IN 1961, in response to a competition in the Church
Times to devise a clerihew about a statesman or priest, "Vera
Mouse" chose Anthony Wedgwood Benn as her subject:
Anthony Wedgwood Benn
Was a happy Commoner - then
He became a Lord,
Which he abhorred
Two years later, 22 minutes after the passing of the The Peerage
Act, Mr Benn became the first peer to renounce his title -
conferred on him by his father - enabling him to return to the
House of Commons.
Twenty-three years later, he was on the front page of Church
Times, calling for the disestablishment of the
On Friday, politicians from across the spectrum paid tribute to
Mr Benn, who has died today, aged 88, as a man of conviction,
possessed of an "abiding determination that power and the powerful
should be held to account".
Andy Flannagan, director of Christians on the Left (formerly the
Christian Socialist Movement), said: "Deep down, beneath the
selfish superficialities of focus groups and a 'give us what we
want' culture, we are all drawn to people of integrity, often
whether we agree with them or not, whose lives are morally rooted
rather than free-floating, rear-view-mirror-checking exercises in
"I am thankful that Tony Benn was one of our north poles, rather
than a mere compass. His identification with Christian Socialism
was a major part of his political outlook, and Christians on the
Left are sad today."
In heavy circulation on social media were his five "questions to
power": "What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In
whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable?
How can we get rid of you?"
Freed from the House of Lords - which he once described "the
British Outer Mongolia for retired politicians" - he was kept in
power by the electorate, as the Labour MP for Bristol South East
for 20 years, and for Chesterfield until his retirement in
A hero of the left wing of the Labour party, he spoke during his
Desert Island Discs interview on Radio 4 in 1989 of how "I
was radicalised by my experience at the top".
He wrote in 1988: "If the British people were ever to ask
themselves what power they truly enjoyed under our political
system, they would be amazed to discover how little it is, and some
new Chartist agitation might be born and might quickly gather
A campaigner for nationalisation, greater freedom for trade
unions, and the abolition of the House of Lords, he opposed the
Falklands War and was a leading supporter of the 1984-85 miners'
strike. He stood for leadership of the Labour Party unsuccessfully
in both 1976 and 1987. In 2001, he joked that he was leaving
parliamentary life to "spend more time on politics".
The leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, said on Friday:
"For someone of such strong views, often at odds with his party, he
won respect from across the political spectrum. This was because of
his unshakeable beliefs, and his abiding determination that power
and the powerful should be held to account."
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, said: "There was never a dull
moment listening to him, even when you disagreed with everything he
Anthony Wedgwood Benn was born in London on 3 April 1925 into a
Christian household. His mother, Margaret, was a theologian, who,
in the 1920s, was a member of the League of the Church Militant,
precursors of the Movement for the Ordination of Women. She later
became president of the Congregational Federation.
In his Desert Island Discs interview, Mr Benn said that
the most powerful influence on his life was "what I would call the
Dissenting tradition". His ancestor, the Revd William Benn,
was ejected from his living as Rector of All Saints', Dorchester,
"because he wouldn't take instructions and was a
congregationalist". His grandfather, the Revd Julius Benn, was a
congregationalist minister in East London, who worked during
the cholera outbreak.
"This passion for justice is one that goes back to the beginning
of history and will never be extinguished, and I think that
is the most powerful influence," Mr Benn said. "Why do we live in
an unjust world, in an unjust society, when we are all equal in the
eyes of God?"
Confirmed as an Anglican, he would later describe himself as a
student of Jesus's teachings, who regarded Jesus as a
A fervent campaigner for disestablishment, his campaign to cut
the ties between Church and state began in 1983, when he told an
audience at St James's, Piccadilly: "The Church needs freedom to
challenge the decisions of Government, of Parliament, and the whole
establishment, and the materialist values which have elevated the
worship of money above all else - and the people need to know
that these rotten values are not endorsed by a state religion."
He later introduced a Bill proposing disestablishment, which he
claimed was "liberating the Church from the Crown and the Crown
from the Church". He found an unlikely ally in the Conservative
minister Norman Tebbit.
While appreciative of the readiness of the Church to deliver
"sharp criticism of the state" during the 1980s, he remained wary
of its hierarchy.
In a broadcast for Channel 4 in 2011, he said that the teachings
of Jesus had "a very, very radical political importance. . . I
think of Jesus as the carpenter from Nazareth. And that's very
different from the way he's presented by some religious
authorities, by popes and archbishops and bishops, who present
Jesus as the justification for their power."
During his Desert Island Discs interview, he asked to
take to the imaginary island two books he had never read in their
entirety: The Bible and Das Kapital, by Karl Marx.
"Those two books - the moral teaching and the political analysis
- are the two great influences, whether we know it or not, in our
He spoke of wanting his ashes to rest at "the little church in
St Lawrence", a madrigal composed by his son, Stephen, to be played
at his funeral, and for his epitaph to read: "He encouraged