Labour veteran Tony Benn dies aged 88

PUBLISHED: 08:05 14 March 2014 | UPDATED: 11:26 14 March 2014

Burston Strike Rally. Tony Benn and Billy Bragg outside the school.
Photo: Andy Darnell
For: EDP
Archant © 2007 (01603) 772434

Burston Strike Rally. Tony Benn and Billy Bragg outside the school. Photo: Andy Darnell Copy: For: EDP Archant © 2007 (01603) 772434

Archant © 2007

Veteran Labour politician Tony Benn has died at home at the age of 88, his family said today.

Burston Strike school Rally.

Former MP Tony Benn  at the Annual Burston Strike school Rally.
Burston Strike school Rally. Former MP Tony Benn at the Annual Burston Strike school Rally.

The former cabinet minister died this morning at his home in west London surrounded by family members.

In a statement his children Stephen, Hilary, Melissa and Joshua said: “It is with great sadness that we announce that our father Tony Benn died peacefully early this morning at his home in west London surrounded by his family.

“We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to all the NHS staff and carers who have looked after him with such kindness in hospital and at home.

“We will miss above all his love which has sustained us throughout our lives. But we are comforted by the memory of his long, full and inspiring life and so proud of his devotion to helping others as he sought to change the world for the better.

Burston Strike school Rally.

Former MP Tony Benn  at the Annual Burston Strike school Rally.
Burston Strike school Rally. Former MP Tony Benn at the Annual Burston Strike school Rally.

“Arrangements for his funeral will be announced in due course.”

Mr Benn was a regular visitor to Norfolk, including to Burston near Diss to attend rallies to mark the village’s famous strike.

The strike, which was sparked when two teachers at Burston’s Church of England school were sacked by Norfolk County Council, ran between 1914 and 1939.

It saw parents refuse to send children to the official county school, in preference to sending them to the Burston Strike School which was set up as an alternative.

Tony Benn was a forceful orator whose tongue could be as sharp as his mind. Here are some of his more famous quotations:

“The House of Lords is the British Outer Mongolia for retired politicians” - New York Times, February, 1962.

“I am not a reluctant peer but a persistent commoner” - November 1960 at a press conference.

“Broadcasting is really too important to be left to the broadcasters” - 1968 when Minister of Technology.

“Some of the jam we thought was for tomorrow, we’ve already eaten” - 1969.

“I try to operate on two unconnected levels. One on the practical level of action in which I am extremely cautious and conservative. The second is the realm of ideas where I try to be very free” - 1971.

“The crisis that we inherit when we come to power will be the occasion for fundamental change and not the excuse for postponing it” - Labour Party conference, 1973.

“Britain’s continuing membership of the Community would mean the end of Britain as a completely self-governing nation” - Letter to Bristol constituents, December, 1974.

“In developing our industrial strategy for the period ahead, we have the benefit of much experience. Almost everything has been tried at least once” - 1974 in the Commons when Secretary of State for Industry.

“We are paying a heavy political price for 20 years in which, as a party, we have played down our criticism of capitalism and soft-peddled our advocacy of socialism” - Speech to Labour Party conference, 1976.

“No medieval monarch in the whole of British history ever had such power as every modern British Prime Minister has in his or her hands. Nor does any American President have power approaching this” - In Arguments for Socialism, 1979.

“It would be as unthinkable to try to construct the Labour Party without Marx as it would to be to establish university faculties of astronomy,anthropology or psychology without permitting the study of Copernicus, Darwin or Freud, and still expect such faculties to be taken seriously” - 1982.

“A faith is something you die for; a doctrine is something you kill for; there is all the difference in the world” - 1989.

“I opposed the Suez war, I opposed the Falklands war. I opposed the Libyan bombing and I opposed the Gulf war and I never believed that any of those principled arguments lost a single vote - indeed, I think they gained support though that was not why you did it. What has been lacking in Labour politics over a long period is a principled stand” - 1992.

“I think the truth is that the Labour Party isn’t believed any more because people suspect it will say anything to get votes. The rebuilding of some radical alternatives to Thatcherism - and by that I mean all-party Thatcherism - will require us to do some very difficult things” - In The End of an Era, 1994.

“The Civil Service is a bit like a rusty weathercock. It moves with opinion then it stays where it is until another wind moves it in a different direction” - During a briefing, March, 1995.

“When you get to No 10, you’ve climbed there on a little ladder called ‘the status quo’. And when you are there, the status quo looks very good” - House of Commons, 1995.

“I have had the advantage of a radical Christian upbringing” - Undated.

“In the end, the tragedy of Harold Wilson was that you couldn’t believe a word he said” - Undated.

“I am a public library” - Newspaper interview, July, 1999.

And some of the things others have said about him:

“You’ll miss your stamps” - The Queen when Mr Benn became Minister of Technology.

“Tomfool issues, barmy ideas, a kind of ageing, perennial youth which immatures with age” - Harold Wilson.

“The Bertie Wooster of Marxism” - Writer Malcolm Bradbury.

Ian Gibson, former Norwich North Labour MP said: “Somehow his legend just inspired you so much. He will be missed terribly in terms of how he spoke out and respresented his constituents and ordinary people.

“He spoke out for ordinary people and was not afraid of anybody. He inspired people to stand up and say things and be counted. We shall miss him.”

Labour MEP Richard Howitt, said: “Tony Benn taught me that to be a politician you also had to be a teacher, and he was always someone who put policies before personalities or polls.

“My first meeting with him was when he came to my university in the wake of an attempted coup in Spain, where he drove home his lifelong passion for the importance of parliamentary democracy.

“An abiding memory for me about Tony was in regularly attending his late night conversations over a pot of tea at Labour Party Conference which always bubbled with ideas, argument and humour.”

Tony Benn was president of the political movement the People’s Assembly.

David Peel, Norfolk People’s Assembly Publicity Officer said: “Tony Benn held high office in Labour Governments when it was still just possible to be a socialist and in power. He never betrayed working people and the poor by embracing the trappings of that power.

“He told us that if he must have an epitaph it would be that he ‘encouraged people’. He encouraged people to socialism and to struggle for peace, social justice and freedom.

“His was a moral courage, and he showed us what it was to be unafraid. Tony Benn’s life was his example.”The Open venue in Norwich hosted an evening with Mr Benn in October last year.

Prime Minister David Cameron paid tribute to the Labour veteran on Twitter.

He said: “Tony Benn was a magnificent writer, speaker and campaigner. There was never a dull moment listening to him, even if you disagreed with him.”

Labour MPs also took to the social network to pay warm tributes.

Former cabinet minister Peter Hain said: “Tony Benn was a giant of socialism who encouraged me to join Labour in 1977: wonderful inspirational speaker and person: will be deeply missed.”

Diane Abbott said: “Admired so many things about Benn: unwavering principles; always open to new ideas; stellar political speaker but unfailingly courteous.”

Barry Sheerman, who entered parliament in 1979 and served alongside Mr Benn for many years, said : “Sad news of Tony Benn death. I had my differences with him but he was a “big beast” in our political life and party history.”

Lucy Powell, one of the party’s newest MPs added: “Very sorry to hear the sad news about Tony Benn. He was a political giant of the last century, principled and passionate.”

Labour leader Ed Miliband paid tribute to an “iconic figure of our age”.

He said: “He will be remembered as a champion of the powerless, a great parliamentarian and a conviction politician.

“Tony Benn spoke his mind and spoke up for his values. Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, everyone knew where he stood and what he stood for.

“For someone of such strong views, often at odds with his party, he won respect from across the political spectrum.

“This was because of his unshakeable beliefs and his abiding determination that power and the powerful should be held to account.

“He believed in movements and mobilised people behind him for the causes he cared about, often unfashionable ones. In a world of politics that is often too small, he thought big about our country and our world.

“Above all, as I had cause to know, he was an incredibly kind man. I did work experience with him at the age of 16. I may have been just a teenager but he treated me as an equal. It was the nature of the man and the principle of his politics.

“I saw him for the last time a couple of weeks ago in hospital. He may have been ailing in body but was as sharp as ever in mind. As I left he said to me ‘Well, old son. Let’s have a proper talk when you have more time’.

“As he said of his wife Caroline at her funeral, he showed us how to live and how to die.

“All of my condolences go to his children Stephen, Hilary, Melissa and Joshua and his wider family. In their own ways, they are all a tribute to him as a father, a socialist, and a most decent human being.”

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