No tears for a parting politician

WORDS CANNOT express my regret at the news that Anthony Wedgwood Benn has decided to retire from Parliament. My regret is that he has left it so late. Twenty years too late.

For Benn has done more damage to the Labour Party than any other of its principal figures - even Ramsay MacDonald. For, while MacDonald, Labour's first Prime Minister, in 1931 engineered a split that kept the party out of power for 14 years, Benn led the hard left's manoeuvrings that helped to keep Labour out of power for 18 years.

He started out promisingly, as a young sprig of the nobility: the Stansgate viscountcy, with an estate in Essex. When I asked a visitor to Stansgate whether he had run into Anthony, my acquaintance replied "Yes. Very good with the servants."

I used to see quite a lot of Benn during Wilson's first Labour government, when I worked at 10 Downing Street, in an advisory job to Wilson which, indeed, Benn had recommended me to accept. During this period, when he was a member of a small informal group of gossips who imagined, mistakenly, that they comprised a kitchen Cabinet, Benn was occupied harmlessly with such tasks as introducing pictorial postage stamps (when he was Postmaster General) and thinking up regional policies (when he hung a map of Britain upside down in his Minister of Technology's office in that very Millbank Tower now infested by his betes noires, the minions of New Labour).

Regrettably, however, during Labour's period of opposition from 1970 to 1974, Benn discovered the working class, always a dangerous thing for an aristocrat to do. Sons of factory workers, like me, have no illusions about our fellow proletarians; nobs like Benn, on the other hand, revere them as noble savages.

As shadow industry spokesman after the 1970 defeat, he became infatuated with the struggle of the Upper Clyde ship-builders. On becoming Secretary of State for Industry in 1974, he proceeded to set up a dotty collection of workers' co-operatives, all of which collapsed.

But then, the minutiae of administration were never his strongest suit. I remember attending a cabinet committee called principally for him, now Energy Secretary, to present a paper on, I seem to recall, nuclear power. When this item was reached on the agenda, Benn asked for the discussion to be postponed. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, asked why. Benn explained that he had not yet had time to read the paper that had been circulated over his name.

Benn, further, fell in with a motley collection of lefties, some simply mad but others profoundly malevolent, who regarded him as an instrument they could use to transform Labour from a messily democratic party into a disciplined Stalinist organisation. When Labour lost in 1979 after its humiliation by the International Monetary Fund (a process in which Benn willingly co-operated as Secretary of State for Energy, even offering an increase in gas prices), the hard left decided their hour had come.

Having by infiltration gained control of many constituency Labour parties (including mine), the National Executive, leading unions' block votes and the party conference, they proposed constitutional changes, including an electoral college for choosing the leadership, which Benn supported wholeheartedly. In 1980 in a campaign that he had hailed as "cleansing" but which made Labour appear, accurately, divided and extremist, Benn was beaten by Denis Healey for the deputy leadership by only a fraction of 1 per cent.

Up to then Labour had led in the opinion polls. After that, Labour never led again until its massacre by the Tories in the 1983 election. In 1988 Benn stood again, this time for the leadership against the incumbent, Neil Kinnock. Once again Labour was damaged with respect to the electorate.

During the 1983 Parliament Benn, though never elected to the Shadow Cabinet, stepped into a place vacated, ironically, when Bill Rodgers left to join the Social Democrats. In that period, having failed to abide by collective responsibility from the front bench, Michael Foot delivered against him at a Shadow Cabinet meeting the most excoriating denunciation of one politician by another that I have ever heard.

At the time of the Gulf crisis, Benn spoke up against action to deal with Saddam Hussein, whom he visited in Baghdad. And during the Kosovo crisis he has spoken up against action to deal with Milosevic. On home affairs he has taken pretty well every possible opportunity to vote against the Blair Government, in whose landslide victory he had not shared. We shall have to put up with him for the rest of this Parliament. At any rate, considering his past pronouncements he may not be seeking a peerage in the next, I suppose.

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London