Tony Benn: A veteran campaigner for social justice

The Last Diaries: A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine by Tony Benn
Hutchison, €28.60

Winston Churchill had an exceptional ability to describe vast swathes of human behaviour with a clever one-liner. Here is a great example: “If you are not a liberal at 20 you have no heart, if you are not a conservative at 40 you have no brain.”

While you may not agree entirely with Churchill’s axiom here, it drives home a very valid point: that people’s political allegiances tend to drift to the right as they get older.

Tony Benn is the exception to this rule. The 88-year-old is still regarded today as one of the most important critical thinkers in Britain.

I’ve come to his home in Notting Hill in west London to discuss The Last Diaries — a collection of political and personal diaries documenting 2007 to 2009. Sadly, they are to be the final diaries he will release to the public.

His long and successful publishing career has included nine other volumes of political diaries, spanning from 1940 to this present book.

Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn began his political career in 1950, and retired from parliament in 2001. Since he gave up his seat in Westminster, Benn has become a prominent voice in organisations like Stop the War Coalition, and other non-parliamentary movements that seek social and political justice in the public sphere.

Benn has served more years in Westminster than any other politician in the history of the Labour Party. It’s a remarkable career that spans the entire second half of the 20th century. During this time he served in several high cabinet positions, under both James Callaghan and Harold Wilson. When Benn entered parliament in 1950 Britain was a very different place.

This was the post-war period, where the welfare state flourished; the middle class grew; where full employment was widespread, and the gap between rich and poor decreased to the lowest levels in the nation’s history.

But Thatcherism and a culture of neo-liberalism in mainstream party politics quickly put an end to that. So how does Benn maintain a sense of optimism after seeing British politics migrate drastically to the right since the early 1980s? “Well it depends what you mean by optimism,” he says, filling his pipe with tobacco.

“If you mean things will work out whatever you do, well I don’t believe that at all. But if you mean campaigning hard for something you believe in, and winning the argument, that is something I do believe in.

“Just look back over history and think of the enormous changes we have made. In the past slavery was very common. Men didn’t have the vote. They were slaves in their own society. But eventually slavery was abolished. Trade unions were once illegal and women weren’t allowed to vote. But all these huge struggles took place, and they were successful. I think we should learn from that and realise what happens really depends on what we do.”

Benn has a very simple vision for how to create an egalitarian society. It begins by holding those who have power to accountability.

His views on the British monarchy are a perfect example of this. He is, in the traditional sense, a Republican: believing that the head of every state should be democratically elected.

“[In Britain] the Royal Family should have several constitutional duties attached to it,” he says.

“The monarchy is a historical accident. And because of that accident, we have become controlled to some extent. The Royal Family requires you to do what everybody else does, and what has always been done before in Britain. Therefore I guess you are restricted from doing anything because you feel you can’t.”

Benn’s realistic outlook on drastic change for some institutions at least may perhaps be a measured response to history: which has taught us that it’s almost impossible to dethrone an entire Royal Family without a long fight that involves massive bloodshed.

I then raise a similar point to Benn: that no modern state has ever evolved without a violent struggle.

Moreover, while most people will admit to detesting violence, does Benn not concede when looking back at history that violence, is on some absurd level, a necessary evil for political progress? He nods his head without committing to any particular answer on this. He then pauses for a moment and replies: “The trouble about violence is that it creates counter-violence. Then you get locked into bloodshed and there is no end or answer to it. I think a peaceful solution is the best outcome to the difficulties you may have.”

Despite being a strong advocate of non-violent movements, Benn says he has sympathy with those who use violence as a last resort. But he believes that in the end dialogue is the only way that political change can happen.

“I understand what people are doing when they are fighting for their rights against oppressive regimes.

“But you have to find what the argument is about and try and work it out. I was very strongly in favour of the peace movement in Northern Ireland at a time when it was considered a very dangerous thing to say anything about the IRA. But the Good Friday Agreement was a great example of a victory for non-violence over violence.”

In 2009 Benn published Letters to My Grandchildren — a charming, concise, yet intellectually challenging book that contemplates the future of humanity through a number of public epistles to the youngest members of the Benn Family.

In one of these correspondences he writes: “Yours is also the first generation that has at its disposal the technology, the know-how and the money to solve humanity’s basic needs. And that has never been true before.”

Today, Benn talks about the pros and cons of Moore’s Law.

“Technology has changed the balance of power enormously because the weapons that we have now are so much more powerful. So the instruments for repression are far greater than they used to be. I think the question that we have to ask ourselves is: how do we use the new technology in order to advance our interests?

“The spread of information about what governments are doing — the Wikileaks arguments, for example, is tremendously important and a very positive force.”

In 1988 Benn challenged Neil Kinnock for the leadership position in the Labour Party. He was flattened in the contest. Speaking to him presently I can see why.

Benn doesn’t engage in public relations talk, double speak, or amorphous euphemisms. Tragically, they are the makings of a good politician in the world of realpolitik.

His intellectual curiosity and decency, I suspect, meant his political career was always destined for failure.

Politics, he maintains, is a very simple business: you state publicly what your goal is then you try and achieve small victories with the backing of a democratic mandate.

In this sense, Benn’s ideas are not tremendously radical. But it’s his unquestionable faith in hope that makes his very simple ideas seem radical.

It’s sad to see such a towering intellect confined to his living room, unable to campaign publicly anymore, due to his failing health: which has worsened over the last number of months.

We begin chatting about celebrities like Russell Brand, who say democracy is in crisis and voting is a waste of time. For those naysayers, Benn has a message: “I regard pessimism as an instrument of the right. If those who say these things actually saw that democracy is an instrument that can change society, then they would never accept the idea that the whole thing is a fraud. This kind of rhetoric is for people who don’t want anything to change.”

Unlike some naïve socialists, Benn doesn’t see history as working towards some final epoch, where the working class will prevail indefinitely. Instead, he sees politics as a continual struggle, where the fight for progress and justice is constant, and it never ends.

How would he like to be remembered? “I would be very pleased when I die if somebody put on a stone: ‘Tony Benn. He encouraged us.’ I think encouragement is the most important thing you can do when you are alive.”


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