On Friday 14th March 2014, stalwart Labour MP Tony Benn passed away peacefully at his home, at the age of 88. Mr Benn had been an MP for 51 years; serving as Minister for Technology from 1966-1970 in Harold Wilson’s second ministry, Industry secretary in 1974-75, and Secretary of state for energy in the governments of Wilson and Callaghan from 1975-1979.
Benn was a rare thing in British politics- a politician who was respected on all sides of the Commons. David Cameron stated that whilst he disagreed with much of what he said he “was always engaging and interesting”. Ed Miliband also praised him as “an iconic figure of our age… a champion of the powerless, a great parliamentarian and a conviction politician.”
Benn, however, was not always so well-regarded. In the 1970’s, one headline described him as the most dangerous man in Britain. Even within his own party he faced rejection, as he caused a storm of controversy when he proclaimed himself anti-EU and spoke out against Labour’s spending cuts. This continued with the party gaining the lowest share of the vote since 1918 in the 1983 general election. Labour’s far-left manifesto, often referred to as, “the longest suicide note in history” was seen as one of the main causes of this, and was regarded equally as a product of Benn as it was of the party’s leader, Michael Foot. This shift to the left was a major cause of the formation of the SDP by the right-wing factions of the party. Thus, Benn has been blamed for keeping Labour from power for 18 years.
However, this is another demonstration of how he remained firm to his beliefs. His ability to do so, despite the hostility of the media and opposition within his own party, highlights that he truly was one of that rare breed of conviction politician. Mr Benn represented something which is sorely lacking in today’s parliament; saturated as it is with spin doctors and career politicians. Benn himself stated that it was not spin and charisma that mattered, but trust. As Ed Miliband said, “you always knew what he stood for and who he stood up for”.
Whatever your political alignment and beliefs, Benn was a politician who must be admired for his unwavering devotion to campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable in our society; a battle which he fought with tireless passion. Politics has lost an almost unparalleled figure of compassion and integrity. Although this is a mournful occasion, it is also important to remember that his prolific diaries and excellent oratory have provided a legacy which will never be forgotten and will be an inspiration for future generations. At a time when parliament appears to be a nest of corruption with expenses and the immigration scandal of Mark Harper, to name but a few incidents, such a legacy is more important than ever as it may inspire others to follow in the footsteps of Tony Benn and become politicians who we can truly trust.