Today’s passing of Tony Benn ends an important chapter in British political history. Widely respected but controversial for his views, we review the best and worst 5 things about him:
1: He opposed Ted Heath’s application to join the European Economic Community.
When we did join he campaigned in favour of a referendum on the UK’s membership. He then persuaded The Shadow Cabinet to support a referendum in 1972, leading to Roy Jenkins resignation as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. Benn wrote that he “loathed” the EEC, he said it was “bureaucratic and centralised” and “of course it is really dominated by Germany. All the Common Market countries except the UK have been occupied by Germany, and they have this mixed feeling of hatred and subservience towards the Germans”
2: He was interviewed by actor and comedian Sasha Baron-Cohen dressed as his character Ali G.
Although Benn was originally privately appalled by the interview’s tone, he later wrote about how amused he had been once he realised it was a joke.
3: He was a big fan of pipe smoking, and the right to smoke in general.
It is claimed that he ignored the smoking ban and even erected a “Smoking Permitted” sign on a train carriage so he could light up. An act that only someone with his level of fame and popularity would ever get away with.
4: He left Parliament in 2001 “in order to spend more time on politics”.
He lamented the dictatorial style of modern British government, and believed in a return of powers to Parliament. He was given privileged access to the Palace of Westminster by the Speaker of the House of Commons in recognition of his desire to continue to campaign on issues he cared about.
5. He campaigned for the right to refuse hereditary peerages and became the first person to give one up (Viscount Stansgate).
Before this change inheriting the title meant also entering the House of Lords and thereby being disqualified for life from the House of Commons. This move assisted later generations of heirs including Michael Ancram MP to remain in the House of Commons despite inheriting a Lordship. However, his move was too late for Randolph Churchill, whose father Winston had refused to be made Duke of London fearing that it would ruin his son’s political career. Unfortunately for Randolph he was only briefly an MP and was never appointed to the House of Lords.
1: When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982, Benn demanded a negotiated settlement at the United Nations.
He also believed it was wrong for Margaret Thatcher’s government to send the British Taskforce to retake the Islands. When they returned victorious he demand for “a full analysis of the costs in life, equipment and money in this tragic and unnecessary war”. Something Thatcher firmly rebuffed.
2: Benn was a friend and supporter of the Leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill.
He also supported the 1984-1985 UK miners’ strike, which was seen by many as a watershed moment in UK industrial relations. Conservatives believe that the reforms of the Thatcher era would have been impossible if the strike had succeeded. He also supported Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing.
3. He believed in the abolition of the Monarchy and in 1991 he proposed the Commonwealth of Britain Bill, abolishing the monarchy in favour of the United Kingdom becoming a “democratic, federal and secular commonwealth”.
The Bill never got a second reading, but he presented an account of his proposal in a book entitled “Common Sense: A New Constitution for Britain”.
4: He may have renounced his peerage but there is clearly still come nepotism in the Benn household.
He was a cabinet minister, as was his father and his son. His granddaughter, Emily Benn, also contested the East Worthing and Shoreham Parliamentary Constituency in 2010. At the time she was the youngest ever Labour candidate. But did she manage that feat by raw talent alone?
5: He was the President of the Stop the War Coalition that campaigned heavily against the actions of President Bush in the aftermath of 9/11.
He led various marches the largest of which was estimated to have been attended by 2,000,000 people.
Tony Benn you were a giant of British politics and for better or worse we salute the passing of a great Englishman. Rest in Peace.