Socialist Worker

Tony Benn interview: 'Every train is a moving public meeting'

The veteran socialist speaks to Socialist Worker

Issue No. 1792

How significant do you think the Stop the War Coalition demo at the beginning of March was?

THE DEMO last November was very big-about 100,000-and that was when the war in Afghanistan was just beginning. Then, inevitably, the war was presented as a military victory. Now people are just waking up to the fact that there is another, bigger war on the way. So to get 20,000 out in March was very, very good.

The Guardian gave the demo only two lines. The media don't want an alternative voice. So our job now is to get the anti-war message across. No one now really doubts that Bush means war and Blair will support him. There will be a war. The question is, what do we do when it happens? Political action should persuade and not frighten.

On the day war breaks out, schools, trade union branches and churches could all spend time discussing war and its consequences. Almost everywhere you look there is scope for some action. It has to make people say, 'Thank god someone is doing something.' It has to be positive.

Striking teachers could turn their schools into mini-universities. Every train is a moving public meeting. Rail workers could have a day of action and give out leaflets and petitions.

What impact do you think Bush's 'axis of evil' speech has had?

WHEN WORDS like 'evil' are used it is the beginning of a crusade. I think the Arab and Islamic world see Bush as their enemy, and that stokes up feeling on the other side.

Sometime there has to be a solution for Palestine, for the sanctions on Iraq, for the US occupation of Saudi Arabia. There is tremendous emphasis on Mugabe and Zimbabwe. I have no time for him. But there are no free and fair elections in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, and no talk of sanctions against them.

We've had wars in the Falklands, the Gulf, the renewed bombing of Iraq in 1998, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and now Iraq again. All imperial wars are about resources. If you explain that to people it makes things clear. There is a feeling that we are being taken into something that may well escalate.

The murder of Duke Otto in Sarajevo in 1914 did actually trigger a world war. No one can control the consequences of their actions. Look at Ariel Sharon. He followed the tough line and is now losing support in Israel.

Bush is following the tough line, and if it goes wrong his support could collapse. The other countries around Iraq don't want a war. If Saddam were toppled and the Kurds in the north decided to declare a state of Kurdistan it would destabilise Turkey. And if the Shi'ites in the south decided to join Iran, and Iraq was left in a mess?

There is a lot of opposition to the war. There is Labour Against the War, Labour Action for Peace, CND, and the Stop the War Coalition brings them all together.

What do you think is happening in the trade union movement?

IF THE Labour conference had been held last September, instead of being overshadowed, there would have been the same victory on privatisation as there was two years ago on pensions. This year's conference will be very different. The media broadly support New Labour because they see it as a continuation of Thatcherism.

The unions have got to save the Labour Party, as they did in 1931. After Ramsay MacDonald betrayed Labour, they were reduced to just 50 MPs. Only 14 years later they won a landslide victory. It was the unions that won it. In 1981 it was the unions that pushed Labour to the left.

Now we have leaders like Bob Crow, Andy Gilchrist, Billy Hayes and Mick Rix. We can be positive. If we are gloomy all the time it puts people off. What do you think is the impact of the campaigns against 'globalisation'?

THE ISSUES that face people are so big, they can become either demoralised or radicalised. People have to have hope. Hope is the fuel of change. Thatcher's phrase, 'There is no alternative,' was one of the most powerful political statements of my lifetime.

She said that whatever you do, however hard you try, you will fail. At Porto Alegre people said, 'Another world is possible'-the exact opposite-and some 60,000 people poured there.

Do you think people are increasingly angry that they have no democratic control over their lives?

THAT IS the question that brings people to my lectures in Tory areas. Young people feel utterly shut out. Older people feel the effects of the common market or the World Trade Organisation. To recreate the labour movement, we have to start where they started with the Chartists.

We need a new Chartist movement, saying we have the vote but we don't have the power-how do we get the power? Then, when we have democracy, we have to think how to use it.

What feeling do you get from the people who come to hear you on the tour?

I SPEAK for 45 minutes, then I sit as I am now with my thermos flask and my pipe, and take questions. The areas I have been to so far are not Labour areas. I do not compromise what I say.

I am not a candidate so they know I am not after their vote. They are not my constituents so I don't have to watch what I say in case I lose their support. The questions are about Afghanistan, New Labour, privatisation the MMR vaccine, pensions, student debt.

They confirm my theory that prime minister's question time, control freakery from Millbank Tower and the odd punch-up on Newsnight don't satisfy people's curiosity about politics. I make a serious attempt to analyse military power, capitalist power, the power of religion, of conquest, and then I end up by saying if you want to change anything you have to do it yourself. That produces a very strong response.

What you do at Marxism every year is beginning to spread. Roy Bailey and I do a show called Writings on the Wall. Roy is a brilliant singer but you don't hear him on the radio because he is too radical. I read revolutionary statements from the last 700 years. When we do Writings on the Wall it has an electrical impact on people. We had about 9,000 people at a Cambridge folk festival. It is great fun. We are doing it at Marxism this year.

I think the SWP is the university of socialism in the working class movement. The Labour Party abandoned that years ago. In the old days the Communist Party used to educate people. When they disappeared, you filled the gap.

Do you think people are looking beyond official politics?

YES. THE media talks about apathy. I say that the government is apathetic about the people, about pensions, public services, the Labour Party conference.

I turn the argument round. If people are not interested in politics, it is because the politicians are not interested in our needs. Language is important. Once you have established the fact that only trade unionists are wreckers you create one image.

If you point out that Bush is a wrecker, that Dyson is a wrecker for closing his plant, Marconi are wreckers, it's a different image. If you are a socialist you do have to try and win support, but without compromise and spin doctors. My talks get such a good response because for the first time in my lifetime people are left of the Labour government.

On public services, railways and health, New Labour are gradually becoming a minority sect. The left is reacting much better now and working with lots of different people on particular issues. I think that is one of the biggest changes.

I have been in the Labour Party for 60 years and I intend to die in it. I can understand why people move, but to win a majority you have to persuade people. I think the left is now sensible about that. I am forgiven on a regular basis for being in the Labour Party, and I can't ask more than that!

To come and see Tony, and a range of others, at Marxism 2002, phone 020 7538 2707 or go to

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Sat 23 Mar 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1792
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