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Monday, 4 December, 2000, 16:33 GMT
Benn's golden anniversary
Tony Benn
Benn is one of the greatest orators of his generation
By BBC News Online's Ben Davies

Fifty years ago, on 4 December, 1950, Anthony Wedgwood Benn first took a seat in the House of Commons as the newly-elected MP for Bristol South East.

Now, half a century later the radical left-winger is something of a national treasure.

He is liked and respected by even those who share none of his political views.

But sadly the Labour MP will not be marking this milestone as it has been more than overshadowed by the recent death of his beloved wife Caroline.

But nevertheless Tony Benn is seen to have pursued not just one of the longest but also one of the most distinguished parliamentary careers of the latter part of the 20th century.

Ask anyone with even just a passing interest in politics and Tony Benn is a name that is sure to provoke a reaction.

Tony Benn
Benn after he was first elected
For many years Tony Benn has been associated with the hard-left of the Labour Party - he said that he gets more left-wing as he gets older.

That tendency he attributed to his father, also an MP.

But when he was first elected to the Commons Tony Benn was on the right of the party.

He even backed the right's candidate, Hugh Gaitskell, over left-winger Aneurin Bevan for the Labour Party leadership in 1955.

This slow political transformation has seen Mr Benn become a member of the hard-left, chairing the Campaign group of left Labour MPs and denouncing capitalism at every opportunity.

For many years now he has given his forthright opinions from the Labour backbenches.

Benn the minister

But in the 1960s and 1970s he was a minister under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan.

His various government roles included those of energy secretary, industry secretary, minister of technology and postmaster general.

Tony Benn's relationship with former Labour prime minister, the late Harold Wilson was notoriously fraught.

Wilson famously said of Benn that he "immatures with age".

Tony Benn's move to the left was caused, in part, by his experience in government which he said had radicalised him.

In the 1980s, with Labour out of power, he was one of the people who became associated with the hard-left only narrowly missing out in his bid to become the deputy leader of the Labour Party.

Nuclear disarmament, the abolition of the monarchy and House of Lords, were just some of the causes he associated himself with.

In 1983 they may have played a part in his loss of the newly created constituency of Bristol East.

Out of parliament, he was prevented from joining in the subsequent battle that saw Neil Kinnock, as the left-wing candidate, elected as Labour leader.

Back in the Commons

But the following year Mr Benn was back in the Commons as the MP for Chesterfield following the 1984 by-election.

Since then he has continued to vigorously represent both his constituents, and express his views, in parliament.

Tony and Caroline Benn
With his much loved wife Caroline
However the death of his wife Caroline from cancer casts a long shadow over what should be a celebration for Tony Benn.

They had married in 1949 and had three sons and a daughter.

Earlier this year Mr Benn announced that he would retire from the parliament at the next general election.

He has joked that he intends to pursue a career in politics once outside the Commons, saying that parliament is so neglected these days that real political debate has fled Westminster.

The House will be a poorer place for Tony Benn's absence - although in 1999 the election of his son Hilary at a by-election means that there may well be a Benn in the Commons after the next election.

As for Tony Benn himself, he came from a generation of politicians who's debating skills were honed in the chamber of the House and on platforms at political rallies - a far cry from today's spin-doctoring and sound-bites.

His uncomfortable relationship with New Labour and his dislike of the challenges that increasing European integration put to the authority of the House of Commons may have played no small part in his decision to move on.

Of his achievements, perhaps one of the most significant was to force a referendum on whether the UK should stay in the Common Market after prime minister Ted Heath took the country into the community in the mid-seventies.

Although people voted against withdrawal, in a country that simply did not hold referendums it was an extraordinary achievement of persuasion and persistence.

Minister, MP, political diarist - it has been a very full career.

But at 75 far from retiring Mr Benn looks set to open a whole new chapter in his life when he takes his final leave from the Commons, which could be as early as next spring.

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See also:

23 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Caroline Benn dies
22 Feb 00 | Labour centenary
Tony Benn: Lessons of history
22 Feb 00 | Labour centenary
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06 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Benn calls for ballot over Speaker
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Benn denies seeking Speaker job
06 Aug 99 | UK Politics
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