Tony Benn honoured on streets of London
Applause accompanies funeral procession of Labour stalwart as Big Ben tolls
Tony Benn’s coffin is carried out of St Margaret’s Church in Westminster after his funeral in London yesterday. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters
For nearly 500 years, St Margaret’s Church in Westminster, standing next to the Abbey, has been the place where monarchs, politicians and those who live on the edge of power have come to commune with a higher authority.
Yesterday, each of the Gothic church’s pews were full with politicians of today’s era and yesteryear, when they came to mourn Labour’s Tony Benn, the stalwart of the left, but one whose passing was remembered by many a Conservative, including Michael Heseltine.
By its end, the bells of St Margaret rang half-muffled, as most in the congregation sang The Red Flag , to the air of JS Bach’s O Tannenbaum , a song so often sung in life by the man who quit a peerage to stay on as an MP.
“The people’s flag is deepest red, It shrouded oft our martyr’d dead. And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold, Their hearts’ blood dyed its ev’ry fold,” they sang, led by Labour veterans such as Dennis Skinner and Ken Livingstone.
“Then raise the scarlet standard high, Within its shade we’ll live and die, Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, We’ll keep the red flag flying here,” they ended, while a collection was taken up for Crisis, the homeless agency.
Mixing humour with love and affection his children had earlier paid tribute. Benn, his son, Hilary, a cabinet minister in his own right, told the congregation, had wanted but one epitaph: “He encouraged us.”
Failing to hold back tears, Stephen, said: “You did encourage us and that love and encouragement will never end. Thank you, Dad.”
During the 1980s, his father had been “vilified” during the 1980s for his left-wing views: “But the last words he heard on this Earth were he four of us telling him we love him,” he said.
In between, Labout Party leader Ed Miliband read from the Pilgrim’s Progress , while a choir sang Gabriel Fauré’s In Paradisum .
Hundreds of the public had lined the streets as his coffin was brought by hearse at 11am, as Big Ben tolled to mark the hour, from St Mary’s Undercroft Church in the Houses of Parliament. The applause filled Parliament Square. Shortly before it reached the church, the coffin was taken out and carried by his sons and other family members into St Margaret’s.
Union flags fluttered slightly. One man said Benn had been “a one-off MP – truly irreplaceable” while another said “his truth goes marching on”. Others continued the campaigns he led during a long political life, including opposing the Iraq War. The man who took the UK into that war, Labour prime minister Tony Blair, was not there, but his wife Cheriewas, along with Blair-era figures including David Blunkett and Alastair Campbell.
Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness MLA and MP Michelle Gildernew MP were among the congregation, with Mr Adams saying that Benn had been “a stalwart friend and advocate for peace in Ireland and for the Irish”.