The Deborah Ross Interview: Tony Benn

He may not inhabit reality as most of us know it, but Tony Benn, Old Labour figurehead and Britain's most dedicated socialist, still has a clear view of the important things in life – championing the NHS, getting to grips with gadgets, crying over soppy films and darning your own socks
Click to follow
Indy Politics

I take a black cab to Mr Benn's big house in Holland Park and give the driver the address. "You going to Tony Benn's place?" he asks. "I once picked him up from there and took him to the Baptist Church in Bloomsbury. He then fished about in a little purse and gave me a 5p tip." Now, on the whole, I do not share Mr Benn's fascination with the proletariat and, as such, rarely quote taxi drivers who, in most instances, are rather common people with nothing of substantial interest to say. But I rather like this story, although I'm not sure why. Is it the 5p? Or the fact that he "fished about in a little purse"? Whatever, I give the driver a few quid as a tip. "Fanx darlin'," he says. I do hope he puts the money towards elocution lessons, although suspect, I'm afraid, that it will go on yet more jumbo-sized bottles of Panda cola and crinkle-cut oven chips for him, the wife, the kiddies and, doubtless, their dog Tyson, who probably goes "grrrrr" a lot and has to wear a muzzle.

Anyway, through Mr Benn's rather overgrown front garden and up to the front door, where a note directs you down to the basement. So, down to his basement office where, I think, he's pretty much lived since his much-adored wife of 51 years, Caroline, died of breast cancer in November 2000. I ask him if he gets lonely. "Yes," he says. "I do. It is a big house and I only occupy one bedroom, the bathroom and this office. But my kids are marvellous, ring me every day."

Can you do for yourself? "I've still got my mushroom for darning socks." Oh? "It's a wooden mushroom and you put a sock on it and darn it. I can't do it now because my hands are too shaky, but my generation were trained to be very independent." His daughter, he continues, is coming for lunch today. "I'm doing soup, pizza, a bit of salad. It wouldn't satisfy Michael Winner... it's Covent Garden Soup. Mushroom. Do you know of it? It's marvellous."

Down here, it's rather murky – I know my own housekeeping standards are nothing to go by, but I've never seen such dirty windows – but still somehow glorious, it being a great, cosy jumble of filing cabinets, documents, videos, papers, books. He is a ferocious archivist, never throws anything away. He still has the accounts his father made him keep as a child. "I got a penny a week for going to school, a penny for living, and a penny if I reported my accounts to Miss Triggs, my father's secretary. When I went to Woolworths and bought a vice, she queried the entry: 'Vice: sixpence'. What she thought you could have got for sixpence I'll never know."

Frankly, I expected him to be a terrible old bore, like most politicians are, particularly when they've only ever been politicians. (Benn, now 76, was first elected an MP at 25, and only retired last year.) And sometimes, admittedly, he can go on a bit. Indeed, get him going on the importance of "true democracy" and "people having power" and blah-de-blah-de-blather-blah, and you've got time to go to Waitrose, do the weekly shop and get back before he's even considered winding up. (Waitrose, note, and never Asda. You get a much better class of person in Waitrose.) But, this said, he can also be gorgeously playful, and he seems to be in a gorgeously playful mood today.

He says he read my piece last week on getting a makeover with Trinny and Susannah. "And may I say how nice you look today?" he adds, naughtily. "Your separates are beautifully balanced and your boots are lovely." He then says that he "went on to watch the programme". What? Tony Benn watched What Not To Wear? Yes, he says. And did you pick up some hot tips? Are you now going to wear hipsters, to make your bum look smaller? "Not really my world, I'm afraid."

But, no, it isn't Mr Benn's world. Today, he is wearing House of Commons braces and an old shirt with little burn holes in it. "I burn holes in all my shirts and cardigans all the time. This is the trouble with being a pipe-smoker." Overall, he has the look of a homely, crumpled, go-ahead vicar. I ask him if the Labour Party ever tried to tart him up, encouraged him to seek advice from a Colour Me Beautiful consultant. "No. And I think that they wouldn't have succeeded. I've still got the coat I was given when I was demobilised in 1946."

We settle with our pint mugs of tea. He is mad for tea, drinks 18 pints a day. He remembers, even, when teabags were first invented and his aunt gave him a box for Christmas along with a pair of scissors because "she thought you had to snip open the bags to pour the tea into the pot". He is teetotal, and has never drunk alcohol. "I just don't need the stimulation. Although I've had liqueur chocolates, which are very tasty." I wonder if he has ever been seduced by any serious, material blandishments. "I can't say I want to be judged by what I own. My car is just a set of wheels. It's not being goody -goody. It's just in my nature. I'm just not interested. Although I am a sucker for gadgets, as you must realise."

I do. He has a mania for gadgets, even, and always has done. Indeed, in 1963 he was among the first to acquire a telephone answering- machine. Today, as far as I can see, he owns computers galore, a video camera, a digital tape- recorder thing, a pager, which bleeps at one point ("Who can that be? It's not Millbank Tower, of that I can be sure."), and his latest purchase, some software called "Dragon Naturally Speaking", which apparently allows him to dictate straight on to a computer, although the programme had to be trained to recognise his voice first. "The first time I did it, I had a test sentence and said: 'This machine can type 10 times as fast as a top typist can type'. But it came out as: 'This magazine can fight 10 times as fast as a top Baptist can write'. Still, it's not bad. Not bad at all."

He is an irrepressible optimist. He lets me have a go. "Talking of Baptists," I dictate. "The driver of the black cab that brought me here says he once took Mr Benn to the Bloomsbury Baptist Church, where he was given a 5p tip."

"What?" cries Mr Benn. "Are you sure? Only 5p?" He looks utterly upset. I feel ashamed of myself. Perhaps, I say, it happened years and years ago, when a family of four could live on 5p for a fortnight and still have enough left to put a down payment on a Ford Zephyr. He still looks awfully crestfallen. I try to cheer him up. This house must be worth a bomb now, I say. How much did you pay for it? "I paid £4,500 in 1952." And now it's worth what? Millions? "I really don't know."

Does he, unlike the rest of us, truly not keep track of these things? Or is he affecting not to know? This is what worries people about Mr Benn, I know. Is he absolutely for real, or not? I would dare to say he is but, then, what does that make him? Total hero or total crackpot? I'm not sure. I'm not even sure it matters any more. He just is. Has always been.

I ask him if his faith in socialism has ever been shaken. He says not. "If anything," he replies, "it has deepened. I've moved more to the left as I've got older."

"But," I ask, "can you name a country where socialism has actually worked? Has spread more happiness than unhappiness?"

"It isn't a country, but the NHS is the most socialist thing we ever did. And phenomenal. I know it's hammered all the time, but to regard health as a national interest and not something left to the market was fantastic."

"Yes, but the NHS is not a country..."

"Are you a socialist?"

"In theory, maybe. But ultimately, someone achieves more power than someone else and that power always seems to corrupt."

"I think it's true that all power corrupts, but whether the power is the same as the idea, I'm not sure."

"The Poles say socialism is the longest and most painful of the roads to capitalism."

"Well, I would say that capitalism is the longest and most painful of roads to socialism."

You could argue with him for ever like this, and get absolutely bloody nowhere. His idealism is so great, he can club you to the point of exhaustion with the resulting rhetoric. When I interrupt one of his long monologues on the importance of democracy and "people having a say in their future", which "the people in power don't want", and put it to him that most people are more interested in their own particular lives than the common good, he gets rather high-handed and cross. "That is the bad side in people, the selfish side. You have to be very careful about being cynical about other people, otherwise you get such a low opinion of them. You have to believe there is good in everybody, I think."

How, then, do you account for Nazism, say? "You have to understand why that happened. There were six million unemployed, and when you have six million unemployed anyone who wants to get into power has to find a scapegoat, and in this instance it was the Jews. It was an evil doctrine. No mistake about that. But the idea developed because of the circumstances, so you have to deal with the circumstances." Still, didn't it prove that evil is as much a part of human nature as decency? "That's the original-sin theory, which I find very frightening. A theologian once said to me: 'Man's capacity for evil makes democracy necessary, and man's capacity for good makes it possible.' I find that a tremendously interesting idea."

Like most immovable socialists, perhaps, Mr Benn never lets the evidence get in the way of an interesting idea.

Has he always thought like this? Yes, he says. It was the way that he was brought up. His mother was among the first to campaign for the ordination of women. His father, William, was a Labour MP who later became Viscount Stansgate. Famously, when Tony Benn inherited the title from his father in 1960, he was thrown out of the House of Commons but then fought (successfully) to have the law changed so he could be readmitted.

You didn't fancy being a Viscount, then? "I did not." The ermine and the coronet didn't tempt you? "Oh, good God, no, no, no!" He was born, in fact, on the site now occupied by Millbank Tower. Ironic, Mr Benn? "Oh, I'll say," he says. Of course, he is very un-New Labour. "It's Thatcherism mark-II. No, I never thought I'd live in a time when the public was to the left of a Labour government. Mind you, it's not difficult to be more labour than New Labour."

His background was privileged, yes, which is something many seem unable to forgive him for, although it may also account for his romantic view of the Tyson-owning working classes. There was the family's prosperous publishing business. And he was educated privately, first at an Eton prep school, then at Westminster. Was it common, in the 1930s, for the children of Labour MPs to attend public schools? "It was my parents' decision. My children all went to the local comp. When I look back on it, my education didn't really prepare me for life in any way. It was very limited. I wrote an essay at 11 on the Spanish Civil War, attacking Franco, and the teacher wrote at the bottom, 'This is disgusting'."

He has never properly had a hinterland sport? "No," he says. Books? "I'm not a great reader." He likes films, though, and has a video in the bedroom. I'd read that he's a great crier and always cries during The Railway Children. True? "Oh, yes. When my son was introduced into the House of Commons [his son, Hilary, is now MP for Leeds Central], my other children were watching from the gallery and they said to each other: 'Oh-oh. This is a Railway Children moment'. I'm a great believer in crying. I think if you feel something strongly, you really ought to let it out."

If anything comes close to his passion for politics, it's his family, his four children and 10 grandchildren. "My little granddaughter, aged five, said to me the other day: 'Dan-Dan [which is what his grandchildren call him], there is a little bit of you in my heart and when you die all of you will be in heart.' Now that, too, was a Railway Children moment." There are tears in his eyes now. He is unapologetic, and does not bother to wipe them away.

Time to go, anyway. His daughter is due any minute and he's got to put the soup on. The photographer wonders if he might take a picture of Mr Benn heating soup, but Mr Benn declines. "That's too much of a personality thing, don't you think?" What, too Hello!, do you mean? "Yes. I see it at the dentist. And OK! That's the other one, isn't it?" He then adds, incredulously: "I hear people sell their weddings to them. Is that true?"

So, not quite of the real world. But, ask yourself, deep down, would you truly want it any other way?

'An Audience With Tony Benn' is currently touring the country. For details: 01865 514830

Comments