by David McDonagh
Anthony Neil Wedgewood Benn (3 April 1925 – 14 March 2014), Tony Benn, is dead.
He seemed to be confused all his life but he seemed very friendly and he never realised that politics was hostile to the people. When he left the House of Commons in 2001, his wife suggested that he could now spend more time on politics, so this is what he said to the media, but this mere propaganda is not so hostile but quite liberal as it may call for coercion but mere propaganda actually coerces none by itself.
Benn seemed to be an innocent. Politics can stand for the study of politics, for making propaganda for government or for actually governing the people; only the latter is gratuitously coercive or illiberal. The old Roman, Martial, said “he means well is no good unless he does well” and Benn did seem to mean well. He made enemies in the Labour Party, as he tended to use the Labour Party as if it was an idealistic utopian propaganda group dedicated to ideas rather than to practical politics of getting into power to govern the people. He did this so forcefully that he was ironically the chief inspirer of New Labour reaction that saw his idealism as anathema. It was mainly a reaction against what was seem as Benn’s sort of folly. He messed up the Labour Party but governments that practical politics, or political parties, aim at, do mess up society so messing one up maybe aided the public.
Benn was a member of the House of Commons for 50 years. He took part in government many times but he seemed to prefer ideology. He became a vegetarian in the 1970s and was fond of tea. He seemed to have a happy marriage and family life. He was consistently against war in his retirement.
Benn’s family were in the Liberal Party but his father crossed the floor to join Labour in the 1920s. By then, the nominal Liberals were even more Tory than the Tories but after 1931 the Labourites also went one nation-Tory, that they called socialism, a new name for Toryism. His grandfather was also an MP, who created a peerage as Lord Stansgate in 1914 that in 1963 Tony Benn needed to get rid of so that he could remain in the House of Commons.
Benn had been to Westminster School then on to New College, Oxford to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics. In 1943 he joined the RAF.
Benn worked on BBC radio after the war. He married Caroline in 1949, who died in 2001 of cancer. They had four children, one, Hilary, who is a Labour MP.
Benn replaced Sir Stafford Cripps, in more than one sense. as the Labour candidate for Bristol South East in November 1950, for Cripps, too, had a similar naiveté to Benn.
Benn opposed the pirate radio stations, like radio Caroline, as Postmaster General. This eventually led to BBC radio one to replace them.
As Minister of Technology, he fostered what were called rationalisations, or mergers, leading to the wasteful British Leyland.
Labour lost the election in 1970 but Benn was soon opposing the quest for the EU. He held it was bureaucratic and centralised, as if what he normally advocated was not. Indeed, it was noticeable at this time that Benn was much against bureaucracy but favoured, rather keenly, democracy; that would need more bureaucracy as a prerequisite. He seemed to lack the wit to ever quite realise that.
In 1974, Labour returned by winning two elections, both very narrowly. Benn was soon Secretary of State for Industry. Harold Wilson observed that he immatured with age. He pushed through the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which has been considered ridiculous by so many people ever since.
Benn encouraged worker take-overs or cooperatives, such as the one at Triumph Motorcycles at Meriden, near Coventry.
Soon Benn was Secretary of State for Energy. He was a top Labourite throughout. He never understood that power was a public menace. He excused the backward trade unions on the idea that the IMF did even more damage, as far as he could see, but his sight was completely foggy to the extent that he did not clearly see what power was.
He thought the Irish nationalist quest to conquer the Puritans in the north-east of Ireland was just. This was typical of his lack of insight into things.
He thought that democracy was all right instead of seeing it as oppressive. In 1980 he advocated full industrial democracy but his fate was to be cheered on by those he met, no matter how silly he was. No one told him that he was a fool. He never seems to have thought why people hated politics, including democracy. But he did realise that such things were not personal and he did see personal political ambition as immoral. He set out to say what he thought but to dodge aiming at pure personal success.
He consistently opposed all the wars that Tony Blair went in for, including the supposed success in Kosovo. He advocated a republic in the UK up till he retired from parliament in 2001.
He became the President of the Stop the War Coalition after retirement from the Commons. He opposed going into Iraq and Afghanistan. He meant well even if he never did well.