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Tony Benn - no ordinary politician
The coffin of former Labour cabinet minister Tony Benn is carried by members of his family as the funeral procession leaves St Margaret's Church, Westminster, central London
AS the mourners at Tony Benn’s funeral waited in the beautiful Westminster chapel, the applause of the large crowd outside roared through the walls.
In an age when politicians are generally loathed, it was the starkest reminder that the once most-hated-man-in-Britain - turned national treasure – was no ordinary politician.
And this was no ordinary funeral. The children shunned black ties in favour of red, the colour of socialism, and I even spotted a couple of scarlet skirts.
The congregation sang some traditional hymns, but broke into a spontaneous rendition of The Red Flag as the coffin was carried out, some raising fists in the traditional defiant manner.
And there was approving applause when Tony’s brother, David, spoke of his political crusade being sparked by his public school education - “which he loathed”.
The most powerful moments were the emotional tributes from the children, including Hilary’s memory of him being taken away from Labour conference, in an ambulance, wearing an oxygen mask.
Hilary remembered: “His finger rose and beckoned. He pulled down the mask and said: “Now, H about your speech to conference this week”.
Melissa said he’d also been hospitalised with suspected potassium poisoning - from eating too many bananas – and spoke of her father’s great sentimentality.
“He loved a film like the Railway Children so much, tears would be rolling down his checks at the opening credits,” she said with a smile.
My personal memory of Tony Benn is watching his last moments as an MP in 2001 – when the old rebel lit up his pipe, preparing to leave the Commons chamber for the last time.
Sure enough, the chapel was packed with troublemakers, including some from across the political divide, such as former Conservative deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine.
Cherie Blair was there - as was Alastair Campbell - but not the other TB. The one who was perhaps Tony Benn’s ultimate nemesis, Tony Blair.
And there were left-wing comics Jeremy Hardy and Mark Steele, actress Maxine Peake, impressionist Rory Bremner and Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis.
With the Durham Miners standard among the banners fluttering outside, it was a gathering of the Socialist clan for the farewell of their legend.
As we queued to leave, I heard one trade unionist joke: “The Tories have got the place surrounded. They’re going to finish us all off!”
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