Although the mind was alive, the body had been declining for months. I shall miss Tony Benn because he was a towering figure, one of the rare politicians who, in his day, was a household name. It was also staggering how much he was reviled, because he was not some gentle socialist guru, but a political street fighter, warm in his friendships and harsh in his judgements.
One of the attractive aspects of his complex character was that he never demanded that his own family should be what used to be called Bennites. His son Hilary has consistently defended the Iraq war that his dad so furiously opposed. The old man was thrilled when his 18-year-old granddaughter Emily was adopted as a Labour candidate, notwithstanding that she was arguably more Blairite than her uncle Hilary. His daughter-in-law Nita Clarke went to Downing Street as a special adviser to Tony Blair. None of this weakened the family ties.
I first met Benn in September 1980, when he was in Newcastle promoting his book Arguments for Socialism. I helped to ferry him around television and newspaper offices.
He had decided that the parliamentary system could not solve society’s injustices unless it was reinforced by mass action, and that socialism, meaning the common ownership of the means of production, was what working people either aspired to, or would do when political consciousness had been forged in struggle. That was an optimistic idea, to put it mildly. Experience has not borne it out. But he held to it with an obstinacy that was magnificent in its wrong-headedness.
Political defeat did not cause him to think he might have got it wrong. In our last long conversation, on the day Andy Murray won Wimbledon, he was physically very frail but the certainties that had formed in his mind 40 years previously had not weakened.