As others have already commented, Tony Benn will be remembered as a dedicated constituency Member of Parliament, a tireless campaigner and, of course, an astute political diarist. He once described being an MP as the only job with 70,000 employers and only one employee. Our sincere condolences go to his family—including, of course, Hilary Benn—and his friends and colleagues at this difficult time.
Countless people, regardless of whether they knew Tony Benn well personally or by reputation alone, have spoken of his kindness, charm and sense of humour. It was these qualities which, among so many other achievements, helped him get the better of Ali G in a way that very few people have before or since. I am sure I am not the only one who remembers watching and admiring Tony Benn in that interview.
Many of the battles Tony Benn fought were very much of their time, such as for renationalisation and turning back the tide of globalisation. Yet on so many other issues, Tony Benn was far ahead of his time. This includes his passionate commitment to protect civil liberties, promote equality and secure political reform in Britain; I could have done with him being here when we last discussed House of Lords reform. His campaign against Britain’s membership of the European Union—something I, of course, did not agree with him on—will loom large in this year’s European elections.
Above all else, Tony Benn was a dedicated democrat. He never forgot the struggles of those who, down the years, have fought for the right to vote, speak and be heard, as his now famous memorial to the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison in a broom cupboard nearby so wonderfully demonstrates, and this uplifting idea to help people realise the power they have to change the world for the better will be his lasting legacy.
Everyone who heard Tony Benn speak, whether they shared his views or not, could not help but admire and learn from the passion and conviction he brought to the causes he believed in. Over his lifetime, Tony Benn went from being vilified to being lauded by the press; perhaps there is hope for all of us. [Interruption.] Okay; perhaps not. He had mixed feelings about this. He once said:
“If I’m a national treasure in the Telegraph,something’s gone wrong.”
This modesty and humour was typical, but as I learned as an East Midlands MEP, representing Tony Benn’s constituency in Chesterfield, the public had a deep respect and affection for him. He had a genuine interest in people and time for everyone he met, and thanks to his diaries people will continue to be inspired by his life and work for many years to come.
This is a parliamentary occasion to remember Tony Benn, but it was a parliamentary occasion every time Tony Benn spoke in this House, and before the House was televised I well remember that when we saw the name “Tony Benn” on the monitor we would all stop what we were doing in our offices and rush into this Chamber to hear him. All those who passionately agreed with him and those who passionately disagreed with him would be here to listen.
He was a great orator both inside and outside this House, and what made his oratory great was not just his formidable intellect—although he had that—or his great historical knowledge, although he had that too: it was that he spoke out of conviction and he always spoke from the heart.
He was first elected to this House in 1950 but was concerned that upon his father’s death his inheritance of a peerage would disqualify him from serving his constituents who had elected him to this House. On his father’s death in 1960 he was disqualified, but fought his way back to this House through the Peerage Act 1963 and a by-election.
When Labour formed a Government in 1964 he became Postmaster General and then Minister of Technology, and with Labour in power again from 1974 to 1979 he became Secretary of State for Industry and then Secretary of State for Energy, and he encouraged a number of workers’ co-operatives, the most notable of which was Meriden in the midlands, which continued to produce Triumph motorcycles for another decade.
What drove him on was his belief in the power of people, as the Deputy Prime Minister said: the power of ordinary people, through their trade unions and their votes, to bring about change—and change for the better. His commitment was to the historic fight against social injustice, but he was never locked in the past. He embraced myriad new movements, such as the green movement and the women’s movement. Because he believed in movements—the power of people working together to make change—he was always encouraging people and giving them the confidence that they could do that.
Everyone who ever met Tony has their own story about that, and this is mine. Back in the mid-1980s, as the only woman MP with very young children and finding it quite impossible to cope, I was sitting by myself in the corner of the Strangers caff. It was 11 o’clock at night and we were still waiting for a vote, and I was feeling terrible. Tony came and sat down next to me, and said, “You look exhausted. You should be at home.” I said that I could not go home, because I had not been let off by the Whips. He said, “I can give you a really important piece of advice for your future. You do not have to worry about the Whips; I never do.” So I was sent home to my family by Tony Benn, himself a great family man.
The public know Tony Benn for his passion for politics, but his other great lifelong passion was his family: his wife, his children and his grandchildren. He proposed to Caroline only nine days after meeting her, explaining that it would have been sooner but he was quite shy. He later bought the bench on which they were sitting when he proposed, and it remained in their garden until the end. He was enormously and justifiably proud of his children: his daughter Melissa, so like her mother, and his sons Joshua, Stephen and Hilary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central, so like him. His legacy is not just to the House and to progressive politics in this country, but in the values and commitment taken forward by his children and grandchildren, to whom we extend our sympathy and with whom we share the grief of the loss of a great parliamentarian and a great politician.
I am the only Member still in the House who voted in favour of the 1963 Peerage Bill, which enabled Tony Benn to renounce his distinguished father’s Stansgate viscountcy and return to us here. At the time, it was a controversial vote. Earlier, he had been elected as a Member of Parliament at the age of 25, when I, just back from the Army, was in my first year at Oxford. Very shortly after his election he came, in full evening dress, to debate at the Oxford Union. He was strikingly handsome. The president of the Union introduced him to us with the words, “I call upon the honourable Anthony Wedgwood Benn, Member of Parliament, New college ex-president, to address the house.” He made a stunning speech. I remember thinking to myself, “How am I ever going to be able to compete with that?” Of course, I never was able to. Very few people were ever able, as orators, to do so.
Tony Benn was always kind to me, particularly at the time of the debates on the Maastricht treaty. I even had the privilege, over the years, of occasionally being invited to drink his strong, unsweetened Darjeeling tea from one of his huge tin mugs: the Benn equivalent of a companionship of honour. In private life, he was a gentle, sweet, charming man, with perfect manners. His personality changed a little when he had an audience to address. He was a brilliant, rather demagogic speaker—fluent, witty, forceful and above all, passionate—as much a master of the public platform as of the Chamber of this House. 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. Harold Wilson—they were chalk and cheese—famously said of him that he was the only man he had ever known who immatured as he grew older, but that was his great charm: he always retained his youthful enthusiasm and boyish zest, and the conviction that his words could make the world a better place. Those are qualities that many women, in particular, find attractive. My French wife thought that he was delightful and great fun. His enchanting American wife adored him as he did her. Tony Benn was a great parliamentarian and a good man. England will remember him.
Tony Benn was a widely misunderstood and misrepresented man, as visionaries have always been down the ages. But the ideas for which he stood— democracy against corporate domination; national sovereignty against globalisation; transparency of the workings of power; the need for accountability in all institutions; and the rights of the industrial working class against an oppressive economic system—will live on after him and are as vibrant today as they were when he first entered public life.
Tony Benn was the architect of the big picture—the ultimate fundamental goals to which politics should aspire, beyond the day-to-day detail. Like reformers before him, he asked uncomfortable questions and he challenged a cosy consensus in which perhaps too many around him seemed to be cocooned. At its most poignant, he would press whether the Labour party was really fulfilling the role for which it was founded, and whether its MPs and trade union leaders were really accountable to those they represented.
Fundamental to Tony’s beliefs was his insight that real and lasting change comes about only from below; the role of Parliament, all too often, is largely to ratify what was already inevitable. That is certainly proving to be right in respect of the biggest issue in contemporary politics: the clinging on by the political establishment to an irretrievably broken system of neo-liberal market capitalism. The public are deeply opposed to a harsh, unjust and seemingly endless austerity and to its exploitation by a greedy and selfish 1% who are super-rich. But it seems that nothing much is going to happen on that score until there is an explosion in the streets, just like the anti-poll tax riots that brought down Thatcher. Tony Benn would have understood that all too well and he would have agitated for it.
It was that which led him to support many strikes and acts of civil disobedience. His dramatic intervention in the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders strike in 1971 forced Heath to change direction—to move away from deflationary policies and begin to pull unemployment down below 1 million. But of course such things were not always successful. The National Union of Mineworkers strike in 1984-85 was a turning point, both industrially and politically, and Benn lent it his wholehearted support. It is only now becoming fully clear just how far the illicit machinations of a semi-militaristic state were brought to bear to thwart the legitimate rights of the trade union opposing the wholesale closure of the mines. The strike failed, but just as the Astbury judgment and the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act 1927 led ultimately to the full reinstatement of the unions’ role in industrial life by the Attlee Government of 1945-51, so the illegitimate use of the instruments of tyranny against the miners three decades ago may yet again see the restoration of the unions to their central role in this nation’s industrial and economic life.
Benn also realised that the Labour party would only ever fulfil its fundamental role in championing the industrial working class if power was shared between the parliamentary Labour party on the one hand and the national executive committee, constituency parties, trade unions and annual conference on the other. The devolving of power to the grassroots—in particular the Wembley conference of 1980 on the electoral college to elect the leader—proved too much for the right wing of the party, which defected to set up its own party, the Social Democratic party, which soared and then crashed. It is often said that that split, for which, on a wholly lopsided view, Benn was held responsible, paved the way for the Thatcherite ascendancy. That is nonsense. Thatcher won the following election in 1983 for quite different reasons. The economy was already recovering strongly after the deep recession of 1980-81, and Thatcher herself had become a transformative heroic figure after the Falklands.
Some unsympathetic commentators have also observed, rather gleefully, that Tony failed in the practical achievement of his goals. Well, here again, I think that Tony may well have the last laugh, as we may, in other respects, see many of his aspirations coming to fruition after his death. Polling shows clearly huge majorities today in support of taking back rail and energy into public ownership, imposing rent controls to stop ever-rising and unaffordable rents, building a crash programme of social housing for the near 2 million households on council waiting lists, cracking down hard on industrial-scale tax avoidance and evasion, and making the 1,000 most ultra-rich persons contribute a fair share of their £190 billion ill-gotten gains in wealth since the 2008 crash, which I might add that many of them helped to cause.
We have also seen mass movements beginning to influence the politics of this country, which certainly reflects the Bennite inheritance. A range of different organisations such as the Occupy movement against the stock exchange, UK Uncut demonstrations against massive tax avoidance and the People’s Assembly Against Austerity all represent collective action from below, forcing issues up the political agenda and compelling those with wealth and power to respond and to make concessions and change direction. They are proving Tony Benn right about how politics is driven.
Asked how he wanted to be remembered, Tony said, “that I have given people hope”. There is already anger enough in this country at how it has been dragged into the deepest abyss for a century. What people want today is hope that a different and better world is possible. Tony Benn, as a charismatic and inspiring leader, gave that hope to millions of people. His unremitting campaigning for the rights of workers, for accountability and for democracy and redress against wealth and power leaves a demand for justice and a legacy of hope that will inspire generations to come.
Had the late Tony Benn being making the speech of Mr Meacher, this Chamber would have been full. I trust that Hilary Benn will not think me impertinent for intervening. I did not know Tony Benn as well as many Members on the Opposition Benches did or as well as my right hon. Friend Sir Peter Tapsell did, but I want briefly to recognise his huge humanity and conduct as a Member of this House. I did not share his politics—I fundamentally disagreed with more or less everything he ever said—but I got to know his humanity.
After he had left this House, he and I very occasionally spoke on the same platforms—at meetings of Liberty, for example, discussing the previous Government’s proposals on identity cards and other forms of, as we thought, excessive Government interference in the life of the individual. There were occasions when we would walk back from halls to the tube station or bus stop and he would talk to me as if I had known him for ever, utterly without side and utterly unconcerned that I was a member of the Conservative party and he was not, but the occasion I remember most clearly is the one when he stood at that Dispatch Box with his son, introducing him to this House. The sheer pride of a father for his son was palpable. That is evidence, it seems to me, that we were looking not just at the typical two-dimensional modern politician but at the three-dimensional transparent decency of a very great man.
I am incredibly proud, as the Member of Parliament for Chesterfield, to add a few words of tribute on behalf of the people of Chesterfield. I know that many people in the Chamber will have known Tony better individually and others can do better justice to his overall history and politics, but I want to get across why people in Chesterfield felt so immensely proud to have Tony as our Member of Parliament. He arrived in Chesterfield in 1984 and, unusually, at the time he became our Member of Parliament he was already famous. Most new MPs are at the start of their careers, but of course he had had 30 years in Parliament and was already very much a national figure.
His becoming the Member of Parliament for Chesterfield at that time could not have been scripted by a Hollywood director. Of course, we had had the catastrophic 1983 election in which he had lost his seat, and who knows how different the history of the Labour party would have been if he had been in this place for the subsequent leadership contest. Eric Varley, who is also remembered tremendously fondly in Chesterfield, stood down as our Member of Parliament and Tony was the overwhelming choice of the members. The shortlist of candidates was very strong, but he was the choice.
Just days after he became the Member of Parliament for Chesterfield, the miners’ strike started. To be in Chesterfield is to understand the totemic nature of the miners’ strike in the history of the town, because it challenged everything that people in Chesterfield considered Chesterfield to be all about. The work that Tony did with my hon. Friend Mr Skinner to support the miners, keep people’s spirits up and show a sense of pride in, and solidarity with, the miners enabled him, as an outsider in a small northern town who did not have a connection with the town, to build up a connection with the town in the space of a year that would otherwise have taken 10, 15 or 20 years to build.
What has come across strongly to me as the Member of Parliament in the past few days is the sense of pride that everyone had in having him as our Member of Parliament. Government Members have said a couple of times, almost apologetically, that they did not agree with much of his politics, but that was the point. He knew that they did not agree with his politics and there is no need to apologise for that. Many people in Chesterfield who also would not have agreed with his politics still had a tremendous sense of pride about having this national figure as our Member of Parliament, and in having someone who had such obvious warmth and affection for everything that a working-class town such as Chesterfield stood for. He was constantly there in the Labour club at weekends, even though he was not a drinker. He would attend the May day marches and rallies that we have in Chesterfield and give the most wonderful inspirational speeches. Sir Peter Tapsell spoke about how people could be swept away by his spellbinding oratory into almost recognising everything that he said and wanting to jump aboard. I have been at general committee meetings of Chesterfield Labour party when I have thought, “I know I don’t agree with this stuff, but it kind of sounds convincing.” He had immense power and ability, which so very few people have, and which is being strongly reflected here.
The other point that came across when people in Chesterfield came into the Labour club to sign the book of condolences was, yes, we had this national figure, yes, the moment we said “Chesterfield” everyone thought of Tony Benn, but we also had someone who an old lady could come and talk to about what to many would seem a trivial matter. He would stop everything, and for that 10 or 15 minutes, the old lady sitting in front of him was the most important thing in the world. Some people said, “I bet he was interested in huge national causes and changing the face of the Labour party but not in the constituency,” but nothing could be further from the truth. He was absolutely committed to fighting for the individual rights of people who came to see him, and he saw the clear link between parliamentary democracy, the huge state occasions and the importance of this place, and making sure that it meant something for the individuals back in the constituency that he was proud to represent.
One of Tony’s greatest gifts was as a teacher. Whether one agrees with his politics or not, there is a huge amount that all of us can learn. His five questions to the powerful are enduring questions that not just we in this place but everyone throughout the world should reflect on and think about, because they are incredibly important. Those five questions to anyone who is powerful are: “What power have you got; where did you get it from; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and how do we get rid of you?” Those questions, in themselves, show the brilliance of the man and that is why Chesterfield was so very proud to have him as our Member of Parliament.
I too rise to speak as one of Tony Benn’s successors as a Member of Parliament, in my case for the constituency of Bristol East, which he represented from 1950 to 1983, with a brief interregnum when we had the bother about the hereditary peerage and he had to fight two by-elections. He probably holds a record in that he was elected on a by-election when Sir Stafford Cripps retired in 1950 because of ill health, and then fought two by-elections, at one of which he was disqualified. The people of Bristol, South-East, as it was then, knew perfectly well that he was not entitled to be elected to Parliament, but voted for him nevertheless. Two years later, when he managed after a bitter battle to get the law changed and the Peerage Act 1963 introduced, he then fought another by-election, and he also fought the Chesterfield by-election, which, as I said, must be something of a record.
I am also here to speak on behalf of Madam Deputy Speaker, who, I think, first met Tony Benn at the age of 21—when she was 21, not when he was 21; she does not go back that far—and worked for him as an assistant and eventually joined him as a colleague as the MP for Bristol South from 1987.
Tony Benn was a man of the establishment. He came from a privileged—dare I say “posh”?—background. He was privately educated, he read PPE at Oxford, he was president of the Oxford Union, and apart from two years serving in the forces during the second world war, the only other job he held was at another bastion of the British establishment, the BBC. His father was an MP and both his grandfathers were MPs.
Despite that background as a man of the establishment, Tony was also a man of the people. That came out strongly in what my hon. Friend Toby Perkins said. Describing it as the common touch makes it sounds quite patronising, but there was nothing condescending about it. So many people have stopped me in the street in recent days—the same has happened to Madam Deputy Speaker—to offer their personal accounts of his kindness and friendliness. The leader of Bristol council’s Labour group told me about a time he came over to her house. Her two young children had just been given bicycles for their birthdays, and he insisted on riding them up and down the hallway on their tiny bikes. It is little things like that we remember.
Madam Deputy Speaker and others have talked about the contraption he rode around in at election times, a chair strapped to the top of an old Austin Cambridge. He would be driven around the streets, precariously perched on top of the car with a thermos flask in one hand—he was never without his tea—and a megaphone in the other. It is amazing how many people remember him doing that. It is not something I care to replicate—I do not think that I would last very long up there. There is also a brilliant picture of him from 1957, up a ladder decorating the constituency office in just a little pair of shorts. The office needs decorating again, but I do not think that I will be going up a ladder.
I want to mention some of the key things for which he is remembered in Bristol. He supported the Bristol bus boycott in 1963, which was inspired by the civil rights movement in America. There was a colour bar on black workers being employed by the bus company. He was very supportive of Paul Stephenson and others who led the boycott. Eventually, two years later, it led to the passing of the Race Relations Act 1965. People still remember his role in that. He said, “I will not use the buses. I may even have to get on a bike.” He is also remembered for Concorde, of course, the 45th anniversary of which is coming up. A permanent memorial to it will be placed in Filton, just outside Bristol. A civic memorial service will also be held for Tony Benn soon.
In the tributes that followed his death, he was quoted by Madam Deputy Speaker as having advised her, “People will attack you because they want to deflect you. You ignore the attacks and get on with understanding the people. You were put there by the people and they can take it away, so stay close to them.” I think that sums him up. As the Deputy Prime Minister said, he never lost sight of the fact that he was one man with many employers. In that regard, too, he was a man of the people.
My last memory of Tony Benn—I did not know him very well, because our times did not overlap—was when I had the somewhat dubious honour of being invited to be on the left field stage at Glastonbury last year. I say that it was a dubious honour because the three of us on the stage were Billy Bragg, who of course is an absolute idol of the Glastonbury audience and a national treasure, Tony Benn, and if anyone could command more adoration at Glastonbury than Billy Bragg it was him, and me, feeling something of a spare part. It took so long for the session to get going because he of course received a standing ovation as he was led up to the stage. So many people wanted to shake his hand and show how much they admired him and respected his views.
He was obviously in frail health and I do not think that he could hear the questions he was being asked all that clearly, but he spoke about the power of politics to effect social change. Those in the audience were probably quite hung over, having been up all night listening to music and doing various other things, but it was clear that he totally inspired them, because despite his physical frailty and advanced age, he was still saying, “You can do something. You can achieve something, just by getting out there and keeping at it.” I think that is his lasting legacy, because he believed in politics. There is so much cynicism about politics these days. He was a rare creature, as he was able to persuade people not to be cynical about politics and to believe that politics can actually change things.
I hesitate to join in this business, because in many ways I thought of Benn in the early Labour party conferences as somebody who, unlike those of us who came from the trade union movement, was part of the English radical dissenting left. He was at that time a member of the national executive committee.
I think there were some significant changes that took place in the early 1970s that changed his life; I may be wrong. In early 1970, when I came into Parliament, we had about five or six years of constant demonstrations. I used to go on these demos, and there would be a gang of people from the TUC—they were all recognisable—and I would be telling Tony Benn all about this. Then I went to Pentonville, where six dockers were in jail because the Industrial Relations Act had been passed—it had got Royal Assent—and they had been on a picket line and they were not supposed to be there. So I went to Tower hill with Eric Heffer, and then Eric said, “Are you coming back to Parliament, Dennis?”, and I said, “No, this is the most important demo I’ve ever been on. The TUC have declared a day of action—who knows what will happen at the end?”, and off I went.
I told Tony Benn all about it the following day, and he said to me, “You know, they might have to get them out.” I thought, “Well, that’s asking a bit too much”, but I repeated it to Eric Heffer and Stan Orme. I said to them, “Those six dockers will be in Stranger’s Bar tomorrow night”—I thought I would embellish it—and they were. The official solicitor had to go to Pentonville jail and get them out. Is it any wonder that a dissenting English radical began to change his mind a little bit more? That is what really happened.
Then the miners won in ’72, and then they won again in ’74, and we marched again as the people from the Daily Express in Fleet street were cheering from the windows—yes, I said it right: the Daily Express—and Tony says to me, “Look at them at the Daily Express.” I said, “Yes, sadly it’s not the owners, Tony—it’s SOGAT and NATSOPA.” They were heady days. Then there was what happened at the upper Clyde shipbuilding, which has already been mentioned, and on it went. The truth is that those of us who were in the thick of it knew that it was having a major effect on him. Let us just examine what we are saying about Tony. He was shaped by events all his life. He had an environment that was different from mine as a kid, but then, as I say, it all changed.
Then I got elected to the national executive and he would come armed with amendments every month. I did not have to bother writing amendments; they were already displayed and distributed to the six, seven or eight people who might be allowed to read them.
He was a clever man as well, wasn’t he? That’s what he was—he was clever, and he was industrious. He had got all the abilities. I used to say to him, “By the way, you know about so and so—put that in the diary tonight.” He actually did it on one occasion—he got fed up of hearing me. He said, “Skinner said I’ve got to put this in the diary.”
I had some enjoyable times with him—most of the time; almost all of the time. He was very intelligent as well, you know. He knew all about loads of subjects. He had a pager before MPs had them. He knew all about technology: it wasn’t just Concorde. He knew about it; he probably could have built it. He had a mobile phone before anybody else, and he was talking a language that I still do not understand. He could have built a computer.
He was very knowledgeable—except that he did not know much about competitive sport. I finished up at the Labour party conference—I think it was down at Brighton—and he said, “You’re late.” I said, “I know I’m late, Tony—there’s a reason.” He said, “Yes, there’s a Tory mayor and you didn’t want to be here.” I said, “ Well, that’s part of it. But the most important reason is that I was watching Cram and Elliott”—on the telly in the “mile of the century”, as they said. He said, “Cram and Elliott? Are they your delegates?” I said, “Tony, do you know who Ayrton Senna is?” I had watched him win the Formula 1. “Ayrton Senna? Who’s he?”
You had to like somebody like that—somebody who kept all the lists of all the results of everything. You did not have to go far to find out. Now we look for things on the computer. I could ask Tony Benn and he would tell me. I had a lot of enjoyable times with him. 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. That is why I constantly wanted to see him in these past few years. I did not see him on the last occasion when he went to Charing Cross hospital, but I did last autumn after the Labour party conference, when I heard that he had been in the hospital, out of the hospital and back in again. I thought I had better go. The day after the conference I went to find him.
In typical Tony Benn fashion, when I got there, room K was empty. I feared the worst, but somebody quickly said, “I saw somebody wheeling him down in a wheelchair.” I went outside and in a lovely little park in the autumn sunshine, just like as in his last book, there he sat in the wheelchair with a fellow who had 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. It was one that he had not been able to attend because he was in hospital. So I told him the whole story about what happened. It was a bit biased, but he did not mind that. He expected it from me.
Yes, that was the Tony Benn I knew—a wonderful man, and we should always remember that. As for the longest suicide note in history, let me put that to bed. By 1983 the left had lost control on the executive. Check the facts. The chair of the election committee was John Golding. You all remember him, don’t you? The right had taken control. There was only one member of the left on that election executive committee—Eric Heffer, by virtue of being chairman. I wanted to put that to bed.
I also remember what my hon. Friend Toby Perkins said about the election at Chesterfield. What a wonderful campaign. Literally thousands of Labour party members came. I have never seen so many at any by-election. It was great throughout that whole period of two or three weeks. Tony Benn said to me when I met him in Chesterfield market square, “How do you think things are going?” I said, “Tony, we are going to win. We have an army of people coming. We have nothing to worry about. There will be Elsie Tanner, Tony Booth, the vicar from “Emmerdale Farm”—they all came, and I introduced him on the minibus. Then he asked, “Is there anything else I should do, Dennis?” I said, “Yes. Put a tie on. You are the ambassador of a market town.” And Tony Benn—the Tony Benn—turned up the following day in a tie. How could I do other than love the man? [Applause.]
Order. A great many colleagues are still seeking to catch my eye and I want to accommodate everybody. I appeal to colleagues to have some regard for the other pressures on our parliamentary day.
Tony, along with my hon. Friend Mr Skinner, founded the Socialist Campaign Group, of which I am the chair. I apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, who cannot be here today because he is in Geneva as part of a human rights delegation.
Tony inspired my generation. We did not just respect him; as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover said, we loved the man. I want to go back to what my hon. Friend said about the longest suicide note in history, because it is interesting that it has come up time and again among the commemorations of the past week or so.
I want to go back not to the manifesto of 1983, but to Labour’s programme of 1982, which was the Bennite programme, and virtually all of it was written by Tony Benn. It is worth looking back at what it said. It was absolutely prophetic. It basically said, “We will create a society that is more democratic, more fair, more just and more equal.” How would we do it? Tony’s ideas in that programme were straightforward: we would undertake a fundamental, irreversible shift in the redistribution of wealth and power. How would we do that? Through a fair and just tax system, tackling tax evasion and tax avoidance, taking control of the Bank of England, preventing speculation in the City and the banks because it could be dangerous to our long-term economic health, and creating full employment. That is what he was about. That is what he inspired us to do.
It is interesting that he said we should invest in housing, health and education; give all young people the opportunity to stay on at school with an education maintenance allowance; and make sure that they had a guarantee of an apprenticeship or training and the opportunity to go to university, not by paying a fee but on a grant. That was his programme in 1982. It was prophetic and years in advance of its time. He said that what we needed to create the wealth was an industrial strategy—a manufacturing base based on new technology and skills. Actually, I remember him talking in one of his speeches about alternative energy sources, well in advance of the debate about climate change. The programme also included equal rights for women and for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
What else was he committed to? He lost a brother in the war, so he was committed to peace. And bravely, courageously, he called for inclusive talks in Northern Ireland—for everyone to get around the table to secure peace. He also said that we needed to control the arms trade and that no more arms should be sold to dictators in the middle east for them to use as weapons against their own people and to destabilise the region. Of course, he also argued for unilateral nuclear disarmament, which I continue to support and which remains a popular cause for many.
He was a European—sceptical about the European Union, but a true European. I found that inspiring. He inspired my generation and he inspired generations to come. What a world we would have created if we had listened to him. But more important, what a world we can create now if we listen to him.
Solidarity and go well, comrade. You made a significant contribution to all of our lives. I hope we will be able to implement the lessons you taught us, when Labour next gets back into power.
I am very grateful indeed for this opportunity to pay tribute to a great democrat and to say how much I appreciated him. Every time he came to the House of Commons after he had left Parliament, I would speak to him in the Tea Room—he loved coming to the Tea Room. He was so amiable and he was a great orator. He was a great democrat and he really believed in this House of Commons.
As a Conservative, I had a completely different philosophy from his background as a profound but great socialist. He was one of the old school, if I may put it that way, ranking with the Bevans of this world and all the really great figures of the Labour party of those days.
I well remember the coal strike. I opposed the closure of the pits when the now Lord Heseltine was the Secretary of State. I took the view that it was completely unjustified. I had mines near my constituency and knew quite a lot about it. Tony Benn got up and challenged Michael Heseltine on his credentials for closing those pits. I well remember that it had the most devastating impact on Michael Heseltine, who sat down, but it got through by one vote, I think, with only four Government Members opposing the legislation. It could be said that some of us take views that are not always those of our Whips or those of our own side, and I must say that Tony Benn took exactly the same line.
I take the point made by John McDonnell about Tony Benn being a true European. I agree, although he was not what some people might take that to mean. I took exactly the same view as him, and still do, about what the European Union meant and means to the people of this country. When he and I shared a platform together in Trafalgar square, he turned to me and said, “Bill, I think you are the only Conservative MP I have ever shared a platform with or ever will.” To me, at any rate, that was a very great tribute.
I remember sitting with Tony Benn in your house, Mr Speaker, and having a conversation with him only a few months ago. He was so delighted to be there, although he was obviously getting much weaker at that stage. It was a tremendous privilege for me to sit down and have a really good chat with him in Speaker’s House about the things we shared a belief in, even though we were completely different philosophically and disagreed with one another on certain matters.
When it came to representing his constituents, or when it came to this House of Commons—I am thinking of his dedication to the ideas of the Levellers—it always struck me that Tony Benn really knew and understood what had happened at the moment when the House of Commons became the House of Commons during the Cromwellian period. He really believed in it passionately, and I will always remember him for his passion, beliefs and conviction. It is a fitting tribute to him that so many people have been able to speak at what is a moment of sadness, but also a moment of pride.
I first encountered Tony Benn when I was a starry-eyed young activist at mass meetings. He was on the platform and I was among the audience. It is impossible to convey what it was like to be at a mass meeting addressed by Tony Benn in his prime. I would come reeling out the meeting, believing in a new heaven and a new earth. It was truly extraordinary.
As this is a parliamentary tribute, I first want to say—I hope that my colleagues will forgive this old-fashioned phrase—that Tony Benn was a great House of Commons man. He loved the House. He was one of the few people in the House of Commons whom hon. Members from both sides of the House would return to hear speak, because he had such mastery of the Chamber. It is significant that when he was given the freedom of the House, he mainly used it to come back to the Tea Room to meet and talk to colleagues and comrades.
We cannot talk about Tony Benn without mentioning his love of family. I remember that when my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn gave his maiden speech, Tony Benn sat a few Benches in front of him, and as Hilary spoke, his face streamed with tears. It was the most moving thing. It would also not be right to talk about Tony Benn without mentioning his wife, Caroline, because she was not just his life’s partner but his comrade in arms. To my mind, he was never quite the same after her tragic death. Some of us used to tease him about my right hon. Friend, suggesting that my right hon. Friend was perhaps fractionally less left wing than he was himself, but he would just smile serenely and say, “Benns move left as they get older.”
People have spoken about what Tony Benn believed in, and about whether he was right or wrong. I would say that very many of his ideas have stood the test of time. He believed strongly in parliamentarians and MPs being a voice for the voiceless. Many black and minority ethnic people have said to me, “Please let people know how much black and minority ethnic people loved Tony Benn.” That is because they saw him as a voice for people who did not otherwise have a voice.
On civil liberties, he has largely been proved correct. On the Iraq war, on which he made some of his most moving speeches in this House, he was certainly right. He talked about inclusive talks with Northern Ireland. At the time, he was accused of being a loony for talking about that. It is now completely mainstream.
For his critique of the markets, he was judged to be
“the most dangerous man in Britain”.
After the collapse of Lehman’s, can we say that he was completely wrong to criticise the working of markets and market-based mechanisms being the main organising factor in our society?
Trade unions are a hugely unfashionable subject, but I would argue that if we had stronger trade unions today, we would not see the super-exploitation of immigrant workers, we would not have seen the rise and rise of agency workers, and we would not see the abuse of zero-hours contracts. I think he was right in always wanting to stand up for the right of ordinary people to organise in the workplace.
I would call myself pro-European, but his cynicism about the European project and his undying concern about the lack of democratic accountability in European institutions have been proved correct. Anyone who saw what happened to the Greeks last year, when a handful of Brussels bureaucrats were almost able to run their country, must remember some of the things that Tony Benn said about the EU.
Finally, we live in an era when very many people—particularly younger people—are cynical about politics. We live in an era when politicians are cynical about politics. Too many people on both sides of the House study polls and endeavour to repeat back to people what the polls have said they believe. Tony Benn believed in a different type of politics, in which people knew what they believed and were prepared to argue and campaign for difficult and initially unpopular causes for however long it took. Some things have been said about him that are not quite right—that he was divisive and that he was this, that and the other. Tony Benn did not just inspire the generation of political activists of my hon. Friend John McDonnell; he continued to inspire generation after generation of young activists, because he was a man who stood up for what he believed and a man who was willing to fight the fight even in adverse times.
Tony Benn was an inspiration to me, and I am very grateful to have been able to make my own small tribute.
It was a heart-sinking moment when Tony announced that he was leaving the Commons, but he did not retire from his convictions—that is not part of the Benn DNA.
We are right to see Tony as somebody who did not allow himself to be tyrannised by the traditions of this House. This morning is a unique occasion in many ways. Thanks to you, Mr Speaker, we are allowed to express, as every human community wants to do, our regret, admiration and gratitude. In the past, there was just a bald announcement when we lost a Member or a former Member; there was no chance to pay the sort of marvellous tributes that have been paid this morning.
I want to make one point, which is about the contribution that Tony made to trying to change the face of this place, including the way it looks. Aneurin Bevan gave this advice to working class MPs who came here: “When you walk down the corridors of power, you are walking in the dust of history, but it is not your history; it is not the history of your class or your people.”
Against all the rules, Tony fixed up a plaque to Emily Wilding Davison. No one allowed him to do it. He went around with his screwdriver and installed a plaque that he had made himself in a much sought-after spot in the House where people like to go. He did the same for other celebrated people. He spoke too of the many who not only were not friends of democracy but who actually obstructed the democratic process but who are recorded and celebrated in statues and other works of art throughout the House.
Some time ago, when a new name was sought for St Stephen’s tower, Big Ben, some people suggested that we should call it the Chartist tower, or the Suffragette tower, or, even better, Big Benn. Alas, we did not.
I rejoice in Tony Benn’s final book. We remember that lovely evening in your house, Mr Speaker, when we heard him speak about “A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine”, which was an inspired title. The book was lovingly edited by Ruth Winstone and is a story about the purgatory of the human condition. It is a story about this House, written in a manner superior to any other—yes, the dark side, the malice and the treachery are there, but those long pages also express the nobility of the political vocation that we all have. That is something that we should bear in mind.
He had a marvellous career. It is with great sadness, but also celebration and gratitude, that we say: “Farewell, Tony—orator, teacher, friend, inspirer. Rest in peace, comrade.”
I only met Tony Benn when I was elected as a Member in 2005, but I had heard him speak and seen him at labour movement events over two decades. I probably first saw him speak in Ayrshire during the miners’ strike, but I saw him regularly at events in
Scotland over many years, whether in Ayrshire, Edinburgh, Glasgow or Aberdeen. He was a man of huge energy and an inspiration to many people of many generations.
It was a pleasure to listen to what Mr Cash said about the miners’ strike. I come from the south Ayrshire mining communities, and when I was at school there were 10,000 miners working at the Killoch pit in south Ayrshire. That pit closed as a result of Government policy, and Tony Benn was with us, along with my hon. Friend Mr Skinner, who will recall attending a number of rallies in Ayrshire in defence of ordinary working people, particularly the miners in the south Ayrshire coalfields. Tony Benn was there standing up for communities, wherever they were, when they needed him.
Tony Benn would always speak about his connections with Scotland. We have heard a number of references today to English social history, but when he came to Scotland, he spoke about his connections to communities there. I believe that his mother came from Paisley, and that one of his family members was the Member of Parliament for Leith, and he would speak about that when he came to Edinburgh. Of course, his wife, Caroline Benn, spent a great deal of time in Ayrshire, particularly in Cumnock, researching the life of Keir Hardie, who was born in Cumnock and spent a great deal of time in both south Ayrshire, where he was born, and north Ayrshire, where he was a miners’ agent and a journalist for the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald. Tony Benn knew all about that—he knew about the history of the social working class and the Scottish working class, and he would speak about that when he came to Scotland.
I saw him speak on many occasions. He was clearly an incredibly inspirational speaker who knew how to connect with ordinary people and speak in a language that they understood. Perhaps not many of us can do that, but he was clearly a wonderful example of it.
The significance of Tony Benn is that he believed that another world was possible. He believed that the way in which we organised our society is not the only way that we can do so. He was interested in history because he believed we could learn from it, and that we had changed the world because we had believed it was possible to do things better. When he came to Ayrshire, he would talk about thirlage, which was how mining communities operated in Scotland—you were not born a slave, but if you went to work in the mines, you did not have the right to leave. It was this House that voted through the thirlage Act, which meant that if you escaped for a year and a day, you won your freedom and did not have to return to the gated communities of the mines in Scotland. Tony Benn would speak about things like that. He would inspire people and try to make them understand how we could actually get social change.
I spoke at the Oxford union a number of weeks ago along with my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, and we were successful that evening in our debate about whether socialism worked or not. A young comrade in the audience reported to Tony Benn what had happened that evening, and I got a text saying that Tony had been delighted to hear that 65 years after his presidency, the Oxford union had eventually come round to his way of thinking. I say that because one thing that amazed me about Tony Benn was the relationships he had with so many people, and the fact that a young student from Oxford would go to see him to tell him about an event he had been to. Tony Benn was interested in everybody and in every cause. He continued to be involved in setting up organisations and trying to organise people for a better world, whether for a small or large group of people.
The Deputy Prime Minister said he thought that some of Tony Benn’s causes were causes of the past, of nationalisation and looking at globalisation, but I think the complete opposite is true. The more we look at what Tony Benn said—not just Tony Benn but others who have spoken about such issues and the way that markets and our country operate—the more that over time I think we will realise that in many ways he was right when he questioned whether we actually live in a democracy. We will see that voting every five years is not what democracy is about because we need a lot more than that. I believe that if we look at the ideas of Tony Benn, we will have the kinds of ideas we need to create a true democracy in this country.
Last week was a really sad, bad week. It started with the sad loss of a great comrade and great friend of Tony Benn’s, Bob Crow. Tony sadly passed on, and just at the weekend so did another close friend of his, Stan Pearce, a man who worked hard in north-east England as a miner. It was a really bad, sad week for lots of people with regard to untimely departures.
Tony was fond of saying that Labour MPs normally started on the left and ended up in the Lords, while he took the opposite path in his political career. I first knew Tony when I was a young miner. I was 19 years of age in 1984 in the lead up to and during the miners’ strike, and he was such an inspiration. I have heard lots of Members speak today, and most have said, “Tony was a great man although we did not agree with a lot of what he said.” I am probably the only one who will say that I agreed with most of what he said, and he was a tremendous inspiration to me. The support he gave to the miners has been mentioned in many contributions, but his support for the working class and people in dispute was absolutely fantastic and unswerving.
Tony Benn became very friendly with me, my wife and my kids as well. I knew Tony personally and he was a really good friend and comrade. He was somebody who I began to have a great liking for many years ago, and when anybody asks me, as an MP or a trade unionist, who my inspirations were in life, Tony would certainly be No. 1—perhaps No. 2, depending on what my hon. Friend Mr Skinner had said in Parliament the previous week.
Tony Benn was a brilliant, fantastic orator and he could change people’s minds—at least for the time they were in the room anyway. It is a shame that people did not take Tony’s views away from the meetings he so eloquently addressed. He was a man of tremendous kindness, and that goes right through Tony’s family through his children. We used to be delighted if we could get Skinner or Benn or someone like that to the coalfield. We used to pack the halls to the rafters and enjoy every single moment. We admired them so much, and they oozed a natural presence. We wanted to be so much like them. Unfortunately, I have not in any way achieved anything like that at this point in time. They were dark days in the mining communities, but Benn was there and he made sure that people were revitalised and back up for the battle.
He had a tremendous affinity for the north-east. He was a major speaker at the biggest trade union gathering in Europe, the Durham Miners’ Gala, on more than 20 occasions—more than anyone else, perhaps other than my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover. He spoke at all the events. He understood the culture of the work force of the north-east, and he understood the traditions and the culture of the people of the north-east. He was a personal inspiration. Quite simply, Tony Benn was a legend and a giant among men.
I read with great affection an article written in the moderate Morning Star only this week by my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn about when they put up a plaque for Emily Wilding Davison in a broom cupboard in the Crypt. The connection there, of course, is that Emily Wilding Davison was from my constituency all those years ago. It is amazing to think of Tony and Jeremy hiding with a drill in the broom cupboard in the Crypt screwing the plaque behind the door, but it was worthy of Tony’s belief in fighting with every fibre of his being for equality and against injustice. Miners, trade unionists and workers across the globe have had their lives enriched by just knowing Tony and understanding the support that he gave them. Together, we all pass on our condolences and sympathy to Tony’s family. We understand how much of a family man Tony was and how much he loved his family.
I conclude with the great song of days gone by: simply the best. He was, perhaps, better than all the rest.
I am very glad to be called to pay personal tribute to Tony Benn and to pass on the thanks of many of my constituents who were inspired by meeting him during the miners’ strike and before that.
I have to say that I did have a cat and he was called Tony Benn, and he was just as feisty as the person he was named after, whom I did admire greatly. If we went on holiday and put him in a cattery for two weeks, he would then disappear for about two weeks just get his own back, causing my wife a great deal of distress. Tony could also trouble people. Some people never recovered from being challenged by him, because they did not have the logic to stand against him.
I will tell one story. It has been said that Tony was great with technology. I am an honorary member of the Free Colliers, an organisation in my constituency set up after the 1719 Act that freed colliers from bondage in Scotland. The Act provided that if they were found meeting other colliers to discuss terms and conditions of employment they would be returned to the colliery from which they were freed. The Free Colliers march every year to commemorate setting up this secret society, which was a precursor of the National Federation of Coal, Iron and Lime Miners, which became the National Union of Mineworkers. Tony always said that he wanted to come and I gave him some material on it for him to read. One day we met at the ATM in this building and he started to discuss it with me. Having got some money out of the machine, he did not take it and for some reason it swallowed his money. He was totally perplexed—he could not understand where his money had gone. Although he knew about technology, even he was befuddled by that. I hope he got his money back. He was always willing to enter into a debate on important topics, sometimes in the strangest places.
The Free Colliers were very sad that Tony Benn never went to speak to them. They said that they had always wanted him to go and address them, because they held him in high regard. He was held in high regard outside the House: that is the point about Tony Benn. He was held in high regard here, by us who view things through the prism of Parliament, but people outside took a much wider view, and his heritage will last a great deal longer outside, affecting and influencing politics in the outside world. I thank him for his clarity of analysis and his support for democratic solutions. He always looked for the benefit of all in everything, even if that meant that he had to challenge the compromises of the establishment.
My right hon. Friend Mr Meacher mentioned Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. In 1971, I was the president of Stirling university students association. There is a BBC video—I have a copy; I hope that it is the master copy—showing me in my office with long hair and a Karl Marx poster behind me, calling for the students to organise buses so that people could go and stand by those who were “working in” to save their jobs. That was the first occasion on which I met Tony Benn. I did not get to know him, but I met him, and found him a great inspiration.
When I was the leader of Stirling council, we changed the standing orders—which had to be approved by the national executive committee—to bind councillors to the manifestos on which they stood. There is a unique idea! Imagine making people carry out the manifestos on which they stand! Tony persuaded the national executive committee to approve our standing orders, and they became the standing orders of our council, which meant that we had to deliver on the manifestos on which we had been elected. Unfortunately, being Tony Benn, he decided that this was the solution for all councils, and tried to introduce the same standing orders for every council in Britain. Of course, that frightened the horses and it never happened, but at least those in my council, during the 10 years for which I was leader, were bound by the manifestos on which we were elected, and that was approved by the national executive committee of the Labour party. Would it not be wonderful for every aspect of politics if everyone stood for election on that basis?
I became the Scottish secretary of the Labour co-ordinating committee, which had been set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton at a meeting in Glasgow—on his son’s birthday, if I remember rightly. He had to rush back home after launching it. It was a bulwark against Militant, the ultra-left of the party. It was not an attack on the establishment, although some people saw it as such; it was an antidote to the anti-democratic, out-of-touch elite that ran the Labour party. For instance, I was nominated by my constituency’s branch of the GMB, which sent the form down to the national office. When it came back, my name had been not taken out but scored out, and someone else’s name had been inserted and signed by the national secretary of the union. That was a total denial of the democracy of the people in Scotland who had chosen me as a candidate. I won anyway, and I am here as a consequence, but Tony Benn was against what had happened in that instance as well.
Some people later tried to distance themselves from the distorted “bogey man” image of Tony Benn by saying that they were not Bennites, but belonged to some other kind of “left”. If I had been asked, I would have said that I was of the Bennite left, because that Bennite left was not militant, it was not Trotskyist, and it was not a compromising position in the Labour party. I hope I still stand by those principles today in the things I do, including wanting Trident to be banned. Tony wanted that, although his intelligence and logic had led him to support nuclear power. The anti-Trotskyite movement in Scotland saved the Labour party in Scotland in the 1980s, and was the driver for the devolved Parliament that we have today. All that was a part of the philosophies that Tony Benn understood. He understood Scotland in a way many politicians down here did not.
I was speaking to Tony Benn’s son Stephen last night in Portcullis House, and I now want to say a few words about the other part of the Bennite heritage. My wife Margaret Doran and I—
Order. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to be very brief. We should be grateful for a very few words on that point, because others wish to make contributions, and we need to move on.
I am conscious of that, Mr Speaker, but I am talking about a long life and a long friendship.
My wife Margaret Doran and I also knew and dearly admired Tony Benn’s wife Caroline. She was a great inspiration and support, and was a vibrant, lucid and deeply compassionate educationist. She was president of the Socialist Educational Association, and my wife and I have both been, at different times, presidents of the Scottish SEA. We often talked to her at length when we came to London for SEA meetings. I was with Tony and Caroline on the Terrace shortly before her passing. I agree with what was said earlier: a light went out of his life when Caroline died. But what was amazing was that he went on. Many of us would have been destroyed by losing such a life partner but he was inexorable, and that was a tribute to what they both stood for together and what their family stand for and what will be carried on.
When he left Parliament he spoke from outside this House. People have said he left politics. He did not leave politics. His thoughts reflect where the people are. Most of the people in this country are not with us in this House: they do not regard us highly; they think we are often irrelevant to their lives. They go day to day trying to make ends meet and they look to the words of Tony Benn and people like him to give them hope. If we could learn something from him and reconnect with those people we might actually carry forward something that would be beneficial to this House. That is what Tony Benn has given people: hope, and we are not giving people hope at this moment. Maybe in the future it is his words that will give them hope, and not ours.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in this special and important debate, and I want to say a few words of my own and put on record the thoughts of the members of my local Labour party, the constituency and my family on Tony Benn’s sad passing and send our very best wishes to his family, not least my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn, whom I am sitting next to today.
Tony Benn was more than just a politician. I believe he was a man who truly wanted to change Britain, and in his own way he did. One aspect of his legacy that has been discussed today is how he stayed in touch with people—and people across generations. He truly cared about whoever he came across. I was lucky enough to meet him on a few occasions, the last one being when he came to the House to listen to the tributes to Nelson Mandela.
I want to share a couple of stories about him. The first shows how his diaries reached the front rooms of many households across this country, not least my own. My sister, Neeraj, absolutely loved his diaries and there have been several Christmases in the Malhotra household where her favourite extracts have been played to everybody.
He was also a serious democrat and he wanted people to understand politics, not just be told about politics or be told what politicians thought. He wanted politics to be done with people, not to people. His sense of commitment to different generations was also marked in a conversation I had recently with pensioners, who spoke of how they would pack out the town hall teas he held every year. The fact that people who were not interested day to day in politics were completely interested in everything he had to say, in that spellbinding way in which he said it, is truly a tribute to the man.
Politics is nothing if it is not for a moral purpose. Whether or not people agreed with how he went about his politics, they cannot deny what he stood for and what he fought for: liberty, equality, democracy. He was a man who had a true passion for progress. He was a thoughtful man and a kind man, and a man who lived what he believed, and a man who, in my view, truly touched the heart of this nation.
First of all, may I say on behalf of my sister Melissa and my brothers Stephen and Joshua and the whole family just how much the words we have heard today mean to us?
I do not propose to add to what has already been said, and indeed written, about my father’s political legacy—apart from anything else, everyone already seems to have their own opinion, as today’s debate has demonstrated—but I do want to say a few words about what Parliament meant to him, because it was the centre of his very long life. He won 16 elections, proudly representing first Bristol South-East and then Chesterfield. Fifteen of those elections enabled him to walk through those doors and take his place in this Chamber. One of them—the by-election he fought after the death of his father—did not. He was barred from entry to the Chamber on the instructions of the Speaker because, it was alleged, his blood was blue. His blood was never blue; it was the deepest red throughout his life.
That moment taught him that the right of people to choose who will represent them here 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.
His fight to stay in the Commons had, I think, a marked and profound effect on his life. It was why he was so determined to support others in their struggles: to bring an end to apartheid and the death penalty; in support of the miners, as we have heard; and to campaign for peace, because it was war that had taken from him his beloved elder brother Michael.
It was also why he was so determined to commemorate in Parliament the history of those struggles because, as he would often say, all change comes from below. That is why, as we have heard from many Members today, he went down into the Crypt with his screwdriver and put up that plaque in the broom cupboard. He wanted to teach us: why did that brave suffragette spend the night in the broom cupboard in 1911? The answer is because it was census night. What do you do in a census? You fill in a form, and she wanted to write: “Name: Emily Wilding Davison. Address: Houses of Parliament.” Why? Because she believed that a woman’s place was in the House—the House of Commons.
He was very fond of challenging those in authority, assisted by “Erskine May”. He once even moved a motion of no confidence in the Speaker. But he also had a great sense of fun. On one occasion, he was part of a group of Labour MPs who had decided to delay a Division in the Lobby because they wanted to make trouble for the Government. The Serjeant at Arms was dispatched in order to investigate and told them that if they did not move he would have to take their names. My father looked at him and, as his diary records, said, “But that would be completely contrary to Mr Speaker’s ruling of 1622.” After the Serjeant at Arms had departed from the fray, Dad turned to his fellow conspirators and, with that mischievous twinkle in his eye, admitted that he had just made that all up but it seemed to have done the trick.
He loved this place, the people who built it and those who help us in our work. He loved the debate and the argument. But he did not idealise Parliament. He saw it as the means to an end: to be a voice for the movements outside these walls that seek to change the world for the better, as well as being a voice for the people who send us here and whom we all have the privilege to represent.
That was the essence of his character. Yes, it was shaped, as we have heard, by events and experiences but also, as for many of us, by his childhood. He was, at heart, not just a socialist; he was a non-conformist dissenter. His mother taught him to believe in the prophets rather than the kings, and his father would recite these words from the Salvation Army hymn, which I think best explain what he sought to do in Parliament:
“Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone,
Dare to have a purpose firm,
Dare to make it known.”
If we are not here to do that, what are we here for? Well, he was. He knew what he thought. He was not afraid to say it. He showed constancy and courage in the face of adversity. Whatever the scribes and the
Pharisees may have to say about his life, 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. [Applause.]
Today, we have had the chance to pay tribute to the life and work of Tony Benn, one of the greatest MPs and certainly one of the greatest orators of his generation. He would have been gratified that Parliament has had this chance to recall his long involvement in our national political life in this way, despite the fact that he was neither a head of state nor royalty. He did, however, serve in this place—with a couple of unintended interruptions—for more than 50 years, and was granted the freedom of the Commons when he retired as an MP.
As we have heard over and over again today, we never got doubt or ambiguity with Tony Benn. We have heard many moving anecdotes and tributes to him, and many Members have pointed out that he had strong views, and more talent than most for getting them across to his audience, either from a platform or in a book. He was passionate, and he was a lifelong socialist who never lost his appetite for the battle, even though he waged it in distinctly different phases during his long and fulfilled life.
Tony Benn was an assiduous Back Bencher, and the first to table a motion against apartheid. I last heard him speak during the Remembrance service for Nelson Mandela, held in Westminster Hall at your suggestion, Mr Speaker. He opposed capital punishment, and he championed human rights long before it was fashionable to do so, introducing his own human rights Bill in 1957. He also championed divorce laws, although he enjoyed a 50-year marriage to his beloved wife, Caroline. I can attest to the fact that she was a formidable campaigner in her own right. He was the Peter Mandelson of his day, demanding that Labour modernise its communication strategies, especially where television was concerned, although it is fair to say that his political journey took him in a slightly different direction thereafter.
Tony Benn served, as a junior Minister, as Postmaster General: as a republican, he tried and failed to get rid of the Queen’s head, but he did manage to shrink it down to a much smaller size. As technology Minister, he oversaw the development of Concorde, but I think he tired of the constraints of ministerial office. Instead, he decided that he needed to range more widely to change the political terms of trade by sheer rhetorical force. As we have heard today, he had plenty of sheer rhetorical force. It was for doing that that he came to be regarded by the media as “the most dangerous man in Britain”.
First and foremost, however, Tony Benn revered the House of Commons as the crucible of our democracy, as we have heard over and over again in today’s tributes. He said that it was the place where kings and tyrants could be tamed and revolution averted. This was in contrast to the House of Lords, which he described as the
“British Outer Mongolia for retired politicians”.
His solution to most problems was more accountability and more democracy. Let’s face it, that is never a bad place to start.
Tony Benn fought a determined campaign to renounce the peerage that he had reluctantly inherited on the death of his father in 1960, and it was those sad circumstances that threw him out of the Commons for the first time. His ultimate success in renouncing his hereditary peerage had at least one unintended consequence. The Peerage Act 1963 allowed him to return to the Commons. It also allowed Sir Alec Douglas-Home to renounce his peerage so that he could mysteriously emerge as leader of the Conservative party and succeed Macmillan as Prime Minister, much to the chagrin of Rab Butler, who many still believe was robbed of the premiership in this dubious way. Such was the fuss that the Conservative tradition of allowing leaders to emerge without any obvious voting by anyone had to be abandoned.
Tony Benn was subsequently to lead another successful campaign to extend the franchise of Labour leadership elections beyond the parliamentary Labour party, which was to culminate in the creation of the electoral college at the Wembley special conference in 1981. He lived long enough to see the Labour leadership election franchise extended further to one member, one vote at the special conference that I chaired this March. So it is possible to argue that it was campaigning by Tony Benn that caused the methods of electing the leaders of both the Tory and Labour parties to be reformed, and in both cases it was to move them in a more democratic direction. Of course, his determined opposition to Britain’s membership of what was then called the Common Market helped to give us our first referendum, too.
Tony Benn was a mesmerising speaker in any context: in the Commons; on a platform; and, latterly, on a theatre stage or in the Leftfield tent at Glastonbury. He followed in the footsteps of the Levellers and the Chartists. He was a true English radical, evangelising, teaching and persuading generations of left activists about the power and potential of politics to change things for the better. Even when he was making a case with which I did not agree, I marvelled at his formidable communication skills; he had a way of making complex ideas seem simple, and a memorable turn of phrase ensured that his observations stayed with you long after the meeting had ended.
He revelled in social progress. I remember talking to him 20 years ago about the ordination of women into the Anglican priesthood. He had been down especially to watch the first women vicars being ordained and was delighted at the joyful occasion he had witnessed, and he was aware of its significance in the battle for women’s equality. I remember going as a young activist to campaign in the Chesterfield by-election in 1984, in which Tony was seeking to return to the Commons for the second time. My sister, my hon. Friend Maria Eagle, and I went over to help with a contingent which included Allan Roberts, the then Member for Bootle. Things were looking a bit wobbly and the stakes were high. We were sent off to try to remove from a tower block, strategically placed on the main road into the town, a forest of Liberal posters, which had suddenly appeared, causing much consternation in the campaign headquarters. My sister discovered that the posters were down to a disgruntled Labour voter who had decided to switch sides. This lady had demanded,
“Get that Tony Benn down here if you want me to change my mind.” By coincidence, we bumped into him a few minutes later and so my sister carted him off to the woman’s front door. She invited him in and he reached over to an old photograph that she had on her mantelpiece. It was a group shot of Labour politicians and he named every one of them, except one, which he correctly surmised was her husband—a former local Labour councillor. She was utterly charmed, and the Liberal posters all came down and were replaced by Labour ones. The tide turned and it was said that in the Labour club that weekend my hon. Friend Mr Skinner started singing again.
The leader of the Labour party has paid a fulsome tribute to Tony Benn. He leaves behind many memories, and his fascinating and honest diaries, a legacy of which we have heard some today. Most of all, he leaves behind his devoted children, Stephen, Hilary, Melissa and Joshua, to whom we extend our sincere condolences. I believe that the tributes we have heard today do a great service to the memory of a great man who lived a long and fulfilled life. May he rest in peace.
Today, this House has had its opportunity to bid farewell to one of our own—someone who gave so much to this House of Commons and who so passionately believed in the centrality of this House to our democracy. The debate has been full of memories. For one Parliament, I served in this House with Tony Benn. Even then, we knew that he was a great parliamentarian, one of the central parliamentary figures of the second half of the 20th century. I want to add my condolences to his family. There is no doubt that the sense of loss is great when one loses someone whose presence and character has been there throughout one’s life—we feel for them.
As a Member of this House for nearly 50 years, Tony Benn was a champion of the rights of Members to hold the Executive to account. He said in his book, “Arguments for Democracy”:
“We need a strong government to protect us; and those who see that need must also be most vigilant in seeing that it is, itself, fully democratic in character.”
I hope that he would approve and applaud the changes that we make in this Parliament to promote the interests of Select Committees, which he called for in the 1980s, and indeed the rights of Back Benchers.
Tony Benn was also one of the central influences on the character of our modern Parliament, including in his role in the disclaiming of peerages. His views on reform of the House of Lords were trenchant from his early days in the Commons, as the shadow Leader of the House recalled. He consistently believed in the primacy of the Commons and argued strongly for the abolition of the Lords. He said:
“I am not a reluctant peer but a persistent commoner.”.
A commoner yes, but never commonplace.
Beyond this place, his influence was far-reaching. Even for those who did not share his ideology, the power of his speeches, the intellectual challenges of his views and the originality of his world view, provoked, inspired and always engaged.
Tony Benn himself said:
“I think the most important thing in life is to encourage. If anybody asked me what I want on my gravestone, I would like, ‘Tony Benn, he encouraged us’. That would be all I need!”
He can rest in peace in the knowledge that he did indeed encourage generations of his fellow commoners.
Right hon. and hon. Members might like to know that Her Majesty has agreed that Tony Benn’s coffin will be brought to the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, the crypt chapel, on Wednesday afternoon next to rest overnight before being taken to St Margaret’s church for his funeral service. The Speaker’s Chaplain, Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilkin will undertake an all-night vigil. The private family service to receive the coffin in the crypt will be followed by a period when parliamentary passholders may file past his coffin to pay their respects.