14 Mar 2014

Ten things you may not have known about Tony Benn

Tony Benn was for decades the most independent-minded and passionate voice of the hard-left at Westminster – but how much do we really know about him?

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1. Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn was born in a Victorian house in Millbank, Westminster, on the site of what is now Millbank Tower, which was once the spiritual home of new Labour, and now houses offices belonging to the Conservative party. As a child Benn was introduced to the first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald.

2. The earliest known recording of Benn is probably from a debate at the Oxford Union around 1948, in which he speaks with a remarkably plummy voice. Benn was first elected to parliament in 1950, and was one of only two surviving MPs from the reign of George VI. The other is John Freeman, who was elected in 1945 and is still alive.

3. As postmaster-general, Benn introduced regular commemorative postage stamps, i.e. stamps with pictures.

4. Benn was an MP, with two short gaps, for almost 50 years, the longest-ever serving Labour member of parliament.

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Read more: Tony Benn, bastion of the left, dies aged 88

5. It was Benn’s idea for Labour to hold the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EEC, which took place in 1975.

6. Even during his left-wing heyday, Benn would regularly visit his family’s ancestral home in Stansgate, Essex, after which his father had named his hereditary peerage.

7. Although his wife Caroline was a great champion of state and comprehensive education, the Benns sent one of their sons to Westminster, the great public school, which he himself also attended as a boy.

8. One night, at the peak of Benn’s career, he missed the last train home from Exeter. So he set up his camp-bed in the empty waiting room and slept there.

Read more: Tony Benn – aristocratic fighter for those less privileged

9. Benn employed the teenage Ed Miliband as one of the “tea-bags” in his office – a team of volunteers who got the name because one of their duties was to make the tea.

10. In his later life Benn became great friends with several successful young women, including the actress Saffron Burrows and the TV presenter Natasha Kaplinsky. Benn also struck up good relationships with right-wing opponents such as Enoch Powell and the former Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley.

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