Tony Benn: The Great Survivor

Tony Benn is a likeable politician, and a sympathetic interviewee.

He often gives credit to his opponents, holding them in high esteem despite their political credo which often happens to be in total variance to his own.

Some would consider cynically that this generosity of spirit in a politician of such strong conviction is unusual, to say the least…

As his latest book of diaries, A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, has been well received, I reckon it might help the followers of my blog make up their minds about the man and his mission in life by reading an interview I did with him in 1992, from my book More of a Certain Age.

There are many routes into politics but yours seem almost to have been predetermined genetically. Have you ever regarded your political orientation as an accident of birth in the way people often regard religion? 

Both my grandfathers were Members of Parliament; John Benn was elected a hundred years ago for east London, and my mother’s father in 1911 for Govan. My own father was elected in 1906, so I was brought up in a very political household, and my political memories go back to the time when I was three or four. In 1928 I went to the house of Oswald Mosley who was then a Labour MP, and I remember the 1929 election when I was four, and visiting No. 10 Downing Street when I was five. I met Ramsay MacDonald and in 1931 I met Mr Ghandi when he came to London. I only ever wanted to be in political life, not so much from ambition, but because this was an area of great interest where you could contribute something. I wouldn’t call it genetic, I would simply say this was what my life was like, and just as a doctor’s son might want to be a doctor, or a miner’s son might want to be a miner, I wanted to go into politics. I was very lucky, and I entered Parliament when I was twenty-five.

The twin pillars of religion and politics are a feature of your family history as far back as it can be traced. Did you ever feel a pull in the other direction, to the Church? 

Not really. My brother Michael who was killed in the war wanted to be a Christian minister, but as far as I’m concerned my own interest is confined to the social ethics of religion, the teachings about humanity and community rather than the mystery of life. The work of a local Member of Parliament, however, is very much like that of a conscientious minister. People come and seek my advice and tell me their problems, and I find that the most satisfying part of my job.

According to your brother, you both had a very good political upbringing but a very poor cultural upbringing. Is that something you felt to be a handicap in later life?

It’s true that we never meant to museums or art galleries and my father wasn’t very musical. I suppose if you concentrate on one particular part of life you are deprived in other areas. You can’t be competent and interested in everything, and I sense that a bit in my life. My children are very musical, and my wife is a great opera lover, but my horizons may be a little narrower than they should be.

You were greatly influenced by your father’s politics and ideas. On a personal level, were you very conscious of the age gap which could have made him a rather remote Victorian figure? 

He was born in 1877, and when I was born he was forty-eight which is quite old for a father. But he had a very young mind and in terms of his behaviour and his vitality he never quite grew up. He was a mature and wise person but there was no sense of remoteness, no sense of his being a Victorian grandfather whom you had to look up to.

Your mother gave to you, in your brother’s words, ‘the precious gift of religion’. How important has that been in your life? 

Very important. My mother’s grandfather was a very strict Scottish protestant. He was a member of the Irvine Brethren, much the same as the Plymouth Brethren in England. This drove my mother’s father to atheism, and the atheism drove my mother back to religion. It was like the shunting of coaches on a train. She came to religion, not because of any belief in the mystery of it, but because she believed there must be a good spirit behind the creation of the universe. It was never the idea of the sacred nature of Jesus, but she saw that his life embodied the spiritual community which she believed existed, and at the end of her life she became the head of the Congregational Federation. Independence of mind, both in religion and politics, contributed very strongly to my upbringing. Since my wife is of Huguenot stock from France via America, that same quality has been fed in through my marriage, and gives me a rock on which to stand when things are very difficult.

You were devastated by your brother Michael’s early death in 1944. Was the family’s grief more easily borne, do you think, because of faith in God? 

As far as my mother was concerned, yes, but my father was absolutely shattered by it. My mother had a stronger personal religious faith, and she survived it. I myself was terribly distressed. I was in Rhodesia at the time learning to fly, and I had just turned up for a lecture one morning when somebody gave me a telegram which announced he was dead. I had to sit there for an hour in the class pretending to listen, overcome by sadness. I was very fond of my brother. He and I had a lot of correspondence together during the war, and when I look back on it it’s not only his strength of character that come through but also what it was that young people were thinking about, even during the destruction of war; what the post-war world would be like. His letters were full of hope, the very opposite of the pessimism and cynicism of today. That is an important element to keep in mind; fear drives you into yourself and encourages fascism, but when you have confidence and hope you can look at the world straight in the eye and not be frightened by it.

Your mother was a lifelong campaigner within the Church and notably for the ordination of women. Do you support the idea of women priests? 

 Oh absolutely. I can’t think of many central beliefs of my parents that I have repudiated. She was a member of an organization committed to the ordination of women called the League of the Church Militant and she was summoned to Lambeth Place in 1925 and rebuked by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson. She left the Church of England in 1948 because they would not move on the question of ordination of women, and became a member of the Congregationalist Church where there have always been women ministers. I feel very sorry that  she died a few months before the Synod agreed to women priests but she knew it was coming and the appointment in America of Bishop Barbra Harris, the first black women bishop, gave her such pleasure.

Although you describe Westminster as your local school, it nevertheless had all the trappings and rituals and customs of the famous public schools. Does that make you feel at all uneasy? 

I didn’t like the politics of it. In 1938 there was quite a strong political strain developing and the headmaster was very right-wing. I can’t say I cared for it very much and I never felt that it gave me anything of real value in my subsequent life. My children all went to the local comprehensive school and even if they had won the pools you couldn’t have induced them to go to a public school. Westminster was a part of my childhood but I can’t say it really influenced my thinking, except perhaps to make me more determined to be independent. I can’t say I was very happy there but in the end you make your own life wherever you are. They always say that public schoolboys can cope with prison because they are familiar with the circumstances of prison life, and I can understand that.

At a school debate you denounced the English public school system as ‘the breeding ground of snobbery’. Did you experience discomfort at being part of that system?

Yes and No. There were no comprehensive schools at the time and my parents sent me there as a sort of normal thing to do if you were middle-class parents. I can’t say I felt very much at home there but I’ve always been an easy-going person, and wherever I am I try to fit myself in.

Would you accept that but for your schooling at Westminster and your father’s eminence, entry to Oxford might have been more difficult? 

There was a kind of automaticity about it; I’d been to Westminster so I was admitted to New College. But you must remember that it was quite a different period of history. I was there for six months in 1943 and then I joined the Air Force. When I came back at the end of the war, university life was quite different; it was serious and informal and modest in life style, so it is misleading to think that a period of university life as having much to do with the Oxford you may visit now or the Oxford that existed in the 1930s. The luxury and splendour one associates with Oxford was not a feature of my time there; it was just like serving in an Air Force camp in Egypt, except there was enough to eat.

By the age of sixteen you had drawn up a list of things to achieve – to become an RAF pilot, to become an MP, to marry and have a family. All of these were realized within ten years. That suggests an extraordinary degree of self-knowledge and self-confidence. 

I don’t know whether it was self-knowledge or planning of a kind that has characterized my life from then till now, but I still look ahead. I have a diary that goes up to my hundredth birthday. If I live to be a hundred I have another thirty-one years to fill, and I find it a very good way of focusing my mind. For example, in 2025 I’ve marked in my 100th birthday on 3 April; my wife will be ninety-nine that year, and my older son will be seventy-eight. It is a way of developing your capacity to use every moment of the day.

You have often achieved a goal by means of what you call the stiletto principle – i.e. putting all your weight on one point. Has the principle ever let you down? 

I’ve certainly made lots of mistakes. The only difference between other political people and myself is that I publish my mistakes in my diaries, whereas other people in their memoirs forget theirs. But it is true that if you really do press very hard on something you can win, just as a woman with a high-heeled shoe can go through a parquet floor.

You were the first man in history who, by Act of Parliament, was allowed to forgo a hereditary peerage. Your long battle was essentially to enable you to continue to serve in the House of Commons, but there was surely an underlying ideological battle of Benn versus the Establishment. 

Yes, but it wasn’t, as people think, an ambition to be Prime Minister. I deeply resented being expelled, having been in Parliament for ten years and elected many times by Bristol. My father, who was a very radically minded man, took a peerage in 1942 when he was sixty-five because Attlee wanted some Labour peers. There were no life peerages at the time; all peers were hereditary. He consulted my brother who wanted to become a Christian minister and didn’t care if he became a peer, but he didn’t consult me and I was very angry with him that he didn’t. When my brother was killed my father was full of guilt, and he said ‘I’ve landed you with this – you’ll have to try and change it.’ It took me ten years to change the constitution, and I learned a great deal in the process. Resentment of the idea that privilege should take precedence over democracy was the principle of it. Other people saw it as a human interest story of the ‘man bites dog’ variety, but it was a long and very worrying period. It worked out all right in the end and I learned the most important political lesson of my life: never rely on judges, cabinets or parliaments to give you justice; if you’ve got a case take it to the people and get public support. I’ve never forgotten that and I’ve applied it many times to other issues.

Before you achieved your victory, most people thought you could not possibly win. Did that make success especially sweet? 

It had been a long battle, but it was about the winning of it, so success was sweet in that sense. After the by-election in 1963 I went to the House one day when it was empty and I just sat there and thought of what a struggle it had been. It didn’t make me bitter in any way, but it made me very strong against the privileged who thought they ran the world. They didn’t and they don’t.

But would you consider that single act as your greatest achievement? 

Not at all. It was a very inconsequential thing politically, and I would be very sorry if when I die that were the only thing in my obituaries. I would like to be remembered for totally different things.

It was the same Renunciation Act that allowed Alec Douglas Home to become Prime Minister. Was that a bitter Irony for you?

It was a bit of a disappointment on the day, but on the other hand it was the same act that made Harold Wilson Prime Minister, because if it had been Iain MacLeod rather than Home, Harold Wilson wouldn’t have won. I made it possible for the Tories to pick a leader so weak that Labour could win.

From as far back as the 1970s you argued that the principles of Socialism were being betrayed by Labour leaders. This was a view that did considerable damage to the Party you loved. Is it still a view you adhere to? 

It depends on how you define Socialism. For me Socialism has a moral basis going back to the book of Genesis and to the New Testament: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ and ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself.’ Politics are based on moral judgement of what is right and wrong, and not on what is profitable and what is loss making. No one wants to run a business that is loss-making, and everybody wants to get a return for their labour, but to run a society where the main criterion is profit and loss is criminal in my opinion. Homeless people don’t get houses because it’s not profitable; Canary Wharf which nobody wants was built by the government because they thought it would be profitable. The permanent critique of any society – Capitalist, Communist, Fascist – is right and wrong in a moral sense. The second thing about Socialism is that it is about democracy. If we are brothers and sisters under God then we have equal rights to govern ourselves and to enjoy a full life. The democratic argument is also very threatening to Communism, Fascism and Capitalism, because none of those systems really believes that ordinary people have rights, save to be put down, kept down, brainwashed manipulated, told what to, told to bow and scrape. The third thing about Socialism is that because it analyses why things happen and tells you there is a conflict between those who create the wealth and those who own the wealth, it helps you to understand what’s happening in the world. And the fourth thing is that it tells you that if you band together and you don’t depend on a benevolent prime minister or leader or landlord to help you; you can do it yourselves. When you look at all that, the idea that the Labour Party could win by deliberately and explicitly repudiating its history and tradition – particularly at a time when the slump is worse, injustice is worse, the gap between rich and poor is worse, the world is in a mess – is very foolish. The only time we have ever won an election is when, as in 1945, it was fought on principle; 1964 and 1974 were also quite strong on principle; every other time we’ve put forward this milk-and-water liberalism, and we’ve lost. So I don’t see any conflict between taking a strong position and winning support. After all, to look at the other side, Mrs Thatcher wasn’t exactly a compromiser; people knew where they stood with her. But with the Labour Party you don’t know where you stand; Dr Gallup writes our manifesto, so people don’t believe us.

I’m intrigued that you mention Mrs Thatcher … if you could detach yourself politically, how would you asses her? 

She was a strong, principled woman who defended her class with absolute commitment, and was determined to crush trade unionism, local government and democracy itself. I regarded her policies as absolutely evil and destructive, but at least you knew where you were with her. By contrast Labour Party policy is like a bit of cloud blowing up – you don’t know where it is, what it’s covering up and where it’s going next. I’ll tell you an interesting thing. When Eric Heffer died, there was a memorial service in St Margaret’s Westminster at which I gave the address. The Labour Party didn’t send anybody, but Mrs Thatcher was there, standing just behind me. As I get older what matters to me is not so much whether I agree with people but whether I respect them, and I can respect people with whom I profoundly disagree if I think they mean what they say and say what they mean.

Your biographer Jad Adams acknowledged that you wanted to be leader, but not at any price. He writes: ‘He would be leader if they acquiesced in his judgement, but he would not bend his principles to them.’ And in that respect he suggests you are more of a Coriolanus than a Macbeth. Is that how you see it yourself? 

There’s not much point in leading a party that elects you without knowing what you stand for. People used to say to me regularly that if I just kept quiet about this or that I would become leader, but the idea of getting there by stealth, slithering up by concealing my real intentions is false, and it would have destroyed my self-respect. Leadership must be based on integrity and some understanding and acceptance of what you’re saying, and that was the principle I worked on. I fought four elections, two for the deputy leadership and two for the leadership, and I didn’t win any of them, but ideas were planted then and are beginning to grow now. As far as I’m concerned I’m a teacher, not a would-be managing director, so I judge my electoral campaigns in quite a different way from the way the political correspondents do, where everything is judged in terms of how far you have climbed up the slippery pole.

But had you been elected, do you think you would have made a good leader? 

I don’t know, but I would certainly have regarded the leadership as having a very different sort of function. My view, particularly as I’ve become older, is that the real political role is as a student and a teacher. I do hundreds and hundreds of meetings around the country, and everywhere I go I learn something, and I also try to teach something. That is very different from the modern view of political leadership which is that if you haven’t got a policy you buy a new suit, you engage a new advisor, and you smile more. But you can not build a political movement on sand. The Labour Party doesn’t believe in public meetings any more; they believe in soundbites and photo opportunities. We’re witnessing the destruction of democracy, not by Communists or Trotskyists, but by a conspiracy between the political leaders and the political correspondents that there will be no discussion allowed. However, you stir me too much…

Most politicians would prefer to be compared to Coriolanus rather than to Macbeth, but the tragedy of Coriolanus was that he believed a statesman could act alone without bowing to others, and in the end his obstinate pride and lack of self-control got the better of his nobility and heroic virtue. Do you see anything of yourself in Coriolanus? 

I’m not sure I know enough about Coriolanus to answer your question, but this theory that I’m isolated is without foundation. I’ve been on the National Executive longer than anyone in the history of the Labour Party. So if I’m an isolated figure, why do the constituencies still put me there? I’ve been elected without having to make the concessions that you’re supposed to make in order to get to power. The idea that I have hovered on the margins out of obstinate pride is simply not true. The truth is I’ve been much influenced by what I’ve seen and I’ve had some influence in persuading other people. Where are the great figures who fitted all the patterns you describe, where are they, what footprints have they left in the sands of time?

Peter Riddell observed of you: ‘For all his energy and affability, Tony Benn’s inability to trust his fellow politicians means he has never really understood what politics is about.’ Do you accept this inability to trust has been a weakness?

 No. Peter Riddell’s idea of politics is that you say anything to get personal power. That’s not the politics I’m interested in, not the politics of any durability. The trouble with political correspondence is that they are interested in politicians’ careers, which have very little to do with politics. The most influential people in the history of humanity have been Galileo, Marx, Freud, Darwin, and so on, but who are the people who have held political office? They simply disappear. My mother taught me, and I never forgot, that the Old Testament story was a conflict between the kings who had power and the prophets who preached righteousness, and if you ever think that power without righteousness is satisfying, then you disappear. Peter Riddell is a courtier of the governing class; he hovers round hoping for titbits from somebody who can tell him what happened in the Cabinet. In any court in medieval Europe there would have been a Peter Riddell. I don’t mean to be personal, but the cynicism of the political correspondents, of the disillusioned liberals who hover in the lobby, of these people who were once progressive and now can’t bear to think that anybody can have legitimate reason for hope, the cynicism that destroys democracy. If democracy goes it will be due to that view of politics, not the militant tendency. Peter Riddell’s review of my book was the most revealing I ever read; it told me so much about Peter Riddell and very little about myself.

Political observers have often drawn a comparison between you and Enoch Powell, pointing out that you are both great debaters, both brilliant, evangelical and romantic. Does the comparison strike you as absurd, or even offensive perhaps? 

 I’ve known Enoch for years, and I respect him the way I respect Mrs Thatcher. He made one terrible mistake in the speech about rivers of blood, but he is a thoughtful academic, and I’m not intellectual in the way he is at all. People compare me to Enoch in order to make me seem extremist, but the difference between Enoch and myself is that he has never been elected to any position in the Conservative Party, while I have been elected for thirty-odd years to the National Executive. Enoch is worth listening to; you can disagree with him but at least he is motivated by a desire to illuminate. There are three ways in which politicians can operate: they can oversimplify the demagogues, they can mystify like the people who say you can’t discuss unemployment unless you have a PhD in economics, or they can clarify. Enoch is a clarifier. I also try to be a clarifier, and I like him very much.

Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech and your own riposte in which you evoked images of Dachau and Belsen came to be regarded as suicidal in political terms. Was it not one of the great political ironies of all times, i.e., that in attacking what you saw as the great evil of radicalism, you should have done yourself untold damage? 

Radical questions are so explosive that political leaders have a conspiracy of silence about them. When Enoch made that speech I did not think the issue could be allowed to rest, so I made the speech about the flag of Dachau. I wonder whether it was right to make it personal to Powell, but the argument itself was absolutely right. Wilson was furious with me because he and Heath had agreed that race would not be an election issue, but Enoch was right to open up such a big question. He opened it up as a white nationalist, while I opened it up as an anti-racist. On these matters you do have to take a stand, and looking back on it I’m glad I did.

You felt uneasy about having made the remark so personal, but you claimed that it was a statement which ‘came out of my stomach’. Do you think the political arena would benefit from more remarks from the stomach and fewer form the collective Party brain, so to speak? 

I don’t know that there is a collective Party brain, more a collective Party public relations officer. If I thought a great brain was working at the top I might be more at ease with myself. You have to say what you think. I don’t want a peerage, I don’t want cash, I don’t want office; all I can do is use my experience to convey my convictions, and if I’m wrong I’ll be criticized, if I’m right I’ll persuade. When I look back I wish I’d done more of that. You compared me to Coriolanus, but I was rather slow in many respects to say what had to be said. The one principle I’ve always tried to work on is ‘Don’t make it personal’, because if you do you reduce the issue to the yah-boo of politics, which is an absolute switch off; the public hate it, and it doesn’t influence anybody.

Michael Foot, in one of the most troubled denunciations of our time, argued that after 1970 you underwent a radical change and in the eyes of the political associates and cabinet colleagues you became ‘someone not to be trusted’. Can you see how that impression, however erroneous, might have arisen? 

Michael began as a left-winger and ended up as a right-wing leader whereas I have radicalized with the years. It was actually in 1968 that I decided, having been a minister for four years, it was time to come out with a lot of serious political thought, and I made a series of speeches, long before we were defeated, about the referendum, the Party, Socialism, the media, and so on. Michael, who was not a member but a critic of that government, though it was only after we were defeated that I spoke out, which wasn’t true at all. I was saying it all when I was in office and being attacked for it too. Michael’s own position, however, has changed on everything: he’s no longer a unilateralist, he supported the Falklands War, and so on. That of course is his right, he can do what he likes, but I don’t accept this idea that trust must require you to move to the right as you get older.

Would you say that Foot’s attitude was based more on rivalry than substance? 

I don’t think so. He became leader of the Party by following the principles you describe. What’s interesting about both Foot and Kinnock’s election is that the Party picked people with left-wing credentials to destroy the left. Michael’s function as leader was to secure victory over the left on behalf of the right, and Neil’s function was to do the same. Clearly I had a different approach.

Your biographer’s comment on Michael Foot’s list of recriminations against you is: ‘Indeed there are no friends at the top.’ Have you felt the acute loneliness of political life? 

It is a very cynical phrase, but it is true that alliances move, and only very good friendships can survive differences of opinion. Clearly my personal relations, though courteous, lack warmth if I have been engaged in a real argument with somebody; that is true, I must confess.

It has nevertheless been a common criticism of you that you have regarded your reputation and ideas as more important than the Party you have served. How would you defend yourself against that charge? 

I don’t honestly feel I have to defend myself against any charge; I’m not a criminal coming up for trial. All I can say is that I’ve tried to speak my mind and I’ve been elected. It’s not a charge ever made against David Owen, Roy Jenkins, George Brown, Hartley Shawcross, Dick Marsh or Reg Prentice; but only against me. I’ve seen other people who have been carried away to the top on the shoulders of the Labour movement, people who have kicked away the ladder and yet are still treated as men of principle. For example David Owen has been in six parties, yet he’s now ‘a man of principle’. Just exactly what is it about his political life that makes it in some way more principled than mine? It’s a charge motivated by political disagreement, and without substance. 

Perhaps another way of putting it is that you have been loyal to principles and ideals rather than people, something which has led you to argue with all the leaders of the Labour Party in your time, Wilson, Callaghan, Foot and Kinnock…have you ever regretted that particular price of principle? 

I have good relations with them all. I was out of Parliament when Wilson was elected but I voted for Wilson when he first stood against Gaitskell in 1960, just before I was thrown out of Parliament on the grounds of my peerage. Wilson made me a minister, and I was very close to him. Though we had our arguments, I regarded him as a Prime Minister with a capacity to keep the Party on the road. I didn’t vote for Callaghan, but I liked him very much, and preferred him in many ways to the latter-day Wilson because he was straightforward. After Callaghan came Foot, and I voted for him. Healey didn’t vote for Foot, Shore didn’t vote for Foot, but I voted for Foot. Kinnock I’ve known over a long period; he supported me when we had the so-called left-wing dominated National Executive, and then when he was elected I wasn’t in Parliament, so wasn’t allowed to vote for anybody. I stood against Kinnock in 1988 because I thought his policies would lead to defeat, and they did. But it was a principled thing, nothing personal about it, so this idea that I’ve fought with everybody is an illusion. You put me in a position where I appear to be defending myself; I’m not interested in defending myself, only in putting the record straight. The theory you suggest is put about because people disagree with me, which they are quite entitled to do; but they don’t have to cook up imaginary arguments.

Harold Wilson is probably the least respected or talked about Prime Minister. Why do you think this is? 

Harold is not very well, but when his life comes to be assessed, he will be remembered for three things. First of all, for getting Labour elected four times, a formidable achievement after many years in opposition. Secondly he reminded the public that without careful planning the technological revolution could destroy communities, as it has done. The third thing he will be remembered for is the Open University, and any man who founds a university is a man whom history will honour and praise for all time. He was also very committed to third-world matters, but of course he was always hated by the right. When he resigned with Bevan in 1951, he was treated with contempt by the right wing of the party. They loathed him and called him Nye’s little dog, but he came through it all with considerable dignity, became leader, won us the election of ’64 and carried through ’66, ’70, ’74 then  retired. At the end of his political life he was a bit of a spent force and I had many arguments with him about policy because I thought he was a bit of a technocratic and centralized, not democratic and open enough. I’m bound to say that his was a successful life, more successful than Callaghan’s or Kinnock’s or Foot’s, more successful than that of Gaitskell who fought an election an lost it. So the man will be remembered in a rather different way from that in which the scornful Peter Riddells dismiss him.

A common complaint is that you are out of touch with the electorate and even your own party. Bill Deedes in an article in the Telegraph a few years ago wrote: ‘Tony Benn, though a highly sensitive man, is not sensitive to what’s going on around him if it is not what he wishes to see. He lacks political feel because his mind is dominated by the kind of society he desires to bring about.’ How do you go about countering that rather deep-rooted idea of you? 

It’s very simple. I’ve been elected to Parliament sixteen times which is a record in the House of Commons, and every year for all those years I’ve been elected to the National Executive. I receive 15,000 letters a year, a thousand people come to my surgeries for advice – I couldn’t be more in contact with the life and opinions of people except if I were a priest perhaps, but then it would be very much personal and rather less political. The test of my credentials is straightforward: if the local party wants me I am nominated as a candidate, if the electorate wants me I am elected. These arguments you put forward are just a way of trying to undermine the position I hold; I don’t mind at all, they don’t worry me, but if I’m asked then I’m bound to give the answer. I like Bill Deedes very much but all he’s saying is ‘Mr Benn is not in touch with what is happening at the Carlton Club’, and I confess that is correct; I’m not.

Bill Deedes in the same article wrote: ‘There has been a marked petulance about his behaviour in recent years, when his main achievement has been to raise the standard of the wild miscellany of extremists who have done the public life of this country no good at all.’ You will perhaps say that this is standard Telegraph fare, but isn’t it a perception which goes beyond the columns of Tory press? 

The wildest extremist I’ve ever come across in my life was Mrs Thatcher. She destroyed trade unionism, she destroyed local government, democracy, she took us into the Common Market and the single European Act without a referendum…so it depends on how you define extremism. I’ve argued a case which would only succeed if I win a majority. Bill Deedes probably represents his class very well; I try to do the same.

Your last volume of diaries 1980-1990 was called The End of an Era. Presumably the era referred to is the Bennite era? 

No. It was the end of Thatcher, and the end of Communism. It wasn’t the end of my era – in fact, there’s probably more public support for my ideas now than there’s been at any time in the last ten years. People have rejected Thatcherism, they’ve rejected selfishness, they see our industry being destroyed, they see homeless people, unemployment, and much of what I have argued for has now won support. People wrongly thought it was the last volume of diaries, but I’m working on 1942-1962, and the one after that will be 1990-2000 and the final one will take me up to my 100th birthday.

How would you like to celebrate your 100th birthday? 

I’d like to be re-elected to Parliament for the first five years of my second century.

In the volume 1980-1990 Neil Kinnock is vilified again and again as someone shallow, ambitious and a traitor to the left of the Party. Wouldn’t you allow that there is a good chance that history will come to judge him as the man who reformed the Party for its own good, something which had to be done to avert disaster? 

I don’t know how many times you have to be defeated to prove you’re unelectable. To be candid, nobody believed a word that was said. Election policies were made on the hoof, but I’ve blamed Neil for this; I’ve only commented on his contribution. The people who accepted Neil were the National Executive, the Shadow Cabinet, the Parliamentary Party and what interested me about the recent conferences of the Party was that the delegates were cheering because they thought Neil was going to win, and the media people were cheering because they knew he was killing Socialism because it’s alive, and that he would not win.

But did you think he could win the election? 

I obviously hoped that we would win, but I had grave doubts about our capacity to win because it was very difficult to know what we stood for. For the first time in my life I came out against the manifesto along with Dennis Skinner. It never came out since they didn’t want it to be known there was a disagreement within the Party on the manifesto, but I put up my own posters in Chesterfield and told the voters what I believed in, and my vote increased. I did not think it made sense in the middle of a slump and with the Cold War over to give high priority to nuclear weapons, to abandon commitment to a democratic economy and go over to Maastricht. It was a terrible manifesto which had no credibility. It was not laying the foundation for victory; it was laying the foundation for a fourth defeat. But I can’t blame the leader because he was supported by everybody.

Would it be fair or accurate to say that the extremely gifted and talented tend not to enter politics nowadays, and that consequentially our lives are governed by rather mediocre people on the whole? 

No, I don’t think so. Clever people can be very stupid and I have known some very clever fools in politics and also some very simple people who are wise. Eric Heffer, who was entirely self-educated, was one of the most intellectual men I knew; his library and his knowledge were phenomenal. Then there are people with top degrees who haven’t a single thought since they left college. Politics has always attracted ambitious and shallow people, also very good and gifted people. In the end the public have to choose; they get the government they want or deserve, whichever way you look at it. 

I have the impression that you see yourself as being on the side of the angels. Does this stem for you radical Christian upbringing, do you think? 

I don’t think that’s true at all. I’m an ordinary human being who has a lot of experience, doesn’t want anything and speaks his mind. I’m sure that Neil Kinnock thought he was on the side of the angels, but the angels in his case were all newspaper proprietors. I think I’m a hard-nosed realist who’s confronting the harsh reality the Britain is rapidly declining and becoming a third-world country, losing its democracy, its morale, its self-confidence, and its hope. The dream that somehow you can get into power by joining with the liberals, having proportional representation, keeping the bomb… I would call that romanticism of a foolish character. It depends entirely on how you use language.

‘In the end,’ as Rab Butler famously remarked, ‘politics has to be the art of the possible.’ Is that a maxim which you have tried to keep in mind? 

Of course. I’ve never been able to do anything without consent. I’ve said things that were unpopular, I’ve been defeated sometimes, and other times I’ve won, but everything that’s ever been achieved has been by consent. It’s terribly interesting being interviewed by you because you produce all the language of the right, and when it’s examined it’s found to have no substance. I didn’t become the leader of the Labour Party, but the elected leader, although he had the support of the Party, failed to persuade the public. What I try to do is to get people to see a different point of view, a different perspective.

You have been described as a compulsive optimist, a natural leader always rallying the troops. Do you see despair as the worst enemy? 

I see it as very dangerous because when people are despairing, they look for a Hitler or a Mussolini. You can’t be foolishly optimistic, but hope is the great fuel of social change, hope keeps you going, the idea that we will reach the promised land, we will get there one day. ‘I have a dream,’ said Martin Luther King, and that is what makes people work. Cynical journalists try to eliminate hope and there’s a great deal of anger directed against anyone who tries to spread hope. For years the Guardian has attacked anyone who has anything constructive to say, and when they’ve cleared the board of anything hopeful, then they say there’s no vision. It is la trahison des clercs, a defeat of the chattering classes.

In 1983 you were devastated to lose your seat in the General Election. How did you come to terms with this defeat and find the strength to fight another day? 

I decided to be defeated in 1983. When my constituency was abolished I had six invitations to go to safe Labour seats and I refused on the grounds that I had been a member for Bristol for thirty-three years and I owed the people of Bristol everything. I chose to stay and be defeated, and I’m pleased that I did. I couldn’t have walked away from the city that had supported me through the whole peerage case and just leave them to their fate; and it was the best decision I ever made. But you mustn’t misunderstand me; to be defeated in the city I’d represented longer than anyone in the whole history of Bristol was a terrible bereavement.

How much have you relied on your wife and family for support during difficult times? 

Oh enormously. My wife is an intellectual of formidable proportions and her understanding and academic capacity are far greater than mine, but she and my children have been very supportive. They’ve all paid a price for living in a house with someone who has been engaged in lifelong controversy, but as far as I’m concerned it would be quite impossible without the help of my family – parents, children and grandchildren. My little grandson came to Chesterfield on May Day and said afterwards, ‘You weren’t half as boring as you were last year.’ Now when your grandchild tells you that, you know you’ve got a valuable adviser, and I take more notice of him than of Peter Riddell or Guardian leading articles.

Divorce seems to be an occupational hazard in political life. To what do you attribute the success of your own very long and happy marriage? 

It’s been a very good partnership and friendship, and I’m very fortunate in it. I met Caroline in Oxford and proposed to her after nine days, and from then on it’s just been a very happy life together. We are very lucky.

You once advocated that instead of making divorce easier, marriage might be made more difficult, and that there might be compulsory education for the engaged couple. Was that a serious workable proposal in your view? 

You must have done a lot of research into my writings. I remember writing that somewhere, but nowadays marriage is really more optional; it’s partnerships that are developing now. In the end everything hinges not upon the formalities but upon the confidence of the relationship and the safeguarding of the children. So it is not now a question of making marriage more difficult because nowadays you don’t have to marry at all.

Do you approve of that? 

Oh yes. Marriage in one sense has been an enslavement of women, and I have been much influenced by having feminist arguments brought to bear in my own family. When my daughter was sixteen I remember she put up notices all over the house saying: ‘End sexism in the Benn family.’ That altered my attitude quite substantially.

As someone who has suffered from relentless press intrusion into your own private left and that of your family, what view do you take of the proposed  reforms of the press? 

I’ve had a very hard time which I don’t generally speak about. To give just one example, my rubbish was once collected in a fast car every day. My son made a bell so that when they lifted the sack the bell rang, we looked out and saw the Rover taking it away. They also rented a flat opposite, and they harassed my children. It was worse for my family than it was for myself. It has been a terrible burden on the children, and I dare say there have been ill effects, not in terms of breaking up the closeness of the family. I would never take liable action, because all the money goes to lawyers, and anyway, if you win, what does it amount to? You have to recognize that a press intrusion is designed to intimidate you, and you just have to survive it though it is unpleasant. I’m not in favour of any state control of the media at all because I think it would be used against the left. The government wanted to stop the Peter Wright book being published and to stop Gerry Adams talking on the radio, so I’m never going to believe the Government is an instrument of freedom.

You have always been sensitive to comments about private wealth and trust funds for your family, and so on. Is that because these things sit so uneasily with left-wing politicians? 

My father had a pension of £500 a year from a publishing house and my wife’s father was a lawyer in Cincinnati, but otherwise most of what was published was completely untrue. I just have to live with that lie. I mustn’t pretend I’ve ever been short of cash, but this sort of millionaire stuff that has been put about is just part of the lie. The newspapers have five lines about me: he’s mad, he’s dangerous, he’s a hypocrite, he’s incompetent, he’s ill, and they have run them all, and when they get very excited they run them all at once. I’ve got to know them now.

Khrushchev once said: ‘Politicians are the same the world over – they promise to build a bridge even when there’s no river.’ Would you agree?

[Laughs] I’ve come to the conclusion that you should not make promises of what you will do for people; rather you should invite them to join you in doing things together. If I knock at a door and say ‘Vote for me and I’ll solve your problem,’ people don’t believe it and neither do I. I favour a manifesto which asks people to help, not a manifesto of promises. It’s a different approach to the political process.

Despite your energy, your vision, your tireless campaigning for social justice, it’s difficult not to sense that your story is marked by disappointment. Are you still in the watches of the night overcome by feelings of failure or self-doubt?

The one thing I do conceal are moments of despair, because if you spread your anxieties then other people won’t make the effort. I don’t think of personal failure; my life has been rewarded beyond any reasonable dreams, and I’ve had the most marvellous family and political career. At the moment I’m very optimistic because I think the whole tide is turning politically. I am sustained by letters of support and what people say to me in ordinary daily life – that’s worth a million articles by Bill Deedes or Peter Riddell. But of course I am human and yes there are moments of terrible despair. I find the National Executive of the Labour Party the most painful thing in my monthly calendar; I dread going, I feel unhappy when I’m there, and I come away and lie down afterwards. The best discussions I attend are the ones in the Chesterfield constituency party; they are brilliant, clear, principled and knowledgeable, but the National Executive I find terribly distressing.

How has it been possible in the dirty business of politics to avoid bitterness and cynicism?

Cynicism is a very destructive thing. I would say I have been guided by certain things I was taught by my parents. They used to say, ‘Never let the sun go down on your wrath’ and ‘Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone’, and so on. All these little sayings lodge, and when you get older you realize the whole of human wisdom is summed up in seven little phrases. I am genuinely not a bitter man, I am not cynical because cynicism would destroy me.

Jad Adams writes at the conclusion of your biography: ‘He was always true to himself and no sacrifice made a stone of his heart.’ Would you be happy to have that as your eventual epitaph?

It was very generous of him to write that. I’ve made a million mistakes, many of which are published in my diaries, and there are many things I wish I had done differently, but I have been blessed with lovely parents, and a marvellous wife, children and grandchildren. I have been so richly endowed that it’s impossible to express the gratitude I feel.

 

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