Tony Benn: A Class Act

He caused trouble for 51 years as an MP - longer than any parliamentarian other than prime ministers Lloyd George, Churchill and Heath. Today, one of the most charismatic and reviled political figures of the 20th century turns 80. And he's still walking the walk with his fighting talk
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One day last month, sixth-formers from all over London crowded into Camden Town Hall to hear an array of speakers tell them why politics mattered and why they should be interested. The line-up included one member of the Cabinet, MPs from all parties, and an old man whose influence peaked before anyone in the audience was born. He was the one who grabbed their attention.

One day last month, sixth-formers from all over London crowded into Camden Town Hall to hear an array of speakers tell them why politics mattered and why they should be interested. The line-up included one member of the Cabinet, MPs from all parties, and an old man whose influence peaked before anyone in the audience was born. He was the one who grabbed their attention.

"I did not know much about Tony Benn, but he really seemed to be on our wavelength and understand what we were thinking," said Amy Williams, a 17-year-old politics student from a comprehensive, Hampstead School.

"He was kind of cool - and funny at the same time. I loved the way he waved his hands about so passionately. I would vote for him. He was the only one with anything to say. He did not try to manipulate us - unlike all the others. We are really tired of Tony Blair trying to con us." In amazement, she added: "I had no idea he was so old."

Tony Benn, one of the most charismatic and most reviled political leaders of the 20th century, is having a quiet celebration with his immediate family, to mark his 80th birthday today. Some other low-key events have already being held, and his publishers will host a small party later in the week.

While the birthday celebrations will be subdued and abstemious since Benn is vegetarian and teetotal, the political philosophy that he lays before another generation of listeners is as comprehensive and uncompromising as it ever was.

His young audience, listening to this articulate and entertaining grandad expounding passionately held beliefs, would probably find it difficult to grasp how loathed and feared Benn used to be. He was attacked with a ferocity unmatched by anything thrown at contemporary politicians - and not for his private life, but for his beliefs, with at least one national newspaper carrying a cartoon of Benn as a Nazi. It was commonly implied that he was mad, with tabloid newspapers occasionally drafting in psychiatrists to diagnose him from afar.

Rivals in the Labour Party could be almost as hostile. Harold Wilson regarded him as a serious threat to his authority. Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock believed that Benn's influence was the single biggest obstacle in the way of Labour's recovery. Though Tony Blair does not often mention Benn by name, he refers to that period when Benn's influence was at its height as if it were the dark ages, when the Labour Party was gripped by a death wish.

His reception from voters has been mixed. One of the many political records is that he is the only person alive to have won three parliamentary by-elections - two in the early 1960s and one in 1984 - showing that people responded to the star quality that he brought to politics.

But in general elections, voters were not so responsive. The manifesto on which the Labour Party fought the 1983 general election, with its promise of massive state intervention into industry, unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the EU was Benn's work more than anyone else's, drawn up by the Home Policy committee of the National Executive, which he chaired. It produced the worst election result Labour has had since the war.

In the 1997 Labour landslide, Benn's seat, Chesterfield, was almost the only one in the country where the Labour vote fell. The figures suggest that if he had stood again in 2001 his parliamentary career would have come to an ignominious end: the same eloquence and singleness of purpose that so appeals to the young made Benn a threatening figure, particularly to the property-owning middle class. Unlike other anti-establishment figures, he was never shy of political office. He seized positions of power and used them to push his policies and promote those who agreed with him.

There was a time when the word "Bennite" was used much more commonly in everyday language than "Blairite" or "Brownite" is used now. It implied an idealised belief in participatory democracy, linked struggles, state intervention and disarmament. In his day, he was the only British politician apart from Margaret Thatcher with a clearly defined "-ism" to his name. There are cabinet ministers who now prefer not to be reminded of their Bennite past.

In a recent Guardian article about public apathy, he suggested that it suited the purposes of what he called the "political class ... by which I mean the party leaders, their spin-doctors and their embedded correspondents in the media, who live in the Westminster village" - as if he were some lifelong stranger to the Westminster scene. In a similar vein, he entitled the final volume of his memoirs Free at Last, meaning free from the unfulfilling life of an MP.

Yet it would be difficult to think of anyone more obviously from the "political class" or a more devoted, lifelong habitué of the Westminster village. His career as an MP spanned 51 years, longer than any other Labour MP, or any other 20th-century parliamentarian apart from three prime ministers, Winston Churchill, Lloyd George and Edward Heath.

And much as he may despise spin-doctors, he was himself once considered one of the best practitioners of media management. His contribution to one general election was considered so valuable that he was put forward for the job of general secretary of the Labour Party. That was in 1959.

His father, likewise, was of the political class, the Secretary of State for India in 1929-31 and first Viscount Stansgate. Coming from that background has given Benn an astonishingly long political memory, even for a man of 80. He can remember meeting Mahatma Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1948. In 1997, he went to a celebration of Labour's election victory and sat in the same seat that he had occupied when Labour was celebrating its other great victory, in 1945.

In the vaults of the BBC there is footage of an excitable occasion at a Conservative Party conference in 1963, when Lord Hailsham delighted the representatives by renouncing his hereditary peerage to contest the party leadership. The only reason that he was able to do that, legally, was that Benn had already fought a three-year battle to avoid being compelled to inherit his father's title.

Nor is he the last Benn to live in the Westminster village he claims to despise. When his family gathers for today's private birthday celebration, the guests will include a cabinet minister - Tony's second son, Hilary - and a political adviser to the Prime Minister, his daughter-in-law, Nita Clarke. Even in retirement, old man Benn continues to be a familiar sight in Westminster. Not long ago, he was seen in the public gallery, proudly watching his son at the Despatch Box. If he lives as long as his mother, the Viscountess Margaret, he may yet sit in the public gallery to watch one or more of his 10 grandchildren address the House.

The old man who talks the language of the young, the compulsive parliamentarian who claims he gave up the Commons to take up serious politics, the patriarch of a political dynasty who rails against the "political class" - not a straightforward fellow, but how much duller British politics would have been these past few decades if he had been.