Tony Wardle talks to Tony Benn – politician, vegetarian, saviour and ‘scarey bogeyman’
In 1961, newly discharged from National Service, I walked down Fleet Street knocking on doors, determined to gain a foothold in journalism – and succeeded. Okay, it wasn’t one of the big titles that dominated the street in those days – the Mail, Express and Telegraph– in fact it was an obscure trade paper called The Cabinet Maker, owned by a company called Benn Bros. But it was a start.
A gang of us young hopefuls used to rub shoulders with the big boys as we polished our drinking skills in the journo’s pubs. One of our number was the chairman’s nephew – a Benn himself. Once, when the conversation got around to a distant relative of his, Tony Benn, he leant towards me conspiratorially across the pint glasses, dropped his voice and almost tapped his nose with his forefinger: “He’s barmy, you know!” – delivered with all the assurance of insider knowledge.
Tony Benn is an unfailingly polite, warm, courteous and gentle man with one of the best political brains the Commons has ever seen. He has always refused to engage in character attacks and has religiously confined himself to policies, never people – his enemies conspicuously doing the opposite. Some cartoonist’s even used to draw his eyes as little spirals to ensure that demonic look. He is, in fact, one of the politicians least deserving of this treatment.
The truth is, the rubbishing of Tony Benn’s mental state was entirely related to his political beliefs and nothing else. He carried his socialism like a standard and championed genuine democracy, freedom of speech, human rights and trade unionism – all of which were seen as a threat to the (mostly) gentry-owned dailies of those days, the paternalistic, almost feudal, companies such as Benn Bros and the political party which represented them. As the global Press barons such as Murdoch and Black moved in, the attacks, if anything, became even more vitriolic. But he’s got used to the insults over the years.
“Madness is one of the charges used to dismiss your views. If I rescued a child from drowning the Press would no doubt headline the story ‘Benn grabs child’. They start off accusing you of being mad before labeling you as dangerous and then there’s a pause. Eventually they adopt your views and it’s the same each time with progress.”
Of course, Tony Benn isn’t the only victim of this cruel use of alleged madness. The one dissenting voice that forcefully challenged the Government’s cynical assurances over BSE/CJD came from Prof Richard Lacey - and he was vilified for it. It eventually cost him his job and probably his peace of mind.
“With Richard Lacey there was a series of sustained and vicious, politically motivated media attacks and I found it frightening – I still do”.
Of course, back in 1961, Tony Benn wasn’t Tony Benn, he was the Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood Benn, Viscount Stansgate. He had inherited the title on his father’s death a year earlier and tried hard to renounce it but, believe it or not, the law as it then was wouldn’t allow it. Once a peer, always a peer was the establishment view.
Despite having been elected democratically by the people of Bristol South-East and been their representative for 10 years, he could no longer act as their MP. He could, of course, sit in the House of Lords and wield influence over legislation without a single person having voted for him. But, that of course, was anathema – he wanted the Lords abolished.
A by-election was called in his constituency and you now start to get a measure of the man. Despite being disqualified, he stood for re-election and won hands down. However, the electoral court overruled the voters and handed his seat to the Conservative runner up. Just imagine the uproar if that happened today! The fact that it couldn’t is thanks to Tony Benn.
It was another two years before his campaign for the right to choose was successful and the Peerage Act was passed. It received Royal Assent at 6pm on July 31 and at 6.22pm that day, Tony Benn was no longer a Viscount. At the Bristol by-election which followed, he again won comfortably. (Many years later, the seat disappeared due to boundary changes and he became the MP for Chesterfield.)
Throughout this whole period the media sustained their attack on him, misrepresenting him as some dilettante aristocrat playing at being a working class hero – not least because he stopped using the name Wedgwood. They christened him ‘Wedgie’ just to remind us and conveniently forgot to mention that his father, a Labour MP, had been awarded the title only in 1942 as an attempt to redress the massive, in-built Tory majority in the House of Lords. Barely a journalist acknowledged the importance of his fight for democracy which changed the British constitution.
Dissent and rebellion run deep in the Benn family. His mother Margaret was not only political but also a feminist and extremely religious – a bible scholar and founder of the Congregational Federation and a member of the League of the Church Militant, the first organisation to call for the ordination of women.
“My roots come from the dissenting tradition in religion, what my Mother called ‘the priesthood of all believers’. You don’t need a Bishop to help interpret things for you as everybody has a hotline to the Almighty. That of course was a tremendously revolutionary idea because out of that Methodist, Congregationalist tradition comes the idea that we had the right to build our own world, to meet our own needs and not just wait to be patted on the head by a Bishop and told, ‘If you do what I tell you to do, you’ll go to heaven’.”
Tony Benn’s father was also a rebel, moving from the Liberal party to the Labour party when Lloyd George became leader – a man he saw as corrupt. He also gave his son some pretty rebellious advice:
“When I was young he said: ‘Dare to be a Daniel, Dare to stand alone, Dare to have a purpose firm, Dare to let it (be) known.’ Now these are very, very powerful influences.”
I can’t think of anyone who has fulfilled that bit of paternal advice more completely.
The first time I went to Tony Benn’s Holland Park house was about 15 years ago when we were trying to get a TV series called The People’s Court off the ground. Sadly it never happened. When I visited recently, the only noticeable change was that the front door was now a glossy red. “Bloody would be, wouldn’t it?” said the taxi driver.
As I stepped inside and followed the stairs down to the basement, it was like a time warp and could have been the first visit. Row upon row of books in seemingly random order were still there, piles of papers, clutter and half light with Tony in the middle of it.
His extraordinarily diligent assistant and the tireless editor of his diaries, Ruth Winstone, was still chivvying and chasing and keeping order of a kind. I first bought a copy of his diaries for my father 20 years ago – and received the latest copy from my daughter this Christmas. It may have made me feel old but it’s a mark of Tony’s prodigious output and political longevity.
As we started to talk, his pocket tape recorder was placed on the table in front of us. It helps provide the raw material for his diaries but is also a mechanism to help prevent the vicious misquoting to which he was subjected for so many years and has become habitual. To a large degree it worked.
Of course the biggest change since my last visit was the death of his American-born wife of more than 50 years, Caroline – in 2000 at the age of 74.
Caroline was a political biographer and champion of comprehensive education and she and Tony met over tea at Worcester College, Oxford, in 1949. On a park bench nine days later, Tony proposed. In an extraordinarily romantic gesture, he was later to buy that bench from Oxford City Council and place in the garden of their house.
In June, 1999, for their Golden Wedding celebration, Caroline put on the same red, striped dress she had been wearing when Tony proposed. Their long and, by everyone’s reckoning, happy life together was enriched by four children – Stephen, Hilary, Melissa and Joshua. Currently, there are 10 grandchildren.
I expressed my sorrow at Caroline’s death and asked how things had been. Tony Benn’s whole demeanour changed slightly – his body seemed to slump a little, his eyes looked downwards and his voice became small: “Dreadful…dreadful!” It was time to move the subject on I felt.
Tony has written elsewhere of his beloved wife:
“She was my socialist soulmate. When people went through our rubbish every day, it was harder for her. I could respond in the House – she just had to take it."
Tony Benn would argue, I’m sure, that his beliefs are based on truths. If something can be proved then you have to act on it, one way or another, if you are to retain your integrity. So when, 26 years ago, his teenage son Hilary explained with great conviction that impoverishment in the developing world was directly linked to meat eating, Tony and Caroline immediately joined their son in giving up meat and have stuck with it ever since.
Hilary was obviously pushing at a half-open door because his father was already horrified by animal suffering and from the age of six or so had attended antivivisection rallies in Trafalgar Square. Hilary Benn is now, of course, a minister in the Labour Government and the third generation in the family to have sat in the Cabinet. As Secretary of State for International Development, he is probably the first minister ever in this position to fully understand the links between meat eating and starvation.
He is, though, far more mainstream in his politics than his father and I made passing reference to this. Tony remained silent and a tiny smile tweaked the corner of his mouth. It seemed to say: “He’ll learn.” Tony Benn is obviously extremely proud of his son.
“Having been made aware of the need for it, I have never lost sight of my vegetarianism. Unquestioning brutality like slaughter and capital punishment does corrupt you and is a blot on the civilizing of society. Such positions reflect on the values of a society. I am particularly revolted by religious slaughter but the slaughter of all animals is barbaric. Why breed animals simply to kill and eat them. How is it different to killing people?”
Of course, some animals are killed but not eaten, such as foxes and Tony Blair’s equivocation on hunting delayed a ban for years. The whole sorry, undemocratic charade is, in Tony Benn’s view, symptomatic of New Labour’s priorities:
"If you look at the New Labour project, it is based on a very clear idea – if you want power, you have to satisfy the rich because they have the power. They own the newspapers, the companies and have lots of money to give. It was a political project to distance New Labour from the trade unions and to abandon any formal link with socialism. Everybody understands that now. In fact the gap between politics and people is getting wider and the big question is how to bridge that gulf.
“The worship of money goes back to Moses and the golden calf and when money becomes everything, it prompts the Taliban to sell heroin and nuclear scientists to sell nuclear secrets. It is exemplified by the US resistance to Kyoto and the redistribution of wealth.
“We have 1,000 billion ancestors and all are related and yet no two people are the same. Our presence on this Earth is like being shipwrecked and sailing together in a lifeboat. You can either sell what food there is to the rich so they survive and then generate fights over it or you can share it out. It isn’t just a moral decision but a practical one. There is no shortage of food in the world simply a shortage of money with which to buy it.”
Tony Benn speaks in a conversational way despite the profound nature of his thoughts. Not for him the high-flown rhetoric or finger-stabbing theatricals and it is his measured and reasoned delivery that makes his words sound utterly logical.
“We have to face the real choice of whether we want our children to survive or not because it is not inconceivable that the human race will simply wipe itself out. We have a choice between socialism and barbarism and what we need is a few more teachers and a few less directors. People are not angry apathetic as we’re always being told but angry and mistrustful and the erosion of democracy has contributed.
“Democracy is the most frightening of concepts and few power seekers like it – Stalin, Hitler, the Pope, Tony Blair [ouch!]. We are in the age of Murdocracy with a parliament of Murdocrats and right-wing parties such as the BNP and UKIP could grow alarmingly if the US economy falters and prosperity disappears.”
As recently as 2005, Tony Benn presented a left wing view of democracy as part of the Channel 5 series Big Ideas That Changed the World – a practical means for passing power…from the wallet to the ballot. He maintained that traditional social democratic values were under threat in an increasingly globalised world in which powerful institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and the EU Commission remain unelected and unaccountable to those whose lives they affect daily.
Most people will remember the iconic Press picture of Winston Churchill’s statue bearing a grass turf Mohican haircut at an antiglobalisation rally in London. The Press, of course, whipped itself into a frenzy of outrage over it, which saved them having to explore the issues which were at the heart of the protest. Tony Benn has no doubt about how important they are.
“We have reached a point where even debt relief in the developing world is based on privatisation so that desperately-needed public services pass into the hands of multinational corporations to provide profit. The big question today is whether globalisation will allow democracy to survive so thank goodness for the antiglobalisation and peace movements as they are truly the great hopes for the world.
“The people who have left the deepest footprints in history are the thinkers – Gallileo, Darwin, Freud, Marx – people who help you understand the world and the function of the old should be to encourage questioning.”
As far as parliament is concerned, Tony believes that 1832 was the pivotal year, with the passing of the Reform Act. Before that date, it was entirely dominated by the nobility and landed gentry who began to lose their grip on power when most males were enfranchised under the Act. Women, of course had to wait until 1928 for all those over 21 to get the vote. Major parliamentary changes continued until 1945.
“How did we do it? Through protest by the Chartists, the suffragettes, the poor – by democracy!”
But what of the EU – an institution I have flip-flopped about over the years, unable to make up my mind? Does it not provide a way forward, particularly as a counterbalance to US global domination? Tony Benn dismisses the thought as peremptorily as his innate politeness will allow.
“India and China will soon be the counterbalance to the US. The EU is simply a local instrument for spreading globalisation which particularly benefits US interests. It is entirely undemocratic and two-thirds of its legislation it passed without any democratic consent at all”.
He speaks of the lethargy and inertia of a huge, unrepresentative colossus with which he had to work as Minister of Trade in the 1974 Labour Government – moved to Secretary of State for Energy in the following year by Harold Wilson after campaigning against ratification of British membership of the then EEC. There’s not many people who can speak with such firsthand experience – done that, been there, don’t like it. It’ll do for me!
Tony retired from parliament in 2001 to “devote more time to politics" and became a leading light in the opposition to the war on Iraq, speaking to more than a million people at the Stop the War Coalition London protest. He became the organisation’s first elected president. That’s one side of the man. He has also three times spoken at the Glastonbury Festival, toured the UK with his extraordinary one-man stage show (and if it comes to your town – do go and see him) and appears in a two-man show with folk singer Roy Bailey – voted the best live act at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. It is a combination of music and words about the Peasants Revolt, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the English Revolution. “I enjoy that very much”, says the incredible Mr Benn.
He loves words but often presents them with great utility, allowing others to interpret their extraordinary depth of meaning. “When I first met Nelson Mandela he was a terrorist; when I next saw him, he was a Nobel Prize winner and the President of South Africa."
Unlike the Mr Benn cartoon character, Tony Benn doesn’t have to pop into a clothes shop to embark on a new adventure – his life, it seems has been one continuous adventure - but politics interweaves its way through everything. Even as a young, wartime fighter pilot in Egypt his tales are not of derring-do but much greater concepts:
“I came back in a troopship in the Summer of 1945 and I heard these words – ‘We, the peoples of the United Nations, are determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war which twice in our lifetime has caused untold suffering to mankind...’. Those words are imprinted on my heart!”
Tony Benn is now 81 and still extraordinarily active. Any words I might use to finish this piece wouldn’t hold a candle to his own. If you want to hear rapturous applause, listen to him on Question Time or Any Questions, because he has the unique ability to put his finger on what many people are thinking but are not sure how to express. He can therefore have the last word:
”We are not just here to manage capitalism but to change society and to define its finer values. We are told that current parliamentary Bills have been drafted to form the prime minister's legacy; but his real legacy could be the destruction of the Labour party itself.”
The first six of Tony Benn’s diaries are published together as ISBN 0099634112, the latest as ISBN 009941502X.
Interview taken from Viva!’s supporters’ magazine, Viva!LIFE, issue 31, spring 2006. To receive your copy of Viva!LIFE three times a year, plus support our campaigns – join now! (and link to join page)