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Tony Benn: A Portrait

Written by: on June 22, 2009

At 84 Tony Benn cuts a strident figure. Involved in the political world since the age of 10, his mind is still sharper than that of many undergraduates. A lifelong member of the Labour Party and stalwart of the party’s left, he was an M.P for 51 years, retiring from the House of Commons in 2001 to ‘dedicate more time to politics.’

Since then he’s been busy, acting as Chair of the Stop the War Coalition and attending public meetings across the country to put his views across to grass-roots organisations. Whether you find yourself agreeing with his politics or not, it can’t be denied that Tony Benn is prolific.

{{ quote ‘I campaigned in the 1935 election when I was ten,’ he chortles, as if such a feat were commonplace. }}

Attending such regular events as the Tolpuddle Rally (the Trade Union Congress’ annual love-in), he knocks out rhetorical masterpieces unaided by cue cards or any more literal crutches. And whilst other political heavyweights reserve their energies for big publicity events, Benn tours the country relentlessly, packing out provincial halls wherever he goes. His appearance in Coventry during the Easter holidays, and again at the Arts Centre on 17th May barely two months later, attest to his dedication both to politics and to people.

We catch up with him at the Arts Centre whilst he is dutifully signing a towering pile of books and he immediately gets down to business, volleying back our questions with a rhetorical skill and academic rigour quite astonishing for a man of his age, his answers shot through with a principled conviction alien to many contemporary politicians.

He’s at Warwick, he tells us, to talk about the economy, democracy, war and religion. Somewhat of an ambitious mix one might think, but one which he is more than up to.

Can Benn, we wonder, remember the depression of the early thirties, and, more importantly, can he see any parallels to the economic situation of today? ‘I campaigned in the 1935 election when I was ten,’ he chortles, as if such a feat were commonplace. ‘The thing about the thirties was, it wasn’t just an economic crisis, it was a political crisis, Hitler used the unemployment to get power […] he put half the unemployed in the arms sector, the other in the army and had another bloody war.’ ‘

Does he, we wonder, see any parallels with 1931 (when Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald joined with the Conservatives to cut social welfare payments substantially)? Benn has frequently referenced this at meetings in the past, using it as an exemplar of a politician eschewing his principles in favour of political expediency. ‘I’ve got that in mind,’ he begins, but ‘I’m not in the business of forecasting, but if we had a coalition government next time […] then there would be no choice at all, and that’s when things would begin to become hairy.’

On that note, we ask, does Benn think that the current crisis will provide managers across the world with an opportunity to re-calibrate the worker-boss relationship – in effect to erode hard-won trade union rights. An unattractive Swansea car plant is a case in point: Rob Williams, a vocal trade unionist from the the Linamar car component factory in the South Wales town was ousted for standing up to management officials in the plant. Does Benn see this as auguring dark events to come? Here Benn is balanced: we are experiencing a , ‘real crisis,’ he notes, ‘and if people don’t buy cars you’re in a jam, on the other hand, bailing out the bankers, when the people who’re really in a jam are the unemployed, it’s not right. And talk about MPs’ expenses, what about these bloody great bonuses that the banks have been given? So you have to see it as a whole I think.’

However, ‘The Labour Party,’ he opines forcefully, ‘is in serious trouble. It’s not just the expenses, it’s a failure to honour the promise of a referendum on [the] Lisbon [trearty] […] what I’m worried about is whether people will be so disillusioned with parliament that some guy will come along and say I’ll clean it all up. And that is forcefully, ‘is in serious trouble. It’s not just the expenses, it’s a failure to honour the promise of a referendum on [the] Lisbon [trearty] […] what I’m worried about is whether people will be so disillusioned with parliament that some guy will come along and say I’ll clean it all up. And that is where you get the real danger.’

That Benn can speak with such authority on both the politics of an era over seventy years previous and that of the present, is a testament to his lifelong engagement with politics. Benn first made a name for himself in the early 1960s when he engineered the Peerage Act – allowing him, and indeed anyone else who wanted to, to abandon their unwelcome peerage. He came to the helm of British politics in the late 60s, becoming first Postmaster General and later Minister for Technology.

One aspect of Benn’s politics which has changed little since his early days is his reluctance to accept a federal Europe. ‘I think you have to work with Europe,’ he states, ‘but the present structure is fundamentally undemocratic. We don’t elect the commissioners, so they don’t have to listen to us. The laws are made in secret by the council of ministers, and about 50% of the laws we now have to obey are made by people we haven’t elected at all anyway.’ ‘It’s not nationalism at all, quite the opposite’.

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And in comments that would prove prophetic (our conversation was three weeks before the 4th June elections for the European Parliament), he asserts, ‘if you don’t have a referendum [on the Lisbon treaty for example], people can’t express their view, and so either way, UKIP or the BNP,’ will benefit [...] ,’and you see we’ve got three anti-EU parties coming [including the new socialist NO2Eu party] and that will attract some support.’ U.K.I.P pipped both Labour and the Lib Dems to second place in the elections.

Benn speaks with the freedom of someone completely unfettered by party politics; the compere seems largely irrelevant, only disrupting a lively conversation between Benn and the audience. On the subject of Israel and war, he confidently invokes the Bible. Israel claims that God decreed via Moses that Palestine were theirs,’ he states, ‘but I was never aware that God was an estate agent!’ Asked about the role of parliament and central government, he manages to adeptly allign Tony Blair and Joeseph Stalin in the same sentence. ‘The shift from Stalin to Blair was very small,’ he asserts – an allusion to certain Blairite ministers’ past in the British Communist Party.

Most noticeably Benn has an acute awareness of his audience’s demographic: their income bracket; professional makeup; concerns and interests. He adjusts his own approach, or rhetorical focus to fit accordingly. In this respect he is simply a (talented) salesman of ideology. Perhaps this should be taken as a pejorative; accusations of telling people what they want to hear are rarely positive, but Benn’s integrity is equally notable: he believes what he says. In our discussion, he highlights how conflict is inherent in almost every political decision, that the task is always one of reconciliation.

Perhaps then he merely emphasises different aspects of competing truths, based on the makeup of the audiences he addresses. An example is in order. Having attended the talk in Coventry, it was immediately apparent that Benn knew his audience well. Coventry’s history as an industrial area, and more recently a car manufacturer was a point voiced by members of the audience, angry and scared at their prospects during the recession, and picked up on by Benn. The environment was backburnered to the more salient issue of job retention and creation in the area. Coal was deemed crucial, and when challenged about the environmental consequences of digging it out of the ground his response was terse, claiming the argument was “overstated”.

During our discussion, the conversation was steered once again to coal and its consequences. His response this time round was quite different, focusing instead on resolving the conflict between job creation and the environment, and even questioning the efficacy of ‘clean coal’. A second indicator of his framing the conversation to meet his audience came when our conversation drifted towards the welfare state.

Faced with two students, he latched on to the matter of student loans in a heartbeat, making repeated, emphatic rejections of the system which requires students to pay for their education. No doubt his declamations were sincere, but student loans were far from the agenda in Coventry and he manages to summon genuine anger here, ‘it’s an outrage,’ he fumes, ‘and what about school loans? What if I go for an operation, and they say “well you can have your triple bypass Mr. Benn, but you’ll need to take out a loan”, and the whole welfare state is eroded. I feel passionately about student loans, because I didn’t have to pay to go to university, and most of the cabinet didn’t and then all of a sudden they say it’s got to be done.’ Once seen as somewhat of a marmite figure for the Bristish Public – heralded as a principled conviction politician by some and derided as a dangerous demagogue by others, Benn has now become a set fixture of the British media – how does he regard his partial integration into the establishment we wonder? ‘The final corruption is to be seen as a kindly old gentleman. I am kind, I am old and I am a gentleman, but I’m not harmless.’ ‘A while ago I got a death threat again […] I was so chuffed that somebody thought me worth killing.’ He will never, however, return to the House of Commons, he asserts, quipping, “I’ve done my fifty-one years and I was released on license; my sentence was commuted.”

If we were to levy another criticism at Benn, it might be that his rhetoric is shot through with a series of familiar annecdotes – which he trots out on most occasions to defend his ideology. But perhaps this is simply part of his unwavering consistency. I’ve come to the conclusion, he asserts, ‘that democracy is the most revolutionary idea in the world. And if it’s eroded by any means, we’re all in trouble.’ The whole scandal over expenses has only arisen because of the Freedom of Information Act of 2002, he asserts. ‘The say publicity is the best disinfectant’, he notes, whilst also asserting that it hasn’t always been this way, ‘when I was elected there was no secretarial allowance […] if you wrote to me as a constituent 60 years ago I had to buy the bloody stamp!’

Despite his years, Benn shows no intention of slowing down. He will, he tells us, be appearing at Glastonbury this year. At the end of his talk he repeatedly emphasises how he has enjoyed the experience, eulogising the idea of public debate. We would do well to engage with politics in the manner he has done for the last 75 years.

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