Tony Benn, former aristocrat who stayed loyal to the British left, dies aged 88

British politician Tony Benn was an unwavering socialist who rejected the Labour Party's ideological shift to vote-winning centrist policies

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 March, 2014, 4:09pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 March, 2014, 12:20am

Tony Benn, a committed British socialist who irritated and fascinated Britons through a political career spanning more than five decades, and who renounced an aristocratic title rather than leave the House of Commons, has died. He was 88.

His family said in a statement that Benn died peacefully at his home in west London yesterday. It did not give a cause of death.

He was a magnificent writer, speaker, diarist and campaigner ... There was never a dull moment listening to him, even when you disagreed with everything he said
British Prime Minister David Cameron

Labour leader Ed Miliband said Benn was an "iconic figure" who will be remembered as a "champion of the powerless, a great parliamentarian" and politician of great conviction.

Benn held cabinet posts in Labour Party governments in the 1970s, and clung unswervingly to the old leftist faith while his party, in opposition, moved to the centre and re-emerged to take power again as New Labour.

Born in London on April 3, 1925, Anthony Wedgwood Benn was the second son of William Wedgwood Benn, a Labour cabinet minister, and the former Margaret Holmes, a scholar in Greek and Hebrew studies. One grandfather was a baronet, and both had been MPs.

Elected to the House of Commons aged 25, his parliamentary career came to an abrupt end in 1961 when his father died. As the new Viscount Stansgate, he was barred from the Commons to sit in the unelected upper House of Lords.

For three years he battled to change the law to allow hereditary peers to renounce their titles. Voters in his parliamentary district of Bristol West elected him once more, even though he couldn't take his seat. In 1963, the bill passed, and The Times declared, "Lord Stansgate will be Mr Benn today."

Prime Minister Harold Wilson made Benn industry secretary in 1974, but moved him to energy secretary a year later - a job where his left-wing, pro-union activities were less noticeable.

A pipe-smoker, teetotaler and vegetarian, Benn was devoted to politics and family.

"Committed socialist," announced Benn's campaign literature, long after the word - and the philosophy - had been expunged from New Labour.

"He was a magnificent writer, speaker, diarist and campaigner, with a strong record of public and political service," said Prime Minister David Cameron. "There was never a dull moment listening to him, even when you disagreed with everything he said."

Roy Hattersley, a former deputy Labour leader and near-contemporary, said: "Many of Tony Benn's ideas were crazy. He sacrificed the prospect of being leader by pursuing these crazy ideas."

Benn shrugged off such talk.

"The five lines about me are: you're an aristocrat, you're a multimillionaire, you're a hypocrite, you're mad, you're ill," Benn said in a 1994 newspaper interview. "It took me a while to realise that their purpose was to discourage people from listening to what I am saying."


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