There’s a bit of kerfuffle over the phone when I call Tony Benn up at his London home.
“Who is this?” he asks, unable to hear me properly above the blaring television in the background. “I’m from The Big Issue,” I explain, assuming he has been made aware by someone or other that we were scheduled for a chat. “Is it about the housing crisis?” he shouts above the din. “Well, not exactly,” I say.
The line goes dead. Perhaps I should have said it was about the housing crisis. I redial. There is no ring tone, just silence, eventually broken by some distant breathing. Perhaps it could even be the sound of someone puffing on a pipe.
Then, suddenly, the distinctive Benn timbre: “Did I call you or did you call me?” he asks. I’m not entirely sure. What I am sure of by now is that he wasn’t expecting my call.
I decided I could be more effective outside of Westminster, focusing my energies on causes like the Stop the War Coalition
Tony Benn’s politics have always been divisive – even half of his own party turned against him in the 1980s when he was an incessant thorn in the side of the Labour leadership. But his personality has always managed to disarm even those at the opposite end of the political spectrum: he delivers radical rhetoric with a gentle charm unique among the political firebrand community.
As certain of his socialist principles today as he was 50 years ago, he exudes a kindness and sincerity that renders him altogether more human than the average political veteran. He has been described as the best political diarist of our time. In the latest and final instalment of those diaries, A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, we find that old age and ill health have failed to diminish his relentlessly positive outlook on Britain, human nature and the power of politics to change people’s lives for the better.
I tell him I can call him back later if it’s not convenient right now. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he says. “Let me turn down the TV. Then fire away.”
You retired from parliament almost two decades ago. Does that allow you to feel more fulfilled and politically effective? It’s not a matter of how one feels, it’s about the work. And the work in politics is about changing public opinion on key questions. I took the view that I could do that more effectively outside of Westminster and focus my energies better on campaigning for the causes I believed in, such as the Stop the War Coalition and the War on Austerity. As for how I feel, I have been quite ill during this period and have just been in hospital once again. It’s not always easy to maintain the work on all these issues to the degree I might like.
Has there been any good to come out of the coalition government? I have always thought of Liberals as people of independent mind who believed in what they said, but they have shown themselves willing to go along with whatever the Conservatives have told them to do. And I think they have done themselves a great deal of damage in the process.
It was not as simple as the failure of the last Labour government that got us into the crisis
Had you been in power, how would you have dealt with the economic crisis? I think the world economy is a very powerful influence on our own country and every individual country in the world. I think we have been enslaved by the world economy, the IMF and various other global financial institutions. It is important that people understand that. People might not have understood or paid attention to the global forces influencing our lives but increasingly they now are. A lot of people are puzzled that we have elected a government to make decisions on our behalf but that those decisions are in fact being made by other people who were not elected by us. What people are also coming round to is that it was not as simple as the failure of the last Labour government that got us into the crisis. That government was hit by the actions of the world economy. Gradually there is a growing understanding amongst the public that we were the victims of those factors and not, as the Tories have said, the failure of Labour.
Is Ed as Red as people think? It is not ideological viewpoints people respond to as much as characteristics such as trustworthiness. And he has that. I voted for Ed as leader and I have known him for many years. When he was a student he came to work for me as a volunteer in my offices at parliament. I have always had a very high regard for him. He is a man of principle – a man who says what he believes in and will stand by it. That is why people are starting to respond to him.
Can Labour put the conflicts of the past behind them and unite behind Miliband? We as a party had suffered greatly from the influence of Mr Blair. He was a man who became leader because he was a successful campaigner, but I don’t think he was ever truly a Labour man. The war in Iraq was a crime and now he has been put in charge of achieving peace in the Middle East, which obviously lacks any credibility. Labour had to get beyond Blair in order to ever have credibility with the electorate again. That’s what I think we are achieving now.
But surely there was some good to have come out of Blair’s time in power? Labour won the election in 1997, but New Labour was a Conservative idea. It was the idea of a Conservative group who had taken over Labour. Their idea was that entrusting everything to market forces was the best way to get things done, which was fundamentally an anti-Labour idea. Clearly there were achievements during their time in office, good things were done and progress made in some ways and I am not denying that. But it was a Conservative group running the party. Mrs Thatcher herself said her greatest achievement was New Labour.
Their idea was that entrusting everything to market forces was the best way to get things done
Can any party calling themselves socialist ever be elected again by the British public? The most socialist thing we ever did in government was create the NHS – a huge service that was taken entirely outside the influence of market forces. It was also the most popular and has remained so ever since. Even Mrs Thatcher declared that the NHS was safe in her hands, such was its popularity. She knew that to touch it in any harmful way would be political suicide. So the idea that socialism is dead is wrong. People will judge policies and ideas aside from whether people call them socialist or not. They will vote on the basis of the impact it has on their lives, not on what ideology people say it was inspired by.
Can Ed Miliband be the next Prime Minister? Of course. And he would be a very good one. I’m not in the business of predicting election results as that is always a very foolish thing to do. Whether or not he is left wing is not the point. The point is that he is a trustworthy and capable man that people respond to.
A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine: The Last Diaries is out now in hardback (Hutchison, £20)