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Tony Benn: bogeyman who became a national treasure

TRIBUTES from people of many walks of life and differing politics are pouring in for Tony Benn, veteran Labour politician and former Cabinet minster who has died at the age of 88.

Tony Benn through the years.
Tony Benn through the years.

Anthony Neil Wedgewood Benn, who entered parliament in November, 1950 and became a major figure on the left of the Labour Party, passed away at his home in west London surrounded by family.

The socialist firebrand who went from being the tabloids' "most dangerous man in Britain" to become a national radical treasure had suffered from ill health since a stroke in 2012, spending much of the subsequent year in hospital.

In an interview last year, he said he was not frightened of death. "I don't know why, but I just feel that at a certain moment your switch is switched off and that's it. And you can't do anything about it."

He was admitted to hospital again in September last year on the advice of his GP after feeling unwell and had recently moved to sheltered accommodation near his Holland Park home in west London.

Outside his home in his garden sits the bench on which he proposed to Caroline, his wife for 50 years, and whom he missed after her death 14 years ago.

In a statement yesterday his surviving 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."

David Cameron was joined by politicians from all parties in paying tribute to the former minister who became a popular public speaker, anti-war campaigner and political diarist.

"Tony Benn was a magnificent writer, speaker and campaigner," the Prime Minister said. "There was never a dull moment listening to him, even if you disagreed with him."

Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, said: "Tony Benn was a powerful, fearless, relentless advocate for social justice and people's rights whose writing as well as speeches will continue to have a profound influence on generations to come. My thoughts are with his family, whom he adored."

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, paid tribute to an "iconic figure of our age".

Two years ago, he "headlined" an anniversary concert in Glasgow to mark the 40th anniversary of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in in the shipyards of Glasgow and Clydebank.

The work-in, led by shop stewards Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie, saved UCS from bankruptcy when the then Tory Government removed funding from the yards and planned to close and sell them off.

Mr Benn, who was the Labour's industry minister and who created the UCS consortium in 1968, marched with Mr Reid in a bid to stop closure in 1971, and remained a prominent supporter of the work-in when he was in Opposition.

One observer said Mr Benn was "mobbed by so many well-wishers you would think he was a rock star". Mr Benn was among those who led tributes to Mr Reid when he died in August, 2010.

The First Minister Alex Salmond led the tributes to Mr Benn from north of the Border. "Tony Benn was an outstanding figure whose career encompassed several political generations. His political reputation will transcend the internal Labour Party battles of the seventies and eighties and be founded instead on a politician whose writings and campaignings reinvigorated grass-roots politics."

George Galloway, the Scots Respect MP for Bradford West, who first met Mr Benn as the 20-year-old secretary of the Dundee West Constituency Party at the Labour conference in Blackpool in 1974 said he had cancelled raft of engagements following the news.

Mr Galloway, the Scottish organiser of Mr Benn's campaign for the Labour Party's deputy leadership in 1981 said the death "is not just any other passing", saying that in the 70s he emerged as "the most important, most popular socialist - as opposed to mere Labour - figure in Britain in the 20th century".

He added: "In Shakespeare's words, 'He was a man, take him for all in all; I shall not look upon his like again'."

Tommy Sheridan, co-convener of the left-wing Scottish political party Solidarity tweeted: "#TonyBenn #RIP. The passing of a giant of socialism & humanity. That is the only way to note the death of Tony. Reunited with Caroline at last."

Scottish Labour Leader Johann Lamont MSP, said: "This is sad day, but we can all celebrate an amazing life at the heart of British politics and public life."

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