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UK Politics

Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Commons pays tribute to Tony Benn, ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’


His description was matter of fact. But the impact was oddly dramatic. Pointing towards the entrance, Hilary Benn recounted how 15 of the staggering 16 parliamentary elections his father had won had “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.”

The Bristol South East electors had returned Tony Benn by a huge majority in 1961 even though he was ineligible as a hereditary peer. And, as his son continued, “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.”

The eventually successful fight to get back to the  Commons had “a marked and profound effect on his life”. It was why he had supported struggles against apartheid and the death penalty, for the miners, and for peace because “it was war that had taken from him his beloved elder brother Michael”.

Not all the speeches from his comrades on Labour’s left were as good as Diane Abbott’s and Dennis Skinner’s. Typically for a Thursday, the Commons chamber was hardly packed. The internecine struggles in Labour during the 1980s were if, not forgotten, replayed in only minor key. But the highly unusual event worked.

Benn’s daughter Melissa and his other two sons Stephen and Joshua watched as the venerable Sir Peter Tapsell – who said he was the only MP left to have voted to allow Benn to renounce his peerage in 1963 – paid a graceful tribute along with fellow Tories William Cash and Edward Garnier and the two Labour inheritors of his Bristol and Chesterfield seats, Kerry McCarthy and Toby Perkins. In private, said Tapsell, Benn was “a gentle, sweet, charming man, with perfect manners ... listening to him, one was sometimes in danger of being intellectually swept towards some of the wilder shores of politics”.

Harriet Harman described how once Benn, spotting her as an exhausted young mother stranded in the Commons because the whips would not let her leave, had sent her home, telling her: “You do not have to worry about the whips; I never do.” Skinner was convinced that his leftward journey began with the early 1970s extra-parliamentary struggles against the Industrial Relations Bill and at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. “He was shaped by events all his life.”

Tapsell had recalled Harold Wilson’s famous remark that Benn “immatures with age”. But saying that for criticising markets, Benn had been described as “the most dangerous man in Britain”, Ms Abbott asked: “After the collapse of Lehman’s, can we say that he was completely wrong?” But she also recalled that when teased about his son Hilary being “fractionally less left wing” than he was, “he would smile serenely and say: ‘Benns move left as they get older’.”