March 15, 2014, 3:42 am
Former British MP Tony Benn passed away on Friday of natural causes. He was 88. His health had been in decline since a stroke in 2012.
Benn was born into a political family with both his father and grandfather having served as MPs. After a stint as a RAF pilot in Africa during WWII, Benn was elected to the House of Commons at the age of 25 in a 1950 by-election which was called after Stafford Cripps, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Labour government of Clement Attlee, suddenly fell ill.
When his father passed away in 1960, he inherited his peerage and automatically lost his seat in the House of Commons. However, Benn did not wish to accept his peerage and wanted to continue as an MP. At the time, there was no provision for a Lord to resign his peerage. This would change in 1963 and Benn returned to the Commons soonafter.
When the Labour government of Harold Wilson came to power the following year, Wilson appointed Benn Postmaster General. He would hold various other portfolios in the Wilson government: Minister of Technology, Secretary of State for Industry and Secretary of State for Energy. When Labour was returned to the opposition benches, Benn served as Shadow Secretary of State for Trade & Industry.
After Wilson resigned from office in 1976, Benn sought the Labour Party leadership but finished a distant fourth on the first ballot. James Callaghan would win on the second ballot and kept Benn as Energy Secretary.
Aside from the issue of hereditary peerage, Benn was not associated with the radical wing of the Labour Party. This would change gradually during his years in the Wilson/Callaghan cabinets and would accelerate following the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Benn would run for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party in 1981 losing narrowly to Denis Healey much to relief of then Labour Party leader Michael Foot. During the Thatcher years, Benn advocated wide scale nationalization and was a strong supporter of Arthur Scargill during the failed miners’ strike of 1984-85. Following Labour’s third consecutive electoral loss to Thatcher in 1987, Benn challenged Neil Kinnock for the Labour Party leadership in 1988 but was easily defeated.
On a personal note, I interviewed Benn in April 1995 while I was in London interning for the late Scottish Labour MP Jimmy Wray. I was working on my undergraduate thesis, which compared the development of the youth wings of the Labour Party and the CCF/NDP in Canada. I requested an interview with Benn to ask him about his role in interceding on behalf of Andy Bevan. He had been the Labour Party’s National Youth Officer, but Prime Minister Callaghan had blocked his appointment because of his association with the Marxist Militant Tendency.
Most MPs didn’t take kindly to being approached by mere plebians, never mind colonials. Benn (and, of course, Jimmy) were the exceptions to that rule. He invited me to speak with him in the office in his flat at Holland Park Road and served me tea. It was a very pleasant conversation. He answered my questions and I got what I needed for my paper.
Benn would remain a MP until 2001. In the final decade of his life, he served as President of the Stop the War Coalition. In February 2003, shortly before the beginning of the War in Iraq, Benn traveled to Iraq to conduct a laudatory interview of Saddam Hussein. One could say I was a degree of separation from Saddam. By this time, of course, my politics had moved rightward. His apologism for Saddam and his occasional anti-Israel diatribes (only he would think the BBC was too pro-Israel) made me wince at my youth. Despite the distaste that developed for his politics, I will never forget his kindness to me that morning.