Profile: Tony Benn is history

Every time he thrills a student or infuriates New Labour, the old charmer of the Left not only records the moment in his diary but films it, too. It all adds up to one of the great archives of late twentieth- century life. By Ann Treneman. Photographs by David Modell

Tony Benn says there are only three things that people need to know about him. "I'm 72, I'm an MP and I'm a socialist and a student." Actually, that's four, but I doubt any of the hundreds of A-level sociology students who have come to hear him speak at Westminster Central Hall are bothered. The older he gets, he says, the more time he spends trying to understand the world. "And there are only three questions I'm interested in. What's going on? Why? And what can we do about it?"

The kids are riveted, but I know Benn has got his numbers wrong again. Because there is another question he asks all the time these days, and that is: "Do you mind if I film this?" On this day, as on most, Benn has brought his tiny Sony PC7 digital mini-Handicam to record the event. He says he does it for the questions, but the kids - for whom even Lady Thatcher is a distant memory - are hanging on the answers. They ask about Marx and false consciousness and education, and he tells them that experience is the only teacher. They ask about Arthur Scargill, and he says Britain has too many socialist parties and not enough socialists. They ask about New Labour, and the room seems to get quieter. "I joined the Labour Party on my 17th birthday in 1942, and I intend to die in the Labour Party if they let me." There is, he notes, now something called New Labour to which he doesn't belong. "But what happens to me is of no particular consequence, because I am free at last."

That evening, Tony Benn will transfer this film to a VHS tape. It will be indexed and stored in the basement study of his Holland Park home. In the end, the videotapes will go to the British Library with the rest of his extraordinary archive of papers, diaries and tapes. Politics, culture and the facts of life (such as the price of a pint or a house or a car) are there for all to see and hear. Many may dismiss Benn as a dinosaur of the left, but he will have the last laugh on history because he will have videoed it, indexed it and provided it for future reference, too.

Since he bought the Handicam last September, he has compiled six or seven four-hour tapes that include everything from single mothers talking about their lives during his Chesterfield constituency surgery, to the Governor of the Bank of England explaining his stand on monetary union, to being interviewed by John Humphrys on the Today programme. People are used to his little camera now - and almost expect it. When Benn next went on the Today programme without his camera, he was asked about it. "I said, `I can't do you every week, John'." No one, in fact, seems to mind much at all. "They just say, `Oh there's old Tony with his camera'. You know, many things in life are a moment of pleasure and a lifetime of embarrassment, but photography is a moment of embarrassment and a lifetime of pleasure. People may say, `Please put that camera away', but afterwards they ask if they can have a copy!"

I have come to Tony Benn's study for both interview and video-view, but when he opens the door, I am still getting over the sight of his postbox, which looks something like a wheelie bin. He gets a lot of post, he explains, and ushers me into a ramshackle room full of filing cabinets and cardboard boxes. We sit on white plastic garden furniture and Benn makes instant coffee with a pyramid coffee bag. I pull out my tape recorder, and he pulls out his. They stand next to each other on the desk, cassettes turning. The study looks absolutely crammed but it soon becomes clear this is just the tip of the archive. "I have to clear it out regularly. I have had to build nine garages to hold all my material but it will go to the British Library eventually."

Tony Benn has kept a diary since he was nine and has collected material from the age of 10. The diary is now about 12 million words and it is on CD-Rom up to 1987. He has published seven volumes. He has been tape- recording the diary since 1966 ("I was in the Cabinet and thought you couldn't tell your secretary what went on there") and, in 1974, he also started recording his speeches and interviews in case of misrepresentation. "Then I realised it was a very easy way of keeping contemporary history." He now has 50 million words on tape, too. Four years ago, he bought a video camera and now, of course, there is the Handicam, which is so small he can take it anywhere, and does. This includes meetings in the House of Commons: "Quite illegal, I might add, but I take absolutely no notice."

The videotapes are riveting, not least because they show real people in real time. "I do know that this contains material you would never get anywhere else, ever. You'd never see it on the media or read about it in the newspapers. For example, Eddie George came to see us at the Campaign Group, and I've got an hour of him talking about the economic situation and answering questions on the single currency. It was really interesting. Then I go to a meeting where people have been sacked by their company and telling in detail what has happened to them. Now that would not normally be mentioned, certainly not on television. Then there are pensioners' rallies, my surgeries, my local general management committee. I went and told them what I was going to do on the single parents vote and they discussed it and then supported me. I've got the whole thing on film."

He says he often replays bits of one meeting or another. "My principle is that experience is the only teacher. I don't learn from books. Obviously, I have read books. I bought Mein Kampf when I was eight. It's up there on the shelf," he says, pointing. "I had a fight with my brother and I had to stick it together and it's still that way. I read it at the time. When I look back, Hitler said that Marxism inevitably leads to democracy. Now, you work that one out in terms of the Cold War. What he meant was that if people have the vote, they'll want to change society, so he wanted to destroy democracy. I've also got Mussolini's autobiography ... when you read that, then you don't have to bother with weekend speeches by Conservative ministers because it's all there - attacking the trade unions, attacking disruption by socialists and so on. But mostly I have learned from experience ... I suppose 1,000 people come to see me a year. I get 20,000 letters a year. I read them all conscientiously. I learn more from my correspondence and my surgeries than ever I've done from newspapers or books. It's probably a very un-intellectual thing to say, but it is true."

His father was an MP, and Tony Benn figures this gives him the political memory of someone of about 100: "I met Mr Gandhi when he came to London in 1931, and Ramsay MacDonald and Lloyd George in '37." He says if he had known how much fun it would be to be 70, he would have done it years ago. "You know old men who reminisce are boring, but people who have some experience and a bit of energy and vitality and no ambition - which is the position I am in - are much, much stronger." His next diary-volume is to be called Free at Last, and says the only ambition he now has is to influence. "We are born in a world that we don't understand because it's new, and we all die in a world that we don't understand if we aren't careful because it's changed so quickly. So I'm spending more time studying now than ever I did when I was a kid."

The video is a key part of this study. For instance, on the question of single mothers and welfare reform, he filmed three meetings at the House and two women who came to his surgery. "One had married a man who raped her and beat her up and so she left him. To punish her, he cancelled the insurance on his house, set fire to it, killed himself and left her with no house, no capital, no insurance. The other one was a woman who wanted to go to college, couldn't get a grant and so took out a loan. Because she had a loan, they cut her benefit. Well, a loan isn't an income, it's a promise to pay back. Now those two things just mean that I had to vote against the government on single parents. It settled it for me. No hesitation or doubt about it. If you record what is said to you then it is documented and it explains why you did what you did."

We look at some more of the videos, and I try to imagine a political researcher in the year 2030 looking at these as part of their research into the New Labour government in the late Nineties. It will make a change from Newsnight and, watching these tapes, you can see instantly how out of touch much of journalism is these days. "The BBC rang me up and asked me to do a programme on the death of the public meeting. I said that it's a bit difficult because I did 177 of them last year," he says, grinning and puffing on his pipe. "I do masses of them. I don't think journalists get out very much. I'm in my constituency every week and travelling round the country. I probably am closer to what people think than if you just live around the Millbank Tower hoping to get a story from a spin doctor."

Tony Benn respects people who stick to their beliefs and mean what they say. Even Lady Thatcher wins in this category. "That's the way I judge people. Some people I agree with, I wouldn't trust my wallet with. Some people I don't, I would be quite happy to." He will not make personal attacks, says he doesn't believe in them and that issues are what get people fired up. John Major once came up to him, he recounts: "He grabbed Norma and said, `Now this man never makes personal attacks.' And I said, `I'll tell you why, John. If I had a meeting in Chesterfield on why I hate John Major, no one would come. If I had a meeting on unemployment, it would be packed.' It's the issues that interest people, not the yah- boo language of political discussion. It turns me off. Completely. I don't think anyone is interested. They are interested in: will I get a job, will I get medical treatment, will my son get into college, will granddad be able to live on his pension? Those are the basic questions."

In keeping with this, he claims that any rebellions over single parents or disability benefits have little to do with Harriet Harman or party splits. "It has nothing to do with that. If we keep it on the level where we are representing people and speaking out according to our convictions, then politics is alive." Real debate leads to real interest and real votes. He sees this as the beginning of a new politics that is not left versus right so much as the Establishment versus the people. "What we are trying to do is to revitalise the political process from underneath."

In many ways, Tony Benn has become his own archive, and it includes videos of family trips such as a recent visit to Paris. I first saw him with his Handicam at a party. Nor are his surgeries necessarily politically correct. "I find the surgery more interesting than anything else. For about eight hours a week, I sit there and people come, and very often they do not know what the problem is. One man came on crutches, and he said he wanted to sue his son for stealing something from his home. I listened very carefully and heard the whole story and then I said: `Look, I'm about your age, so you won't mind me saying this, but you are crippled and your lad is young, and do you think that you might be a bit jealous of him?' By God, he said, I think you are right, and clapped his thigh. Now that was interesting, but it took ages to get out."

Time is very much on Tony Benn's mind when it comes to videoing, because it takes so much of it. It is just another thing to do in a record-keeping system that frames (if not dominates) his life. Every night, he takes all the material from a day - press cuttings, speeches, personal papers, political material and diary notes - and clips them together and files them. He also dictates his diary at night, or, if it's a particularly interesting morning, he will skip lunch to do it then. "So far, the diaries have been credited with accuracy, but all the mistakes I made are also there in great detail. It's not like a memoir where you invent your triumphs and forget your failures. A diary is a confession." So that takes at least an hour. Then there is also all the work of answering his correspondence and that takes all weekend. In addition, the video takes another hour every night because he has to transfer the film and index it, too. "I'm a bit behind on transfers now, so when I get back from Chesterfield on Saturday I shall have to do a bit more. I don't know how long I can keep it up, it is very time-consuming."

But worth it, whatever he decides to do with it, in terms of making it public sooner rather than later. He doesn't like my calling it "the peoples' history" because it sounds too grand and pompous. But, even as he rejects it, he notes: "I think the gap between the government and the media and the public is getting wider and wider. I don't criticise anybody for it, but I notice it." And then he tells this story: the day of the debate on lone parents, Tony Benn was leaving the House when he came across two women. They were furious. They said there had been a bit of trouble and they had been put in a cell in the House for five hours. Now they wanted to go back in for the single-mother debate. The MP for Chesterfield said he would see what he could do. The Serjeant at Arms told him that the women had been shouting during a committee and had been banned. He returned with the bad news. "I didn't get them in but they were very appreciative. They came all the way from Manchester and they were really angry women. If I'd had my camera I would have filmed them." Now that is the stuff of history. Next time, he will have his cameras and there is nothing the spin doctors can do to stop him

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