Figures from across the political spectrum came together for an emotional farewell on Thursday to Tony Benn, one of the most admired and most despised politicians of the 20th century.
Most of the current Labour Party leadership, including Ed Miliband and the shadow Chancellor Ed Balls and Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, joined the hundreds of mourners in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster. Hundreds more gathered outside, many carrying banners for the causes that Benn supported during his long political life.
The event drew an extraordinary range of personalities. Arthur Scargill, who led the 1984-5 miners’ strike, was there, as was the Tory peer and former deputy prime minister, Michael Heseltine, who as trade secretary oversaw the closure of more than half the UK’s remaining deep coal mines after the strike had been defeated. A group of ex-miners had travelled from Co Durham, bringing a banner that showed Benn addressing the Durham Miners’ Gala.
The former IRA commanders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were also present. So were Cherie Blair, and Tony Blair’s former director of communications, Alastair Campbell, the former Liberal Party leader Lord Steel, and a range of Conservative MPs, including the former chief whip Sir George Young, and a previous chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, and the hardline anti-EU campaigner Bill Cash.
The service heard an address from the Dean of Westminster, Rev Dr John Hall, who pointed out that Benn was brought up in a dissenting Christian tradition which did not recognise the authority of bishops because “everyone has a hotline to God”.
Members of the House of Lords attending the funeral were conducted to specially reserved seats, despite the fact that the first great political battle of Benn’s life was to avoid inherited his father’s seat in the Lords, after which he fought for the abolition of the Upper House.
Though the religious element was unusual for a left-wing funeral, the service was unusual in the way that the congregation broke into applause after hearing from Benn’s daughter, Melissa, and again after his eldest son, Stephen, spoke. There was also applause and cheering as the family carried the coffin down the aisle at the end: as the congregation waited to file out of the church, it broke into a chorus of the socialist anthem, “The Red Flag”.
The warmth of the tributes to Benn since his death at the age of 88 have obscured the mistrust and hostility he roused at the peak of his career in the 1970s and 80s. Many of the leading figures from the Labour Party in the 1980s were notably absent. They hold Benn personally responsible for the catastrophic defeat Labour suffered in the 1983 general election, fighting on a left-wing manifesto of which he was the main author.
Stephen Benn described his father’s attitude to those who attacked him: “One piece of advice he gave at a time a generation ago when – if I can put it this way – he was not a ‘national treasure’ and he was vilified at times, in the heat of that battle he would say to us, ‘Don’t get embroiled in the attacks upon you’ – and he used this phrase: ‘Never wrestle with a chimney sweep’. A very wise piece of advice.”
Benn’s second son, Hilary, now the shadow Communities Secretary, added: “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. He pulled down the mask and said: ‘Now, H, about your speech to conference this week.’”
Melissa Benn said: “One of my earliest memories is of sitting in my dad’s basement office listening to him phone his old friend and cabinet colleague Tony Crosland, pretending – quite skilfully, I have to say – to be one of Crosland’s constituents, an acerbic, dissatisfied Scot, Alistair McAllister. I clearly remember Crosland’s cautious, deeply suspicious response, and then that moment of amused irritation when he rumbled exactly who it was.”
The son of a Labour cabinet minister, Tony Benn was elected a Labour MP in 1950, at the age of 25. He had fought a two-year battle to stay in the Commons after his father’s death, when he inherited a peerage, which at the time disqualified him as an MP. He quit the Commons in 2001, saying he wanted to “spend more time on politics”.
Ed Miliband, who gave a reading from The Pilgrim’s Progress, tweeted afterwards: “I was proud to speak at Tony Benn’s funeral earlier. His family spoke so warmly about their love for him.” The funeral was followed by a private family cremation. There will be a memorial later in the year.