Tony Benn, daddy of Brit IT biz ICL and pro-tech politician, dies at 88
State-sponsored IT industry architect who put the E back into Concorde
Obituary Tony Benn, the modernising Labour MP who tried to pit British technology against US giants has died at the age of 88.
It was Benn, a minister in two Labour governments during the 1960s and 1970s, who created ICL (International Computers Limited) to take on the growing might of IBM. It was mainframes at dawn in the post-war computing revolution.
Benn took on US aircraft giant Boeing, too, as the Anglo-French Concorde project received his personal patronage - and his protection - as a minister.
A former wartime RAF pilot, Benn saved the supersonic airliner project from the beancounters of HM Treasury, who wanted to cut its funding.
Thanks to Benn, the first Concorde broke the sound barrier in 1969, with 20 aircraft eventually constructed.
Benn’s activities were remarkable given most politicians like to leave technology to somebody else. They are all the more remarkable given Benn’s background.
Born on April 3, 1925, as Anthony Wedgwood Benn and elected to Parliament in 1950, Benn was a conundrum from the start. A Labour MP, for the Bristol South East constituency, he hailed from both a liberal and a privileged background: his father and grandfather had served the Liberal Party, while Benn himself had achieved an RAF commission and studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University. He also stood to inherit a peerage from his father, the Viscount of Stansgate, but managed to get the law changed to allow him to renounce the title and resume his Commons seat.
It seems unthinkable that an individual from such a privileged and artsy background would grapple with something so modern as technology, but that’s what he did.
An outspoken critic of the class system, maybe it was his privileged upbringing that helped drive Benn so strongly on innovation and change.
Whether he would have admitted it or not, for a socialist Benn also had a strong nationalist streak, despite liking to link hands and sing The Red Flag at Labour Party events during the 1970s and 1980s.
It was Benn who was given a large part in implementing Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” agenda.
In 1963, Prime Minister Wilson had delivered a speech to the Labour Party saying that for Britain to prosper it must be forged in the “white heat” of a science and technology revolution. He committed to setting up a Ministry of Technology to lead this.
Upon winning the 1964 general election Wilson made Benn Postmaster General, which post allowed Benn to oversee the opening of London's Post Office Tower, now known as the BT Tower.
Construction had started in 1961 under the Conservatives and the project cost £2.4m. Packed with radio equipment and standing at 189 metres, the tower’s circular construction was conceived as a way to align the various aerials in any direction. For most, the main attraction was the revolving restaurant at the top.
But it was in IT where Benn’s impact was felt most, serving in the newly created position of Minister of Technology between 1966 and 1970.
Benn created ICL through the Industrial Expansion Act, which merged two companies - International Computers and Tabulators (ICT) and English Electric Computers.
English Electric had been formed through an earlier merger with Leo Computers, the computing systems and services spin out from bakery and tea-shop owners Lyons, who developed the world’s first business computer – the LEO.
Benn’s thinking was that only one big British tech company could act as a national champion and stand up to IBM, which was flogging the then-new S/360 mainframes to businesses and governments across the world. Leo Computers had been going toe-to-toe against IBM in Eastern Europe and the USSR with the LEO III. ICL went up against the S/360 with the ICT 1900 Series mainframe and the System 4, a range of IBM-compatible mainframe clones.
This was the era of nationalisation, when political orthodoxy held choice and competition were best served by having a single service provider in each sector. From railways to airlines, the telephone to fuel, the British state provided all through one-time household names such as British Rail, British Airways, British Telecom and British Gas.
Benn pulled a similar trick in cars. He persuaded the Leyland Motor Corporation and loss-making British Motor Holdings to merge to form a "national champion" against US car makers. He was concerned BMC would be swallowed up by a US carmaker, having lost Rootes Group to Chrysler in 1966.
Thus British Leyland was created in 1968. Creaking and infamously strike-prone seven years later, Trade and Industry minister Benn stepped in to nationalise the company.
However, fourth largest computer company in Europe – not even the world – was the best that ICL could ever achieve. The firm was bought by Fujitsu in 1998 with the ICL brand killed in 2001.
Benn’s other great act was in stewarding Concorde. The Anglo-French project began, like the Post Office Tower, under Harold Macmillan's Conservative government in 1962.
It was a project intended to tackle Boeing’s dominance of the aircraft market with a European venture to launch a fleet of commercial supersonic airliners. The aeroplane was developed and built by British Aerospace and French firm Aerospatiale.
The project came under Benn’s area of responsibility in 1967. He didn’t just care about flying as a former RAF pilot, or take a novel interest in this as some kind of quaint technology venture - Benn had a vested interest too. Many of his constituents worked on the Bristol Siddeley engines in the Bristol area. He is credited with reversing a previous British decision to drop the final "e" from Concorde, reportedly taken by Harold Macmillan in response to a slight by French president Charles de Gaulle.
The 1970 election saw Labour ousted from office, meaning Benn lost his cabinet post. He returned to government with a new Labour administration in 1974, though, serving as Secretary of State for Industry, minister for post and telecommunications from 1974 – 75 and Secretary of State for Energy between 1975 and 1979.
The 1970s also saw Benn move to the left, becoming a firebrand speaker on politics as the Labour party became redder. It was during this time, too, that he ripped the last trapping of his upper-class background from his name, making it known he wanted to be known simply as Tony Benn. ®
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