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The Life of Tony Benn, in Quotes

The late Tony Benn had lots to say on democracy and politics.

13 August, 2021

ON DEMOCRACY

“I think democracy is a do it yourself business. There was a Chinese philosopher called Lao Tzu…who lived many years before the birth of Christ, and he was asked about leadership. And this is what Lao Tzu said: ‘…as to the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence’. And that is what we need.”

“The House will forgive me for quoting myself, but in the course of my life I have developed five little questions. If one meets a powerful person — Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates — ask them five questions: what power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” Benn then concluded with his trademark sibilant S’s: “If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”

“I think there are two ways in which people are controlled. First of all frighten people and secondly, demoralise them.”

“We shall never change society unless we start to do it ourselves by directly challenging unaccountable power now exercised over us…this is not an appeal for violent revolution…it is an appeal for a strategy of change from below to make the parliamentary system serve the people, instead of serving the vanity of parliamentarians…”

“Democracy is the most revolutionary idea, because democracy transfers power from the marketplace to the polling station, from the wallet to the ballot, and if the poor can buy with their vote what they can’t afford personally, it absolutely changes society.”

“I think it’s questionable, whether either in America or Britain whether we have a democracy really.”

“We are not just here to manage capitalism but to change society and to define its finer values.”

“An educated, healthy and confident nation is harder to govern.”

“Change from below, the formulation of demands from the populace to end unacceptable injustice, supported by direct action, has played a far larger part in shaping British democracy than most constitutional lawyers, political commentators, historians or statesmen have ever cared to admit. Direct action in a democratic society is fundamentally an educational exercise.”

“I don’t believe in the hereditary principle in the House of Lords. Imagine going to the dentist, sitting in the chair and he says, ‘I’m not a dentist myself, but my father was a dentist and his father before him. Now, open wide!”

“The Tory party is the enemy of democracy.”

“Britain is the only colony in the British Empire and it is up to us now to liberate ourselves.”

“It is wholly wrong to blame Marx for what was done in his name, as it is to blame Jesus for what was done in his…”

“The big question today is ‘Will globalisation allow democracy to survive?’ On one side we have the multinationals, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union. I want to help to redress the balance on the other side.”

“People at the top do not want to share their power. They’ve always got some marvellous reason: I’m following my religion; I’m following the laws of economics. Even Stalin: I’m representing the vanguard of the working class, so please don’t cause trouble. That is the battle that every generation has, and yet we mustn’t be pessimistic about it…”

ON CAPITALISM

“The real division in society is between those who create the wealth by working and those who own the wealth. Those who own the wealth have far too much power and they used it to control those who create the wealth.”

“The Conservative version of national unity rests upon the creation of an illusion that the rich are kind and that only if working people would be restrained, we could all raise our living standards together in an unending bonanza of capitalist growth fuelled by some ‘necessary inequalities’ to provide the profits mainly needed for investment…if we cling to that illusion, we shall condemn ourselves to the continuation of the present sterile stalemate in British politics. Destroy that master illusion and the democratic reform of our savagely unjust society becomes possible.”

“If we can find the money to kill people, we can find the money to help people.”

“If democracy is ever to be threatened, it will not be by revolutionary groups burning government offices and occupying the broadcasting and newspaper offices of the world. It will come from disenchantment, cynicism and despair caused by the realisation that the New World Order means we are all to be managed and not represented.”

“We are paying a heavy political price for 20 years in which, as a party, we have played down our criticism of capitalism and soft-peddled our advocacy of socialism.”

“The Peasants’ Revolt came as feudalism was breaking down in Britain, just as capitalism is breaking down today. Mass unemployment, the destruction of the welfare state, the health service and comprehensive education, would not be accepted, any more than would nuclear weapons based on British soil. We will not be satisfied until there is justice in Ireland. We will not allow the House of Lords to prevent us from doing what we want to do, nor the Community in Brussels, nor American generals in the Pentagon to decide what our future can be. The only way we can change Britain and the world is when working people gather together and decide whether they will change it. When we have decided we will change it, no power on earth can stop us.”

ON WAR

“War is an easy thing to talk about. There are not many people of the generation that remember it…but I was in London in the Blitz in 1940 living in the Milbank Tower, where I was born…every night, I went down to the shelter in Thames House. Every morning, I saw the dockland burning. Five hundred people were killed in Westminster one night by a land mine. It was terrifying. Aren’t Arabs terrified? Aren’t Iraqi’s terrified? Don’t Arab and Iraqi women weep when their children die? Does bombing not strengthen their resolve? What fools we are to live in a generation for which war is a computer game…and just an interesting little Channel Four News item. Every member of parliament tonight, who votes for the government motion, will be consciously and deliberately accepting responsibility for the deaths of innocent people if the war begins, as I fear it will.”

“All war represents a failure of diplomacy.”

“…Despite the fact that we’ve been told that are an entrepreneurial society, this is a country today that has an utter contempt for skill. You talk to people who dig coal, run trains, doctors, nurses, dentists, toolmakers, [and] nobody in Britain is interested in them…skill is what built this country’s strength and it is treated with contempt.”

“There is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber. Both kill innocent people for political reasons.”

ON NEW LABOUR

“When I look at New Labour, I wonder whether it was like trying to fire a bonfire on a frozen lake: it looked marvellous — bright lights, shining white — but you melted away your own support.”

“Under the banner of modernisation, many of the policies of the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s reappeared.”

“The Establishment decided Thatcher’s ideas were safer with a strong Blair government than with a weak Major government. We are given all these personalities to choose between to disguise the fact that the policies are the same.”

ON EUROPE

“My view of the EU has always been not that I am hostile to foreigners, but I am in favour of democracy. I think they are building an empire…and I don’t want that.”

“We are now governed not by people we elect, but by in Brussels who represent the big financial corporations and business…”

“They’re building an empire in Europe, and the European Union is not a very democratic one.”

“When I saw how the European Union was developing, it was very obvious what they had in mind was not democratic.”

“It is already a fact that whatever government is in power, our agriculture policy is now controlled from Brussels, our trade policy is now controlled from Brussels, our industrial policy is now controlled from Brussels…it is a democratic and not a nationalistic argument.”

“Members of parliament are lent the powers of their constituents, and they have to return those powers undiminished at the end. It is not for the members of parliament to give away the powers that were lent to them, because they don’t belong to members of parliament. They belong to the electorate.”

“The people in Bristol have sent me to Parliament over 25 years…and every time they’ve had the power to dismiss me and re-elect me. And because of that, I’ve had to listen to them. Now the commissioners don’t have to listen to the British people because they are immune from the possibility of electoral defeat.”

“Britain’s continuing membership of the Community would mean the end of Britain as a completely self-governing nation.”

ON THATCHER

“Her whole philosophy was that you measure the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

“Thatcher was a much cleverer woman than we give her credit for. She knew perfectly well the strength of the Labour movement lay in three sources of power. One was the trade union movement, so she took on the miners, described these courageous skilled people as the enemy within…and she introduced legislation that made trade unions actually illegal…so what she said, and this is very clever…she said you can buy a council house, so you’d be a property owner. You may not be able to get a wage increase, but you can borrow. And the borrowing was deliberately encouraged because people in debt are slaves to their employers.”

“I think Mrs Thatcher did more damage to democracy, equality, internationalism, civil liberties and freedom in this country than any other prime minister this century.”

“The Labour party believes in the traditional values of society—in the idea that we have responsibilities one to another and that we are not just greedy all the time, looking out only for ourselves. Without being personal, the philosophy that has been propagated over the past 10 years has been wicked and evil…to set man against man, woman against woman and country against country and to build on nationalism and racism…and all the damage that has been done by the Conservatives has been disgraceful…I have a measure called the Margaret Thatcher (Global Repeal) Bill…It would be easy to reverse the policies and replace the personalities—the process has begun—but the rotten values that have been propagated from the platform of political power in Britain during the past 10 years will be an infection—a virulent strain of right-wing capitalist thinking which it will take time to overcome.”

ON THE MEDIA

“Once I was called the ‘most dangerous man in Britain’, now I am told I am a national treasure. This is the final corruption in life: you become a kindly, harmless old gentleman. I am kindly, I am old, and I can be a gentleman, but I am not harmless.”

“If I rescued a child from drowning, the press would no doubt headline the story: ‘Benn grabs child.'”

“I think if journalists were responsible for international policy we’d have a nuclear war every week.”

“I sometimes wish the trade unionists who work in the mass media, those who are writers and broadcasters and secretaries and printers and lift operators of Thomson House would remember that they too are members of our working class movement and have a responsibility to see that what is said about us is true.”

“I do not think we have a free press in Britain today. There is not a single newspaper that I can buy, not one in Britain that reflects my political position. And The Times, dare I say to you, is really disreputable. It does not print truthfully and faithfully what happens and it pretends, because it is printed in small print that it is above argument. But it is a political propaganda instrument like The Sun, but it is printed in rather better print and rather shrewder language.”

ON RELIGION

“All political freedoms were won, first of all, through religious freedom.”

“I’ve never thought we can understand the world we lived in unless we understood the history of the church.”

“I was brought up on the Bible by my mother who told me about the age old-conflict between the kings who had power and the prophets who preached righteousness. She taught me to support the prophets against the kings, meaning that each of us had the responsibility for learning to differentiate between good and evil and make that our guide for action.”

“Christians believe that God created man, and humanists believe that man invented God. But whichever way you look at it, we’re brothers and sisters. Either we’re brothers and sisters because we’re children of God, or because we’ve banded together to invent God. So the ethics of the humanist and the ethics of some Christians are very similar. And we don’t want to create divisions between humanists and Liberation Theologians, any more than we want between the New Worker and the Trots. It’s not helpful.”



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