Harriet Harman

Labour Member of Parliament for Camberwell & Peckham

Tribute - Tony Benn Debate - House of Commons - 20/03/2014

Mr Speaker, I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his generous,warm,thoughtful words on Tony Benn 

This is a parliamentary occasion to remember Tony Benn.

But it was a parliamentary occasion every time Tony Benn spoke in this house.

Before the House was televised, I always remember that when Tony Benn’s name appeared on the monitor, we members would hasten out of our offices - and into the chamber.

And all those who passionately agreed with him and all those who passionately disagreed with him would be there to listen to him.

He was a great orator - both inside and outside this House - and what made his oratory great was not just his formidable intellect - though he had that - or his great historical knowledge - though he had that too - it was that he spoke out of conviction.  He spoke from the heart.

Tony was first elected to this House in 1950 but he was concerned that upon his father’s death, his inheritance of a peerage would disqualify him from serving his constituents who had elected him.

On his father’s death in 1960, he was disqualified but fought his way back to this House through the Peerage Act of 1963 and a by-election.
When Labour formed a government in 1964, Tony became postmaster general and then Minister of Technology. With Labour in power again from 1974 to 1979, he became Secretary of State for Industry and then Secretary of State for Energy. As Energy Secretary, he encouraged a number of workers' co-operatives. The most notable of which was Meriden in the Midlands, which continued to produce Triumph motorcycles for another decade.

What drove him on was his belief in the power of people - ordinary people, through their trade unions and through their votes - to bring about change and change them for the better.

His commitment was to the historic fight against social injustice - but he was never stuck in the past - he embraced new movements - like the green movement and the women's movement. 

He very much believed in movements. He believed the power of people working together to make change.

And he was encouraging people and giving them the confidence to do that.

And everyone who ever met Tony has their own story about that. 

And this is mine...

It was back in the mid 80s.  I was the only woman MP with very young children and finding it hard to cope.  Sitting by myself in the corner of the Stranger’s cafe - 11 o’clock at night – still waiting for a vote - feeling terrible. 

Tony came and sat down next to me and said you look exhausted - you should be at home. 

I said I couldn't because I hadn't been let off by the whips.

And he said I can give you a really important piece of advice for your future:
“You don't have to worry about the whips.  I never do..."

So I was sent home to my family by Tony Benn - himself a great family man.

The public know him for his passion for politics - but his other great life-long passion was for his family.

For his wife, children and grandchildren.

He proposed to Caroline - only nine days after meeting her - explaining that it would have been sooner but he was a quite shy.  He later bought the bench on which they were sitting when he proposed - and it remained in their garden till the end.

He was enormously and justifiably proud of his children....

His daughter Melissa - so like her mother.

And his sons... Joshua, Stephen and Hillary - the Rt Hon member for Leeds central - so like him.

His legacy is not just to this house and to progressive politics in this country but also in the values and commitment taken forward by his children.

To whom we extend our sympathy and with whom we share the grief of the loss of a great parliamentarian and great politician.




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