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Tony Benn: A towering figure who never wavered

At Bristol University in the early 1970s, he forgave me for being a middle-class kid with dreams. He guided me, and many, in the ways of democracy, oratory and conviction.

When I was Deputy President of NUS, in the mid-70s, he remained unimpressed by any petty aggrandisement I may have achieved, electorally, and continued with that gentle guidance and persistent support.

Alastair Stewart as an undergraduate at Bristol University.

When I became an Industrial Correspondent for ITN in the 1980s, wrestling with the social and economic schisms of the miners' strikes, he was a power, but generous in both time and patience.

As North Sea oil flowed, so too did the constant accessibility, patience in explaining his views, and passions for seizing the 'goodies' for the greatest number whilst campaigning against the oligarchical might of the oil companies.I challenged him, constantly; he answered, consistently.

Alastair Stewart interviews Tony Benn in 1979. Credit: Alastair Stewart

Whilst my son was at Winchester College, in the 90s, a school project prompted a letter to leading lights about how politics had changed in their lifetimes. Tony's letter to Alex was one of the most thoughtful, lengthy and incisive my son received.

To give that context, others in the series came from David Steel, John Smith and Norman St. John Stevas.

Tony Benn in the yard of Arkwright Colliery, near Chesterfield in 1984. Credit: Press Association

In the ITN News Channel days, he was a constant and generous guest. He taped everything, carried his pipe into the studio but agreed not to smoke it and he always asked after Alex, my 'brilliant son'.

In later years, I saw him less frequently but when I did it was as if we were still in the 1970s. Warm, friendly, charismatic - he was a dynamo, fizzing with ideas, polemic and friendship.

Tony Benn has died at home, aged 88. Credit: Press Association

I last saw him in October 2013 to interview him on the publication of the final volume of his extensive run of diaries. He was frail but still lucid; he was reflective but still constant in his core beliefs.

He'd moved from Holland Park to a new home; it was still an altar to his passions and beliefs - a library of texts, from Das Kapital to reams of poetry. There were mugs and miners lamps and banners and pictures.

Tony Benn at his London home with his wife, Caroline, and four children-left to right- Hilary, 7, Joshua, 2, Melissa, 4, and Stephen, 9. Credit: PA/PA Wire

A bust of his beloved Caroline, whose memorial service at Westminster Abbey I had been honoured to be invited to. I remember that last interview as if it was yesterday.

I remembered, on that October day that I recorded it, our first meeting in the early 1970s as if that, too, was yesterday. He was that sort of man.

Tony Benn decorating the Labour Party offices at St. George, Bristol in 1957. Credit: PA/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Born to wealth and title, he cast the title aside to stand for the House of Commons. The wealth, principally from publishing, remained; but it was, to him, little more than an enabler. He didn't just believe in socialism: he sought to achieve it and, in his own microcosm, to live it - generous, compassionate, collegiate.

He, like many in the early days of the 'movement', was a man of faith - a christian socialist.

He loathed war and was a fiery peace campaigner, to the last.He mistrusted the bankers, the oil barons, all the masters of capital.

Tony Benn and Brian Haw at an anti-war protest in Trafalgar Square, central London. Credit: Stephen Kelly/PA Wire/Press Association Images

He cherished the poor and excluded, and would often gaze into camera, when answering a question, saying, "What the people at home are worried about or care about, or deserve..."

To many on the right he was a swivel-eyed man of madness but if you read the tributes this morning, even from some on the hard-right, merit eventually shines through and there is a sneaking admiration there from many.

Peer, self-demoter, Post Master General, Energy Secretary, would-be party leader and Prime Minster, he was, above all that, a friend. A towering figure who never wavered. Forget the divisions of belief and cherish the qualities of constancy, passion, belief and friendship.

Tony Benn, (Anthony Wedgwood Benn, Viscount Stansgate) - RIP, my dear and much missed friend.

Watch Alastair's last interview with Tony Benn here:

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