Rt Hon Tony Benn, 1925-2014

First published 19th March 2014

Revd David Lloyd, Vicar of Henbury, pays tribute to Tony Benn who represented people of Bristol (Bristol South East 1950-60, 63-83) in Parliament for 30 years and was a prophetic voice on matters of justice and reform.

For a young student activist in the 1970s there was a lot to be getting on with; Anti-apartheid abroad, anti-racism at home, questions of social justice and inner city living that would later find voice in Faith in the City.

As the political climate changed at the end of that decade so the debate moved to encompass issues of social and industrial change. From all sides it felt like many were keen to engage in public debate about these issues, there were marches to join and rallies to go to, and wherever the rally, whatever the weather, it seemed that Tony Benn would be there to energise us with his unique combination of intense passion and forensic intellect, to articulate the concerns of the many who had gathered in ways we never could.

In 1979, he inscribed a copy of Robert Tressells Ragged Trousered Philanthropists for me which was treasured for years until a friend borrowed without return.

Over the years I had other opportunities to meet Tony who was ever warm and encouraging in his conversation, and who listened carefully to what you said before giving you his response. His reputation was international, but his presence was warm, personal and engaging.

In 2002 we held a service at St. Mary, Henbury to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Scipio Africanus, servant to the Earl of Suffolk, who died aged 18 in 1720, buried in our Churchyard. Tony and Mr. Paul Stephenson, OBE, were guests. Paul Stephenson was instrumental in organising the Bristol Bus Boycott in the early 1960s.

Tony spoke about slavery as an affront to our basic human dignity that demeans us all. He reminded us of the hard truth that slavery does not live in the past but remains a significant issue today. His challenge to us was the question What are we going to do about it?

On another occasion Tony wanted to meet children from our neighbours at Woodstock School. He introduced himself to a small group saying hello, my names Tony". One boy asked, "Are you Tony Blair?" In an outpouring of pure joy and laughter, Tony explained to the startled child he wasnt, and why he wasnt. Then he spoke to them about his grandchildren.

Later he signed a replacement copy of my book, adding the words "make sure you dont lose this one!"

Like most prophets Tonys incisive analysis and unwavering commitment to the truths he lived by caused discomfort to some and comfort to others, which is as it should be. As was said of Sir Henry Cooper, beloved by so many in his passing, may it be said of Tony, he was a good fighter, but he was a great man.

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