This interview took place at the end of 2008 and appeared in Total Politics magazine.
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. You are not asking people to vote for you but the people who come and generally not of your opinion. 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 your 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.
ID: Do you miss the parliamentary side of politics?
TB: 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.
ID: The constituency side is a big part of the job, but it’s largely ignored by the Westminster media, isn’t it?
TB: They say MPs are out of touch but most MPs are diligent and hold regular surgeries. No journalist does that – it’s not part of their job, of course, but the idea that journalists are in closer touch with public opinion than MPs is wrong. I once filmed a surgery. It will never be shown, but I wanted a reminder of what surgeries are like. A man who had had a stroke burst into tears, a mother told me of the sexual abuse of her child. It was so moving. It would make a fantastic television programme, but you couldn’t use real people because it’s secret, but it does show the relationship between real life and politics.
ID: 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.
TB: 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.
ID: Whose fault is that?
TB: 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.
ID: Isn’t it partly the fault of MPs themselves? They have allowed the Executive to get so many powers and to bypass Parliament.
TB: 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!
ID: So your cross party alliances go back nearly 50 years!
TB: 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.
ID: Do you think the age of the political party is drawing to a close?
TB: I have heard that said, but on the other hand how do you get anything done? I joined the Labour Party in 1942. I have seen it swing from left to right. It isn’t a socialist party, but it is a party with socialists in it. When you look at all the alternatives, all the left groups – Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party, Communist Party and the rest – there’s no future in ideological splits so you work with the people with whom you feel most comfortable, and that’s the Labour Party. The whole idea of leaving everything to the market is discredited. The effect of a slump is not only economic but political. It produced Mosley in the thirties – I had tea in his house at the age of three in 1928. The next time I saw him he was in a black short in Parliament Square. That plus war radicalized people. But the Labour Party didn’t surge to the left ideologically in 1945. Attlee was a practical man, he said let’s utilize the wartime spirit to deal with the problems of peace and provide food, homes and health for the nation.
ID: Do you think that’s what Gordon Brown is doing now, trying to evoke a wartime spirit using the language of Churchill and Roosevelt?
TB: He’s talking in that way yes, and I think public opinion is ready to accept that now. It’s a realization that when it comes down to it, the things that really matter are very simple and you have a responsibility as a government to address people’s problems. British politics has never been dominated by ideology pure and simple.
ID: Keith Joseph said he only realized 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 only then did you become a real Socialist?
TB: Not really. I think office turned me to the left. I realized when I was there that shouting ‘Thatcher Out’ didn’t get you very far. But when the American Ambassador delivered a note about energy – and in diplomatic terms, when one government sends a note to another government, Whitehall quivered. And he came to see me. You realize that when you are there you are locked into a system that you don’t control, and that was what really radicalized me. Europe makes laws we have to obey. We don’t elect the Commission. They decide the agenda. So 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.
ID: 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.
TB: Not really. I developed a way of dealing with that. I realized 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.
ID: 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.
TB: It isn’t about that. I was defeated many times. The biggest of all was in 1976 over public spending cuts and the IMF. 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.
ID: And you never came close to resigning?
TB: 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. In 2003 if I had been a Minister I just couldn’t have stayed in the government, but it’s very rare for it to be of that degree of magnitude.
ID: In your eleven years as a Minister what is the one achievement you’d single out?
TB: 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”.
ID: Do you think about death? Is it something you fear?
TB: Well, I’m 84. I don’t mind being dead. I don’t want the circumstances to be too unpleasant. Until about a hundred years ago, no one knew what they were dying of. They just felt unwell, got into bed and died. Death is a natural part of the process of life.
ID: Does the physical limitation manifested by old age frustrate you?
TB: 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. That made me reach 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.
ID: Your granddaughter Emily is standing for Parliament at the age of 19. What do you think of the continuation of the Benn dynasty, and do people of that age have enough life experience?
TB: I didn’t get elected to Parliament in 1950 because my Dad had been an MP. She’s doing it on her own merits. She’s a very clever girl and very active. She’s fighting Worthing, which is not a Labour seat. When I came back from the war I was 20. I had been a pilot for three years and I was furious that I wasn’t allowed to cast a vote. The principle of no taxation without representation is a good one. I am in favour of votes at 16. It would radically alter things at school. If teachers had to respect that pupils had the same vote as they do, it would change a lot. We don’t apply criteria to voting, do we? We don’t have an education test, or a literacy test, you have an inherent right to have some say in the laws you are expected to obey. Why should someone aged 16 obey a law passed by someone he didn’t elect and can’t remove and who doesn’t need to listen. It’s the European argument again, on which you and I would agree.
ID: 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.
TB: 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 Healey, but that’s by the by.
ID: Do you think the Labour Party in power and the Labour Party in opposition are two different parties?
TB: Not really. If you look at the Labour Party in the thirties 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 criticized. When I was President of the Energy Council of Ministers I found I couldn’t even put in 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.
ID: What’s the solution?
TB: There are three solutions. The status quo, which is fundamentally undemocratic and it will crack up. There’s a United States of Europe which would be democratic but cumbersome. But I have always favoured a Commonwealth of Europe. Get rid of the Commission and have a Secretary General. The countries would adhere to it from their national parliaments. It would be slower, but more democratic. I would like to see the Russians brought in. It’s ridiculous that they are not included in the European family of nations now that the Cold War is over.
ID: Do you think the Cold War would have ended if Britain had adopted the unilateralist agenda you advocated in the 1980s?
TB: 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. There was an ideological threat from Communism.
ID: Sorry, but you cannot seriously say there was no military threat from the Soviet Union…
TB: There was no military threat to the West, no.
ID: Well why did they have all the missiles?
TB: 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 they’re not helping them in Gaza.
ID: 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.
TB: 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.
ID: Wasn’t it a scandal that Tony Blair committed us to renewing our own nuclear deterrent without any sort of debate about Britain’s future strategic defence needs? Didn’t that illustrate what is wrong with our politics today?
TB: The existence of nuclear weapons destroys democracy. You can’t ask any questions. There’s no accountability. Do you really believe Gordon Brown would ever press the button? I don’t. I resigned as a front bench defence spokesman in 1958 because I said I couldn’t support the use of nuclear weapons. Perhaps that’s what we should do - press Gordon Brown on whether he would press the button. He would be put in a very awkward position.
ID: Keynes once said, when the facts change, I change my mind. What have you changed your mind on?
TB: 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 it as Minister of Technology. I was told, and believed, that nuclear power was cheap and 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 I favour of a Jewish homeland, but now I see what has happened and it was absolutely wrong.
ID: Why do you go on demonstrations against Israel, yet say nothing against the launching of rockets into Israel by Hamas?
TB: The Israelis have blockaded Gaza for two years. They have arrested ships that bring supplies. They occupied Gaza for many years. Israel is the American instrument for the domination of the middle east. Hamas is an elected government. Hamas won but no one will talk to them.
ID: What do you hope for from Barack Obama?
TB: He raised hope among the American people. He built a movement. He transformed American opinion. America is a declining empire. In the end it will change. Obama is imaginative. Attlee was an imaginative leader managing a declining empire too. How declining empires decline without bloodshed is the great task.
ID: Do you think people are hoping for too much from Obama, are their expectations of immediate, radical change too high?
TB: Well, how does change occur? It occurs when the demands get so strong that the guys at the stop 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…
ID: 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 interested ranged against you.
TB: 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?
ID: If you say so [laughs]! I don’t wish to be governed by the Chinese.
TB: But that was the argument used in 1832. You cannot let the poor have the vote. They will challenge the rich.
ID: 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!
TB: 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…
ID: I am totally enthusiastic about democracy…
TB: Not globally.
ID: 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?
TB: 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.
ID: Did you ever, as a Cabinet Minister, ever feel you had real power – that you could change things with the stroke of your pen?
TB: 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.
ID: You like your gadgets and you are quite internet savvy, aren’t you?
TB: Not as much as you, but my grandson keeps me up to date. He can get on my computer if it goes wrong. I just sit here and watch the mouse whizz round. The internet is great for organizing meetings and protest marches. It’s a formidable organizational power. My twelve 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.
ID: Do you think the internet is a force for good in democratic terms?
TB: Yes, it’s empowering. People talk a lot about inaccurate information on the net but there are also a lot of bad books around. You have to make up your own mind. Access is the key. I am an optimist. This is the first generation in history which has the technology to destroy the human race, but it is also the first generation to have the ability technological knowhow and the money to solve the problems of the human race.
ID: Does the spontaneity on the internet and the 24 hour news agenda damage democracy? Everyone wants an instant reaction. There’s no time to think.
TB: I know what you mean, but ignorant people have played leading roles in world politics for a long time! Read some of the Victorian speeches on the Empire. Ignorance should not be a barrier to discussion and we have to hope that good ideas will beat bad ideas. It depends on the media. The BBC has a rule never to report a speech on a public meeting, unless of course it is in support of Greg Dyke. If the public could ever hear anything directly which hadn’t gone through Paxman or Humphrys or Jon Snow it would undermine their authority.
ID: Who’s your favourite interviewer?
TB: I like Jon Snow very much. I get on well with Paxman.
ID: If you were Chancellor of the Exchequer, what would you be doing now?
TB: It’s very difficult, but the all party market philosophy running from the monetarism of Callaghan and Thatcher through to Blair has failed. I am not looking for scapegoats but it has failed. The case for the banks, like the army, police and health service to be publically owned is unanswerable. If you put it like that people think it’s sensible. Thatcher was a very clever woman. She realized 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.
ID: She did nothing of the sort, apart from GCHQ.
TB: 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 privatization. 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 publically. Look at the rail fares and energy companies. How many people really think those privatizations were sensible? If you could make such huge profits, why doesn’t it go to the Treasury?
ID: It does, in business taxes.
TB: A lot of the things we argued for I could make a case for. But the big thing is recognizing 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, 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.
ID: So Harold Wilson was right. You have immatured with age!
TB: 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.
ID: What do you make of David Cameron?
TB: 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 ‘Argument’s for Socialism’! I do try, seriously, not to think in terms of personalities.
ID: 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.
TB: 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.
ID: You always got on quite well with her, didn’t you?
TB: 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 from coming. She burst into tears.
ID: Who were the two or three parliamentarians you think made a difference during your 50 years there? I know you have been quite kind about Enoch Powell.
TB: He 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 realize 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. Compared to the thinkers, though… I mean, why do we still study Moses, Jesus, Mohammed. It’s because they explain the world. In so far as I have any function now, it is to try to use such experience as I have to give my best explanation. I describe myself as an untrained classroom assistant to the nation.
ID: What’s your everyday life like?
TB: It’s a bit of a struggle to be honest. I come down here to my basement office in the morning and there are up to 150 emails waiting and then there’s the letters and organising engagements. My family are very supportive.
ID: Do you get lonely?
TB: Yes, but I have lots of friends, but it’s nine years since I have been alone and Caroline died.
ID: You’re still keeping up the diary, I assume?
TB: 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 had just come out of my publishers in 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 by 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.
ID: A good note to end on. Thank you very much.