London — For many months, a courtly aristocrat-turned-socialist has worried Washington and shaken up the British political scene with a skillful campaign to seize control of the opposition Labour Party for his own far- left ideas.
Now in a single dramatic scene in a paneled room in the House of Commons, Tony Benn has run into the first show of tough opposition from his party's leader, the Oxford don with the shock of white hair, Michael Foot.
The clash has galvanized the political world here. It has heartened Labour moderates; it has given Mr. Foot sudden new stature in the country; it has served notice on the far left that the moderates have begun to fight back after monts of setbacks.
And it comes at a time of political movement and fluidity among the new Social Democrats (bidding for the center ground) and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government (right of center).
Mr. Benn, a minister in Labour governments since the early '60s, and son of the late Viscount Stansgate, told this correspondent and others that the British capitalist system simply doesn't work and must be radically changed.
He wants to nationalize all schools, hospitals, and other services. He wants a socialist system that his detractors say goes too far.
He wants Britain out of NATO, and nuclear weapons out of Britain. He would withdraw at once from the European Community.
Shrewdly, he has worked behind the scenes with university-educated hard-left young Labour activists in the local grassroot constituency parties around the country. At the annual party conference last year, at the Wembly conference this January, and since, he has gathered more and more control over party policymaking. Lately he has begun to attack Mr. Foot's shadow cabinet for allegedly failing to implement policy set by the conference.
On April 2 Mr. Benn announced he would fight Dennis Healey for the party's deputy leadership at the annual conference in Brighton. "But everyone knows Tony's aim is the top spot, complete control," says one Labour insider.
Mr. Benn began to flout the shadow cabinet line on a number of issues, including Northern Ireland and defense. He rejected rebukes from Mr. Foot that he was breaking shadow cabinet discipline. He reflects the pent-up frustration of many radical left- wingers who blame Labour members of Parliament for repeatedly ignoring or diluting conference decisions.
Mr. Foot decided to strike back. His own reputation for leadership was slipping. On June 3 at a showdown shadow cabinet meeting he directly challenged Mr. Benn. "Don't fight Dennis Healey for deputy leader," he said in effect. "Fight me."
The shadow cabinet, with the exception of Mr. Benn, pounded the table in surprised approval.
Mr. Foot himself has good left-wing credentials. He supports withdrawal from the European Community, nuclear disarmament, a new study of options on Northern Ireland, and government stimulus for the economy. By attacking the shadow cabinet, he said, Mr. Benn was, in effect, attacking Mr. Foot himself.
Mr. Benn appeared startled. Several hours later he refused to challenge Mr. Foot. He said he supported Mr. Foot as leader, but would continue to challenge the more moderate Mr. Healey.
"Tony had to refuse, because Michael would have beaten him soundly," said one party member in an interview. The party man aligned with the Foot camp went on: "Now Michael can attack Tony again and again for failing to take up the challenge. Tony is on the defensive now for the first time in months."
A third candidate for deputy leader is John Silkin. He is expected to take votes away from Mr. Benn. Mr. Foot has yet to endorse either Mr. Silken or Mr. Benn.
The road ahead for Mr. Foot is difficult. Mr. Benn can count on considerable grassroots support. If he beats Mr. Healey, he will claim the virtual leadership of the party.