Tony Benn: You Ask The Questions

So, how would you rate Blair alongside Attlee, Callaghan and Wilson?


Why did you become a Socialist and who/what was the greatest influence in your decision to become one? MALCOLM BROWN

I come from a dissenting tradition, that you think things out for yourself. My main commitment is to democracy and I've moved to the left as I've got older. Socialism provides you with the best analysis of what's going on. It gives you some moral criteria by which to judge your decisions and it gives you practical advice. Because if you can plan for war you can plan for peace.

Which behaviour was worse? John Prescott having an affair or playing croquet at Dorneywood? And should he have been sacked? KATHY KENNEDY, BELFAST

No comment. "Judge not that you be not judged"

What should be done with Dorneywood and all the other grace-and-favour homes? DAVID HARMAN, PLYMOUTH

Open them to the public, like the House of Commons.

Has the media trivialised politics? WJ BARNETT, BATTERSEA, LONDON

Some media do because they are more interested in politicians than in politics. So every election is presented as if it was about who will win an Oscar, and it is not about that.

Do you regret accepting a nomination for the Labour deputy leadership from, among others, a group who believed socialism would be brought to earth by alien invaders? P GRAY, BETHNAL GREEN

I've never heard that last point. I stood because I wanted to offer the party a choice. But I agree that democracy can not be secured by alien invaders, as the Americans seem to believe in Iraq.

Do you still think the 1983 election was "a great victory for socialism"? ANN LJUNGGREN, NEWCASTLE

I never said that. But what's interesting is that, for the first time in my life I think the public is now well to the left of what is called a Labour government. Most people in Britain don't want war, don't want privatisation, don't want pensioners on a means test, and don't want students saddled with debt.

Why are you on the wrong side of every argument? DANIEL TWIGG, WIMBLEDON

I have made a million mistakes in my life and they have all been faithfully recorded in my published diaries. But long before it was accepted I did support gay rights, colonial freedom and freedom of information. I opposed Suez and the Iraq wars, I campaigned very hard for the referendum on the Common Market and left the incoming Tory government in 1979 with 20 per cent of North Sea oil in public hands and set up the Giro. And I was elected to Parliament 16 times so somebody must have agreed with me.

Do you accept that if the Labour Party adopted the policies you espouse, the Conservatives would run Britain forever? JM CASTLE, CLAPHAM

No. I would refer you to my earlier answer about public opinion being to the left.

Do you regret praising Robert Mugabe? Do you regret praising Fidel Castro? A BEN MARZOUQ, LONDON SE1

I don t think I ever have, but I was trained as an RAF pilot in Zimbabwe during the war when it was the British colony of Southern Rhodesia. Cecil Rhodes stole all the land from the Africans and gave it to white farmers. When Britain ruled Rhodesia, no black was allowed to vote. So Britain is not the best qualified country to condemn Mugabe. I greatly admire Fidel Castro. America has blockaded Cuba and yet Cuba has a higher standard of health and education than the US and sends its doctors and teachers all over the world. The problem of human rights in Cuba is in Guantanamo Bay and that is controlled by the United States.

Three years ago you kindly posed for a photo with my baby son, Gruff, at the Tolpuddle Rally. We had another baby, Aneurin, in April. Are you going to be at Tolpuddle this year and would you allow Gruff and Nye to have their photo taken with you? ANTHONY JAMES, DORCHESTER

I would be delighted to and I presume Aneurin was named after Nye Bevan, the minister of health when I was first elected to Parliament. So maybe your Nye will be able to achieve as much.

You say "you've always got to respect a person's religious beliefs". Should gay people respect the religious beliefs of homophobes? ALEX BRAID, CAMDEN

No, I do respect religious beliefs but I disagree with those who interpret them in what I think is the wrong way and homophobia is not a biblical requirement. Neither is there any condemnation of condoms in the New Testament.

Is God a Socialist? MARY HAMILTON, CHESTERFIELD

As Malcolm Muggeridge said, "Jesus was not the Labour MP for Galilee North". But all religious teachers taught us to live in peace and it is a crime to tell those who worship one God to kill those who worship another God, because when God is on both sides in a war we will never have peace.

What are the three major obstacles to Britain ever becoming a truly Socialist society? LEIGHTON MCKIBBIN, WIRRAL

Socialisim is not a destination on a railway line. It is a way of approaching problems. And you could well have asked a hundred years ago, how will women ever get the vote, how will democracy ever be achieved, how will we ever get the welfare state? And we did get them, by our own efforts.

Have you ever drunk coffee, or do you always stick to tea from a mug? And what brand of tea do you endorse? IRENE WINTERS, CHISWICK

I was not allowed to drink tea until I was 12 in 1937, and I've been making up for it ever since. I love it. When teabags came out an old aunt sent me a scissors so I could open them. But I have one problem, that when I ask for a cup of tea now, I sometimes get a cappuccino and discover something wrong when I see the froth on the top. I have drunk enough tea to float the QE2, but I am a teetotaller. I like Indian tea, I'm not interested in Earls or anything like that.

Were the last days of Harold Wilson's premiership as strange as recent documentaries suggest? And do you think they're still spying on you? SEAN FITZPATRICK, HACKNEY

Yes, but there was a bit of paranoia. I hope they are still bugging me because it is my one remaining link with the British establishment. I had a death threat the other day and I was so pleased, I hadn't had one for years.

Ramsay MacDonald, Clem Attlee, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Tony Blair are the five Labour PMs. How would you rank them in order of what they achieved? HOWARD FLYNN, LIVERPOOL

Attlee one, Wilson two, Callaghan three. And then Ramsay MacDonald and Tony Blair equal fourth. Mc Donald tried to destroy the Labour Party by forming a coalition with the Tories, and Tony Blair seems to be trying to do it another way.

Do you like any Tories? If so, which ones? DAVID O'GRADY, COVENTRY

I admire anyone who speaks their mind whatever their party and divide politicians of all parties into two categories: the signposts who point the way they think we should go and the weathercocks who haven't got an opinion, until they've studied the polls, focus groups and spin doctors. I have no time for weathercocks and prefer signposts even if I think they point in the wrong direction.

What do you think will happen to David Cameron? F SWITZER, HERTS

I'm not here to forecast the future but try to influence it, which is much more interesting.

Has your son Hilary, as a staunch Blairite, sold out? RACHEL CANNOCK, BRISTOL

Hilary is his own man. He worked for a trade union for 25 years, was a councillor in Ealing, deputy leader there and chairman of education. And he is doing a brilliant job as Secretary of State for International Development and I'm very, very proud of him.

Will you be watching the World Cup? E TAYLOR, SEVENOAKS

On and off. Because as Postmaster General in 1966 I introduced a postage stamp celebrating our victory.

Should the House of Lords be abolished or elected? JACKIE MATTHEWS, MANCHESTER

The hereditary system is absolutely mad. I wouldn't like to go to a dentist who, just before he drilled my teeth, told me he was not a dentist himself but that his father had been a very good dentist. We should elect both Houses of Parliament and it is strange that the modernisation of the House of Lords has taken us back 600 years because then there were no hereditary peers and the king appointed his favourites as life peers, which is what happens now.

Are you ashamed of your upper-class background? S AHMED, BIRMINGHAM

No. I am very proud of my parents. My Dad was a Socialist MP and cabinet minister and mother was president of the Congregational Federation, and what they taught me as a child has had a huge influence.

Do you think Thatcher's governments did anything of value? RON SONNET, PORTSMOUTH

The one thing Mrs Thatcher did do was to say what she meant, meant what she said and did what she said she'd do. I thought her policies were disastrous but at least you can't complain that people who voted for her didn't know what they were voting for.

What made you become a vegetarian? TANYA STEVENSON, ASCOT

I never liked meat and my son Hilary, 30 years ago, said: "If the world ate the grain instead of feeding it to animals and killing them, there would be enough food for everybody." That moment my wife and I became vegetarian and I never touched meat since.

Why did you split the Labour Party? WILLIAM MASTERSON, CARDIFF

I've been in the Labour Party for 64 years. Unlike Ramsay MacDonald who in 1930 as Labour prime minister joined with the Tories; unlike the SDP and unlike New Labour which the Prime Minister said was a new political party I am a loyal member of the Labour Party - a Socialist in the Labour Party and I'm still waiting for the election of a Labour Government.

How do you reconcile being the greatest exponent of democracy with your historical support for Mao, and the Soviet bloc? PAUL BROWN, CROUCH END, LONDON

History will record the Mao period as a dynasty like the Ming and the Tang and I suppose the foundation of the new China had something to do with Mao's achievement in getting rid of foreign domination. The Soviet Union was invaded by Britain just after the revolution and the Second World War could have been avoided if the Anglo-Soviet alliance had been built then. The Soviet Union was our ally when America was still neutral and the sacrifices of the Russian people helped to turn the tide against Hitler.

Where have all the Labour rebels gone? ROGER HEWELL, BATH

Some former Communists are now in the Government because a shift of allegiance from the Kremlin to Downing Street is a natural process. The rest are in the House of Lords.

What do you make of Harold Wilson's assessment that you "immature with age"? REV RICHARD JAMES, RIPON, NORTH YORKS

I've had a lot worse insults than that. But old age brings liberation because you've seen a lot in your life. I have a wonderful family and at 81, I don't want anything for myself but I'm still hoping that I'm a late developer.

Can the Labour Party ever recover from Blair's disastrous pro-war, pro-privatisation and anti-civil liberties policies and should Labour MPs have not done much more to stop him? B EMMERSON, SELBY, NORTH YORKS

Yes of course. In 1931, only 50 Labour MPs were elected and there was a landslide Labour victory in 1945 which gave us full employment, the welfare state and the end of empire without war. Democracy has a funny way of letting people correct their own mistakes which is why I believe in it.

Did Tony Blair lie about going to war in Iraq? TOM BAILEY, GLASGOW

Yes. I'm sorry to say that he did not tell us the truth.

Will Gordon Brown make any difference? PAUL CASCORINI, GLASGOW

Remember there will be an election to choose the new leader. Even New Labour has not adopted the hereditary system that when the queen dies the Prince of Wales moves to Buckingham Palace. So let's see who the other candidates are and hear what they have to say before we decide.

Who are your heroes? SIMON OSBORNE, EALING, LONDON

Teachers. Kings, prime ministers presidents and emperors come and go, but teachers including Moses, Jesus, Mohamed and Buddha, Galileo, Darwin, Marx and Freud explain the world, help us to understand it and encourage us to think it out for ourselves.

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