Socialism in Britain – Interview with Tony Benn



Guardian unlimited my question for discussion today is why in 2006 is there no mainstream party of the left or even a powerful left-wing voice within a party is socialism in this country dead if it is how and why has that come about if it isn't what prospects are there for a revival of the fortunes of the left in the foreseeable future who better to answer my question than a man who has been a lifelong socialist and the most prominent standard-bearer of the left of his generation I'm fortunate to be joined by Tony Benn Tony Benn in 1974 when you were Secretary of State for industry the Labour Party manifesto promised sweeping nationalization more workers control and an annual wealth tax on the rich in 2006 less than a quarter of voters think that there is any ideological difference between labour and the Tories and you have your self-described New Labour as utterly committed to market forces monetarism and global capital my first question is whether this turn of events has come as a surprise to you well it's not the first time it's happened in 1930 when I was 5 and my dad was hidden MacDonald's labor cabinet I went to number 10 Downing Street to watch the true because the color and I met with Donald it gave me a chocolate biscuit and I've looked at labour leaders as chocolate biscuits and considerable suspicion ever since but McDonald's joined with the Tories and the Liberals and almost destroyed the Labour Party I mean played a notable part in building it up but there are only 51 Labour MPs elected in 1931 14 years later of the landslide my dad was beaten 31 got back again in the by-election 37 and so I think you have to recognize that opinion swings that mrs. Thatcher was asked her greatest achievement and she said New Labour and I think she's right I mean the Prime Minister said when he became leader of the Labour Party a new labour is a new political party well I'm not a member of it I've never had anything to do with it I'm not old labour it's not for him to retire find my party and remember the Labour Party and the Labour Party's also had socialists in it there's never been a Socialist Party rather there are some Christians and the church's exact parallel but the churches have never been Christian and where they're behaved so I see this as an ongoing argument but at the moment for the first time in my life the public are to the left of what is called a Labour government they don't want more they don't want privatization they don't want pensioners on the means test they don't want students saddled with debt and so I feel at the moment far from being isolated I feel that the public are in favor many of the things that the left is advocated but if you go to a any of the three classical definitions of socialism whether it's a fundamental and irreversible transfer of power and wealth to working people and their families which is one of your definitions I think or a Marxist definition of state control of the economy or a beverage the definition of promoting the welfare state for the last 29 years none of the governments that we have had in this country would on your definition be counted as a socialist government or anything approaching it no I think there's right but my socialism comes via democracy I mean my family a finally they won't move to the left as they got older my granddad was elected in 1892 I never knew him became chairman of the LCC and advocated the public ownership of the Port of London advocated the publication of the telephone service believed that local government was there to look after you from the cradle to the grave my dad started a radical liberal joined the Labour Party and ended up on the left for the Labour Party and if totally true as you said what turned me moved me to the left was my experience of office some people start you know as left wingers and end up in the House of Lords I've done it the other way around everything I've seen in my life has persuaded me that without a socialist analysis of what's happening you simply don't understand what's happening but I've never seen socialism as a desk on a railway line you catch the right trail you had at an ongoing struggle of people to get some control of their own destiny and when I was 11 I read Hitler's book Mein Kampf and I still got it at home and it Hitler said democracy inevitably leads to Marxism now you work that up what he said was if you give people power they will vote for left-wing policies and it's right and I think it happened again when I look at Venezuela look at Bolivia I look at all sorts of things that are happening I I think these arguments are reappearing Marx was voted the most popular an important philosopher of our time there it what on earth that meant I don't know but I think people sense that what's happening is not in line we've got we're told but if you look just at this country and you look at the issues that have classically distinguished socialists from non socialists it's difficult isn't it to look at the last 29 years as anything other than the electorate moving in the opposite direction to the direction that you have just described that you moved where you have to go back over the history obviously the theory is that it was always the left that wrecked the Labour Party I don't believe that MacDonald wasn't at the rift in 1951 when I was a new member of parliament her six months there an hour and Bevin resigned because the Americans forced at their to go for a real moment program and Bevin said the Russians that want to attack us and the power to attack us and if we go along this route it will lead to McCarthy as a mortal would hunt he was right then you see in 1981 it was the right with the Labour Party HDP so I don't believe that the theory that's the left has held us back but what happened undoubtedly was that social side years if you like got such a strong hold in Britain and even in America with Roosevelt's New Deal that Reagan and Thatcher launched a counter-revolution and that was what the Thatcher period in the Reagan period about Reagan wanted to wind up the New Deal and Thatcher wanted to wind up the welfare state and of course the use the press and the examples of the winter of discontent and so on and then created a situation where Neil Kinnock who began as a raising left winner he gave up everything I believed in in order to get office and in there nobody believed the word he said about anything and now we have a new labor which is a sex right party but you know I don't know whether the Guardian opinion person is silly right but recently there was this account that the labor is now 19 percent below the Tories I thought because they want right-wing policies I think they just don't want war and privatization and they don't believe what they're told so I mean you have to live in hope and I see the arguments I put forward all my life gaining support everywhere well you mentioned the Thatcher Revolution I came across a speech that you made Daniel in the lion's den just on the eve of the Thatcher Revolution in 1978 where you addressed the European Committee of the Republican Party the American Republican Party and you said it was subsequently published under the title why America needs Democratic Association remember it and what you said was all the evidence points towards the inevitable emergence of democratic socialism as the next major force in world politics and this is not just an article of faith to be proclaimed from some inner conviction that arises from a study of the real situation which confronts us and you then predicted that the next decade would see a growth of democratic socialism against the ideas of monetarism and corporatism well ten years later we were halfway through the 17 years of labor opposition the Thatcher Revolution had was virtually complete and the Berlin Wall came down what went wrong in the analysis well I'm in the forecast was wrong as foolish to forecast but if you look at America I got the figures today in the most recent years in America the wealth of the wealth is just grown at an enormous rate the standard of living of the average worker slightly fallen the gap between rich and poor is very very wide American imperialism in a desperate crisis in Iraq and Afghanistan and now it seems to threaten Iran and I don't think world economy is quite as stable as the advocates of monetarism thought it would be but I'm I don't want a disaster because I didn't believe disaster is the way forward but I think when I look around the world that people sense that they have no power and one of the interesting effects of the system the Reagan and Thatcher advocated of handing over power to the central bank which is not elected to the World Trade Organization which is not elected to the IMF which is not elected to the multinational companies which have no democratic legitimacy is to create a one-party state in all in every what's called parliamentary democracy you look at Germany Merkel was shown as mrs. Thatcher had to do a deal with Schroder in America Kerry and Bush couldn't put a postcard between them initially despite the bitter election Berlusconi suggested a coalition with Brody and I don't see much between Blair and Cameron and I think what's happening now is that people feel they're not represented anymore they're being managed and I think I've always thought this about democracy I've never been somebody went round lecturing people on the ideology of socialism and it's ridiculous idea but socialism comes out of an understanding of what's happening and then when people come with problems you it helps you to understand them and put forward an argument but I think that crisis at the moment is the crisis of democracy and I'm not so sure that the powerful people are quite as safe as they think they are because if you take the war it's in Iraq illegal immoral and unwinnable if you take the American economy trillions of dollars of debt depending on China to buy dollars to keep it going and I just don't it doesn't look to me quite a secure and stable you make out in quite properly reminding me that the Reagan Thatcher appeared has largely ever since 79 it has I agree with you but then how do you fit that with your belief that the public is for the first time in your life to the left of the parties because if that is right why if the party is not followed the public mood was a very good question never the way that every party ignores people and it does I mean spin doctors advise the Prime Minister see I divided the politicians of any party into two categories the signposts and the Wella Cox the signpost points his hand up but you don't have to follow his advice that if you come back 10 years later the signpost is still there the weathercock hasn't got an opinion until he studied the polls talk to the spin doctors met the focus groups and I didn't believe in whether Cox and I think the Labour Party under New Labour I say New Labour concluded that you couldn't win by putting forward what you believed and the best thing to do was to adopt Thatcher's policy and that was why 9 to 7 new labour won for quite contradictory reasons people wanted to change in 97 but the British establishment didn't want to change and they quite correctly thought vetericyn was safer and a new labour commanding the Labour Party much safer than it would be under a weak leader major and a divided Conservative Party and on the whole capital prefers to have its policies advocated by people from the left because then the left isn't there to criticize them so I'm just giving you an analysis but I'm not a pessimist at all I think it's a it's always been a struggle always will be a struggle every battle has to be won again I'm not sure you know if Hansard was banned there wouldn't be people advocating that and saying yes we can't have all these stories of what's happening in the House of Commons and the licensing of the press may come up again in the form of an attempt by the Americans to censor the internet and gradually I think we're realizing that every generation has to do it again I will I cannot advocate for already my opinions my experience but people have to decide for themselves and sometimes it takes a long time sometimes it happens more quickly than you'd think when you say that it's a good question why are the parties not following the public mood if the public mood is they can't to the left well if they can't then why hasn't a new party grown up that reflects that mood if the public is to the left of new New Labour why has not a new labour is not prepared to go there which one would think is a little surprising given the focus groups why has not a new left-wing party grown up in its place well that question it was being asked to when people write to me and say that ohad not so sure so I'm leaving it I write back and say well you've got a wide choice who can draw in the Socialist Party socialist Labor Party Socialist Workers Party the Scottish Socialist Party the Socialist Party Great Britain the Communist Party of Britain Communist Party of Great Britain Communist Party great blurs and Marxist Leninist you can join respect and I say you've got a wide choice of socialist parties the problem means the to associate party not an associates the Labour Party and one of the things that the New Labour's damage so drive social side for the Labour Party but you can't make progress on your own you have to work with other people I mean I've served them some very right-wing labor governments but at least in those days you could put your case in the cabinet I mean we had eight full day me since the Kennedys in January 68 I've checked it in my diary here it meets now for half an hour long enough for the Prime Minister to tell him what he decided and I think the biggest constitutional trains brought about by New Labour is to recreate the medieval monarchy we have the medieval monarchy and I was thinking the other day about privy councillors I've been a privy councillor for 40 years has never met but my oath of allegiance was to the crown now the advisors who come in our modern privy councillors their oath of allegiance to the leader if no accountability to Parliament to the party to the public but they advise the leader and we've modernized the House of Lords back to the 14th century because when it began there were no the register appears they were all life peers appointed by the King as his cronies now we've gone back to that so I do think that understanding what's happening gives you a certain sort of audience people listen particularly if you don't want anything and it takes you one I don't want anything from anybody I just want the right to think explain what I think and listen to people now maybe that will lead to appear in the fascism matter though those who think it will and not so sure but it's possible that the forces are so great now that instead of using election to fight to change the system to serve the people who voted for you you use your power to trol the people voted for you to see they fit in with the system and that is what I think is happening that's why the such a massive disillusionment with parliamentary politics people feel they get believe what they're told and they think nobody listens to them and they're right on both accounts you mentioned the establishment preferring to have its interests protected by a party from the left other than the riot who do you mean by the establishment well I don't mean many things in the old days it meant the old aristocracy but they don't count now I suppose it means the City of London and those people operate in the global environment where they know exactly where their interests lie and I think the City of London he's extremely happy that Thatcherism is being pursued by New Labour was if it was a navitor II leader the public would be happen arms against it so New Labour's performing a very valuable function that's why Murdoch likes New Labour but isn't it it may be true that they're very happy to for New Labour to be advocating fighting their corner yes but it doesn't really answer the question why the public of the British public the electorate has consistently rejected socialism for the last 29 years well i'm invertible labor leaders the projected socialism and the clinic rejected Smith as a different category had a high regard for John Smith clinic rejected socialism Blair rejected socialists and mammals and rejected socialism and the media rejected socialism so they're not many voices actually saying it but when you do put the case and I go around all the time doing meetings I find there's quite an interesting response people say particularly if they don't think you want them to vote for them because I always say this is a public meeting with relax I'm not asking you to vote for me people say well listen to this guy and I find it absolutely riveting going round wherever I go I'm encouraged and I go to Tory could sit reserve all over the place so I just all you're encouraging me or seeking which would say I've lost I made a mistake I'm terribly sorry but like Fred I can't bring myself to say that because history doesn't stop despite Francis Fukuyama's at the end of history I was in Calcutta when the book came out and I could see all the poor people on the street how glad they were that history and it always before doesn't like that there's an all progress comes from under and I think underneath these movements are coming which were quite right they haven't got political representation of the top well there was a key moment wasn't there the 1983 general election where the Labour secured only 27 percent of the vote it had only three of the 176 seats in the south outside London and they lost a quarter of the 1979 vote and that was a vote in which the public was presented with a straightforward choice the 1983 manifesto who was which I think Gerald Coffman subsequently described as the longest suicide note in history arguably the most radical and most socialist manifesto has ever been it was rejected by the British people my half a minute I mean a few months of the year or two earlier 10% of the Labour MP left the party including two deputy leaders formed up a new party which got massive press support two of our previous leaders attacked the manifested during the election Wilson and Callaghan both made species election denouncing the manifesto and I truthfully I'm not surprised that that happened but and I think it was it's not just after the Falklands War and the Falklands War women wars always make unpopular leaders popular and I mean the circumstances were such and maybe looking back on it it was too reticle but I don't think if we'd adopted the current policy agency the one because he tried it in 87 didn't well he tried it 92 'not and I don't think it was that I think the circumstances at the time were very difficult we've been in power for a long time mrs. Thatcher had massive support and so on and so on but anyway if you hold a belief you don't give it out because you're defeated I mean I think you have a duty to say what you mean mean what you say do what you say you'll do and if you don't win well then you go on you don't sell well it says the whole thing was a disaster I mean I'm glad they haven't modernized the ten come on but some kind of imagine what they'd be thou shalt not kill unless Bush tells you to there should not commit adultery unless she's very attractive and thou shalt not steal unless you read the money I mean really it got to the point where everything people believed in has been to be a been abandoned in the hope of getting office they've got office but they haven't got power isn't the reality that one of the reasons why labor lost that election and the subsequent elections that the there was a collapse first of all in the working-class vote for labor and behind that there was there had been a very significant erosion in the proportion of voters who were unionized and who were working in the manufacturing industries so that labour the old labor power base no longer existed well it isn't really very valid is an argument because you know when there was a massive working-class vote if you mean by working class people and overalls and dirty fingernails making things in factories we never had a Labour government I mean in 1900 there was three quarters of a million – underground three quarters of a million there was never a Labour vote then now don't ever forget this that term mrs. Thatcher immobilized what we tend to call the Essex man who was persuaded that the real enemy was trade unionism or immigrants or whatever it was and it was very effective I'm in that type of propaganda is very effective and not a I don't draw parallel could be quite unfair but it's not surprising that Charlie Hitler called his party the National Socialist Party and has always been that appeal and I think one of the reasons why working people voted Tory was they felt let down by the Labour government and indeed they were because the rearmament and and second all the problems over pay did make people feel that no one was fighting for them and that's true today well figures show that in 1983 ninety percent of working-class voters favored a ban on secondary Pittock picketing 79 percent of manual worker workers wanted council houses to be sold off is there not something in the proposition that the the prospect of home ownership and share ownership was something which was very attractive to people who had traditionally voted labour but we've also counseled has it so long as there wasn't a waiting list and look at it today if you're a young teacher or a young nurse trying to work in London today where you get a house they're wildly expensive the demand for council housing is on a massive scale houses to rent and if you take the question of the went through this content you see that was all triggered off by the 1976 IMF crisis I was in the cabinet the time we argued it all out and we were told if you do not make massive cuts in public expenditure we will undermine the value of the pound Dennis Sealy was the Chancellor whom I had massive arguments admittedly sure it wasn't necessary we had the oil bubbling ashore if we publish the gold dollar and oil reserves at the time the cuts wouldn't be necessary but they were all made in the public services and the winter of 1979 was triggered off by the IMF caps assemble six so if part of my argument have not not self justification anyway part of the argument that if you look at the history of the years recently you will realize it wasn't really the left that destroyed the local authority it was the right it was the real moment program it was the SDP well before that it was the IMF cuts and the SDP and so I just have a different analysis and this theory is all over now by the shooting or by the shouting I should say about shooting be more appropriate it's simply that doesn't fit in with my experience I could only put that to you well you say that the left it was the right that lost it's not the left but here for example the 1976 IMF loan yes and I think you had an alternative strategy I guess was rejected by the cabinet so yes which would have included import controls yes things of that sort but had you not in fact had y'all had the left not won the argument come 1983 in a manifesto which was arguing for nationalization giving workers the right to a statutory right to have cooperatives in their face cancelling Trident and an annual wealth tax yeah so very good argument weren't there well the moot that you had won the argument with in the labour party but you lost the argument in the country I mean if you're looking to take the Trident now we're being invited by the Prime Minister the Chancellor to spend 25 billion pounds on a trident now what use is a trident against a suicide bomber I was in Wales at the time and I remember having a question from a Welsh woman who said Tony caught what you think of the atomic bomb as a deterrent she thought it was a detergent and not too determined I said be very effective at but get rid of all the dirt in you as well but catch the ridiculous argument I mean you've only got to see what's happened to Israel in the Lebanon recently one of the most powerful armies in the world wasn't able to beat a guerrilla force and so take that argument now the other argument about public ownership who really is in favour now of the private ownership of the railways what we're doing I looked it up we are using taxpayers money to subsidize the shareholders of companies that run the railways at a loss and it's mad and I think the public ownership case is coming back again so I'm not so sure but just because you don't carry the public we're in the media and all the powers that be are against so means that you're wrong and as to industrial democracy will clear out is that 100 years ago with one political democracy the job is now how to win industrial democracy and when you look at the power of these huge corporations compared to the power of the people who create the wealth on which they depend for their profit is staggering there have to be a move to industrial democracy of course there will be well I saw in a piece that you wrote that you suggested the possibility that for example doctors and nurses in hospitals should consider the possibility of taking over the hospitals from the managers yes is that something that you think had the way forward absolutely I mean they've got all these management consultants I don't result people listening to this or management consultants but there's a lovely story I heard years ago about the boat race it's about a boat race between a Japanese crew and the National Health Service and both sides practise long and hard and the Japanese won by a mile so the NHS faced with this problem set up a working party which reported that the Japanese had eight people rowing and one staring in the NHS had eight people staring and one running so they brought in management consultants and the management consultants confirmed the diagnosis suggest that the NHS crew be completely restructured with free assistance steering managers three deputies sharing managers a director of steering services and the rower be given an incentive to row harder and they had another race a Sunday lost by two miles so they laid off the rower for poor performance and they sold the boat for a higher-than-average pay award for the director of sealing services there too many management consultants and not enough managers in the hospital and when I was in Havana years ago they took me to their hospital and I didn't want to see all the equipment's I knew it was a brilliant well I said how's the hospital run and they said well they simple we have three meetings a month one is chaired by the management with the unions and the Ministry of Health the second meeting is shared by the unions with the management for the Ministry of Health and the third meeting is chaired by the ministry of health of the management of the unions and we discuss everything and so I I really am not in favor of this top-down view at all and I think industrial democracy would have a huge appeal because people feel they're kicked about even quite wealthy paid people a managing director of a company will go to the office and they say clear your desk by lunchtime and then suddenly they realize whose side they're on so anyway you triggered that off you can cut it out of the podcast if you want to [Laughter] well you talked earlier about weather vanes in the labour party and the distinction between people who kept to their policies and those who didn't and it rather echoed something that Charles Clarke said recently on the on the ropes on Radio 4 where he said in the old days the idea of the Labour Party was defined by a series of policy positions unilateral disarmament to exit from the European Union opposition to the sale of council houses and nationalization the question then arose whether that range of policies were right for the current era the whole Odyssey that the Labour Party took from 79 to 97 was an attempt to face up to the fact that these sets of policies were not things that the Trafalgar in this country some people didn't go down that Odyssey of change and they remain as a group that's of no significance at all in the political life of the country now as an objective analysis is he not right well I'll tell you I went to speak for Cherie Blair I'm the age of three election put him a diary I went because her dad I knew anyway the actor I put my dad she was there with a husband a lad called Tony when he became an industry child all the things you've described natively manifesto went terribly I was elected leader I resumed well as I said he didn't work field but I wish a lot ninth prime minister Grimer start now and had a little back from the deer tell you thank you so much solace I shall never forget the speech who made for Cherie which was the finest statement of socialism ever heard so I wrote back and I sent him the consent because I had ordered it and I never heard another word but he put all those views forward now whether he believed and I'm not big I'm not peeling his integrity at all but many of the people who denounced all this for advocating it and I don't think you should it say what you don't believe I think mrs. Thatcher although I dispute everything she said she was a signpost she said what she meant meant what she said did what she said she do and every one of us at four has a responsibility of what she did but this idea you know let tell me a policy of use and I'll give you a policy to meet it I wouldn't be interested in politics if that were the basis can we look back at the post-war Labour government yes and just ask the question if you divorce the rhetoric from what actually happened whether in fact there has ever been a socialist government since 1945 in this country in the sense of a government that implemented a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of income wealth and power to working people and their families well when you use the word socialist you imply that I have some ideological tests to litmus paper tests are you associate I don't believe in their choice I go to my constituency and I try to let drop somebody who comes to my surgery about socialism and she says Tony I'm 18 my husband's died I need a bunk enough I can't tell her about the irreversible shrift in the balance of wealth and power she wants a bungalow and I've learned everything from listening to people now if you take the post-war government it wasn't very significant government won a huge majority against Winston Churchill had about as much charisma as you could imagine was Klem and no charisma had a short bald as a coot had a little moustache look like Charlie Chaplin anyone why because people said this in the war and I remember it was to discuss it in the war if you we had unemployment in the 30s we had the means test we had fascism every element but we don't have unemployment in the war if you could have full employment by killing Germans why can he have full employment by building hospitals recruiting nurses building schools and that's what we did and the same arguments coming back now I mean I can't think of a more effective argument now than the one and I put myself and others have put a fraction of the cost of the Iraq war would have provide free drugs for everyone with AIDS in Africa a fraction of the cost of the war would say we didn't have to close hospitals here the Americans could have protected New Orleans they met so I find these arguments a permanent and so you see this is a the the wheel has come full cycle and anyone comes forward and said don't waste your money on Trident let's draw from Iraq we've no right to be and let's concentrate on building our own society everyone would go along with that well just picking up that last point at the the 1976 labor conference which was at the time of the IMF loan Jim Callahan made a famous speech in which he said we used to think we could spend our way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending I tell you in all candor that this option no longer exists and that speech was subsequently cited by Milton Friedman as a model of fiscal rectitude and one of the most frequently quoted by him with approval of that delivered by any politician anywhere absolutely right that's not a socialist government is it well I mean I don't know the person about anymore as I knew him and I liked him but don't think mannerism came as a mrs. Thatcher Jim Callaghan was a monetarist Roy Jenkins I remember him coming back from the group of ten removed sitting in the cabinet and said we won't support the pound unless you control managed supply when I went back to my economics books to find out well when I supply was it was an obsolete idea but of course and the truth is at that labor cabinet in the end ended up fighting the union's losing the election handing over to Thatcher and that's exactly what the IMF intended should happen you say fighting the unions in fact in the so-called winter of discontent when the oil tankers went on drivers went on strike you came close to having to ask the Queen to declare a national emergency I wouldn't do it and in inaudible the army to supply of aldur long sales and what you wrote in your diary it was I'm being sucked into a terrible military operation to hold the working class back and there's no doubt I'm compromised up to the hilt by remaining in this bloody awful government well that's true I mean of the day if you resign from the government then there's a vote of confidence that night you vote for the government you've resigned from if there's an it they lose the vote of confidence election you stanczyk and you know you have to decide I think the important thing is to use all the opportunities you have to present your argument and I did present my arguments in the cabinet and everywhere and and I was defeated on that occasion but I wouldn't go to Balmoral to get a state of emergencies they wanted me to hand over truck heavy dangerous oil tanker trucks to be driven by young soldiers I wouldn't do it and I said why don't you talk to Jack Jones and he I think was trapped there then all wrong thought whoever it was and they knew they had a fit but that whole word for this cadet was completely unnecessary but as you quite rightly say had a huge impact on the way that the public saw the trade unions they were told they'd run the country I've never seen a trade you around the country my life but we were told they would have they called them the Baron's of the tea you see now actually they were all elected and to the best of my knowledge barons are not elected all the language was hostile the feeling was whipped up and actually the unions were the victims of the winter of discontent not the cause of the trouble but Jim a lovely guy I liked him very much and and so on but he got it wrong at that time and and we shouldn't have given up to given way to the IMF which were stood firm and it was not any interests of the international financial community to bankrupt Britain and they knew it but the Treasury couldn't get us to make the cuts so they went to the IMF and brought them in and and the cabinet no well capitulated in the nicest way he'd also that government Jim Collins government did not bring in the wealth tax that had been Oh promised in the manifesto there was the referendum which led to a massive yes vote for the Common Market which I think led to you being sent to energy instead of industry by Harold Wilson yeah and then there was the Lib lamp Act yeah so in those government's the 74-79 governments where there was on a number of issues that you found very important in policy terms you lost the argument but you stayed in the government oh yes what I'm nothing I'm no framed without at all I mean if there's a war I can thing that led Robin Cook's resigned that's absolutely correct when it's a fundamental issue but I mean politics about argument you put your case and decide you know I went to my local party I don't suppose any cabinet was ever done it in the summer of 76 I went to my journal committee and I said this is a situation exactly as you described it shall I resign from the government or not and they said carry on say what you believe and if you're said that's different and I think they were right I think once you start resigning every time you lose I mean no one being the cabinet for five minutes but I want some very significant ones they wanted to make cuts in welfare 76 and I took the cabinet minutes from 1931 when Ramsay MacDonald capitulated they which were by then available a photocopy drum circle circulate around the cabinet mädchen oh she said I'm not a Ramsay MacDonald I said I'm not saying you are trimming but this is what Ramsay did in 31 and what happened we were destroyed and say you mustn't think it wasn't an effective argument but of course you lose and Roy Jenkins lost on the question of the cuts I think he wanted the cuts in social benefit he lost what he resigned I don't know I don't think sort of resignations except on absolutely fundamental questions like war I mean I think to what Robin Cook did was absolutely right he left because it was wrong with morale illegal and winnable war and he left the government and did him an awful lot of good and did the party a lot of good if we look at the Wilson government of 64 70 there again in retrospect you didn't even describe its objects as being socialist you said their objectives were improved economic management and growth yeah we had there was devaluation in 1967 which Jim Callaghan as Chancellor of the Exchequer had a few months earlier described as something whose purpose was to just to reduce the living standards of every member of the working class there was the wage freeze the prices and incomes Act cuts in public expenditure and the most savage deflation since the war Barbara castles white paper in place of strife which was going to outlaw wildcat strikes which I think you supported and to begin with and then change the quality but yet we're not at the end yes and declaration of emergency powers to counter the Siemens strike and support for the American war in Vietnam well no in fairness I mean Harold Wilson absolutely flatly refused to send any troops to Vietnam he said in the cabinet one day he said I've just been over to have dinner with Linda Johnson in the White House and Lyndon welcomed me as our closest decision and it's very much to Harold's credit that he would not send troops to Vietnam and but of course you're quite right among governments have have a variety of records on the other hand I learned so much from cabinet experience and it it moved me to the left I came to realize that getting rid of that got you know where I mean there's all this perspex or out thatcher eyes a waste of time what's the policy and I learned a great deal about it and I'm not sorry I stayed in the only thing I would be ashamed of would be if I ever thought I'd said anything I didn't believe in order to get on I don't think I did that but I made all the mistakes in the book and they're all in the diary too will come to mistakes shortly if we may but just going back to Vietnam the fact is that although he didn't send troops how old Wilson did openly support the bombing of North Vietnam and you wrote at the time that the reason was we're terrified of saying anything that might upset the American o'clair America's always had a huge fire but you see that yeah I was elected to Parliament not today anyone would forget November the 30th 1915 now Truman said he might use an atomic bomb in Korea clément near the labor promise of flew straight to Washington had stopped it the time of Suez in 56 when Eden persuaded the Israelis to attack Egypt so he could intervene to get back the canal it was Eisenhower who wouldn't look at it and stopped it and in the time of the Vietnam War although Harold was given general support he wouldn't send crew so this special relationship this implication that it means you have to do everything you're told is completely new I mean it's the Prime Minister believes that his duties to tell us what the boss tells him to tell us and that is not my idea of a special relationship one of the cabinet ministers your colleagues Douglass Houghton in the 1967 Wilson government said never has any previous government done so much in so short a time to make modern capitalism work broadly true well except in fairness come back to public ownership I brought the aircraft industry into public ownership why because we were pouring subsidies in the shipbuilding is collapsing I brought that into public ownership otherwise it was simply disappeared I paid I think a trick for 20 million quid for the ico for the computer to keep the computer industry going and I mean the story of deindustrialization which were touched on earlier is a very very important story in 1948 we launched 48% of all the ships ports in the world now is one trip yard scrambling for a trident refurbishing 1970 we had the biggest motor bike industry began America Germany or Japan it's gone in 1974 we had the biggest machine to a company in Europe and the biggest motorcars right they've gone and I think that we have allowed a manufacturing base to go simply by default if Hitler bombed the factory we reopened it and built it if a company closed the factory we'll say all that market forces I don't think people any longer really believe that market forces of the answer I certainly don't well you mentioned motorbikes you there was in fact the famous motorcycle garages and the question put at the time was if there isn't a market for capitalist motorcycles why is there going to be a market for cooperatively produced whereas I see what I did was something I didn't even ever done before now called in some of these consultants and I said go and work for the shop steward don't work for the management they've gone work for the shop stewards and see how you could make that a viable proposition and they did and thus kept going and then was killed I asked the management consultants to work for the unions and they did and they came back with the scheme and you say I tell you why the establishment hated the cooperatives think for a moment sacking somebody is the first discipline of of a capitalist company company if you dis behave we're secure but closing the factory is the more important discipline and I came along and I proved that Phoenix like out of the ashes of a closed company you could bring life but I do think keeping manufacturing ends after we kept farming during four years anyway we don't close a farm because the farms on economic we now give farmers money to maintain the environment we never gave miners money to maintain the pits or mother and so since they take a completely on economic view quite correctly about agriculture why should we let industry go it was because industry were the source of trade union strength and mrs. Thatcher hated the trade unions because they represented the source of power she couldn't control and that's why she turned on the miners tried to destroy them and now where are we with 300 years of coal on territory no manners to dig it and we're fighting wars about energy having I asked you've ever heard a certain lunacy to close down the source of energy at a time when people are now talking about reopening pits I said to the miners the other day I pinned down my fuel rails and the pit house mrs. Thatcher to do it for you in they said well if we did we'd drop her in it at the end which is not an appropriate comment well can I talk about just a bit more about capitalism yes Jim Callahan famously sent to a Labour conference I wanted when he was Chancellor I want industry to be profitable it's in your interest that's the union's interest that industry should be profitable do you agree in principle with private industries making profit well I mean all schools around economic up there all hospitals are economic and once you apply the test market force test why do we have elections surely the simplest thing would be when there's a vacancy the candidates were put in a pit a bed and on polling day the returning officer would open the bids and say mr. Jones has won this thing why have a Prime Minister I would offer to do that job at twice but half his salary maybe a little bit better I mean once you start applying market forces you don't have citizens anymore you have consumers well and it's uber he not the same as a citizen there are different arenas aren't there there's schools and there's elections on the one hand but there is private companies that make things will produce things also make provide services and the simple question is whether you in principle see anything wrong with private companies making profit well no the question will gets the profits I mean in the case the United States is about the profits at all and in Britain all going to the top and not to the people who do the work but now I'm very particular keen on small businesses I came up with a scheme which was turned down predictably by the common market commission that we would say to small companies employing less than 50 people will abolish all taxation if you'll give us a share of your profits so they wouldn't have only the paperwork and it was a very good idea I'm not against the entrepreneur at all but in the end you'll find you're dealing not with companies interests in profit you're dealing with centers of power and the oil companies are bigger than nation-states and when I dealt with the oil companies they treated me well I remember well I'm saying I'm not dealing with you mr. baron and I said why and I said well because our philosophy is different I said thanks very much for telling me that I was elected and you're just a rich man and if you don't want to cooperate with me I'm not giving you any oil from the North Sea so I kept them out and a year later they turned up and capitulated I mean you have to bargain with big companies you can't just leave them to run the world because they have no interest in the British economy their only interest is in their profit they don't care whether the British economy goes up or that they just want profits and power and by god those have dealt with so many multinational corporations in my life and I tell you what they want and what they expect us to give them would destroy democracy completely would even destroy off an education because as you know the level playing field the World Trade organisation's trying to introduce wouldn't mean you wouldn't be allowed to subsidize your schools you'd have to privatize them and talking to Kenneth Kaunda no friend of mine from Zambia he said we had a great debt the IMF came to us and said we'll clear your debt if you'll sell all your schools and hospitals to multinational corporations we were all robbed by them and he's right that's right revenge is winning and you know the richest country in the world today but per capita Norway why because they nationalized their all can we look to the future and the future of socialism in this country hmm is there not a fundamental problem that the people who are below the poverty line the people who are the so-called underclass are now a minority a significant minority but electorally a minority and in order to have the kind of distribution of wealth and power to that center of the society you need effectively to appeal to the altruism of the majority people one good schools and hospital not just the so-called underclass I mean if you go to a local hospital and it isn't equipped to help you have been whether you up to scale good to know there's a tiny minority in Britain a very very rich and they own everything and won't let you do it and if you cry they say you're a communist or Akatsuki the out of trap now that's the problem it isn't the minority of the poor there's not a nutfah there is a minority of the poor it's a minority of the rich who run the patient that's what it's all about it's about democracy well the people who run the place are the electorate and the electorate that were entered in a government that for the last nine years and has had a significantly lower basic rate of tax than when Labour old labor was in in the 70s well I think then that the voting public appears not to be prepared to pay higher rates of basic rate tax in order to have better public services what I would said if you vote for me I've raised the level of Taxation on the welfare nobody's vote against me most people who ask a poll say they agree but I've got no friend former Democratic governor of Ohio my wife's home state in America Chet Gilligan and last time also mr. Tony there will never be democracy in America while big business buys both parties and expects a payoff whichever one wins and American politics is dominated by wealth you've no chance of getting on American politics got millions and millions and millions of dollars and that's not democracy and I think people realize that so they keep other people down by keeping them frightened and and saying if any other idea is lunatic and so but actually don't underestimate people's intelligence I think most people in this country would respond to a policy where you said we're going to concentrate on the public services we're going to see that public company not wrestle are accountable we're not going to have our economic policy run by the central bank in Brussels we don't elect we're not having the Commission which we don't elect tell us our trade policy we're not having our foreign policy decided by Bush I think if you put that forward you know I mean you wouldn't get any support in the press but he'd get a lot of support from people looking at the future of politics in this country in an article in the Morningstar you advocated building alliances around issues pants support the pensioners support the unemployed the women's movement support the environmentalists support the multi-ethnic movement and you cited the the Levellers the tall puddle martyrs and the early trade unionists and said they didn't have a fully worked out alternative strategy isn't that really a Council of despair in the sense of accepting that there is no real prospect of a Labour government that he's going to implement socialist policies in the foreseeable future exact opposite the Labour Party came out of the struggle of people for the vote for trade unions for welfare and it produced a party and if you look at apartheid I mean if you've been talking to me 50 years ago they said now tell you be realistic the whites control army the police the media in South Africa there never did Mandela's in prison you'd have been wrong if you've been talking to me a hundred years ago up votes for women you said I be realistic women have never had the vote the Prime Minister Mr Asquith said if women have the vote it'll undermine parliamentary democracy yeah they said that to me or even when swampy was being arrested by a constable for causing trouble about the environment and I be realistic Tony Swamp is completely well now the Prime Minister comical speech though talking about the environment all progress comes from underneath what we need now is a strong movement popular movement in favour of things we need and you wait and see if the Prime Minister doesn't take a notice at the party conference the cabinet or Parliament you'll get a message from the spin-doctor be careful this is what people want and you will have to provide it but all the examples you've cited suffragettes apartheid are examples where people were disenfranchised people aren't disenfranchised all there are affect on play oh yes I think people are managed and not representatives a hell of a difference room voting for somebody to fight fuel and voting for somebody to manual and I think we're I don't think we represent I think there's a crisis of representation and I'm out I care more about that than the details of socialist ideology but what is there to stop a party springing up all people taking over the left the Labour Party who say we are going to represent you without managing nothing and that's why you have to campaign for if you're quite right there's nothing to stop it at me and it will happen and it'll happen and maybe I hope it isn't true but it may be the Labour Party if it is defeated we'll discover what it's about and all these movements that are now unrepresented will find they've got a friend in court but I'm not predicting because that's foolish I'm simply saying what I believe what I think is needed and what I think would get an audience and you just have to go on at it I mean life is not full of successes it's full of failures from which to learn well you described when Roy Jenkins and David Owen left the Labour Party to set up the SDP you said that they were people who had failed to persuade the people in the party that they had devoted their lives to to follow the policies that they believed in looking at the current situation of New Labour objectively is that not a fair statement in relation to the views that you have been advocating for the last 30 years no I am putting forward the policies the party the party wants undoubtedly overwhelming at the end of the war the party undoubtedly wants the row is publicly owned the Party conference has said that pensions would be linked to earnings and the Prime Minister taking no notice of it at all you see we are coming to the end of an era I think that when the Prime Minister goes and he says he will she won't find a Blair right for loving the money within about five minutes well do you can you identify within the cabinet any left-wing figures around whom you think the list can unite politics isn't about two heroes and villains I had to mention a few names because you asked me politics is about the arguments who put forward and so on and I have I served in favor I wouldn't cabinet more than one right-wing cabinet but you see as I say politics isn't about finding a new hero up onto the stage in a white horse and say vote for me and you solved your problem I just didn't believe that's how politics is made and you know with all the modernization that the Prime Minster advocates he couldn't modernize this out of votes for women you couldn't say on conclude long balance I think votes for women have been damaging he couldn't do it and we've got to create circumstances where no government Tory or labour could do what is now being done to us in the name of reform I'm naturally Churchill well to the left of the present Prime Minister Churchill nationalize the Anglo person oil company in 1912 for three million quid but leaders have to be elected yes and can you see within the parliamentary party a nucleus of support for the kind of use that you are advocating I think there is public support for most of the things that I'm talking about the good public services available on the basis of need without no privatization students wouldn't be held back by getting into huge debt I mean I've got 10 grandchildren and you read now that when somebody graduates the probably 10 or 15 thousand quid isn't that wonderful keep people in debt and they won't cause trouble to their employer if you get I think the BMI the BMA said that the every doctor leaves graduates with 41 thousand pound a mare is another doctor sixty to eighty two thousand wants a mortgage another hundred thousand if you've got a mortgage than a debt of 150 thousand pounds you're not going to cause any trouble to anybody get slavery has come back and it's very very clever but it has had the effect of making people very nervous so you have to give people confidence when you retired from Parliament in 2001 you said that you campaigned in 25 constituencies for the Labour Party to be a yes I did and that you were desperate to see a Labour victory yes even though it was the most conservative manifesto ever put before the elections yes your words isn't that just tribalism like supporting Spurs or arsenal no it's not a tourist you can't have a million parties each competing with one another on the Left you have to work with other people I mean that his common sense nobody would have voted for me as tell him Ben in Bristol Chesterfield was because I was a member of the labor movement and I'm very proud of the labor movement and I've never associated the labor movement with the particular policies of the leaders at the time so you didn't support most of the policies in that manifesto but I add then it gets quite the question I joined the Labour Party on my seventeenth birthday as you mentioned and I intend to die in it but not yet well they're funny enough I've had a letter from the general an email from the general sections Labour Party's are they saying have you ever thought of calling the Labour Party because you know and you know when Jim Callaghan was retired he had a phone call from someone different party headquarters say have you ever thought of helping the Labour Party and Jim said well I had been Prime Minister twice or had been Prime Minister and you know oldest PR politics is so funny now when I go round and I do I've done hundreds and hundreds of meetings since I left Parliament and well over a thousand broadcasters written three books I tell you I feel a part of the labor movement I could never separate myself from the labor movement because I think it represents the finest tradition from peasants revolt English revolution tall puddle martyrs Tom Paine everything that I believe in and and but not new labor and you criticize you have a new layer is abandoning the the policies which they believed in but notice didn't want them you have a new Labour's the smallest political party ever known in Britain but as they're all in the cabinet they're quite powerful can you imagine anyone going out canvassing now saying vote for me and I'll abolish inheritance tax vote for me and I'll have another war to help America against Iran vote for me and are they getting no support but they use the labour movement to get there as a sort of ladder but they're not a part of the labour therefore as you were happy to campaign on a manifesto with which you didn't believe when I argued for the repeat of the conservative part of the election of a Labour Party because I believe in the labour movement but I say I've seen the Labour Party swing from left to right so often in my life and many of the things the post-war government did I subsequently rajala I never knew until we left office that actly had built an atomic bomb without telling the cabin it was a racist thing to do but it didn't alter my conviction that Clement who was the greatest Prime Minister we've had coming back to where we started yeah y'all 1978 speech to the Republicans where you predicted that the next decade would see a growth of democratic socialism against the ideas of monetarism and corporatism would you make that prediction today well would so mr. Benn was right it was a bit late but he was right and so whatever Morales and and so maybe would others but in this country well you see you're trying to translate as I understand where you live a skillful interrogation trying to suggest if you don't win everything all the time everything you do is a waste of time I didn't believe that I believe that all progress comes from underneath that anyone can make a socialist peace have done a few myself what matters is whose side you on when the going gets rough that is the way by which you judge people it's because it's easy to be as I say to make flowery speeches but when the miners are under attack will you for them or you against them when the print workers are under attack we afford them we against them when people are sent to Guantanamo bare you for them or you get and all the terrors run were over the oil tankers in 1979 the winter of discontent the old tank driver oh well I was totally opposed to the policy that led to the wouldn't reduce food I was in the cabinet at the time and placed are having to go to the Queen and other aid woman girl they wanted me to go to Balmoral and ask for a state of emergency I don't know whether that would have been a resigning issue could never come out I wouldn't do it and they lost and Jim Callan didn't know what was going on and I was in regular touch with the trade union leaders I knew perfectly well what was going on but I was a part of her of a policy that followed from the IMF decision which I disagreed with last question in 2001 you wrote that in 150 years of trying to build a better world socialism has had some successes and some failures and we have to learn from them yet what lessons have you learned oh well first of all you can't oppose you by force I mean the whole Russian Revolution from the attempt to a ruling cross you know the workers will take charge the new avant-garde whether they call Vanguard party escapade failure it's about democracy and and I think that you have to persuade people and you have to go on crying to persuade people but it's very interesting to me that some ex communists in the Labour Party have been able to shift from Stalin to Blair and it hasn't been much of a shift I won't mention their names because it's too personal but you know who I mean the shift from Stalin to Blair is a minor adjustment the struggle for a decent life and more democracy and the right to control the Labour Party to start for the members to control the party for the conference to have some Sayre and the policy for the cabinet has in those are enormous the important struggles and I didn't see any of them irretrievably lost forgive me for being an optimist but you see when mrs. Thatcher said there's no alternative with what you've been saying very politely and skillfully she said whatever you do whatever you say however you organize it won't work don't even cry and there is no alternative as a most powerful political statement I've ever heard in my life and it paralyzed people but the world Social Forum since another world is possible now when you say another world is possible sue come on let's get on what we're doing wins the meeting wins the demonstration how can we organize and I think another world is possible is the spirit of optimism Shive feel that won't happen whatever you do but if you work at it and you're right and people support you it'll happen I mean I feel as if this has been an obituary program but at least I've been able to answer back well you said when you lost the leadership election to Neil Kinnock in 1988 by 11 percent to 88 percent you made a joke of it and said I dare say the general secretary of the scribes and Pharisees announced in Jerusalem in AD 32 what's the point in following a leader who gets crucified ha ha ha the rather irreverent comment but anyway you have to see there is some case for consistency my oldest son was in Northern Ireland the other day and he was driven around by a page that cab driver who cursed shouldn't fame from beginning to end but yet when my son paid the bill he said I'll say this for Gerry Adams he stuck to his guns and I told her Adam very nearly killed laughter laughter and so duty and paisley there is some merit in consistency and I think that I think if you are known to believe something and not want anything that combination that comes to you and you're 80 I do think it gives you grounds to believe that we are not heading for Armageddon though we may be if New Labour and the Republican Party carry us much further forward along that road to damnation Tony Benn thank you very much indeed Guardian unlimited

42 thoughts on “Socialism in Britain – Interview with Tony Benn

  • I would vote for leaving the EU and control of immigration and double benefits for the disabled like they have in Norway so I am conservative on the EU and immigration like Enoch Powell. I voted new Labour in 3 general election which Tony Blair won.

  • "Wars always make unpopular leaders popular."

    And always thus will be…

    https://youtu.be/iKd5Ij7QYi8?t=18m49s

  • Checkout Benns comment just before 2;18 " the Labour party has never been a socialist party ",,,,etc Now compare the comment in his interview with William F. Buckley " in the firing line " here on you tube at 17;26 he says " The Labour party IS A SOCIALIST PARTY and ALWAYS HAS BEEN. This is the type of contradiction that Benn would furiously deny making ,yet it is there on camera for all to see. The man used the truth very economically when it suited him. People say he was a man of principle- yeah sure ! My bony spotty arse he was !!

  • How foresighted he was!!..A man who should be here now..what a legend.. wonderful..Brilliant..The Power of Conviction….of Truth..Only one Tony Benn…the like we will never see again…….but someone is coming…Jeremy Corbyn….O how I wish Tony was here to see it x

  • If you believe in genuine socialism what the hell are you doing in the pro capitalism labour party?? Study its history in office. Abolish the wages system comrades.

  • I can never understand why people want socialism when humans on average are 50% psychopathic. we are not bees in a hive, we are semi selfish individuals and will not do anything without some personal gain. how many altruistic people do you know?

  • the pubic vote with their own needs ,that's the truth. they now need it more than ever and the only place they no we're to obtain it is through socialist politics

  • It says all you need to know about Benn the fact that he uses Adolf Hitler as a champion of his own ideas !!

  • PLEASE ACT NOW EVOLVE POLITICS: text labour to 78555 and vote for Jeremy Corbyn, Policy: Scrap Trident, Scrap 0 hours, Close corporate tax loopholes, Fight poverty not the poor. Checkout  #JezWeCan  for more info!

  • First off I wish you were still with us Benn. I wish we could fix the issues that we deal with from day to day. The things we need each day for security are mostly socialized. There are so many people left in the ditch for things that can change immediately.

  • It would have been interesting given his views on New Labour what he thought about his son being part of it.

  • The greatest thing Harold Wilson ever did was to refuse to send troops to Vietanam. Could you imagine Tony Blair taking the same decision ?

  • If ever I wanted confirmation that TB was a deluded FOOL, this interview was it. He is a typical socialist – cannot face up to the failures of socialism in the past and cannot bring himself to accept there is no such thing as a free lunch. Thank heavens he will only be remembered as someone on the fringes of power. We would all be driving Trabants and reading the daily oppressor if Benn had had his way. Long live Capitalism- the only system EVER to free people from poverty

  • From a Scottish perspective refer 6.40 comments re Neil Kinnock , This fact mirrors the Scottish Labour movement they gave up everything they believed in to gain office!  In the Scottish Independence debate they fail to grasp that an opportunity exists to reject Neoliberal policy that they say they are against. They say they joined Labour to serve the people yet they deny themselves that opportunity to effectively do so in an independent Scotland. The truth is their obsession with defeating the SNP on this their primary policy has blinded them to the potential of delivering victory for Scotland's population over Westminster capitalism. Scotland's public are now to the left of their Labour MP's and MSP's .No wonder SNP are picking up their members. .     

  • 'People feel as though they are being managed.'

    Yes … and seemingly powerless to prevent this from happening

  • A legend that shaped my political views.  He was the greatest Prime minister Labour and Britain never had  RIP.

  • Very pleasant old gentleman, He and Mrs T, had very different ideas but he always called her Mrs Thatcher never Thatcher. A true Englishman even if you dont agree with his old socialist views. 

  • I want to offer a conspiracy theory based on this interview.  Benn is a babbling idiot.  The interviewer on the other hand sounds quite good, especially by comparison.

    Conspiracy conjecture: The interviewer and his staff conspired to find a hapless victim to build the reputation of Stadlen.

  • I'm going to miss Tony Benn asking awkward questions of the rich and powerful. His analysis of the world based upon humane ethics and democratic control was a refreshing counterbalance to the mantra of free markets and cut throat competition for me. Whether one agreed with him or not, Benn was always thought provoking. A sad loss.

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