Friday, March 14, 2014

Tony Benn 1925 -2014

There is and will be in the next few days a great deal written about Tony Benn, a politician whom I still recall as something of a laughing stock as he went from one "radical" idea to another and also something of a danger though not for long. So I need not spend too much time either excoriating or praising him (mostly for living to a ripe old age and smoking a pipe, as I notice).

One person who would probably not agree with my slightly curmudgeonly comment is Paul Lay, editor of History Today, who has written an interesting blog on the subject, placing Benn a little tenuously in the Leveller tradition of English radical thinking. As Mr Lay points out, a good deal of more recent left-wing thinking in England comes from those, deeply conservative roots, rather than the later ideas promulgated by the French Revolution. As it happens, Tony Benn did not turn to the Levellers till after he had gone through his "technological" stage, when he tried to change a great deal in this country in his zealous support for Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology.

Full disclosure: not only do I know that church in Burford well, but I also attended some of the early commemorative meetings though I do not actually recall seeing Tony Benn there. Perhaps, he started attending later, after I had left Oxford.

That said, there are a couple more things to be said about Mr Benn who does seem to have produced in his mellow and benign old age an image of what we all think (well, some of us think) a politician should be for he was never actually a statesman.

Firstly, his one great achievement and that is his successful battle to allow hereditary peers to renounce their titles and so continue in the House of Commons. The Peerage Act 1963, however, had a slightly ironic consequence: whatever Anthony Wedgwood Benn (for he did not become Tony Benn till somewhat later in his more "working class" phase) had intended for himself, it was the 14th Earl Home, who used the new legislation to reject his peerage in October 1963 and to become the Leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister as Sir Alec Douglas-Home who really benefited. I very much doubt Wedgwood Benn had foreseen that or was particularly pleased by that.

And so to Tony Benn's consistent and ideologically pure euroscepticism that began long before the word was invented. There can be no doubt about its sincerity or that he was motivated to a great extent by a love for Parliament and parliamentary democracy. He was also motivated by a fear that, once in the EEC, Britain would never become the socialist country he wanted it to be. That, together with his rather intimidating way of speaking (he was the original swivel-eyed loon before he became the benign elder statesman) meant that the BBC used him freely to scare people. It worked. Benn's participation in the NO campaign in the referendum of 1975 contributed to its heavy defeat.


  1. I watched this commie B steal British Leyland from the shareholders, and where is english motor manufacturing now? I remember the Wilson government doing to us what obama is doing to the USA The world is a slightly better place now!

  2. Oh well, he has not been active for a long time but I find all this eulogizing somewhat distasteful.

  3. I'm keeping quiet on this (mostly). I don't want to fall into the same depravity as those who celebrated Thatcher's death, even though I never had any time for that pompous old fool.

  4. There is a good article in the Spectator by Toby Young about just how should one react to the death of a prominent politician. The etiquette, if such at thing existed.

  5. His Euroscepticism had one negative effect.
    In 1975 my father, a true blue Tory, was considering his vote in the referendum on EEC membership.
    "I don't like this Europe business" he said. "There's something about it that doesn't 't smell right" . He paused and added. " But that man Wedgewood Benn's against it, so there must be some good in it"