Tony Benn, Labour Minister Who Divided Britain, Dies at 88

Tony Benn, the U.K. Labour Party politician who served in the governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan and was a prolific diarist, has died. He was 88.

The former cabinet minister died this morning at his home in London, his family said in a statement to the Press Association.

Benn “was a magnificent writer, speaker, diarist and campaigner, with a strong record of public and political service,” Prime Minister David Cameron said in a statement. “There was never a dull moment listening to him, even when you disagreed with everything he said.”

Labour leader Ed Miliband described Benn as “an iconic figure of our age” who always spoke his mind and who had an “abiding determination that power and the powerful should be held to account.”

“He will be remembered as a champion of the powerless, a great parliamentarian and a conviction politician,” Miliband said in an e-mailed statement. “Tony Benn spoke his mind and spoke up for his values. Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, everyone knew where he stood and what he stood for.”

Political Circles

Benn was a divisive figure in his political heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, loathed by many contemporaries for his refusal to compromise where he saw an issue of principle. In his retirement, the same qualities made him a figure beloved by those British socialists who saw Tony Blair’s reformed Labour Party as moving too close to the free-enterprise path set by the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher.

His gift for language made him a speaker who was popular outside political circles -- he even became a regular at the Glastonbury music festival. His diaries, kept for over 60 years, were bestsellers, with a readership beyond those who supported his views.

“I think the most important thing in life is to encourage,” Benn once told the BBC. “If anybody asked me what I want on my gravestone, I would like ‘Tony Benn, he encouraged us.’ That would be all I would need.”

Benn was born Anthony Wedgwood Benn on April 3, 1925. His father was a Liberal Member of Parliament who defected to the Labour Party and was secretary of state for India in 1929. Seventy-four years later, Benn’s son Hilary would become the third generation of his family to sit at the cabinet table.

Inherited Seat

After war service in the Royal Air Force, Benn successfully ran for Parliament for Labour in 1950. His career suffered an unusual setback in 1960 following the death of his father, who had been appointed to the House of Lords during World War II. Benn inherited his father’s seat in the upper house, disqualifying him from the lower and more powerful House of Commons.

In the ensuing election for Benn’s Commons successor, Benn also ran and won, even though he was ineligible. While his victory was ruled out of order, it forced a change in the law, and Benn was allowed to renounce his seat in the Lords and return to the Commons, winning a by-election in 1963.

When Labour took power under Wilson in 1964, Benn became postmaster general, in which role he tried unsuccessfully to remove the queen’s head from British stamps. Then, as technology minister, he oversaw the development, together with France, of the Concorde, the supersonic passenger jet.

Party Leadership

In the 1974-79 Labour government, as industry secretary and then energy secretary, Benn had a series of clashes with Prime Minister James Callaghan, who after one moment of dissent called Benn and demanded his resignation. Benn refused. He unsuccessfully ran for the party leadership in 1976 and 1988.

In opposition during the 1980s, Benn pushed for Labour to follow a more radical socialist agenda even as Thatcher took the country in the opposite direction. He called for the nationalization of industry and the imposition of capital controls.

He opposed the 1982 war to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentine occupation and would go on to argue against both Gulf Wars and western intervention in Kosovo and Afghanistan. He retired from Parliament in 2001.

Benn married his wife Caroline in 1949. She died in 2000. He leaves three sons and a daughter.

“It is with great sadness that we announce that our father Tony Benn died peacefully early this morning at his home in west London surrounded by his family,” his children Stephen, Hilary, Melissa and Joshua said.

“We will miss above all his love, which has sustained us throughout our lives. But we are comforted by the memory of his long, full and inspiring life and so proud of his devotion to helping others as he sought to change the world for the better.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.