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Into the archives: Tony Benn on the true power of democracy

As Britain celebrates May Day, the Star republishes an interview with workers’ champion Tony Benn which first appeared in the paper on October 24 2003

It’s going to be one hell of a struggle,” says Benn. “The national liberation struggle that we’re involved in.

“It is a struggle against international and US imperialism and international capitalism. It’s on the scale of the task which faced the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It is about the right to govern ourselves.”

By way of example, Benn asks: “How can it be, as it is under EU rules, illegal for us to elect a government that reverses privatisation?”

He warns that the cornerstones of British democracy have been destroyed, saying: “I was brought up by my dad, who was an old parliamentarian, to believe that the three principles of parliamentary democracy were that you controlled the purse, the sword and that no parliament could bind its successor.

“Every one of these principles has been breached. We don’t control the purse — that is controlled internationally. We don’t control the sword — that is controlled by Washington — and we are living today in an economy under siege from big business and the IMF.”

Tony Blair is prepared to sign a European constitution which would sign away the legal powers of parliaments that we have elected. Our democracy has been taken away.”

Benn served as minister for technology between 1966-70 in the Harold Wilson government following a stint as postmaster general.

On Labour’s return to government in 1974, he was appointed secretary of state for industry, minister for posts and telecommunications and secretary of state for energy.

During his time in government, he witnessed first hand the extent to which British sovereignty and democracy were secondary to the power of international capital and Washington.

“When I got there, I realised how we were really governed,” says Benn. 

He attributes the collapse of the Wilson government to cuts enforced on Britain by world capital in the form of the IMF. 

It was these cuts to socialist policies, he says, which triggered the “winter of discontent.”

Benn recalls his solution to the IMF strategy — “During the debates in Cabinet I used the argument that Britain was one of the richest countries in the world and that North Sea oil was flowing ashore.”

He suggested that Britain “publish our gold, dollar and oil reserves every month.

“The Treasury didn’t want that because they wanted to bully us into believing that we were so weak that we had to capitulate. When I put my argument, I was told: ‘The trouble with your scheme, Tony, is that it’s a siege economy.’

“I retorted that their policy was a siege economy, only they had the bankers inside the castle with all our supporters left outside, whereas my policy would have our supporters in the castle with the bankers outside.”

Benn explains: “We are living today under a siege economy — we are now under siege from big business and the IMF.”

With a twinkle in his eye, he adds: “I think of the prime minister of a new Labour government as being rather like the Maharajah of Hyderabad during the empire.

“He was allowed to be maharajah. He ran that part of India, but he was only allowed to be maharajah as long as he did everything that Queen Victoria told him to do.

“Today, we have a prime minister and a system of government that is there only with the consent of the people who run the world.”

And he issues a stark warning that any attempt to pursue even a mild socialist programme by a future real Labour government would encounter massive hostility from Washington and the capitalist world.

“If you are really going to change things — not just a Cabinet reshuffle or a new leader — if you did the most reasonable things, you would be another Lula or Chavez or Castro,” he says.

“Today I think that even a Labour government which did sensible things such as linking pensions to earnings, abolishing student fees, stopping privatisation and taking a UN view rather than a US view would be seen as a revolutionary movement in Washington.”

Benn also explains that his experience with the Treasury over the IMF is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Civil Service interference.

“The Civil Service really thinks that they run the country. They do a deal with incoming ministers. 

“The deal is this: ‘Secretary of state, if you do what we want you to do, we will help you to pretend you’re doing what you said you wanted to do’,” he explains.

“These deals are very interesting. There are a lot of them. You can be critical of individual actions of the EU, but you can’t be anti-EU.

“If the security service make a big cock-up and arrest somebody quite wrongly, you can criticise that. But you mustn’t criticise the role of the security service.

“If the media go too far you can criticise the media, but you mustn’t criticise their right to have the power. You can criticise individual examples of American policy, but you mustn’t question Nato.

“These are the type of deals that if you do them with all of these people, then they say that you are terribly able. But if you don’t go along with it then they get you.”

During the 1970s and ’80s Benn was singled out as a troublesome leftwinger who needed to be “got.” 

He ended up on the receiving end of a vicious smear campaign instigated by the Sun that labelled him a dangerous lunatic.

“It was awful,” he remembers, “an absolute nightmare,” adding: “My family suffered terribly.

“Even my rubbish was collected regularly in a Rover car. I know that Kensington borough council are efficient, but!”

Benn recalls how his son Joshua built a device so that they could spy on who was collecting the sacks.

“It was a sort of hinged thing with a spring and when they lifted the black sacks, the rubbish bell went off and we would look out of the window to try and see who’d collected it today. I don’t know whether it was MI5 or the Sun.”

But the victimisation has often taken a far more sinister tone. 

“I have had hundreds of death threats,” he says.

“One man wrote to me to tell me he was going to kill me in 12 months’ time and then sent further letters promising to kill me in 11 months, 10 months and so on, until it got to two weeks.

“I never heard from him again. Whether he lost my address or ran out of stamps or couldn’t find his gun I don’t know.”

In contrast to the destructive role of the right-wing media, Benn issues a ringing endorsement of the Morning Star, describing it as “a wonderful paper.” He also sees it as an essential tool in the battle for British democracy.

“The information and comment provided by the Morning Star shifts opinion.” he says.

He adds that it’s “the one paper that is not sectarian in any way. It has escaped from the sectarian tradition.”

Benn says that the Star is now the only paper that he asks his own newsagent to keep for him when he goes away and cancels the daily papers. Then, when he returns, he makes a point of going through all the back copies in chronological order.

“It is the only paper that gives you world news of the kind that interests you. And the articles, although I say it myself as a columnist, are really worth reading. The Morning Star ought to be read throughout the whole labour movement.”

Enthusiastically, he proposes his own circulation-boosting scheme, appealing to progressive trade unions to pay the cost of providing a free copy of the paper to every Labour MP. 

“Four hundred Morning Stars delivered every day to the House of Commons would be brilliant!”

Benn urges the paper’s readers to buy two copies every day and ask their local newsagent to display the extra copy.

He also reveals that, in 1941 and 1942, his brother David had waged his own personal campaign against the 19-month-long government ban on the Daily Worker, starting when he was only about 10 years old.

“Young David had one of those little John Bull printing sets and printed slips of paper bearing the message ‘Lift the ban on the Daily Worker.’ He used to leave them on the train and everywhere.”

His father and grandfather were also radical for their day. “My grandfather was a founder member of the London County Council in 1899 and became chairman in 1904. 

“When I was young I thought of him as an old Victorian, but my god, what did he do?

“He campaigned for the public ownership of the docks and he went to see the postmaster general in 1896 to ask for the telephone service to be nationalised.

“The postmaster general said that nobody would ever use the telephone, but my grandfather replied: ‘Oh, no, you’re wrong, the day will come when people will do their shopping by telephone’.”

In Benn’s view, this kind of forward thinking is exactly opposite to the new Labour ethic, despite its attempts to portray itself as young and progressive.

“It’s like PFI in reverse. New Labour has got a contract from big business to run Britain. The condition of all this is that we follow to a ridiculous degree the diktats of the IMF, the White House, the World Trade Organisation and the Frankfurt bankers,” says Benn.

And he believes that a key aspect of new Labour is its contempt for democracy.

“When I was a minister I went to Moscow for an exhibition of the computerisation of the economy. They had a display wall about 500 feet high, with flashing lights which started in Gosplan and went from there to the economic ministries, flashed down to the enterprises and then it flashed back again.

“I said to the man running it: ‘Where does the consumer come in?’ He replied that it was funny I should ask that, because he had suggested it but nobody seemed to think that it mattered. It was a complete from-the-top-down plan.

“Although this kind of planning lifted the Soviet Union out of poverty, gave them the space programme, the army, education and health, it didn’t ever recognise the importance of the electors or consumers. There was no input from the bottom.

“That is exactly like new Labour. There is no input from the electors. We are spectators of the triumphs of our leader. We are not participants in our own future.”

He also sees it as the ultimate triumph of capital over people and points to the fact that Thatcher has described new Labour as “her greatest achievement.”

Benn continues: “New Labour is Ramsay MacDonald. Only it’s done from inside the party instead of outside. MacDonald capitulated under the pressure of the bankers, went to the Tories and the Liberals and formed a coalition.

“He then said that the Labour Party, which he had helped to found, was ‘Bolshevism gone mad,’ and only 51 Labour MPs remained. What new Labour has done is to do it from inside the party. It’s a coup d’etat.”

But Benn issues a defiant reminder of the lessons of history, saying: “If the Labour Party could survive MacDonald, we can survive new Labour.”

In contrast to his contempt for new Labour, he praises the historic role of the Communist Party in Britain as a “university of socialism.”

Benn has always believed that the Communist Party should be affiliated to the Labour Party, ending the ban imposed in the 1920s. 

“It was the Communist Party’s influence in the trade union movement which produced the radicalism which in turn influenced the Labour Party,” he says.

“Today, once again, a lot of people will see the idea of socialism as something new and exciting.”

This optimistic tone often shines through in Benn’s writing and speeches and is key to his outlook on the future. Hope, he says, is the key to progress.

“Thatcher’s statement that there is no alternative was the most powerful political statement made in my lifetime.

“Her message was that whatever you do, however you think, however you organise, you will fail, so don’t even try. And it did have a paralysing effect.

“What she did was to undermine the trade union movement and local government, which were the basis of Labour’s strength. Thatcher used the weapons of unemployment, legislation and propaganda. 

“To combat these reactionary ideas, we must grasp the idea that another world is possible. As Tom Paine declared, ‘We have it in our power to start the world again.’

“Hope for a different world is absolutely essential. Nobody will make the effort if they don’t think there is a chance of change.”

And he points to recent protest movements as evidence that people are recovering their will to fight after the dark days of Thatcherism.

“Things are beginning to move. There is the development of the Stop the War movement, the pensioners’ protests, the movement for student grants, the protests against privatisation. I believe these are exciting developments,” he says.

But key to the survival of British democracy, says Benn, is making an even broader swathe of people aware of how dire the threat to our fundamental rights now is.

“Democracy is the most controversial idea in the world. It is really self-government. If you can establish the case for democracy, then you’ve got people listening to you all the time,” he says.

But he has an answer for those people who try to say that being anti-EU equals narrow nationalism.

“I’m not a nationalist. I’ve not appeared on platforms with any right-wing people against Europe, I don’t give a damn about keeping the Queen’s head on postage stamps,” says Benn.

“But, at the same time. I supported the Indian National Congress, the ANC in South Africa and all the national liberation movements, which were national, because you have to differentiate between nationalism, which hates foreigners, and the right of self-government, which is a democratic argument.

“Nobody in power likes democracy. The Pope doesn’t like it — not a single cardinal is elected, they’re all appointed, and he’s now appointing a whole series of cardinals to ensure that his successor still follows the conservative line. Blair doesn’t like it either.”

Benn is adamant that a key part of the battle ahead is to win Labour back from new Labour, in order to give the people of Britain a democratic voice. He argues that attempts to set up new left-wing parties only make this struggle harder.

“Let’s look at the wrong way of going about it. Let’s look at the Brent East by-election. The Socialist Labour Party received 111 votes and the Socialist Alliance 361.

“To put your effort into a new political party instead of putting it into joining the arguments which will transform the Labour Party and then transform Britain through Parliament is just the wrong way of doing it.

“I say it with regret, because I dearly love Tommy Sheridan. He is a super guy, who was expelled from the Labour Party just like Dennis Canavan and Ken Livingstone.”

But, he adds, “I don’t think splitting the Labour Party from the left is the way forward. We have to work to transform the Labour Party.”

That’s not to say that, in a different political climate, he would have objections to a number of progressive parties.

“I want every political party in Britain to be a socialist party. You can laugh at me, but every major political party in Britain at present is a Tory party,” he argues.

Since retiring from Parliament in 2001, a large part of Benn’s time has been taken up with speaking tours and lectures, which, he admits, are “terribly exhausting.”

He has also always taken his weekly Morning Star column very seriously, spending half a day at a time on each piece. This task, on top of an already heavy workload, is the reason why he has decided to cut back on his contributions.

Benn admits that all of his activities leave little time for himself, saying: “Tackling my unanswered letters is my way of relaxing! I do work very long hours. I don’t have a secretary and I have to answer all my phone calls and deal with all my letters.

“But I’m not complaining. I’m an office worker who makes speeches. That’s how I describe myself now.”

And he draws strength from the popularity of his talks. He believes that people from right across the political spectrum are now aware of the erosion of democracy.

“I find when I’m travelling around doing all these lectures, which are huge fun, I must say, even Tory councillors come along — they see the extinction of local government and they don’t like it.

“The democratic argument is one that has got a resonance well beyond the left of the Labour Party. People feel they are being managed and not represented.”

At a recent Liverpool lecture, over 2,000 people attended. But Benn rejects the suggestion that this interest is simply out of admiration for him.

“The final temptation is to be a kindly harmless old gentleman. I am kindly, I am old. I could be a gentleman, but I’m not harmless,” he jokes.

He believes that the interest stems from “a total change in opinion. I mean, can you find anybody, Tory, Labour or Liberal in favour of privatisation of the railways?

“I think the socialist case is so strong now. Our aim must be to shift opinion. The media would love us just to discuss personalities and to concentrate, for example, on whether Blair or Brown is going to be the leader of the Labour Party,” he explains.

“The media has always tried to ignore peace demonstrations, but, if you take the Stop the War movement, when you get enough people onto the streets, even the media has to recognise it.

“The same goes for the anti-globalisation campaigns. You have to be strong to be noticed. We have got to put all our efforts now into campaigning,” Benn argues.

“I think that the pensioners should always be seen on student demonstrations and the students should join the pensioners’ protests. And both of them should go to peace demonstrations. And the peace demonstrators should go to the pensioners’ demos. We have got to rebuild it from the bottom.”

But, he warns, “if we don’t do it ourselves, it won’t be done. Don’t think you can vote for someone in an election and then watch Big Brother on TV for five years. It won’t happen.

“Democracy is what we do, ourselves, where we live and work, and not what somebody will do to us if we vote for them.

“That is a tremendous challenge — to rouse people out of their alleged apathy. I don’t think people are apathetic, anyway. They are angry and distrustful, but they are not apathetic.”

Interview by Richard Bagley and Roger Bagley


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