Tony Benn, was born in London on April 3rd 1925, the son, grandson and father of Members of Parliament. He entered Parliament in 1950 at the age of 25 and retired from the House of Commons in May 2001. He is the longest serving Labor MP in the history of the party. He was a Cabinet minister in the Wilson and Callaghan governments from 1964 79 and President of the Council of European Energy ministers in 1977.
Since leaving Parliament in 2001 to “spend more time in politics,” he has mostly devoted himself to public speaking and anti war advocacy as the President of the Stop the War Coalition. In February 2003 he went to Baghdad to interview Saddam Hussein in an effort to avoid the current Iraq War. Regarding the interview he said: “In the House of Commons I’ve attacked Saddam time and time and time again, but I’m not going to be party to killing up to half a million innocent Iraqis, many of whom dislike Saddam, just to see that America gets the oil it needs.” In the BBC Millennial Poll of the Top 100 Greatest Britons of All Time, he ranked No. 97.
In 1949 he married Caroline Benn, educationalist and author of the biography of Keir Hardie, who died in 2000 and they have four children and ten grandchildren.
KEVIN ZEESE: You are well known as a peace advocate over many years. How long have you been involved in such work and how did you get involved?
Tony Benn: My dad was a Labor MP and from childhood I became interested in politics, meeting Mr Gandhi in 1931, campaigning in the 1935 general election for Labor candidates,seeing Fascists in action here and was in London during the Blitz in 1940.
I was an RAF pilot in the war and so was my brother who was killed in 1944. I came back as a pilot in a troopship in the Summer of 1945 and I heard the words of the preamble to the Charter of the UN.: ‘We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war which twice in our lifetime has caused untold suffering to mankind…’ those words are imprinted in my heart. I’m not going to live in a world where the United States, which has bombed 19 countries since the war, and has weapons of mass destruction in the empire, the biggest the world has ever known, be allowed to impose its will wherever it likes in the name of humanitarianism.
I mean after all I know about this, because I was born in an Empire, and at the end of the war when I was in Egypt as a young RAF pilot; I’ve still got my identity card and it says ‘This man is exempt from Egyptian law.’ Why? Because Britain occupied Egypt in 1882 and we were still there in 1945. You know, you have to know a little bit of history to understand what’s happening.
Elected to parliament in 1950 I have been active in the anti-colonial movement and peace movement all my life, opposing the Cold war, the Suez, Falklands, 1900 Gulf and now the Iraq wars and nuclear weapons, being a strong believer in the UN.
KZ: You said at a recent conference in London that the peace movement was “the most powerful political movement of my lifetime as it represents the desires of a majority of the people.” Can you explain your views on that? How should we use this power?
TB: The Peace Movement now has more members and is engaged more actively across the world than any other movement I can remember and thus has more influence nationally and internationally as we can see from the growing opposition to the war in the US and Britain. The Peace Movement represents 60% of US opinion now and the same in Britain. It is a very positive movement and has support right across the political spectrum. Opposition to the Iraq War worldwide is almost unanimous.
All the crimes committed in the Iraq War are crimes that will be committed by a government that we have elected and which is accountable to us and the question for us now is what do we do now to stop them doing what they are planning to do now. That is to say, the people here in Britain and the people in the United States who oppose the war — the responsibility belongs to all of us to demand an end to the war.
There are tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions of people in Britain and America, in Europe and worldwide, who want to see a peaceful outcome to this problem, and they are the real Americans in my opinion, the real British, the real French, the real Germans, because they think of the world in terms of their children. There are literally millions of good people working for progress whose courage and persistence should give us the hope and confidence we need to carry on with the work we have to do.
KZ: You also say something akin to “these are the best of times, these are the worst of times” — as we have the power to destroy ourselves and the resources to save ourselves. Can you elaborate?
TB: It is true that with modern weapons- Nuclear, Chemical and Biological the human race could obliterate itself which has never been true in history but it is also true that we now have the money, technology and resources to transform the world if we use them wisely and that is the choice we have to make. We need to use the resources of the world for the benefit of the people of the world.
KZ: So often God is invoked and there is a religious basis for war — you mention this as very risky for seeking peace. How do you see religion affecting our efforts at seeking a peaceful world?
TB: My roots come from the dissenting tradition in religion, that’s to say what my Mother used to call ‘the priesthood of all believers;’ you do not need a Bishop to help you. Everybody has a hotline to the Almighty and that of course was a tremendously revolutionary idea because out of that sort of Methodist, Congregationalist tradition, came the idea that we had the right to build our own world, to meet our own needs and not just wait to be patted on the head by a Bishop and told by the Bishop, ‘If you do what I tell you to do, you’ll go to heaven; if you don’t you’ll go to hell.’
You know, it’s a very, very different and very important and very radical idea. My Great-grandfather was a Congregational Minister and my Mother was a Bible scholar, and I was brought up on the Bible, that the story of the Bible was conflict between the kings who had power, and the prophets who preached righteousness. And I was taught to believe in the prophets, got me into a lot of trouble. And my Dad said to me when I was young, ‘Dare to be a Daniel, Dare to stand alone, Dare to have a purpose firm, Dare to let it (be) known.’
The use of religion to justify war is a complete denial of what all the great teachers in history have told us – which is how we can live in peace with our neighbors and when Bush, Osama bin Laden or Sharon use religion they use it to boost their political power and create a situation whereby God is seen on both sides – which makes peace impossible.
KZ: The Iraq War is the greatest conflict we are facing today. How do you think that should be handled?
TB: The Iraq war was sold to us by using a pack of lies. The Prime Minister has been telling people at different stages why he went along with President Bush because of weapons of mass destruction, then that it was about bringing democracy to Iraq, then it was about all sorts, regime change. But the reality is when Bush was elected in 2000, O’Neill was his first Treasury Secretary, and he said the President decided then to invade Iraq, because he wanted the oil and bases because of the wobbly nature of the Saudi regime, which had always been previously very friendly.
The Iraq war has been a defining moment in that a sovereign member of the UN has been overthrown and occupied, and its natural resources seized. The conflict in Iraq as illegal, immoral and unwinnable. We must set a date for final withdrawal, evacuating all our troops and liberating the Iraqi people without foreign bases left in their midst.
KZ: Regarding nuclear weapons, how do we rid the world of these weapons of devastating mass destruction? And, what about the current threats regarding Iran?
TB: I am opposed to nuclear weapons everywhere and they are useless against suicide bombers but the Nuclear states have made no effort to reduce their massive armed nuclear forces as provided for in the non-proliferation treaty and that task must be tackled. There is a depth of western hypocrisy regarding nuclear weapons when it comes to Britain and the United States. the Americans have launched a program that would allow them to use nuclear weapons in space, nuclear bunker-busting bombs are being developed, and depleted uranium has been used in Iraq – all of which are clear breaches of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel, which has a massive nuclear weapons program, is accepted as a close ally of the US, which still arms and funds it. The prime minister himself is determined to upgrade Trident and appears to be committed to a new series of nuclear power stations, it makes Blair and Bush’s position as the defender of the non-proliferation treaty when it comes to Iraq as not very credible.
As I am strongly opposed to nuclear weapons and civil nuclear power, these comments should not be taken as endorsing what Iran is doing; but Britain and the United State’s past nuclear links with Iran should encourage us to be very cautious and oppose those whose arguments could be presented as justifying a case for war, which cannot be justified.
KZ: What other conflicts in the world are of particular concern to you?
TB: The real conflicts in the world are not between black and white, Americans and foreigners or even men and women but between rich and poor, powerful and weak as has always been the case, and with a rising population and shrinking resources the likelihood of war becomes greater.
These are not only my views, for example on leader has said:
“The way chosen by the United States was plainly marked by a few clear precepts. . . . all humanity shares a common hunger for peace and fellowship and justice. . . . no nation’s security can be lastingly achieved in isolation, but only in effective cooperation with fellow nations . . . any nation’s attempt to dictate other nations their form of government is indefensible . . . a nation’s hope of lasting peace cannot be firmly based upon any race in armaments but rather upon just relations and honest understanding with all other nations . . . . faithful to the spirit that inspired the United Nations . . . to control and to reduce armaments . . . to allow all nations to devote their energies to the tasks of healing the war’s wounds, of clothing and feeding and housing the needy, of perfecting a just political life, of enjoying the fruits of their own free toil”.
Those were not the words of some young left-wing idealist but of General Dwight D Eisenhower, a Republican President who was in the White House nearly fifty years ago, and who knew from experience what war meant.
As inhabitants of the planet which we share it becomes our duty to protect it, its climate and its produce since coping with nature is our greatest long-term responsibility.
KZ: At the recent conference you also expressed the power of hope. What did you mean?
TB: In every nation there are progressive people writing and campaigning for exactly the same causes which bind us together in the labor, trade union and peace movements here, and we are told very little about them because the people at the top are becoming anxious at the growing rejection of their system and the brutality it uses to enforce its will to maintain its power and privileges.
I am an optimist because I do not believe for a moment that such injustice and horror can go on for much longer without it being challenged and overturned since it is only able to persist because we have been told we must accept it and once that acceptance is withdrawn and replaced by determination to build something better it will all crumble.
That is the hope that has kept the Left alive over the centuries and we need it more than ever now.
KEVIN ZEESE is director of Democracy Rising.