Tony Benn and his lifelong argument for democracy… RIP


I knew there was something I had in common with Guido…. I heard Tony Benn may have got things wrong when he had power, but he understood the fundamentals of democracy all the better for that…

  • Hmm. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Benn’s personal qualities, and that quote is a good one. I’m also not a big fan of rudeness about the recently deceased (and less so about a fellow socialist), but I also think that it would be a mistake to allow the beatification that has already taken place this morning to go unchallenged.

    There are, I believe, three charges that posterity will lay against Tony Benn and his defenders won’t have an answer to them:

    1. He used his charisma to advance policies that no Labour government could ever have been elected on. He did this very well and, as a result, the party split. He shares the blame for creating the conditions that made Thatcherism possible.

    2. On foreign policy, there are a series of very well-made charges against him here: – like a lot of people who flirt with variations on the pacifist theme, he was often an objective ally of the worst kinds of thugs.

    3. His advocacy of ‘democracy’ is more problematic than a lot of people realise. His association with the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy in the late 1970s and early ’80s was an argument for ‘mandated’ MPs. He was a big fan of referendums when it suited him. It is a very debased form of democracy that treats elected representatives as delegates (especially when the mandate came from the kind of entryist-ridden CLPs that the Labour Party was riddled with in the early 1980s).

    I’m sure he was a sincere conviction politician, but I’m afraid I disagreed with him very strongly on many points.

  • David Crookes

    Sad day, Another immortal of the world that we sixty-and-overs grew up in has passed away. Here from 1994 is an interview with TB in which he says things about NI that no other British politician is prepared to say openly.

    The following discussion between Tony Benn and Mark Osborn and Sean Matgamna appeared in Socialist Organiser, 10 Septempber 1994.

    Tony Benn was the most important left Labour Parliamentarian of the last three decades of the 20th century. He was a member of the Labour Cabinet which put the troops on the streets of Northern Ireland in 1969. He was also a member of the Labour Government, which, in the late 1970s, withdrew the de facto status of political prisoner from jailed Republicans and Loyalists in Northern Ireland. That act triggered the conflict in the jails during which Republican prisoners went for years wearing only blankets, and which, under the Thatcher government, culminated in the hunger strikes of 1981. Ten men were allowed to starve to death. In opposition, Benn became a passionate advocate of British withdrawal from Northern Ireland and a repository of the conventional leftist attitudes to the Northern Ireland conflict during the 1980s and 90s.

    Introductory note in Socialist Organiser:

    Early this year Tony Benn tried to get the House of Commons to accept a Bill committing Britain to withdraw from Ireland. He has tried to move the same Bill — modelled, he says, on the Bill which paved the way for Britain’s relinquishment of sovereignty in Palestine in 1947-8 — a number of times in the past, with equal lack of success.

    Benn sees himself as the living embodiment of a very old tradition in mainstream British politics, the Liberal Home Rule tradition on Ireland.

    He is proud to recall — he did it again on the BBC’s Newsnight on 31 August, the day the Northern Ireland ceasefire was announced — that his grandfather was elected as a Home Rule Liberal in 1892. That was the year Gladstone got a majority for Home Rule in the House of Commons, only to have the House of Lords veto it. Benn’s father too was a supporter in the House of Commons of Home Rule and then of Dominion status for Ireland.

    John O’Mahony reports on a discussion with Tony Benn

    Mark Osborn and I went to talk to Tony Benn earlier this year. We found the man who has been the most important leader of the mainstream left of the labour movement in his house in Notting Hill Gate, where the basement has been transformed into paper-crammed offices. Despite his 69 years, Benn, who was first elected to the House of Commons in 1951, seems youthful and vigorous. Beginning amicably enough, the interview, which was taped, very quickly became an antagonistic debate.

    As regular readers of Socialist Organiser will know, we believe that only some form of federal Ireland, with local autonomy for the Protestant-majority area and linked loosely to Britain and to Europe, can provide a basis for ending the present bloody impasse and building Irish working-class political unity.

    We condemn Britain’s record in Ireland, we side with the oppressed Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, we believe that no viable or democratic settlement is possible within the botched Northern Ireland unit, and we are for British troops out. But we believe that troops withdrawal has to be linked to a political settlement. Without a political settlement, “troops out” could only trigger a drive for “Protestant self-determination” and thus bloody civil war and repartition.

    We outlined to Tony Benn why we thought the left was confused and why it was important to discuss Ireland from first principles, as it were.

    SO: “In one way you represent not only the Labour left, but a whole tradition from way back. How do you see the central problem in Ireland?”

    Benn: It’s a complicated problem. It’s a problem of the British conquest of Ireland. It’s a problem of settlement in Ireland. It’s a problem of economic interest at one stage, which I think has disappeared, in fact I think it’s now quite the opposite.
    It’s a defence problem because of the attitude of the British during World War Two. And the American attitude has been firstly one of protecting Western approaches from the U-Boats and then seeing there was not an independent Ireland between themselves and the Red Army. There’s a religious element in it. There’s a big class element in it, and trying to disentangle the ingredients of it and make sense of it all is quite complicated.

    I think one of the reasons it’s difficult is because the question of Irish unity and the question of British jurisdiction are separate questions and they always try to present them as the same question. My understanding is that now the British want to get out. The Americans have got no interest apart from having an Irish-American population, which is pro-nationalist in general terms. The British have no economic interest in it.

    Dublin has no interest in taking over the North. The last thing they want is to find Ian Paisley sitting in the Dail and Loyalist paramilitaries working in a United Ireland. Sinn Fein knows you can’t force the North into the South. I was trying to unpick it all and see if the bits of the jigsaw puzzle weren’t starting to become apparent.

    If you are going to get a settlement, first of all you’ve got to have talks between the two communities in the North. That is absolutely essential. [Constitutional Nationalist leader, John] Hume has talked to Adams but now we’ve got to get Sinn Fein talking to everybody else. If you want the British out, you’ve got to think what the long-term relationship is going to be.

    When the British government says that it has no economic or selfish interest in Northern Ireland, it must make it clear that there will be a point when British jurisdiction will end. The Bill which I’ve introduced puts this point at 31 December 1999 — simply to put a marker so that people are starting to move to a new perspective. The thing that has got to be tackled if it is an Irish question — which it is very largely — and if the British occupation is no longer an issue, then how do you get things going?

    What I’ve given is a sort of tour of the ingredients. I think it’s very important to understand all these different elements if we are going to be helpful and useful.

    And in the end it is of course class, however you look at it, the poor Protestants and the poor Catholics, and the opening up of the possibility of some class unity within the context of an Irish solution. Then, if the North sorts itself out, its relationship with the South is less of a problem. You can imagine all sorts of arrangements. I don’t think that is a problem. The problem is the extrication of the British and the beginning of some serious discussion in the North about its future. I’ve telescoped it all, and it’s very simplistic, maybe, but that the way my mind is working.

    SO: We asked Tony Benn briefly to outline his Bill for us.

    Benn: It’s the fourth bill I’ve introduced on this point of view. I introduced the first one in 1983, then another one while I was out of the Commons (somebody did it for me), then again in 1984 – basically the same Bill every time.

    It’s a unilateral act of revocation of jurisdiction. It was based really on the precedent of the Palestine Act of 1947 which simply said that on a certain date, British jurisdiction ended. The latest one has had the date pushed forward to 31 December 1999. But in my opinion, in order to create a framework within which meaningful talks can go on within the North, you have to have a clear date set by the British government after which the Irish have to resolve matters.

    SO: “You know what happened after the Palestine Act? War, massacres, struggles for territory?”

    Benn: But you have to see the alternative. We’ve had 25 years of bloody war.

    SO: “Very low-intensity war”.

    That’s an argument for staying and putting it right. But if there was a date when British jurisdiction ended, one of two things would happen — either there would be a massacre or there would be a settlement.

    SO: “Wouldn’t it be a massacre?”

    Benn: I don’t believe it would be for one minute. It’s not in the interests of anybody to kill anybody else. What is the interest?

    SO: “In Yugoslavia, before it broke up, probably the majority wanted a federation as the most rational thing. Then it fell apart – and the tough guys in the various communities set the pace. They forced people targetted by communal and national opponents to line up behind them. Why would that not happen in Ireland?”

    Benn: In order to have a massacre, you have to have support for a massacre. What support would there be? There’d be the gunmen, but what interest is there? If there is a massacre you bring somebody else in, you don’t bring the British in.

    SO: “The UN?”

    Benn: Well, Dublin suggested that in 1969 and I picked it up and used it. But the British troops are the problem. They have no peacemaking role. They have an enforcement role.

    SO: We put it to Tony Benn that there is not only the much-discussed Protestant veto, but a dual veto. The Protestants have a veto on a united Ireland; and, since the abolition of Stormont and the failure to establish a replacement in 1975-76 there has been, in effect, a Catholic/IRA veto on Protestant majority rule in Northern Ireland.

    Benn: After all, the policy followed by Stormont broke down. The reason we sent in troops in 1969 – I was in the Cabinet at the time – was that the B Specials were attacking Catholics, so we were going in allegedly to assist the Catholics from the oppression that was coming from Stormont. But it didn’t take five minutes for it all to turn back into another period of repression.

    If you talk to Labour ministers involved in Northern Ireland, they will say “We agree with you. We’ve got to get out of Northern Ireland. But you can’t say it”. You had a double standard. People thinking one thing privately and saying another thing publicly.

    SO: “So you were saying privately in 1969 that Britain should get out?”

    Benn: In effect, yes. I put it in a paper, I rebuked myself for having left it so long, and sent it to Mason and Callaghan at the end of 1978, saying isn’t it time we discussed Ireland. But we never discussed Ireland. There is no interest in Ireland in Britain, no interest in the Cabinet in Britain.

    If the Protestants could be absolutely assured that they weren’t to be forced into the South, as they can’t be, then I think there’s a possibility of some discussions going on in the North…

    SO: “You say that the Protestants can’t be forced into the South. So if Britain withdraws, or declares it’s going to withdraw, what then? Suppose you’re wrong? Suppose there is a sort of Bosnia. What happens then? You think the solution is the UN?”

    Benn: Well, it’s a bit of divide and rule. We are there to protect a million working-class Protestants. I’ve never known the Tory Party to be interested in the working class in Britain, Northern Ireland or anywhere else, so I didn’t ever think that argument was true. But there is a great desire for peace. You may say it’s only a limited, low-level terrorism that’s going on, but it’s killed a lot of people and frightened a lot of people.

    SO: “I meant they can live with it”.

    Benn: Well, or die with it, of course.

    SO: “I mean the British Government can live with it”.

    Benn: Well, the British Government can and can’t, but it’s very expensive. I think there is another factor entering into it. The Treasury must be saying “why the hell are we spending all this money on war in Northern Ireland? We can’t win”.

    Talk about a peace dividend! The biggest peace dividend pro-rata in the world is Ireland, because you’ve got two militarised states and huge poverty.

    SO: “But I can’t understand what basis you have for believing there would not be a civil war and repartition”.

    Benn: Well, you’ve got to tell me why there would be.

    SO: “Because of what you said yourself. The Protestants can’t be forced into a united Ireland”.

    Benn: This is the absolute confusion, that Irish unity and a British withdrawal are the same thing. They are totally separate issues. I’m saying, until it’s clear that the British are not going to seek to exercise jurisdiction, serious discussion will never go on.

    SO: “But are you saying that the sectarian civil war which would certainly follow within Northern Ireland would not matter?”

    Benn: I don’t accept that it is inevitable. It’s the argument every Unionist has always used. I’m not saying that you’re putting yourself in that position.

    But if that is the argument, then frankly the conflict will just go on for another 500 years.

    SO: “The problem is, the Northern Irish Protestant people say they’re British”.

    Benn: Yes.

    SO: “If you put it to them, they say they’re British. That being so…”

    But Benn saw where that was leading and interrupted.

    Benn: Well, they’re all members of the European Union, aren’t they? We’re all citizens of a single union now, so, in a sense, the question of nationality has been totally dissolved. The Queen now has to have a vote! She can vote in the European elections this summer. So even the monarchy has been removed by the European union.

    SO: “Whatever the legalities”, I replied, “in real terms nationalism is very powerful, especially in Ireland, and the Northern Protestant Irish say they’re British. They are also a compact majority in north-east Ulster, though not in the whole Six Counties. They are a clear majority in about half….”

    Benn: Well, that’s the doomsday scenario, repartition.

    SO: “The question is, from what principled point of view should those Protestants be forced out of the UK?”

    Benn: On what principle…?

    SO: “They say they are British”.

    Benn: But who partitioned them? We did. By the bullet. We created the Northern Ireland state. It’s very easy. I could create a little republic of 12 Holland Park Ave and say we don’t have to obey any external laws because there is a 12 Holland Park Ave veto. “I’m not paying the poll tax or the TV licence”. And you would say that’s democracy? That isn’t democracy at all.

    SO: Clearly Tony Benn likes old movies. This was reducing the Northern Ireland question to the old Ealing comedy, “Passport to Pimlico.” I continued: “There is no comparison. In Northern Ireland there are one million people who say they are different from the rest of the Irish. They are Irish, but they are a different sort of Irish to my Irish”.

    Benn: Well, they are Scottish settlers, actually.

    SO: “Scottish and English settlers — 400 years ago”.

    Benn: Well, it’s a mixture. There is a Protestant minority in the South. There’s a Catholic minority in the North. There’s a Protestant minority in the whole of Ireland. There’s an Irish minority in the whole of the UK. Once you start playing the minority game, then I think you are in a difficulty.

    SO: “But you see, they are a minority. Gladstone talked about some form of….”

    Benn: Home rule.

    SO: “For the Protestant entity too. He didn’t do anything about it.” I put it to Benn that the radical tradition in which he stands has a bad record. “The root problem now is that, as you say, Britain’s imperialist considerations have more or less gone away, but the division between Irish people remains. It was there before British politicians started playing the Orange card, and it remains now that they have more or less stopped. If you get the British to pull out without a political settlement, there is no reason why you won’t get a Protestant/unionist drive for self-determination”.

    Benn: It depends how you see it working. You could imagine circumstances where the North was self-governing without the British troops, then working out a relationship with the Republic.

    SO: “The present Six Counties unit could not hold together. It would fall apart. The North would dissolve into civil war. The two communities are clearly divided, though interlaced geographically. There would be Bosnian-style ethnic cleansing”.

    Benn: I understand that. I know you are approaching it from a totally different perspective. But what you are saying in effect is that the Partition was right, it has to be sustained, and the troops have to stay.

    SO: “No, I’m not. Listen to what I say”.

    Benn: Well, that’s how I read what you say. You say the Partition was to take account of the cultural identity of the North. It was a funny Partition because it included a lot of Catholics who couldn’t be put back into the republic.

    SO: “It was an imposed partition, not a democratic, intra-Irish settlement”.

    Benn: Because it was done by the Black and Tans and the British. It never was intended to have any ingredient of democracy in it. It was a gerrymandered state which hasn’t really worked, and you are saying that if we now were to try a new approach, then it would dissolve into massacre on a Bosnian scale. Now, if you’re right about that, and that is the view that some people have taken, then it’s quite clear the status quo must go on.

    SO: “No, the status quo can’t go on. I didn’t say that the North represented democracy. I said that the Partition was imposed by Britain, imposed by a Cabinet containing people who had been Unionist, anti-Home-Rule rebels in 1914. It was particularly brutal, so much so as to destroy their possibilities of a viable ‘Protestant’ state. There is a democratic element, but it’s smothered by the vast size of the Catholic minority, which is now over 40%. In a sense, they were so greedy that they destroyed the possibility of a long term settlement”.

    Benn: Well, you are pointing to a repartition, then.

    SO: “I’m not sure I am. I’m pointing probably towards the idea that the only basis for a united Ireland is a federal Ireland”.

    Benn: Well, that’s what Trotsky said about Yugoslavia in 1911. But then a federal arrangement is not so very different, not so totally incompatible with a withdrawal of British jurisdiction.

    SO: “British troops out is a good idea, as one part of a solution. What concerns me is that on the left it is presented as a single demand promising, in and of itself, a solution — not only a solution, but a united Ireland. People think it means a united Ireland, and it doesn’t. It can’t”.

    Benn: I’ve never said it does. I’ve said that you must differentiate between British jurisdiction and Irish unity, as totally different questions. They are absolutely different.

    Sinn Fein know you can’t force the North into the South. You can’t do it, they know that. That’s the big change that’s occurred. Everybody has crossed the Rubicon.

    The British don’t want to remain. Dublin doesn’t want to take it over. The Loyalists don’t want to go into the South, and Sinn Fein know they can’t force them in. You are facing a new situation here.

    A federal arrangement might be the right answer, but the only reason I don’t advocate it is that then I’d be saying how the Irish should govern themselves. The two communities in the North have got to sort out their problems.

    SO: “The status quo and work for a political settlement?”

    Benn: he status quo plus a political settlement is just saying the IRA should give up their weapons and come and sit round the table.

    SO: “Wouldn’t you say that?”

    Benn: My own opinion is, with the likelihood is of loyalist violence, you have to face the reality of IRA violence, and the IRA violence is there. Major is saying “Give up your weapons, sit round the table and it will all be all right”. The problem there is that Adams could say that tomorrow, but it wouldn’t happen.

    That was a quick and surprising this-is-my-side response from the ex-Cabinet minister. Now he checked himself, when I asked:

    SO: “You don’t think there is any prospect of an IRA

    Benn: Well, I don’t know. I am a believer in non-violence. I’m not an advocate of violence. The reality is that there is a very strongly entrenched group of people who think that Partition was wrong.

    SO: “Isn’t there a big element here also of Nationalists wanting land where there has been a different community for three or four hundred years?”

    Benn: I understand what you are saying, and I’ve met lots of people who have said it, in the Labour Party and the Conservative Party.

    SO: “Is it true?”

    Benn: Yes. Which is roughly, there will be a massacre if you get out. Stay and hope it all quietens down. It’s a perfectly permissible argument, but you have to live with the consequences of your own decision.

    SO: “You say that you wouldn’t presume to tell the Irish how to govern themselves, and thus you would not advocate some federalist solution. Against that there is the fact that many Northern Ireland people say they are British; the fact that Britain is now in control; and the fact that by pulling out without a political settlement Britain would be making decisions for the Irish people.

    “Isn’t it better to accept those facts and be positive, and for Britain to seek a realistic solution based on the recognition that there are one million people who would fight to control their own area of Ireland. You base your Bill on Palestine. You know what happened there. Britain abdicated, and the Jews and Arabs set to fighting for control of hills and towns and advantageous positions.”

    Benn: On that basis you would have stayed in India in order to avoid partition.

    SO: “Would anyone seriously dispute that Britain might have withdrawn from India in a less bloody fashion?”

    Benn: The point is that, unfortunately, major transfers of territory can lead to trouble. If I were to accept your argument, which I don’t for one minute because you are putting forward John Major’s view – on that basis you would have stayed in Palestine. You’d have had a bloody great war there. You would have stayed in India and maybe partition wouldn’t have occurred and so on. I just don’t think that is a tenable position.

    SO: “There is at least one difference” I pointed out. “Neither in Palestine nor in India were the people British”.

    Benn wouldn’t have that. Yes they were, he said, just as British as the Northern Ireland Unionists.

    Benn: Well, they were. They were in the British Empire.

    SO: “They were not British”.

    Benn: They were. They were British citizens. Their passport said “British Citizen”. They were exactly the same, and there were a lot of people in India who didn’t want us to go.
    I remember meeting a Maharajah in 1931 when he came here. He was British. He had been given honours by Queen Victoria. The issues over the withdrawal from Empire was like the Falklands. I mean, your argument is a justification for the Falklands war.

    SO: “But I put it to you again, there is a difference”.

    Benn: I don’t think there is any difference at all, not the slightest bit of difference.

    SO: “It doesn’t matter, then, that one million people in Ireland are British in reality and say they are?”

    Benn: What you’ve got to do is find a way that safeguards their interests without 20,000 British troops being there and repressing a minority which is growing – you say it’s 60%, I don’t know – probably with birth rates and so on.

    SO: “There has been quite spectacular growth recently”.

    Benn: Maybe in 50 years time there will be more Catholics than Protestants.

    SO: “But that doesn’t solve anything, because the Protestants would still say: we have a distinct identity and we will not surrender it”.

    Benn: You say it wouldn’t. Look, I do understand what you are saying, and you are putting a perfectly fair argument to me. It is an argument that is identical to Major’s argument, though approached from quite a different perspective.

    SO: “But one can’t say that because Major says it, it must be wrong…”

    Benn: I’m not complaining. I fully understand it.

    SO: “Even Major may sometimes be right!”

    Benn: Well, fair enough.


    Benn was now impatient to be done, and plainly we had taken it as far as we could go.

  • sherdy

    Tony Benn: a principled politician of intellect – what a rarity!

    Well done, David. That tome is worthy of an MA.

    You’ve left me lost for words.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Sympathies to his family.

    However, this famously principled man didn’t extend his commitment to democracy to Northern Ireland, a place where (uniquely) people were apparently not to be allowed a say in their own future (because they wouldn’t vote for what he wanted). There was something oddly colonialist about that old stance of the British hard left, now largely marginalised, thank God. He clung to outdated, Anglo-centric notions of Britishness, with comments like this in 2002:
    “I always thought the problem was the Brits, you see. In Britain they talk about the Irish problem, while I always talk about the British problem in Ireland.”
    Divide and rule: by Brits, he meant to separate Brits on the mainland, to whom he deigned to grant democratic rights, from those in Northern Ireland, to whom he refused democratic rights.

    He refused to accept us as British – even after Sinn Fein had done so. I read a 1994 interview in which he saw us as no more British than members of the Indian Raj. That betrayed where the mistake lay in his analysis: an insistence that the everything could be squeezed into the boxes allowed for it by post-colonial theory. Those approaches have been taken apart pretty definitively by a much more perceptive left-leaning analyst of Anglo-Irish history, Stephen Howe, in his brilliant “Ireland and Empire.”

    Benn would say our identity was a constructed one, the unexamined assumption being that (1) somehow, other people’s identities are NOT constructed; and (2) it was for intellectuals like Benn to decide on what a valid or invalid identity was, not the people themselves. Drivel, and patronising too. Some democrat.

    I always thought a lot of what he did was explained by a wrong-headed, over-compensating guilt over his own privileged birth. Understandable, but he shouldn’t have taken it out on Northern Irish people.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    While being critical of Tony Benn, I do so under the influence of the following: one of my favourite Not The Nine O’Clock News sketches. I think it has particular relevance in the week of Bob Crow and Tony Benn’s passing:

  • Turgon

    Mainland Ulsterman gets it exactly correct and indeed David Crookes’s excellent piece provides an excellent illustration of the point.

    Benn started on NI (and on many things) from a false premise and then built with excellent logic his argument. His prescritption for the solution was then perfectly logical but utterly flawed by the initial premise.

    In addition on NI and issues of international politics he was stymied by the fact that being a decent liberal minded non violent intellectual he could not really comprehend let alone counter those who believed in things not covered by that world view. Example being ethnicity and the possibility of violence for which Benn had no real answer unlike Michael Foot who though not much to the right of Benn still understood that at times the only solution to stop violent men is to use violence or at least the threat of it.

    More than anything Benn was a product of his time and his class: intellectual between the wars and post war wealthy elite. The fact that he put principle before power is to his credit as a man but meant that he achieved less politically than he might have.

    His analysis of the flaws of the European Union is, however, still to mind my the best set of reasons to leave Europe. That is not that it is right or left wing or anticompetitive or to do with immigration etc. but simply that it is undemocratic and fails the list of questions asked by Benn which Mick reproduces in the opening post.

    Finally it is only right to note that he apprarently adored his wife and it was noteworthy that in the last interview with him that BBC did a few months ago (played on Today this morning) he repeatedly referenced her despite her death being 14 years ago.

  • David Crookes

    Bless you, sherdy, I respect TB for saying what he really thought. I can congrue with MU’s main comment to a large extent, but I reckon that TB was articulating a view which was held widely rather than narrowly in the British establishment.

    I wonder what would have happened if after the UWC strike HMG had said, “Since most of the people of NI don’t accept the will of the UK’s sovereign government, HMG will cease to govern NI in a period of X years from today.” Would there have been a massacre? If so, would that massacre have involved more or less deaths than the period from 1974 to the present?

    TB’s idea, ruthless as it may seem to some, had at least the virtue of definiteness. But maybe the real world demands an element of unclarity. Like a veto that can be annulled by a referendum.

  • Gopher

    A defining beacon of British freedom has passed away, in no other country in the world would such a personality have access to the mainstream. I would have to give a certain credit to the calm presentation of Mr Benns arguements for part of that access. A lot of Mr Benns theories were tested to destruction during the seventies which led to a economic debacle for the UK, but again the calm presentation insured the sun set slowly on a career all be it on the periphery unlike his political comrades.

    Those old Labour days always remind me of Shelley

    “I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

  • sean treacy

    One thing for sure Mick,Tony would have taken a somewhat different line on Adams and Sinn Fein from you and your Slugger allies.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    He certainly did and he looked a naive tit for doing so.

  • Submariner

    However, this famously principled man didn’t extend his commitment to democracy to Northern Ireland, a place where (uniquely) people were apparently not to be allowed a say in their own future (because they wouldn’t vote for what he wanted).

    MU that is because he recognised that NI was not a democracy but rather a one party gerrymandered sectarian state brought into being at the point of a gun.

  • tacapall

    “He certainly did and he looked a naive tit for doing so”

    Indeed its not the first time he (Benn RIP) stood by those who opposed the status quo. Did you ever hear him referring to Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay, a similar character to Benn but one that could see for beyond his years. Have you ever read his book – The Nameless War. A small book but enlightening.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Is it “a one party gerrymandered sectarian state brought into being at the point of a gun” or one that exists with the consent of all the main parties here, votes north and south of the border, the agreement of the Irish and British governments and the entire international community?

    Even Sinn Fein now accept that “the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union … it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people.”

    Which leaves you a more extreme Irish Republican than the IRA. Which is some achievement.

    But important that voices from the margins are still heard. Good luck with that united Ireland thing, going well.

  • socaire

    That long interesting interview with Tony Benn set me thinking. What exactly was the difference between the British in India and the British in Ireland? Was is colour, race or just a few thousand more miles? English and Scottish people settled, married and intermarried for many years in India. They had British passports, were British citizens, had relatives in Britain, so what was the difference. What separates Turgon from an Indian?

  • Turgon

    What separates Turgon from an Indian?”

    Well they (Indians) are usually fluent in several languages including English which (English included) is better than me.

  • Turgon

    What separates Turgon from an Indian?”

    Well they (Indians) are usually fluent in several languages including English at which (English included) is better than me.

  • David Crookes

    On a serious note, you will find an interesting mention of Tony Benn in Dhirendra Sharma’s essay in “Confronting the Experts: Freeing Teachers from the Tyranny of Texts” by Brian Martin”, SUNY Press, 1996. The pertinent bits are readable online. Try typing into Google BENN and “THE TIMES OF INDIA” (the second hook between double quotes, as shown here).

    Confronting the Experts brings together six personal case histories of challenges to establishment experts. The authors tell why they questioned conventional wisdom, what methods they used, how they dealt with the experts’ response, and what lessons they learned. Because the book shows how powerful groups can get their way by gaining the support of intellectual authorities and also how these authorities can be challenged, it provides insights into the issues of power, dissent, and social change. Included are Sharon Beder’s research on sewage and how it helped to undermine the credibility of the Sydney Water Board; Mark Diesendorf’s scientific and social critique of fluoridation; Edward Herman’s exposition of the flaws in the establishment perspective on terrorism; Harold Hillman’s questioning of the validity of standard methods used in biology, such as subcellular fractionation and electron microscopy; Michael Mallory and Gordon Moran’s challenge to the orthodox interpretation of a famous painting in Siena, Italy: and Dhirendra Sharma’s confrontation with India’s nuclear establishment.

  • socaire

    Now, a sensible answer, Turgon, please. You have had time to consider Benn’s point and I would genuinely like to know. I mean your tribe – not you personally.

  • Gopher

    The difference between Ireland and India is over 2000 years of history as opposed to a 100 years and change.

  • socaire

    I don’t understand that,Gopher. Please elaborate.

  • DC

    ‘What exactly was the difference between the British in India and the British in Ireland?’


  • ForkHandles

    all the principled socialist stuff is great. mainly for the feel good factor. if specifics want to be evaluated then it might all turn out to be the usual pie in the sky stuff that couldn’t be achieved in the 80s 90s or 2000s…. . but his line on NI seems to me to be totally opposite his other principles. we are the deciders of our eventuality. but he didn’t seem to accept this. so I wound say on NI that he is just a bitter old nationalist git. yeah, dispute that if you want but if he wont honor our own decision then I don’t respect his opinion.

  • Turgon

    “Now, a sensible answer, Turgon, please.”

    1). I am under no obligation to answer questions from you.
    2). I personally cannot speak for all unionists.
    3). The question is loaded and any answer will be utilised in an attempt to claim the non legitimacy of the unionist position.
    4). The question is from a source (yourself) who will spin the answer to support your view of point 3 above.

    As such: no I am not going to give you a “sensible” answer. If you asked a sensible question I might consider it though position 1 above still applies.

  • Niall Noigiallach

    Tony Benn’s attitude to the North simply reflects what the vast majority of people in England currently think and always have thought. Although it may pain a lot of people, it’s just the reality. Anyone with a large family scattered about there and working there would pretty much agree and Benn wouldn’t be the only place you’d hear them either. He did understand the fundamentals of democracy, I’ll agree with Mick on that point. His reputation and record stand in stark contrast (with the exception of John Hume perhaps) to anything any MP who ever took their seat from this neck of the woods did

  • socaire

    Ok, Turgon. It’s not often you are left speechless. If you can bring yourself round to answer, I promise that I will make no comment whatsoever.

  • DC

    Tony Benn’s attitude to the North simply reflects what the vast majority of people in England currently think and always have thought.

    I’m not so sure right now – yes there are well to do liberal types in agreement with Benn but I think the more traditional identities Scottish, Irish and Northern Irish, Northern Irish Britishness are appreciated much more now in England, relative to more recent immigration and the rise of Islam and asian communities in England. I think the English can relate more so today to Northern Ireland and having it in the UK than they can to some of the blow back within England itself from more recent immigration, arrests in England of citizens who have visited Syria and taking part in Jihad, not to mention the overall impact of this type of immigration on England’s cultural identity. Factoring in eastern EU immigration too.

    I also think more now than ever England has large parts, large sections of constituencies, not represented or unrepresented at Westminster – EDL types who, like extreme loyalists here, have given up on politics. Because politicians no longer care about getting them a fair deal or cannot produce that fair deal for them, despite perhaps previous attempts at this, including even Labour, pre New Labour.

  • DC

    And funny thing is England celebrates war dead and previous decisive European victories, I would bet my flat and what little money I have, that the English certainly didn’t defeat Hitler so that parts of England today could host and be turned into a Jihadist backwater –

  • DC

    Sorry should be *commemorates war dead and celebrates European victories over, for instance, the Nazis.

  • Niall Noigiallach

    I would respectfully disagree DC and I would go back again to the point I made about anyone with family in England and who works there would pretty much get the same vibe from people as what Tony Benn said on the North. Islam, large Asian communities and Eastern Europe don’t appear to be a factor at all, certainly from what I hear when I’m there anyway.

    I do agree that there are large parts of England that are unrepresented and that this plays it’s part in putting people off politics however that has always been the case with the British system of government. It’s not unique to England and it’s not a recent phenomenon. What would you say if I told you that in fact, that is one of the reasons why myself and many thousands of others would prefer to live in an all-Ireland republic?

  • tacapall

    I also think more now than ever England has large parts, large sections of constituencies, not represented or unrepresented at Westminster – EDL types who, like extreme loyalists here, have given up on politics. Because politicians no longer care about getting them a fair deal or cannot produce that fair deal for them, despite perhaps previous attempts at this, including even Labour, pre New Labour.”

    From a sucker who didn’t know Jamie Bryson was a snakeoil salesman who ran with the foxes and hunted with the hounds. Puppet on a string comes to mind.

  • DC

    If you prefer to live in the Irish republic the Irish government has agreed that Irish unification is about unity of people, like minded people, not territory. On that basis I would suggest you move and be within Irish jurisdiction and become governed by that particular set up.

    Personally I think those white working class under represented constituencies of England have absolutely nothing against – and no bother supporting – traditional identities such as Irish, Northern Irish, Northern Irish Britishness, hell even traditional English cultural identity needs cheered on in today’s multicultural ‘modern’ England.

    I really really don’t agree with you that Benn’s view is mainstream in England today, particularly post EU immigration and other parts of England going Asian and Islam. Sorry!


  • DC

    @tacapall – coming on here slabbering at me, what’s your ebook about, is it anti-Semitism? New World Order!

  • mac tire

    Sorry for going off topic, old chaps but DC, surely it is time to start reading your history (one which you seem to evoke many German episodes).

    Anyway, the “English certainly didn’t defeat Hitler”….you are correct they didn’t. And neither did the British.

    That was done, primarily by the Russians (and with the help of the Americans, as we all know).

    Generally, the British, for the most part, settled for bombing. No need to elaborate because it is well known.

  • tacapall

    Slabbering haha. I note you didn’t acknowledge the point about Bryson. But as regards to Ramsay, well you tell me after all he was a British politician and being arrested under regulation 18b an all, what was that all about ?

  • DC

    @tacapall – you tell me.

    @mac tire – this is where I disagree with loyalism, well the principles of loyalism and specifically a section within it which agrees with the bombing, personally I believe that only the government can make peace with the allies i.e the English and Americans and so on, certainly not the bomb out citizens of Dresden.

    Ergo, no need to bomb the good German citizens of Dresden into oblivion.

  • DC

    sorry should be *bombed out citizens of Dresden.

    Yes, I also agree that WWII was more a war about a capitalist Germany protecting itself from the menace from the east.

  • mac tire

    I appreciate your honest replies, DC – and without attracting the wrath of Mick for staying off topic – Dresden is just the infamous example, off course there were many more.

    While we are miles apart politically, I have to say that you are an interesting fellow, DC.

  • DC

    The use of terror tactics in conflict has never been restricted to ‘terrorist’ organisations.

    The “Baedeker Raids” carried out by the German Air Force against non-military targets, the “carpet bombing” of German towns by the RAF Bomber Command under Arthur “Bomber” Harris and the total destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States Air Force were all designed to terrorise the enemy. All were directed against civilian targets by the conventional armed forces of national governments. When people talk about “terror” and “terrorism” we need to remind ourselves that democratically elected governments and their armed forces are just as likely to engage in terror tactics, as are anti-state or pro-state paramilitaries.

    ^The above is written into Principles of Loyalism – however, my take is that only governments can be bombed into surrender not citizens and whenever citizens in a dictatorship are denied rights to resist this matters all the more, bombing citizens such as in Dresden does not do what is required – getting Nazis to the negotiation table to make peace. Only defeating them militarily will do this, yes! Bombing German citizens – no.

  • Comrade Stalin

    RIP Tony.

    I have to say the first few contributions from the Unionist camp are fascinating. Firstly Tony Benn’s 88-year life, 50 of those years spent as an MP, are reduced in a stroke to the mere matter of some remarks that he made in the past about unionism.

    And secondly that while political opinion across the UK is in mourning at the loss of a remarkable statesman – and patriot I should add – the like of which can only be produced by a stable and mature democracy such as the UK, and the like of which we are not likely to see again for some time; unionism is not considering this, but is instead concerned with Benn’s opinion of Britishness in a way that, perversely, approves the very point that he was making.

  • Son of Strongbow

    I’ll set to one side Tony Benn’s obviously skewed position on the “Irish question” as he often described it.

    He was a political maverick, although seemingly a very personable one. His political legacy? Nothing much I’m afraid. His design for UK postage stamps and, reportedly, adding the ‘e’ to the name of the Concorde jet, were what many reports highlighted.

    His politics were rejected at the ballot box, and ultimately by the party he ‘belonged’ to.

    Benn was no doubt an effective government minister in the 60s. However in the 70s his adoption of looney left politics almost destroyed labour. To that extent he had a major responsibility for the later ‘success’ of Tony Blair and New Labour as they arose from the ashes Benn had helped to create. What a legacy for a fellow traveller of the Miltant Tendency!

    In later life he became a ‘national treasure’. Surely the ultimate humiliation for someone who pictured himself as such a radical socialist.

    As an individual he came from a very privileged background, private school and Oxbridge (Westminster School and New College Oxford). Similar personal antecedents that are today used to attack the Tory Cabinet!

    After his ‘fight’ to renounce his title, something typical of the man he portrayed as a battle for human rights as if he was a member of an oppressed minority, he somehow reconciled himself to the privilege of being handed a safe Labour seat and became an MP in his early twenties.

    Denis Healy referred to Benn as a “pretend socialist’. He was raised in privilege and lived a comfortable upper middle-class life. His position facilitated his son an open door to Westminster. With his clipped tones and his sense of entitlement derived from his background he nevertheless managed to seduce the more credulous on the British Left.

    If his politics had been supported by a majority within the UK I wonder if his fellow aristos would have avoided the tumbrils by renouncing their titles as he did?

    So RIP Viscount Stansgate, you recognised that the quote ‘all political lives end in failure’ could have been written just for you.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    There is a long history of intellectuals ruminating their way to justifying the most horrific cruelty against ordinary people. The pipe smoke obscured a heart of stone towards the people of Northern Ireland when we were enduring the IRA terror. There was something missing with Tony Benn. An intellectual who put ideology (and a half-arsed one at that) ahead of humanity when it came to Northern Ireland. Sorry to say it in the wake of his death, but it’s the truth – he let himself and Northern Ireland down very badly and we never had an hint of an apology.

  • Submariner

    Which leaves you a more extreme Irish Republican than the IRA. Which is some achievement.

    MU I am by no stretch of the imagination an Irish republican extreme other otherwise. I resent your labelling me as such but understand that it is a typical unionist stance to label Nationalists as such,it’s just a few leaps away from the ATAT mentality of the loyalists. Anyhow to get back to my point. The interview with Tony Benn posted above took place at the time of the ceasefire and before the GFA which by the way I voted for,but probably would not do so now. So prior to this from its inception to 1972 NI was run as a one party sectarian state until superseded by undemocratic direct rule from Westminster. Benn recognised this and believed that the only way to solve the Irish question was for Britain to announce a withdrawal date. Looking at the mess we now have up at storming created by the sinners and the DUP maybe he was right.

  • Submariner

    MU the people of NI were just not enduring a campaign of IRA terror but also a vicious sectarian terror campaign waged by loyalists which you seem to have completely overlooked in a typically unionist way.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Benn said that unionists weren’t really British (or words to that effect). Unionists are understandably unhappy about this characterisation, but then go ahead to demonstrate the difference they have with the rest of the UK by devoting their time to grumbling about one statement he made rather than considering the wider impact of 50-odd years spent in politics.

    This actually, for me, goes to the heart of the debate about the union and exactly what it means. If I was trying to persuade someone to vote for the union, one of the things I would be telling them about would be the merit of staying together with a country that can produce such statesmen, and can mourn their passing with respect in a way that transcends political squabbles and differences of opinion.

    Capital-U unionism doesn’t see it this way; it seems to almost seek to define itself by being seen to castigate anyone who dares question its pedigree, discarding every other aspect of who that person is. Presidents, Prime Ministers, MPs, broadcasters, journalists and everyone else are judged against nothing other than their perceived loyalty, or not, to the fine citizens of Wee Ulster. It is an insular, self-obsessed perspective and to me it underscores that these are people for whom the union is more of a means to an end than anything else.

  • Comrade Stalin

    In terms of Benn’s comments themselves I completely disagree with them. Brian John Spencer has spent some time writing about this in another blog. If people wish to call themselves British and aspire to a British entity that is their right and no politician has the right to question this – not least because we are talking about people who largely carry British passports.

    It’s far from the only comment that Benn made in his long career that I would disagree with.

  • Gopher

    The single most important factor in the defeat of Germany was control of the sea by the Royal Navy. It dictated Hitlers strategy from day one ironically until his final days. As for the bomber offensive, 1000 bombers over Cologne in May 1942 when the entire German bomber strength on all fronts was 1000 machines you can’t criticise Harris that the German people were too stupid to draw the correct conclusion. Blame Hitler and the German people electing and following him to destruction no German City was worth the bones of one British soldier who would have lived a peaceable existence but for the war.

  • mr x


    if there were another war between England and Germany who would win? Carthage beat Rome twice but the third war finished it completely.

  • Gopher

    I think your history is slightly skewed. Rome won the first Punic war removing Carthage from Sicily and the Second receiving all Carthage’s Spainish possessions, Scipio defeating Hannibal at Zama.

    Your question is hypothetical because of the EU. But in 1940 England forced Germany first to break her air weapon over the skies of South East England. Her Navy denied continental Europe the resources necessary for Spain or Vichy to enter the War and just like Napoleon before him England forced a dictator to turn east into a war she was not equipped to deal with.

  • Greenflag

    RIP Wedgewood Benn .

    Tony Benn to his credit stated publicly what most British politicians said privately . It might seem incongrous to raise the spectre of another British politician of Tony Benn’s era namely Enoch Powell . Both were right and yet both got it wrong which in the final analysis is about par for British politicians in their efforts to a) understand and b) to politically resolve the ‘Irish ‘ question or as Benn put it I think more accurately the ‘British ‘ problem in Ireland .

    David Crooke’s piece above re the SO interview (1994) notes Tony Benn’s response to SO .

    ‘ Maybe in 50 years time there will be more Catholics than Protestants.’

    Tony Benn got his ‘maybe ‘ wrong by 30 years . It now appears as per Ian Livingtone’s former blog ‘Ulster’s Doomed ‘ that the population of those from a nationalist /republican background is equal to that from a unionist background and in age groups under 40 now forms a majority .Both Northern Ireland’s major cities Belfast and Derry have nationalist majorities and apart from East Belfast /North Down and South Antrim unionists no longer command strong majorities .

    And yet the SO’s response to Benn’s comment re a putative then but real now ‘nationalist majority ‘ noted above still retains some validity

    “But that doesn’t solve anything, because the Protestants would still say: we have a distinct identity and we will not surrender it”.

    Whats to surrender ? Certainly not Protestantism . Just like Roman Catholicism both denominations are in decline in Ireland . How a British political minority can co exist as a cultural and to an extent religious minority in Ireland is the question which our politicians (all of them North and South ) have to answer . NI’s unionist politicians seem most reluctant to even consider that question much less answer it . No surrender simply doesn’t cut it any more as many even unionists on slugger have noted .

    Enoch Powell got it right when he said that you have a United Kingdom or a United Ireland but you can’t have both . The current GFA is a half way perhaps three quarter way solution to resolving Enoch Powell’s obvious political truth .
    Tony Benn to his credit opted for a United Ireland . Enoch Powell remained a Unionist even when finally defeated as MP for South Down by Eddie McGready of the SDLP . When Mr Powell made his farewells from the podium the audience which applauded his speech were overwhelmingly Irish nationalists .

    Tony Benn at least on Ireland got the future right although I’d concede that a British political withdrawal from NI in the 1970’s /1980’s and perhaps even in some parts of NI today would be replaced with a descent to former Balkan states levels of violence and disruption of local populations .

    Enoch Powell’s NI political experience in South Down is likely to be repeated by an increasing number of Unionist politicians as the future unfolds .

    In the meantime it’s the GFA .

  • Greenflag

    Comrade Stalin,

    ‘Capital-U unionism doesn’t see it this way ———- is an insular, self-obsessed perspective and to me it underscores that these are people for whom the union is more of a means to an end than anything else’

    Indeed . Reminds me of the old intra German joke circa 1914 –
    on the theme of Prussian honour v Austrian money grubbing .
    herewith :

    Prussian General :

    We Prussians fight for our honour -while you Austrians only fight for money .

    Austrian General :

    I suppose we both fight for what we need most .

    In the above respect a cynic /skeptic or even a realist might suggest that Northern Ireland is neither Prussian nor Austrian but both 😉

    And a happy St Patrick’s Day to one and all and did’nt David Trimble play a blinder for Ireland in Paris .Well done the men in green .

  • Morpheus

    Slight amendment there Greenflag. Carholics are already the largest group in the U80 age group, not the U40s. The U80s make up 96% of the population. In the remaining 4% Catholics are outnumbered 2:1.

    And that was in 2010.

    And the sky didn’t fall down

  • babyface finlayson

    “did’nt David Trimble play a blinder for Ireland in Paris ”
    Yes he certainly earned that Nobel prize yesterday.

  • Son of Strongbow

    “… and didn’t David Trimble play a blinder for Ireland in Paris.”

    That would have been an impressive feat for Lord Trimble. Is his signature play the ‘UUP and under’?

  • Greenflag

    Well spotted lads : ( I can only plead jet lag and slugger as my excuse for that Freudian slip .

    SOS ,

    Theres no U in Garryowen and there’s only one U in up and under but you I’ll give you 10 out of 10 for the riposte 🙂

    babyface finlayson ,

    Given a choice though I’d prefer winning the championship to a Nobel Prize . The honour ye see 😉 Of course if I were an Austrian I would’nt .

    Morpheus ,
    Thanks for the tick tock update . In the interest of general descriptive brevity and NI slugger readers sensitivities – national -religious -cultural etc I suggest that all references to Protestant /Catholic / British/Irish /Fenian /Loyalist etc be discontinued in favour of the simple U or Non U designations,

    U ( thanks to SOS for the inspiration) would refer to those who favour a United Ireland i.e real unionists whereas Non U would refer to those who continue to favour the disunion of Ireland i.e the unreal /surreal unionists ?

    This terminology might stand the current practice /conventional wisdom on it’s head or would that be against the head ? anyway I’m bored with the Catholic /Protestant nomenclature . Would much prefer U and Non U 😉

    Lets hope Andrew Trimble and the Irish Team do one better next year and win the World Rugby Cup 🙂
    St Patrick hisself would be dethroned as patron saint and replaced by the men in green if that happy result were to come about ?

    Now where’s me umble pie gone ?

  • Son of Strongbow

    To be fair to you Gf it was a bit of a stretch to expect someone like your good self to be fully up to speed with the details of ‘Garrison Games’.

    And again, thinking of you, and specifically your political outlook, I’m more than happy to be very Non U.

  • Greenflag


    Fully up to speed ? I was on the edge of my seat sitting in an airport lounge watching the last half of the game before having to board . I use a website which circumvents shall we say the standard BBC /RTE limitations 🙂

    Glad to hear you’ve joined the ranks of non unionists .
    Always knew you had it in u .