A tribute to Tony Benn

TELL anyone you’re a journalist and they’ll soon ask about famous people you’ve met or interviewed. While there are usually a few names you can reel off it’s more than simply a cliché to say the most satisfying aspect of the job is meeting everyday people with extraordinary stories. Embed from Getty Images

That’s not to say however that hacks aren’t excited about the sort of close encounters with the rich and famous that can come your way in the job. Nearly three years ago I was lucky enough to interview Tony Benn, the veteran left-wing campaigner and former MP, who died last Friday, March 14 aged 88. That interview is re-produced at the bottom of this post.

I can’t really claim to have met Mr Benn as I interviewed him on a Friday morning over the phone but I did, and still do, feel privileged to have had the opportunity to speak with one of the key political figures of the past 60 or so years in Britain.

Following the announcement of his death this privilege was reinforced as I noted how many people posted such positive comments towards the politician, who retired from Parliament if not the political arena, in 2001 on my own Twitter and especially Facebook feeds.

Much of the reporting of Benn’s death focused on him as a figure outside the political mainstream with even ‘The Independent’ newspaper calling him ‘The Maverick’ in its front page headline. But why should  a politician who argued that if governments can find the resources to fund wars then why shouldn’t they pay to help people, be classed as an eccentric?

Benn of course realised that he’d been marginalised by mainstream politics and journalism – but that didn’t undermine his own confidence in his central belief that as an individual, with a reasoned argument, he could make a difference. It was in this role he was visiting Brecon, with his touring ‘live interview’ theatre show, and the reason he was taking time out to speak to a local newspaper reporter for advance publicity purposes.

According to legend, Benn should have a recording of me interviewing him, it’s said he recorded every interview he ever gave. He certainly didn’t mention that he was recording our conversation and my only record was in my best shorthand in my notebook.

To put the following interview in context, so reading it doesn’t feel like stumbling across an old episode of ‘Have I Got News for You’ on ‘Dave’, it took place on Friday, May 6, 2011 which was the day after elections to the Welsh Assembly and various local council elections in England. The general consensus on the results was that Labour had done well, while the Liberal Democrats had taken a kicking in the first major electoral test the party had faced since forming the Westminster coalition government a year earlier with the Conservatives.

It’s possible you’ve forgotten a referendum on replacing Britain’s ‘First Past the Post’ electoral system with the ‘Alternative Vote’ was also held that May, which followed an earlier referendum on increasing the powers of the Welsh Assembly. At the time of the interview the referendum result had yet to be announced but AV was eventually rejected by 67 per cent of voters.

It was also less than a week since US special forces killed the al-Qaeda terror leader Osama Bin Laden and seven days on since Prince William married Kate Middleton in a lavish ceremony.

A charming alternative

Veteran left-winger Tony Benn visits Brecon to discuss his life in politics, he warmed up by chatting with Twm Owen 

EVEN the most ardent of politicos may be feeling a little jaded with politics following an election and two referendums in as many months but that is unlikely to deter anyone from spending an evening with Tony Benn.

The 86-year-old who served in Labour cabinets in the 1960s and 70s is regarded as one of Britain’s most popular politicians and it’s often remarked that not only is he one of the few people to have become more left-wing with age but probably the only one to have done so since serving as a cabinet minister.

While Benn has never wavered from his socialist principles the term firebrand doesn’t apply to the former RAF pilot who renounced an inherited peerage to be an MP. Instead Benn relies on his soft spoken voice, charm and thoughtful, considered opinion to put across his alternative agenda.

While the trademark pipe won’t feature at his Evening with Tony Benn at Brecon’s Theatr Brycheiniog tonight (Thurs), in which he is interviewed by Samantha Norman before taking part in a question and answer session, his left-wing views will.

“The public questions are always extremely good and interesting,” says Benn from his London home: “We’ve been doing it for some time now and we get question on local government, the coalition, AV, Europe, Libya all sorts of questions like that come up.

“My opinion is very strong and I firmly think the establishment, the media and the political class, underestimate the public’s intelligence and think the only thing they are interested in is sport and celebrities.”

His turnaround, from supporting civil nuclear power to being firmly against it, he says is often raised by questioners.

Benn is talking as the final results from the Welsh Assembly election, Scottish Parliament and local council elections in England are announced, but before the result of the AV referendum is known.

“I voted Yes,” offers Benn, who declines to make a prediction on the final outcome but believes May’s elections have seen a clear loser.

“The Liberals are in serious trouble all over the country due to the coalition. In Scotland it all seems to have gone to the Scots Nats and in England and Wales, Labour has benefited.”

However Benn cautions anyone attending the theatre against expecting ‘expert analysis’ from him on devolved politics.

This evening’s appearance though is his first such event since the killing, by US special forces, of Osama Bin Laden.

Benn, who is the president of the Stop the War Coalition, expects to field questions on Bin Laden’s death and of course the issue of just how can the UK government cut the national deficit.

“I would ask, are we making the right cuts? Is it right to keep spending billions on nuclear weapons or indeed another war added on top of that the expense of the Royal wedding. If we are to really make significant cuts I would pick rather different ones than those chosen by the government.

“I think on some of the more contentious questions I think we’re beginning to see a shift to reflect the economic situation.

“We are spending millions on wars that are creating future political problems for the country, and they have to be resolved one way or another. I can’t believe the war in Afghanistan can go on all that long. It’s an unwinnable war with very serious political repercussions for Britain and America.

“We went into Afghanistan as the government at the time was unwilling to hand Bin Laden over, now he’s been captured and killed it does alter things. I think the argument against the Afghan war are much stronger than it was a few years or even months ago.”

During his ministerial career Benn served as minister for technology and despite his advancing year’s he hasn’t allowed the very latest technology, such as micro blogging site Twitter pass him by: “I have made a couple of tweets but I’m not on Facebook. Obviously I have access to the network and pick up information you’d never be able to get otherwise.

“Wikileaks and so on I think is very important in informing people about their governments and what they think, it gives people more power. Look at the Arab revolts that was triggered to some extent by people being put in touch with each other through the network.”

Tony Benn appears at Theatr Brycheiniog on Thursday, May 12 at 7.45pm.

Copyright: The Brecon & Radnor Express, 2011

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