I hesitate to join in this business, because in many ways I thought of Benn in the early Labour party conferences as somebody who, unlike those of us who came from the trade union movement, was part of the English radical dissenting left. He was at that time a member of the national executive committee.
I think there were some significant changes that took place in the early 1970s that changed his life; I may be wrong. In early 1970, when I came into Parliament, we had about five or six years of constant demonstrations. I used to go on these demos, and there would be a gang of people from the TUC—they were all recognisable—and I would be telling Tony Benn all about this.
Then I went to Pentonville, where six dockers were in jail because the Industrial Relations Act had been passed—it had got Royal Assent—and they had been on a picket line and they were not supposed to be there. So I went to Tower Hill with Eric Heffer, and then Eric said, “Are you coming back to Parliament, Dennis?”, and I said, “No, this is the most important demo I’ve ever been on. The TUC have declared a day of action—who knows what will happen at the end?”, and off I went.
I told Tony Benn all about it the following day, and he said to me, “You know, they might have to get them out.” I thought, “Well, that’s asking a bit too much”, but I repeated it to Eric Heffer and Stan Orme. I said to them, “Those six dockers will be in Stranger’s Bar tomorrow night”—I thought I would embellish it—and they were. The official solicitor had to go to Pentonville jail and get them out. Is it any wonder that a dissenting English radical began to change his mind a little bit more? That is what really happened.
Then the miners won in ’72, and then they won again in ’74, and we marched again as the people from the Daily Express in Fleet street were cheering from the windows—yes, I said it right: the Daily Express—and Tony says to me, “Look at them at the Daily Express.” I said, “Yes, sadly it’s not the owners, Tony—it’s SOGAT and NATSOPA.” They were heady days. Then there was what happened at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilding, which has already been mentioned, and on it went. The truth is that those of us who were in the thick of it knew that it was having a major effect on him. Let us just examine what we are saying about Tony. He was shaped by events all his life. He had an environment that was different from mine as a kid, but then, as I say, it all changed.
Then I got elected to the national executive and he would come armed with amendments every month. I did not have to bother writing amendments; they were already displayed and distributed to the six, seven or eight people who might be allowed to read them.
He was a clever man as well, wasn’t he? That’s what he was—he was clever, and he was industrious. He had got all the abilities. I used to say to him, “By the way, you know about so and so—put that in the diary tonight.” He actually did it on one occasion—he got fed up of hearing me. He said, “Skinner said I’ve got to put this in the diary.”
I had some enjoyable times with him—most of the time; almost all of the time. He was very intelligent as well, you know. He knew all about loads of subjects. He had a pager before MPs had them. He knew all about technology: it wasn’t just Concorde. He knew about it; he probably could have built it. He had a mobile phone before anybody else, and he was talking a language that I still do not understand. He could have built a computer.
He was very knowledgeable—except that he did not know much about competitive sport. I finished up at the Labour party conference—I think it was down at Brighton—and he said, “You’re late.” I said, “I know I’m late, Tony—there’s a reason.” He said, “Yes, there’s a Tory mayor and you didn’t want to be here.” I said, “ Well, that’s part of it. But the most important reason is that I was watching Cram and Elliott”—on the telly in the “mile of the century”, as they said. He said, “Cram and Elliott? Are they your delegates?” I said, “Tony, do you know who Ayrton Senna is?” I had watched him win the Formula 1. “Ayrton Senna? Who’s he?”
You had to like somebody like that—somebody who kept all the lists of all the results of everything. You did not have to go far to find out. Now we look for things on the computer. I could ask Tony Benn and he would tell me. I had a lot of enjoyable times with him. He was industrious, he was clever, he was a great diarist—he had a lot of qualities that all of us in our hearts really admire, don’t we, and wish we possessed them all. That is why I constantly wanted to see him in these past few years. I did not see him on the last occasion when he went to Charing Cross hospital, but I did last autumn after the Labour party conference, when I heard that he had been in the hospital, out of the hospital and back in again. I thought I had better go. The day after the conference I went to find him.
In typical Tony Benn fashion, when I got there, room K was empty. I feared the worst, but somebody quickly said, “I saw somebody wheeling him down in a wheelchair.” I went outside and in a lovely little park in the autumn sunshine, just like as in his last book, there he sat in the wheelchair with a fellow who had helped him with some television business or other, smoking his pipe. For three quarters of an hour the Tony Benn I knew and will always admire was sat in that chair, lighting up three times, and we talked about the Labour party conference. It was one that he had not been able to attend because he was in hospital. So I told him the whole story about what happened. It was a bit biased, but he did not mind that. He expected it from me.
Yes, that was the Tony Benn I knew—a wonderful man, and we should always remember that. As for the longest suicide note in history, let me put that to bed. By 1983 the left had lost control on the executive. Check the facts. The chair of the election committee was John Golding. You all remember him, don’t you? The right had taken control. There was only one member of the left on that election executive committee—Eric Heffer, by virtue of being chairman. I wanted to put that to bed.
I also remember what my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) said about the election at Chesterfield. What a wonderful campaign. Literally thousands of Labour party members came. I have never seen so many at any by-election. It was great throughout that whole period of two or three weeks. Tony Benn said to me when I met him in Chesterfield market square, “How do you think things are going?” I said, “Tony, we are going to win. We have an army of people coming. We have nothing to worry about. There will be Elsie Tanner, Tony Booth, the vicar from “Emmerdale Farm”—they all came, and I introduced him on the minibus. Then he asked, “Is there anything else I should do, Dennis?” I said, “Yes. Put a tie on. You are the ambassador of a market town.” And Tony Benn—the Tony Benn—turned up the following day in a tie. How could I do other than love the man?
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