Thursday, 31 March 2011
Talking to Tony Benn
Tony Benn was out there at the head of the TUC march last weekend arguing for an alternative to the cuts. In many ways the theme of the march provided a good subtitle for Mr Benn’s life, staying strong to his principles, arguing for a fairer and more just way of organising society. “Every generation has to fight the same battles, again and again,” says Mr Benn who still speaks three or four times a week at meetings around the country. At 86, it is not unreasonable to say that the former Labour cabinet minister has seen it all before. As such he remains dubious about the so called allies’ intervention in Libya. “The West has decided to intervene supposedly to stop civilians from dying. Yet in Bahrain they have sent troops into crush the revolt and Yemen is also using force against demonstrators,” said Mr Benn. “It is not logical and it means in effect we have gone to war with Libya. Not that this is anything new, Britain used to run Libya.” As a former energy minister in the Labour Government, Mr Benn has always been concerned about nuclear power. He does not believe the industry is trustworthy and will repeatedly lie to protect its own interests. He recalls when in office not being told that plutonium was being exported from British power stations to the US to be used in nuclear weapons. “We were effectively running bomb factories for the Pentagon,” recalled Mr Benn, who believes the destabilisation of the Japanese power station Fukishima provides a timely reminder of the danger of nuclear power production. “The earthquake provided a reminder that nature is our master. I hope and believe it will make people ask questions about the nuclear industry. It is dangerous and when I was in charge of it I realised I could never believe a word those running the industry said,” said Mr Benn. What the industry is good at is reinventing itself. Most recently this has seen the nuclear industry gaining a rebirth as a means to cut carbon emissions in the fight against global warming. Mr Benn points out that this has happened before, some 10 years after the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Then it was sold as cheap, safe and for peace. But this was false; it is not cheap once the cost of clear up is taken into account. It is not safe as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and now Fukishima show and it does not promote peace,” said Mr Benn, who does not believe the public are being told the truth about the nuclear damage being done in Japan now. The former energy minister hopes that the tragedy in Japan will cut short any plans in Britain to build a new generation of nuclear power stations. Mr Benn believes that David Cameron is a straightforward neo-liberal Thatcherite. “The attack on the NHS is something Mrs Thatcher would not have dreamed of,” said Mr Benn, who can never recall a time of such public anger. The fact that the mass of people are now being made to pay for the irresponsibility of the banks is fuelling much of that anger. He is though optimistic about the prospects of the Labour Party under Ed Miliband, which he sees getting more back to its fundamentals after the New Labour neo-liberal experiment foundered. He believes that Mr Miliband will be more respectful of the trade unions and the people who they represent remembering that it was the unions which put him in place. “It is going to be the popular movement that shapes how the Labour Party reacts,” said Mr Benn, who remains loyal to his democratic socialist principles. He quotes the creation of the National Health Service as one of the most socialist things ever done by a Labour Government. “The NHS remains the most popular institution. People won’t accept a world dominated by wealth and money, a world where the rich benefit at the expense of everyone else,” said Mr Benn. “Socialism is about democracy, people taking control.” Mr Benn still believes in the programme of industrial democracy that he put forward in the early 1970s, which would have seen 25 areas taken into state ownership remains a useful blueprint for today. Today, these would include banking, health, education, energy resources and railways. “The government plays a very important role in shaping the economic policy. It has to do more than manage how capitalism runs,” said Mr Benn. The state of the traditional media is not something that inspires hope in Mr Benn, though he does take heart from the different sources of information now made available through the internet. This has helped inspire some of the popular revolts in the Middle East and North Africa. In Britain, Rupert Murdoch’s interests dominate broadcast and print media. Meanwhile, the BBC represents the British establishment. “There is no trade union news, it is all about the financial markets, it is a view from a rich man’s world,” said Mr Benn. “The BBC refuses to mention the Morning Star which carries trade union and international news.” He is though keen that the BBC is not sold off to Mr Murdoch. The arrival of Wikileaks on the scene has also helped to set many people free. “Wikileaks is important because information is a source of power. In the old days governments wanted to know everything about everyone with no one knowing what they did. Wikileaks has changed all of that, bringing a transformation of power to the people,” said Mr Benn, who believes Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and US military source Bradley Manning are important figures in helping to liberate us. It has been a long held theory of Mr Benn that there are real radical reforms every 40 years. The last big change came in 1980 when Thatcher came to power bringing the neo-liberal capitalist model. Previously there was the Labour Government of 1945 and the reforms of the Liberal Government of 1906 and formation of the Labour Party. So there should be major change coming over the next few years, whether it will be caused by economic meltdown, global warming or a combination of the two no one knows. What Mr Benn though is sure of is that if the change is to be for the betterment of humanity it is likely to come from the struggle of the mass of people for justice and democracy. Who knows, maybe the changes have already started with the popular revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, where next London?