Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
14 March 2014

Tony Benn (1925-2014): ten of his greatest quotes

"If you can plan for war, why can't you plan for peace?"

By George Eaton

1. “After the war people said, ‘If you can plan for war, why can’t you plan for peace?’ When I was 17, I had a letter from the government saying, ‘Dear Mr. Benn, will you turn up when you’re 17 1/2? We’ll give you free food, free clothes, free training, free accommodation, and two shillings, ten pence a day to just kill Germans.’ People said, well, if you can have full employment to kill people, why in God’s name couldn’t you have full employment and good schools, good hospitals, good houses?”

To a PBS documentary in 2000.

2. “If one meets a powerful person – Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler –  one can ask five questions: what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.”

His “five questions” for the powerful.

3. “It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

To the Observer in 1991.

4. “Having served for nearly half a century in the House of Commons, I now want more time to devote to politics and more freedom to do so.”

Upon announcing that he would stand down from parliament in 1999.

5. “A faith is something you die for, a doctrine is something you kill for. There is all the difference in the world.”

Speaking in 1989

6. “When you think of the number of men in the world who hate each other, why, when two men love each other, does the church split?”

On equal marriage and the Church of England. 

7. “If democracy is destroyed in Britain it will be not the communists, Trotskyists or subversives but this House which threw it away. The rights that are entrusted to us are not for us to give away. Even if I agree with everything that is proposed, I cannot hand away powers lent to me for five years by the people of Chesterfield. I just could not do it. It would be theft of public rights.”

During a debate in the House of Commons on the Maastricht Treaty on 20 November 1991.

8. “An MP is the only job where you have 70,000 employers, and only one employee.”

To Labour PPC and councillor Rowenna Davis

9“I did not enter the Labour Party 47 years ago to have our manifesto written by Dr Mori, Dr Gallup and Mr Harris” 

Newspaper article in 1988.

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

On the media’s demonisation of him in 1975.