Original Headline – Tony Benn: “Being an elected MP is a vocation; a crusade.”
“I regard Marx as a great teacher; what he said helped people to understand what was really happening.” The gentlemanly demeanour makes it easy to forget that this expression of socialist commitment comes from a veteran politician with more than half a century of experience in the House of Commons and ten years’ worth of ministerial posts under his belt, ranging from minister of technology in Harold Wilson’s 1964 government to energy secretary in the James Callaghan’s government during the Winter of Discontent in 1978/9.
Benn is accustomed to standing up for his moral convictions in the public arena, having gained notoriety for the central roles he has played in numerous political campaigns: supporting the Indian Freedom movement, supporting trade unions in their fights against Thatcherite cuts, and most recently leading the opposition to the war in Iraq. Of all of these campaigns it seems that he is most proud of his part in the anti-colonial movement: “It was an unpopular thing to do because the British Empire was sacred; you couldn’t say anything about it without being disloyal.” Many of the views he has argued for have been unpopular at the time, but he points out that for many of these issues “It turns out that everyone supports them in the end.” He cites the Freedom of Information Act as a strong example of this.
Benn’s vocal opposition to the Iraq War has proven more contentious. It was soon after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that he was invited to become the president of the Stop the War Coalition, and in 2003, a month before the start of the Iraq War, he flew to the Middle East to interview Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in a last-ditch attempt to encourage negotiation and avert war. Years later, he recalls the questions he put to the tyrant. “I asked him: ‘Do you have weapons of mass destruction?’ And he said no… I said, ‘do you have links with Al-Qaeda?’ He said no, and I knew that was true.”
But the interview enraged the British establishment, and Benn still seems disillusioned with the way the media depicted him at the time. “[They] were not keen on any alternative view… I was putting a different view and it was very strongly attacked. But if you believe something and say it, you have to take the consequences.”
And Benn has never been afraid of consequences, at times paying a high price for his outspoken views and criticisms of government. During his successful campaign in the Chesterfield byelection in 1984, The Sunattempted to discredit Benn with an article, based on a supposed report by an American psychiatrist, that Benn was clinically insane. The article was later shown to have been wholly fabricated.
Benn had previously been the subject of much media attention during the 1960s, after inheriting the title Viscount Stansgate from his father, William Wedgewood Benn, who had been appointed a peer during the Second World War. “There was a coalition during the war, and Churchill said to Attlee, “I’d like a few more Labour peers,” he recalls. Benn inherited the title in 1960, when parliamentary rules still forbade serving as an MP while also being a lord. The rule forced a byelection in Benn’s constituency — which he went on to win, but an election court subsequently ruled that his seat should instead go to the Conservative candidate who had opposed him. An immediate consequence of this was the introduction and passage by then-prime minister Harold Wilson of the 1963 Peerage Act, legislation which allowed Benn to return to the Commons that year.
Benn’s conviction that political debate boils down to a discussion of morality — a driving force in his political life — is inherited from his mother, he explains. “My mother was a Scot. She was a very religious woman. She taught me to belive that all political issues were really moral issues. Is it right or is it wrong? You can argue about that, but that’s what you should be arguing about.” He is adamant that politics should be based on principle and moral conviction, and seems to have an optimistic view of the electorate’s willingness. “If you can reveal what the moral element is in a decision,” he says, “you can win a lot of support.
He speaks tenderly of his brother, Michael, who died in 1944 while serving in the RAF. “Those are the things that obviously stir you,” he muses. “I was very fond of my brother and he was killed at the age of 22, and I got a telegram from my folks saying that he’d died I was very upset about it, and I often think about him. He’s the same age as my grandchildren now.”
Loss has clearly had an important impact on Benn’s life, and the death of his wife, educationalist and writer Caroline Middleton DeCamp in 2000 is a significant feature in his published diaries. Benn speaks of her with enormous affection, reflecting on their close relationship that “she had a huge influence on me. I met her in 1948. A friend of mine, an American said she was coming over and that I would like to meet her, so I did meet her in Oxford. I was a bit shy and I didn’t propose for nine days. I met her on the 2nd, and proposed to her on the 11th. And I realised I would never see her again if I didn’t, because she was going home to America… so I asked if she would marry me, and to my great delight she said yes.
“She died twelve years ago. She had a huge effect on my life. She was a very tender, scholarly person.” He recalls that later on he bought from Oxford council the very bench on which he proposed to her, and installed it in their Holland Park home.
So how does he view the political class in Westminster today, and is it representative enough? “When I was elected to parliament there were fifty miners there… they brought the experience of their lives into the work they did… Now it does tend to be a career.
“I get letters from people saying ‘I’d like to be a Member of Parliament,” he says, shaking his head. “Being an elected MP is a vocation; a crusade.” He eschews persona politics. “This idea that an election is about who you vote for to get the Oscar is a complete misunderstanding,” he tells me. “It’s about democracy, which is a very precious thing. Everybody has the right to destroy the government that governs them just by putting a cross on a bit of paper, and therefore you have to think in terms of the policies and the issues… it isn’t about who you want to be prime minister.”
A longstanding critic of New Labour, Benn is vocal in his disdain for Blair: “He set up a completely new party and he tried to get it established and it ended up with a war and all sorts of difficulties and led to our defeat in 2010.” Whether he refers to internal conflict within the party or the 2003 Iraq war isn’t entirely clear, and the objections he raises are primarily economic and constitutional: “[Blair] and his colleagues came to the conclusion that you couldn’t win elections unless you adopted Mrs Thatcher’s economic policy. That was the very essence of New Labour. It was really a Thatcherite subgroup,” he remarks.
“When Mrs Thatcher was later asked what was her greatest contribution, she said ‘New Labour’.”
Benn is still fiercely critical of the changes made to the party’s constitution — particularly the weakening of Clause IV, which defined Labour’s relationship with the trades union movement. This has a particular resonance for him, as he was born next door to the original authors of the constitution, Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The constitution was re-written in 1995, after Blair became leader of the opposition in an attempt to distance the party from its union roots and persuade the electorate that Labour now occupied the political centre.
This is an issue that arises again when he talks about the Leveson Inquiry’s recent examination of the relationship between politicians and the media. Benn sees the redefinition of the party’s socialist roots and Blair’s determination to woo media organisations as part and parcel of the same problem: “New Labour was really the product of a decision by Blair that you could only ever win of you could get Murdoch to support you… he [Blair] went to Murdoch and said “the Labour party has completely changed now; it’s no longer a socialist party.” And then Murdoch supported him in ’97.”
On his desk lies a volume of Engels, among unruly stacks of letters. Staring out of the fireplace in his living room is a metal bust with a red communist tank cap rammed on its head; Benn chuckles and explains it’s a copy of a statue of himself that stands in both the House of Commons and the Bristol Council Buildings. With that, the 87-year-old Benn relaxes back into his easy chair, a political giant in repose, and attends his pipe, gently puffing it into flame.