfathers (John Williams Benn and Daniel Holmes) were also Liberal MPs (for Wapping and Devonport, and Govan, respectively).

His mother was a dedicated theologian and feminist. She was member of the League of the Church Militant which was the predecessor of the Movement for the Ordination of Women. In 1925 she was rebuked by the then Archbishop of Canterbury for advocating the ordination of women. His mother's theology had a profound influence on Tony Benn, as she taught him to support the prophets and not the Kings, as the prophets taught righteousness.

Benn met US-born educationalist Caroline Middleton DeCamp (from Cincinnati, Ohio, daughter of a lawyer) over tea at Worcester College in 1949 and nine days later he proposed to her on a park bench in the city. Later, he bought the bench from Oxford City Council and installed it in the garden of their house in Holland Park. Tony and Caroline had four children - Stephen, Hilary (who is a Labour MP and cabinet minister), Melissa and Joshua, and ten grandchildren. Caroline died in 2000 aged 74.

Tony Benn is a cousin of the actress, Margaret Rutherford.

Political career

Following his World War II service in the Royal Air Force, Benn was elected as MP for Bristol South East in 1950.

Peerage Reform

In November 1960 Benn's father died, and he automatically inherited the peerage. As a result he was disbarred from sitting in the House of Commons. Still insisting on his right to abandon his unwelcome peerage, Benn fought to retain his seat in the by-election caused by his succession. Despite his disqualification, the people of Bristol South-East re-elected him at the subsequent by-election. An electoral court decided that the voters were fully aware that Benn was disqualified, and gave the seat to the Conservative runner up in the by-election, Malcolm St Clair. 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, was given the Royal Assent and became law shortly after 6 pm on July 31, 1963, and Benn was the first peer to renounce his title, at 6.22 pm that day. St Clair took the Chiltern Hundreds, (making his pre-existing right to sit in the Commons invalid, and so effectively resigning), and Benn returned to the Commons after winning a by-election on August 20.

In Government

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Tony Benn appearing on the BBC's Panorama programme to discuss membership of the EEC, 1975

In the 1960s government of Harold Wilson he became Postmaster General; during his time in that position he oversaw the opening of the Post Office Tower, the creation of the Postal Bus Service and the introduction of the UK's first commemorative postage stamps to be designed by David Gentleman. He later became Minister of Technology, a post which allowed his enthusiasm for gadgets to shine through, including responsibility for overseeing the development of Concorde. In the 1970s Labour government he became Secretary of State for Industry, but in 1975 he was moved to Secretary of State for Energy, following his unsuccessful campaign for a "No" vote in the referendum on Britain's membership of the (then) European Economic Community. By the end of the 1970s he had become identified with the left of the Labour Party.

In Opposition

In 1981 he stood for election against the incumbent Denis Healey as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, disregarding the appeal from party leader Michael Foot either to stand for the leadership or to abstain from inflaming the party's divisions. Benn defended his decision with an insistence that it was not about personalities but about policies. The contest was closely fought and Healey emerged victorious by a margin of barely 1%. The decision of several moderate left wing MPs, including Neil Kinnock, to abstain from supporting Benn triggered the split of the Campaign Group from the left of the Tribune Group.

Benn's Bristol South-East constituency was abolished by boundary changes in 1983, and he lost the selection battle to stand in the safe seat of Bristol South to Michael Cocks. Rejecting offers from the new seat of Livingston in Scotland, Benn fought and was defeated in Bristol East by Conservative candidate Jonathan Sayeed. As the darling of Labour activists it was not surprising that he was selected for the first Labour seat to fall vacant, and he was elected as MP for Chesterfield in a by-election the following year when Eric Varley resigned his seat to head Coalite.

His support for the 1984-1985 miners' strike resulted in much hostility from the conservative press. He stood for election as Party Leader in 1988 and was defeated again. In the first Gulf War he was active in the anti-war movement and visited Baghdad (after Ted Heath) to persuade Saddam Hussein to release the hostages which had been captured.


In 2001 he retired from Parliament "to devote more time to politics". He became a leading figure of the British opposition to the War on Iraq, and in February 2003 he travelled to Baghdad to again meet (and interview) Saddam Hussein. The interview was shown on British television. He also spoke out against the Iraq war at the protest in London organised by the Stop the War Coalition, attended by over 1 million people.

He has toured with a one-man stage show, and also appears regularly in a two-man show with folk singer Roy Bailey. In 2003 his show with Bailey was voted Best Live Act at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.

In October 2003, Benn was a guest of British Airways on the last-ever scheduled Concorde flight from New York to London.

In February 2004 he was elected as the first President of the Stop the War Coalition.

Diaries and Other Works

Tony Benn is a prolific diarist: seven volumes of his diaries have been published (the first six collected as ISBN 0099634112, the latest available as ISBN 009941502X). He also wrote the books Arguments for Socialism (1979), Arguments for Democracy (1981) and (with Andrew Hood) Common Sense (1993). His most recent work is Free Radical: New Century Essays (2004). In August 2003, London DJ Charles Bailey created an album of Benn's speeches (ISBN 1904734030) set to ambient groove.

External links

Template:Wikiquote Template:Wikisource author

Preceded by:
Ernest Marples
Postmaster General
Succeeded by:
Edward Short
Preceded by:
Frank Cousins
Minister of Technology
Succeeded by:
Geoffrey Rippon
Preceded by:
Secretary of State for Industry
Succeeded by:
Eric Varley
Preceded by:
Eric Varley
Secretary of State for Energy
Succeeded by:
David Howell

Template:End box

Preceded by:
William Wedgwood Benn
Viscount Stansgate
Succeeded by:

Template:End boxde:Tony Benn eo:Tony BENN


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