- Text by Shelley Jones
British writer, educator, politician and radical champion for democracy Tony Benn has died aged 88.
The prolific activist – who was president for the Stop The War Coalition from 2003 until his death – was an outspoken advocate of democratic reform famously supporting miners’ strikes and women’s rights and constantly striving to bring politics to the people in a grassroots way.
Here are some highlights from his illustrious career.
Advocating Social Justice with Nicky Wire
In 2011, The Quietus – a British music and pop culture website – paired up Tony Benn with socialist musician Nicky Wire from politicised Welsh band Manic Street Preachers. Covering topics such as the Miner’s Strike, the Labour leadership, Cuba and Castro, the power of music to spread political ideas, the surveillance of public figures, the conflict between electability and principles, the concept of the ‘just war’ and the question of social class, the interview provides a great insight into Benn’s post-office political stance and his inspiring energy and clarity at the helm of his twilight years.
“Every generation has to fight the same battles as every other. There’s no final victory and no final defeat. So everybody has to learn from what’s happened in the past and do the best they can… I think pessimism and cynicism are a prison into which you put yourself. See all progress is made, as I understand it, by two fires burning in the human heart. The fire of anger against injustice and the fire of hope that you can build a better world. And if you abandon your hope against injustice and abandon your hope you can change things you become a part of the system that oppresses people.
[…] Democracy is the most revolutionary idea of all. Until we had democracy all power rested with the market. And if you didn’t have money you couldn’t afford health or education or anything else. And then when the vote came in they were able to use the vote to buy with their vote what they couldn’t afford with their wallet. And democracy took the power from the marketplace to the polling station. And that created all the public services that we have that are now the things under attack. So in a way you have to re-fight the democratic argument in favour of the services you need, not in the favour of the vote.”
Subverting Westminster with Suffragettes Plaques
During his final years in Parliament, Benn placed three plaques within the Houses of Parliament. The third is dedicated to Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison and was placed in the broom cupboard next to the Undercroft Chapel within the Palace of Westminster, where Davison is said to have hidden during the 1911 census in order to establish her address as the House of Commons. Addressing the House of Commons in 2001, Benn said this about the plaques:
“I have put up several plaques—quite illegally, without permission; I screwed them up myself. One was in the broom cupboard to commemorate Emily Wilding Davison, and another celebrated the people who fought for democracy and those who run the House. If one walks around this place, one sees statues of people, not one of whom believed in democracy, votes for women or anything else. We have to be sure that we are a workshop and not a museum.
[…] There is a lot of talk about apathy, and it is a problem, but it is two sided. Governments can be apathetic about the people, as well as people being apathetic about Governments. For me, the test of an effective, democratic 511 Parliament is that we respond to what people feel in a way that makes us true representatives. The real danger to democracy is not that someone will burn Buckingham palace and run up the red flag, but that people will not vote. If people do not vote, they destroy, by neglect, the legitimacy of the Government who have been elected.”
See the full transcript on the Parliament UK website.
Trying to Stop War with Saddam Hussein
On February 4 2003 Benn travelled to Iraq to interview President Saddam Hussein, which was broadcast on Channel 4 in an attempt to avert the Iraq War. Despite this interview – in which Hussein asserted Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction – and a following demonstration organised by Stop The War Coalition, where reports of 2 million protestors in London and more across 600 cities in the world suggests it was the largest protest event in human history, the US invaded Iraq on March 19. Here’s an extract from the interview.
Tony Benn: “Does Iraq possess weapons of mass destruction?”
Saddam Hussein: “A few minutes ago when you asked me if I wanted to look at the questions beforehand I told you I didn’t feel the need, so that we don’t waste time. And I gave you the freedom to ask any question directly, so that my reply would be direct. This is an opportunity to reach the British people and the forces of peace in the world. There is only one truth and therefore I tell you as I have said on many occasions before that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction whatsoever. We challenge anyone who claims that we have to bring forward any evidence and bring it to public opinion.”
Getting into the Groove with Charles Bailey
In 2003, in a slightly more surreal manifestation of Benn’s beautiful mind, the eloquent orator teamed up with record producer Charles Bailey to put together a collection of his most memorable speeches set to ambient groove music. Spanning a period of thirteen years the spoken word tracks included issues ranging from pit closures to the EU and the Iraq War. In an interview with the BBC, Charles Bailey said this:
“I remember listening to Tony talk at Hyde Park [at the anti-war protest in 2003] and the only time I’ve had that feeling before was when Bob Marley was here at Crystal Palace years ago and then when Nelson Mandela was in Brixton about five years ago, where everyone – black, white, Chinese – you know everyone, was running to Brixton sports centre just to get a glimpse of Mandela. And when Tony Benn was speaking at Hyde Park I just got that – sometimes you just recognise a moment or something just makes you feel that you should do something – I don’t know he mobilised me, he just pressed the button in my brain somewhere…
[…] You see people want us to come to politics but I think politics has to come to the people. And this is what Tony’s helping me to do. Don’t say, ‘Okay there’s voter apathy, people are not interested.’ Go to them! Move with the technology. Politics has to move with the times… Tony doesn’t need to take a chance after the career that he’s had, to do something like this. And you have to commend him for that… the work that Tony’s done for people, for race relations, for anti-apartheid movement and stuff like that over the years, this is an opportunity for everybody to celebrate his beautiful career.”
You can buy Tony Benn’s Greatest Hits off Amazon.