Tony Benn, previously known as Anthony Wedgwood Benn, was a Minister in Wilson’s 1964-70 and 1974-7 governments and Callaghan’s 1977-9 government.  He was at various times Postmaster General, Minister for Technology, Minister for Industry, and Minister for Energy. He was the son of William Wedgwood Benn, Attlee’s Secretary of State for India; his grandfather, John Benn had been a Liberal MP, having been leader of the London County Council.   Tony Benn was first elected to parliament in 1950, succeeding Stafford Cripps in Bristol East. He first came to public attention in 1960 when he had to fight a legal battle to avoid being disbarred from parliament on inheriting his father’s peerage, a precedent which was followed in 1963 when Lord Home was able to renounce his peerage to become Prime Minister. In 1965, he published a book on The Regeneration of Britain, supporting Wilson’s vision of a New Britain supported by ‘the white heat of technology’.

Benn’s experience in government moved him to the left. Interested in the history of ethical socialism, having been sympathetic to the wartime Common Wealth party in his youth, Benn became interested in a more libertarian socialist approach, supporting the syndicalist Institute for Workers Control and the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders workers cooperative of 1975 and advocating industrial democracy. He opposed EEC membership on the grounds that in involved a loss of sovereignty. Benn became seen as the leader of the left-wing of the party in opposition, standing unsuccessfully against Denis Healey for the deputy leadership in 1981. In 1988, he stood unsuccessfully against Neil Kinnock for the party leadership. He continued to campaign for democratic reform, supporting a series of Socialist Society conferences in his new constituency of Chesterfield in 1984, when his previous constituency had been abolished. He sat in parliament until 2001.  He opposed the invasion of Iraq and served as president of the Stop the War coalition from 2001 until his death. He was a regular speaker at anti-war events and at historical commemorations such as Tolpuddle and the Levellers day at Burford.

Benn published nine volumes of diaries, detailing his political career in government and opposition. He died in 2014. Arguments for Socialism, was published in 1979 just after Labour went into opposition with the election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. It was a composition of previous speeches, essays and articles edited by Chris Mullin. A second volume was published in 1981 as Arguments for Democracy.

“Democratic Socialism.  This is very much a home-grown British product which has been slowly fashioned over the centuries….. The Labour Party comprises within its ranks representatives of a wide range of opinions. We have been wise enough not to seek to impose a common socialist dogma on anyone.  Indeed, our socialism grew out of experience and was not handed down from above, or received from outside. The British Labour Movement was born out of the chapels of dissenters and the struggles of factory workers who campaigned for trade union rights, then for the parliamentary vote, then organised themselves to nominate candidates in a separate Labour Party and finally adopted an explicitly socialist approach, based on a full commitment to a democratic system, and personal freedom.

“We too accept that any society requires discipline, though the discipline of the market place and the discipline imposed by the top people are both equally unattractive. We believe that the self-discipline of full democratic control offers our best hope for the future, and is the only real answer to inflation, because it confers real responsibility.

“The Labour Party has worked on the basis  that the investment gap  must be filled by public investment, with proper public accountability and public ownership, and that only public expenditure  can convert human needs into economic demands  able to command resources and help restore full employment.  Indeed, we believe that the nation can earn its living efficiently and profitably only if there is a new balance of wealth and power in favour of working people. And to avoid corporatism creeping in as a by-product of these public initiatives we have been working for a wider and deeper accountability of power through greater democratic control  by Parliament and of finance and industry and of the institutions of the Labour Party itself….The next decade will see a growth of democratic socialism against the ideas of monetarism and corporatism.”

Duncan Bowie
Duncan Bowie was a senior lecturer at University of Westminster. His most recent books are Radical Solutions to the Housing Supply Crisis (Policy Press) and a history of the Left in Oxford. He is Chartist Reviews Editor.

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