In conversation... Tony Benn

Written by Iain Dale on 21 January 2009 in Interview
In 2009, Iain Dale spent two hours, over several mugs of tea, quizzing Tony Benn - political grandfather of the nation - about democracy, death, misjudgements, and world government

ID: When you stood down from Parliament did you think you would enjoy your post-parliamentary life?

TB: Before she died, my wife Caroline said, when you do stand down (and we had agreed I would) you should say it’s to devote more time to politics. It was a joke but also serious, and that’s exactly I have done. I have never been busier. Last year I did 161 public meetings, 175 broadcasts and I go round supporting the causes I believe in and do my theatre performances, which are the equivalent of a constituency meeting. I get from that something I used to get from constituency work. I was 76 when I gave up and the strain of getting up at 5am every Friday to go to the constituency to do a surgery was getting a bit much. I don’t have a secretary. I do all my own letters and emails so it’s a busy life, but I am enjoying it very much.

Do you miss the parliamentary side of politics?

The Speaker gave me and Ted Heath a pass called the ‘Freedom of the House’ and I go there a couple of times a week. What I miss is the constituency. I miss the surgeries. They were very emotional events because people would often burst into tears and unload their problems. If you are a conscientious constituency Member you are really in touch with what people are thinking. You’re not there to lecture them on your ideology, you’re there to help, and that’s what I miss most.

You were quite outspoken about the Damian Green arrest, partly because of the dangers of that confidential relationship between constituent and MP apparently being breached.

It was an outrage to go into a Member’s office and go through his files. If you write to an MP it’s like going to a doctor or a lawyer. It’s a confidential relationship. If people thought the police could get hold of what they said to an MP the whole thing would come to an end. They have turned the House of Commons into a government department. Originally the House of Commons used to control the Executive, but now the House of Commons is a government department with the Leader of the House in charge.

Whose fault is that?

The pressure from underneath has been defused in a whole series of ways. It will come right again when the pressure builds up. All progress has always come from underneath, by demands that are made that can’t be resisted. That’s why I spend all my time now on grassroots things, supporting pensioners, students, firefighters or whoever it happens to be. When the pressure gets to a certain point the guys at the top have to listen.

Isn’t it partly the fault of MPs themselves? They have allowed the Executive to get so many powers and to bypass Parliament.

Yes, I agree. The Damian Green case is a good example. I went to speak for David Davis because I felt so strongly about the 42 days issue. It was a principle. I must be the only Labour candidate to have had a letter from Winston Churchill endorsing me. He wrote it when I was thrown out of Parliament because he saw it as a principle. I photocopied 50,000 copies of it!

So your cross party alliances go back nearly 50 years!

On issues where we can agree, yes. I think politics has become far too tribal. There should be less hostility and more of the argument and then you would find people coming together from different sides on different issues.

Keith Joseph said he only realised in 1974 he had not, until that point, been a true Conservative. Did you have a similar epiphany when you lost office in 1979, and was it only then that you felt you became a real Socialist?

Not really. I think office turned me to the left. I realised when I was there that shouting ‘Thatcher Out’ didn’t get you very far. When you are in office you realise that there you are locked into a system that you don’t control, and that was what really radicalised me. This wasn’t a swing back to my faith from being in office; it was the development of my understanding in office which gave me the confidence to put forward my arguments when I was out of office.

It’s difficult as a minister, when you are bound by collective responsibility, to drive forward an individual agenda. You are always compromised by the system, aren’t you?

Not really. I developed a way of dealing with that. I realised that collective responsibility applied to the present Parliament, so I would say “looking ahead ten years this is what we will have to think about...” so I could open up a whole area. They couldn’t get me on that. I would also say: “I’m getting an awful lot of letters at the moment saying this, that or the other...” It didn’t please colleagues but I think that on the whole, a government where it is known there is a debate going on is more credible than the pretence of unanimity. The idea that a Cabinet is unanimous on every issue isn’t true and everybody knows it isn’t true.

That boxes you in as a minister because you are never going to get one of the top jobs if you are seen as a maverick.

It isn’t about that. I was defeated many times. The biggest of all was in 1976 over public spending cuts and the IMF [International Monetary Fund]. I thought it was wrong. The oil was bubbling ashore and I tried to persuade the Treasury to publish the gold, oil and dollar reserves every month, in which case we could have said ‘boo’ to the IMF. I lost the battle, but I give full marks to Jim [Callaghan]. He allowed the debate. The Cabinet was a really interesting, clever group of people. It was riveting. At the end of it all I was able to say, well, you know my view, but this was a decision and I am a member of the government and I accept the decision. I never minded being defeated as long as I had a chance to put my case. There’s a credibility about that position.

And you never came close to resigning?

I went to my local Party in Bristol. I am probably the only Minister who ever did it, and I said I want you to tell me whether I should resign. If they had asked me to, I would have stuck to it. In the end they said: “Stick it out, say what you think, and if you are sacked, we will support you”. I did think that through very carefully. If you’re in Cabinet you lose half the time and win half the time, but if you resign and then there’s a vote of confidence, do you then vote for the government you’ve resigned from, or not? I came to the conclusion that if I had argued my point and lost, it was a credible position to accept the decision and move on. I could never have voted for a war, though.

In your 11 years as a Minister what is the one achievement you’d single out?

Maybe the creation of the Giro Bank. By the time Mrs Thatcher abolished it, it was the fifth largest bank in Britain. But I would like to be remembered for having encouraged people. It sounds very innocent, but if you have given people confidence that they can do something, that is a real achievement. I look back and think: “Have I always explained things to people truthfully? Have I always said what I meant and meant what I said?” And as a result of that, have I encouraged people to have confidence in themselves? All I would want on my gravestone would be: ‘Here Lies Tony Benn: He Encouraged Us.’

Do you think about death? Is it something you fear?

Well, I’m 84. I don’t mind being dead. I don’t want the circumstances to be too unpleasant. Death is a natural part of the process of life.

Do the physical limitations manifested by old age frustrate you?

I haven’t the energy I had. I was on a march in Trafalgar Square and holding a banner, and being pushed by the people behind. I had reached the limits of my physical capabilities. I’m trying to write a book with a brilliant title of ‘A Letter to my Grandchildren’. It details what I have learned about war, violence, religion and the economy. It’s not my life story, but it’s the things I think I have learned. It’s a challenge because it has to be credible to that generation when they read it. I’m not trying to force them to share my views but I am using my experience to explain.

How would history have been different if you had become Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in 1981? After all, you only lost by half a per cent.

I took the view that an election campaign was an opportunity to present an argument. I wasn’t motivated by the single minded hope of winning. Obviously if I had won I would have been thrilled to have won, but I don’t know how it would have changed things. I know people find it hard to believe but I don’t think about that particularly. I stood, I campaigned, I said what I thought and I lost. The people who defeated me all joined the SDP, so without them I did defeat [Denis] Healey, but that’s by the by.

Do you think the Labour Party in power and the Labour Party in opposition are two different parties?

Not really. If you look at the Labour Party in the 1930s Cripps was expelled, Foot was expelled, Nye Bevan was expelled but they still played their part when an election came. Government is hard work and you are locked into a system you don’t control and even more so now, where 80 per cent of our laws are made in Europe. I find the role of European Commissioner even more offensive than the House of Lords. The Commissioners can do what they like and can’t be criticised. When I was President of the Energy Council of Ministers I found I couldn’t even submit a document. Only the Commissioner could. It’s as if I had gone into the Energy Department and only the Permanent Secretary could say what should happen. You could veto it, but you couldn’t put in another paper. The whole European argument for me is a democratic one and not about nationalism. I am not a nationalist at all. I was very pleased to go to Ireland and see the Lisbon Treaty defeated.

Do you think the Cold War would have ended if Britain had adopted the unilateralist agenda you advocated in the 1980s?

I saw Gorbachev a few years ago at the TUC and I said to him: “If we had been friendly to Russia after the revolution would Perestroika have come earlier?” He said it was an interesting idea. I gave a talk to 70 senior defence staff at the Defence College at Shrivenham recently to talk about alternatives to war. I thought they were going to chew me up for breakfast. But it was a riveting discussion. I asked how many of them believed that it was because we had nuclear weapons the Soviet Union didn’t attack the West. Only two put their hands up. There never was military threat, but there was an ideological threat from Communism.

Sorry, but you cannot seriously say there was no military threat from the Soviet Union...

There was no military threat to the West, no.

Well why did they have all the missiles?

Well why did we have all the missiles? We had them before they did. What’s the point of nuclear weapons? You can’t use them. They didn’t help the Americans in the war against Iraq. The Israelis have got them but it didn’t help them in Gaza.

My point was that the Cold War would not have come to an end, or the Communist system brought to its knees without the policy of multilateralism in the 1980s and indeed rearmament on the part of the West.

I understand the argument but I don’t believe that. It’s an illusion. The European Union was set up to save capitalism in Western Europe and NATO was set up to protect capitalism. They were really a diversion.

Keynes once said, when the facts change, I change my mind. What have you changed your mind on?

Many things. Nuclear power, for example. In 1955 when Eisenhower said he was going for ‘Atoms for Peace’ I became a passionate supporter of it. Having been brought up on the Bible I liked the idea of swords into ploughshares. I advocated nuclear power as Minister of Technology. I was told, and believed, that nuclear power was cheap, safe and peaceful. Having been in charge of nuclear power I discovered it wasn’t cheap, wasn’t safe and when I left office I was told that during my period as Secretary of State for Energy, plutonium from our nuclear power stations went to the Pentagon to make nuclear weapons. So every nuclear power station in Britain is a bomb factory for America. I was utterly shaken by that. Nothing in the world would now induce me to support nuclear power. It was a mistake. Israel is another one. I was rowing on the Sea of Galilee in May 1945 when the war ended. I was all in favour of a Jewish homeland, but now I see what has happened and it was absolutely wrong.

Do you think people are hoping for too much from Obama, are their expectations of immediate, radical change too high?

Well, how does change occur? It occurs when the demands get so strong that the guys at the top cannot resist. It can’t come from the top, it has to come from underneath. You’re right, Obama is locked into the Pentagon. Remember that Roosevelt was elected on a very conservative programme in 1932 but when he got there he effected change...

But government was so much smaller then. The state is like an oil tanker now, so vast, so intrusive and all pervasive, partly because of technology, that it’s difficult to put it into reverse. And there are so many vested interests ranged against you.

But it is possible. Look at history. I’ve been thinking about world government and if you had a world government based on the normal principles of constituency members, China would have two billion votes at the UN, India would have two billion, the USA four hundred million and the UK sixty million. That transformation would be fantastic, wouldn’t it?

If you say so [laughs]! I don’t wish to be governed by the Chinese.

But that was the argument used in 1832. You cannot let the poor have the vote. They will challenge the rich.

No, no. It’s nothing to do with that. I would love the Chinese to have the vote in their own country, but I do not wish to endorse a system which would give China any powers over my life, thank you very much!

The most revolutionary idea is democracy. Nobody in power likes sharing power with anyone else. Democracy transfers power from the market place to the polling station, from the wallet to the ballot. Stalin wouldn’t allow it, Bush isn’t all that keen on it and you’re not wildly enthusiastic about it...

I am totally enthusiastic about democracy...

Not globally.

No, because I believe in nation states, not world government. You admit you are disillusioned with the EU, why should a world government be any different to that?

Globalisation is spoken of in such a narrow sense. We live in a world which is now a village, where news travels quickly but without any democratic control. Fear is what makes the guys at the top concede power. The only reason we ever got democracy was because they thought that if they didn’t concede it there would be a revolution.

Did you, as a Cabinet Minister, ever feel you had real power - that you could change things with the stroke of your pen?

No. The only way you could change something was by arguing for it. The internet is where the power is nowadays. That’s why the Chinese are clamping down on Google, and why the Americans are altering entries in Wikipedia.

You like your gadgets and you’re quite internet savvy, aren’t you?

The internet is great for organising meetings and protest marches. It’s a formidable organisational power. My 12-year-old granddaughter just emailed me a paper she has written on the Chinese policy of one child per family. She had googled all the information. It was fantastic. I have a lot of time for the younger generation, yet the old treat the young with arrogance, but it is we who made such a cock up of the world. One hundred and five million people killed in two world wars, yet we lecture them on violence in Africa. We lecture kids about hideous stabbings, yet compared to what we have done... A little bit of modesty by the old is not inappropriate.

If you were Chancellor of the Exchequer, what would you be doing now?

It’s very difficult. I am not looking for scapegoats but the market philosophy running from the monetarism of Callaghan and Thatcher through to Blair has failed. The case for the banks, like the army, police and health service to be publicly owned is unanswerable. If you put it like that people think it’s sensible. Thatcher was a very clever woman. She realised that if you were going to reverse what had been done after the war you had to destroy trade unionism, which she did with the miners and then made trade unionism illegal.

Sorry, she did nothing of the sort.

Well, no, but the legislation is worse than in 1906. She then said to people you don’t need a wage claim, borrow. She created a debt slavery, then she destroyed local government and began privatisation. She understood that local government, trade unionism and public ownership were the foundations of the Labour Party. Blair was a Thatcherite. She even said that her greatest achievement was New Labour! She’s right and that’s why Blair had such a wonderful press. That whole philosophy crumbled with the credit crunch. You now have to intervene publicly. Look at the rail fares and energy companies. How many people really think those privatisations were sensible? If you could make such huge profits, why doesn’t it go to the Treasury? The big thing is recognising that it is global in character and how you cope with that. That’s why in the end there will have to be some form of global system. The IMF and WTO [World Trade Organisation], like the EU, are run by people who are not elected and cannot be removed. They don’t listen to you or me in Brussels, or the WTO or IMF. They are running a global dictatorship of the wealthy. How can you have any system which calls itself global without any form of accountability to the people who have to obey it? The older I get, the more idealistic I become. Now I know what the world is like, I realise the importance of having a dream.

So Harold Wilson was right. You have immatured with age!

That was one of the nicest things ever said about me! You have to retain some dream. I have a dream of a non-aligned, non-nuclear Britain with a special relationship with the UN.

What do you make of David Cameron?

I have only met him once. He told me his interest in politics began when he read my book Arguments for Democracy. I saw him at the unveiling of the Mandela statue and told him it was a pity he didn’t read Arguments for Socialism! I do try, seriously, not to think in terms of personalities.

I’m going to take issue with you because I think personality is incredibly important in politics. Personalities define which direction a country goes in. Blair would be doing very different things now to Brown, partly because of his personality. Thatcher was a force in politics because her personality drove things through. Churchill’s personality was vital to Britain winning the war.

I’m not sure. It wasn’t Churchill’s personality, but what he said. He articulated something which gave us an understanding. Blair didn’t give us any understanding of anything and he won’t be remembered. Mrs Thatcher will be remembered. The idea of a spin doctor controlling Mrs Thatcher was laughable. She was a signpost, not a weathervane, although she was a signpost which pointed in the wrong direction.

You always got on quite well with her, didn’t you?

She came to Eric Heffer’s funeral. There was someone behind me coughing. I didn’t know who it was but after I had gone up to speak I saw it was her, so I thanked her for coming. She burst into tears.

How did you get on with Enoch Powell? I know you have been quite kind about him in the past.

Enoch said what he meant. Someone once said that Enoch Powell had the finest mind in Parliament until he made it up. The last time I spoke to him, he said you do realise that Lord Mountbatten was murdered by the Americans, don’t you? He said it to me in the library in the Commons. I said, what do you mean? He said, well, Mountbatten was against nuclear weapons and that wasn’t acceptable. I’m just reporting to you what he said as an illustration of his judgment. The Rivers of Blood speech was a speech of a professor of Greek. It did enormous damage, I don’t think he meant it to, but it released something which was very dangerous to society.

What’s your everyday life like?

It’s a bit of a struggle to be honest. My family are very supportive.

Do you get lonely?

Yes, but I have lots of friends, but it’s nine years since I have been alone and Caroline died.

You’re still keeping up the diary, I assume?

Yes, but it’s not very interesting at the moment. I have been writing it for 67 years now. I was looking at some previous entries the other day and came across a funny story. I was on Vauxhall Bridge Road, and at my age your bladder can play up a bit. It was clear I wouldn’t make it home in time. So I got out of the car, opened the hood, looked in and, well, did what I needed to do. A man came up and said: “I think I know your problem.” “Oh yes,” I said, “what’s that?” “I think your radiator is leaking.” I zipped up, closed the hood and drove off [roars with laughter]. People are so kind. I’ve never mentioned my bladder problem, but from all over the world I get emails offering me Viagra. Isn’t that sweet of them?! I tell this at my theatre shows and I can see the audience not quite sure if I am joking, or if I know what Viagra is.

A good note to end on. Thank you very much.


1950 First elected to the House of Commons as MP for Bristol South East

1960 Disqualified from sitting in the Commons after inheriting a peerage

1963 Peerage Act passed, allowing Benn to renounce his title. He returns to the Commons

1964 Appointed Postmaster General in Harold Wilson's first government

1966 Promoted to Minister of Technology. Oversees the development of Concorde

1974 Appointed Secretary of State for Industry

1975 Moved to Secretary of state for Energy, widely seen as a demotion following his campaigning the UK's entry into the EEC

1976 Unsuccessfully stands for leadership of the Labour party, finishing fourth

1981 Ran for deputy leadership of the Labour party, narrowly defeated by Denis Healey

2001 Retires from the House of Commons to "spend more time involved in politics"

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