Obituary: Tony Benn transcended Westminster village

28th Mar 2014

Tony Benn Transcended Westminster village

[Shadow Secretary of State for Justice Sadiq Khan (left) with the late Tony Benn (centre)]

Rt Hon Sadiq Khan MP

The last time I saw Tony Benn was in the basking sunshine of the Tolpuddle Martyrs festival, last summer. It was an honour to join him at the front of the annual march and to share a stage with him. He was as passionate, charming and funny as ever, and anyone who heard his speech that day will know he was as committed to the cause of socialism as ever.

Tony was one of those once in a lifetime politicians who transcended the Westminster village and engrained himself in the hearts and minds of the British people. Whether or not you agreed with his politics, his personal story and the sacrifices he made meant it was impossible to doubt the sincerity of his beliefs and his absolute commitment to them.

From a young TV star politician to rival Tony Blair in the 1960’s, to a national treasure when he died – his life spanned the twentieth century and his beliefs mirrored his experiences. This was a man who had seen firsthand the desperation of the 1930’s, who witnessed the devastation of the Second World War and experienced the transformation in the life chances of working people under the 1945 Labour Government which built the NHS and the modern welfare state. He was admired by people of all religious beliefs and none, by friend and by foe. Many will remember him even taking on Ali G – and unlike most who featured on the show – coming out on top!

Despite his aristocratic upbringing, Anthony Wedgewood Benn understood the lives of working people better than any other politician of his lifetime. If you ever shared a cup of tea with him from out of his tin mug while he puffed away on his pipe, heard him speak or read his diaries, you will know he truly understood the injustices of inequality, the hardship of low pay and the desperate need of millions of people for the chance of a better future.

Tony’s diaries are a must read for anyone interested in politics or history, and will shape our understanding of the twenty first century for decades to come. But his legacy is far from historical. On retiring as an MP in 2001, Tony Benn said he was retiring to spend more time in politics! He campaigned against Tony Blair’s military action in Iraq and attended many demonstrations and public meetings against the war. Tony backed Ed Miliband for Labour leader in 2010 and his son, Hilary, is a leading member of Ed’s Shadow Cabinet, who also backed Ed. As a young man, Ed worked as an intern in Tony’s Westminster office. Tony paid him a living wage even back then! Tony’s concern for the lives of working people, his fight against inequality and battle for a fairer country is kept very much alive by today’s Labour Party.

Rt Hon Sadiq Khan, MP is Shadow Justice Secretary and Minister for London

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