For the second time in a week, we mark the passing of an extraordinary figure from the left of politics and wonder if we will see his like again. Tony Benn, as Anthony Wedgwood Benn liked to be known, emerged from a very different tradition from that of Bob Crow. The RMT trade union leader was a working-class communist whose influence was limited to one industry. Mr Benn was the scion of a wealthy family whose political lineage was in the tradition of English Methodist dissent and Victorian liberalism. He had the ability and experience to be prime minister, but in the 1970s departed from the political mainstream to be the leading voice of the left.
Without question, Mr Benn was one of the great figures of the post-war period. Fifty years ago, he dominated the political news through his battle to renounce the peerage he had inherited from his father so that he could remain an MP, the first ever to do so. It was he, more than anyone else, who saw to it that the UK’s membership of what we now call the EU was settled in a referendum in 1975. Until the 1970s, the leaders of the two main parties were chosen by their MPs, with no one else having a vote. Mr Benn played a large part in changing that.
He showed extraordinary fortitude in the face of a relentlessly hostile campaign by Conservative newspapers, often abetted by enemies in the Labour Party, which lasted more than a decade. He refused to compromise or back down. At a personal level, he was also a man of great personal charm, an assiduous diarist and writer, and a devoted husband, father and grandfather.
And yet respect for the man should not blind us to the folly of the political path he chose. He was the last major political figure in Britain to advocate bringing the commanding heights of industry under state or collective control, believing that it would empower and improve the living conditions of the worst off. He persisted in this belief even after the collapse of the Berlin Wall had exposed the hideous inefficiency and nepotism in state-controlled economies.
Because the programme he espoused would have been illegal under EU law, he proposed to pull the UK out of Europe without a second referendum, despite being the politician who, more than anyone else, had insisted that the public be consulted the first time round. He would not take “yes” for an answer.
His political philosophy would have done untold damage to the country, had he had the chance to put it into effect. Instead, the damage done was to the Labour Party. The rise of Tony Benn and what he stood for provoked Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and others into breaking away to form the SDP, thereby splitting the anti-Tory vote. Although he was never Labour leader, Mr Benn was by force of personality the main author of Labour’s 1983 election manifesto, aptly described as “the longest suicide note in history”, and which brought Labour its worst post-war election defeat. Unintentionally, he played a large role in keeping Margaret Thatcher securely in power. The cost, ironically, was borne by the working class communities Mr Benn claimed to be defending.
He was a great figure, greatly mistaken, who did great damage – and will be greatly missed.