The British Labour Party politician Tony Benn (born 1925) held several cabinet positions between 1966 and 1979. He was a leading socialist and advocate of "participatory democracy." He gained perhaps even greater notoriety in later years when he published a series of tell-all diaries about the British cabinet.
Anthony Neil Wedgewood Benn was born in London on April 4, 1925, the son of the Ist Viscount Stansgate, a prominent member of the Labour Party. He had a middle-class upbringing, which was strongly influenced by the radicalism of his father and the religious beliefs of his mother. He attended Westminster and New College, Oxford, where his education was interrupted by World War II. He joined the Royal Air Force in 1943 and was stationed for a time in Rhodesia.
In 1946 Benn returned to Oxford and completed a degree in politics, philosophy, and economics. As president of the Oxford Union he skillfully defended the policies of the postwar Labour government of Clement Attlee. In 1949 he married Caroline Middleton de Camp, and in the same year he began to work as a journalist and in broadcasting with the B.B.C. Then, in 1950, he was elected Labour member of Parliament for Bristol South East, at 25 years of age the youngest member of Parliament.
During his first ten years in the House of Commons Benn was more of a radical than a socialist. He became identified with human rights issues such as divorce reform and opposition to capital punishment. His London home near Holland Park became a center of anti-colonial activity. He was a leading member of the H-Bomb Nuclear Committee. Ideologically, he remained near the center of the party and did not play a major role in the battles over nuclear disarmament and nationalization of industry (1960-1961).
In 1960 Benn's political career was placed in jeopardy by the death of his father. Under ordinary circumstances, he would inherit his father's title and a seat in the House of Lords, thus removing him from the focus of political influence. From 1954 on Benn had tried unsuccessfully to renounce the title. He now undertook a legal and political campaign for renunciation which involved re-election to his Bristol seat, from which he was then barred by an election court. With public opinion on their side, Benn's supporters pressed Parliament to enact the Peerage Act in 1963. This historic measure allowed him (and other prominent politicians) to sit in the Commons and gave a fillip to his career.
Benn served as postmaster-general under Harold Wilson from 1964 to 1966. Then he held the cabinet post of minister of technology (1966-1970). In 1969 this office became a "super ministry" when responsibilities for industry and power were added to it. As a cabinet member Benn was in the forefront of the technological revolution of the 1960s. He increased the functions of the post office, gave support to companies which employed new technology, and tried to increase economic growth.
During the early 1970s, with the Labour Party in opposition, Benn's ideas became more socialistic. He employed his formidable debating skills to advocate policies that clashed with those of the moderate leadership of the party. He urged a significant extension of public ownership in the economy. He also favored "participatory democracy" in broadcasting, referenda on issues such as entrance into the European Common Market (European Union), and workers' cooperatives. He became a leading spokesman for the left wing of the party.
When Wilson again became prime minister in 1974, Benn returned to the cabinet as secretary of state for industry. In the following year he was transferred against his wishes to the less important post of secretary of state for energy, where he served until 1979. Benn was a candidate for the leadership of the party in 1976 after Wilson unexpectedly resigned. He lost decisively to James Callaghan, who became prime minister.
After 1981, when the Conservatives were returned to power under Margaret Thatcher, Benn was in disagreement with the leadership of the Labour Party. He criticized its policies as too moderate and advocated "party democracy." This led to constitutional changes within the party, including the election of the leader of constituency parties, trade unions, and members of the House of Commons. These changes precipitated a split within the party in 1981, when some conservative members left to form the Social Democratic Party. In the election of 1983 Benn lost his Bristol seat but was returned as Member of Parliament for Chesterfield in a by-election held later in the year. He continued to be a leading member of the party but appeared to have lost much of his influence after 1983. In April of 1990, the zealous Benn made a final attempt to further his platform by starting his own party, the Labor Party Socialists, but little was ever heard from them again.
Benn had the unusual habit of keeping a meticulous chronicle of his own life. He carried a tape recorder with him into the cabinet chambers on a regular basis. These facts came to light in 1987 when Benn published Out of the Wilderness, the first in a series of his diaries. In 1988 a second book appeared, Office Without Power. Subsequent diaries were released in 1989 and 1990. The diaries detailed Benn's personal life as well as his professional experiences, but they were viewed by many as an exposé of the workings of the British government. Benn was accused by the press of violating the Official Secrets Act for divulging the privileged experiences of British cabinet meetings. Although the diaries caused quite a stir, they were panned by most critics, and Benn, whose public image already was less than endearing, suffered few repercussions because of them. In 1993 he put forth his personal political views in yet another book, Common Sense.
In all Benn's writings, interviews, orations, and other exhortations presented a consistent display of unabashed optimism which was rarely coincident with the realities of daily life. During Benn's later years his critics and colleagues spent much energy in denying his credibility, although they spent equally as much energy trying to understand him at all.
Further Reading on Tony Benn
The best account of Benn's career is Robert Jenkins, Tony Benn: A Political Biography (1980). This should be read together with Benn's book Parliament, People and Power: Agenda for a Free Society (1982), which consists of a series of interviews he gave to the New Left Review. See also: Henry Pelling, A Short History of the Labour Party (1982); Martin Holmes, The Labour Government, 1974-79: Political Aims and Economic Realities (1985); Harold Wilson, A Personal Record: The Labour Government, 1974-76 (1970); and Barbara Castle, The Castle Diaries (1980, 1985).
Additional Biography Sources
Economist (September 10, 1988; October 1, 1988; September 30, 1989; April 7, 1990; October 6, 1990; September 18, 1993).
New Statesman & Society (October 7, 1994; September 8, 1995;December 8, 1995; February 28, 1997).
Canadian Dimension (February-March 1995).