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Tony Benn (1925-2014): “I would be ashamed if I ever said anything I didn’t believe in”

Does the Labour Party have any chance of winning the next election?
I don't think the outcome is certain, despite the polls. It's foolish to forecast anyway. I believe the more difficult the circumstances, the more people will be inclined to trust those in charge at the moment. The trouble with all political discussion is that it's about individuals, and I'm famous for saying it's issues that matter . . . Can I puff my pipe, will that worry you?

No, please do. What tobacco do you smoke these days?
At the moment, St Bruno is my patron saint!

How do you stay so physically and mentally fit?
Well it's not a good day to ask this, as I am a bit low, having just come out of hospital. But I've got an interest in life, a lovely family and colleagues I like, and I'm very, very busy.

Do you ever feel like you can't be bothered?
No, because I think that would indicate that you didn't really believe in something. The feeling that it's too much, maybe, but never a sense that I wish I didn't have to do it, because I'm driven to do it. I enjoy achieving things.

Is politics a noble pursuit?
I have found it very satisfying. If you are an MP, you are employed by your constituency, and you have a responsibility to them, to your colleagues, and to your conscience. You have to reconcile these things. It is very hard work.

What is your greatest achievement?
All your so-called achievements in politics depend on millions of other people, so I'd like to be remembered as somebody who encouraged people. And on my gravestone, "Tony Benn: he encouraged us" would be a wonderful thing.

What would you like to forget?
I don't think one ought to forget anything. I've made every mistake - but mistakes are how you learn. The only thing I would be ashamed of is if I thought I had ever said anything I didn't believe in, in order to get on.

What about mistakes you made as a minister?
When Atoms for Peace came along I was persuaded that nuclear power was a cheap, safe and peaceful use of atomic energy, and my experience of running it as a minister was that I was wrong on all fronts: it's really about the bomb.

Do you vote?
Yes, I have always voted Labour.

What would have been your first priority, if made leader of the Labour Party?
I think it would have been to try to bring the left together. There are all these left parties, all arguing over a small section of opinion. You have to try to build support around causes. It is uniting to campaign on a single issue, and it is never just a single issue; it's always more than that.

Your first ministerial post was as postmaster general. What do you think of today's strikes?
I support the postal workers because I think the idea that a public service such as the Post Office can be treated on a competitive basis is ludicrous. The companies competing with it are cherry-picking. The Royal Mail is our oldest public industry - established in the 1600s - and the destruction of it is a very serious mistake.

What is the most precious piece of advice in your new book, Letters to My Grandchildren?
I have always tried to approach young people with respect. Old people often lecture them. My generation made a complete hash of the world. Young people today are the first generation in human history with the technical capacity to destroy the human race, but also the first with the know-how to solve its problems.

Where is your favourite place in the world?
My family home in Essex, a prefabricated house that my grandfather bought in a catalogue for £635. They floated it upriver on a raft. I've spent holidays there almost every year of my life.

Is it true you bought the bench on which you were sitting when you proposed to your wife?
Yes, it used to be in the front garden of our London house. Now it is in Essex, where Caroline's ashes are buried. I was a bit shy: it took me nine days to propose to her after we first met.

Are you perhaps as much a romantic in your political life as you are in your personal life?
I think if you're going to be committed to doing anything, you really have to care about it, and I suppose that is a romantic idea.

Is socialism dead?
When people say it is, I think of the NHS: it was the most socialist thing we ever did, and also the most popular thing we ever did.

Are we doomed?
No, I think the future is what we make of it. If you give up hope, you are surrendering the future to other people.

Tony Benn's "Letters to My Grandchildren" is published by Hutchinson (£18.99)
Interview by Emily Mann

See more photos from the exclusive portrait shoot by renowned photographer Philip Sinden here

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Mob rule

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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