Tony Benn 1925-2014

The patriarch of the Labour left is dead.

Tony Benn had a long, distinguished political career - like Margaret Thatcher, he was a polarising figure, adored by his followers but feared (and loathed) by his opponents.

And his role in the poisonous Labour faction-fights of the '70s and '80s suggests that beneath the surface affability lurked a tough political gladiator.

Certainly some of his political contemporaries could never forgive his dalliance with what they regarded as dark forces, in the late '70s and early '80s.

Like most Westminster hacks of a certain age, I interviewed him a couple of times, but my most poignant memory is of him ringing me to cancel an appearance on Radio 4's Westminster Hour, when I was a producer there.

He explained he was very sorry to let us down, but he thought his wife might die that night.

I can't think of many people, in such terrible circumstances, who would even have remembered to make such a call - but it illustrates the sense of duty and obligation which, I think, drove him.

Westminster family

Benn was a third-generation MP - his grandfather John had served in the Commons and his father William entered Parliament as a Liberal, served under Asquith as a Treasury minister and then switched to labour when the old Liberal party imploded, becoming Ramsay MacDonald's Secretary of State for India.

Benn's diaries mention that his father always regretted not standing up to Ramsay, who ultimately ditched the Labour Party and formed a National Government with the Conservatives.

Those diaries are one of his most important legacies - one of the very best insider's accounts of government and political life.

Actually they're transcriptions from tape recordings he made every night - and a marvellous Radio 4 series, The Benn Tapes, brought them to a wider audience - and revealed a bit of light toning-down had taken place in the published versions.

The account in the tapes of Benn's demotion from industry Secretary to Energy Secretary by Harold Wilson in 1975 has him snarling that "Wilson has betrayed the Labour Party."

The printed account is rather less vehement. (I do hope Radio 4 rebroadcast the series soon…)

The many volumes of those diaries chronicle decades of political battles: Benn entered parliament in a by election in 1950, succeeding Attlee's Chancellor, Sir Stafford Cripps; he cut his parliamentary teeth in the tumultuous Commons debates on the 1956 Suez Crisis, and when his father died, fought a long battle to avoid compulsory elevation to the House of Lords, eventually making it possible for Peers to renounce their peerages.

It was a change which helped shape the politics of the '60s because it ultimately allowed Quintin Hogg and Alec Douglas-Home to return to the Commons - Douglas-Home could not have become Prime Minister from the Lords, so Benn, unwittingly, made his premiership possible.

Varied career

He entered government with Harold Wilson in 1964 as Postmaster-General, where his duties included writing a weekly column for the staff newspaper, a kind of direct ministerial involvement with a public service that seems unimaginable now.

He became Minister of Technology in a short-lived super department created by Harold Wilson, then Industry Secretary, then Energy Secretary - and by the 80s he was the demon king of the left - caricatured in the press with wide staring eyes with hammers and sickles in their pupils.

After nearly 40 years of free-market government little of his ministerial legacy survives - no co-ops, no planning agreements between unions and bosses and government; but he can claim vindication on his support for gay rights, Nelson Mandela and freedom of information.

His bid, not for the party leadership, but for the deputy leadership, failed by a hairs-breadth, and - aided by his defeat in the 1983 election - his star slowly faded.

When he returned to the Commons as MP for Chesterfield, he was increasingly absorbed by the battles over Britain's evolving relationship with the EU, where he often found himself allied to Tory eurosceptics.

In that cause he contributed a series of thunderous speeches about democracy and parliamentary sovereignty - and his farewell address to the House in 2001 (watched by his son Hilary, by then a Labour MP and the fourth generation of Benns in Parliament - a fifth may be on the way…) revisited those themes with a powerful warning that voter apathy "threatens democracy."

The real danger to democracy, he said was not that someone would burn down Buckingham Palace, but that people won't vote - and if they don't vote "they destroy by neglect the legitimacy of the governments that are elected."