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Tony Benn Roadshow

SUNDAY 14th July 2002
Tony Benn is on tour. For the first time in his life he's not campaigning for any party or any cause other than his desire to take real politics to real people.

The show offers the politician unplugged, face-to-face with an audience asking unvetted questions.

About Tony Benn

The Sun newspaper asked "Is this the most dangerous man in Britain?" Fellow socialist and MP, Tony Crosland, said he was "just a bit cracked", while Harold Wilson called him a man "who immatured with age". One of the country's highest-profile politicians, Tony Benn has weathered criticism from all sides of Westminster.

During half a century in the Commons, Benn's extreme opinions and powerful rhetoric made him one of Parliament's most entertaining advocates, but also the thorn in the side of more than one government.

No longer an MP, he is now in a position to, as he describes it, "spend more time with politics". The consummate arch-agitator, Benn certainly has little in common with today's Labour image-shapers, but swimming against the party tide is nothing new for him.

Although he held office in every Labour government of the 60s and 70s, his left leanings and affiliation with the trade unions always caused his colleagues some anxiety. When he nearly defeated Denis Healey for the post of deputy leader in 1981, his opponent felt that Benn "came close to destroying the Labour Party as a force in twentieth century politics".

These were harsh words about a man whose veins contain pure party blood. Born at 40 Millbank, the very site of New Labour's HQ, young Tony's neighbours were Sidney and Beatrice Webb, authors of the formerly hallowed Clause IV of the party's constitution, which advocated nationalisation. The party may have changed its spots, but Benn hasn't.

His father was a leading Liberal peer who defected to Labour in 1927. As a child, Tony encountered such figures as Sir Oswald Mosley and Ramsay MacDonald, and in 1931, when his father served as Secretary of State for India, he even met Mahatma Gandhi.

Anthony Wedgwood Benn's background includes Westminster School and Oxford University. He worked in the RAF and the BBC before becoming MP for Bristol South East, aged 25.

Like his father before him, Tony Benn is a chronic chronicler, with a basement-filling archive of his voluminous diaries and tape recordings of his political journey. And he has drunk enough cups of tea to displace the QE2.

But if this charmed lifestyle appears that of someone cutting a very English, almost colonial, dash, Benn defies typecasting. A keen technocrat, he supported computers and Concorde during his time in Parliament.

He condemned apartheid in South Africa, the first MP to table such a motion. And he married an American, his "socialist soulmate" Caroline, whom he proposed to nine days after they met, and whom he lost to breast cancer in 1999.

Concerned with issues, not people, Benn is neither a monarchist nor a hypocrite. He spearheaded his own monumental crusade against the class divide in 1960 when he inherited a peerage on his father's death. Benn fought a long but ultimately victorious battle to relinquish his title and remain an MP.

This huge gesture has always sat well with Tony Benn's espousal of the working class, but his son Hilary, who has followed him into parliament, realised there was something more personal at stake. When the family attended the High Court in 1961, he remembers, "We knew my father was fighting for his job."

More than 40 years later, the same man shows no sign of mellowing in his outspokenness, ideas or commitment to democracy. For Tony Benn, there is still work to be done.