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Politicians unite for fond farewell to towering Tony Benn

Video report by ITV News political correspondent Carl Dinnen

The funeral service for Tony Benn drew a kaleidoscope of political persuasions; the congregation was a tableau of times past and times, I know he would have hoped, still to come.

Raised a man of faith, in the anti-establishment Congregationalist tradition, he clung to Christianity to the end having thrown off the icons of organised religion early on.

It was appropriate, then, that his body rested overnight in the crypt chapel of his beloved House of Commons and that the service was so movingly conducted in St. Margaret’s, the small church that lies in the northern shadow of the mighty Westminster Abbey.

It is the MPs' chapel - the Speaker and other parliamentary dignitaries have their own marked seats here.

Ed Miliband comforts his shadow cabinet colleague Hilary Benn. Credit: Philip Toscano/PA Wire/Press Association Images

On the way to my place I rubbed shoulders with an army of memories; I exchanged a few words with many I had admired - people who, in my youth, had helped form my views and values; men and women who had been heroes as I developed in my journalistic career but who respected my impartiality; and there were several I had not taken to but who, in turn, I respected.

The tone of the morning was set swiftly and firmly after the opening prayers and ‘Sentences’.

We rose, as one, and bellowed out Blake’s Jerusalem;

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.

To Blake, Jerusalem was the socialist idyll and ideal, devoid of "dark, satanic mills".

Every man and woman there knew it - most of them ardently agreeing that the ambition should not die with Tony Benn.

Members of Tony Benn's family carry his coffin out of the church. Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire/Press Association Images

The Speaker, John Bercow MP, read from Corinthians - "when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways."

Most of the Tories, and not a few of the Labour stalwarts there, may have taken issue with that: Some saw him as a fantasist, a dreamer, even a wrecker for whom the reality of achievable politics had not been allowed to temper his idealism.

As Harold Wilson famously observed, Benn "immatured with age".

But their thoughts, if those they were, were private as we hung on Speaker Bercow’s beautifully delivered piece of scripture.

The mourners came from across the political divide, including the former Conservative Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell Credit: Philip Toscano/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Bunyan’s ‘He who would valiant be’ and Labour Leader Ed Miliband’s reading from the same author’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ captured much of Benn’s philosophy, in verse and prose "there’s no discouragement, shall make him once relent" and "My sword I give to him that shall succeed me".

His son Stephen reminded us his father’s life-long ambition was "to encourage us" and others - it was to be his epitaph.

The Tribute came from Tony Benn’s sole surviving brother, David, and from his children.

David said Benn was radicalised by three things – attending Westminster School, which "he hated"; losing his brother Michael in the 2nd World War which fired his passionate pacifism; and serving, himself, in Africa where the treatment of black Africans made him a life-long campaigner for equality and against racism.

Stephen, the eldest son, is the inheritor of the Stansgate title, the rejection of which defined Benn’s early political life.

Listen to part of Stephen Benn's tribute to his father:

He joked about giving Barbara Castle a lift home after a political dinner party ‘chez Benn’.

"Where are you going?", asked Stephen. "Islington", said Barbara. Stephen : "Where’s that?". Barbara : "I don’t know. I don’t drive." She was then Transport Secretary.

Hilary had another motoring anecdote, his from the 1945 general election and Benn’s first outing as a supporter not a candidate.

The car ‘dad’ was in bumped into the back of another. Benn announced, through the loud-speaker on the roof, "You have just been rammed by the Labour candidate and next Member of Parliament for Westminster!’. It was a landslide, and he won.

Benn’s coffin was carried out, by sons and grandsons, to the strains of ‘The Red Flag’, which many sang, and to applause, which all joined in.

It was that sort of funeral.

Trade Unionists stood outside with a miners banner. Inside, a shadow of his former self, the one time General Secretary of the NUM, Arthur Scargill, paid his respects.

Sinn Fein MPs Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams were among the mourners Credit: PA

Like lions and lambs, Martin McGuiness sat behind Harriet Harman; Sir Peter Bottomley sat behind Cherie Blair - (Benn had campaigned for her in Thanet).

Ken Livingstone was there - Margaret Thatcher had destroyed his beloved GLC. Bernard Jenkin, whose father Patrick had done the "destroying", was there too.

I didn’t spot any bankers but Stephanie Flanders, formerly BBC Economics Editor and now JP Morgan strategist, was there.

So were Bill Cash, Peter Tatchell, Sir George Young and Tariq Ali – it was, again, that sort of funeral.

As I left, Hilary thanked me for attending - I’ve known him for years.

Big brother Stephen also said thanks though, as I reminded him, we had never met.

"Ah, but I knew you," he said, "through dad." It made my day and, not for the first time this morning, I shed a tear.