Tony Benn, devoted British socialist, dies at 88

March 14, 2014 - 6:34 AM
Britain Obit Benn

FILE - Former British Labour party politician Tony Benn poses for a portrait during a rally in Hyde Park, London, in this Saturday Sept. 24, 2005 file photo. Benn, a committed British socialist who irritated, fascinated _ and bored _ Britons through a political career spanning more than five decades and who renounced his 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 on Friday. It did not give a cause for death. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)

LONDON (AP) — Tony Benn, a committed British socialist who irritated and fascinated Britons through a political career spanning more than five decades and who renounced his 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 on Friday. It did not give a cause for death.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband praised Benn as "iconic figure of our age" who will be remembered as a "champion of the powerless, a great parliamentarian" and a politician of great conviction.

"Tony Benn spoke his mind and spoke up for his values. Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, everyone knew where he stood and what he stood for," Miliband said. "For someone of such strong views, often at odds with his party, he won respect from across the political spectrum. This was because of his unshakeable beliefs and his abiding determination that power and the powerful should be held to account."

Prime Minister David Cameron also paid tribute while admitting his ideological differences.

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

Benn held Cabinet posts in Labour Party governments in the 1970s, and clung unswervingly to his leftist beliefs while his party, in opposition, moved to the center and re-emerged to take power again as New Labour. The change left Benn out of step with his party's new, younger leaders.

"New Labour's prime object is to destroy old Labour," Benn complained when Tony Blair led the party to a landslide victory in May 1997, ending a generation of Conservative Party rule. "But you can't just wish away a movement, a history, with a soundbite. You just can't do it."

Benn, who favored abolition of the monarchy, British withdrawal from the European Union, and any strike that was going, hadn't changed. But his image did. He was over time transformed from the demonized figure of the '70s and '80s to that often-treasured English archetype: the radical dissenter.

"He had this wonderful vision of the working class," former left-wing Labour lawmaker Joe Ashton recalled in a 1995 BBC television documentary. "It was almost like the Noble Savage and sometimes we had to bring him down to earth."

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 members of Parliament.

He was educated at Westminster, an expensive private school, and Oxford, where he was president of the Union, the university's prestigious debating society.

In 1944, his elder brother, Michael, was killed in World War II, making him the reluctant heir to the title Viscount Stansgate, which George VI had bestowed on his father in 1941.

He was elected to the House of Commons at 25, but his parliamentary career seemed to come to an abrupt end in 1961 when his father died. As the new Viscount Stansgate, he was barred from the Commons so that he could take up membership 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 the Commons.

In 1963, the bill passed, and the Times of London declared, "Lord Stansgate will be Mr. Benn today."

Labour 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.

Benn was devoted to politics and family — and the pipe he was forever smoking. He never tasted alcohol and was a vegetarian.

He lost his parliamentary seat in 1983 when the Conservatives' Margaret Thatcher inflicted her most devastating defeat on Labour. A year later he was back, returned at a special election for Chesterfield, a depressed northern England former coal-mining district.

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

Through decades, Benn, a notable orator with a slight lisp, preached in chilly town halls, on the hustings and in the Commons. He had a single message: socialism and the cause of "working people and their families."

No setback ever seemed to depress him — not five failed attempts to become Labour leader or deputy leader; not getting dumped from the party hierarchy in the '80s; not the emasculation of the labor unions by Thatcher; not Labour's transformation; not the personal criticism.

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

Benn shrugged it off.

"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 realize that their purpose was to discourage people from listening to what I am saying."

Benn retired from the House of Commons in May 2001, after 51 years in Parliament, to "devote more time to politics". By then he was the longest serving Labour MP in the history of the party, which he joined in 1942.

If anything, Benn lived more in the limelight after he retired from the House. He became a regular broadcaster, and his 2002-3 speaking tours of Britain entitled "An Audience with Tony Benn" never failed to sell out. He was unsurprisingly extremely outspoken in his opposition to the 2003 war in Iraq, and days before the final commencement of hostilities traveled to Iraq to interview Saddam Hussein.

Benn was the holder of seven honorary doctorates from British and American universities, and in 2003 was appointed Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics.

He was married to American Caroline Middleton de Camp, a member of a well-off Cincinnati family, from 1949 until her death in November 2000. They had three sons — Stephen, Joshua and Hilary, who is also a Labour member of Parliament and ran for the deputy leadership of the party in 2007 — and a daughter, Melissa.