Tony Benn is Dead

by Harry on March 14, 2014

Guardian obit here. I once had a whole obituary comment worked out in my head, but right now I don’t feel like saying anything at all, beyond just wanting us to mark his death.



Adrian Kelleher 03.14.14 at 3:35 pm

A very sad day. He was a veteran of the 1945 parliament that secured the fruits of victory for all the people of Britain. A quote:

[In 1943] I halted my studies and put on a uniform to join the RAF. I remember setting sail to South Africa for training and being part of a war aims meeting. It was the most brilliant political meeting I ever attended. One man spoke of the mass unemployment of the 1930s and said that if we could attain full employment by killing Germans, we could have full employment by building houses, schools and hospitals. This was the shape the 1945 election took. The politics that shaped my life.



ALanM 03.14.14 at 3:41 pm

The first candidate I ever voted for, in 1983.

He was standing in the constituency I grew up in due to redistricting which had eliminated the constituency he had previously sat for.

He was also the first political figure about whom I realised that my own perceptions evinced directly from what they said were probably more trustworthy than the press he got.

I heard him speak on a Radio 3 interview a month or two back and knew this day was not far off, but he spoke directly to his coming death and had clearly made his peace with the world.

An honourable and wholly admirable man.


christian_h 03.14.14 at 3:46 pm

RIP, Tony Benn.


MPAVictoria 03.14.14 at 3:55 pm

“Come, my friends,
‘It is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. ”



ALanM 03.14.14 at 3:59 pm

I just realised I hadn’t mentioned one of the most impressive things about Tony Benn, which might resonate with US readers, but perhaps is too well known for UK readers to even mention, is that he was the first man to renounce his peerage. The law was actually changed to make this even possible. Many lords may have regretted having to pass to the upper house on their father’s demise previously, but Benn was the first to fight it and surrender his title.


LFC 03.14.14 at 4:03 pm

Echoing the others here and thanks for the OP (as otherwise I might have missed this).


Corey Robin 03.14.14 at 4:49 pm

Speaking of Benn renouncing his peerage….Both Tony Benn and Edmund Burke represented the city of Bristol. The first gave up his peerage, the second tried to get one. For some reason I like that symmetry.


Metatone 03.14.14 at 6:17 pm

Nothing much useful to add.
Chris Mullin’s piece is worth a look.


Metatone 03.14.14 at 6:21 pm

I guess I’d pull this bit from CM’s piece:

“As a superbly competent minister who, when energy secretary in the mid-70s, faced down the oil companies, obtaining for the UK a much fairer share of North Sea oil revenues than that bequeathed by the Heath government. “One day we will build a statue of Mr Benn,” remarked Lord Kearton, the chairman of the British National Oil Corporation who had been at Benn’s side through the struggle with the oil companies.”


actio 03.14.14 at 6:24 pm

One thing to praise in Benn is his long standing vegetarianism. It is sad how many on the left who have beliefs about solidarity and compassion in the abstract on a daily basis support slavery, suffering and killing.


Ed Herdman 03.14.14 at 11:00 pm

I hope to see a better obit than the Guardian one, which shoehorns a “controversial” or “divisive” in every other sentence, and the bombshell about “destructive and dishonest conduct” at the end leaves a bitter taste. The actual information is pretty much unanimous: A brilliant career.

Interesting to see how the different obits follow institutional molds. The New York Times marks his break over the European Common Market and traces details of his lineage. The BBC’s coverage is more comprehensive about his own life, with quotes from multiple politicians and friends in their obit as well as an editorial from one of their political editors – “The man who made me interested in politics”.

Benn himself has left an obituary of sorts on video.


Mark English 03.15.14 at 5:36 am

I rather liked the idea of that giant magnet that he reputedly waved over journalists to whom he had been speaking (in his home?) as they departed. (To erase any tape recordings which they may have ‘inadvertently’ made.)

How to win friends etc.


Chris Bertram 03.15.14 at 8:54 am

@Corey, well there are parallels as well as symmetries. Both Burke and Benn were run out of Bristol for being too left-wing! Burke was opposed to anti-Irish protectionism and to slavery and was replaced by Henry Kruger (later a state senator in New York); When the number of Bristol Parliamentary seats was reduced, Benn was replaced by Labour right-winger Michael Cocks. Both are memorialized in Bristol, Burke through a statue in the centre; Benn through a bust in City Hall and the naming of the Unite HQ in Victoria Street as Tony Benn House. Our other great MP, Stafford Cripps, has nothing named after him, no statues, no memorials. Since Cripps is the grandfather of Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, I’m hoping the Bristol philosophy dept might do something this eventually (maybe get Appiah to give a paper and have him unveil something in the city.).


Chris Bertram 03.15.14 at 9:07 am

The Guardian has put on a poor performance over Benn’s death. They’ve let Michael White (a reptilian Blairite) write a nasty piece about him (and White was also on BBC Radio 5 offering “balance”, i.e. vicious character assassination), then the obituary is by Brian Brivati, “decent leftist” and Euston Manifesto signatory.


Sasha Clarkson 03.15.14 at 12:22 pm

I met Tony Benn when I was chair of my college Labour Club in the late seventies. He was undoubtedly immensely charming, and in those days a political trimmer: part of a government which was doing unpopular things, yet trying to distance himself from them. At the time he certainly didn’t have the straightforward honesty of, say, Dennis Skinner.

When Labour lost in 1979 things changed. And like many Labour activists in the early eighties, I grew to have very mixed feelings about Benn. He was divisive, and his style at that time, before he became a national treasure, alienated many Labour supporters. Nor did I feel that he was particularly intellectually honest, or politically clear thinking.

Of course the Labour Party was itself a coalition, perhaps an impossible one. And while most of us shed few or no tears for the departure of the Gang of Four to form the SDP, Benn’s disregard for party Realpolitik made it very difficult for the rest of us. Internal Labour Party politics have always been brutal, and at best approximately democratic. (I know this from experience.) Individual members had no more than a limited say. Getting a preferred candidate selected locally often involved manipulating local trades union and affiliated society votes, and all sorts of dirty tricks. Neither Benn’s nor any other wing of the party at the time cared about this: winning at any cost was all that mattered.

To say that Benn was “run out of Bristol for being too left-wing” is not really true, (and personally I don’t think Burke was left wing at all!) Who knows what would have happened in Bristol if the boundaries hadn’t been withdrawn? Nor was Benn “replaced by” Cocks, who was already MP for Bristol South. Benn tried and failed to replace him in the redrawn constituency. Let’s not rewrite history here.

In his later years, even many Tories came to admire Benn. But personally I never forgave him for, in my perception, making the ’80s divisions in the party worse than they need have been, thus, in my view, helping pave the way for the disaster that was Tony Blair.


Sasha Clarkson 03.15.14 at 1:01 pm

Chris Mullin’s obituary is very fair, I think. I neither loved nor loathed Benn: but in my years as an active party member in the 80s and early nineties, I felt he was “inside the tent p*****g in”. In those days the person who inspired me was Robin Cook, when he was campaigns director (or some such title).


Chris Bertram 03.15.14 at 2:26 pm

Thanks Sasha. Via FB I learn that what I wrote is multiply inaccurate, so not only did Cocks not “replace” Benn, Cruger also did not replace Burke (he served alongside him), and Burke was less anti-slavery that I suggested. I do hope we do something to memorialize Cripps though.


Sasha Clarkson 03.15.14 at 3:02 pm

I hope Cripps is memorialised too.

To quote from Wikipedia “Despite financial problems from 1948 to 1949, Cripps maintained a high level of social spending on housing, health, and other welfare services, while also maintaining the location of industry policy.”

If only we had Crippsian “Austerity” now! :)


Phil 03.15.14 at 6:41 pm

Benn described his candidature for Deputy Leader of the LP as a move towards ‘unity’. He was derided – not for the first time – as being either piously hypocritical or delusional, but he did have a point. The divisions in the LP were always as much vertical as horizontal: at the time of that contest, much of the union movement and most of the party membership was well to the Left of the parliamentary party, and had been for some time. That division – rather than the backstairs politicking of rifts and factions within the Shadow Cabinet – was the one that Benn’s victory would have gone some way to healing; Healey’s election entrenched it.

Blair, of course, became party leader on a tide of revulsion for all things Old Labour, accountability to the party’s base very much included. To be New Labour was to be Labour in ways that only the leadership understood; if you weren’t with the project you were against it. Ironically this way of conceptualising politics has strong continuities with the old-school elite politics of the Wilson era and earlier: Blair was the first Labour leader to take the old party leadership’s ingrained and defensive opposition to the base and make a virtue of it.

To my mind the only causal connection between Benn and Blair is that Benn’s defeat helped to entrench trends which Blair exploited. Benn’s politics had a self-taught quality which didn’t always endear him, and his tactics and his choice of allies weren’t always of the best (although when I hear leftists accused of fighting dirty I always suspect this is a backhanded compliment for having fought dirty enough). But really, I think the worst thing we can accuse him of is being defeated.


Igor Belanov 03.16.14 at 10:07 am

I think that’s very fair from Phil. In Labour tradition anyone who doesn’t sit down and shut up is derided as ‘divisive’, and I find it amazing that people blame Tony Benn more than the SDP who actually divided the party in the literal sense. There are certainly a lot of instances in Benn’s career where he was politically naive and easily outmanoeuvred by opponents, but he was up against a lot of people that were a lot more machiavellian than he was.
Where he clearly differed from most politicians of that era was that he was an inspirational figure, and he clearly represented a lot of frustrated Labour activists in the late 1970s-early 1980s period. I think that it is noteworthy that he was effectively cast into the (formal) political wilderness by Kinnock, and I think Benn’s form of defeat is certainly preferable to that of Kinnock, and will at least offer a lot more hope for people in the future.


Tim Wilkinson 03.16.14 at 11:44 am



Sasha Clarkson 03.16.14 at 9:09 pm

Here are links to two pro-Benn blogs. Despite my own reservations, I find little to argue with here.


iolanthe 03.17.14 at 12:23 am

One thing I wondered is whether the third Viscount Stansgate will renounce his peerage. I know he doesn’t have a choice in assuming the title which happened when his father died but to keep it seems something of a betrayal of something his father was best known for. But I haven’t seen anything to suggest this will happen. Does anyone know anything about his intentions if he has any?


Tabasco 03.17.14 at 12:59 am

Even the Torygraph is praising Benn (to the displeasure of its UKIP and BNP readers, or at least blog commentariat).

One indisputable thing that can be said about Benn is that he outlived Thatcher. That’s not much, but it’s better than the microcrumbs that the Labour Left has gotten since Blair.


LFC 03.18.14 at 4:53 pm

Haven’t had a chance to read the Benn obituaries yet, nor an old newspaper clipping or two re Benn that I happen to have saved; however, this thread is interesting. I don’t think I knew that Cripps was Appiah’s grandfather (per ChrisB@13). I’ve forgotten most of the relatively little I knew about Cripps, but is there some substantive/political/policy reason he doesn’t have a memorial in Bristol? Or is it simply an oversight or someone not wanting to spend the money?


otpup 03.19.14 at 3:38 pm

Benn was something of Left culture hero of my youth. His socialism and anglican roots (my family was full of professional whisky-palians) was tremendously reassuring as a young democratic socialist (for UK readers, the term democratic socialist does not have such a relatively “right” or “moderate” connotation it seems/seemed to have in the Brit-pol lexicon).

Reading about Benn’s opposition to prop. rep. though, it is pretty clear his positions were not always well thought out (and an uncharitable spin would characterize his logic as myopic or self-serving, the more charitable that it was a misplaced expression of communitarian values).

For instance, PR would have prevented the Thatcher revolution (hard to think anything less community oriented than that debacle). Moreover, I’ve tended to believe for a number of years that much of the Labor’s swamp like culture is due to the structural necessity of being a Big Tent party. Having a stronger Left is more than worth forcing left parties to govern in coalition, and many political disputes intensify their uselessness when an exit is equivalent to political suicide.

So Benn, whatever his record as a leader or faction fighter, for me is coming to be emblematic of certain type of socialist politician that relies moral fervor as a substitute for analysis. Of course, New Labour had its own, ahem, laxities.

Still, he fought a version of the good fight.

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