How We Met: Lindsey German & Tony Benn
'He's got to this age and he's still at demonstrations with a flask and cheese sandwich'
Sunday 02 October 2011
Lindsey German 60
Lindsey German, 60
An activist and former member of the central committee of the Socialist Workers Party, German helped found the Stop the War Coalition in September 2001. She lives in London with her partner
While we'd both call ourselves socialists, when I first became aware of Tony, when he was part of the Labour government of the 1970s, I felt that he was someone I could never want to work with. He was a minister, not an activist as I was.
I got to know him personally in the early 1990s at conferences on Marxism, where he'd speak. He was committed to parliamentary change, so we had arguments about whether you can really achieve things in the Commons. He'd say, "People have to be in Labour [to make change happen]," and I'd say, "But Tony, Labour won't change things; you've got to look outside parliament."
Things began to change for Tony after Blair got elected: he always said to me, "I never joined New Labour, Tony Blair declared me New Labour." So, by then, he'd also got more left-wing and moved much more towards grass-roots politics, which was what I was doing. I remember when he left his MP's seat before the 2001 election and his statement said, "I've left parliament to spend more time in politics." So after the Afghan war that year, I asked if he'd be interested in getting involved in Stop the War – and the past 10 years have been incredible.
He's not only been at the huge demonstrations, such as the one against the war in Iraq in 2003, he's been at small ones too. He turns up at protests and conferences around the country and, last year, when he helped us set up the Coalition of Resistance [Against Cuts], he even gave an amazing impromptu speech at a meeting. He was just a spectator but when a steward recognised him and informed the chair, the chair announced, "He's not scheduled to speak but would people like to hear Tony?" Everyone cheered and he made a speech about 1945 and learning from history.
He's very charming and I've loved going to his house for tea and a chat, but we still disagree over a lot of things – he'll never leave Labour, and he's dismissive of lots of left-wing organisations – but he says it's more important to build a movement such as Stop the War and unite around what we do agree on.
I think his enduring appeal is that a lot of people agree with most of what he's saying, whereas a lot of politicians today don't represent people's opinions on things such as cuts or war. And I love the fact that he's got to this age and instead of being in the House of Lords – which he opposes – he's supporting the students, wandering around demonstrations with a flask of tea and a cheese sandwich.
He's not interested in glamour and, in a world where people identify politics with ruthlessness and materialism, he's someone not to be cynical about.
Tony Benn, 86
A former Labour MP and cabinet minister, Benn is currently president of the Stop the War Coalition. He lives in London
I'd known of Lindsey for many years because she was so active in the Socialist Workers Party [SWP]. Every July I went to [its] annual Marxism conference as a speaker, and we always chatted after.
After 9/11, she approached me to become active in the Stop the War Coalition. I'd lived in London during the Blitz, flew in the RAF and I opposed the Falklands, so I had a record of working for peace, and I joined, as I respected the work Lindsey was doing and that she'd decided to take up an issue which wasn't altogether pleasing to the SWP. [German resigned from the party last year over it.]
She's very scholarly and when I see her speak at meetings, the audience is riveted to her words as she is so passionate in her opposition to war. Each time I see her she impresses me afresh as she explains what's happening in a very easy-to-understand way. We've been to dozens of meeting together, up and down the country, taking it in turns to speak. And when she asked me to become president [of the movement], I was very honoured.
Though we come from different generations – I was elected to parliament in 1950, before she was born – I think that when you develop so much respect for a person you're working with, it's inevitable that you become friends.
I went to her house for her birthday party recently and I think Lindsey lives the life she believes; she's very modest in manner and her surrounds, but powerful in argument. She'll often come round to mine, I'll light my pipe, we'll have a cup of tea and we'll have frank discussions about what's going on in the world. But while there are differences in our outlook, there is no disagreement on the question of the peace campaign.
German and Benn will be speaking at Saturday's Anti-War Assembly in Trafalgar Square, London, marking 10 years since the invasion of Afghanistan ( antiwarassembly.org)
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