Tony Benn interview

Written by Amber Elliott on 20 September 2011 in Interview
In a specially extended online version, Tony Benn talks campaigning zeal and the Labour Party's renewal

Jad Adams: I went to see Tony to see if he would allow me access to his papers. Tony said: “You don’t need my permission you know. You can go ahead and do this without me.” I said: “There’s no way I would even possibly do it if I couldn’t get your permission.”

Tony Benn: This was about 20 years ago, wasn’t it?

JA: Yes. I said: “I wouldn’t even dream of publishing without your permission or your assistance. It wouldn’t be something I would be prepared to do.” I think that was the right answer because Tony did give me permission. I then went on something of an odyssey through the papers – through the Benn archive – which was at that time held in Holland Park. It was possible to go through those papers, pretty much day-by-day, of decades of parliamentary life. The diaries, which were in the process of being transferred into a typescript format, were actually being typed up as I was sitting there. My infantry of research was only just ahead of the artillery of the diary being printed out.

Why did you say yes?

TB: Jad arrived and made the suggestion, and I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ A biography’s an honour to have done. And Jad was serious. I didn’t think he was doing it to knife me. I trusted him and he produced this very formidable work. My most vivid memory of all is spending a whole morning sitting for a photograph for the cover of the book. It was most extraordinary. It was a classic sort of photograph and it most exhausted me trying to get it right.

What about the updated biography?

TB: The last one ended in 1990, which is a long time ago, before the deputy leadership. A lot has happened since then. I’ve been to Iraq a couple of times. Also I’m beginning to enjoy my role as a kindly, harmless old gentleman. Well, I am a kind, I am old, I could be a gentleman. But I’m not harmless.

You were asked to accept a peerage, but wouldn’t accept it at the patronage of the prime minister. Would you have stood for an elected Lords?

TB: It’s a theoretical question: in an elected House of Lords, would I have stood? Would I have been elected? I don’t believe in a hereditary chamber. If you go to the dentist, and they start drilling your teeth, then says: “I’m not a dentist myself, but my father was a very good dentist,” you’d move to another dentist. This whole thing, of getting into Parliament because the prime minister puts you there, rather than getting elected, is really awful. If you are going to deal with a second chamber, you are going to have to look at it in a whole different way.

Have you been following the debate?

TB: A little bit, but there’s a lot of hostility in the Lords – people would lose their seat if this went through. If you had a chamber, half of whom were elected, and half of whom were not then when you look to count up the vote at the end of the day, would you measure up which way the elected voted or do you include the non-elected as having an equal right to be counted? I think it’s very complicated. I have written a book in which I talked about a second elected chamber, but that would be on a different sort of basis from what they’re proposing.

In the book, you talk about your opposition to the European Community. Now, we’re seeing that debate come around again – a return to an anti-European line?

TB: It is, and I’m not anti-German, anti-French, anti-Italian… but the European Union is not democratic. The laws are made not by people you vote for, but by people who are commissioned or appointed. The central bank in Frankfurt is made up of appointed people and they give orders to governments. That’s the real weakness of it.

Labour is going through a period of renewal. What do you make of Refounding Labour. Are you involved in that process at all?

TB: Well, there is a new policy, which will be prepared in the course of the next 12 months. I shall no doubt be involved in some way in that. When I left Parliament, I realised I had one great advantage – I wasn’t asking people to vote for me. I’m now a campaigning guy. I campaign against the war, against the cuts and so on. If you campaign for what you believe in, it gives you a certain freedom that you don’t always have if you’re always worried about being elected. The Labour Party has got to decide whether it is going to be in favour of a transformation of our society or if it is just going to be a micro-management team with better ideas than the Tories on how to run the status quo. That is what it’s become at the moment, which I think turns some people off.

You have spoken a lot about special advisers becoming MPs and a lack of diversity in Parliament. Do you have any suggestions on how to improve the situation?

TB: When I was first elected, we had 60 miners in the House of Commons. We had people who had driven trains and done all sorts of jobs. Now, it’s drifting to the people who come in as an adviser and succeed the person they’ve been advising. That makes it a less representative chamber.

JA: Surely this is a question of public attitudes? The more we are aware that the people in politics, and who are standing for election, have never had any other kind of job –don’t know anything else apart from being a student, being a research assistant, being an adviser and being an MP – the more we understand that, the more it disgusts us and the more it turns us off politics. I think there’s a level of voter revulsion which is not apathy at all, it’s disgust. It leads parties to think, ‘We need to act differently, we’ve got to start recruiting people who have done something else, who have run a business or who have worked in this or that industry. People who are something other to politicians.’

How do you believe organizations like UK Uncut can work with the Labour Party?

TB: What I don’t believe in is that you should leave the Labour Party and form a pure party that agrees with you. There are about 20 socialist parties. The Labour Party is a coalition. It isn’t a socialist party, but has socialists in it. I would describe myself as a socialist in the Labour Party. If you can’t persuade the Labour Party that something’s right, you’re very unlikely to be able to persuade anybody else. It means your first job is to have some influence on the party that you’re a member of. There are some very good MPs. They play a useful role in not only defending people under attack, but also in formulating ideas relevant to our needs – like our attitude to the Afghan war or to the Libyan war. The debate within the Labour Party is an ongoing debate.

It feels like there is still support for the traditional left of the Labour Party, but it feels quite disunited at the moment.

TB: The Campaign Group is made up of people who meet up every week to discuss things from a left perspective. I am the president of it, unless that they’ve elected somebody else. I used to go on every week to join in the discussions. It is quite small. But it does really believe in the Labour Party as a socialist party and argues that case.

I don’t think someone like Austin Mitchell would have been in the Campaign Group 20 years ago, but now he is. It’s quite interesting to see how the dynamic has changed. If the Labour Party has now moved to the right, Austin’s now on the left.

TB: Roy Hattersley was very pro the party, but now he feels the party has left him behind. I think on the whole, I respect most the people who say what they mean, mean what they say, and do what they said they’d do if they had the chance. This is really a question of whether you trust people. Trust is the key really to political success.

Do you think people trust Ed Miliband?

TB: I voted for Ed Miliband. I thought he was the best candidate. On the whole, I would have thought that he was trusted. The criticism is that he isn’t speaking up on issues when maybe he should. He’s surrounded by a shadow cabinet, which includes a lot of people who disagree with him. That must be a bit restrictive as to what he can say. He picked up the leadership because he understood the opposition to all the cuts, and everything going on. I think he spoke for them and he’s a product of the opposition to the coalition.

Were you disappointed that he came out against the pensions strikes?

TB: I thought that that was a mistake, yes. I think the pension’s argument is a real argument. And I think trade unions would expect people in the Labour Party to support them. The Labour Party has to see itself regardless of ideology. You are there to represent working people in Parliament. And, if a lot of trade unions do come out on strike on a substantive issue, and the pension thing is a substantive issue, I think your first thoughts should be, ‘How can we support them?’

You say that since leaving Parliament, you’ve become a campaigner. Under the coalition government, do you think that direct action can work?

TB: Well if you look back over history – the poll tax, to the English revolution – you find that all progress is made when people decide to campaign for something they want. Governments in the end have to respond to it. When my mum was born in 1897, women didn’t have the vote. Suffragettes were locked up as trouble-makers. They went on hunger strike and were forcibly fed. In the end, it went through, and that’s how you make progress. I think the way the right deal with protests, is to say, ‘It won’t work, it’s irrelevant.’ You can’t trust Parliament to do it. They spread pessimism. And pessimism is the great enemy. If you are persuaded it can’t be done, then why put all the sweat into doing the campaigning?

JA: One does wonder what else the students should have done. What they did was to help elect liberals because they believed that liberals were going to, and said that they were going to, support their cause. The liberals did actually get some share of power, and then betrayed the students and their cause, which the liberals had signed up to prior to the election. So what else were the students to do? What else was there option? However constitutionally-minded one is, there has to be a point in which you can say, ‘I’ve done everything I possibly can to support an elected democracy. That elected democracy deliberately betrayed me, as soon as it had the scent of power.’

What do you make of coalition government?

TB: Well, my dad said to me: “Coalitions in war-time are necessary because you’re fighting for survival. In peacetime, the more progressive of the two parties in a coalition will always be squeezed.” And that’s happening to the liberals now.

Do you think they can come back from it?

TB: I would have thought that the coalition has done great deal of damage to the Liberal Party electorally, but we’ll see.

There’s an argument that Labour should be doing better than it is currently. They should be able to scoop up all the Liberal votes, and then take on the Tories votes. 

TB: Well, I think the anti-cuts campaigns, and the peace campaigns are doing that, by making an appeal across the whole spectrum. For example, Michael Ancram, the former chairman of the Tory Party, offered to come and speak at a Stop the War meeting, and I think they did attract a lot of support. That then changes public perception and changes the way they vote.

What question do you get asked most at your regular appearances in theatres around the country?

TB: I quite enjoy those. I do about 12 a year. It’s like a public meeting, but they’re not your supporters who come. I do an interview for a bit, and then the questions start. The questions are very, very, very shrewd. I think the establishment and the media and the political class underestimate the intelligence of the public. You get very, very perceptive questions.  They ask difficult questions about the war. You have to think very hard. thinking on your feet is a good intellectual exercise, but it also convinces you that there are a lot of people who share your view, even though they’re not your supporters who come. I talk a little bit about my life, but mainly it’s about the cuts, or about the war, about Europe, about nuclear weapons. 

Do you enjoy your life as a campaigner more than you did as a parliamentarian?

TB: Well, I’m an old man, I’m 86 now. I wouldn’t have the energy to be an active MP. Being in the constituency every weekend, the mass of mail and votes at night. So I am enjoying myself. I said I was leaving Parliament to devote more time to politics. People laughed. But that’s exactly what I’m doing. I have two or three public meetings each week, peace meetings and anti-cuts meetings. That keeps me going. I haven’t the energy to do a full time MP’s job. I did 52 years.

It must be a lot freer than the life of an MP.

TB: I can decide my own programme. If I was asked to do a meeting on a Wednesday night, I wouldn’t have been able to accept it as an MP but I can go now. I miss my constituency more than I miss the House of Commons. I really loved the discussions there and the public meetings there. The House of Commons is a club. And, in a funny way, I suspect public opinion of Parliament is that they suspect parties are friendlier to one and other than they admit publicly. They don’t think that anything will get through. So there is suspicion in Parliament.  And they should be suspicious of power. But if that suspicion moves to cynicism, then that undermines your confidence that you can achieve anything.

Tony Benn: A Biography by Jad Adams is out now (Biteback, £14.99)

Tags: Ed Miliband, Jad adams, Tony Benn, Tony Benn: A Biography

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