Tony Benn Biography

PHOTO: Tony Benn

Anthony Wedgwood Benn was born in Westminster, in 1925, into a wealthy English family, and followed his father, William Wedgwood Benn MP, into politics.

In July 1943, Benn joined the Royal Air Force to train as a pilot in the Second World War, following his brother, Michael, who had joined up in 1940. Michael Benn was killed in action in 1944.

Returning to study, Benn became president of the Oxford Union. Graduating, he worked for a time at the BBC’s North American Service. Taking up politics, he was elected as Labour MP for Bristol South East in November 1950 and also to the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee, in 1959. Benn grew concerned that, upon his father’s death, his inheritance of the Stansgate peerage would disqualify him from serving in the House of Commons. He fought to avoid inheriting the title and campaigned for a bill to permit him to renounce the title.

With his father’s death in 1960, Benn was forced to leave the Commons but, thanks to the Peerage Act of 1963, he returned as Commons MP for Bristol South East. An outspoken advocate of open government and an enemy of violent intervention, he has remained a champion of socialism.

Under the Wilson Government, he was Postmaster General and Minister of Technology until 1970. Under Callaghan, he was Secretary of State for Energy. After defeat in his run for party leader in 1976, he narrowly missed election as deputy-leader of the Labour Party in 1981. Gradually seen as the unofficial leader of Labour Party’s left, he became MP for Chesterfield in 1984.

An open critic of Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ victory in 1997, Benn never regained cabinet office. In 2001, Benn stood down from his Chesterfield seat to “devote more time to politics”. That same year he was asked to join the Stop the War Coalition as its President. After accepting the offer, Benn became a high-profile opponent of the War on Iraq. He later criticised the government for delaying the Iraq War Inquiry until the General Election had taken place.

In an interview with Dartford Living, the politician said: “People can take into account what the inquiry has reported on but they’ve deliberately pushed it beyond the election”. He suggested a cover-up when he said that the government has a responsibility to explain its action, although he felt that “we were not told the truth”. He was later re-elected as President of the Stop the War Coalition and at the organisation’s conference in 2009, he said the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan were “imperialist”.

He made an impassioned plea about Iraqi and foreign insurgents, saying “if you are invaded you have a right to self defence, and this idea that people in Iraq and Afghanistan who are resisting the invasion are militant Muslim extremists is a complete bloody lie”. Benn is arguably more high profile now than during his days in office and has toured the country as part of a two-man stage show with folk singer Roy Bailey.

In a nod to his appeal to the younger generation, he was chosen to open the Left Field stage at the Glastonbury Festival in 2002.

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