Interview: Tony Benn - ‘I see myself as an old man and an unqualified teacher to the nation’
Passionate, articulate, courteous and radical, Tony benn’s appetite for politics is undimmed. He might look like a kindly old gent, just don’t assume that he’s harmless
Tony Benn’s old house is on a tree-lined main road in one of London’s fanciest boroughs. You can easily spot it, even when you’re whizzing past in a car. The front door is a bold Labour red, and there is a brown plaque on the white facade commemorating his wife, ‘Caroline DeCamp Benn – Author, Teacher, and Socialist’, who died 12 years ago. So here you have it. The two great loves of Benn’s long life, politics and his wife, for all the world to see. The only thing missing is the man himself.
That’s because Benn has left the building. Eighteen months ago Labour’s most famous socialist and longest serving member of the party moved out. The man once described by Harold Wilson as a person who “immatures with age” lived here for 61 years. It’s the place where he and his wife brought up their four children, where he was given three months to live 22 years ago following a diagnosis of leukaemia, and where tabloid journalists rifled through his bins in the Eighties when he was branded the most dangerous man in Britain. It’s where he lived when he renounced his peerage, became a minister, edged ever further towards the left, and, in 2001, left parliament “in order to spend more time on politics”.
He later tells me with a proud, sad smile that it was his wife who came up with the memorable soundbite. “I always discussed everything with her,” he says. “Normally people give up parliament because they want to do more business or spend more time with family. My wife said ‘why don’t you say you’re giving up to devote more time to politics?’. And it is what I have done. I couldn’t have managed half of it if I’d remained an MP,” he notes, referring, amongst other things, to his presidency of the Stop the War Coalition. “So I know people laugh when they hear that, but it’s also true.”
For more than a decade after his wife’s death Benn, now 87, continued to live alone in the basement of their four storey townhouse. Visitors would arrive to find scribbled notes on the red door directing them downstairs to a small flat filled with an organised chaos of papers, diaries, political biographies, and cans of butane gas for lighting that ubiquitous pipe. And in the midst of it all was Benn, pootering around in his smart shirts and trousers, puffing smoke about the place and still talking politics. Older, maybe, but as radical as ever.
Now Benn lives in a modest retirement flat just around the corner. It’s a small place, just one bedroom, a sitting room where Benn is watching rolling BBC news on mute when I arrive, and a tiny kitchen where he shuffles off to boil the kettle for a cup of tea. (The lifelong teetotaller no longer manages eight pints of tea a day, but still drinks a hell of a lot.) The sitting room is crowded with enough socialist memorabilia to fill an eccentric village museum; mugs from marches, tea towels from trade union meetings, leaflets, pictures, and stacks of manuscripts. “My diaries,” he explains in that shakily grand voice, pointing his pipe at them. “There are about fifty volumes there. The uncut diaries are 16 million words. It’s very tiring to do your diary every night before you go to bed. But I gave it up some years ago.”
How is he finding his new home? “It was quite a traumatic experience leaving the old place,” he says. “It took about a year to clear it out. Last week when the ownership transferred my oldest and youngest sons and I went round there and took photographs of each other. I realised that it isn’t mine any more.” He coughs long and hard. “They say the three most traumatic things in life are losing your partner, losing your job, and losing your home. I’ve had all three now.” He smiles and leans forward. “Now, where did you say you live in Edinburgh again? Leith? Ah yes, when I was born my father was the MP for Leith...”
Age clearly hasn’t robbed Benn of his curiosity. Or, indeed, his energy. He seems frail physically, but very alert mentally. This shows in his face too, which is sinewy, tired and pale yet houses kind, shrewd eyes. He has only a few teeth left, a dreadful smoker’s cough, and a graceful habit of fluttering his hands when making an impassioned point. He has wonderful manners, a mischievous sense of humour, and is neatly dressed in a blue shirt, navy tank top, and trousers though he still offers to change for the photographer. All the while, and especially for the camera, the pipe is lit, puffed on, put down, pondered, and picked up again.
I turn up with Sanjay Kumar, a filmmaker whose production company has made a documentary about Benn called Will and Testament. A rough edit will be shown at the Edinburgh Fringe, followed by a Q&A with Benn himself. It’s a very moving film, following him in his 86th year as he travels the country (he has even ‘done’ Glastonbury now), looks back on his life, and talks about his wife with tears in his eyes. Watching it, I wondered whether he finds himself becoming more sentimental in his old age? “Not really, no,” he says. “I’ve had a very full life and I’ve enjoyed it very much. I’ve learned a great deal and feel indebted to all the people who have worked so hard. I look at all this and wonder whether I am living up to what is required of me. I see myself as an old man and an unqualified teacher to the nation. I think being a teacher is probably the most important thing you can be in politics.”
Doesn’t he ever get jaded? Doesn’t he find it depressing that the same battles are being fought, that great recessions come round again, cuts are made, and people in power abuse trust? “Some people find it depressing,” he acknowledges, “but I find it stimulating. It makes me want to do more. Pessimism is the enemy of progress. If you don’t think you can win you won’t put the effort in. You can be critical and sceptical but don’t ever be cynical.”
In his last volume of diaries he spoke about family becoming increasingly important to him. So is the personal beginning to overtake the political? “No,” he says, disagreeing with the relish of a lifelong politician. “I feel sustained by my family. They keep me going. But I don’t do as much as I should,” he sighs. “I feel lazy really.”
This is clearly not the case. “I still do two or three meetings a week,” he tells me after returning with mugs of tea and Kipling’s cakes. “I haven’t the energy I had before but I can still do marches. I’m not really aware of my age in any way though I know 86 is quite an age. I still get lots of invitations. And I still go and do lectures around the country.” In the last week alone, he’s been at the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival in Dorset, where a small plastic seat was carried on the march so he could sit down whenever he got tired, and the Durham Miners’ Gala, where he is known by the rather macho title of Godfather of the Gala.
On the mantlepiece are family photos (he now has nine grandchildren, three of whom are getting married this year), cards with variations on a ‘world’s best dad’ theme and a mocked up cover of his ninth and final volume of diaries, due for publication next year. “When your son is a grandfather you feel it’s time to hang up your clogs,” he laughs. There is also a Victorian clock, stopped at six minutes past ten, the time of his wife’s death. “I remember the moment she died,” he says. “The Macmillan nurse said to me ‘you can tell her she can let go now if she wants’. All our children were there. And so I told her and she let go. That clock hasn’t moved since.”
“She was very political and a great educationalist,” he continues. “She was a huge influence on my life. I met her when I was at Oxford. I was rather shy and didn’t propose for nine days.” He laughs. “I waited and waited for her answer and eventually, two seconds later, she said yes.”
A romantic in love as well as politics, Benn bought the bench on which he proposed and installed it in their garden. When Caroline died, the bench was moved to their home in Essex, a prefab house that his grandfather bought in a catalogue for £635, and placed near the site where she is buried in the garden. There is even a space left on the gravestone for his name. “There is a lid you can lift up and room under it for another little box with my ashes in it,” he says with a watery smile. “That’s a nice thought, that I shall be buried with her.”
How did she influence him? “She was a very clear headed person,” he says. “She corrected me if she thought I was wrong. We discussed things endlessly. In bed, over dinner, all the time. We had a great deal in common.” He pauses for a long time and then reaches for his pipe. “I feel if I met her she would be just the same. But I’ve had a long time alone without her. And I miss her terribly. Well... everybody has to die at some stage or another.”
It’s been an extraordinary career, no matter what you make of his politics and despite the fact that we don’t hear much about Bennites any more. Benn has been elected 16 times, served 50 years in the House of Commons, and spent 11 years as a minister of cabinet rank. Only the Queen has been around longer in public life. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that in this time Benn has been considered everything from Britain’s most popular politician to a political failure, a menace, a threat, an irrelevance, and now, in his eighties, a rather sweet old man with a pipe.
“Now they say I’m a kindly, harmless old gentleman,” he says. “Well I am kindly, I am old, and I could be a gentleman, but I am not harmless.” He laughs until he coughs at this line which, though trotted out whenever he gets the chance, is still good enough to cope with the retelling. “I got a death threat last year for the first time in ages and I was chuffed.” He gives me a toothless grin, clearly enjoying the role of ageing agitator. Kumar reminds him that he still gets the odd abusive phonecall and he nods cheerfully.
I throw a few questions at him. He used to call Tony Blair “Bush’s puppet”, while he once said of Gordon Brown in a diary entry that “I wouldn’t trust him with a corner shop”. On the day I meet Benn, the return of Tony Blair is being touted in the papers. What does he make of it? “I don’t see how it could happen,” he says. “The Labour party would never elect him as leader.” Is he still angry with how Blair changed the face of the party? “New Labour was really a Thatcherite group and when Mrs Thatcher was asked about her greatest achievement she said it was New Labour,” is his answer.
What does he think of Labour now? “Well, I voted for Ed Miliband because he came to work in my office when he was 14. I know his parents. I think he’s the right leader. And I think he will be a good Prime Minister.” Of David Cameron, he says: “I’ve only spoken to him once, briefly. He told me his interest in politics began when he read a book I wrote called Arguments for Democracy. I said to him ‘I take it you didn’t read Arguments for Socialism then?’ He said no.” We both laugh.
What about the question of Scottish independence? “I have always been very strongly in favour of the Scottish Parliament and devolution and I think it’s been a big success,” he says. “If Scotland wants to be independent they have the absolute right to do so. But I think nationalism is a mistake. And I am half Scots and feel it would divide me in half with a knife. The thought that my mother would suddenly be a foreigner would upset me very much.”
Benn’s mother, a theologian and feminist who left the church of England because they wouldn’t ordain women, was from Glasgow. His father, William Wedgwood Benn, was a Liberal member of Parliament who crossed the floor to the Labour Party. Both his grandfathers were Liberal MPs, one of them for Glasgow Govan. He has always loved Scotland. “I remember London was flooded in 1928 when I was three,” he says. “The water came right in front of our house and instead of cars, I saw boats going by. We had to move to Glasgow for a year. I’ve always felt very much at home in Scotland. They are very serious and friendly people.”
In the early Seventies he was radicalised, in part, by the strikes and sit-ins at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, which he supported when he was Minister for Shipbuilding and which, he says with a gummy grin, “got me into a bit of trouble with [Harold] Wilson”.
One of his earliest memories is visiting Downing Street in 1930 when he was five years old. “My father had become a minister in Ramsay MacDonald’s cabinet and his daughter asked my mother whether we would like to come to Downing Street to see the Trooping the Colour. Apparently when I came home I said ‘I expected to meet the Prime Minister but I didn’t expect chocolate biscuits’.” He laughs and splutters and draws on his pipe. “The following year my father, who was Secretary of State for India, invited Mr Gandhi to London and I met him. I remember this little man asking me and my brother to come and sit on the floor with him. He talked to us for ages. I don’t remember what he said but I do remember the power of the man.”
There are so many more stories. We’ve barely scratched the surface in our hour together, but Benn looks tired (he says he’s fine, however) and the day must go on. He has phone calls to make, meetings to organise, and campaigns to support. In 2001, the journalist and campaigner Paul Foot referred to the “unsolved mystery” of why Benn has moved in the opposite direction to any other prominent Labour politician in our time. “He has travelled consistently and unstoppably from right to left,” he wrote. And even now that the last diaries have been written, the last will and testament committed to film, that continues to be the case. “When I was a boy if anyone was treated in a way that I felt was unfair I would get very upset,” Benn says, his hands beginning to flutter. “It was the one thing that drove me to tears. And it’s still injustice that makes me angry now, only more so.”
So he hasn’t mellowed with age? “No,” he says. “But I have to be realistic. My wife said death is a great adventure. I learned that from her. Obviously I am coming to the end of my life and the question really is how I can make it useful with the limited time, energy and ability I have. But I can’t think my interest in politics will ever change.” Benn smiles, coughs, and reaches for his pipe. “Well, I’m a very lucky man,” he says. “I can’t think of anyone who has had a more wonderful life.”
• Tony Benn, Will and Testament, Assembly Rooms, August 21-22, noon, £10 (£7), www.arfringe.com