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An evening with Tony Benn

On Tuesday 29 October the last of Tony Benn’s political diaries, ‘A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine’ was published. On the eve of the book’s release, the Labour veteran was in Norwich visiting the OPEN venue.

Tony Benn

Photo courtesy of www.distantcloud.co.uk

He spoke about his lengthy experience in politics, before answering questions from an audience full of admirers of the man who stood as a Labour MP for 52 years. On a stage lit with a typically Labour tone of red, the now 88 year old influential political figure sat comfortably in an armchair, looking forward to his first political engagement in over a year. It is a common idea that with age one become less radical in their political ideas, tending instead to slowly shift towards the right wing of the political spectrum, rather than the left. However, this is a saying that certainly does not apply to Mr Benn. The once described “national treasure” as he was deemed by readers of the Sunday Telegraph, has arguably become more and more radical the older he has become.

However, being titled as a nation treasure is an association that Benn himself denies being a suitable description of his character. “I was once the most hated man in Britain – and now they say I’m a national treasure! See what they mean by national treasure is you’re a kindly, harmless old gentleman; and I am kindly, I am old, I am a gentleman but I am certainly not harmless.” Throughout his life Tony Benn has always been known for being an outspoken man who says exactly how he feels. He confessed that he believes this to be a key principle that all politicians must have. ‘I believe it always necessary to say what you mean, mean what you say and do what you say you will do’.

This motto, by which the Labour member appears to have lived his whole life, seems to also be the principle that he uses to judges others. “I voted for Ed Miliband [to become party leader]. I’ve known him since a boy, he used to work with me when he was at school, and I believe that he is a man who says what he means and means what he says.” It was this phrase that was repeated several times through the evening. Benn also claimed that it was this manner of behaving politically that set the way for Margaret Thatcher’s success. “[She followed those principles] and on the whole people trusted her and her real strength was that she had won the confidence of a lot of the people of Britain.” As a man who has served as an MP for four different Labour leaders, for a period of 17 years in the executive, and has seen 11 different faces become Prime Minister while he was an MP, the veteran has no problem in saying that Clement Attlee, the first Prime Minister he served under, was definitely the one he most admired. “He came into power at the end of the war and invested in the country… he set up the National Health Service and the welfare state; he brought jobs and industry at a time of economic downturn.”

As well as reflecting upon his time as an MP, the infamous politician also spoke about more current issues, including providing an opinion on Scottish independence. “I’m half Scot, my mother was a Scot and I was brought up in a United Kingdom family.” He also lived in Scotland for a year in 1928 when he was three after his London home flooded. “I would be very sorry for Scotland to turn my mother into a foreigner! I would consider that a divorce I hadn’t considered ever happening! Although they have an absolute right to do it, I think it would be a shame if they did because Scotland has benefited greatly from the United Kingdom and we have benefitted greatly from them being in it.”

Tony Benn was equally keen to talk about other international issues, and was eager to express his opinions on the proposed 2017 referendum on Britain’s membership to the European Union. “I think the decision regarding Europe, and to be a part of a united Europe is such a huge decision, you couldn’t justify it without having the support of the British people.” However, he also highlighted his belief that there is a need for a change in Britain’s relationship with the EU.

Benn indicated that what frightens him about the European Union “is the fact that the people who run it are not elected by the people in the country, and so we really could be governed by a German government… the good thing about British democracy, despite its pitfalls, is we hire the government and we sack them if we don’t like them and that is what makes ministers listen because they know they are hired. This does not happen with Europe.” The ability to be held accountable for your own actions is something that Benn is a great believer in. “If you meet anyone who has power, then there are five questions you should ask them. One: What power have you got? Two: Where did you get it from? Three: In whose interests do you use it? Four: To whom are you accountable? And the last question is: How can we get rid of you?” It is the basis of the last two questions that have shaped Benn’s issues with the European Union.

Though it isn’t only within the European Union that Benn believes there is a lack of accountability. He also believes that there should be more accountability in UK’s domestic politics. “I fought hard for cabinet minutes to be published” the ex-Labour minister explained. “These are the decisions which are being made that affect the entire country. People have the right to know which way the debate in the cabinet was going and who said what”. Throughout the evening the ageing politician, who now sports a beard due to finding shaving uncomfortable, coughed and spluttered. “I do think that what we need is a National Care Service.” Now in need of care in his older age, the veteran has recently moved out of his house in Holland Park, London where he lived for 60 years, to a small London flat to be supervised by a warden. “We really need a system in which everyone can get help, because everyone in their old age needs that, and I think that if there was a National Care Service lots of people in old age would be much happier”.

The topic is one which Tony Benn can talk about from experience. He has been in and out of hospital ever since he first had a stroke in 2009 and was most recently admitted 11 September of this year. “There’s an aging population and a lot of poverty among older people, and I don’t think we can call ourselves a civilised society if we can let old people die in poverty. Something needs to be done”. Questioned on whether he ever thought such a service would materialise he simply answered, “I think it has to happen and I think it will happen.”

It was a privilege to hear the notorious politician share his views. and experiences. It’s obvious that despite retiring, Tony Benn still cares for the political state of our country and this evening in Norwich, witnessing the audience in rapture of and engaging with Benn, it’s clear that we as a society still need voices and opinions as defined and radical as his are.


About Author

danfalvey Dan Falvey is an undergraduate politics student about to start his second year at UEA. Being an avid tea drinker means that he has the most essential skill needed to be a successful journalist. Outside of his interests in writing and politics, Dan. is also a regular theatre-goer, film geek and most importantly, a supporter of the mighty MK Dons.

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August 2022
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