'This is not political – this is entertainment,' said the man who refused my leaflet for the Stop the War demo. Then as if to confirm his point the tannoy system announced, 'The Tony Benn show will start in five minutes.'
I was at the Point, a community theatre in Eastleigh, near Southampton, where Tony Benn was appearing in his 'Free At Last' tour. Entertaining it certainly was-a virtuoso performance. Benn spoke fluently, wittily and with perfect good humour for about 50 minutes. He then answered questions in the same style for about an hour, and made it all seem effortless.
Long before he finished he had the 350-strong audience eating out of his hand. What was particularly striking was how often he made us all laugh. But of course, being Benn, it was also seriously political from beginning to end. The starting point for his talk was that people are disillusioned with politics because they think they can't make a difference. This led him to the theme for the evening, which was where power lies in society and how it can be influenced.
His analysis of the structure of power was not that profound. He tended just to list and describe different kinds of power-military, monarchical, economic and religious.
Nevertheless in the course of his account he managed to demonstrate his opposition to the war in Afghanistan and US 'full spectrum dominance', his republicanism, his resistance to the awesome power of the multinationals, his sympathy with the anti-capitalist protests, his contempt for New Labour's love affair with big business and absurd spin doctoring, and his deep commitment to democracy and equality.
As I have said, this was done with much humour-not with the set-piece jokes of a comedian but with genuine wit at the expense of the powerful. His principal conclusion, drawing the historical examples of the early trade unions, the Chartists and the Suffragettes, was that power at the top must be contested by the power of the people from below.
Above all, he said, he wanted to counter pessimism and encourage people to take action themselves. However, there were two things that grated on me. The first, in response to a question about Enoch Powell, was his claim that Powell was a nationalist, not a racist.
This is absolutely false in my view. He also defended going to Powell's funeral. The second, less distasteful but in a way more serious, was his insistence in the name of optimism that with enough pressure everything in the Labour Party and society would come right in the end. He wouldn't countenance the idea of overthrowing our rulers rather than just pressuring them to make concessions.
Also I thought he was not really facing up to how much damage Blairism has done to his beloved Labour Party because he can't bring himself to break from it. But these criticisms do not detract from what seems to me the main significance of this whole event. Namely, that in a small town in so called Middle England people would pack a theatre to capacity to engage in real discussion with Britain's best known 'loony left', and that by and large he would carry them with him.
In the course of his talk Benn noted that we are now in the remarkable situation of the majority of the population being to the left of the Labour government. That evening in Eastleigh showed that he was right.