Tony Benn: Warrior peer turned socialist peace campaigner

Tony Benn speaks to protesters at an anti-war march in September 2003 in London.

Story highlights

  • Tony Benn who has died in London aged 88, came from a privileged and political family
  • However he renounced his peerage, and fought for socialist ideas
  • He was opposed to wars UK government and its U.S. allies were waging
  • Benn was polite, disciplined, hard working, political: all a campaigner should be - Lindsey German
Tony Benn, who has died in London aged 88, was an inspiration to all of us who wanted to make the world a more peaceful and more equal place. He came from a privileged and political family, his father and grandfather both MPs, and he would have become Lord Stansgate in the early 1960s if he had not fought to renounce his hereditary peerage. Luckily he won, stayed an MP instead of mouldering in Britain's upper House of Lords for the next five decades, and dedicated his life to socialist ideas and most importantly to campaigning for change.
Tony was born in the aftermath of World War I. He was an airman in World War II, and often talked about his experience. He lost a brother in that war, but also saw it as a watershed, marking no return to the unemployment and fascism of the 1930s. As he said, the young conscripted troops became radicalized by the war, arguing that if there could be full employment in wartime, so there could be full employment in peacetime to build houses, hospitals, schools and all the other things people needed. He was Labour all his life, campaigning for the 1945 landslide, but in the last part of his life his main activity was outside Labour's structures.
I remember vividly how he used this wartime experience on one occasion. Just after Gordon Brown became prime minister, we wanted to hold an anti-war demo going from Trafalgar Square to parliament, but the march was banned by the police. I received a phone call from Tony to say that he had just dropped a letter off in Downing St complaining about this decision and promising to defy it. Sure enough he turned up on the day wearing his World War II medals and demanding to march. We set off, daring the police to arrest us. They didn't.
Lindsey German
He quipped that he was leaving parliament in order to spend more time with politics. This was after the death of his beloved wife Caroline, herself a socialist campaigner and writer. He spent the rest of his life campaigning for a range of causes, but above all he was identified with the Stop the War Coalition, of which I became the convenor when we launched it in 2001. He campaigned and spoke at every demo, travelled round the country to hold rapturous and well-attended meetings, and became president of the campaign, a post he held up to his death.
He was opposed to the wars the UK government and its U.S. allies were waging, including the latest attempt to start another war on Syria last summer. He also helped campaign against austerity, most recently through the People's Assembly.
Tony was polite, disciplined, hard working, political: all the things you could wish for in a campaigner. He was a delight to talk to, interested always in ideas, technological change, history, and building broad united campaigns.
One of the last conversation I had with him he stressed the importance of organizing, and wanted May 1, the international day of working class struggle, to be marked into 2014 as a day to rise up against austerity. That is an invitation I hope millions of people will take up. Maybe we could call it Tony Benn day. That would be a fitting legacy.