Interview with Tony Benn: “Being an elected MP is a vocation; a crusade”

Tony Benn’s serviced apartment in Notting Hill Gate feels like something between a parliamentary office and the rooms of a university professor. In the bookcase at reception sits a purposefully-chosen selection of books that includes a copy of Tony Blair’s autobiography. Surprising perhaps, given this is the residence of one of New Labour’s most vociferous critics and Britain’s most ardent electable socialist.

Reclining in an easy chair, puffing gently on his pipe, Benn emanates the air of a benevolent grandfather; an image reinforced by his response to the question ‘how would you like to be remembered?’ (Note the avoidance of the word legacy.) “If when I died somebody said: ‘Tony Benn, he encouraged us,'” he answers, “I would regard that as the finest tribute, because I have tried to encourage people.” Teaching and encouragement, it seems, are at the very heart of his interpretation of socialism: “There are two people in society,” he says, “the rich and the rest, and you have to decide whose side you are on…

“I regard Marx as a great teacher; what he said helped people to understand what was really happening.” The gentlemanly demeanour makes it easy to forget that this expression of socialist commitment comes from a veteran politician with more than half a century of experience in the House of Commons and ten years’ worth of ministerial posts under his belt, ranging from minister of technology in Harold Wilson’s 1964 government to energy secretary in the James Callaghan’s government during the Winter of Discontent in 1978/9… Read more