Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn was a British Labour politician. In fact, he was formerly the leading figure on the party’s left wing.
He was minister of technology (1966 – 1970) and secretary of state for industry (1974 – 1975) but his campaign against entry to the European Community (EC – now the European Union) led to his transfer to the Department of Energy (1975 – 1979).
A skilled parliamentary orator, he twice unsuccessfully contested the Labour Party leadership.
Benn announced in June 1999 that he would stand down as an MP after nearly half a century in Parliament. He would, however, continue to be politically active.
Born in 1925 as the son of the 1st Viscount Stansgate, a Labour peer, Benn was educated at Oxford. He was the member of Parliament for Bristol Southeast (1950 – 1960) when he succeeded to his father’s title.
Despite refusing to accept the title and being re-elected in Bristol in 1961, he was debarred from sitting in the House of Commons by a judgement of the Electoral Court.
His subsequent campaign to enable those inheriting titles to disclaim them led to the passing of the Peerage Act in 1963; Benn was the first person to disclaim a title under this act.
He was again MP for Bristol Southeast between 1963 and 1983 and was Postmaster General in the 1964 Labour government, becoming a member of the cabinet in 1966 as minister of technology.
After Labour’s defeat in 1970, he was the opposition spokesperson on trade and industry (1970 – 1974) and a leading campaigner against Britain’s entry into the EC.
He was chair of the Labour Party between 1971 and 1972, and in March 1974 he became secretary of state for industry.
At the time of the 1975 referendum he campaigned against the renegotiated terms of British membership of the EC, and in June 1975 was appointed secretary of state for energy.
He unsuccessfully contested the Labour Party leadership in 1976, defeated by James Callaghan.
In 1981 he challenged Denis Healey for the deputy leadership of the party and was so narrowly defeated that he established himself as the acknowledged leader of the left.
In 1984 he became MP for Chesterfield and in 1988 he made another unsuccessful bid for the Labour leadership against Neil Kinnock. Though marginalised on the party’s left wing, he remained an outspoken backbench critic of the centralisation of party control that was exercised under the leadership of Tony Blair.
His diaries Out of the Wilderness (1987), Office Without Power (1988), Against the Tide (1989), Conflicts of Interest (1990), Future for Socialism (1991), The End of an Era (1992), Years of Hope (1994), and The Benn Diaries, 1940–90(1995) cover the events of the period in enormous detail.
“If I rescued a child from drowning, the press would no doubt headline the story ‘Benn Grabs Child’ “
Tony Benn. The Observer. 2 March 1975