When Nelson Mandela was denounced as a terrorist and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in the custody of South Africa’s racist government, Tony Benn took to Trafalgar Square, condemning Mandela’s conviction and the white-minority government which had pursued it. And when America and Britain invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, life-long pacifist and Labour Party member Benn again took to the streets, demanding the immediate withdrawal of all occupying troops from the two countries.
Whether campaigning for the closure of the Trident nuclear missile base on the Scottish coastland, or arguing for the abolition of the monarchy in the Houses of Parliament, Tony Benn has dedicated his long political life to challenging the worst excesses of corporate and governmental power.
Moments after we meet, a security guard informs Mr. Benn that he can’t smoke his beloved pipe in the courtyard where we plan to conduct the interview, due to its being “classified as an enclosed-area by smoking legislation.”
Benn — one of the longest-serving and eminent members of the party that coined this very law — offers a characteristically recalcitrant response. “An enclosed-area? It’s a courtyard! It doesn’t have a roof!” Indignant at the technicalities of the smoking ban, he continues, “To hell with it, you’ll just have to do a Nelson”; an invitation for the security guard to follow the example set by the one-eyed sea admiral who ‘turned a blind eye’. As it happens, the guard does not take Mr. Benn up on his offer.
Instead, we leave the building and sit down on a frozen bench opposite London’s Euston Station. The Chairman of the Stop the War Coalition, now within the limits of law, lights up his tattered pipe.
Three miles down the road from where we sit, share prices continue to plummet at The London Stock Exchange. The spectacular sight of capitalism in freefall — the job losses, repossessions, and falling value of the pound — has led to widespread disillusionment with the free market philosophy which has dominated discource since the eighties.
I ask Mr. Benn whether he believes this climate represents an opportunity for a real move to the left in British politics. He is unhesitant in his response. “I think it has given everybody the opportunity to think. All the things they’ve been told before — that the country is being run by the trade unions, that government should ‘keep-out’, rely on the market — all that’s changed … you see, we have actually had Thatcherism in some shape or form since ’97. This isn’t just the end of New Labour; it’s the end of Thatcherism too.” With the self-assurance of a practised statesman and the sanguinity of a young radical, he concludes, “people have lost confidence in the system. This is their weakness and our opportunity.”
When Benn left Parliament in 2001, he wryly claimed that he would now ‘spend more time in politics’. Today, he is no less insistent on the importance of grassroots campaigning. “All progress is made from underneath, when people say ‘here’s an injustice, let’s get together, let’s raise it, let’s campaign’. When you do that you find that all the campaigns are the same: they’re all about justice. Justice for pensioners, justice for students, justice for Iraqis, justice for Afghans. It’s a process of do-it-yourself politics.”
In his old-age, Benn sees his role as offering encouragement and support to less experienced activists, and in galvanising resistance from the bottom-up.
For young people and students in particular, he has the following advice. “Have confidence in yourself and not in leaders. Don’t imagine that some leader will gallop on the stage on a white horse and say ‘vote for me and I’ll solve your problems.’ It’s never been that way.” He insists that the solutions lie very much in the hands of ordinary people — solidarity and most importantly collective action are the weapons we have at our disposal. He confidently asserts, “Things can change, but it depends on what we do and not just what we say.”
Benn has been politely attacking the establishment since the 1960s. In an increasingly globalized world, Benn remains committed to the importance of dissent. “I have given up protesting, because when you protest you say ‘I’ve lost the battle and I don’t like it.’ We should be demanding, and there’s a hell of a difference. The suffragettes didn’t protest that they didn’t have the vote, they demanded the vote. Mandela didn’t protest that he wasn’t properly treated, he demanded equality.”
In this spirit, Benn has consciously become the proverbial thorn-in-the-side of big business lobbyists and conservative politicians, inspiring hundreds of thousands of people to, as he puts it, “demand” justice from those in power.
At 83 years of age, and after a half century of trying to change British politics from the inside-out, Benn has very visibly aged. Periodically, our conversation is suspended by onsets of pipe-induced coughing, and more than once his hearing fails him. I wonder if this old man, after fighting for a fairer society so passionately and for so long, ever gets despondent about the durability of his progressive values.
After all, the miners were defeated, inequalities in wealth continue to widen, blood still flows in the Middle East, and the remnants of a once-potent left-wing alternative have been considerably marginalised. The perennially hopeful Benn, with a youthful optimism I have not yet seen in people a quarter of his age, replies, “I think of Mandela who was sentenced to life imprisonment and who Mrs. Thatcher called a terrorist. I went to speak for him in Trafalgar square when he was sentenced and I was denounced in the tabloids — but last year I was in Parliament Square and they put up a statue to him.”
Benn is tenacious in his conviction that the weak and disenfranchised can prevail, that justice can be fought for and achieved, that positive change can, and does, occur. With discernible pride, he adds, “and I do think that the advance of democracy, the welfare state and the NHS were real advances. You can brush them aside but they were real and they were fought for.” The socialist project, he insists, goes on. “It’s all very daring, but is it any more daring than saying in 1832 that the working class should have the vote? ‘The poor? The ignorant poor should have the vote? You must be mad,’ they said to them. ‘Women have the vote? Don’t be ridiculous!’ But it happened.”
From the achievements of mass movements in the past, Benn evidently draws great inspiration. His undertaking now is to ensure their continuation in the future.
A little over three weeks after I met Tony Benn, Israel had begun its bombing campaign on the Gaza strip. When 20,000 people took to the streets in London, Benn led the demonstration to the Israeli embassy to demand an immediate ceasefire.
As I watched him march side-by-side with the ordinary people in whom he has vested so much hope, I thought back to some words he had said at the end of our short encounter in the capital. “You have to have a vision in order to proceed. ‘Another world is possible’ is a very powerful argument because it encourages people to do something.” Throughout his fifty-one years as an MP, in government and in opposition, and on the mossy bench where we had talked that December afternoon, Tony Benn has fostered the conviction that ‘another world is possible’. The world he has fought so energetically to bring about will not, however, be realised in his, or perhaps even our, lifetime.
But if people unite and pursue the vision of a better society with even half the vitality and enthusiasm with which Tony Benn has, then perhaps the possibility of a world free from poverty and injustice will become not only the imaginings of an aged idealist, but a reality.
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