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Tony Benn, Bath Literature Festival

PUBLISHED: 23:31 28 January 2010 | UPDATED: 08:57 21 February 2013

Tony Benn

Tony Benn

Tony Benn is a headline speaker at Bath Festival of Literature this month. Katie Jarvis found a man who has lost none of his fire - and none of his 'radical' principles.

Tony Benn's post is left daily in a dustbin. Not that he doesn't value it - thousands upon thousands of people can attest to that. It's because there's so much of it.


"Not too bad today," he says, picking up a pile anyone else might consider substantial (especially for a quiet Saturday in January).


He's awaiting one delivery in particular; a reply to a letter he's just written to the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith.


"This will amuse you," he says. "The other day, as I was driving to the House of Commons, a policewoman beckoned me over and searched me under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Section 44. I was told it was a random search because I was approaching government property in a security zone. So I was very polite, gave my date of birth and address and so on; she searched the boot of my car, and I drove off.


"Now I've written to the Home Secretary to ask her four questions. First of all, will that be on the national database? Secondly, if I have an ID card and anyone gets asked for it, will that enable them to get onto the database to discover if I've been interrogated? Thirdly, will this information be shared with the Americans and Europeans, with whom we share all intelligence? And, fourthly, if later I'm asked by the police anywhere in the world, 'Have you ever been interrogated under the Prevention of Terrorism Act?', what am I to say? So I'm waiting for a reply." He chuckles - though the humour is aimed at the absurdity of the search, not its implications.


"We've given up these liberties, allegedly because we're threatened by al-Qaida; but, actually, the greatest threat to our civil liberties now comes from the Government."


At nearly 84 years old, Tony Benn has lost none of the sharp logic that's led him to pose many uncomfortable questions over the years. ("Is this the most dangerous man in Britain?" The Sun once asked.) Nor has he lost a single one of the principles that underpin them. His critics, of whom there are many, are - and consistently will be - floored by one facet of his life above all others: a lack of hypocrisy. This teetotal vegetarian values his bus pass, and still works daily, without even the help of a secretary. Any luxuries in his office, in the basement of his London home, are conspicuous by their absence.



He does, of course, have one vice. "Can I smoke my pipe?" he asks, politely. "It's a criminal offence; though you can smoke in jail, which is a great temptation."


His is an intriguing office, jam-packed with paper, overflowing with files. Perhaps the room has simply given up, unable to keep up with the oh-so-tidy mind of its owner. For there's no doubt that, with its chaotic-looking shelves and precariously-balanced tomes, it mirrors not one jot this ordered mind that can so easily demolish other people's flimsy arguments; that knows exactly where it has stored the historical facts it uses illuminatingly to contextualise a point. Or perhaps the room just looks untidy to the casual observer. Perhaps its owner knows exactly where every file is kept; where every letter is stored. Perhaps the outer image deceives one into making a snap-judgement that's destined to prove shallow and misleading...


Here, on these heaving shelves, lie ideas, facts, letters, problems, diaries: scenes from a life packed with incidents and thoughts - meetings with Gandhi, Oswald Mosley and Saddam Hussein; a life that can - if not justify - at least assimilate every action within a carefully-constructed framework of experience and beliefs; a life many would aspire to.


Tony Benn stood down from the House of Commons in May 2001, after more than 50 years in Parliament, to 'spend more time on politics' (a phrase suggested by his beloved late wife, Caroline). Today he's as busy as ever, working as an untrained classroom assistant to the nation (his words), supporting people from pensioners to students; pro civil liberties, pro peace. Perhaps most prominently, he's President of the Stop the War Coalition, which campaigned against the attacks on Iraq, and calls for a halt to the Israel-Palestine conflict.


He's also still writing. His next book, due out in the autumn, consists of 'letters' to his grandchildren. It's an intriguing premise - the voice of a lifetime of experience speaking to the hope for the future. But if he's learned one thing in life, surely it's that the same battles fought hundreds of years ago are still being fought today: war, greed, misplaced power? Will the advice he gives be any different from advice his own grandfathers - both MPs - might have once given him?


"That's a very interesting question," he says, packing his pipe and leaning back in his chair. "My great-grandfather was a steeplejack in Scotland. When he was born in 1821, he didn't have the vote; and no railway trains had been invented. When my grandfather was born in 1850, there were no telephones. When my mother was born in 1897, no airplane had left the surface of the earth; when I was born, there was no television; when my children were born, there was no internet. So the technology changes at an astronomic rate. But the moral questions don't; and if it's wrong to kill somebody with a bow and arrow, it's even more wrong to kill them with an atomic bomb: so it's about disentangling the changes from the moral questions.


"I was brought up by my mother as a very dedicated Christian, and if I had to choose, I would prefer to be guided by the 10 Commandments than the Dow Jones. You can't judge the happiness of society by what's happening to the shares in Wall Street."


In other words, Plus ca change. Does it depress him that wars still happen; that the same moral battles have to be fought constantly? "Not really, because every generation has to fight the same battles again and again. I got letters saying two million people turned up against the war in Hyde Park but we still had the war. What's the point? And I say, 'You have to be patient and impatient at the same time'. Impatient because you want to do something; but realise it takes time. If I'd been able to say, in Hyde Park in February 2003, 'I assure you the next President of the United States of America will be a man who voted against this war', people would have thought I was mad. But it's actually what happened."


For many people reading this article, Tony Benn's will be a familiar name. How you react to it is a personal matter, but during a predominantly Conservative era (after all, Mrs Thatcher described New Labour as her greatest achievement), he's all-too-often been marginalised as the face of the loony left.


Yet when I tell people I'm going to speak to this Goliath of the political scene, it provokes more reaction than to any other interview I've done. And all positive - even over an acquaintanceship of all political hues.


Maybe that isn't so surprising. If you distill his beliefs down - and it speaks volumes that you can - you get something like this: use resources to eradicate poverty not people; and place democracy at the heart of everything. So why, if it's not a nave question, are those beliefs considered so 'radical'?


"Because, on the whole, the world has been run throughout the whole of history by rich and powerful people: they owned slaves; they owned the land; and they didn't want to share their power with anybody else. I think, as I get older, the most revolutionary idea is democracy because, you see, in the old days you could only go to school if you could afford it; have health, if you could afford it; a house if you could afford it. And when people got the vote, they used it to buy what they couldn't afford personally. They bought local authority housing, local authority health, education, the fire brigade, the museums and art galleries. So what democracy did was to transfer power from the market place to the polling station; from the wallet to the ballot; and that has never been popular with the people at the top because it means their power is eroded by the poor. So it's a very radical idea."


It's that same 'radical' thinking that led Tony Benn to tell Sir Michael Rose, the former British Army General, that there was no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber.


"I'm not a pacifist. If somebody came in with a gun now and tried to shoot you and I had a gun, I'd shoot them, though I'd probably miss. If you look up 'pacifist' in the dictionary, it's an interesting word; it says it's somebody who believes it's desirable and possible to settle international conflicts by peaceful means. In that sense, I'm a pacifist."


It's the same radical thinking that led to him visiting Saddam Hussein in Iraq, not once but twice, in an attempt at avoiding war.


"It was an extraordinary experience. I was driven round Bagdad until I was dizzy, and then taken to a little terraced house. There was Saddam, sitting there with nine people, and a revolver in his belt. At one stage, he took it out and I thought I'd gone too far! He felt utterly betrayed by the Americans. He said, 'They armed me, they supported me, they backed me when we fought Iran, and now they've let me down'.


"Later, when it was obvious a war was coming, I flew to Bagdad at my own expense - I wasn't letting them pay the hotel bill or the airfare. I said, 'Do you have weapons of mass destruction?' and he said no. I said, 'Do you have any links with al-Qaida?' I knew he didn't because Osama bin Laden hated Saddam for being a secular society. I got hammered for not doing a Jeremy Paxman on him but, actually, I got from him truth which they didn't want to hear; and I'm glad I went.


"I never in my life imagined I would live to see a man I'd met being hanged. I'm against capital punishment anyway. And he had a certain charm. At the end, when I left, I said to him, 'I'm sorry I couldn't come myself; I sent my double'; and he laughed."


It was the same radicalism that led him to fight against his hereditary title, a battle he won with the introduction of The Peerage Act 1963, which allowed him to renounce it. His was a two-pronged attack. Firstly, the title Viscount Stansgate, which he inherited on the death of his father in 1960, meant he was barred from the House of Commons. (Despite his disqualification, the people of Bristol South-East re-elected him in a by-election.) Secondly, like the 18th century radical Tom Paine he so admires, he's against privileges that are not earned: "If I went to the dentist and, as he began drilling my teeth, he said, 'I'm not a dentist myself but my father was', I think, on the whole, I'd jump out of the chair."


Tony Benn went on, of course, to hold office in every Labour government of the '60s and '70s. The leaders might frequently have considered him a thorn in their side, but his popularity with Labour activists was unquestionable - and, obviously, with his constituents, too. Though he might be characterised as an idealist, there's a great and appealing pragmatism about him that's more than evident in our conversation.


"During the Cold War, the Russians and the Americans had a space race, and the Russians put on the moon a space vehicle: it was like a first world war tank with caterpillar tracks. And I had a letter from a constituent in Bristol, which I've kept. It said 'Dear Tony, I see the Russians have put a space vehicle on the moon. Is there any chance of a better bus service where I live?'


"It was absolutely the right question. The Americans are spending 400 million dollars a day in the war in Iraq when there are people dying of starvation in Ethiopia and Somalia. And so it all comes back to the moral question. I don't want to sound highfalutin, but 'Is it right or is it wrong?' is the question to ask."


Sitting in his down-to-earth office, his words resound with morality and common sense. If there seems to be a note of blind hero worship here, I'll say two things. Firstly, I came interested but not pre-dazzled. Secondly, it's taken me a while to analyse why this man makes quite such an impression. I've concluded it's been a long time since I have heard a politician speaking so simply, directly and with such clear goals. But then, as he points out, he's not asking to be elected any more. He believes, for example, the only way to help combat climate change is to reintroduce rationing: "If I was a candidate now and I said, 'Vote for me; we've got to ration things', I'd probably lose my deposit. But at my age, you don't have to worry about that anymore; it's a sort of perfect freedom."


Not that it's ever stopped him. When he came close to defeating Denis Healey for the deputy leadership in 1981, Healey said Benn also "came close to destroying the Labour Party as a force in twentieth century politics".


He always has and always will say things people don't want to hear. One of the biggest fears he has about the credit crunch - and one he's been voicing for years - is the fertile ground it could provide for an extremist to come to power.


"Because of my age, I remember the last slump. When I was three years old, I went to tea with a Labour MP. The next time I saw him, which was seven years later, he was in a black shirt in Parliament Square - it was Oswald Mosley, the Fascist leader. He tried to do it. Hitler did it in Germany - six million unemployed; said it's all due to the Jews and the communists; 'Give me power and I'll give you jobs'. And half the unemployed he put in the arms factories, the other half in the army, and we had a bloody war. The BNP is going to try to cash in on the unemployment now."


We talk about Obama - "he's injected hope into the debate and that is what's important because the Americans have been so frightened by Bush into silence and acquiescence"; the BBC's stance on the Gaza appeal ("humanitarian appeals are separate from all political controversies"); league tables and their demoralisation of people; his admiration for Thatcher as being a 'signpost' politician rather than a weathercock ("I thought her signpost pointed in absolutely the wrong direction but at least she didn't depend on focus groups"); the way governments seek to control by fear: "now it's the Muslims, and in a year or two, it will be the Chinese - there'll be an MI5 man in every Chinese takeaway in case they're doing propaganda"; his granddaughter, Emily, who will fight the next election as a Labour candidate; and many more things besides.


During our conversation, he's solicitous and kindly: "Don't let your tea go cold"; embarrassed that I've read so much of his writing "I do hope you haven't had to do too much research for this". And funny: "After I'd had my pacemaker fitted, somebody wrote to say they heard I'd had a peacemaker put in. If there's a war, it bleeps."


And at the heart of it all is his steadfast belief in democracy. So where does he think power lies today?


"It still lies with rich and powerful people. In 1832, before the Reform Act, only two out of every 100 people in Britain had the vote and they were all rich white men. If you look at the world today, it's run by two percent of the population. They're not white but they're all rich. So you have to do on an international scale what we did nationally. If the UN was democratic like Parliament, the Chinese would have two billion votes; we'd have 60 million; the Americans would have 360 million - and that world would terrify the United States: why should the poor Chinese have that? And yet that was exactly the argument of the Chartists; international Chartism is what the next stage is."


Yes, he's kindly, solicitous. And still, in many eyes, a radical. He wouldn't have it any other way.


"My definition of progress is that, to begin with, you come up with a good idea like votes for women; they ignore you. Then they say you're mad; after that, you're dangerous and they lock you up."


And then?


"And then there's a pause, after which you can't find anyone at the top who doesn't claim to have thought of it in the first place."



Best of British: An Evening with Tony Benn takes place at the Bath Literature Festival on Wednesday, March 4, in The Forum at 8pm. To book ring 01225 463362 or visit www.bathlitfest.org.uk


Tony Benn's post is left daily in a dustbin. Not that he doesn't value it - thousands upon thousands of people can attest to that. It's because there's so much of it.


"Not too bad today," he says, picking up a pile anyone else might consider substantial (especially for a quiet Saturday in January).


He's awaiting one delivery in particular; a reply to a letter he's just written to the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith.


"This will amuse you," he says. "The other day, as I was driving to the House of Commons, a policewoman beckoned me over and searched me under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Section 44. I was told it was a random search because I was approaching government property in a security zone. So I was very polite, gave my date of birth and address and so on; she searched the boot of my car, and I drove off.


"Now I've written to the Home Secretary to ask her four questions. First of all, will that be on the national database? Secondly, if I have an ID card and anyone gets asked for it, will that enable them to get onto the database to discover if I've been interrogated? Thirdly, will this information be shared with the Americans and Europeans, with whom we share all intelligence? And, fourthly, if later I'm asked by the police anywhere in the world, 'Have you ever been interrogated under the Prevention of Terrorism Act?', what am I to say? So I'm waiting for a reply." He chuckles - though the humour is aimed at the absurdity of the search, not its implications.


"We've given up these liberties, allegedly because we're threatened by al-Qaida; but, actually, the greatest threat to our civil liberties now comes from the Government."


At nearly 84 years old, Tony Benn has lost none of the sharp logic that's led him to pose many uncomfortable questions over the years. ("Is this the most dangerous man in Britain?" The Sun once asked.) Nor has he lost a single one of the principles that underpin them. His critics, of whom there are many, are - and consistently will be - floored by one facet of his life above all others: a lack of hypocrisy. This teetotal vegetarian values his bus pass, and still works daily, without even the help of a secretary. Any luxuries in his office, in the basement of his London home, are conspicuous by their absence.



He does, of course, have one vice. "Can I smoke my pipe?" he asks, politely. "It's a criminal offence; though you can smoke in jail, which is a great temptation."


His is an intriguing office, jam-packed with paper, overflowing with files. Perhaps the room has simply given up, unable to keep up with the oh-so-tidy mind of its owner. For there's no doubt that, with its chaotic-looking shelves and precariously-balanced tomes, it mirrors not one jot this ordered mind that can so easily demolish other people's flimsy arguments; that knows exactly where it has stored the historical facts it uses illuminatingly to contextualise a point. Or perhaps the room just looks untidy to the casual observer. Perhaps its owner knows exactly where every file is kept; where every letter is stored. Perhaps the outer image deceives one into making a snap-judgement that's destined to prove shallow and misleading...


Here, on these heaving shelves, lie ideas, facts, letters, problems, diaries: scenes from a life packed with incidents and thoughts - meetings with Gandhi, Oswald Mosley and Saddam Hussein; a life that can - if not justify - at least assimilate every action within a carefully-constructed framework of experience and beliefs; a life many would aspire to.


Tony Benn stood down from the House of Commons in May 2001, after more than 50 years in Parliament, to 'spend more time on politics' (a phrase suggested by his beloved late wife, Caroline). Today he's as busy as ever, working as an untrained classroom assistant to the nation (his words), supporting people from pensioners to students; pro civil liberties, pro peace. Perhaps most prominently, he's President of the Stop the War Coalition, which campaigned against the attacks on Iraq, and calls for a halt to the Israel-Palestine conflict.


He's also still writing. His next book, due out in the autumn, consists of 'letters' to his grandchildren. It's an intriguing premise - the voice of a lifetime of experience speaking to the hope for the future. But if he's learned one thing in life, surely it's that the same battles fought hundreds of years ago are still being fought today: war, greed, misplaced power? Will the advice he gives be any different from advice his own grandfathers - both MPs - might have once given him?


"That's a very interesting question," he says, packing his pipe and leaning back in his chair. "My great-grandfather was a steeplejack in Scotland. When he was born in 1821, he didn't have the vote; and no railway trains had been invented. When my grandfather was born in 1850, there were no telephones. When my mother was born in 1897, no airplane had left the surface of the earth; when I was born, there was no television; when my children were born, there was no internet. So the technology changes at an astronomic rate. But the moral questions don't; and if it's wrong to kill somebody with a bow and arrow, it's even more wrong to kill them with an atomic bomb: so it's about disentangling the changes from the moral questions.


"I was brought up by my mother as a very dedicated Christian, and if I had to choose, I would prefer to be guided by the 10 Commandments than the Dow Jones. You can't judge the happiness of society by what's happening to the shares in Wall Street."


In other words, Plus ca change. Does it depress him that wars still happen; that the same moral battles have to be fought constantly? "Not really, because every generation has to fight the same battles again and again. I got letters saying two million people turned up against the war in Hyde Park but we still had the war. What's the point? And I say, 'You have to be patient and impatient at the same time'. Impatient because you want to do something; but realise it takes time. If I'd been able to say, in Hyde Park in February 2003, 'I assure you the next President of the United States of America will be a man who voted against this war', people would have thought I was mad. But it's actually what happened."


For many people reading this article, Tony Benn's will be a familiar name. How you react to it is a personal matter, but during a predominantly Conservative era (after all, Mrs Thatcher described New Labour as her greatest achievement), he's all-too-often been marginalised as the face of the loony left.


Yet when I tell people I'm going to speak to this Goliath of the political scene, it provokes more reaction than to any other interview I've done. And all positive - even over an acquaintanceship of all political hues.


Maybe that isn't so surprising. If you distill his beliefs down - and it speaks volumes that you can - you get something like this: use resources to eradicate poverty not people; and place democracy at the heart of everything. So why, if it's not a nave question, are those beliefs considered so 'radical'?


"Because, on the whole, the world has been run throughout the whole of history by rich and powerful people: they owned slaves; they owned the land; and they didn't want to share their power with anybody else. I think, as I get older, the most revolutionary idea is democracy because, you see, in the old days you could only go to school if you could afford it; have health, if you could afford it; a house if you could afford it. And when people got the vote, they used it to buy what they couldn't afford personally. They bought local authority housing, local authority health, education, the fire brigade, the museums and art galleries. So what democracy did was to transfer power from the market place to the polling station; from the wallet to the ballot; and that has never been popular with the people at the top because it means their power is eroded by the poor. So it's a very radical idea."


It's that same 'radical' thinking that led Tony Benn to tell Sir Michael Rose, the former British Army General, that there was no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber.


"I'm not a pacifist. If somebody came in with a gun now and tried to shoot you and I had a gun, I'd shoot them, though I'd probably miss. If you look up 'pacifist' in the dictionary, it's an interesting word; it says it's somebody who believes it's desirable and possible to settle international conflicts by peaceful means. In that sense, I'm a pacifist."


It's the same radical thinking that led to him visiting Saddam Hussein in Iraq, not once but twice, in an attempt at avoiding war.


"It was an extraordinary experience. I was driven round Bagdad until I was dizzy, and then taken to a little terraced house. There was Saddam, sitting there with nine people, and a revolver in his belt. At one stage, he took it out and I thought I'd gone too far! He felt utterly betrayed by the Americans. He said, 'They armed me, they supported me, they backed me when we fought Iran, and now they've let me down'.


"Later, when it was obvious a war was coming, I flew to Bagdad at my own expense - I wasn't letting them pay the hotel bill or the airfare. I said, 'Do you have weapons of mass destruction?' and he said no. I said, 'Do you have any links with al-Qaida?' I knew he didn't because Osama bin Laden hated Saddam for being a secular society. I got hammered for not doing a Jeremy Paxman on him but, actually, I got from him truth which they didn't want to hear; and I'm glad I went.


"I never in my life imagined I would live to see a man I'd met being hanged. I'm against capital punishment anyway. And he had a certain charm. At the end, when I left, I said to him, 'I'm sorry I couldn't come myself; I sent my double'; and he laughed."


It was the same radicalism that led him to fight against his hereditary title, a battle he won with the introduction of The Peerage Act 1963, which allowed him to renounce it. His was a two-pronged attack. Firstly, the title Viscount Stansgate, which he inherited on the death of his father in 1960, meant he was barred from the House of Commons. (Despite his disqualification, the people of Bristol South-East re-elected him in a by-election.) Secondly, like the 18th century radical Tom Paine he so admires, he's against privileges that are not earned: "If I went to the dentist and, as he began drilling my teeth, he said, 'I'm not a dentist myself but my father was', I think, on the whole, I'd jump out of the chair."


Tony Benn went on, of course, to hold office in every Labour government of the '60s and '70s. The leaders might frequently have considered him a thorn in their side, but his popularity with Labour activists was unquestionable - and, obviously, with his constituents, too. Though he might be characterised as an idealist, there's a great and appealing pragmatism about him that's more than evident in our conversation.


"During the Cold War, the Russians and the Americans had a space race, and the Russians put on the moon a space vehicle: it was like a first world war tank with caterpillar tracks. And I had a letter from a constituent in Bristol, which I've kept. It said 'Dear Tony, I see the Russians have put a space vehicle on the moon. Is there any chance of a better bus service where I live?'


"It was absolutely the right question. The Americans are spending 400 million dollars a day in the war in Iraq when there are people dying of starvation in Ethiopia and Somalia. And so it all comes back to the moral question. I don't want to sound highfalutin, but 'Is it right or is it wrong?' is the question to ask."


Sitting in his down-to-earth office, his words resound with morality and common sense. If there seems to be a note of blind hero worship here, I'll say two things. Firstly, I came interested but not pre-dazzled. Secondly, it's taken me a while to analyse why this man makes quite such an impression. I've concluded it's been a long time since I have heard a politician speaking so simply, directly and with such clear goals. But then, as he points out, he's not asking to be elected any more. He believes, for example, the only way to help combat climate change is to reintroduce rationing: "If I was a candidate now and I said, 'Vote for me; we've got to ration things', I'd probably lose my deposit. But at my age, you don't have to worry about that anymore; it's a sort of perfect freedom."


Not that it's ever stopped him. When he came close to defeating Denis Healey for the deputy leadership in 1981, Healey said Benn also "came close to destroying the Labour Party as a force in twentieth century politics".


He always has and always will say things people don't want to hear. One of the biggest fears he has about the credit crunch - and one he's been voicing for years - is the fertile ground it could provide for an extremist to come to power.


"Because of my age, I remember the last slump. When I was three years old, I went to tea with a Labour MP. The next time I saw him, which was seven years later, he was in a black shirt in Parliament Square - it was Oswald Mosley, the Fascist leader. He tried to do it. Hitler did it in Germany - six million unemployed; said it's all due to the Jews and the communists; 'Give me power and I'll give you jobs'. And half the unemployed he put in the arms factories, the other half in the army, and we had a bloody war. The BNP is going to try to cash in on the unemployment now."


We talk about Obama - "he's injected hope into the debate and that is what's important because the Americans have been so frightened by Bush into silence and acquiescence"; the BBC's stance on the Gaza appeal ("humanitarian appeals are separate from all political controversies"); league tables and their demoralisation of people; his admiration for Thatcher as being a 'signpost' politician rather than a weathercock ("I thought her signpost pointed in absolutely the wrong direction but at least she didn't depend on focus groups"); the way governments seek to control by fear: "now it's the Muslims, and in a year or two, it will be the Chinese - there'll be an MI5 man in every Chinese takeaway in case they're doing propaganda"; his granddaughter, Emily, who will fight the next election as a Labour candidate; and many more things besides.


During our conversation, he's solicitous and kindly: "Don't let your tea go cold"; embarrassed that I've read so much of his writing "I do hope you haven't had to do too much research for this". And funny: "After I'd had my pacemaker fitted, somebody wrote to say they heard I'd had a peacemaker put in. If there's a war, it bleeps."


And at the heart of it all is his steadfast belief in democracy. So where does he think power lies today?


"It still lies with rich and powerful people. In 1832, before the Reform Act, only two out of every 100 people in Britain had the vote and they were all rich white men. If you look at the world today, it's run by two percent of the population. They're not white but they're all rich. So you have to do on an international scale what we did nationally. If the UN was democratic like Parliament, the Chinese would have two billion votes; we'd have 60 million; the Americans would have 360 million - and that world would terrify the United States: why should the poor Chinese have that? And yet that was exactly the argument of the Chartists; international Chartism is what the next stage is."


Yes, he's kindly, solicitous. And still, in many eyes, a radical. He wouldn't have it any other way.


"My definition of progress is that, to begin with, you come up with a good idea like votes for women; they ignore you. Then they say you're mad; after that, you're dangerous and they lock you up."


And then?


"And then there's a pause, after which you can't find anyone at the top who doesn't claim to have thought of it in the first place."



Best of British: An Evening with Tony Benn takes place at the Bath Literature Festival on Wednesday, March 4, in The Forum at 8pm. To book ring 01225 463362 or visit www.bathlitfest.org.uk


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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The environmental charity set up to protect Stroud’s industrial heritage now enhances the lives of its own volunteers. Katie Jarvis meets chief executive Clare Mahdiyone to hear about her Cotswold Life

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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Alex Caccia was in two minds about setting up Animal Dynamics as a limited company, but a shark attack warning changed all of that. Tanya Gledhill meets a man on a mission to change propulsion, one animal at a time

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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

He quit his job with a few thousand pounds in savings and an empty garage. In less than a year, Nick Grey’s technology company Gtech was flying. Tanya Gledhill meets him

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Friday, October 5, 2018

How does it feel to interview Sir Michael Parkinson, the nation’s best-ever interviewer? Katie Jarvis takes a very deep breath – and finds out

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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

When Charles Martell became the latest High Sheriff of Gloucestershire, he started discovering things about the county he never knew – not to mention things about himself, too. Katie Jarvis spoke to him about saw pits, walnuts, peaceable towns and pink-headed ducks

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