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Saturday, 10 March, 2001, 08:14 GMT
Tony Benn: End of an era
Still campaigning: Tony Benn
On the eve of his departure from the House of Commons, veteran Labour politician Tony Benn tells Andrew Walker of the BBC's News Profiles Unit about life outside Parliament and his hopes for the future

Half a century after first entering Parliament, Tony Benn is as busy as ever. His diary for the May Day weekend includes speeches in Edinburgh, Glasgow and his Derbyshire constituency of Chesterfield, and he is brimming with ideas for books, broadcasts and campaigns.

But when that other Tony, Prime Minister Tony Blair, sweeps up The Mall and into Buckingham Palace to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament pending a general election, Tony Benn's time in the Commons will be up.

The big question today is 'Will globalisation allow democracy to survive?'

Tony Benn
It will be, quite simply, the end of an era.

Today's MPs, whether they be the fresh-faced Labour class of '97 or the more care-worn Conservative fortysomethings, have yet to prove themselves in the cut-and-thrust of the Commons chamber.

To be sure, both the Conservative leader William Hague and the fiery Socialist Dennis Skinner are counted among a select group of those with the power to light up the house with their oratorical skills.

Tony Benn raised aloft by supporters following his election victory in 1950
Elected to the Commons in 1950

But Westminster currently lacks any of the real greats: the Nye Bevans, Churchills, Michael Foots or, dare one say, Enoch Powells who are all now part of history.

Soon Tony Benn, with his innate connection to a Socialist tradition rooted in dissenting ideologies as diverse as Methodism, Marx and the Levellers, will join them.

Benn's links to the Labour movement run deep. He was born in 1925 at 40 Millbank, Westminster. His next-door neighbours were Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who wrote Clause IV of the Labour Party Constitution, the commitment to nationalisation once at the Party's very soul.

With supreme historical irony, the same spot is now occupied by Millbank Tower, the headquarters and nerve-centre of a new Labour Party which has seemingly rejected everything Tony Benn and the Webbs stood for, including Clause IV.

Name Change

Tony Benn's life story has been well documented: born as Anthony Neil Wedgwood-Benn, the son of Viscount Stansgate, Westminster School and Oxford, BBC producer and MP at 25.

Following his father's death in 1960, Tony Benn fought a long, hard, and ultimately victorious, battle to relinquish his peerage and remain an MP.

Tony Benn in 1964
Tony Benn in 1964

He was a cabinet minister under Harold Wilson, who commented waspishly that Benn "immatured with age". He has remained one of the country's highest profile politicians for two generations.

An infinitely polite and courteous man who always argues about issues and not personalities, Tony Benn has been hailed as a Messiah by the left while being vilified by the right as The Most Dangerous Man in Britain.

Strange, then, that this living symbol of the parliamentary ideal has decided to leave the Commons to, as he cuttingly puts it, "spend more time with politics".


"I'll be 76 on election day," he adds, "and I realise that there's a lot of work to be done outside Parliament.

"The big question today is 'Will globalisation allow democracy to survive?' On one side we have the multinationals, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union. I want to help to redress the balance on the other side."

Big business, he argues, is tending to fund both main British political parties. "The system is becoming American" and voters are losing their power to choose.

Singing The Red Flag with Barbara Castle in 1976
Life-long Socialist: Singing The Red Flag with Barbara Castle in 1976

His critics of whom, as ever, there are many, say that Tony Benn is a first-class conspiracy theorist, looking for villains who just do not exist.

He now sees Britain as "a colony between Washington and Brussels", at the mercy of corporate America and the European Commission. And he berates both the political establishment and the media for what he says is a lack of debate on Europe.

He immatures with age

Harold Wilson

But Tony Benn is no Little Englander: far from it. "I was the first MP to table a motion condemning apartheid in South Africa", he recollects with undisguised pride.

"When I first met Nelson Mandela he was a terrorist, when I next saw him, he was a Nobel Prize winner and the President of South Africa."

To add to his internationalist credentials is a long and happy marriage to an American. His wife Caroline, a noted Socialist academic in her own right, died from breast cancer last November and Tony Benn has spoken movingly about their life together.

Tony and Caroline Benn
Tony and Caroline Benn: "She was my socialist soulmate", he says.

He told one interviewer: "She was my socialist soulmate. When people went through our rubbish every day, it was harder for her. I could respond in the House, she just had to take it."

As Tony Benn prepares to leave the Commons, he still has great hopes for the future. "People are now coming back to the idea that certain things, like transport and health services, should be publicly funded," he says.

Whatever the case, the Commons is likely to be a duller place without Tony Benn. But has his leader offered him a seat in the Lords?

"Good God, no!", he laughs. "I tell people that peerages now cost 2 million and I can't afford it."

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