Most politicians start out as radicals, become more moderate as they get older, and in many cases end up in the House of Lords extolling the virtues of the unelected second chamber. Tony Benn did the opposite. He eschewed his hereditary peerage in the House of Lords, pursued a successful career as a Cabinet Minister under Harold Wilson, became an ever more radical voice on the Left of the Labour Party and ultimately left Parliament criticising its relevance to many people in modern Britain.
Tony Benn’s radicalism belied his age and meant that he generated a level of respect and admiration particularly amongst young people, which many younger politicians struggle to attain. There is often a generation gap in politics which leaves young people feeling alienated from the political process. In his later years Tony Benn’s, largely self-proclaimed outsider status, and unflinching desire to challenge authority allowed him to bridge that gap. I know that many of our students, whose affiliations span the political spectrum, will be debating his legacy today but that there will be a level of admiration for his principled stand on many issues which is perhaps unique amongst British politicians.
With such a long and diverse political career it is difficult to pinpoint Tony Benn’s most significant contribution to British politics. His fight to his revoke his hereditary peerage changed the British constitution, although did little to change the House of Lords. His contribution to the Labour Party will divide commentators. His stand against the lack of accountability within the European Community, is an ongoing debate in which his arguments will continue to have an impact. His real contribution to history may ultimately be the eight volumes of diaries and the huge volume of material collected in his personal archive, which chronicle post-war British politics. Yet it was his unwavering insistence that those with power – politicians, governments, businesses, soldiers, Eurocrats – should be answerable to the people which lies at the heart of his appeal to many and will ensure his ongoing relevance.
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