The former Labour Cabinet Minister, author and long-serving MP Tony Benn has passed away today, aged 88. In 2009, our deputy editor Mary Wakefield interviewed Benn about the financial crisis and the basic decency at the heart of all human beings. Here is the article in full.
I’m standing in Tony Benn’s front garden, on my way out but dawdling, reluctant to leave. Once I’m back on my bike I’ll be in Broken Britain again, snarling at the buses. But right now I’m still in Benn-land, where all people are kindly and the future is bright with mutual concern.
Even the outside of Benn’s house reflects the decency within. There’s a round brown plaque to commemorate his late wife: ‘Caroline de Camp Benn: writer, teacher and socialist, lived and worked here’. Below the plaque, a Labour-red front door hung with a polite sign: ‘Please come down to the basement’.
So, an hour ago, I did: edging through an open door, down a corridor into an underground empire piled high with papers. There are in-trays, out-trays, filing cabinets labelled ‘TB’s special projects’; records of nearly 60 years in politics: of Benn’s first job as MP for Bristol South-East (1950); of his second constituency, Chesterfield; of various, important roles under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan: energy secretary, industry secretary, minister of technology and postmaster-general.
‘Hello there!’ Tony Benn appears from a tiny kitchen. ‘Ish inshtant coffee okay?’ Yes, I say, and sit down for a chat with a man I soon realise is unique: the only politician I’ve ever met who believes completely in the people he was elected to represent.
Because of the financial crisis, we begin by talking about unemployment, which leads to a disagreement (polite) about benefit scroungers, which instantly illuminates the heart of Benn’s beliefs.
Shouldn’t we cut benefits, I ask? Don’t you think that having easy access to welfare creates an incentive for some people to slack off? ‘Well, I can’t think that anybody wants to be on benefits,’ he says. But people routinely abuse disability benefits, I say. ‘Look. Instead of worrying about scroungers you should be thinking about all the people who are going to be sacked as a result of the crisis. What about them? They talk about two million unemployed, are they to be left to starve? Come on. We are all members of one community and the welfare of everyone is to the benefit of everyone.’
Yes but… No buts. Benn picks up his pipe and begins to pack it, then decides (rightly) that I need a little pep-talk about people. ‘I am always delighted,’ he says, slowly, ‘and not any longer surprised to find that the level of the public’s intelligence is far higher than the political leaders or the media give them credit for. For instance, I went to do a meeting on housing the other day in East London and there was a very scruffy woman selling a Trotskyite paper, and I said, what do you do when you’re not doing this? “Oh,” she said, “I’m a gynaecological surgeon at the Royal Free Hospital.” Now if you had seen a scruffy woman selling a left-wing paper, would you have thought she was a very distinguished doctor?’
‘And,’ (the pipe is waggling) ‘I was at Paddington the other day and there was a black guy who recognised me. He was checking tickets and he came up and he said, “I’m from the Congo, I did a degree in journalism at the university in Moscow and I write for the Irish Times every week.” I said, what are you doing clipping tickets? “Oh,” he said, “I’m just saving money to go back to the Congo to start a new newspaper.” Now who’d have imagined that?’ Benn beams at me, point proven.
As my happy hour progresses, I discover that his faith in humanity has deep roots, stretching back at least eight decades.
‘My mother and father were both Congregationalists,’ he says, ‘and Congregationalism is interesting because everybody has a hotline to the Almighty, you don’t need a Bishop to help you.’ So no hierarchies, just trust the people? ‘Yes. We used to read the Bible every night and my mother told me that the Bible is the story of the conflict between the Kings who had power and the Prophets who preached righteousness. She taught me to support the Prophets against the Kings, you see?’ I nod. ‘Well, I’ve believed that ever since. It’s got me into a lot of trouble in my life but the older I get the more sense that makes.’ Did your dad agree? ‘My dad said to me, say what you mean, mean what you say, do it if you have a chance and don’t attack people personally. I’ve found that a brilliant guide.’ These, then, are the two points on which Benn’s life story rests: trust the people and don’t speak ill of anyone.
It’s a guide that Benn follows absolutely. He’s a relentless critic of unelected institutions: ‘The House of Lords? Well, if I went to the dentist and as he began drilling my teeth he said, “I’m not a dentist myself, but my father was a very good dentist,” I think I would jump out of his chair!’
But Benn can find it in his heart to understand and feel for any individual. He has sympathy for terrorists: ‘I trained as a terrorist if you like when I served as a pilot!’ He even defends David Cameron when I start to complain that he doesn’t seem to listen. ‘Now look. You can’t say any MP doesn’t listen. Any MP, Cameron included, spends his whole time listening.’
There’s only one moment, in fact, when Tony Benn’s faith in the basic loveliness of humanity wavers. Do you think that any sort of good will come out of this recession? I ask. Will it be cathartic in any way? Benn looks grave. ‘Well, there will be a lot of suffering. And I’m worried, very worried because the slump in the 1930s led to fascism. Hitler and Mussolini both nationalised their banks, so never think nationalisation is a left-wing instrument at all. When people are frightened, others use that fear in order to get power. That’s what Hitler did with the Jews. He said there are six million unemployed, it’s all due to the Jews and the communists, give me power and I’ll give you jobs. And they did give him power and he did give them jobs. Half the unemployed were put in the arms factories, the other half in the army and we had a world war.
‘So it is a very dangerous period indeed. Collective fear can turn to hate very easily. People will look for scapegoats. And so when you mentioned people on benefits are the cause of the problem…’ Oh! I didn’t say quite that! ‘Well, no, but the implication was there. Anyway, I think pinning responsibility on the poor for being so bloody lazy is missing the point.
‘Remember, it won’t be long before the BNP says this whole problem is due to immigration. You know, if I ever met the head of the BNP I would say to him, “Did you have a passport when you entered this country and did you speak English?” And the answer would have to be no! Because you don’t speak English or have a passport when you’re born!’
We both chuckle, Benn packs his pipe again and as he does, I look around at the signs of his enduring attachment to Parliament. There’s a House of Commons mousemat, a House of Commons cord attached to his mobile phone — and it suddenly strikes me as desperately sad that Benn, though 83, has retired from politics.
Would you ever consider standing again? I ask. ‘Oh no, no, no. Well…’ He puts his head on one side. ‘I thought there might have been an election last year and there wasn’t a candidate here and I thought the Labour party would impose a candidate, so I rather foolishly said if they try that, I’m available, but no! I was released on licence and my sentence was commuted eight years ago and I’m very happy.’ He laughs, then, for my further elucidation, adds a piece of classic Bennite wisdom. ‘You mustn’t worry too much about politicians, you know,’ he says. ‘Kings, presidents, prime ministers, emperors, dictators come and go. It’s the teachers who are important. The people you remember are Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Galileo, Darwin, Marx, Freud. Teachers explain the world and movements change it, so I think we much overestimate the importance of leaders.’
Then Benn, a consummate and natural teacher, has to tell me that my lesson is up, that he has more pupils waiting. So I leave, reluctantly, and walk back down the garden path.