Abandoning the House of Commons to "devote more time to politics"
Labour of love
My knowledge of Tony Benn has been gleaned from either the British media or from a few friends and acquaintances who have had the opportunity to work with him. The former has, over the decades, been largely unsympathetic to both the man and the causes he has championed while the latter heap lavish praise on Benn, stressing in particular his honesty, sincerity, warmth and strength of character. I also knew that in 1964 Benn introduced a private members bill in the House of Commons to boycott South African goods, a gesture that endeared him to Africans and supporters of the anti-apartheid and African liberation struggles.
Yet before our meeting I find myself expecting a studious, intensely dogmatic socialist. He is, after all, a veteran establishment politician, albeit one who embodies the best traditions of the British left.
But the man who greets me in his hotel room is humorous and down-to-earth. He dashes to the refrigerator to fetch me a drink. "Fruit juice or a beer?"
Ask Tony Benn a question and the answer is delivered in chapters. Not just that but the chapters endlessly intertwine, the narratives made all the more engaging by a profusion of comic anecdotes and wonderfully acerbic asides. He has a way with words that leaves you genuinely intrigued by the subject matter he chooses -- religion, politics and history. All three topics, he insists, add up to the same thing in the end.
"All the political battles we fight now were fought in the name of religion in the past. That's why it's so important to study religion," Benn says.
Benn hails from a distinguished political family. He was raised in the shadow of Millbank Tower, where the Labour Party is currently headquartered. His father, Viscount Stansgate, and both grandfathers were parliamentarians, as is his own son, currently a minister of state in the government of Tony Blair, a man who Benn believes is pushing the clock back 200 years, dismantling whatever remains of the British welfare state after Margaret Thatcher did her best to destroy it.
"I am a Labour man. I joined on my birthday 60 years ago, and intend to die a member of the party," he proclaims.
It is good to see him in resilient mood.
"What distinguishes the British Labour Party from other social democratic parties world-wide has been the organic link with the trade unions which set the party up and which have often saved it from those on the Right who, in the past, tried to destroy it."
Benn has held a no-nonsense attitude to politics both in and out of office and has doggedly refused to adopt policies incompatible with his socialist ideals. As energy minister when North Sea oil reserves were first being commercially exploited he suddenly found himself "dealing at the very top level with Esso, Amoco, Texaco, Conoco, with BP, the bloody lot".
"I recognised," he says, "they were bigger than Britain as companies so I treated them like foreign powers."
As the minister responsible for energy Benn pushed through a policy of refusing to supply oil to Israel, much to the chagrin of Israeli politicians. Today he is one of the staunchest supporters of Palestinian rights, believing the genocide of the Palestinians perpetrated by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon can only be ended by a concerted international effort.
"Britain should offer its support for this strategy by stopping all arms sales to Israel, introducing trade sanctions and a ban on all investment there, together with a boycott of Israeli goods," Benn argues.
But just how did he do business with the giant transnational corporations?
"I'd say we have a common interest in getting oil out of the North Sea. You're looking after your shareholders, I'm looking after my electors," is Benn's laconic answer.
Not only did he do business with the giant oil companies, he was also introduced to leaders of the growing number of environmental activists.
"Throughout this long saga I came to know, trust and work with Friends of the Earth, Greenpace and other committed environmentalists whose expert advice was generously made available and led me to change my mind on the issue," Benn remarks.
Born in April 1925 in London, Benn entered Parliament in 1950 at the age of 25. The longest serving Labour MP in history of the Labour Party, Benn served as a cabinet minister in the governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. Though a child of the British establishment he does not entirely trust the democratic system. "It doesn't solve things though it gives you the mechanism to hold to account the people with power," he insists.
"I've become much more socialist as I got older," he says. It is a trait that Benn reckons runs in the family. He has also become more spiritual. "I don't believe in Bishops," Benn insists, "but I regard myself as a student of Jesus's teachings. The moral basis of the teachings of Jesus -- love thy neighbour -- is the basis of it all."
Benn argues that globalisation is essentially a euphemism for imperialism.
"Globalisation is the free movement of capital but not the free movement of labour. It is imperialism under a new form. Only the agents of imperialism are companies rather than countries. But of course companies are supported by countries."
"And, of course, some companies are now bigger than nation states. Ford is bigger than South Africa. Toyota is bigger than Norway."
Benn, in Cairo to attend the second Cairo anti- war conference, is no stranger to Egypt. He first visited the country in 1944, on his way to what was then Rhodesia and then again, on his return to England, at the end of the war. His father, Viscount Stansgate, who "negotiated with [then Egyptian Prime Minister Ismail] Sidqi Pasha" on the future of the Suez Canal and British troops in Egypt, had taken a keen interest in the political future of colonised peoples.
Benn divides politicians into two categories, signposts and weathercocks. "I'm for signposts, not weathercocks," he explains. He is anti-war and unequivocally believes the real conflict is between the tiny handful who own wealth and the vast majority who create it.
From the outset of his political career Benn has distinguished himself as a champion of anti- colonial and anti-imperialist struggles. The liberation of the people of Africa and Asia from colonial rule was, he believes, a critical historical turning point. Benn met Gandhi at the tender age of six. "My father was secretary of state for India. It was a wonderful, memorable meeting. I cannot recall all the details, but I remember that Gandhi sat on the floor and invited me to sit next to him on the floor. Gandhi liberated India and made friends with the British in the process," he muses.
Like Gandhi, Benn is a vegetarian and a teetotaller. Growing up in the years between the two world wars he observed how drunkenness was the scourge of the working classes. Many women literally drank themselves to death in London's East End. Gin was cheep and plentiful.
"Alcohol did as much damage as drugs do now," he explains.
His mother was a bible scholar, well acquainted with Hebrew.
"My mother brought me up on the Old Testament, on the conflict between kings and the prophets. The kings had power and the prophets preached righteousness. I was taught to believe in the prophets and not in the kings."
He has been an ardent critic of tyrants and dictators, who he says are by no means restricted to the developing world. He has long battled against Margaret Thatcher and Thatcherism. He fights Tony Blair today and is dismissive of New Labour, Blair's catchphrase, which is "regurgitating some of the worst practices from the past and trying to pass them off as brand-new".
Benn is equally scathing in his criticism of "American imperialism" and repeatedly warned against the aggression on Iraq.
"The warnings that are now being issued by President Bush and Tony Blair should be taken very seriously because they suggest that this war may be extended to any Muslim country that is suspected by Washington of harbouring terrorists, and it may continue for ten years," he says.
But he doesn't "believe you should fight political battles personally".
"You divert politics away from issues: Bush out. Blair out. Thatcher out... Never wrestle with a chimney sweep, my father used to say. I did not understand him then. Now I do. It was about personal politics. Do not play dirty, you'll get dirt all over you."
His father also advised him to always prepare a speech. "He gave three reasons: first, it fills in time; second, it's good practice; and third, you'd be surprised how often they'd ask you to speak."
At 78 most people would be looking forward to a quiet life. Not so Tony Benn, who retired as an MP in May 2001 to "devote more time to politics".
Benn is a committed internationalist who met many of the leaders of the anti-colonial struggle in Africa: Kwame Nkrumah, Tom Mboya, Jomo Kenyatta. He did a broadcast with African-American Muslim leader Malcolm X. "A four-hour discussion in Chicago. When he opened his mouth it was like opening a furnace."
He stresses that he is neither "foolishly optimistic nor complacent. I'm not a pacifist."
In his capacity as an internationalist Benn flew to Baghdad twice to meet with Saddam Hussein. The first time was in 1990 when he had a three hour meeting with the Iraqi strongman. The second was in February, just before the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. On both occasions his main concern was that the innocent lives of ordinary Iraqis be saved. "I paid my own fare because I didn't want to be committed in any way."
He had an hour and a half interview with the Iraqi leader.
So what was his impression of Saddam Hussein?
"He's got a certain animal charm, if you know what I mean," says Benn.
Knowing that the Iraqi leader was a brutal dictator does not deflect from Benn's insistence that aggression against Iraq was never about democracy or human rights. "I never had any illusions about him," Benn says, before stating that conflicts in the Middle East "derive from powerful economic and political interests" and that this "must not be obscured by those who would like them to be presented as religious wars between Judaism, Christianity and Islam."
"The problems become more difficult to resolve when political leaders attempt to use religion to build up power structures of their own for personal and political advancement."
Benn believes the Iraqi leader viewed the impending US-invasion of his country with fatalism. "They'd destroy me whatever because I'm strong," Saddam told Benn in Baghdad.
But Saddam was a paper tiger, a creation of the Americans, just like Bin Laden. Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
"This is a gross distortion of the truth, and I am reminded of the fact that during the Suez aggression by Anthony Eden in 1956 we were also told that President Nasser was another Hitler, in order to justify the attack on Egypt."
Benn was a leading critic of the tripatriate aggression against Egypt in 1956. He led protests in Trafalger Square over concerted British and French attacks on Port Said and the simultaneous Israeli invasion of Sinai.
His criticism of British foreign policy is consistently damning.
"The British role in all this over the years has been less than honest, in that we have supplied arms to Israel and all too often joined the United States in giving the Israelis the support they demanded. However, now the crisis has reached such gravity, we should insist that our government act firmly and independently."
Benn doesn't mince his words in blaming Washington for the Palestinians predicament.
"The main responsibility for the appalling crimes being perpetrated against the Palestinians must be equally shared between Jerusalem and Washington for successive American governments have funded Israel, armed Israel and used their veto at the Security Council to protect Israel from being forced to comply with what world opinion wanted," he says. "The international arms trade is itself criminal, selling weapons to anyone for profit."
Osama Bin Laden was similarly used as an instrument of American foreign policy to undermine the Soviets in Afghanistan.
"We are not often reminded that he was trained and financed by the CIA when President Bush's father was in charge of it," Benn points out. He also notes that "Bin Laden was sent to Afghanistan, his headquarters built for him, by the Americans."
The xenophobia and jingoism that prevents such information from being regularly broadcast is fuelled, Benn argues, by economic malaise, unemployment and job insecurity. "Perhaps our most important job is to prevent despair from spreading as it did in the 1930s, when Hitler used the sense of hopelessness in Germany -- where six million were unemployed -- to identify scapegoats and bring jobs back by rearmament, which led to a war costing 50 million lives."
"Today truth is more than a wartime casualty, it is permanently in intensive care," he adds.
Benn has repeatedly spoken out against the charade of Western powers intervening politically or militarily in developing countries on the pretext of salvaging democracy or advancing human rights. He abhors such hypocrisy, whether in Iraq or in Zimbabwe, a country for which he retains fond memories.
"I'm not a Mugabe supporter," Benn makes clear, before explaining how Cecil Rhodes arrived in the country in 1897 and gave the land by force to white farmers. Mugabe, Benn says, "has done the exact opposite: he has forcibly returned the land to blacks. Blacks didn't have the vote in colonial times, were treated despicably and now we lecture them about democracy."
Benn firmly believes that imperialism is a "direct counter to democracy" and at heart he is, above all, an anti-imperialist. It is a role he has assumed with some diffidence and not a little irony.
"Imperialism has always been cloaked in a false morality in order to win public support," argues Benn. His own politics he characterises as being about building "a society based upon morality and social justice, peace and internationalism, democracy and human rights".
In 1949 he married Caroline De Camp, an American of French and Irish descent. Nine days after they met he summoned the courage to ask for her hand. He has three sons and a daughter. One son is married to a "half-Indian, half-Jewish woman". Another is married to an Iranian Muslim. He has ten grandchildren and is looking forward to the birth of his first great grandchild soon. His wife died in 2000.
Benn, a member of the British National Union of Journalists, is a prolific writer and the best of his columns in the left-wing daily Morning Star have been compiled into a book, Free Radical. He keeps a diary and has done so for the past 60 years.
His last speech in the House of Commons, a powerful anti-war plea delivered with gusto and moral passion, has recently been set to rap music by Afro- Caribbean musician Charles Bailey.
Benn has a huge store of anecdotes from his years in political office.
"As minister of technology at no stage could I rely on being told the truth, either by the industry itself or by my own civil servants," Benn says.
He proceeds to name "dramatic examples of misinformation" that made a deep impression on him and converted him "from being a supporter to a very strong opponent of the whole nuclear power programme".
"It was only after the 1979 election that I heard from a senior scientist in the generating board that while I was actually a minister -- and unknown to me -- plutonium from our civil nuclear power stations was being sent to America for the US military programme."
Sins of omission have grave consequences. "The same excuse, that it was "before my time", was offered when I discovered that stolen plutonium had gone to Israel to form the basis of that country's atomic weapons programme," he says.
"Nuclear power is in fact expensive, dangerous and all about the bomb. The generation of electricity is used as a cover to mislead the public so that the arms programme can be munitioned."
An incriminating indictment by a former minister of industry, energy and technology.
"Nuclear power is certainly not safe, as we know from accidents at Windscale (now renamed Sellafield), Three-Mile Island in America and Chernobyl in the Ukraine. Nevertheless, the authorities have always been determined to downplay the dangers. Nor are Britain's civil nuclear power stations entirely peaceful in their purpose, as for many years -- and still possibly today -- the plutonium they produced was sent to fuel the American nuclear weapons programme, making them in effect, bomb factories."