Another surprising death occurred this week, that of Tony Benn today.
With Bob Crow dying on Tuesday, Benn today, which radical will be next to complete the proverbial threesome?
This is not intended as an exhaustive obituary, although a few people and events in his life caught my eye. Therefore, please feel free to share your most memorable Benn moments in the comments below.
Left-wing sympathies ran in the family, so Benn was carrying on a generations-old tradition.
Benn’s grandfather was Sir John Benn, the eldest son of the Revd Julius Benn. Originally from Manchester, the family moved to east London where the minister opened an institute for homeless boys. John was educated at home and worked in a furniture store. His interest in furniture led him to found the leading trade journal for that sector, The Cabinet Maker. His publishing company, Benn Brothers, was later taken over by his brother Ernest once Benn decided to enter politics. Incidentally, the actress Dame Margaret Rutherford was their niece. John Benn served as the Progressive Party councillor for East Finsbury. He helped bring trams to London’s streets in 1903. In 1904, he was elected MP for Devonport, a seat which he held until 1910. He returned to London as a deputy lieutenant for the County of London. He was knighted in 1906 for his services as an MP and was made a baronet in 1914. In addition to serving as a councillor in London, he also led the Progressive Party. He died in 1922.
John’s son William Wedgwood Benn — the 1st Viscount Stansgate — attended the Lycée Condorcet in Paris and University College London. His mother Elizabeth (Lily) Pickstone was a distant relation of Josiah Wedgwood‘s, hence the middle name. During the Great War, he served with the Royal Naval Air Service and was posted to Gallipoli. After the war, he served as a Liberal MP for St George’s in Tower Hamlets, a seat which his father had failed to win. In the 1920s he became close allies with a small group of radical Liberal MPs opposing the government. In 1927, he resigned as MP and his membership of the Liberal Party. A year later, he joined the Labour Party and served as MP for Aberdeen North. He later went on to represent other constituencies. He was also Secretary of State for India and Secretary of State for Air. He was a pilot officer for the RAF during the Second World War. His eldest son Michael — Tony’s brother — was killed in the war and was also in the RAF. William died in 1960 and Tony became the 2nd Viscount Stansgate until he was able to pester for legislation allowing him to disclaim the peerage in 1963 so that he could continue his career as an MP.
Tony’s mother Margaret Eadie Holmes Wedgwood Benn was the president of the Congregational Federation, a splinter group of Congregational Churches in the UK. They have a short tribute to Tony Benn on their website. Margaret was a member of the League of the Church Militant which supported women’s ordination — in the 1920s. She died in 1991. Margaret taught Tony that the Bible was full of opposing kings and prophets, advising him to take the side of the latter in his life. He later said:
I have had the advantage of a radical Christian upbringing.
And how. Not a mention of Christ’s sacrifice for us or His rising from the dead for our salvation.
Tony attended Westminster School and read PPE at New College, Oxford. As his father and brother did, he also served with the RAF during the Second World War.
One day at Worcester College, Oxford, in 1948 he met an American student, Caroline Middleton DeCamp, with whom he was immediately smitten. The daughter of a lawyer, she supported the American branch of the Progressive Party and voted for their candidate in the presidential election that year. When she and Benn married, they purchased a house in Holland Park. Their children went to Holland Park School, the notional local ‘comprehensive’. She also became active in politics and education reform. The couple had four children and ten grandchildren. After Caroline died of cancer in 2000, Benn continued to live in their house in Holland Park Avenue until November 2011, when he moved into sheltered housing nearby.
In an effort to downplay his upbringing and privilege, he deleted all mention of his education in Who’s Who in the mid-1970s and, in 1977, asked the publishers to delete his entry entirely.
In 1973, he announced on a BBC radio interview that he no longer wished to be known as Anthony Wedgwood Benn but as Tony Benn.
The more parliamentary experience he had, the further he drifted to the left. Even in his early years he was radical, so he was travelling ever westward.
In 1964, Harold Wilson appointed him Postmaster General. Benn had the bright idea of removing the Queen’s head from postage stamps. In his usual way, he was strident about his proposal and her refusal, even after he went to Buckingham Palace and knelt on the floor to better show her the designs, saying:
If the Queen can reject the advice of a minister on a little thing like a postage stamp, what would happen if she rejected the advice of the Prime Minister on a major matter? If the Crown personally can reject advice, then, of course, the whole democratic facade turns out to be false.
Later, when Wilson appointed Benn Minister of Technology (and all its ‘white heat’), the Queen said:
You’ll miss your stamps.
You can read more about Benn’s career in this article which has loads of photos. Another has many of his best quotes and some cracking ones about him as well.
As with Bob Crow, words fail me in the eulogy department.
Therefore, the most admirable thing about Tony Benn for me was that he smoked a pipe practically until the end of his life. The next most commendable was that, as he was teetotal, he drank copious cups of tea. Properly British on both counts.