Tony Benn leaves life to spend less time on politics

14 March 2014

RICHARD WATT

Mr Benn in 1988

Mr Benn in 1988

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 Church.          

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 calculation.

"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 2001.

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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 momentum."                       

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 said."

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 "prophet".

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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 century."

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 us."

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