Following his World War II service as a pilot in the Royal Air Force, Tony Benn worked for the BBC before being elected to follow Stafford Cripps as Labour MP for Bristol South East in 1950. Benn became the youngest MP, or ‘Baby of the House’. When his father, Viscount Stansgate, died in 1960, Benn became a peer and was prevented from sitting as MP. He fought to retain his seat in a by-election and although disqualified the people of Bristol South-East still re-elected him. The government accepted the need for a change in the law and passed the Peerage Act allowing renunciation of peerages.
Tony Benn held several ministerial posts including Postmaster General, Minister for Technology, Aviation and Power, Secretary of State for Industry, Minister for Posts and Telecommunications and Secretary of State for Energy. As a minister he made key decisions about industry in Bristol, campaigning for the Concorde development programme and agreeing a major subsidy for Rolls Royce to produce the RB 211 jet engine.
After Labour lost power in 1979, Tony Benn became a leading figure on the left of the Party and was narrowly defeated as Deputy Leader. The right-wing press attacked him at every turn. He has always refused to engage in personal attacks even on his fiercest political opponents. Boundary changes to his seat in Bristol undermined his support but he turned down offers of alternative seats. After his defeat in the 1983 election he stood and won in the by-election in Chesterfield.
In 2001 he stood down as MP “to devote more time to politics”. He kept diaries throughout his life and used them to write numerous books.
Tony Benn speaking at the 2006 Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival
Tony Benn became a popular speaker and toured Britain with singer-songwriter Roy Bailey performing to packed halls. Benn’s description of key events in social history from the Levellers and the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the miners’ strike was punctuated with Roy Bailey’s songs.
Tony Benn became President of Stop the War Coalition and was a regular commentator on political affairs. He spoke of changing from the most hated man in Britain to a national treasure. Benn received rapturous receptions when he spoke to the Glastonbury Festival. The South West TUC invited him to speak at Tolpuddle for the first time in 2000. He came every year after that until he died in 2014.
He returned to Bristol many times and is remembered by a bust in City Hall and Unite’s offices in Victoria Street have been renamed Tony Benn House in
his honour. On his death a billboard was erected in the City Centre featuring his trade mark pipe.
A tribute evening packed out Bristol’s New Room where speakers described how Tony Benn had influenced them and the lift of the City. In power he was a divisive figure, out of office Tony Benn became more powerful and influential. He inspired and encouraged many people and his legacy through he quotations and diaries will last for generations.