Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn was born in London in 1925, the son and grandson of MPs. His contact with leading politicians of the day dates back to his earliest years, biographies note, he met Ramsay MacDonald, for example, when he was five, David Lloyd George when he was 12 and Mahatma Gandhi in 1931, while his father was Secretary of State for India. Benn studied at Westminster School and then at New College, Oxford, before marrying an American, Caroline Middleton DeCamp, in 1949. They had four children (one of whom, Hilary, has been an MP since 1999).
Following the Second World War Benn worked briefly as a BBC Radio producer, but was then unexpectedly selected to succeed Sir Stafford Cripps as the Labour candidate for Bristol South East, a seat he won in the 1950 election. In 1960, Benn’s father died, and he automatically inherited a peerage. Consequently, according to the law of the day, he was disbarred from sitting in the Commons, and subsequently - after a legal action - lost his seat. He then campaigned for a change in the law which resulted in the 1963 Peerage Act, and he became the first peer to renounce his title. He returned to Parliament after winning a by-election the same year.
Benn was an elected member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee from 1959 to 1994, and was Chairman of the Party in 1971-1972. Between 1964 and 1979, he served in the Wilson and Callaghan cabinets with various portfolios (technology, energy and industry). When Wilson resigned in 1979, Benn put himself forward for the party leadership, but on winning 11% of the first round ballot, he withdrew in favour of Michael Foot, who lost to Callaghan. Benn was closely associated with the trade union movement, and was a strong supporter of the miners strike in 1984-1985. In 1988, he again stood for leadership of the party, against Neil Kinnock, but lost heavily.
After 50 years in Parliament, Benn retired from the House of Commons in May 2001, so as to - he famously said - ‘devote more time to politics’. Indeed, he did become a highly vocal lobbyist against Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, but he also became something of a media celebrity and entertainer, performing a one-man show, reading his diaries on the radio, appearing at Glastonbury, and generally enjoying media life. Benn suffered a stroke in 2012, spent much of the following year in hospital; and he died on 14 March.
There is plenty of biographical information about Benn online, at Wikipedia, and in many obituaries - The Telegraph, BBC, The Guardian. There is an official Tony Benn website, but the home page says: ‘This website is currently unavailable as it is being completely redesigned to add new content during 2005.’ Hutchinson, Tony Benn’s publisher, but now part of Random House, has a pitifully brief author page. Although for the most part, commentators have assessed Benn in positive ways - The Guardian called him ‘a national radical treasure’, and the BBC dubbed him a ‘folk hero’ - not so Matthew Parris in The Spectator who believes that the convention to speak only good of the dead should not be applied to politicians. ‘On the whole polite to enemies outside his circle,’ Parris wrote, ‘he was merciless towards colleagues within it and often less than straightforward in his dealings with some of them.’
Benn’s most abiding legacy is likely to be his diaries, not only because they are so complete, covering half a century of Britain’s political history, but also because they are well-written, easy to read, and highly opinionated. Benn started keeping a diary as a teenager, with the first published entries dated to 1941, and more regular and detailed entries dated to 1944. It was not until 1987, however, that a first volume of his diaries was edited by Ruth Winstone, and published by Hutchinson - Out of the Wilderness: Diaries, 1963-1967. Three further volumes followed in quick succession (all published by Hutchinson and edited by Winstone): Office Without Power: Diaries 1968-1972 (1988); Against the Tide: Diaries 1973-1976 (1989); and Conflicts of Interest: Diaries 1977-1980 (1990).
The diaries were very well received, and brought Benn a wider audience and more public attention. Commenting on a 1995 collected edition, Alan Clark said: ‘The Benn Diaries, intensely personal, candid and engaging as they are, rank as an important work of historiography’ (Daily Telegraph); Peter Hennessy said: ‘Quite apart from the brio of illuminating a life almost entirely free of boredom (another rarity), the collected Benn has some critical patches of postwar history recorded hot’ (The Times); Ben Pimlott said, ‘Immensely readable and revealing’ (Sunday Times); Ruth Dudley Edwards said: ‘An archive of incalculable value’ (Independent); and the Financial Times called Benn ‘the best political diarist of our time’.
The next quarter of a century saw another five volumes, still published by Hutchinson (by then part of Random House): Conflicts Of Interest: Diaries 1977-1980 (1990); The End of an Era: Diaries 1980-1990 (1992); Years of Hope: Diaries, Letters and Papers 1940-1962 (1994); Free at Last!: Diaries 1991-2001 (2002); More Time for Politics: Diaries 2001–2007 (2007); A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine: The Last Diaries (2013). Many pages from these books can be read freely online at Googlebooks (as per the links above), while a ‘widget’ lets one preview some of them on the Random House website.
The Diary Review quoted several extracts from Benn’s diaries in a piece following the death of Margaret Thatcher last year (Thatcher gives a cuddle). Here are several more extracts, from Benn’s period in power, under Prime Ministers Wilson and Callaghan, all taken from The Benn Diaries - new single volume edition (Arrow Books, 1996).
5 March 1974
‘A week ago, I thought I might be out of Parliament altogether and now I am in the Cabinet as a Secretary of State for Industry. I feel I have to keep the hopes of the Left alive and alight. The job is enormous and the press is entirely hostile and will remain so. I have to recognise that in putting forward my proposals to the Cabinet, all will be opposed; but there are four powerful Secretaries of State on the left - myself, Michael Foot, Peter Shore and Eric Varley - and we are a formidable team.’
6 April 1974
‘I wrote a note to Anne Crossman following Dick’s death yesterday. Dick was a remarkable man, immensely intelligent and kind when he wanted to be but, of course, the teacher throughout his life - always preferring conflict, which cleared his mind. He was absolutely unreliable in the sense that he often changed his views, but he always believed what he said, which is something you can’t say of others. He was also capable of being unpleasant and my friendship with him had deteriorated sharply in recent years. At any rate, he will be remembered through his diaries, which will be the best diaries of this period ever published [see The Diary Junction]; though I hope my own, if they are ever transcribed, will also turn out to be a reasonable record.’
26 September 1975
‘The papers today reported the admission by the FBI that they had engaged in over 250 domestic burglaries for political and other purposes. There was also a report in the New York Times that the CIA was again giving money to West European socialist parties to intervene in Portugal. Just before the Executive at 10 I had a word with Bryan Stanley of the POEU [Post Office Engineering Union] and I mentioned my concern about telephone-tapping.”Oh yes,” he said, “there’s no question about it. I believe the Tories were engaged in a widespread surveillance campaign involving the telephone-tapping of activists in the trade union movements and the Labour Party, as well as the Communist Party. The aim was to prepare a general dossier and, in the run-up to an Election, blacken the character of political opponents.” ’
21 October 1975
‘The Daily Mirror ran a story under the heading, ‘Britain to become the nuclear dustbin of the world’, by a Stanley Bonnet. In fact, the man behind it was Bryn Jones from Friends of the Earth, who is the industrial correspondent on the Mirror. It was about the BNFL [British Nuclear Fuels Ltd] contract under which we would reprocess 4,000 tons of irradiated fuel from Japan and would then have the problem of disposing of the toxic waste. I decided to go on the ‘World at One’ so a chap came along to interview me. I think I put the case across and told the Department to put out a background note.’
6 December 1975
‘There was a very funny item in the Guardian this morning called ‘What Makes Tony Benn Run?’ by Martin Walker. It estimated that on my eighteen pints of tea a day for forty years, I would have drunk 29,000 gallons, used 20,000 KW hours of electricity and a ton and a quarter of tea, etc. It quoted what doctors said, what the Tea Council said; that the Jockey club would argue this was a higher rate of caffeine addiction than was permitted for racehorses.’
1 March 1976
‘Went to the House and couldn’t decide whether to vote for compulsory seat belts. I thought it was a form of tyranny that would make me look a Stalinist. But I rang Caroline and she said, “Think of the babies, the children would all want to, and lives might be saved.” So I voted in favour and it was carried by a huge majority.’
7 March 1976
‘Dinner at the Foots. There is a very strong rumour that Harold Wilson is about to retire. Nobody knows where it comes form except some funny things have evidently been happening. There is a possibility that some papers which were stolen from Harold’s desk may envelop him in some way in a scandal. Jill [Foot] is very much in favour of Harold going and I have little doubt that she, Michael and Peter would all support Denis as leader. But if Roy stood, as I think he would have to, and Denis, Jim and Tony Crosland, but Michael didn’t stand, then it would be a very curious line-up. Whether I stood would depend on whether I was nominated and by whom.’
16 March 1976
‘A day of such momentous news it is difficult to know how to start [. . .] I went to Cabinet at 11. Harold said, “Before we come to the business, I want to make a statement.” Then he read us an eight-page statement, in which he said that he had irrevocably decided that he was going to resign the premiership and would stay just long enough for the Labour Party to elect a new leader. People were stunned but in a curious way, without emotion. Harold is not a man who arouses affection in most people. [. . .]
I listened and set all the arguments down on paper. The case for standing is winning, or to win next time, to get an alternative policy across, to influence other candidates, to establish a power base. The case against is that people will say you’re frightened that you might be humiliated, attacked by the trade union leadership, massacred by the press. In the end I decided I would stand.’
27 May 1976
‘Harold Wilson’s honours list is still the big news item today. It is unsavoury, disreputable and just told the whole Wilson story in a single episode. That he should pick inadequate, buccaneering, sharp shysters for his honours was disgusting. It has always been a grubby scheme but the Establishment never reveal the grubbiness of their own peerages and honours. Still, we’ve never had anything quite like this in the Labour Party and it has caused an outcry. It will clearly help to get rid of the honours system.’
3 May 1979
‘For eleven hours Caroline and I drove around the constituency, in cold weather which turned to hail and snow. I sat on the roof of the car in a blanket with rubber overtrousers, wearing a wooly cap and anorak. It was freezing. We went round every single ward and it was terribly exhausting. [. . .]
At midnight we went to my count. The result was finally announced at 5 in the morning - scandalously inefficient. I was fed up and our Party workers were a bit depressed. To cut a long story short, the Returning Officer gave the result without inviting the candidates on to the platform. My majority went down from 9,000 to 1,890; the Liberal vote slumped and the Tories picked up the extra votes. I felt mortified, although I’m in for five more years. I made a speech outside, as dawn broke, to a crowd of supporters. I declined steadfastly to go on any of the Election post-mortem programmes. The media were utterly corrupt in this Election, trying to make it a media event.’
4 May 1979
‘A dramatic day in British politics. The most right-wing Conservative Government and Leader for fifty years; the first woman Prime Minister. I cannot absorb it all.
I have the freedom now to speak my mind, and this is probably the beginning of the most creative period of my life. I am one of the few ex-Ministers who enjoys Opposition and I intend to take full advantage of it.’