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Remembering Dennis Turner, the Lord Bilston

DennisTurner.jpgThis eulogy was delivered at Dennis’s funeral on Wednesday 12th March 2014 by Bruce Grocott

We’ve heard so much about Dennis today and about the way in which his life touched so many of our lives. I first met him nearly forty years ago when he was leading the campaign to save the steelworks. Since then I have seen him and admired him every step of the way on his remarkable journey from the steelworks of Bilston to the red benches of the House of Lords.

And in all those different settings the one thing that was constant, which never changed, was Dennis – his big personality, his warmth, his humour, his devotion to the area in which he lived all his life, his loyalty to his friends, to his trade union, to the Labour Party, and of course to his family.

He was to me the most wonderful friend through all the ups and downs of political life. When parliament was sitting, most days would finish for us over a pint in the Commons bar, putting the world to rights. The truth is he made everyone he met feel as though they were his friend. Just last Wednesday in the Lords one of the staff came up to me and said:

“It’s so sad about Lord Bilston. He didn’t know my name, but whenever he saw me he beamed, raised his arm and say in that wonderful voice, “How are you my friend?”

Within weeks of arriving in the Lords in 2005 Dennis was entirely at home. He always got to know people very quickly. If Dennis had any real enemies in politics, I never met one. His warmth was not manufactured, it was natural to him. He always followed the mantra that it’s better to make friends than make enemies.

The process of being introduced into the Lords takes you into procedural matters that I found difficult and so it seems did Dennis. Before you can be introduced you have to be given a title and this involves discussions with a ceremonial gentleman called Garter King of Arms who has a uniform to match his title. Dennis was clear. He wanted to be Lord Turner of Bilston. But due to what I must politely call a misunderstanding, the Turner part was left out and he was duly and irreversibly named Lord Bilston. But it didn’t really matter – everyone knew him as Dennis.

Well the name may have changed but Dennis hadn’t. The speeches he made in the Lords could easily have been made when he joined the Commons twenty years previously or even when he joined the Labour Party half a century before. Listen to this from a debate on poverty in May 2008: 

“Tackling poverty” he said, “has been at the heart of Labour’s philosophy since the Party was founded over a hundred years ago. Abject poverty in the midst of great wealth was then the order of the day for millions of British families whose life chances were blighted by unemployment, wars, lack of education, disease and malnutrition, and in many families early death. It is therefore unsurprising that the party that I have been proud to be a member of for almost fifty years has the elimination of poverty in all its forms as its abiding mission.”

I find these words inspiring, the more so being delivered by Dennis in his fine, strong voice, imbued by his own experience, defining his political life. Dennis was steadfast, dependable, consistent, loyal. Labour like a stick of rock, or as one political commentator wrote about him:

"Dennis Turner" he said, “Not new Labour, not old Labour. Dennis Turner is real Labour.”

Dennis was very serious indeed about his political objectives and beliefs and his determination to achieve them, but he also knew how to enjoy himself. He loved music and the company of friends. As we’ve heard, he loved a pint and he enjoyed racing, both the horses and the dogs.  

His dislike was modern technology, especially pagers and computers. You would not find Dennis on Facebook. He once showed me a beer mat with an inscription which amused us both: 'Banks’s mild' it said, 'unspoilt by progress'.

During his nine years in the Lords Dennis’s passion for politics was undimmed, and he continued to pursue the causes that had engaged him all his life. We’ve heard of his campaign against poverty. He was also passionate about treating people equally especially in the provision of health services and education. Listen to Dennis in a Lords debate on education:

“Education”, he said, “empowers the individual, the family and the community, transforming lives with knowledge and opening up opportunities for economic and social advancement.  In the words of William Morris, ‘the cause alone is worthy till the good days bring the best’. That day will come when all our citizens are more equal and more equally share in the wealth they have helped to create. That day, said Dennis, we shall celebrate society’s triumph over poverty and despair.”

And his passion for justice was not confined to Britain. He was a strong supporter of those in need overseas, did lots of work for the Fair Trade movement, and was there at the start as a Parliamentary Private Secretary of the then newly formed Ministry of Overseas Development.

Dennis’s values and principles were central to his political life. They are values as old as Christianity and at the heart of everything that Dennis’s Labour Party has always stood for. Critics too easily say of Members of Parliament that they are only in it for what they can get out of it. No-one who ever knew him could possibly say that about Dennis Turner. Indeed Parliament, both the Commons and the Lords, was enriched by having Dennis as a member.

We will all miss him dreadfully, but most of all of course he will be missed by his beloved wife Pat, his children Brendon and Jenny, brother and sister in law Bert and Kath, and all the family.

We all wish that he could have been with us for much longer. But we can and must celebrate a quite outstanding life, lived with love for his fellow men and lived to the full. And all of us who ever met him are the richer for having known him.

Lord Bruce Grocott is a Labour Peer and former Chief Whip in the Lords, and previously MP for The Wrekin, Telford and Lichfield & Tamworth

Published 13th March 2014

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