Glenn and I went to hear Tony Benn in conversation with his editor, Ruth Winstone, talking about his new book, 'Letters to my Grandchildren: thoughts on the future', published by Hutchinson, London, 2009, ISBN 9780091931261. He spoke at the Stratford Circus Arts Centre on 15th December 2009, which is quite a new arts centre, next door to the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, and is near to our home.
Tony Benn has this amazing capacity to be able to identify with, to reach out to and engage with just so many people, I think. In this way, actually, he reminds me a little of Michael Jackson. Similarly, he also wants to do what he can to try to make peoples' lives better. He was as inspiring as ever, reached out, listened and responded to people, and brought some humour into it all. But on the other hand, he did not look at all well. He had a bad cough, and he had difficulty in signing the books afterwards. Two of his fingers were very stiff. He has been in hospital recently; he has a heart condition and now has a heart pacemaker. Let us hope that his health will improve, but we must remember, of course, that he is now 84 years old.
We bought the book at the event, which Tony signed and we were able to speak to him very briefly. That was lovely and I read the book in just a couple of days. What a lovely gift to leave his 10 grandchildren, I thought - words of wisdom from a famous grandfather to his grandchildren. Something that they will be able to treasure forever.
Glenn, Tony Benn and I, just after he signed his book for us.
Tony covered many topics in his talk. This was followed by quite a long question and answer session afterwards. I took some notes - which has enabled me to write this blog. He began by saying that they were not actual letters in the book; but his thoughts, that Ruth Winstone then cleverly crafted into separate letters for his grandchildren - breaking them down into different themes and perspectives. Tony said that he thought that young people were very important today and should be listened to and that, in general, the population is a lot more sensible and rational than the media often gives them credit for. He also thinks that the voting age should be bought down to 16 years. In addition, that with all the new technology that young people have at their disposal, they have the capacity to destroy the human race with it or to solve all the major problems on the planet. Some responsibility eh!
Tony said early on that he was reluctant to say whether he thought that the Labour Party had a future, but that Blair's party was, indeed, a Thatcherite party, and that Thatcher said that her greatest achievement was 'New Labour' - heavens. On the other hand, he said that the Labour Party never has been a socialist party, but had socialists in it, a bit like the Church, that does have some Christians in it. Very funny, that one, I thought.
Then, a bit later he spoke about his mother, saying that she was a feminist; that she was a Congregationalist who campaigned for the ordination of women in her day. He also said that many political questions were really moral questions.
Ruth Winstone asked him what he thought had been his greatest mistake. He replied saying that we all make lots of mistakes, and he has made plenty himself. I found this a very refreshing and honest perspective (unlike my father-in-law who always reckoned that he never made any mistakes and regretted nothing much in his life). But he said that he did not do things just in order to get on in his career - so he did not make mistakes in that way. But when pressed further by Ruth, he said that the biggest mistake he thought he made in his political career was the nuclear power policy he adopted when he was a minister in the Labour government. He naively thought it was the right policy, but he now realises that he was mistaken. The policy was not cheap, safe and peaceful, as he thought it was; instead, it just gave even more power to the USA and its nuclear policy.
There was a long question and answer session afterwards - Tony was very keen to take contributions from the audience. The questions were many and varied and included topics such as religion, the National Health Service, the crisis of survival, the younger generation, the economic crisis, the future of the United Nations, Obama and the USA, higher education policy, social class, how would he sell the Labour Party at the next general election and whether Labour represents working people, proportional representation (PR), the banking crisis and the Euro.
In regard to the NHS, for example, he said that it was something that we should be proud of. In the USA, in contrast, 47 million people do not have any health insurance. Obviously, though, he was concerned about the commercialisation and privatisation of the NHS and did not like the hospital league table that now exists. He said when he was in hospital recently (after he collapsed with a heart attack) he found himself in a hospital that was at the bottom of the league table. He wondered how the doctors and nurses in that hospital must have felt. When asked about PR he said that he was not in favour of it, but preferred the single transferable vote method.
He is also against the Euro, because he said that Europe and the EC was not democratic. He gave the example of Peter Mandelsson who was recently appointed as an EC commissioner. Tony Benn is very keen on democracy and the power of the vote - he is very much a parliamentarian in this regard, which of course, is something that is very much in his family and has gone down the generations. At one point in his book, for example, he says:
"Throughout my fifty years in parliament I have come to respect and trust the members of all parties who have done a conscientious job representing their electors and expressing their own convictions." (p. 16)
Then, he warns us about the dangers of bringing in the far-right if we abandon democracy. He says:
"If the idea spreads that the whole political process is not about choice but about power, it is an invitation to far-right leaders who could come forward and promise that if they are entrusted with power that they will clean up what Hitler called 'the filth of parliamentary democracy'. (p.20)
He then emphasises the importance of trust between governments and the people, which he says:
"...must be the foundation of a mature and secure democracy." (p. 20)
His son, Hilary Benn, is now in the government of course, and his grand-daughter Emily, will be standing as a parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming general election. When reading his book, it becomes very clear just how proud he is of his family and this parliamentary tradition. His father, for example, was a Labour MP when the Labour Party was still quite young. Tony Benn is quite philosophical about the Labour Party and where it is currently at. In his view, in politics there are no permanent victories and no permanent defeats. At the moment, I am sure that he still remains optimistic that the Labour Party can somehow get back to its working class roots and to some (at least) of its fundamental principles.
He concluded on a light note, saying that at one time he was almost considered to be the most hated man in Britain, but that now he was considered to be something of a 'National Treasure'. Indeed. He will be sadly missed, when he goes. But we must be grateful for all that he has done, and for the great inspiration that he has been to the British population.
As I say, when I got home, I read the book very quickly. He begins the book by saying that he is very proud of his grandchildren, which I thought was lovely. As already stated, he talks a lot about the importance of parliamentary democracy throughout the book. On the other hand, he says that he has no artistic talent which I thought was rather honest of him! I was surprised to discover though, that he does not read very much, but prefers listening to people. And I can't resist including this quote about gays and the church, noting the fact that the church has been slow on these matters. He says:
"...the gay bishop Gene Robinson from America was not welcomed at the Anglican Conference in London in 2008. The world is full of men who hate each other and when two men love each other the Church splits!" (p. 148)
And the final postscript is a gem - entitled 'The Daddy Shop'. He said that when his four children were growing up he had often not been there for them, going to parents evenings, school concerts etc, because he had been too busy with his parliamentary work. He then felt guilty about this, so he made up a story which he used to tell to his children. This was about a group of children who got fed-up with their daddy not being around enough, and being there for them enough when they wanted and needed him. So much so that they decided to trade in their old daddy for a new daddy at the Daddy Shop. They took the new daddy home and he was wonderful and did all the things that an ideal daddy should do. But then, the new daddy went on holiday. They missed their old daddy so then went and got him back from the Daddy Shop. When they went to get their old daddy he was looking very sad, and was really pleased that his children wanted him back. Well, well - I could certainly relate to this story and to the many, many occassions that Glenn had not been 'there' for our children, when it came to homework, parents evenings, school concerts, for giving plain advice and for much else besides! He had the demands of his acadamic career. But it did made things very, very difficult for us - that was for sure.
On a final note, I would like to say that this is the second time that I have written about a Tony Benn event. The first was just over three years ago, when I heard him speak at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) Members' Day, which I also found very inspirational (but he looked a lot better then healthwise). I wrote quite a long piece about it and inserted it on our website -
http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Tony and Caroline Benn
OR http://www.flowideas.co.uk/print.php?page=199&slink=yes (for print friendly version)
I related my piece with our connections to his wife Caroline Benn. Glenn used to be a member of the Hillcole Group of Radical Left-Educators and Caroline was also part of this group. The meetings sometimes took place in the Benn's house, in the basement. Glenn was involved with some of the Hillcole Group publications. Caroline also read and commented on a draft manuscript of Glenn's book, 'The Battle of Seattle', shortly before she died.
Furthermore, I wrote a shorter piece, based on this talk for 'Managing Information'. This was entitled 'Tony Benn: links to libraries future', Managing Information, and was published in May 2007, Vol 14, No. 4, pp. 24-26
N.B. Thank you to our neighbours, David and Tamsin, who were also at the event, for taking the pictures of us with Tony Benn.