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Tony Benn

Several Conservative MPs took in the tributes to Tony Benn in the House of Commons yesterday.

Sir Peter Tapsell, the Father of the House and the Conservative MP for Louth and Horncastle, recalled that he voted in favour of the 1963 Peerage Bill, which enabled Tony Benn “to renounce his distinguished father’s Stansgate viscountcy and return to us here.”

Sir Peter added:

Tony Benn was always kind to me, particularly at the time of the debates on the Maastricht treaty. I even had the privilege, over the
years, of occasionally being invited to drink his strong, unsweetened Darjeeling tea from one of his huge tin mugs: the Benn equivalent of a companionship of honour.

In private life, he was a gentle, sweet, charming man, with perfect manners. His personality changed a little when he had an audience to address. He was a brilliant, rather demagogic speaker–fluent, witty, forceful and above all, passionate–as much a master of the public platform as of the Chamber of this House. I would rank him, with Nye Bevan, Michael Foot and Enoch Powell, as the four finest parliamentary debaters during my half century in the House. At his best, he was spellbinding, so that listening to him one was sometimes in danger of being intellectually swept towards some of the wilder shores of politics. 

Bill Cash, Conservative MP for Stone, said of his fellow Eurosceptic:

When he and I shared a platform together in Trafalgar square, he turned to me and said, “Bill, I think you are the only Conservative MP I have ever shared a platform with or ever will.” To me, at any rate, that was a very great tribute.

However Sir Edward Garnier, the Conservative MP for Harborough, noted that opposition to ID cards was another campaign where Mr Benn joined with many Conservatives:

After he had left this House, he and I very occasionally spoke on the same platforms–at meetings of Liberty, for example, discussing the previous Government’s proposals on identity cards and other forms of, as we thought, excessive Government interference in the life of the individual. There were occasions when we would walk back from halls to the tube station or bus stop and he would talk to me as if I had known him for ever, utterly without side and utterly unconcerned that I was a member of the Conservative party and he was not, but the occasion I remember most clearly is the one when he stood at that Dispatch Box with his son, introducing him to this House. The sheer pride of a father for his son was palpable. That is evidence, it seems to me, that we were looking not just at the typical two-dimensional modern politician but at the three-dimensional transparent decency of a very great man.

The Leader of the House Andrew Lansley spoke about Mr Benn as a Parliamentarian adding:

I hope that he would approve and applaud the changes that we make in this Parliament to promote the interests of Select Committees, which he called for in the 1980s, and indeed the rights of Back Benchers. 

David Cameron’s contribution came on Wednesday. at Prime Minister’s Questions just before the budget:

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Tony Benn, who died last week. He made many memorable speeches in this House, and alongside a record of ministerial, parliamentary and public service, he was also a great writer, a great diarist and a great campaigner, no matter whether one agreed with his views or not. He will be missed by both sides of the House, and our thoughts are with the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and other members of his family at this time.

I found Tony Benn the most fascinating, thought provoking character – although most of the causes he championed were appalling. That was a point that Matthew Parris reminded(£) us about. Yet surely it is still compatible to admire Mr Benn’s personal qualities. The tributes are not about the issues but about his personality.

Ironically one of the most trenchant supporters of free enterprise over the past century was Tony Benn’s uncle Ernest. His volume Confessions of a Capitalist is written with the eccentricity and candour that is a family trait.

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