Veteran British politician Tony Benn dies

Last updated 08:51 15/03/2014
Tony Benn
Reuters
VETERAN: Tony Benn pictured at the annual Trades Union Congress Conference in Brighton in 2003.

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Veteran British Labour politician Tony Benn, who was born into the aristocracy but became a champion of the left, has died aged 88.

Benn was a member of parliament for 50 years and a cabinet minister for 11 years. A divisive figure at the peak of his career, in later years he became a public favourite as a straight talker, usually seen with his trademark pipe.

Born Anthony Wedgwood Benn, he forced a change in the law so that he could renounce an aristocratic title inherited from his father to continue serving as an elected member of parliament.

The longest-serving Labour MP in British history, he was an anti-war campaigner who opposed the monarchy and often clashed with his own party leadership but in recent years topped several opinion polls as Britain's most popular politician.

Benn died peacefully early on Friday (Friday evening NZT) at his home in west London surrounded by his family after being seriously ill, his four children said in a statement.

"We will miss above all his love which has sustained us throughout our lives. But we are comforted by the memory of his long, full and inspiring life and so proud of his devotion to helping others as he sought to change the world for the better," they said in a statement.

Tributes from politicians of all sides were quick to flow for Benn, whose father and grandfather were politicians and whose son Hilary was a cabinet minister in the last Labour government. Benn's granddaughter Emily is also pursuing a political career.

"Tony Benn was a magnificent writer, speaker, and campaigner. There was never a dull moment listening to him even if you disagreed with him," Prime Minister David Cameron said on Twitter.

ICONIC FIGURE

Benn's death follows that of another prominent British left-winger, trade union leader Bob Crow, earlier this week.

Labour leader Ed Miliband called Benn an "iconic figure" who would be remembered as a champion of the powerless and a politician of conviction, pivotal for the party even though his left-wing views were often at odds with those of its leadership.

Benn was blamed by some in the party for sowing divisions that kept Labour out of power for a generation, until Tony Blair moved its politics to the centre in the 1990s.

He was also a prolific writer and published eight diaries covering the political landscape in Britain from 1940 onwards.

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Causes he advocated included abolishing the Lords, the unelected upper house of parliament, the unification of Ireland, and an end to the monarchy. He once campaigned to have Queen Elizabeth's head removed from stamps.

After serving as an RAF pilot in World War Two, Benn frequently opposed military action, including the Falklands War under Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and action in Afghanistan and Iraq. He opposed a UK nuclear deterrent.

Benn was a strong voice of support in parliament for the miner's strike of 1984-85 and was made a honorary member of the National Union of Mineworkers.

He inspired the term "Bennite" to mean someone holding extreme left-wing views.

"For someone of such strong views, often at odds with his Party, he won respect from across the political spectrum," Miliband said in a statement. "This was because of his unshakeable beliefs and his abiding determination that power and the powerful should be held to account."

Benn, a eurosceptic, retired from parliament in 2001 "to devote more time to politics" and became president of the Stop the War Coalition, campaigning against the invasion of Iraq.

After losing his beloved American wife Caroline to cancer 14 years ago after 51 years of marriage and suffering a stroke in 2012, Benn said last year that he did not fear the end of life.

"I'm not frightened about death. I don't know why, but I just feel at a certain moment your switch is switched off and that's it. And you can't do anything about it."

- Reuters

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