Anthony Neil Wedgwood "Tony" Benn, PC (3 April 1925 – 14 March 2014), formerly 2nd Viscount Stansgate, was a British Labour Party politician who was a Member of Parliament (MP) for 50 years and a Cabinet Minister under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan.
Benn's campaign to renounce his hereditary peerage was instrumental in the creation of the Peerage Act 1963.
In the Labour Government of 1964–1970 he served first as Postmaster General, where he oversaw the opening of the Post Office Tower and tried, unsuccessfully, to have the monarch's likeness removed from stamps, and later as the Minister of Technology.
In the period when the Labour Party was in Opposition, for a year he was the Chairman of the Labour Party.
In the Labour Government of 1974–1979 he returned to the Cabinet, initially as Secretary of State for Industry, before being made Secretary of State for Energy, retaining his post when James Callaghan replaced Wilson as Prime Minister.
During the Labour Party's time in Opposition during the 1980s, he was seen as the party's prominent figure on the left, and the term "Bennite" has come to be used in Britain for someone of a more radical left-wing position.
Benn has been described as "one of the few UK politicians to have become more left-wing after holding ministerial office."
After leaving Parliament, Benn became involved in the grass-roots politics of demonstrations and meetings, and was the President of the Stop the War Coalition from 2003 until his death.
Benn was born in London on 3 April 1925.
Benn's paternal grandfather was John Benn, a successful politician who was created a baronet in 1914. Benn's father William Wedgwood Benn was a Liberal Member of Parliament from 1906 who crossed the floor to the Labour Party in 1928 and was appointed Secretary of State for India by Ramsay MacDonald in 1929, a position he held until 1931.
William Benn was elevated to the House of Lords with the title of Viscount Stansgate in 1941 – the new wartime coalition government was short of working Labour peers in the upper house.
From 1945 to 1946, William Benn was the Secretary of State for Air in the first majority Labour Government.
Both his grandfathers, John Benn (who founded a publishing company) and Daniel Holmes, were also Liberal MPs (respectively, for Tower Hamlets, Devonport and Glasgow Govan).
Benn's contact with leading politicians of the day dates back to his earliest years; he met Ramsay MacDonald when he was five, David Lloyd George when he was 12 and Mahatma Gandhi in 1931, while his father was Secretary of State for India.
Benn's mother, Margaret Wedgwood Benn (née Holmes) (1897–1991), was a theologian, feminist and the founder President of the Congregational Federation.
She was a member of the League of the Church Militant, which was the predecessor of the Movement for the Ordination of Women – in 1925 she was rebuked by Randall Thomas Davidson, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for advocating the ordination of women.
His mother's theology had a profound influence on Benn, as she taught him that the stories in the Bible were based around the struggle between the prophets and the kings and that he ought in his life to support the prophets over the kings, who had power, as the prophets taught righteousness.
In July 1943, Benn enlisted in the Royal Air Force as an aircraftman 2nd Class.
His father and brother Michael (who was later killed in an accident) were already serving in the RAF.
He was granted an emergency commission as a pilot officer (on probation) on 10 March 1945.
As a pilot officer, Benn served as a pilot in South Africa and Rhodesia.
He relinquished his commission with effect from 10 August 1945, two months after the European WW2 ended on 8 May, and just days before the war with Japan ended which was on 2 September.
Benn went to Westminster School and studied at New College, Oxford, where he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics and was elected President of the Oxford Union in 1947.
In later life, Benn removed public references to his private education from Who's Who; in the 1975 edition his entry stated "Education—still in progress".
In the 1976 edition, almost all details were omitted save for his name, jobs as a Member of Parliament and as a Government Minister, and address; the publishers confirmed that Benn had sent back the draft entry with everything else struck through.
In the 1977 edition, Benn's entry disappeared entirely.
In October 1973 he announced on BBC Radio that he wished to be known as Mr. Tony Benn rather than as Anthony Wedgwood-Benn, and his book Speeches from 1974 is credited to "Tony Benn".
Benn's philosophy, such as it was, consisted of a form of syndicalism, state planning to ensure national competitiveness, greater democracy in the structures of the Labour Party and observance of Party Conference decisions.
His opponents justifiably stated that a Benn-led Labour Government would implement a type of Eastern European socialism.
Benn was overwhelmingly popular with Socialist activists.
He publicly supported Sinn Féin, and the unification of Ireland.
In a keynote speech to the Labour Party Conference of 1980, shortly before the resignation of party leader James Callaghan and election of Michael Foot as successor, Benn outlined what he envisaged the next Labour Government would do. "Within days", a Labour Government would gain powers to nationalise industries, control capital and implement industrial democracy; "within weeks", all powers from Brussels would be returned to Westminster, and abolish the House of Lords by creating one thousand peers and then abolishing the peerage.
After Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982, Benn argued that the dispute should be settled by the United Nations and that the British Government should not send a task force to recapture the islands.
Benn was a prominent supporter of the 1984–1985 UK miners' strike and of his long-standing friend, the National Union of Mineworkers leader Arthur Scargill.
He was undoubtedly an 'old-time' Socialist - who was often seen as a 'fellow traveller', who seemed to delight in taking a wilfully controversial position on almost any subject, and this alone led to the 'wilderness years' of the Labour Party, and subsequently Labour's pathetic attempts to re-market itself as 'New Labour'.
Probably the only positive contribution that he made was his espousal of the forward-looking 'Concorde' project.
He was undoubtedly a very sad, embittered man, who spent a whole life masquerading (unsuccessfully as it happens) as 'one of the downtrodden (but heroic) workers', while accepting all the benefits of wealth and privilege.