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Hilary Benn in moving Commons tribute to dad Tony

Tony Benn

Tony Benn

LEEDS MP Hilary Benn received a round of applause today after he paid tribute to his father Tony for leading a life that “inspires and encourages” others.

Tony Benn renounced the peerage he inherited from his own father, his son told the House, because contrary to a once-held view that he was an aristocrat, his blood remained “the deepest red throughout his life”.

Speaking in the Commons, on behalf of his family after his father died aged 88 last week, Mr Benn thanked politicians across the House for their contributions, saying “just how much the words that we have heard today mean to us”.

He told MPs how much Tony Benn, who won 16 elections, “loved” Parliament and how he was devastated when he was initially barred from entering the Commons upon his father’s death in 1960, “because it was alleged that his blood was blue”.

Mr Benn told the House: “His blood was never blue, it was the deepest red throughout his life.”

He said: “That moment taught him that the right of people to choose who will represent them in this place, the very foundation of our democracy, was never, ever granted by those in power; it had to be fought for.

“That is why democracy is so precious. And his fight to stay in the Commons, I think, had a marked and profound effect upon his life.

“He loved this place. He loved the people who built it. Those who helped us in our work. He loved the debate and the argument. But he did not idealise Parliament. He saw it as a means to an end. To be a voice for the movements outside of these walls was seek to change the world for the better, as well as being a voice for the people who send us here and all of whom (we) have the privilege to represent.”

He said his father “was at heart not just a socialist, he was a non-conformist dissenter”.

Mr Benn added: “It is from the words and kindnesses of those whose lives he touched, that we, those who loved him most, take the greatest strength. After all, any life that inspires and encourages so many others, is a life that was well-lived.”

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “Tony Benn will be remembered as a dedicated constituency MP, a tireless campaigner and of course an astute political diarist.

“Our sincere condolences go to his family, including of course the Rt Honourable Member for Leeds Central (his son, Hilary), his friends and colleagues at this difficult time.”

The Lib Dem leader said: “Over his lifetime, Tony Benn went from being vilified to being lauded by the press.” He joked: “Perhaps there’s hope for all of us. Okay, perhaps not.”

Labour’s shadow deputy prime minister Harriet Harman described the politician as a romantic, family man, who doted on his wife and children.

“He proposed to Caroline only nine days after meeting her, explaining that it would have been sooner, but that he was quite shy,” she told the House.

“He later brought the bench on which they were sitting when he proposed, and it remained in their garden ‘til the end.”

Father of the House Sir Peter Tapsell told MPs that he is the only serving member who voted in favour of the Peerage Act of 1963, which enabled Mr Benn to renounce his father’s Stansgate viscouncy and return to the Commons.

Paying warm tribute, the veteran Conservative MP said: “In private life, he was a gentle, sweet, charming man with perfect manners.” Although he acknowledged that his personality “changed a little” in front of an audience.

“I would rank him with Nye Bevan, Michael Foot and Enoch Powell as the four finest parliamentary debaters during my half century in the House.

“At his best he was spellbinding, so that listening to him, one was sometimes in danger of being intellectually swept towards some of the wilder shores of politics.”

Sir Peter added: “Tony Benn was a great parliamentarian and a good man. England will remember him.”

Labour veteran Dennis Skinner recalled the “heady days” he spent with Mr Benn on demonstrations and picket lines in the 1970s, saying it was those events that shaped his Leftist sentiments.

“The truth was that those of us that were in the thick of it knew it was having a major effect.

“So let’s just examine what we say about Tony, he was shaped by events all his life.

“And he had an environment that was different to mine as a kid but then, as I say, it all changed.”

The MP for Bolsover, who knew Mr Benn for over 40 years and once counted him as a constituency neighbour in Chesterfield, joked about the former technology minister’s early take up of new gadgets.

Mr Skinner said: “He was very intelligent as well you know. He knew all about loads of subjects. I mean, he had a pager before MPs had them.

“He knew all about technology, it wasn’t just Concorde you know. He knew about it, he probably could have built it.

“He had a mobile phone before anybody else and he’s talking a language that I still don’t understand.

“He could have built a computer, he was very knowledgeable, except he didn’t know much about competitive sport.”

Mr Skinner received a small round of applause after the end of his speech in which he recalled his last meeting with Mr Benn, when the pair discussed a Labour Party conference.

“The day after the conference I went to find him and in typical Tony Benn fashion when I got there room K was empty.

“You feared the worst and somebody quickly said ‘I saw somebody wheeling him down in a wheelchair’.

“I got outside in a lovely little park in the autumn sunshine, just like his last book, and there he sat in the wheelchair with a fella who’d helped him with some television business or other, smoking his pipe.

“For three quarters of an hour the Tony Benn I knew and will always admire was sat in that chair lighting up three times and we talked about the Labour Party conference.”

He added: “I had a lot of enjoyable times with him and he was industrious, he was clever, he was a great diarist, he had a lot of qualities that all of us in our hearts really admire don’t we? And wish we possessed them all.”

Labour’s Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) recalled sharing a stage with Mr Benn at last year’s Glastonbury festival, where the late politician was a regular speaker.

Ms McCarthy said his ability to “totally inspire” a crowd of hungover music fans illustrated his lasting legacy, the belief that politics can make a difference.

Ms McCarthy said: “It took so long for the session to get going because he (Mr Benn) of course got a standing ovation as he was led up on to the stage, so many people wanted to shake his hand and just show how much they admired and respected his views.

“He spoke then, he was obviously in quite frail health, his hearing wasn’t great, I don’t think he could particularly hear the questions that were being put to him, but he spoke about the power of politics to affect social change.

“And in doing so, it was probably quite a hungover audience who had been up all night listening to music and doing various other things, but you could see he totally inspired them.

“Because even in his physical frailty and even in his advanced age he was saying ‘you can do something, you can achieve something just by the power of getting out there and keeping at it’.

“That is his lasting legacy, that he believed in politics.”

 

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