Tony Benn 1925 – 2014

Tony Benn 1925 – 2014
Tony Benn 1925 – 2014
Ian Dunt By

Tony Benn, one of Britain's towering political figures and a figurehead of the far-left, has died at home following a period of severe ill-health.

The former Labour MP, who was instantly recognisable for his pipe and over-sized cup of tea, served as a Cabinet minister under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, but he will be associated for many thousands of younger people as a constant figure at socialist and anti-war protests.

His children Stephen, Hilary, Melissa and Joshua said:

"We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to all the NHS staff and carers who have looked after him with such kindness in hospital and at home.

"We will miss above all his love which has sustained us throughout our lives. But we are comforted by the memory of his long, full and inspiring life and so proud of his devotion to helping others as he sought to change the world for the better."

Leading the political tributes, Ed Miliband said:

"The death of Tony Benn represents the loss of an iconic figure of our age.

"He will be remembered as a champion of the powerless, a great parliamentarian and a conviction politician.

"Tony Benn spoke his mind and spoke up for his values. Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, everyone knew where he stood and what he stood for.

"For someone of such strong views, often at odds with his party, he won respect from across the political spectrum.

"This was because of his unshakeable beliefs and his abiding determination that power and the powerful should be held to account.

"He believed in movements and mobilised people behind him for the causes he cared about, often unfashionable ones. In a world of politics that is often too small, he thought big about our country and our world.

"Above all, as I had cause to know, he was an incredibly kind man. I did work experience with him at the age of 16. I may have been just a teenager but he treated me as an equal. It was the nature of the man and the principle of his politics.

"I saw him for the last time a couple of weeks ago in hospital. He may have been ailing in body but was as sharp as ever in mind. As I left he said to me 'Well, old son. Let's have a proper talk when you have more time.' As he said of his wife Caroline at her funeral, he showed us how to live and how to die.

"All of my condolences go to his children Stephen, Hilary, Melissa and Joshua and his wider family. In their own ways, they are all a tribute to him as a father, a socialist, and a most decent human being."

David Cameron said:

"I am sorry to hear that Tony Benn has died. He was a magnificent writer, speaker, diarist and campaigner, with a  strong record of public and political service.

"There was never a dull moment listening to him, even when you disagreed with everything he said."

Ukip leader Nigel Farage said:

"Tony was also one of the few people I have ever known who totally ignored the ban on smoking in public places. He used to tell me that given that he was in his eighties he didn’t think anyone would make a fuss.

"Naturally we disagreed about many things. But on the fundamental question of democracy and a nation’s right to self-government we were completely at one. Britain has lost a giant political figure and my thoughts today are with his family."

Alex Salmond said:

"His comment that he left parliament in 2001 to spend more time in politics is one of the great political quotes of this period and all the more relevant since it coincided with his campaigning against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Like many young parliamentarians I found Tony Benn supportive and helpful, regardless of political differences and it was on his unfailing courtesy to opponents that much of his cross-party respect was founded."

Len McClusky, Unite leader, said:

"He was a hero to me and to millions more not only because of what he advocated – social justice, democracy and peace – but because of the way he advocated it, with passion, decency and without malice against anyone.

"His life is a rebuke to all those who are cynical about politics and politicians, and I hope that all today’s political leaders will pause for a moment to reflect on why Tony Benn was held in such high esteem by so many from all walks of life."

Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett said:

"Tony Benn was a man who fully lived his personal values. He believed what he said and said what he believed. History will remember him as towering figure who stood against the neoliberal consensus in the period of its ascendancy and was proved to be right in many of his critiques of it."

Benn held a crucial constitutional role in British politics by forcing the country's first referendum, on Britain's membership of the European Economic Community, and by refusing to become the 2nd Viscount Stansgate.

He was already an MP, for Bristol South-East, when the death of his father automatically made him the new Lord Stansgate.

He was subsequently barred from the Commons by Speaker, despite his refusal to accept the hereditary peerage. Buckingham Palace would not take back the Stansgate Letters Patent and some newspapers insisted on referring to him as Viscount Stansgate.

The Committee of Privileges ruled against him and Benn was expelled from the Commons.

In a gripping move of high political drama he fought a by-election, which was supported by Winston Churchill.

He defeated Tory Malcolm St Clair, who was also the heir to a title, by 13,044 votes, but again the Speaker barred him and St Clair took his seat.

A select committee later accepted his arguments, however, and recommended hereditary peers be allowed to renounce their title. St Clair resigned and Benn defeated a handful of independents to take his seat in the Commons.

In 1972 he was pivotal in forcing a referendum on Europe – still the only one which has been held – in which he campaigned for a 'no' vote.

He was given a copy of the Communist Manifesto by his wife, Caroline, and wrote in his diary: "Without having read any Communist text, I had come to Marx’s view."

He became the figurehead of the left of the party, blocking action against Trotskyite group Militant Tendency, calling for a wave of further nationalisations, sometimes through expropriation, and lionising trade unions.

He also called for unilateral nuclear disarmament and the abolition of the House of Lords.

His fight against Denis Healey for the deputy leadership was a battle for the soul of the party, with repercussions which led, ultimately, to the pursuit of a more centrist political agenda.

He was eventually voted off the shadow Cabinet. This began a period of declining political influence, in which he was ousted from the National Executive Committee's home policy chair role, following an ultra-left manifesto branded by Gerald Kaufman as "the longest suicide note in history".

Benn failed in his pitched political battles against Neil Kinnock's abandonment of unilateralism, John Smith's adoption of one-member-one-vote and Tony Blair's scrapping of Clause Four.

He was voted off the National Executive Committee in 1993, after 31 years.

He retired in 2001, saying he was leaving Westminster to "spend more time on politics".

Outside the Commons he became a regular figure on the far-left, constantly touring TV studios, lecture halls, demonstrations and debates with a frantic intensity even into his later years.

But he was perhaps best known among young people for his anti-war activity as president of the Stop the War Coalition.


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