Jon Trickett

Hemsworth Labour

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Tony Benn – personal reminiscence

Tony Benn lived a long life and was a man born into a highly political background. He met Gandhi and Lloyd George as a young man.

He inherited a peerage when his father died, but rather than taking a privileged seat in the House of Lords, he fought a successful campaign to renounce his title so that he could sit in the House of Commons in order to represent the ordinary working people.  Such was his commitment to democracy.

My best memory of him was in an encounter over 30 years ago.

It was in 1981. I was running the campaign in Yorkshire in support of him becoming the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. There is no doubt that that election campaign against Denis Healey was a seminal moment in British politics.

We decided to take the enormous risk of putting on a meeting in Leeds Town Hall, to be addressed by Tony. It was a risk because the Town Hall is vast.  We were not certain whether we would fill the Hall or whether only half a dozen people would turn up making us appear ridiculous.

As it turned out, the meeting was massive with people outside on the Town Hall steps. He held the meeting rapt in attention with his stirring oratory and charismatic personality.  Even people who didn’t agree with a word he said came along and afterwards told me that it was a fascinating evening.

But the point of this anecdote is a different one.

Because before the meeting started, he and I met in a small side room in the Town Hall.

Even though the evening was all about him, and it would have been normal to expect him to be preoccupied with what he would say, he spent the whole time asking about Leeds and more particularly about me and my background.

He was at the height of his powers at this time. He was continuously vilified by the establishment who often attacked him personally, rather than challenge his ideas. But he took an interest in me – an ordinary person.

I was a building worker at the time and was passionate about politics but was not a politician. He got out his pipe and then his tape recorder. He then proceeded to record all his questions and my responses.

He was true to the fourth Socialist Sunday School commandment: “Honour good people, be courteous to all, bow down to none.”

That was Tony Benn. A man deeply committed to democracy. To breaking down the barriers in Britain which mean that the privileged, rich and powerful continue rule to the exclusion of the vast majority of our fellow citizens.

I will not forget Tony Benn, his sparkling eyes and ready smile, nor his infinite curiosity in fellow human beings which he showed in that brief encounter in Leeds 33 years ago.

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