Labour veteran Tony Benn as sharp as ever as he reflects on a life in politics

Alastair Stewart

Former ITV News presenter

Veteran Labour politician Tony Benn Credit: ITV News

It was as a ‘wet behind the ears’ under-graduate at Bristol University in the early seventies that I first met Tony Benn, then MP for Bristol South East.

I was the Vice President of the Student Union and he was already a towering figure of the Labour party and, particularly, of the left. He’d held office under Harold Wilson, was Chairman of the Labour Party in Opposition, and would go on to be Energy Secretary and Trade Secretary.

But that first encounter sealed a relationship which has lasted some forty years.

He sat, as an MP, on the University Court and I attended as VP.

He told me the student union was important and that my lowly office mattered because I was one of those who had been given the honour and duty of speaking up for the student body.

In those days I was a supporter of the NUS Broad-Left - a loose coalition of Labour and Communist party members and, like me, not a few ‘fellow-travellers’.

Among my closest friends then, as now, were John Reid, then a Communist, and Charles Clarke - Labour then, Labour now.

Benn was among an influential group of mentors who never told us ‘what’ to think – just to think.

They never told us ‘how’ to challenge or ‘what’ to challenge - just to challenge. Over the years, I have interviewed him on many occasions.

He would always ask after my ‘clever son’ Alex, who had done very well at the very private Winchester College and the elite Oxford University.

Tony Benn acting as disc jockey on BBC Radio London's 'Morning Star' programme. Credit: Press Association

Tony went to the equally private Westminster School; his father, of course, had been Viscount Stansgate, a title he famously renounced to remain and MP – a member of the House of ‘Commons’.

He also went to Oxford – to New College, part of the same foundation that had given private education Winchester College. They were odd co-incidences which I was always sure he enjoyed.

I would respond by asking after his brilliant son, meaning Hillary.

He’d always ask ‘Which one?’

Today, for the first time, he didn’t ask after Alex.

He looked frail - age and illness have begun to take their toll.

Alastair Stewart speaking to Tony Benn Credit: ITV News

But when we talked about energy prices, and about Sir John Major’s intervention in that debate, the brain was as sharp as ever.

He poured vitriol upon the Daily Mail for their attack on his friend Ralph Miliband - yes, he is old enough to have ‘known’ the man rather than to have merely read the cuttings about him.

And he was warm in his praise of Ralph’s son Ed – a one-time Benn researcher who had gone from being a ‘bright boy’ to ‘a very bright man’.

But was the fire of his socialism fading? Was the fervour I had first experienced all those years ago in Bristol on the wane?

Yes, in truth; a little. But he told me the enemy was not capitalism, nor had he suddenly discovered he had been wrong all along. And he had not been persuaded by greater minds.

‘Just experience’, he said, in a warm but slightly resigned fashion. Just the experiences of an extraordinary life.

He has published the final volume of his diaries – ‘final’ because he can no longer manage the physical and intellectual daily drudge of doing them.

But, like him or not, agree with him or not, his has been a remarkable and challenging life to have had the honour of observing, reporting upon and getting to know, just a little.

Watch my interview with him on the News at Ten tonight

The Last Diaries: A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine is edited by Ruth Winstone and published by Random House