Veteran Labour Politician Tony Benn Dies Aged 88

Peter Hennessy describes in his book The Prime Minister – The office and its holders since 1945 (2000) a conversation he had with Tony Benn on the relationship between the Prime Minister, his Cabinet and Parliament. Following on from this soon afterwards, Mr Benn presented The Modernization of the Premiership Bill in the House of Commons in February 1999.

The Bill set out to limit in particular, the powers of the Prime Minister – at the time Tony Blair – and reform a parliamentary system which had, in Mr Benn's judgement, become too presidential. Shortly before the two gentlemen's conversation, Mr Benn had given a lecture to Mr Hennessy's students at Queen Mary, University of London, explaining his position, saying:

"We have shifted from a parliamentary system to a presidential one because the British Constitution allows that to happen because the powers of the Crown are at the disposal of the Prime Minister."

Looking at some of the major points of the Premiership Bill, which made no headway after initial Reading, it would not so much have redressed the balance as to emasculate the office of Prime Minister and make him/her as powerful as the chairman of a village council.

A man of considerable intellect, Mr Benn by the time of his introducing the Bill, had the luxury of espousing such ideas and any other causes he cared to adopt, without having the responsibility of considering or being held to account for, any resultant consequences. Did he feel it his mission, now reduced to the fringes of Parliament, to put forward such measures by way of stimulating debate on a topic like the constitution when this relatively new Labour government found this an abstraction?

Indeed, looking back on his career in politics, it would seem as much by personal choice, he increasingly made himself a political loner when in Cabinet. Other times, and especially after 1980, he would be seen surrounded by the radical wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party in the Commons during the Party's long years in Opposition; long years that many in the Labour Party believed that he was, at least partly, responsible for.

Outside Parliament, he befriended Arthur Scargill and others of a similar persuasion and was associated with the likes of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency since the mid-to-late 70s. Long before the Labour Party returned to power in 1997, although he retained his seat, Chesterfield, with a huge majority, there was never any chance of him being offered Cabinet responsibility.

This would, however, enable him to indulge in his own pet causes – some reasonable enough and highlighting matters that "big government" might overlook and warrant addressing - but again, emphasizing his individuality and resistance to being a team player, much against the norms of how parties and governments are run in modern democracies.

Not that there was ever going to be any reconciliation for Mr Benn with the policies of New Labour and Prime Ministers Blair and Brown and Mr Benn recently admitted that although he very much liked David Miliband, currently Chief Executive Officer of the International Rescue Committee, he could never have served him in government.

Maybe, as a point of principle, he would have preferred a Parliamentary Labour Party well to the left of centre, but unelectable? Even for Mr Benn that appeared to be overstating his position and David's brother Ed was a better proposition.

Was Tony Benn merely a political eccentric and enigma to be called upon by protest groups, generally radical, and to be used by them? Did Mr Benn look at some of these associates in other than a broad approach and not in the detail?

After the Miners' Strike of 1984-85, Mr Benn introduced a Bill which would have given an amnesty to all miners imprisoned during the strike. This would have included Dean Hancock and Russell Shankland. The pair had dropped a concrete block from a footbridge onto the taxi of David Wilkie, killing him and injuring the passenger, a miner who was not on strike. What sort of platitude, if any, would Mr Benn have offered Mr Wilkie's partner and children? Even Arthur Scargill expressed his "deep shock" for Mr Wilkie's "tragic death". Mr Benn's bill did not succeed, needless to say.

Yet Mr Benn, the older amongst us can remember, was for much of his Parliamentary career which started in November 1950, simply a mainstream Labour politician famous for giving up his title of Viscount Stansgate by way of the Peerage Act of 1963.

Appointed Postmaster General by Harold Wilson, he proved popular and opened London's Telephone Tower and created the Giro Bank. Later, between 1966 and 1970, he was promoted to Minister of Technology and under his direction the UK's International Computers Limited (ICL) was created and the much needed merging of several motor companies formed British Leyland.

Not a union militant in sight, or any other type for that matter, he was often filmed stroking or hugging models of Concorde, really advanced British and French technology, the best anywhere in its field at the time.

On the margins? Mr Benn in the late 60s was pencilled in for the top.

Nick Robinson, the BBC's Political Editor, on 14 March 2014 noted that Harold Wilson had quipped that "Benn had immatured with age" and in his article points to the issues surrounding the Common Market as the defining break between Mr Benn and the Labour Party in general and leadership in particular.

Although I would agree with Mr Robinson that the Common Market played an important part in Mr Benn's disillusionment with his peers – and I suspect the ways in which parliamentary government works – I believe that the final straw came later during that horrid Winter of Discontent (1978-79).

Prime Minister Jim Callaghan was determined to squeeze Britain's very high inflation out of the economy and the continuation of a disciplined Incomes policy combined with constraints on government expenditure.

Wildcat strikes for months on end gave the period its name and Tony Benn's rebelliousness (no prizes for guessing whose side he was taking) within the Government was plain to all. Peter Hennessy writes that on 01 February 1979 Mr Callaghan challenged Tony Benn 'who had been acting as usual as the head of his own opposing faction in Cabinet and the Parliamentary Party':

"What do you say about the thuggish act of a walk-out, without notice, from a Children's Hospital?" snapped the PM.

Benn answered:

"When decent people become irrational, something else must be wrong if they are driven to such desperate acts."

The PM answered that he "had never in fifty years been so depressed as a trade unionist."

Clare Short, of all commentators after Mr Benn's death on Friday probably summed the man up best, telling Andrew Neil on 14 March on BBC's "Remembering Tony Benn" that he had admitted to her that he had made mistakes. Ms Short said that he would get a high from his populist backing losing his way, became an oppositionist (and an "impossibilist"):

"He could have been a much bigger influence but he went for the populist, ultra-left, popular with some, and cut himself off from the mainstream and potential leadership."