Principle is a word so often absent in today’s political arena. But for Tony Benn, former Labour MP and minister, diarist, and campaigner, it defined his life and career. You not only knew where he stood on issues of the day, you also knew that he would not readily trade his position or beliefs merely for cheap and fleeting opportunity. There are all too few like him.
Tony Benn, pipe well alight ((c) PA)
Principle also defined the campaign which first brought Benn to national prominence, when he tried, and initially failed, to avoid succeeding to his late father’s hereditary peerage, which in any case had been awarded during the war years when there was a shortage of working Labour peers. Benn stood in the subsequent by-election, but was disqualified. His Tory opponent, Malcolm St Clair, was awarded the seat.
St Clair promised Benn that he would resign the Bristol South East seat if Benn succeeded in renouncing his peerage. When the 1963 Peerage Act became law and Benn almost immediately renounced his peerage, St Clair was as good as his word. The thought that one of today’s careerist politicians would be prepared not only to make such a promise, but also honour it, is unthinkable.
So today we should also remember Malcolm St Clair, whose actions meant that Benn was already back in the Commons before Labour, under Harold Wilson, ended 13 years of Tory Government. Benn was immediately made a member of the cabinet and served as Postmaster General, then Minister of Technology. But it was in the Thatcher years that his left-wing stance attracted press hostility.
And there is plenty of bile coming from the right as I type: such is the equally principled behaviour of those who whined long and loud about anyone not being other than totally complimentary about Margaret Thatcher. Tony Benn would have had none of that: another principle of his was to be unfailingly courteous, even to his opponents. One example will serve to illustrate this.
When John Smith died suddenly in 1994, all the other party leaders attended his funeral service. Afterwards, John Major found himself alone with nobody wanting to talk to him – except Tony Benn. This act of kindness was rewarded by an invitation to join the then Prime Minister on his plane back to London.
Then, after leaving the Commons in 2001, Benn joined the Stop The War Coalition and vigorously opposed the Iraq adventure. In this he turned out to be not only principled, but right. He then opposed the further adventure in Afghanistan, from which so many Britons returned only to be mourned and buried, and for so little tangible progress. It was not easy to oppose his party, or, once again, the press.
Tony Benn’s politics were not always popular. But here was a man of principle, who actually believed in something. No wonder the right-wing press hated him.