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Friday, June 11, 1999 Published at 13:28 GMT 14:28 UK

UK Politics

The Benn dynasty

The election of Tony Benn's son, Hilary, means one of the greatest political dynasties in British history is set to run for some time yet.

Mr Benn senior, aged 74, is the oldest Labour MP sitting in the House of Commons. A veteran campaigner and left-winger, the highest office he achieved was as secretary of state for energy in James Callaghan's government.

Much was made in the run-up to the Leeds Central by-election about the political differences between father and son - in Hilary's words: "I'm a Benn and proud of it, but I'm not a Bennite."

While Tony is a perpetual thorn in the side of the New Labour government - speaking out passionately against welfare reform and the bombing of Serbia - Hilary is regarded as a fully signed-up member of the Blair project.

[ image: Hilary Benn: Following in father's footsteps]
Hilary Benn: Following in father's footsteps
But on a grander level, Benn the Younger very much fits the well-established family mould.

Both Tony's grandfathers were radical Liberal MPs. By the time he was born - in a house on the site now occupied by Labour's Millbank headquarters - his father William Wedgewood Benn had followed suit, although he went on to join the Labour Party.

On the other side, his mother was president of the Congregationalist Federation, which merged with the Presbyterians to form the United Reformed Church.

Appropriately, the young Tony was sent to school at Westminster, before going on to Oxford, where he proposed to his own wife, Caroline, nine days after meeting her.

Despite working as a RAF pilot and BBC producer, Tony Benn always intended to enter politics and did so in 1950 when he was elected as MP for Bristol South East.

In 1960 he had to fight a famous three-year battle to rid himself of the title Viscount of Stansgate. His father had been granted the honour and on his death it passed to the eldest son, thus automatically disqualifying him from sitting in the Commons.

Chronicling mania

The sense of the mantle passing from generation to generation is apparently as real for those inside the Benn family as onlookers.

[ image: Millbank Tower: Tony Benn was born on the site of Labour's HQ]
Millbank Tower: Tony Benn was born on the site of Labour's HQ
Tony Benn says that because he discussed everything in detail with his father while growing up, he can remember events such as the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria, which happened when he was six.

The Benns are also chroniclers to almost manic degree. Tony Benn started his diary aged nine and uses his the filing system devised by his father. He also has recorded almost every interview he has given and speech he has made throughout his life.

A technophile, these days he prefers to video events on his Sony PC7 digital mini-Handicam. The recordings are transferred each evening on to VHS and added to his amassed archive.

Hilary Benn's first foray into public life came at the age of seven, when he accompanied his father to the High Court where it was decided he could switch from being a Lord to a Commoner.

"My father took me to the electoral in 1961 and I vividly remember looking up at two judges in their wigs, the full majesty of the British law," he said.

"I had not just been brought along to watch. We knew my father was fighting for his job."

Tony Benn has said his son will be his own man, but Hilary praises his father's "good and sensible" advice.

"One of his very old bits of political advice was 'never wrestle with a chimney sweep'. That means that your political opponents may be down in the gutter but you have nothing to gain by joining them.

"This was actually a phrase of my grandfather's which was passed down and he's passed it on to me.''

And, inevitably, it appears his own children may already have the family career in mind.

"I spoke to my 12-year-old son on the phone last night and he gave me a good ear-bashing over genetically-modified food," Hilary Benn said during the by-election campaign.

"I was very impressed, I found it quite impossible to get a word in edgeways! He's obviously picked up something of the politician's art."

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