14 Mar 2014

Ten things you may not have known about Tony Benn

Tony Benn was for decades the most independent-minded and passionate voice of the hard-left at Westminster – but how much do we really know about him?

Pre News refresh player – this is the default player for the C4 news site – please do not delete. Ziad

1. Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn was born in a Victorian house in Millbank, Westminster, on the site of what is now Millbank Tower, which was once the spiritual home of new Labour, and now houses offices belonging to the Conservative party. As a child Benn was introduced to the first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald.

2. The earliest known recording of Benn is probably from a debate at the Oxford Union around 1948, in which he speaks with a remarkably plummy voice. Benn was first elected to parliament in 1950, and was one of only two surviving MPs from the reign of George VI. The other is John Freeman, who was elected in 1945 and is still alive.

3. As postmaster-general, Benn introduced regular commemorative postage stamps, i.e. stamps with pictures.

4. Benn was an MP, with two short gaps, for almost 50 years, the longest-ever serving Labour member of parliament.

Pre News refresh player – this is the default player for the C4 news site – please do not delete. Ziad

Read more: Tony Benn, bastion of the left, dies aged 88

5. It was Benn’s idea for Labour to hold the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EEC, which took place in 1975.

6. Even during his left-wing heyday, Benn would regularly visit his family’s ancestral home in Stansgate, Essex, after which his father had named his hereditary peerage.

7. Although his wife Caroline was a great champion of state and comprehensive education, the Benns sent one of their sons to Westminster, the great public school, which he himself also attended as a boy.

8. One night, at the peak of Benn’s career, he missed the last train home from Exeter. So he set up his camp-bed in the empty waiting room and slept there.

Read more: Tony Benn – aristocratic fighter for those less privileged

9. Benn employed the teenage Ed Miliband as one of the “tea-bags” in his office – a team of volunteers who got the name because one of their duties was to make the tea.

10. In his later life Benn became great friends with several successful young women, including the actress Saffron Burrows and the TV presenter Natasha Kaplinsky. Benn also struck up good relationships with right-wing opponents such as Enoch Powell and the former Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley.

Follow @MichaelLCrick on Twitter

15 reader comments

  1. Andrew S Hatton says:

    Benn did not allow the public access across his land alongside the Essex coast of the River Blackwater estuary.


    Is that an eleventh thing that few folk know about him?

    1. Susan Galea says:

      It would have been nice if you had bothered reading the link you left to smear Tony Benn. The article, in fact, refers to his son, Hilary, and if you read it properly, quotes his statement that as Environment Secretary he will abide by the law on the matter of access. This was a pathetic shot which has bruised only your credibility.

      1. Andrew S Hatton says:

        I did read it and know it was primarily about the son, then a Government Minister.

        My work used to take me frequently to Steeple and I still live about 20 miles away and know it has been a sore of an issue for locals for decades but do not know the current situation.

        I linked the article because it confirmed some of the information.

        I have much respect for Benn and his family and was better informed after watching the BBC 2 documentary last night.

        The point I was making (not very well) was that Benn was more than a doughty campaigner and people’s representative – he was also a second home owner who kept people off of his land in a similar way to those who protect their great country estates.

      2. Susan Galea says:

        You seem intent on repeating your original mistake by attributing ( erroneously) an attitude to Tony Benn that is not even an honest representation of his son’s who is the only one involved in the issue you highlight.

      3. Andrew S Hatton says:

        So be it – I acknowledge we disagree!

      4. Susan Galea says:

        No, Andrew Hatton. Stop wriggling. It was not primarily about his son; it was solely about his son’s response to the right of access. You can’t admit you are wrong, and have erroneously smeared the deceased Tony Benn. When this is pointed out to you, you persist in your deceitful calumny. You can disagree all you like, but you will still be exposed as deceitful and unwilling to accept the terrible wrong you are trying to perpetrate in telling lies about the late Tony Benn. Shameful!

      5. Andrew S Hatton says:

        So be it – I accept I obfuscated my point by lazily linking it to The Daily Telegraph article

        Benn was a fine man with flaws like me, one of the contradictions I was aware of was his resistance to allowing people following the coastal path to cross his land.

        I have just done a similar search again – I am still lazy – I have come to the same message-board comment that I found before I linked the Telegraph article – a runner relates his experience – I did not link it before because I thought the DT article gave more credence to the fact there was an issue of contention, though – as I have already acknowledged, the DT article came at it from an unlikely angle – unlike that which I have read in the local press down the years.


        The references to Benn’s death in both local papers – Maldon Standard and Essex Chronicle – did not refer to it either – those editors obviously chose to avoid controversy at the time of a death, as presumably Susan Galea, wished I had done.

        I just wanted to make the point that he was not a complete ‘man of the people’ though clearly he was a people’s representative who above all else recognised that the origin of true democracy is governance at the behest of the collective will of all the people rather than a select few.

        Of course he did not come from a long line of aristocrats, as his father only became a peer in the second world war when the coalition government needed more support, from Labour politicians in The House of Lords.

        I do not know much of his history beyond the fact that his father had enough resources to set aside money to have a property built in a comparatively remote part of the South East, a few miles from where the controversial Labour Peer, Baron Bradwell of Bradwell juxta Mare, later settled at Bradwell Lodge.

  2. david lowry says:

    As a venerable veteran Labour politician, Tony Benn – who once was responsible for the British nuclear power programme when he was Technology Minister in the late 1960s – was asked a few years ago by The Times if he had made any political mistakes in his life. He responded:
    “Yes, nuclear power: I was told it was, when I was in charge of it, that atomic energy was cheap, safe and peaceful. It isn’t.” (Times Magazine, 11 September 2010)
    A serious problem for today’s politics is both Coalition ministers and their Labour opponents have not learned from Tony Benn’s conversion on the road to energy sustainability, and do support new nuclear.
    And where have they chosen? Hinkley Point, alongside the flooded Somerset levels, close to the most recent earthquake which happened in the Bristol Channel just off the coast earlier this year, and at a location which is the only place in Britain to have suffered a Tsunami, in 1607, which devastated the area.

  3. margaret brandreth-j says:

    Tony Benn was one of those people who you learn about early on in youth and immediately respect . He stayed his course and when he spoke you listened. My mother bought a few pieces of Wedgwood pottery when he dropped his title . She has also died , but the pottery in my house will always signify support for the less privileged.

  4. Mike Graham says:

    Children in a Liverpool Primary School class were doing a project on Energy. Their teacher suggested that they write to the Secretary of State for Energy to get information.

    The Minister’s office duly sent the children what they had asked for.

    Month’s later, there was a knock at the classroom door and Tony Benn asked if “Is this the class that was studying Energy? I promised I would call in the next time I was in Liverpool.”


  5. Steve Willis says:

    The late Michael Cocks, former Labour Chief Whip and MP for Bristol South could have added to your list; he could have supplied a picture of Tony Benn speaking in1984 at a rally to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Militant Tendency.

    Mike’s book, Labour and the Benn Factor mentions Benn had stoutly opposed a referendum on the proposed entering of the EEC, but then supported a referendum proposal about people being allowed to vote on whether or not they wished to leave the Common Market.

    Mike would often point out such inconsistencies by Tony Benn.

  6. Ian Wright says:

    Most of these facts are in his diaries. Stansgate was the family home. If you see it, the photo is in his diary, it is not that grand. As it was the family home one would hardly expect him not to visit there. My understanding is he visited and stayed there regularly.

    In respect to the issue re Militant. Benn always stood up for diversity of political views. He was not a supporter of Militant but was fundamentally opposed to Militant supporters being thrown out. Therefore this was not ‘inconsistent’. Benn was always against EEC membership. I do not think he was inconsistent. Didn’t want to go in, and did what he could to get the UK out. I don’t agree with him on this, but that was his right to campaign on this matter.

  7. Robert Taggart says:

    The Paramount Paradox of British / Liebore Politics.
    He will be missed if only for his contradictory commentaries !
    An Aristocratic Republican. A Rich Man supporting the Poor Man. A Protectionist Internationalist. A Teetotal Smoker… ! RIP.

  8. Philip Edwards says:

    You can always rely on Slicky Tricky Mickey Cricky to reduce everything to page 3 tabloid garbage or cheap shot smears.

    You forgot to mention how Tony Benn exposed nuclear power plants as bomb-making factories for weapons of mass destruction. I would have put that at number one.

    He probably also read all the ultraright press (that is, all of it) on the basis of “know thine enemy.” You could have added that to the list too.

    You’re gtting old, Slicky. Give it up before you keel over foaming at the mouth.

  9. Andrew Dundas says:

    When writing about Tony Benn’s actions do not overlook the fact that he was once known not as Lord Stansgate but as Squadron Leader, the Rt. Hon. Anthony Wedgewood-Benn (which were descriptions provided by others).
    Where he was born is not something Tony Benn could do anything about. As an example, I was born in a US Army camp and appreciate that too. That birthplace was not something either of my parents could, or would wish to, do anything about either.

Comments are closed.