Tony Benn On UKIP, Ali G And The Greatest Threat To The Human Race

In this archive interview, the late Tony Benn discusses the Conservatives, Murdoch and the message he'd like to leave to his Grandchildren's generation...
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DJ: Do you feel that your grandchildren’s generation is at a turning point?

TB: They’ve got very big decisions to make. When I talk to people of their age I feel that in a way you have to begin with an apology, because my generation made such a cock-up of the world. 105 million people killed in 2 world wars, for example. And so you’ve got to decide whether you want to go for the obliteration of the human race by accident, or for applying what resources are at your disposal for a good purpose. And one of the reasons why you have to be reasonably optimistic is that you have to believe that it can be got right, otherwise we might as well all commit suicide.

DJ: What is the greatest threat to the human race?

TB: There are a lot of problems, and you are the first generation with the technical capacity that would allow you to wipe out the human race, either by directly doing so or by neglect. It’s just a question of what you want to do about it, and all of history is made by people who want to do something.

DJ: Why are so many people in Britain apathetic about politics?

TB: I’m not sure people are apathetic. When I talk to young people, what they say to me is that nobody takes the slightest interest in what they say and they don’t believe what they’re told, and that is not apathy, that’s anger and mistrust.

DJ: In the past you’ve always supported Labour, but in your book you attack the way the Labour Party has changed. Will you continue to vote Labour?

TB: I have been Labour all my life because of my understanding of what it stands for, but I’m not a member of New Labour. I don’t support New Labour, which Blair set up. I think New Labour is really a Thatcherite party, and how it’ll work out we’ll just have to see. It depends on what people do.

DJ: Is New Labour what you consider to be the Labour Party?

TB: I think after we were defeated in 1979, Blair and Mandelson and Brown got together and they worked out that they would never win unless they adopted Mrs Thatcher’s economic policy, which they thought was very popular. And so they formed New Labour, which I think in economic terms is a Thatcherite party. And when Mrs Thatcher was asked her greatest achievement, she said ‘New Labour’, and that’s why Blair got such wonderful support in the press, because they saw him as carrying on the Thatcher policy. That’s one reason why I couldn’t ever call myself New Labour – I don’t identify with it. But the Labour Party – those who try to work for the interests of those who create the nation’s wealth – that’s my Party. I am a Labour man and a Socialist.

DJ: Is New Labour at fault for the recession or were the foundations laid during the Thatcher era?

TB: Well as I said I think New Labour was a Thatcherite party and the policy of leaving everything to the market, which was what Thatcher said and what Blair said, has contributed to the economic crisis we now face. That’s why a lot of new thinking is needed. If you don’t think out of tune with your party, you’re denounced as a trouble-maker, and I’ve suffered a little bit of that myself. And yet I think that type of new thinking is necessary, otherwise you go on making the mistakes of the past.

DJ: Has anything actually changed to prevent this happening again?

TB: New Labour is trying to recreate the system that has let us down, and I’m not in favour of that. I think with such a big crisis you have to tackle it in different ways.

DJ: Will the Sun’s support of the Tories have an impact?

TB: Yes. The press carries a lot of weight up and down society and when Murdoch decided to shift from New Labour to Cameron, that means the propaganda up to the election will move in that direction. It doesn’t mean to say it will be decisive, because I think people are much more thoughtful in their approach than that, but I think a lot of floating voters will be influenced by the impact of the Murdoch press and others who follow the same line.

DJ: How can the Labour Party save itself?

TB: That’s something the Labour Party has got to decide for itself. The election will be next May and it will be a very important one. I’m not certain that the Conservatives will win, but whatever happens the Labour Party has got to stand up for what it believes to be in the public interest.

DJ: Can Socialism work?

TB: The most Socialist thing we ever did was also the most popular thing we ever did: the NHS. The idea of offering people free healthcare was an incredible thing to do – you can see how difficult it was when you consider the struggle in America now. And yet it was done, and it was popular, and it was effective. I’d like to see a lot more democracy in the NHS and in public services generally, but when you ask people their experience of the NHS it is always good.

DJ: With Labour moving to the right and the Conservatives moving to the left, do voters still have a choice in Britain?

TB: I’m not so sure. I think that if you take three central questions: Should you have the atomic weapon? Should you fight wars in the Middle East? Should you believe in market forces and globalisation? On all of these central issues all major parties agree, so in a sense there isn’t a choice other than of individuals to run the system, and that is one of the reasons why people are cynical and depressed.

DJ: You’re against those three things?

TB: Yes I am, because I don’t think they are really in anybody’s interest.

DJ: Why do you believe we are at war with Afghanistan?

TB: We’ve invaded them several times before. I don’t think the arguments for the war are credible. It’s a very important country geographically, and it’s important for pipelines and God knows what, and I think it’s an imperial war that we’re engaged in now.

DJ: Does our special relationship with America need to end?

TB: America are much more powerful than we are. We depend upon them for nuclear weapons and the argument is that you don’t want to break with them for those reasons. And the Americans also need us. So there is a mutual interest in the two establishments to stick together, but that is not a view shared by a lot of people in Britain or America.

DJ: How much damage did the Bush presidency do to the reputation of America?

TB: I think he was the worst president in American history and he did an enormous amount of damage. Bush didn’t give the impression he listened to people at all.

DJ: What are your views on Europe?

TB: It’s a question of what form of a relationship we have. I don’t want to go back to the Europe of nationalism which led to two world wars, but at the same time I don’t see why I should obey a law made by someone I haven’t elected and I cant remove, and therefore who doesn’t have to listen to me, and on the whole the European structure is fundamentally undemocratic. So my objection to Europe is not a nationalist objection, it’s a democratic argument – under our system we elect the people who make the laws we have to obey, and they have to listen to us – but under the European structure you don’t elect the commissioners who make the laws, and the European parliament has no real power, all the rules are made secretly by ministers and commissioners in Brussels. And so my desire is for cooperation and harmonisation by the consent of individual countries. So if you want to go along with European law you vote for it through your own parliament.

DJ: Should the BNP be allowed to go on Question Time?

TB: I’m a libertarian. I think that if you’re going to defeat an argument you’ve got to defeat it in argument. You can’t ban it. I think from that point of view the decision to allow them to appear and to debate with them is the right thing to do.


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DJ: Why have the BNP and UKIP been so successful in the last couple of years?

TB: I think it was a condemnation of the all-party agreement that I mentioned earlier and feeling that nationalism is the answer. I don’t think rallying round the flag is the answer myself.

DJ: Do you discuss politics with your son Hilary [Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs]?

TB: Yes we do discuss politics; he’s his own man and I’m my own man and we know each other very well, but we do have discussions.

DJ: Do you share similar views?

TB: My views are well known and his views are well known. I served in a right-wing government myself under Callaghan, and I understand the difficulty that he faces. But I don’t try to make things difficult for him, we just talk as friends going back over a long period, and I have a very high regard for him and the work that he does.

DJ: You talk about a power shift in your book. Where is the power moving?

TB: Well by the time my grandchildren are my age, in 60 years time, China will be the most powerful nation in the world, and India will be very powerful, Brazil will be powerful.

DJ: Is Britain in 2009 a very different place to the Britain you were born into?

TB: I was born into what was then a very powerful country in the world. We had 400 million people in the British Empire, and the biggest Navy in the world, and that’s all changed. And one of the purposes of writing my book was to point out to my grandchildren and your generation what a different world it is from the time I was born.

DJ: Why do you have such a strong connection with young people?

TB: I try to listen. The Ali G interview also did me a lot of good with your generation. I took him absolutely seriously. I was very shocked when I discovered I had been hoaxed, but then when I saw the video I realised what a clever idea it was.

DJ: What part of life do you enjoy most?

TB: It’s listening to people really. Listening to people is the most important thing. Trying to understand what they’re saying and relating to what I know that’s going on. I think my function is also to encourage people. If you encourage people they can go far, and I’ve had a lot of encouragement in my life. I think encouragement is so much better than a world full of league tables.

DJ: What would you like to see in your grandchildren’s generation?

TB: There are a lot of problems to deal with but I think the first thing is: do they understand the world they live in? What would they do about it? What hopes would they have? What confidence would they have? And if I can do anything to build up those ideas, then I feel that my book is worthwhile. Anything positive that you believe you can do, you should try. Because history I made by what people do, so giving people the belief that they can change things by what they do is the most important thing.

DJ: Do you have any regrets?

TB: I have made a lot of mistakes in my life. But then learning from them is the point of mistakes. The only thing I would be ashamed of would be if I ever said anything I didn’t believe in, in order to get on. But I hope I haven’t done this. Making mistakes is what life is about. I’m glad that I’ve made mistakes because it helps me to understand why other people make mistakes. If you go through life saying ‘I never made mistakes’, you’re really saying I never learned anything from what happened.

DJ: What can you learn from younger generations?

TB: I’ve learned from listening to young people with their own ideas and their passion and their beliefs, and it’s encouraged me when I get a bit low and depressed when someone comes along and says ‘we’ve got to do this and we’ve got to do that.’ It gives you a boost.

DJ: Is someone born into the world today born into a better world than 20, 50 or 100 years ago?

TB: I think every generation has to fight the same battles again and again. There is no final victory and no final defeat. Now we’ve got to try to reach a settlement on a global scale that makes it less likely that we’ll have wars that will destroy the human race. Because if chemical and nuclear and biological weapons had been used in the 2 world wars, the number of people that had died wouldn’t have been 105 million it would have been about 500 million. So the stakes are higher now than they were, so it is more important than ever that people get it right and don’t make the same mistakes made by their parents and grandparents. We have some very dangerous weapons at our disposal and we have to be very careful about our use of them.

DJ: What message would you like to leave to your grandchildren’s generation?

TB: What my father told me, to ‘say what you mean, mean what you say, do what you say you do (if you get a chance), and don’t attack individuals personally.’

DJ: Can they make the world a better place?

TB: Yes. Yes they can.