Veteran left wing Labour politician who went from being ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’ to a national radical treasure

Tony Benn, who has died aged 88, was a pivotal figure in British leftwing politics in the second half of the 20th century. A national institution, instantly recognisable from his distinctive voice, intense self-belief and fondness for a mug of tea and a pipe, he was held in sufficient regard that even his critics usually found some aspect of his life or career to praise. It had not always been so: the journalist Bernard Levin parodied him as “Mr Zig-Zag Loon”; Harold Wilson maintained that Benn immatured with age; and the rightwing press came to call him the most dangerous man in Britain.

For a moment in the mid-1970s, Benn appeared to be the man of the age, able to say what was wrong with it and how it should put itself right. His problem was that people mostly refused to listen.

Stagflation and industrial militancy destroyed Edward Heath‘s Tory government in 1974. The battle between Benn’s ideas and those of the new right for addressing the crisis of British capitalism and democracy shattered the centre of British politics. Public opinion was more receptive to the views of Margaret Thatcher: she captured first the Conservative party, in 1975, and in the election four years later the British state.

In the process she inflicted an epochal defeat on the British left. Benn was not responsible for Thatcherism, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that the only thing that would have damaged the left more than Benn’s failed attempt to capture the Labour party would have been his success. After narrowly losing the contest for the deputy leadership in 1981, he withdrew from practical politics and launched one of the greatest rhetorical projects of the modern age.

From an early age he had kept a diary, and from 1964 he updated it nightly. Later he started recording every speech and meeting. He kept every paper he could. This massive archive was used to give free range to his messianic tendencies as he published volume after volume of revealing and insightful diaries, polemical essays and the videos of his speeches.

If he could not change the world, he would try to make it listen and learn. Only Winston Churchill’s self-mythologising surpassed this as a model of how to secure one’s own place in history. In this and other ways, Benn’s career was an extraordinary journey. As he put it: “Like my father, I grow more left as I grow older.”

His grandfathers were Liberal MPs, as initially was his father, William Wedgwood Benn. He was one of those who went to the opposition benches with HH Asquith after the course of the first world war compelled him to resign as prime minister in 1916.

Rather than stay in the Liberal party when the Asquith and David Lloyd George branches were reunified in 1923, Wedgwood Benn senior joined Labour and served as Ramsay MacDonald’s India secretary (1929-31) and Clement Attlee’s air secretary (1945-46). In 1942, he reluctantly gave up his Commons seat when called upon to bolster the wartime coalition’s Labour contingent in the Lords, accepting a hereditary peerage as Viscount Stansgate.

He and his wife, Margaret, created a happy, industrious and religious London household, with three sons (a fourth was stillborn); the Stansgate title came from their second home, by the Blackwater estuary in Essex. Tony – the second son, initially known to his family as Jimmy – was born in London and grew up at 40 Millbank, Westminster, which was bombed in the war and much later was the site of Millbank Tower, housing the headquarters from which New Labour planned their 1997 election victory. From Westminster school he went to New College, Oxford, to study philosophy, politics and economics.

After second world war service in the RAF (1943-45) he returned to Oxford, graduating in 1948, spent some time in the US, and worked as a BBC radio producer (1949-50). He was known formally as Anthony Wedgwood Benn, or Wedgie by friends and family, till in 1972 he settled on plain Tony Benn. However, the change of name could not disguise the fact that he was the product of an elite background. As he once said: “My contribution to the Labour party is that I know the British establishment inside out and what they’re up to.”

In 1949, he married a wealthy American, Caroline Middleton DeCamp, a socialist, educationist and biographer, and they, too, built a happy domestic life in a large house in Notting Hill, west London. Their daughter, Melissa, and three sons, Stephen, Hilary and Joshua, were all active politically, with Hilary becoming a Labour cabinet minister. Caroline’s wealth matched Benn’s own inherited capital, derived from the Benn Brothers publishing firm.

On entering parliament through the Bristol South East byelection of November 1950, caused by the ill-health of the former chancellor of the exchequer Sir Stafford Cripps, Benn was a conventional centre-right backbencher, criticising the Bevanite rebellion against the Attlee government. His elder brother, Michael, had been killed in a flying accident while on active service in 1942, leaving Tony the eldest sibling. Aside from the psychological impact this had, he would thus one day be Lord Stansgate and have to give up his seat.

In 1955, he introduced a bill that would have allowed him to renounce his peerage. The Lords voted against the measure, but the dispute forced him to develop his formidable reputation as an advocate of constitutional reform.

Throughout the 1950s, he was generally known as a broadcasting expert, an advocate of the modernisation of Labour’s electoral strategy and a campaigner on colonial issues. He was the first MP to table a motion on apartheid, following his father’s lead, as in many other aspects of his life. Initially a follower of Hugh Gaitskell, the party’s leader from 1955, Benn switched to Wilson when Gaitskell proposed the revision of clause four of the party constitution in 1959, dropping the commitment to nationalise the means of production, distribution and exchange. Gaitskell in turn withdrew his support for Benn’s campaign to retain his seat.

In 1960, Benn’s father died, thus disqualifying him from remaining in the Commons. He was still eligible to stand as a candidate in the resulting byelection, which he won. Nonetheless, he could not take up the seat; though abandoned by his party leader, he fought on alone.

After a three-year struggle, he gained the support of the Conservative government for the Peerage bill and was able to renounce his title. His Conservative opponent in Bristol South East, Malcolm St Clair, stood down, and Benn won the resulting byelection, returning to the Commons at just the right moment.

Gaitskell had died in January 1963, Wilson succeeded him, and Benn was back as an MP the following August. Early signs of his radicalism had come in 1954, when he joined the H-bomb national committee, and in 1957, when he introduced a Human Rights bill. On the use of military force and unilateral nuclear disarmament, he was securely on the left of the party. He argued that “all war represents a failure of diplomacy”, while not making it clear if that included the war against Hitler.

When Labour won in 1964, Benn was appointed postmaster general, outside the cabinet. He also began his habit of making a daily diary entry, in parallel with his colleagues Barbara Castle and Richard Crossman. Benn’s record as a minister was mixed. He was generally effective and, in the 1960s, well liked by most of his civil servants because he was good at going through the work taken home in his red boxes. He was also an efficient spin doctor, focusing on eye-catching policy decisions that he took time and trouble to communicate effectively, frequently leaking documents in the name of freedom of information and defending his right to discuss general issues in speeches.

As postmaster general, he tried and failed to have the Queen’s head removed from stamps. After entering the cabinet as minister of technology (1966-70), he backed Concorde, not least because it would be partly built in his Bristol constituency. In both jobs he attempted to connect the actions of the government with socialism: “We are not just here to manage capitalism but to change society and to define its finer values.”

In 1968, at a meeting of the Welsh Council of Labour in Llandudno, Benn first suggested that revolutionary action might be necessary to prevent the violence taking place in France being repeated in the UK. “It is no good saying it could not happen here. It could … The widening gulf between the Labour party and those who supported it last time could well be an index of the party’s own obsolescence.” Parliament, too, had to change. This theme of giving the party to its grassroots would recur into the 1980s. The press, however, ignored all this, preferring to focus on Benn’s call for push-button referendums.

According to his cabinet colleague Tony Crosland, Benn welcomed Labour’s defeat in 1970. He became heavily involved with the Alternative Economic Strategy developed with Stuart Holland and Judith Hart, and summed up rather better in Holland’s book The Socialist Challenge (1975) than in Benn’s own Arguments for Socialism (1979). From this time, his radical views on constitutional and international affairs began to be reflected more obviously in his economic analysis.

If the problems of democracy could be cured by more democracy, planning and nationalisation would cure the problems of the economy. Following the rapid increase in oil prices and the chaos of the Heath government’s confrontation with the miners, there appeared to be no future in the status quo. Democracy and capitalism seemed equally impotent in the face of a global crisis of economic, social and political confidence. Benn’s radical critique of the 1964-70 Wilson government now chimed well with the militancy of the shop stewards’ movement. The failure of the City and the service sector to replace the jobs being lost to deindustrialisation and the sense of Britain becoming ungovernable by conventional means fed Benn’s growing militancy.

After Labour’s return to power in 1974, Benn’s attempt as industry secretary to force the Wilson government to implement the election manifesto was thwarted by his departmental civil servants and his cabinet colleagues. The document sat, as the Attlee manifesto had done from 1945 to 1951, in the middle of the cabinet table, but this time it was completely ignored.

Benn’s failures were compounded through 1975. Having championed the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community, he saw the “yes” campaign win. He was a leading figure opposing the use of wage restraint on trade unions but saw the policy reversed. Finally, having been given a key economic ministry, he was demoted to Energy, Wilson informing him via the Daily Telegraph while he was on a visit to Jamaica.

From then on he was a “dissenting minister” in the government, a leader of those across the Labour movement frustrated by the government’s lack of radicalism. Having made a respectable showing in the first round of the leadership election that followed Wilson’s resignation in 1976, he supported Michael Foot, but the prize went to James Callaghan.

When Labour lost the 1979 general election, Benn was well placed to assume the leadership of the left, and began to propose constitutional changes to give greater representation to the views of activists and trade unionists in drafting the manifesto and in selecting MPs. Militant and other Trotskyite groups that had perfected techniques of entryism sponsored the resolutions on party reform.

Two very different groups were now following Benn. On one hand there were revolutionaries of various kinds, many of whom wanted to destroy capitalism and did not mind killing off the Labour party in the process. On the other, Labour’s left wing felt disappointed and betrayed by what they saw as the failures of the party’s five years in office. The more progress Benn made with his demands for reform, the greater the possibility of a split became. When Callaghan resigned the leadership in 1980, Benn came close to running against Foot, but decided to hold back.

Despite Foot’s passionate appeal to unity, Benn did stand against Denis Healey in the September 1981 election for the deputy leadership. Healey won, under the reformed system that Benn had championed, by less than 0.5%. This margin was accounted for by some of the MPs who would soon be leaving for the Social Democratic party (SDP), launched the previous March – though others of this group actually voted for Benn in the hope that he would win.

Labour began the long, hard climb back to power. The left of the party split – the Tribune group backing Foot and later Neil Kinnock, and Benn setting up his own Campaign group in 1982. He declared the 1983 election a triumph because never before had so many people – 27.6% – voted for a socialist programme. Foot managed to keep Labour in the game, and when Kinnock took over after the election the high tide of Bennism had been reached. It took a decade to roll it back completely, but Benn’s realistic challenge for the leadership was over.

By 1983, Bristol South East had disappeared in boundary changes, and Benn failed to depose Michael Cocks in the safe seat of Bristol South. Instead he fought and lost Bristol East. He was selected for the first Labour seat to fall vacant, Chesterfield in Derbyshire, which he won in a byelection in March 1984.

Benn’s period out of the Commons and Kinnock’s policy review took much of the momentum out of his career. When he stood for the leadership in 1988, he was heavily defeated. He became a widely respected and effective backbench critic of the Conservatives, and then, from 1997, of Tony Blair’s Labour government. In 2001 he retired 51 years after first entering the Commons “to devote more time to politics”.

The major elements of the Bennite critique of British capitalism were that Britain needed a siege economy to protect domestic industry; nationalisation or selective share ownership of the top 25-100 companies and joint stock banks; wide-ranging constitutional reform; withdrawal from the Common Market, Nato and Northern Ireland; unilateral nuclear disarmament, and so on. The Bennite worldview presented a well worked out analysis according to which the IMF, the World Bank and multinational corporations ran the global economy. The European commission and the establishment governed Britain. Spin doctors and pollsters dominated politics. “I did not enter the Labour party … to have our manifesto written by Dr Mori, Dr Gallup and Mr Harris,” wrote Benn.

The US was an imperial power that had pursued a policy of world domination since the second world war, and that policy was based on a doctrine: “A faith is something you die for, a doctrine is something you kill for. There is all the difference in the world.” All events and developments were made to fit the worldview. All was underpinned by imagined conspiracies and persecutions.

Once this manifesto was completed, it never again altered. From the mid-70s onwards, Benn ceased to have anything new to say as a political thinker. The rest of his life was spent trying to make current events fit his outlook and condemning those who changed their minds and positions. This resistance to new ideas, new evidence and critical thinking about changing events was extremely damaging to the left in the UK. As Benn’s mind closed to alternative positions, so the part of the British left that he led became deeply conservative, if not actually reactionary.

Many tortuous conclusions resulted, for example calling on Britain to recognise the Soviet-imposed government of Afghanistan. The great parliamentarian was by the end of the 80s characterising Britain as a state in which the extra-parliamentary struggle had to be supported because democracy was not working. In 1981 he told a Trotskyite group that Labour was “under attack by the Pentagon, Brussels, IMF, the House of Lords and the SDP”.

After the US invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983, he told Tribune that America might seize control of the UK if British governments did not do its bidding. The following year, he defended the right to revolt against the “oncoming” totalitarianism of the Thatcher governments, and in the aftermath of the 1987 stock market crash he predicted worldwide rioting in the streets and the meltdown of nuclear reactors.

In 2003 he was dismissive of a woman whose family had been executed by Saddam Hussein as a CIA spy: her words were American propaganda. He was a leading figure arguing against the liberation of Libya from the rule of Muammar Gaddafi and strongly opposed any intervention in the conflict in Syria by outside powers.

By the end of his life many of his positions on anti-imperialism and anti-western intervention had become mainstream on the British left and he had become a respected elder statesman of the anti-war, anti-US, anti-intervention generation of radicals. The roots of Benn’s socialism were stubbornly non-Marxist. He did not arrive at his worldview through historical materialism as much as through the Bible. He was therefore always a slightly awkward leader of the economic determinists of the left.

What he lacked in knowledge of political economy or revolutionary theory he always more than made up for with energy. This was applied with equal zeal to everything he did: “I have got built into me, through my upbringing or whatever, a tremendously strong inner voice saying what I should do at any moment.” In the 1960s, Foot noted: “No one in Labour party history – not even Herbert Morrison in his heyday – applied his mind and energies more assiduously to the work of the [National] Executive.”

Teetotal Benn was more than assiduous: he was obsessive. From an early age he kept all his papers, the basement of his house in Holland Park, central London, becoming a massive personal archive, filled with every conceivable piece of office machinery. Towards the end of his life he downsized to a flat nearby, but the archiving remained a passion.

The element of moral fervour that underpinned everything Benn did came from his nonconformist conscience, which made him view life as a process of self-improvement and his career as a duty. One of his most endearing qualities as a younger man was that if someone was unconvinced by his position, his reaction was that he had not put his case well enough.

He never stopped preaching through any programme that would have him, and was a resident on radio’s Any Questions and television’s Question Time for decades, becoming in time more comfortable with forums in which he could communicate directly with the public – “people at home”. His writing tended to be stilted and formulaic, but he was a superb speaker, at his best in the Commons, but articulate and usually humorous, as occasion demanded.

Faith also provided the inspiration for the perfect association in Benn’s mind between his own interests and those of the Labour party, the country and, at times it seemed, the world: anyone who did not see the harmony of interests in the same way Benn dismissed as part of the world’s problem.

He was often compared with Thatcher. They shared the same qualities of unblinking belief when faced with the glaring lights of contradictory facts. Benn was a true believer and expected true belief, but he differed from Thatcher because he was not a hater. Policy genuinely mattered more to him than personality.

The urge to question and challenge authority made him one of the great parliamentarians of the postwar period. With Foot, Enoch Powell and a handful of others, he had the ability to command the house’s attention, especially when he spoke of matters relating to its own rights and privileges. This was a theme he returned to consistently in the 80s and the 90s, when he felt strongly that the role of the Commons in scrutinising the executive was being undermined by the concentration of power in Downing Street, first by Thatcher and then by Blair.

In 1987 the first volume of his diaries appeared, covering the period 1963-67. Subsequent volumes then appeared almost annually, covering the whole of his career. At the same time, Benn began to present more and more reform bills to the Commons. He did not do things by accident. The switch from trying to capture the party to producing an endless flood of words, in bills, the diaries, collections of essays, videos of speeches, CDs, DVDs, through websites and in semi-authorised biographies formed the great project that filled out his final years. The diaries came to an end in 2013 with A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, by which time a film, Will and Testament, was in post-production.

In response to the flood of his own words, the public’s perception of him shifted. Much of what he said was highly critical of the Blair governments and the European Union. He appealed to the anti-war movement, the anti-globalisation movement and Ukip supporters in about equal measure. No longer the most dangerous man in Britain, he had the volume of his diaries in which he movingly described Caroline’s death from cancer in 2000 serialised in the Daily Mail. He is survived by their children.

Benn’s self-image remained stubbornly self-confident: as he once said: “It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

He had half a century in parliament. Then he had an Indian summer as a national radical treasure, the Home Counties’ favourite revolutionary. He will be remembered as a great parliamentarian, a great radical and a great diarist. He will be forgotten as a practical politician and a political thinker.

In the end, his reputation will be significantly greater than the sum of his achievements because of the vast archive he accumulated and the quality of his diaries. He was like Samuel Pepys – someone who described an age without ever having shaped it – and is remembered for his words rather than his deeds, and by many for his personal kindness and generosity with time and conversation.

 Tony (Anthony Neil Wedgwood) Benn, politician and diarist, born 3 April 1925; died 14 March 2014