Tony Benn’s wealthy family performed public service for generations. His father was a minister in the postwar reform Labour government of Clement Attlee. The father, Lord Stansgate, was a typical radical member of the educated gentry, of the same moral stuff as Bertrand Russell. The father made a familiar British journey from liberalism, with its concerns for the dignity and rights of ordinary citizens, its distrust of elite pretensions to superior knowledge and privilege, to Labour in company with many others. That gave Labour its very complex moral culture—a juxtaposition of near revolutionary vision, a perpetually outraged sense of justice and a resolve to construct piece by piece what the Labour hymn terms “a new Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.”
Tony Benn (Anthony Wedgwood Benn) died at age 88 last week—and was immediately and fulsomely praised by many well able to restrain their enthusiasm for him in his lifetime. He was a great parliamentary orator, an inspiring speaker at countless gatherings and meetings outside it, a tireless writer, and above all, a prophet who earned honor in his own country. Much in his background foretold a rather more conventional career, and he did indeed initially if ambivalently pursue one. He held senior cabinet posts in the Wilson and Callaghan governments of the sixties and seventies. He remained in Parliament, an increasingly acerbic and influential critic of both Thatcher and her successor John Major and of his own party’s supposed savior, Tony Blair, until 2001, when he retired “to devote more time to politics.”
British politics had changed immensely since Benn first entered Parliament in 1950. The class bound and locally rooted antagonists, Labour and Conservative, had to learn national media strategies in the television age. Imperial power was claimed, triumphantly, by the Americans, and the realistic British acknowledged, sorrowfully, that their nation was subordinate to its erstwhile cousins. The West Europeans (including old enemies Germany and Italy) had achieved more prosperity and successful welfare states administered by socialists and social Christians in alternation or alliance. Black and brown immigrants began to flow in from the Commonwealth. Harold Macmillan, a Tory Keynesian, won the 1959 general election with the slogan, “We are all workers now.” Labour argued endlessly about what a modern socialist project would entail.
Benn’s early career was chiefly conspicuous for his struggle to avoid having to move to the House of Lords after his father’s death in 1960. It took three years, but new legislation enabled him to renounce the Peerage. There were some signs of rebelliousness in a generally dutiful early political biography. He was one of the first parliamentarians to criticize South African apartheid, and—in opposition to the party leadership—voiced skepticism about Britain’s nuclear weaponry. Benn, unlike many of his Labour contemporaries, took seriously the more critical cultural and political currents in the larger society. These included, variously, the New Left, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and a systematic disrespect for inherited patterns of deference and sobriety. When the New Left thought of profoundly altering Great Britain, we took the revolutionary step of opening The Partisan Café in Soho, central London. My memory is of Benn coming from time to time with his American wife, Caroline, a remarkably intelligent person utterly unsympathetic to the belief of many Britons (some in Labour) that nothing should ever be done for the first time.
It was not a belief congenial to Benn. His familial political inheritance was a doctrine of the necessity of continuous reform. Great social movements in modern Britain had solid textual inspiration—the prophetic books of the King James Bible. Speaking to The Spectator journalist Mary Whitfield not long before he died, Benn said: