From the TUC

Tony Benn and the spirit of Tolpuddle

14 Mar 2014, By

Tony Benn said: “Nobody can extend their own life by more than a minute, on the other hand if you study history you extend your experience by thousands of years.” He was passionate about learning the lessons of history. No more so than the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

“Tolpuddle gives me the confidence to keep going. It reminds us of every issue we’ve ever fought. Going to the festival is my annual injection. We need more Tolpuddles.”

When I joined the South West TUC and we began to transform the traditional rally into a vibrant festival, Tony Benn seemed an obvious speaker to invite. Some still feared that his left-wing status would deter other speakers or somehow frighten the horses. When I invited him, he was genuinely honoured. In 2000 he came and inspired the crowd. I cannot think of any other political speaker who the audience demands come back on to the stage for an encore!

He spoke every year since then and I got to know him. His speeches were often punctuated with the same quotes from the Bible to Chinese philosophers. He passionately opposed cynicism and urged people to engage in politics. He was a tremendous Parliamentarian throughout his fifty years as an MP yet his political authority was as great outside the House of Commons as in the chamber.

He was generous to everyone including far left groups who he often supported yet he argued for the Labour Party as the vehicle for social change. He was an ardent supporter of working people especially those fighting in disputes such as the miners’ strike and lots of others. He led the movement against the Iraq war and he demanded that our leaders be accountable for their actions. He always asked how people got to positions of power and how we can remove them.

He never strayed into personal abuse despite the vitriol that he endured for so long, and he went from being Britain’s most hated man to its national treasure.

At Tolpuddle it would take ages for him to walk through the site. Everyone wanted to speak to him, shake his hand and have their picture taken with him. He wanted to talk to them too. At the end of the day, often late into the night he would call to thank the organisers and the person who made him a cup of tea and took him back to the station. He would try to remember everyone’s name. He was an approachable, lovely man and he earned political respect but also enormous affection.

He was generous to me when he wrote the foreword to my book, West Country Rebels. Of course he featured as one its entries. He loved this part of the country from his time as Bristol MP, his connections in Devon and his regular trips to Tolpuddle.

Tolpuddle will never quite be the same again but his inspiring words will live on. He reminded us that:

“Every generation has the same battles again and again, no issue is finally won and no issue is finally lost.”

Tony Benn has passed on the baton to the next generation and his life will inspire us to keep fighting.

5 Responses to Tony Benn and the spirit of Tolpuddle

  1. Dany Lindenbacher
    Mar 15th 2014, 6:04 am

    THX Comrade Tony–the struggle goes on…
    Dany, Switzerland

  2. Hector McLellan
    Mar 15th 2014, 3:40 pm

    As the coordinator of the Annual May 1st Tolpuddle Memorial service in London Ontario, Canada, we are deeply sadden by the passing of Tony Benn. We shall reflect on his past inspirational messages to workers and the Labour movement at our next Tolpuddle Memorial Service

  3. Kevin Hayes
    Mar 16th 2014, 12:42 am

    Throughout my life Tony Benn been challenging the way we do things. He ruffled those that were comfortable with the way things were. Accountability being just one great idea. George Galloway’s spoke for a great many of us in his contribution of the man himself. “He was not an aristocrat, but he was a Prince among men”.

  4. Jean
    Mar 16th 2014, 8:34 am

    So sad the end of an era. We won’t see men like him again.
    Such a principled man, such a fighter for the underdog but so human. I meet him once and he asked me what I did when I replied “I am only a teacher” he chided me gently and told me I was not to say ‘only’. I learnt later his wife was a teacher.

    Condolences to his family and his many friends.

  5. Alison Dike
    Apr 7th 2014, 5:18 pm

    I carried the banner behind Tony Benn.
    Lived in Dorset for Forty Years.
    Painted the Friendly Societies Banner
    May we all strive
    Like bees of a hive
    And never sting each other.
    Danced the Friendly Society’s dances
    Processed in the march
    As the guild society’s mischievous Horse
    All embroidered and carved by Salisburys craftsmen
    Every year, played Thomas Hardys tunes
    Alongside the Woodcraft Folk
    We drunk tea in 1979
    Under the Tolpuddle tree
    when there were no ‘festivals’
    But in January 2013 … I had a stroke
    And in February 2013 found two children
    marooned on a cliff in the winter… fading away
    In sub zero cold
    And had them rescued
    My heart went berserk that night
    And I was left with invisible disability
    In July
    I was tired at Tolpuddle
    I helped a guy with a damaged hand
    Pour some cider into a bottle.
    The Tolpuddle Festival Stewards
    Accused this 55 year old grandmother
    of stealing
    And banned me from the site
    Putting me out onto the road
    I carried letters
    Explaining my stroke
    I carried letters
    Explaining my medicines
    My life line
    But the union members did not
    Would not look at them
    so secure that human rights were disregarded
    Nigel Costley
    Advised me not to attend my well loved festival
    In my own county
    Where my children’s ancestors
    Travel back 450 years
    Providing for their community
    Where I have proudly brought my grandson