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A brilliant orator who was loved by the working class

My first encounter with Tony Benn was sharing a platform with him at a public meeting in Bonnybridge in 1974.

In 1975, while head of the Department of Energy Tony Benn, who died this week, attempted to put oil revenues into a special fund for future investmentPhotograph: Gordon Terris
In 1975, while head of the Department of Energy Tony Benn, who died this week, attempted to put oil revenues into a special fund for future investmentPhotograph: Gordon Terris

I was a young rookie Labour candidate in my first parliamentary contest. Benn was Secretary of State for Industry in Harold Wilson's Cabinet and he came to lend his support to my campaign.

Bonnybridge Community Centre was heaving at the seams and Benn got a rapturous welcome. At that time, the darlings of the left were Michael Foot and Tony Benn but they were bogeymen in the eyes of the establishment. During that 1974 campaign, the landed gentry of rural Stirlingshire had signs erected on their estates with skull and cross bones and the warning: "Beware! Foot and Benn Disease."

After the meeting, Benn and his wife, Caroline, were due to travel back to London by sleeper but had an hour to spare before catching the train from Stirling. I suggested they come back to my house to relax or we could visit a local hostelry. As Benn was teetotal, I was surprised when he opted for the pub. His explanation? "Your house is obviously a Labour stronghold but the pub may be missionary territory." My seat was very marginal at that time so I went along with him and Tony spent the best part of an hour going round shaking hands with customers and winning hearts and minds. At one stage, a rather inebriated punter came back from the toilet and announced: "I've just shaken hands with someone who's a dead ringer for that guy Benn on the telly!"

Benn did not last long as Secretary of State for Industry. Big business interests were not happy with the bogeyman being in charge of the Department of Industry and, in an effort to appease them, Wilson switched Benn to head the relatively new Department of Energy, where the Minister of State was John Smith, a high-flying Scottish lawyer who was more to the right of Benn on the political spectrum. Some suspected this would cause problems but Benn and Smith became a formidable duo.

It was the start of the North Sea Oil era and I was privileged to serve with Benn and Smith on the Parliamentary Committee that established the British National Oil Corporation (BNOC). After a long and arduous series of meetings in 1975, some of them lasting well into the night, Benn "rewarded" each member with a little phial containing some of the first North Sea oil from the Argyll field. I treasure my wee drop of oil to this day.

Benn's aim at that exciting time was to use BNOC's public ownership powers to ensure the benefits of oil would not simply flow to multinational oil firms but would be shared by the people. He also supported the idea of putting oil revenues into a special fund for future investment. Unfortunately, not everybody shared his vision. The oil fund never materialised and an emasculated BNOC was finally abolished when Margaret Thatcher came to power.

Benn's enemies were not confined to the Tory Party. Some of his fiercest critics were fellow Labour MPs who tried to undermine him with snide remarks like: "He's far too left-wing. He's not one of us. He's an aristocrat, the product of a posh fee-paying school." The truth is, unlike some of his critics, he sent his own children to a comprehensive school.

Benn was a brilliant communicator who was equally at ease talking in Parliament or at an anti-war rally or in a humble miners' welfare club. The working class loved him. Trades union leaders like Jimmy Reid and Mick McGahey were close comrades and, more importantly, he was hero-worshipped by rank-and-file miners and shipyard workers.

He was their voice, their champion, the greatest advocate of socialism in his time. We'll never see his likes again.

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