Brian Wilson: Three political lives of Tony Benn

He latterly enjoyed a populist image, but the left-winger was a divisive figure in his middle years, writes Brian Wilson
Tony Benn at a trade union rally in Hyde Park in 2011. Picture: PATony Benn at a trade union rally in Hyde Park in 2011. Picture: PA
Tony Benn at a trade union rally in Hyde Park in 2011. Picture: PA

Tony Benn’s political career divided into roughly three distinct eras. First – and you have to be of a certain age to remember this – he was a radical and effective minister who achieved much of lasting value in the Labour governments of the 1960s and 70s.

Benn was the keen, young man in the white coat which epitomised the heat of technology and chimed with the spirit of the age. He was the political patron of civil nuclear power, the chief sponsor of Concorde and the inventor of Post Office Giro as a people’s bank.

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Beyond that, he was the aristocrat who had spurned the House of Lords; a champion of comprehensive education who, as a parent, practised what he preached; a brilliant communicator with a view of society that was bigger than the sum of practical reforms.

An iconic image of the Upper Clyde struggle showed him, in 1971, marching arm in arm with the leaders of the work-in. He had been party to the creation of UCS and became attracted to the idea of co-operatives and workers control. But a Labour government with a tiny majority and in the midst of a global economic crisis was not amenable to the industrial strategy that Benn was advocating.

When Harold Wilson moved him from industry to energy, he created BNOC as a state-owned oil company much against the wishes of the oil industry and involved the miners in decision-making about their industry’s future. Jim Callaghan brought him back into the heart of economic policy in an effort to promote party unity. If it had stopped there, Benn would be obituarised as one of Labour’s most effective, creative and charismatic ministers who could undoubtedly have gone on to do much more.

But then came the second era, which had been in the making since the early 1970s and was perhaps accentuated by his poor showing at the hands of fellow MPs in the leadership contest of 1976 when Callaghan won. Increasingly, Benn presented himself as a figure of the Left not only in policy terms but in orchestrating changes to the Labour constitution which would broaden that electorate and, as it transpired, improve his own prospects.

Whatever his motives, the consequence was to create a Bennite cult which translated into a period of near-fatal division within the Labour Party. The objectives were at least as much organisational as ideological permeating every corner of the party and sapping the energies of ordinary members who wanted nothing more than successful Labour governments.

In one of his most revealing quotes, Tony Benn marked the election of Mrs Thatcher by anticipating that it would usher in “the most creative period of my life”. Creative or destructive? For those who lived through this period, opinions are probably as divided now as they were then about the Tony Benn of that era.

To some, he was the standard-bearer of the true gospel who could do no wrong. To others, he was the disloyal harbinger of electoral doom, who would pander to any entrist group or impossibilist demand in the disingenuous name of enhanced party democracy.

Some who felt the greatest antagonism towards him had paid their dues to the left of Labour politics for much longer but also knew that, in order to be of use to anyone, the party had to be electable. Michael Foot’s leadership might have been doomed anyway – the Bennite manifesto of 1983, a crowning glory to years of hideous factionalism, finished the job.

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I remember, just after that election which consigned Labour to impotent opposition for another 14 years, Benn wrote that it had really been a great triumph because eight million people had voted for a true socialist manifesto. The fact that many of them had done so with a heavy heart while 22 million voted against seemed to have escaped his notice.

That summed up the division between those for whom a Labour government was an optional extra and the people Labour was meant to represent and for whom a Labour government, even an imperfect one, was a matter of urgent necessity. It was at this point that I and others like me decided to get more involved on the latter side of that divide.

The great beneficiary of the Bennite decade in Labour politics was, of course, Margaret Thatcher, for the wreckage of defeat takes a long time to recover from and she was left with a clear run until her own side did for her. Benn lost his seat in 1983 and was thus unable to stand against Neil Kinnock to succeed Foot. The work of rebuilding began and the miners’ strike confirmed the hazards of ideological leadership which delivers nothing but defeat.

After Kinnock had lost the 1987 election, Benn forced another leadership election. By then, it was conducted under the electoral college that he had done so much to create and he received the same share of the vote at in 1976 when it was MPs alone who voted – 11 per cent. What had it all been about? That was really the end of the second Benn era and maybe the best judgment on it is that it had delivered so much less than the first.

Fortunately, there was a prolonged third era to follow during which Benn reverted to being what he had always been – a gifted campaigner and communicator who could fill halls in the Tory heartlands as well as the miners’ institutes and was guaranteed to pack them in at book festivals throughout the land with his wit, insights and statements of principle. Everyone could agree he was a saint because, as he said himself, “I am no longer a threat”.

But to whom was he ever a threat? Once the eulogies have subsided, that is the question to which students of politics, both present and future, might reasonably address themselves. They should not do so on the basis of myth or caricature but by re-visiting the causes which Tony Benn identified with during the heyday of his second era.

To whom were they ever a serious threat? The answer is not as obvious as it might first seem.

Tony Benn took justifiable pride in the achievements of his son Hillary, an effective mainstream Labour minister who once said: “I am a Benn but not a Bennite.” It was a crucial distinction which only those who lived through the Labour Party in the second Benn era could ever fully appreciate.