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Tony Benn: The glorious revolutionary
He may be a little hard of hearing, but the aging statesman is still a keen listener
Wednesday, 26 March, 2008 | 01:12
Tony Benn illustration

According to Tony Benn's passport—issued last year—he is still a Member of Parliament. In fact, he last sat in the House in 2001. Of course, for Benn, this provides a perfect illustration of the fallibility of the government's invasive data storage: "If they didn't know I hadn't been a Member of Parliament for seven years, well, you'd think the government might have troubles with that." But the glitch might as well serve as an pointer that, at 83, Tony Benn remains inseparable from the house he entered 58 years ago.


Born into a political family, Anthony Neil Wedgewood Benn, 2nd Viscount Stansgate, Benn started public life early. He met Gandhi when he was 11 and David Lloyd George aged 12. After a spell in the Air Force—though he points out that he never killed anyone—Benn entered politics, and by 1951 held the title of the 'Baby of the House'. At that time, the 26-year-old was Labour MP for Bristol South East, a seat he was re-elected for in a 1961 by-election. There was a hitch, however: the death of his father, and Anthony's subsequent inheritance of the family peerage, meant that he could no longer sit in the House of Commons. His seat was rescinded. But the man for who "the vote is near enough sacred" took up arms and in 1963, under the new Peerage Act, Benn became the first British peer to formally renounce his title. What followed was a long, illustrious and increasingly left-wing career in politics and trade-unionism for the man who, after 1973, was to be known as Tony Benn.


But that was a long time ago: "I'm an old man. I'm 83 next week and I don't want anything at all," he says. Whatever else this might mean, he certainly doesn't want charisma – he has bags of it. I sit down with Mr Benn in Glasgow's Mitchell Library following his speech to promote the latest installment of his diaries, More Time for Politics: Diaries 2001-2007 as part of Glasgow's Aye Write! literary festival. In fact, it's about 45 minutes before I finally get his ear because, in Glasgow at least, Benn is quite the celebrity. For a long time, he is kept busy signing copies not just of his latest volume, but also of his 700-odd page tome detailing the 50 years between 1940-1990. Incredibly, some of these massive copies even look to have been read. That's partly because they are packed with the sorts of anecdotes he's ready to unleash on his adoring fans ("when I was five, Ramsay MacDonald gave me a chocolate biscuit..."). It's also part due to that fact that there are plenty of "Old Comm's" in the queue. He's only to happy to sign off "Comrade" or "in unity" for them.


"Now, what's all this about?" he asks me when he's done. Lots of old people say things like that. Invariably, it's an indicator of bewilderment. Indeed, it's a shock to discover that, with his thin white hair and a comfortable-looking cardigan he now really looks like an old man. But from Benn, the comment is really more of an authoritative order to 'get on with things.' It's the confidence of a man who has already spend a lifetime in government and yet still things left to do; a politician who retired in order to "devote more time to politics". This translates into a sense that a large number of those listening to Benn's speech aren't listening in the same way that they might listen to any other politician. Instead, many of his audience seem to be genuinely seeking answers, not political jousting. This is odd, given the way he rejects of the type of "leadership" espoused by premiers such as Mr Blair. "When the best leader's work is done," he says, "the people say 'we did it ourselves.'"


Nevertheless, he remains happy to field question about the UN, the press, MPs wages, Scottish independence, even the problems of the current financial climate – an issue he admits he is ill qualified to properly address. He undoubtedly has an uncanny ability to express things with refreshing clarity. His response to a question about the apparent "erosion" of the Church in Britain comes as a bit of a shock to an unsuspecting zealot: "When you think of the number of men in the world who hate each other, why, when two men love each other, does the church split?"


I ought to confess equal guilt here. I'm rather excited to meet Mr Benn as well, though it's a struggle to pinpoint exactly why this is the case. As seems to befit the tenor of the evening, I give up trying to work it out and ask him instead: "Well, I can't really tell you." he smiles. "I find I've learned everything by listening to people. I can read books, but I find meeting people and hearing what they say the most exciting thing, and mainly other people feel the same. But I can't answer your question. The people coming to see me genuinely will know that I'm interested in what they say and that may encourage them a bit."


There's a touch of irony in his devotion to listening: he is, by now, quite deaf. But, while he mishears several questions, and while names like Siobhan and Catriona prove a real trial during the book signing, he invariably prefers to strain rather than capitulate. It helps that he obviously retains a passion for politics: he recalls, for instance, seeing Oswald Mosley—the leader of the British Union of Fascists—on Trafalgar square in 1935. "He had been a Labour MP! Now how did that come about?" Even 73 years on, there's a real bitterness in the way he spits "Labour". His disgust that a blackshirt could could have come out of the same party that has been his lifelong political home is startling.


But his relationship with the Labour party is a very odd one indeed. "When Tony Blair became leader of the party in 1994 he said 'New Labour is a new political party,' and I never joined it," he proudly announces. Nor can he ever resist a humorous dig at Tony Blair: "A couple of years ago I was at the Labour conference in Brighton, heard the Prime Minister's speech, got up, went to the loo, collapsed, and was taken to hospital, where I had to be given a peacemaker...pacemaker. When I got back, Tony Blair came over to me and said, 'I hope it wasn't my speech.' Naturally, I was too polite to reply."


Indeed, given his lack of affiliation with the current government, it's sometimes hard to imagine why Mr Benn is a party member at all. In the past he has called New Labour "Thatcher's greatest achievement." He explains: "The Labour Party is not a socialist party, but it has some socialists in it," wryly adding, "just as there are some Christians in the church."


His unwavering Labour alignment also means that he shows distinct lack of sympathy for the socialist parties themselves: "There are too many socialist parties," he says, counting them off on his fingers as one might a list of ailments. It's hardly Private Eye, but he does manage to turn this into quite an amusing satire of socialist politics today: "There's the Socialist Party, Socialist Workers' Party, Socialist Labour Party, Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Party of Great Britain." He drones on: "There's the Communist Party of Britain, Communist Party of Great Britain, Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Lenninist). So, you see, there are just too many socialist parties and not enough socialists in the Labour Party."


It's fair to say that socialism as a political movement isn't doing so well in Scotland. Following the strong socialist bent of the Scottish renaissance of the mid twentieth century, Red Clydeside seems a little washed out at the moment. There are now no socialist MSPs, down from six in 2003; the split within the SSP is remembered mostly for financial intrigue; meanwhile Tommy Sheridan's trial for perjury has left socialism in Scotland to mull over key issues such as the hairiness of Mr Sheridan's chest. Workers' struggles have been knocked off the agenda in place of Gail Sheridan's mammoth task of plowing her way through around 100 miniature spirit bottles from BA. I ask Mr Benn what he thinks of the state of the Left in Scotland. He's not really bothered.


"Well that's a parliamentary point, really and there are lots of explanations for that. But I don't think you could obliterate the socialist analysis, even if there was nobody in power, because it is inherently the best analysis of how society is run. If you don't understand, there is a conflict of economic interests between the 95 percent of the world's population who create the world's wealth, and the five per cent who own it. If you don't understand that, you don't understand anything...I think Marx fired a pyrotechnic into the sky and for a moment you could see where you were, and it helped you to make up your mind. I'm not trying to make anyone else a socialist, I just find that without it I wouldn't understand what was happening."


This all seems very academic. I'm unsure how it sits with the image of Benn as the firebrand activist of old and I begin to wonder if he has any regrets about renouncing his peerage. At last, he becomes rather animated: "Oh, God, no! I was a Member of Parliament for ten years and they threw me out on the grounds that my blood had turned blue! Disgraceful!" His incredulity here is matched only by a satisfaction at what he achieved back in 1963: "You know, it took years to get [my seat in Commons] back, but we did defeat the government and change the constitution." There aren't many around who can say that.


For this reason, Benn's diaries ought to make for interesting reading. What, though, are his own reasons behind publishing his daily thoughts? "People do it for their own reasons. I record what I've seen and what I think every day. The full figure is about fifteen million words and I can only publish a tiny bit of it. But that felt pretty useful, because I can go back and remember, and see who I met 30, 40, 50 years ago and what they said to me. It's just so I understand better what's going on."



But there's a slightly enigmatic caveat here. He adds: "I'm not a blogger. There's a difference between a blog and a diary." There's a small hint in this that he's keen to make the monument of his life more permanent, more weighty than a blog might otherwise be. It's the only hint I get throughout our interview that he's embarked upon any legacy-making. Far from concerned with preserving for posterity what's been done, Benn seems mostly preoccupied with the work that's left to do. Still on the subject of public diaries, I happen to mention Alistair Campbell's memoirs, The Blair Years. "Well, I bought The Blair Years, but I haven't read it yet. It's a formidable work. I'm doing a debate with Campbell on April 2 at the Oxford Literary festival about diaries. It should be fun."



There might even be Marxist pyrotechnics.

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