In February 1993 the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband dropped in for tea at the Westminster office of the former Labour cabinet minister Tony Benn. The two men were senior figures on the left – Miliband was then sixty-nine years old, Benn a year his junior – but they had not always seen eye to eye politically.
Back in the early 1960s, as Benn was fighting his long campaign to renounce his hereditary peerage so that he might remain an MP in the House of Commons, Miliband had published his best-known book, Parliamentary Socialism, attacking the Labour Party’s reformist allegiance to Parliament. Benn’s continuing membership of Harold Wilson’s government in the 1970s had also met with Miliband’s criticism: ‘With such rebels,’ he wrote scathingly, ‘Mr Wilson has no great need of allies.’
Even so, they had much in common, sharing an optimistic and longstanding commitment to the building of the socialist future, and a passionate pride in their respective families. Now, in their mature years, they found that it was the latter that brought them together.
Miliband was worried that his two sons, David and Edward, had little commitment to the revolutionary socialism that he had made his life’s work. Indeed both were now active members of the very Labour Party that he had abandoned nearly three decades earlier. Why, he wondered aloud to Benn, did his boys seem to have so little faith in socialism, constantly challenging his pronouncements. ‘Oh, Dad, how would you do that? Would it work?’ they would demand of him. ‘Well,’ replied Benn, on hearing this sad tale of youthful conformity, ‘it’s the same with my sons…’
Alwyn W Turner, A Classless Society (Aurum, 2013)1
‘He looks like his father and he sounds like his father, and that makes them all shudder.’2 That was the verdict of a Labour Party insider in 1993 when Hilary Benn applied (unsuccessfully) to become director of policy for the party. But the comment could have come from pretty much anyone at any time, because there’s really no ignoring his parentage. Throughout Benn’s life, his name has preceded him, sometimes to his advantage, more often to his detriment.
Even in December 2015, as he was being acclaimed for his House of Commons speech in favour of bombing Syria, the commentators and observers who said he had finally stepped out from his late father’s shadow took great care to mention who his father was. And so great was the affection and sentiment that surrounded the memory of the left’s favourite folk-hero, Tony Benn, there was no shortage of people ready to claim knowledge of how he would have seen his boy’s performance.
Hilary, the second son of Caroline and Tony Benn, was born in 1953, the same year as Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Alistair Darling and Michael Portillo. His childhood, as glimpsed in the published versions of his father’s diaries, seems to have been tranquil and politically connected from the outset. Herein he can be spotted visiting a sweetshop with Malcolm Muggeridge, or standing on a platform in Trafalgar Square at an anti-Franco demonstration, or being taken at the age of four to a voting booth with his older brother, Stephen: ‘All the rest of the day they played elections, with ballot papers and candidates. Then we had the declaration of the count and spoilt papers and the returning officer spinning a coin to decide a tie.’3
Hilary’s first television appearance came in 1963, on the day his father renounced his peerage, no longer the 2nd Viscount Stansgate, now merely Anthony Wedgwood Benn. Asked about this development by the American broadcaster CBS, the nine-year-old Hilary argued that ‘the hereditary system is ridiculous and Britain ought to have a president who was elected instead of a queen who was not.’4 He spoke with all the confidence and poise that came from being the son, grandson and great-grandson of members of parliament.
Educated privately at Norland Place School (where George Osborne was later a pupil) and then at Westminster Under School, Hilary was initially marked down to follow in his father’s footsteps to Westminster School itself. But his parents decided, for ‘educational, social and political reasons’, to opt instead for Holland Park, a local comprehensive that was ‘new and vigorous and active’.5
The catchment area, taking in some of the most expensive properties in London, meant this was perhaps not an entirely typical comprehensive. Certainly Holland Park was one of the best-dressed schools in the state system (not least because its pupils were notoriously keen on shoplifting from the nearby Biba store), and it was fashionable in political circles, educating the children of other left-wing figures, including Tony Crosland and Roy Jenkins. Nonetheless the move from private to state education was a major change in Hilary’s life. ‘It taught you about getting on with all sorts of people and people came from a very wide range of backgrounds and experiences,’ he reflected later. ‘And I really enjoyed it, actually.’6
At Holland Park, he met a fellow pupil, Rosalind Retey, whom he married in 1973 when they were both 19. Six years later, she died. ‘Caring for someone who has terminal cancer is one of life’s experiences,’ Hilary said. ‘I suppose something like that puts your life in perspective. It makes you more conscious of your mortality and that we have whatever time we have and you must make the best use of it.’7
By that stage, he had embarked on the political career that had seemed so inevitable. Having graduated from Sussex University with a degree in Russian and East European Studies, he had joined the Ealing Acton branch of the Labour Party in west London, and had been elected (at his second attempt) onto the local council in 1979.
His concerns were not, however, purely local. The previous year he had spoken at the Labour conference, making a ‘fiery’8 and ‘impassioned’9 attack on the European Economic Community. ‘Every warning that this Labour Party gave the electorate about the harsh realities of membership has been proved true,’ he thundered, ‘from the madness of CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] to the decimation of our industry by uncontrolled free trade. The benefits have proved to be wholly false.’ There was only one conclusion, as he pointed out in a letter to the Guardian a couple of years later: ‘EEC membership cannot be reconciled with the implementation of the Labour Party’s alternative economic strategy, and that is why we must get out.’10
These were the years of the great Bennite insurrection in the party, and Hilary was seen as part of the growing wave of impatience sweeping through the membership. Indeed it would have been strange were he not. Half the young people involved in politics had been stirred into action by the charismatic leadership of his father, and Hilary was similarly inspired. He followed the new agenda with great enthusiasm, as that linking of the EEC and the alternative economy strategy made clear. He was also to be seen on CND marches.
There was talk from an early stage of a parliamentary career. Reports appeared in 1980 that he was being sounded out on running against the Liberal MP Cyril Smith in Rochdale; the following year it was suggested he might challenge John Silkin for the Labour candidacy in Lewisham Deptford. (Silkin was at the time in bad odour with the left for having run in the 1981 deputy leadership contest that saw Denis Healey narrowly beat Hilary’s father.) In the event, it was Benn’s own local constituency of Ealing North that chose him to stand, in the 1983 general election.
Ealing North had fallen to the Conservative Harry Greenway in 1979, but he had garnered only a slender lead of 2.4 per cent, and recent boundary changes had been harsh on the Tories, creating what was notionally a 4.7 per cent Labour majority. No one expected the election to put Michael Foot in Downing Street, but Ealing North was definitely achievable for Benn.
As it was, he lost convincingly, with a swing against Labour of 7.5 per cent, one of the largest in London (the national average was just under 4 per cent). He shed 9,200 votes and 10.8 per cent of the share, most of it going to the Liberal candidate.
In later years, he was to cite the experience of the 1983 campaign as a political turning point. ‘That election was a formative experience for me, because we went out on the doorstep and we didn’t win public confidence.’11 There was no option, he explained, either for him or for Labour more generally, but to examine again its policies and to adjust to public opinion. ‘The Labour Party has moved,’ he argued, looking back from 1999. ‘I fought the 1983 general election and those policies just didn’t win people’s support. Political parties have to shift with the electorate in order to achieve things. That’s entirely right and proper.’12
Such comments couldn’t fail to evoke one of Tony Benn’s most famous formulations: that a politician could be either a signpost or a weather-vane.
The personal impact could not be entirely ruled out. The 1983 manifesto was seen as being the very embodiment of Bennism, and it had been decisively – even derisively – rejected by the British electorate, with Margaret Thatcher leading the Conservatives to a 144-seat majority in the Commons. Such a clear public humiliation of his father (who lost his own seat in Bristol that night), combined with his own failure, must have hit Hilary hard.
So too must the treatment meted out to his father over the previous few years: the relentless media vilification, the death threats, the close attention of the security forces. The propaganda assault on Tony Benn was unprecedented in modern British politics, and it would surely have been reasonable to ask what his and his family’s sacrifices had achieved. Maybe one consequence of the era is the way that Hilary is so reserved in interviews, withdrawing into generalities when faced with personal questions.
But if his journey from the Bennite left to the centre of the party began with the 1983 election, it took some time for that to become apparent.
In May 1986 Labour won control of Ealing Council for the first time in eight years, and Hilary became deputy leader. It was a time when stories about loony left local councils were much in vogue in the media, and Ealing seemed like a fine target: not only did it have a Benn in a senior position, it also had Neil Kinnock, the new Labour leader, as a resident. And it was conveniently located for Fleet Street.
Hence, for example, a front-page story in the Daily Express about the ‘spendthrift’ council creating 1,435 new jobs in the 16 months since the election, including: ‘More than 100 equal opportunities monitors, gay and lesbian officers, workers to help black women and other oppressed groups, a black business adviser, an animal rights officer.’13 Hence too the media glee at finding that the Labour group was proposing a massive 65 per cent rise in rates, the largest such rise in the country.
Benn was also the chair of Ealing’s education committee, and there was controversy here as well. Within months, the government was expressing concern about the council’s new policy statement that suggested ‘children should be taught that homosexuality and lesbianism are not wrong, and that people following those sexual practices must not be treated as freaks.’14 Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which banned schools and councils from ‘promoting homosexuality’, was soon to come.
The other great touchstone of political debate in the 1980s, race, created its own conflicts. Around a third of the population of the borough, and nearly half its school pupils, were from ethnic minorities, with a particularly strong presence in the district of Southall. Four schools there became the first in country to be given exemption from the legal requirement to hold a daily act of worship that was ‘mainly Christian’. Instead they would be staging an act of multi-faith worship. For those who feared that this sounded like woolly worthiness, Benn was quick to explain what it really meant: ‘Multi-faith worship consists of a general religious, moral and ethical content which is not distinctive of any one faith or religion.’15 So not at all woolly or worthy, then.
Southall was perhaps the only part of the borough that had any national profile, having attracted media attention in 1979, when a demonstration by the Anti-Nazi League against the National Front ended in conflict with the police. During the course of the violence, a local teacher, Blair Peach, had been knocked unconscious, dying the next day of his wounds. Despite a coroner’s verdict of death by misadventure, it was generally accepted that he had been killed by a police officer, and he was consequently regarded as a martyr by the left. When two new schools were opened in Southall in 1987, they were named after Peach, in order, said Benn, to ‘commemorate a tragic but significant event in the life of the Southall community’.16 It was also, happily, the kind of symbolic gesture that really annoyed the Right.
When the Labour administration in Ealing fell at the first time of asking in 1990, its Conservative replacement claimed that the borough had been returned ‘to British rule’. The Tory chief whip spelt out the change: ‘The lesbians and gays have had it from now on. We are more likely to give funds to the Brownies and Girl Guides.’17 The new council also decided to merge the two Blair Peach schools and to rename them, a proposal that Benn denounced, seemingly without irony, as being ‘politically motivated’.18 (The renaming idea was later dropped, and Blair Peach School survives. Peach’s killer, on the other hand, has yet to be charged.)
Less newsworthy, but possibly more significant, Benn also oversaw a pilot scheme that led to the country’s first GCSE course in tourism, developed in partnership with American Express. This could be the future, said Benn; ‘other business and education partnerships should be modelled on the successful programme’.19 Such an initiative, however commercially orientated, was taken more seriously than it would have been in other hands, since he remained so firmly committed to the principle of comprehensive education under local authority control; in the 1990s he was to resign as the chair of governors at a school when it voted to become grant-maintained.
This interest in education indicates another aspect of the man. So much attention is given to the fact that Tony was his father that it’s sometimes forgotten that he’s also Caroline Benn’s son. Her influence, as the founder of the Campaign for Comprehensive Education, can still be seen, not only in Hilary’s career-long concern for education, but also in the work of his younger sister, Melissa.
Meanwhile, Benn’s parliamentary career was stubbornly refusing to get underway. He made the shortlist for the Bradford North seat, but was beaten by the Militant member Pat Wall, and instead stood again for Ealing North in the 1987 general election, failing for a second time. In the process he lost another 5 percentage points and nearly 2,000 votes; a Tory majority that had stood at 2.5 per cent in 1979 was now larger than 28 per cent. One Labour member recalled of Benn’s campaign, ‘His surname was death on the doorsteps, and the council’s record didn’t help.’20
His parliamentary ambitions thwarted and, from 1990, back in opposition on Ealing Council, Benn was at least still employed by the Manufacturing, Service and Finance Union.21 (He had started working for a predecessor union, ASTMS, back in the 1970s.) He was also still active in the Labour Party, where many continued to see him as being on the left, simply because of his name and his physical and vocal similarity to his father. But as the party drifted rightwards, under Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair, Benn was drifting with it.
By 1997 he had made the candidates’ shortlist for the safe seat of Pontefract and Castleford, and was being described in the Guardian as ‘Tony’s New Labour son’.22 He didn’t get the nomination, of course – it went to Yvette Cooper – and for the second general election in a row he had no constituency to fight. In his absence, though, Labour achieved a massive 16-point swing in Ealing North, finally re-taking the seat with another local councillor, Stephen Pound.
Following Labour’s victory in the general election, Benn did at least move closer to the centre of the party, becoming a special adviser in the Department of Education and Employment, under David Blunkett, where he worked on the New Deal and Lifelong Learning projects. And in 1999 his big moment finally arrived when the Leeds Central seat fell vacant. Benn was chosen as the candidate for the by-election, to the pride of his father: ‘He’s his own man, he’s very, very hard-working, very well-respected.’23
That was a fair assessment. By this stage, Benn had been a local councillor and a trade union official for two decades. The fiery speechmaker of his youth was now seldom in evidence, and his approach to politics was hardly revolutionary: ‘It’s about keeping your head, doing bits and pieces of work, which some people find rather dull.’24 As he said on election night: ‘I’m a Benn and proud of it, but I’m not a Bennite.’25 (Later he was to disown this quote: ‘I don’t recall ever actually uttering those words. Still, never let that get in the way of a good story.’26)
Hilary (‘bloody daft name for a bloke,’ according to one of his Yorkshire constituents27) was duly elected, but it was far from an impressive victory. Turnout was just 19.6 per cent, the lowest for any parliamentary election since the Second World War, and Labour’s support fell by nearly 20,000 votes and more than 20 points of the share. (The result might have been worse still had it not been for some confusion between his rival Conservative and Lib Dem candidates, both of whom were named Wild.)
Here was an early sign of the public’s growing lack of interest, and possibly faith, in politics. The same day elections to the European Parliament were held, and registered a national turnout of just 23 per cent. And part of the reason for the lack of engagement was that the politicians themselves seemed to have descended into complacency. ‘Does it really matter?’ reflected the New Labour spin doctor Lance Price. ‘So what if we do badly today? Victory at the next general election is all but certain.’28 Benn was sorrowed by the pitiful turnout, however: ‘The ballot box isn’t just an instrument of democracy. It is an instrument of hope.’29
It was part of a pattern. Turnout in the subsequent 2001 general election fell to under 60 per cent nationally, but still produced a second landslide victory for Tony Blair. It also saw a changing of the generations: Tony Benn left Parliament, and Hilary was appointed a junior minister for international development.
He remained in that department – with a single year’s absence – through to 2007, by which time he was secretary of state. Once the runt of the Whitehall litter, a subsection within the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development had grown during the Blair years, and under Benn had a budget three times the size of the FO itself. He was seen as a safe pair of hands, following Clare Short’s sometimes stormy incumbency, and was soon being talked of a possible foreign secretary.
This was easy territory for a politician who wished to keep his options open, though his short stint in another department demonstrated that Benn was also adept at the Blairite tactic of making new laws that played to the gallery. As a minister at the home office he announced ‘proposals to jail paedophiles who stalk the web pretending to be kids, with the right to prosecute before any sexual offence takes place.’30
Keeping his head down, and doing bits and pieces of work – just as he’d promised – he avoided the murderous factional squabbling that was then destroying the party, declaring that, if he wasn’t a Bennite, he was ‘not a Blairite or a Brownite either’.31 As a consequence, he seemed popular with all sides.
Such was his standing – and, inevitably, such was the power of the name – that when Blair and John Prescott resigned in 2007, the bookmakers William Hill made Benn the 2-1 favourite to become Labour’s deputy leader. In fact, when it came down to the heat of an election battle, he disappointed yet again, coming fourth in a field of six candidates with Harriet Harman, Alan Johnson and even Jon Cruddas finishing in front of him. His declared supporters, though, suggested the breadth of his appeal: David Blunkett, Dennis Skinner, Chris Mullin.
Under the premiership of Gordon Brown, he was appointed environment secretary. He was now 54 years old, the same age as his father had been when he had left the Labour front bench in 1979. In his new role, he didn’t exactly notch up a great list of achievements, though he did voice his objections on environmental grounds to the proposed third runway at Heathrow, when Brown and others were arguing for it in 2008.
Following the 2010 defeat, he kept a low profile during Ed Miliband’s leadership (as did most of his colleagues), but when Miliband stepped down last year, Harriet Harman appointed him shadow foreign secretary, and he was retained in that post when Jeremy Corbyn took over.
And it’s in this capacity that he has finally made his name his own, principally with that speech in the Syria debate. With no agreement in the shadow cabinet over the line the party should take, it was decided to allow a free vote. Thus the bizarre spectacle emerged of a debate that opened with Corbyn speaking against military intervention in Syria, and closed with Benn supporting it. As a symbol of pluralism in a political party, it could hardly have been bettered.
Benn got a sustained round of applause at the end of his speech and was showered with press plaudits, but on sober reflection perhaps it wasn’t quite as impressive as all that. The oratory was fine, if a little forced, but the argument relied rather too heavily on sensationalism and on the politicians’ equivalent of Goodwin’s Law: As the logical justification for military action decreases, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler or the Nazis approaches 1.
What we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. It is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists, trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It is why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. My view is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria. That is why I ask my colleagues to vote for the motion tonight.32
It wasn’t a new line for Benn, though. During the by-election campaign in 1999, Britain had been busily engaged in bombing Serbia, and he had defended the NATO action in similar terms: ‘In 1939 anybody could have produced the same arguments against going to war that are being used now, because war increases suffering, because war is messy, yet everyone knows it was right.’33 He went on to support subsequent military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. It was a long way from his days as ‘an ardent CND supporter and unilateralist marcher’.34
Other positions have changed as well. He no longer thunders about ‘why we must get out’ of Europe, and instead calls on David Cameron to be more engaged: ‘He now needs to get on and make the broader case for remaining part of Europe as Labour has been doing.’35
Some persist in seeing all this as a betrayal of his father. But such a claim misjudges Tony Benn himself, for whom friendship was more important than politics (he stayed pals with Enoch Powell despite the Rivers of Blood), and for whom family trumped even friendship. It also overlooks the continuity between the two men. Not just the physical resemblance, and the fact that Hilary looks as if he’s inherited the old man’s wardrobe (the green cardigan will surely be in evidence soon), nor even the teetotal vegetarianism, but the calm temperament and the underlying morality: Hilary was one of the few MPs to emerge from the expenses scandal without a smirch on his character.
There’s also the religious cultural background, and the same absence of faith. ‘I cannot believe that dividing children on racial and religious grounds will help to achieve the community of all God’s children which is our common goal,’36 Hilary wrote to the Church Times in 1980, discussing an issue with faith schools in Ealing. But when he was sworn in as an MP, he opted to omit the reference to God from the oath.
And despite differing positions on foreign policy, there were many areas where the two men shared common ground. Even with his supposedly impeccable New Labour loyalism, Hilary could still dissent when it came to civil liberties, so that when, in 2000, the home secretary Jack Straw proposed major restrictions to the right to choose a trial by jury, Benn was to be found lining up with the likes of his father and Jeremy Corbyn in the rebel ranks.
A friend once commented: ‘He is a liberal with a small “l” in every sense of the word.’37 But maybe even the small ‘l’ qualification isn’t necessary. It may well be that history will look back on Tony Benn as being the aberration in his family, and see Hilary as having more in common with his grandfather, William Wedgwood Benn, the Liberal MP and later Labour cabinet minister (he was secretary of state for India under Ramsay MacDonald), and maybe even with his two great-grandfathers who were also Liberal MPs.
What he lacks is his father’s charisma, or his ability to communicate ideas. Perhaps he doesn’t have the ideas to start with. Certainly he seems to mistrust the big theories so beloved of Tony, in the same way that David and Ed Miliband moved on from the Marxism of their father, Ralph.
Because the truth is that Benn is a bit boring. Perfectly competent, perfectly agreeable, the kind of neighbour you could trust to water the plants while you were on holiday. But boring. Even if there’s a very determined resolve lurking beneath the grey suit.
In fact, if he resembles anyone in politics, it’s not his father at all. It’s John Major, the man whose dullness came as such a relief after too much excitement with a divisive leader. Even his political insights are reminiscent of the former prime minister. ‘Running a country isn’t like walking down a road,’38 Major told the 1995 Conservative conference, and Benn has much the same grasp of the prosaic. ‘Politics is not like shopping,’ he once explained. ‘If you think that you can sit back and say “well, you lot sort it out”, we’re not going to do anything, we are sunk as a society.’ Which revealed a slightly odd concept of shopping.
He added, slightly more coherently: ‘I believe passionately that politics does change things.’39
At the time of writing (January 2016), Ladbrokes have Benn as the 3-1 favourite to be the next permanent leader of the Labour Party. It seems implausible that the man who supported a Tory war (as it’s seen by some) could command the support of the party membership, but there’s a long way to go yet in this soap opera, and Benn should never be written off. As he points out, ‘There is, as you know, quite a strong public service ethos in our family.’40
As with all the portraits in this series, this piece is drawn almost entirely from contemporary newspaper accounts. It is liable, therefore, to be wildly inaccurate.
1 Alwyn W Turner, A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s (Aurum, 2013)
2 Observer 2 May 1993
3 Tony Benn (ed. Ruth Winstone), Years of Hope: Diaries, Paper and Letters 1940–1962 (Hutchinson, 1994) p. 272
4 Tony Benn (ed. Ruth Winstone), Out of the Wilderness: Diaries 1963–1967 (Hutchinson, 1987) p. 45
5 ibid. p. 115
6 Times 2 June 2007
7 Sunday Times 30 May 1999
8 Financial Times 5 October 1978
9 Guardian 5 October 1978
10 Guardian 8 May 1981
11 Observer 30 May 1999
12 Sunday Times 30 May 1999
13 Daily Express 3 September 1987
14 Guardian 21 August 1986
15 Times 26 June 1989
16 Guardian 15 December 1992
17 Sunday Times 13 May 1990
18 Guardian 15 December 1992
19 Guardian 14 February 1989
20 Times 26 May 1999
21 Now part of Unite
22 Guardian 9 April 1997
23 Guardian 25 May 1999
24 Observer 30 May 1999
25 Observer 30 May 1999
26 Financial Times 29 October 2003
27 Guardian 9 June 1999
28 Lance Price, The Spin Doctor’s Diary: Inside Number 10 with New Labour (Hodder & Stoughton, 2005) p. 116
29 Independent 11 June 1999
30 Sunday Express 11 August 2002
31 Times 2 June 2007
32 Independent 3 December 2015
33 Observer 30 May 1999
34 Times 26 May 1999
35 Western Morning News 14 December 2015
36 Church Times 22 February 1980
37 Times 26 May 1999
38 Independent 15 October 1994
39 Times 2 June 2007
40 Sunday Times 30 May 1999