Archive of Tony Benn acquired for the nation

A selection of diaries from the Tony Benn Archive. Photo credit: British Library.

Arts Council England has today, 5 March 2019, announced that the archive of Tony Benn (3 April 1925 – 14 March 2014), Labour’s longest-serving MP, has been accepted in lieu of inheritance tax and permanently allocated to the British Library, in accordance with the condition attached to its offer.

The thorough archive was accumulated by Benn during his lifetime. It begins in his early youth, when he first started to keep a formal diary and associated papers (the earliest volume was written by Benn at the age of 9). It then spans the rest of his life, providing rich documentation of his active political career as well as a substantial collection of source material reflecting the history of the UK during this time.

Benn was a Member of Parliament for 47 years and served as a Cabinet minister in the Harold Wilson and James Callaghan administrations in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1960 he inherited a peerage on his father’s death (as 2nd Viscount Stansgate), which prevented him from continuing to serve as an MP. This spurred his campaign to renounce his title and remain in the House of Commons, leading to the creation of the Peerage Act in 1963.

In the Labour government of 1964-7 he served as Postmaster General and then Minister of Technology. In 1971-2 he was Chairman of the Labour Party, and during the Labour government of 1974-9 he returned to Cabinet, first as Secretary of State for Industry and then as Secretary of State for Energy. Throughout the 1980s, when Labour was the opposition again, Benn emerged as a prominent figure on its left wing, during which the term “Bennite” was coined and used to describe those associated with radical left-wing politics.

When Benn eventually left Parliament in 2001 he became President of the Stop the War Coalition, which he led until his death in 2014. He has been described as “one of the few UK politicians to have become more left-wing after holding ministerial office”.

The archive is especially rich in audio and video content, with thousands of hours of audio diaries recording Benn’s fresh, unedited impressions over many years. It represents a uniquely valuable resource for biographers, researchers and historians, particularly in the context of the British Library’s extensive oral history collections relating to UK politics and government.

Rachel Foss, Head of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library said: “Tony Benn’s Archive is an extraordinarily wide-ranging and rich resource for historians and researchers and is a great gift to the nation. The British Library is very grateful to the Benn family, to Arts Council England and to DCMS for making this acquisition possible through Acceptance in Lieu. The Benn Archive will be hugely valuable for current and future generations of researchers into post-war British politics and society, into the Labour Party and the labour movement, as well as into the long and influential career of Tony Benn himself. It is a very substantial addition to the British Library’s growing collections of contemporary archives in the field of politics, campaigning and activism. We look forward to making it available through our Reading Rooms at St Pancras and to working with partners to facilitate engagement with the archive across a wide range of audiences.”  

Michael Ellis, Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism said: “Tony Benn’s diaries provide a fascinating political and personal insight into a significant period of British and Parliamentary history. Irrespective of political views, these first-hand accounts, spanning more than 80 years, are a valuable resource for historians, students and the public. I am pleased that, thanks to the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, the Benn archive is being made available for all.”

Edward Harley, Chairman, Acceptance in Lieu Panel said: “This extensive archive of several hundred thousand documents covers Tony Benn’s long political career, along with the post-War history of the Labour party. Its research value is considerable and given Benn’s position at the centre of left wing politics in the second half of the 20th century, it has a close association with British history and national life. I am delighted that its acceptance and allocation to the British Library will mean that it will be a rich source of information for historians and students.”

Trustees of the Tony Benn Estate said: “It was Tony Benn’s wish that his political and personal papers should go to the British Library. This decision means that his unique archive will now be available to the public, academics and journalists wanting to understand more about his life and the period of politics it covered.”

To mark this acquisition by the British Library, there will be an event exploring the personal documenting of political life on Thursday 21 March in the British Library’s Knowledge Centre: The Diaries of Tony Benn and Chris Mullin with speakers Melissa Benn, Peter Hennessy, Chris Mullin and Ruth Winstone

For more information please contact:
Nisha Emich, Communications Officer, Arts Council England
Tel: 0207 268 9563/ Email:

Ben Sanderson, Head of Press and Communications, British Library
Tel: 01937 546126 / Email:


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Notes to Editors

Notes to editors

The acceptance of this archive settled £210,000 of tax.

Details of the archive are as follows:

Altogether the archive comprises several hundred thousand documents, in approximately 795 archive boxes, 46 storage crates (each containing 3-4 box files), 45 further loose box-files, 16 canisters of film and framed, rolled and loose posters and other items. It contains:

DIARIES & ASSOCIATED PAPERS –Diaries (manuscript 1942 to 1955; further original diaries including the dictated typescript diary from 1956 to 1968; audio thereafter); engagement diaries covering 1940s – 2008 in diary volumes until c. 1985 when they become computer print-outs annotated by Benn and his secretaries; ‘diary notes’ (engagement cards, autograph notes and typed minutes of meetings and conversations); the ‘diary archives’  (systematic recordings of his speeches, interviews and any other public pronouncements up to 9th May 2004, a total of c. 4,000 audio cassettes); and a series of ‘bedside diaries’ in which he noted family events for 1987 – 2008). Altogether 81 boxes and 19 box files. Audio diary, 1968-2007 on a series of cassettes contained in 18 box files. Diary notes in 63 box files and archive boxes. Diary archive: recordings of Benn’s every public utterance over the years 1974-2004, on approximately 4,000 cassettes, in 26 boxes.  Video and film, the majority on video cassettes in various formats, in 52 boxes.

THE POLITICAL & PERSONAL ARCHIVE OF HIS SPEECHES (an unbroken sequence from 1946 to 2005 which include speeches in the House of Commons, those at public meetings, as well as broadcasts and formal interviews usually in the form of transcripts). They are indexed by box usually with a note of the date, place and title of the speech. There are also undelivered speeches.  For key speeches, such as the 21st July 1969 one on science policy, it includes the full typescript and also the Hansard report.  This part also includes correspondence relating to public speaking arrangements and related press cuttings.

‘101’ FILES - Personal papers: ‘101 files’: the term ‘101’ appears to originate with Benn’s father and was apparently intended to designate papers of a more personal nature. It includes a few files of his parents’ ‘101’ papers between 1914 and 1929. Benn’s own begin with a single box covering his first ten years and thereafter 1-2 box files for each year. In the early years there is a lot of printed ephemera including old newspapers; his wartime training manuals, mementoes (cigarette cases, labels). There is the early correspondence between Benn and his wife Caroline (1948-9); and a mixture of correspondence, printed matter and personal ephemera and political material not relating to his official positions e.g. letters from Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson on subjects including race relations in Bristol, the Arab/Israeli situation, stamp designs, the Giro, and postman’s pay.

CORRESPONDENCE - groups of correspondence usually from members of the public on specific subjects or occasions – there is a voluminous series of ‘Get well cards’ in 1981 when he was struck down with Gullain-Barre syndrome at a crucial moment of the contest for the

deputy-leadership of the Labour Party (which he lost to Denis Healey by a margin of less than 1%).

POLITICAL FILES - briefs and other collated information used by Benn to inform his policy stances. It is chiefly printed (pamphlets, newspaper cuttings and other ephemera) together with related correspondence and notes e.g. a file labelled ‘Economic Policy Papers 1975’, which shows the working out of Benn’s personal economic policy in the form of autograph notes (‘Cannot ask Cabinet to a. abandon the social contract b. cement political suicide …’); an annotated typescript of the ‘Home Policy Committee Economic Report’, July 1975 (49 pages), together with further correspondence (incoming and draft outgoing), memoranda, reports and other matter (often annotated) relating to Benn’s economic policy stance whilst Secretary of State for Industry.

SUBJECT FILES: Benn’s Peerage Campaign. Material from Benn’s periods of ministerial office as Postmaster General, Minister of Technology and at the Department of Industry and then Energy. There are also boxes covering some of the key incidents in Benn’s career: his chairmanship of the Labour Party in 1971-2, the campaign for a European referendum and the referendum itself in 1975, the deputy-leadership election of 1981 and the leadership election of 1988.

Remaining subject files - Audio and video material: mostly the ‘diary archive’ in (1) but also a certain amount of additional material e.g. recordings of radio programmes and speeches not covered by the ‘diary archive’. The video archive is extensive, beginning with a small number of rolls of film of early family and political appearances, and comprising systematic recordings (usually on VHS) of Benn’s television appearances from 1980 onwards, of his parliamentary speeches from 1989 onwards, and ‘rushes’ and more finished versions of his more extended television projects, beginning with the coverage of the Chesterfield by-election in 1984.

Printed matter and objects - pamphlets; Benn’s own series of press cuttings 1946 – 2010; Labour Party conference reports, printed bills and Hansards recording Benn’s parliamentary activities and a small collection of political posters.

Photographs, political buttons, pictures and personal political mementoes – including mementoes and desk furniture, political and ministerial gifts, political placards, a collection of political badges and several boxes of old cameras, tape-recorders and other devices.

Because of its size and extent, the Benn Archive is likely to take several years to catalogue fully and make available to the public. As well as devoting its own resources and expertise to this end, the British Library will also be fundraising externally to support the cataloguing of the Benn Archive.

The Acceptance in Lieu scheme is administered by the Arts Council. The Acceptance in Lieu Panel, chaired by Edward Harley, advises on whether property offered in lieu is of suitable importance and offered at a value which is fair to both nation and taxpayer. AIL allows those who have a bill to Inheritance Tax to pay the tax by transferring important cultural, scientific or historic objects to the nation.  Material accepted under the scheme is allocated to public collections and is available for all. In the last decade this important government initiative has brought over £330m worth of treasures into public ownership for the enjoyment of all - see more at:

The Arts Council is the national development body for arts and culture across England, working to enrich people’s lives. We support a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries – from theatre to visual art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts to collections. Great art and culture inspires us, brings us together and teaches us about ourselves and the world around us. In short, it makes life better. Between 2018 and 2022, we will invest £1.45 billion of public money from government and an estimated £860 million from the National Lottery to help create these experiences for as many people as possible across the country.

For more information:

Ben Sanderson
The British Library
t: +44 (0)1937 546 126

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