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Westminster unites for Tony Benn’s final farewell

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Trade unionists, hard-right Tories and even a former IRA commander united to pay a final tribute to Labour stalwart and former Yorkshire MP Tony Benn at an emotional farewell in Westminster.

Labour leader Ed Miliband, shadow chancellor Ed Balls and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper in St Margaret’s Church, which was packed to its 750-strong capacity, for the funeral of the former cabinet minister.

But, in a mark of Mr Benn’s influence and standing, the congregation also drew figures from across the political spectrum. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander who is now Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister joined Conservatives including chief whip Sir George Young, his predecessor Andrew Mitchell, Michael Heseltine and prominent backbencher Bill Cash along with former Liberal leader Lord Steel for the ceremony.

Traditional Labour anthem The Red Flag played quietly as members of the Benn family carried the coffin out of the church but, as the hundreds of mourners queued to leave they broke out into a spontaneous rendition of the song.

In all hundreds of well wishers gathered to listen to the service, which was being broadcast on loudspeakers, and frequently cheered and broke into applause as Mr Benn’s family shared memories.

In the moving hour-long service mourners were brought to tears and roused to laughter as his children Stephen, Hilary, Melissa and Joshua, as well as Mr Benn’s brother David recounted tales of family life.

Oldest son Stephen said: “The very last words he heard on this earth was the four of us telling him we loved him.”

Daughter Melissa told the congregation her father was a “funny and mischievous” man who loved to play pranks but was also deeply emotional.

“He was never ashamed of showing his feelings,” she said. “He laughed and cried easily. He was an unabashed sentimentalist. He loved a film like the Railway Children so much tears would be rolling down his checks at the opening credits.”

David told how his brother had been radicalised during his childhood by his public school education “which he loathed”, and after being outraged by the treatment of black Africans he saw when travelling the world during his time in the forces.

Hilary Benn, shadow communities secretary and MP for Leeds Central, told how his father had been an inspiration.

“As a father he was always willing to offer advice. Once, he was taken ill at the Labour Party Conference. My brother and I tracked him down to an ambulance. He was lying there on a stretcher with an oxygen mask on.

“As we set off for hospital, his finger rose and beckoned. I leaned over.

“Dad, dad what is it?”

He pulled down the mask and said: “Now, H about your speech to conference this week”. I knew then that he was going to be alright just as I know now how much I will miss his wisdom.

“Life taught him that ideas and movements have the power to transform our world, and that’s why he was so determined to support others in their struggles.

“And he taught us that a better world is possible - at times seen clearly, at others only faintly glimpsed - but in so doing he inspired others to believe that too.

“For any man, for any life, to do that alone is to tell the story of a life fulfilled.”

Earlier, the former cabinet minister’s coffin was driven the short distance from the Palace of Westminster’s Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, where his body laid in rest overnight.

A memorial meeting will be held later in the year.

 

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