Tony Benn: Classroom Assistant to the Nation

First published by the Cherwell.

The neat parting of Tony Benn’s baby soft white hair, as he bends over to stuff tobacco into his pipe, is clearly visible and I can’t help but notice its careful construction. His well worn hands trembling slightly, he tries to light the pipe in between every question I ask him – but the moment he opens his mouth to speak the flame promptly dies out. The thickly brown wooden pipe lays between us, a symbol of an entirely different experience of the 20th century. It harks back to an era in British politics when trade unionism and compassionate socialism defined the rhetoric of the Labour Party, and when Benn enjoyed the support of thousands of leftist party members. Always more popular with the members than with the MPs, Benn made came fourth in the first round of the party leadership contest in 1976, and is fondly known as the Prime Minister that never was. Many households still hold a special place for Benn in their political memories.

Benn was admired outside Westminster and admonished within for his famously unrestrained tongue. Renouncing his peerage, lashing out against Labour’s betrayal of the trade unions and demanding an end to the monarchy, he rarely let a year of his 48 year long career as an MP pass without incident. Benn laughingly dismisses the compliment the moment I put it to him, “Well you see…” he drawls in a comfortable BBC accent, “it’s much easier to say what you think, than to wait for the spin doctors to come and tell you what to say!” But it is decidedly not comfort that led Benn down the tortured political route he chose to traverse.

Most politicians would accept that advancing in politics inevitably comes at a cost to one’s principles. Tony Benn’s son Hilary, now Secretary of State for International Development, told Cherwell in an interview last year that compromising your ideology to accommodate the electorate is in fact the democratic thing to do. Benn makes it clear, however, that politics for him was always a means and never an end – which is possibly why he spent so many years in the house and ‘never made it’. “See I really would be ashamed,” Benn muses, “if I’d ever said anything I didn’t believe in to get on.” I pause for a moment wistfully looking at the carefully wrinkled face and the grey-blue eyes, wishing that today’s politicians would even pretend to have enduring principles. But it’s not without reason that politicians ordinarily tread the paths of least resistance. “Well you get a lot of flack, but I can’t complain – it’s a free country. If people want to say I’m a pig, it’s up to them.”

Sitting healthily before me aged eighty-one, Benn has a unique perspective over the upheavals of the twentieth century. He name-drops like an encyclopedia of twentieth century history, sending flutters down my history-student spine. Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Harold Wilson, Malcolm X, Saddam Hussein… he met them, questioned them, saw them in action. Benn’s own outlook on life was shaped by his participation in the defining event of 20th century Europe; World War Two. He cites “fascism, the war, the agony and the cost of war, the consequences of war, the waste of war” as the most formative experiences of his life.

He even remembers as an Oxford undergraduate being woken up for war exercises. “The tutor came in,” Benn recalls, “and he took some paper and put it in the wastepaper basket and set fire to it. He said ‘This is a war exercise – you have severe burns’ and he put labels on me saying severe burns. I said ‘I’m terribly sorry but I’ve got an exam tomorrow morning!’” I laugh at the incongruity of this tale with my own Oxford experience, beginning with the improbability of having a tutor enter my room… Nevertheless, Benn’s own undergraduate years were torn apart by the war in which he served as a pilot in the Royal Air Force. But the century Benn lived through was not all negative: “I think the aspirations of the world at the end of the war, the UN charter – that’s a sign of hope.” He points to the establishment of DIFID, and the end of colonialism. “And above all I look at things like the women’s movement, the Chartists, the trade union movement as an achievement.”

Despite being unrelentingly critical of the Blairite government, Benn remains optimistic – partly because he thinks its his duty. He thinks that the most powerful thing that Thatcher did was to crush hope in the trade unions. “What she said was, ‘Whatever you think, whatever you say, whatever you do, whatever you organise it won’t work so don’t even try.’” And after her, New Labour made trade unions “virtually illegal.” But steering away from the struggles of the eighties in which Benn was so deeply involved, he reverts to his more aloof position in the world of politics today.

“I think I’ve become by default in age a sort of Buddhist. Because Buddhists believe that happiness comes from ridding yourself of desire, I don’t want anything.” Benn is now more impressed with teachers than with political leaders, because he sees their enduring influence in contrast with the transience of political power. Shaping people’s understandings of the world is what matters, and Benn has taken it upon himself in this last phase of his life to become a “sort of untrained classroom assistant to the nation.” “It’s a unique position” he adds, “experience and no ambition.”

And looking to the future Benn comments on the current generation, “You’ve got this huge choice to make between destroying the world and rebuilding it. It’s such a brilliant generation.” Benn confers enormous weight on the next batch of world leaders, predicting rather dramatically that the choice they will have to make will be one of annihilation or salvation. But, coming back down to earth, Benn refers to his unshakable, even outdated, faith in democracy.

Of the UN he says, “I’d like to elect the members of the general assembly, and for the general assembly to control the secretary general and the security council.” And of Europe that he doesn’t want to be “governed by people I didn’t elect and can’t remove.” More radically Benn suggests a little bit of ‘internal democracy.’ “Why shouldn’t the editor of the Times by elected by the people who work for the Times? I mean it would transform the role of the media.” It would also transform the nature of modern society, but when I suggest to Benn that its unfeasible, he recognises that “it will be as bitter a battle as it was to get democracy in Britain” but indicates that any battle can be won.

As for the means, Benn remains an advocate of rebellion. He states, “I think NO is the most powerful word in the political vocabulary. If a lot of people say NO I will not accept it, I will not accept student fees, I will not accept the means test, I will not accept the war, the guys at the top have to think again.”

Refuting my assertion that individualism has undercut the basis of mass collective politics, Benn dismisses it as a capitalist attempt to “turn us all from humans into consumers.” But human nature he believes will win through, and with that Benn finally lights his pipe and pops it snugly into his mouth. “I’d better go off to find the Oxford Tube, I’ve got to be up at 6 in the morning.” As he sturdily begins to walk down the streets of Oxford, I sit gathering my notes, unusually star-struck. Nothing he talks about in his life strikes me as a waste, and he seems so utterly contented about the choices he has made. It’s very difficult not to end by saying: ‘Tony Benn, when I’m eighty-one, I want to be just like you.’

Image by Eddie Gallacher

About Nussaibah Younis

Nussaibah Younis is an International Security Program Research Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.
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