Issue 248 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
Caroline Benn, who died in November, was a remarkable woman in a number of ways. She was a tireless and well known campaigner for comprehensive state education. She was the author of a marvellous book on the life of Keir Hardie, the Labour pioneer and founder of the Independent Labour Party. And she was a political activist, the wife of left Labour MP Tony Benn, who shared his enthusiasm for the struggle, and for the working class movement of which they both made themselves part. Although she was much less of a public figure than her husband, hers was not in any way a subordinate relationship, but was an equal partnership. Tony Benn was the first to say how much he learned from her, and it is clear from his diaries how much he depended on her both politically and personally.
They met in the late 1940s when they were both studying at Oxford. Caroline came from a well off family in Cincinnati in the US. She was already a socialist--she told me that she became one around the age of 11 because of the injustice in the world, despite her privileged background. They made their life in London. He soon became an MP, part of a Labour Party very different from the one we have today. Clement Attlee was prime minister of a Labour government which introduced more reforms than any Labour government before or since. Its policies and the consensus which grew around them formed the basis of British politics right up to the mid-1970s. Major industries such as rail and coalmining were nationalised, the NHS was introduced in 1948, and Labour's commitment was to full employment and a decent social welfare net including provision of council housing and state education. Tony Benn became a minister in the Wilson and Callaghan governments of the 1960s and 1970s, and he and Caroline certainly appeared outwardly as a highly successful career politics couple, bringing up four children while they campaigned round mainstream Labour issues.
But the second half of the 1970s wrought fundamental changes in the Labour Party. The long postwar boom had come to an end and the policies, such as full employment and proper comprehensive education, came under attack. The Callaghan government, of which Tony Benn was a part, introduced cuts and reactionary policies which paved the way for Thatcherism. When Labour was thrown out of office in 1979 a collective howl of rage from the left turned into the mass movement of Bennism. Tony Benn had been increasingly discomforted with Labour policies--aided no doubt by a 1976 Xmas stocking filler from Caroline of The Communist Manifesto--and now mounted a substantive challenge to Labour's right wing policies. Caroline completely supported and encouraged him in this aim, and was an enthusiastic campaigner for Bennism.
Tony Benn became a hate figure for the Labour leadership and the media, and his family suffered greatly as a result. He was obviously sustained during this time by his children and by Caroline in particular during the many defeats he suffered, first in his campaign for deputy leader which he lost by the narrowest of margins, and then when he lost his seat in Bristol in Labour's electoral wipeout of 1983.
Caroline spent years researching and writing the Keir Hardie biography which was published in 1997. It is a highly involved although critical study, which shows a deep understanding of labour movement history, and of the other forces involved in politics including the early Marxists. She was critical of these Marxists, often for good reasons on the grounds of sectarianism, and wanted a politics which embraced the left of Labour as well as the Marxists. In the few times that I met her she was never slow to raise political differences or mistakes which she thought Marxists had made, and she did so from the basis of a high level of knowledge.
After Tony won a by-election to represent Chesterfield in the mid-1980s he and Caroline turned increasingly to extra-parliamentary activity, supporting strikes, campaigns and movements for equality. She continued her campaigning for comprehensive education, although she was hindered from doing so--and from much other activity--towards the end of her life by her increasingly severe illness. But she had a commitment and care for the movement which shone through. I was privileged to be able to interview her on Labour's foundation a year ago. She told me then that she had not given a press interview for 30 years because of the terrible way she and her family had been treated, but that she would talk to socialists. She laughed when she told me that someone had recently phoned her from a national newspaper to ask her to talk about being the wife of a famous man. No one who met this intelligent, strong minded and independent woman could think for a moment that this was how she saw her role.
Her contribution as a campaigner, a writer and a socialist will be remembered for a long time. Her death is a loss not just for Tony, and their children and grandchildren, but for the whole movement.