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From On the Fiddle 11 (Levellers Fan Club magazine)


Rev - First question is, could you explain your interest in the Levellers and the diggers of the 17th century?

Tony - Well, the English Revolution was a very important event, I mean we were the first republic in the whole of Europe really, ahead of the French, ahead of the Russians, the Germans, ahead of the Americans, and if you look back at 1649 it was an attack upon an actual monarchy. Charles the First said God had put him there, which was a convenient idea, and Cromwell led a parliamentary revolt. I mean it wasn't a popular movement in the modern sense. When I was in China they described this as a birth of capitalism, which in a funny way may be right. It was an attack on the feudal structures by the new power groups, but it attracted a hell of a lot of people, and that of course at first was the army, then you had the Levellers, who were more politically radical, and then you had the diggers, who were really communists, and the diggers went to St. George's Hill, and God, everything came out then! I mean the Levellers said the earth is common treasury, it is a crime to buy and sell the earth for private gains! The republican constitution (the agreement of the people) was really a basic democratic constitution, and funnily enough because after Labour conferences we sing the red flag I get angry letters from retired lieutenant colonels in Tunbridge Wells saying "go back to Russia".

Mark laughs at this point - as does Tony Benn.

Tony - Well I mean of course the red flag is our flag! Because the first time the red flag flew was not in the Russian Revolution, or the French Revolution, it was in 1650 when the French sent a delegation to seek Cromwell, and they were so impressed by the English republican constitution that they flew the red flag which was our flag! And it released such a hell of a lot of debate and discussion and so on, then of course it was crushed in 1660 when the king came back. But those memories are still very powerful and they are part of the folk memory, see they are really a different tradition, I don't believe I am a rebel, I'm a traditionalist, but of a different tradition! And there are traditions always competing: so I am very very interested in it and go every other year. I'm going to go next year to Burford where Cromwell shot the three Levellers soldiers, I gave a lecture there and so on. There's a play called "Light in Buckinghamshire", it's about the English Revolution, that's just coming on at the theatre, and I went to talk to the actors about it the other day.

Rev - Really!

Tony - Yup, it's coming on at the National Theatre I believe, quite soon.

Rev - Oh brilliant, I haven't heard of that.

Tony - Well , I'm going to ask you lot questions when you've finished.

All - Much laughter.

Rev - Do you find any hope in the DIY cultures, such as the Exodus collective in Luton and the road protest movements?

Tony - Oh crikey yes! And I think the sad thing about British politics at the moment is that so many of the protest movements have become disconnected from the political systems, they no longer look to the ballot box as a route to solving their problems, they just take direct action. Mind you there's nothing new in that, the suffragettes, the trade unionists did etc., but if you separate yourself than you are on your own. You go down to Dover, I went down to speak for them, where they were complaining about the export of live animals, and they came up against the police criminal justice act, until it comes to them they don't connect it with the miners during the miners strike and so on...
Then you've got the Newbury people. Newbury was the road protest, then the "land is ours" people ,and then you get the fire fighters. The Liverpool dockers are on the internet! And all these things are going on, but the trouble is the political parties are all getting closer and closer to each other, so people are cynical, pessimistic and despairing, and they do it themselves. Of course it is very important educationally to get across the case, but the media don't report it: so they get desperate! Then the political parties say, you are a lot of extremists, and so the whole process of change is deferred and delayed, and in the end people go and riot and, you know, I mean that is the condition of the way that the people got their grievances sorted, and rioting is not the best way if you've got a way of doing it through the system, but the system is not working at the moment!

Rev - If we were to reach a point of realising a citizens bill of rights, who will draw this up?

Tony - Well, before you go I will give you what I drew up, a new constitution, everyone laughs , it abolishes the monarchy and disestablishes the Church of England, you elect a magistrate, there is one woman and one man in each constituency, you don't have equality discrimination for women, you have equality representation as a bill of rights, as trade union rights etc. It's quite a comprehensive bill, it's on the internet now! they put it on without my permission, I was delighted actually, so it would have to go through parliament and then to be put out to a referendum, because it would be a very fundamental thing if you had a republic, but I am a republican.

Rev - So that would be you?

Tony - Well, anybody, but I mean you put the bill forward, you put the proposal forward for people to discuss it, and then people have to say whether they want it or not.

Rev - The constitution that is written, how much of that would draw similarities with the agreement of the people?

Tony - Things have moved on, but it would have the same basic intention as much as being run by the people who live in it.

Mark - Right, thank you.

Rev - Briefly, what are your feelings on the Criminal Justice Act?

Tony - Oh! I'm totally against it, I voted against it. I think the Labour party rather nervously abstained, but there was a huge meeting, you may have been there, in Hyde Park, there was Mike Mansfield, Arthur Scargill, I spoke, bloody media ignored it! Except they sent some camera units along hoping there would be a scuffle with the police, which the police obligingly laid on, and you know 100,000 people protesting against 'Education' and 'Panorama' would go berserk with these programmes or in Russian under the Communists, but here they just ignored it, because on the whole the establishment wanted it, and as things get worse the criminalisation of dissent is really the way they hope to cope with keeping things under control, that's really what it is all about.

Rev - What are your feelings on New Labour - and are you disappointed?

Tony - Well, I'm not a member, he laughs, well, you know I am a member of the Labour Party, the Labour Party has got a very long history. New Labour is a sort of advertising phrase - I do desperately want to win! - because I think this government has done a lot of damage.

Rev - Do you believe the future of Britain lies within Europe, or outside of it?

Tony - Well, I'm a European, but I am totally opposed to the Maastricht treaty. Under the Maastricht treaty you are run by commissioners, you don't elect, it's like the House of Lords, they're appointed and they stay there, then if we have a single currency, it will be run by bankers who will decide what you spend and what you can cash. So I'm bitterly opposed to the Maastricht treaty, but I have introduced another bill. I have been very busy - everyone laughs - commonwealth of Europe bill, which I will also give you, which sets out a framework for co-operation between all the member states in Europe, but they do it through their own parliaments, at their own pace, according to their own tradition, a sort of mini United Nations for Europe. So I am an internationalist, and the reason I don't agree with the right wing anti Europeans is that they don't like foreigners. I am an internationalist, and therefore, I want to work with Germans and Russians, if I were German or be just as much opposed to the Maastricht treaty, because you are controlled by people you don't remove. The only reason that MPs have to listen to people is because on polling day the government can be got rid of, because in my constituency everybody I meet is my employer, the bus driver, the ticket collector, so I have to listen, with a commission I don't have to listen to anybody. So the democratic process is a very subtle one, and then you get freedom to say what you think, but the people get freedom to decide whether they want you or not, and that is broken by a commission, mind you, it's a very old system. I was thinking, Julius Caesar arrived at 55 AD, and we were governed from Rome and we had a single currency, which is still used, the pound stirling. Everything that happens has a historical background, so I'm interested in the 17th century, but I am a great internationalist. I think the world has got to work together, but I'm not in favour of Globalisation or Bankers control.

Rev - Does the tradition of dissent have a future in this country?

Tony - Well, it never really by definition is a majority view, and the dissent is when people don't agree with what is going on, but on the other hand, dissenters can become a majority. I mean, if you take the women, the suffragettes, they were locked up, they went to prison, they went on hunger strikes, so I think dissent is the conscience or the spirit of the country in protest, and I think the Criminal Justice Act will be repealed in some form because you can't have a situation where a policeman can tell you where you can protest, or not. Oops there goes the phone again: So erm and Trade Unions were illegal and you see if you take a power tide, Mandela he was a dissenter, I went to Trafalgar Square in '64 to protest against his arrest. In his trial he said, I am a terrorist, he said, I tried peacefully and then by non co-operation, then I took the guns, next time I met him he was a Nobel Prize winner in present South Africa. So you have to take a movie picture of curricular development, not snap shots.

Rev - Erm, on a sort of related topic, I live in Exeter and we have this situation with John Lloyd, what are your feelings on that?

John Lloyd was selected by the Exeter Labour Party to fight the next election and then deselected by the Labour Party National Executive.

Tony - Well, I know John Lloyd, and when I met him I thought he had a great record against Apartheid, but then subsequently I was rather, well, to put it mildly, disappointed, when the national executive decided that he couldn't be a candidate, and from what I know, I understand why they took that decision, I have had letters from people in Exeter. Do you know John?

Rev - Yeah, I met him 2 or 3 times.

Tony - I know he was very upset about it, but, if it is really true what has been said, then, obviously, it does throw a different light on his role in South Africa.

Rev - I feel it is a shame for the people in Exeter to lose an extremely hard working councillor.

Tony - Yes, I've heard that.

Rev - ...and one of the greatest things about him was that immediately after he was de-selected, or whatever, is that he was still out there campaigning.

Tony - I'm sure that is right.

Mark - Some different sort of question for you. Do you read many books?

Tony - Well, I get a lot sent to me and I try and get through them, but funnily enough, I get more of my information from listening than I do from reading.

Mark - Do you?

Tony - Yeah, I meet lots and lots of people and I listen very carefully, and I am not a great reader, I find it easier to listen.

Mark - Does the knowledge that you intend to publish your diaries colour the contents?

Tony - The truth of the matter is, a diary is a funny thing to do, because you go through an experience of the day. I take a few notes, and then if it is very interesting then I will miss my lunch and do the diary every morning over dinner and over lunch with my tape recorder and then at night, but you are so keen to get it off your chest. I never intended to publish them, I intended them as my working papers and then, oh about 10-11 years ago I thought, well I wonder. So I got a grant from the Rowntree Trust to type up a bit, I didn't want to be a political publisher but I'm very happy to publish them, and when I looked at them I saw they were fine, so I then did publish a set of 6 volumes. Then Omnibus published, and of course the full thing is about 10 million words, the editor worked for about ten years on this, she went through it, and what we agreed was a lot of detail had to go, but nothing of substance was removed, and she and I agreed and everything. All the mistakes I made I insisted went in, because of credibility, they had to be accurate, but they are as accurate as I could make them. They turned out to be useful for an entirely surprising reason, that the media tell you what to think today, and about 25 years later the historians tell you what they think it is. So today and the day before yesterday are fixed by powerful people, but yesterday is still open so people remember it, and so you can encourage people to re-examine their prejudices of yesterday. There was the cold war and the Russians, where the anti colonial movements were terrorist movements, of course they were, they were liberation movements and so on. So it's turned out to battalion of tanks that you send across the one undefended frontier of the British establishment, which is the risky part, they defend the present and today on Newsnight, they defend the past through the historians, but they don't defend the recent past, cos then the media has forgotten. So it's turned out to be a very political thing, and I've got the whole diary on a CD ROM, which I can look up, but I can't publish that because, first of all have to read the whole damn thing again and correct the spelling and the names, but also because it has got some libel in it, and you can't say libelous things until the guys are dead - again much laughter all round at this point - so in a few years time the whole thing will come out. It's very useful to me, I mean, I still do it, and the next volume I am working on I am going to call "Free at Last", and the last entry will be from St. Thomas's hospital - "I'm not feeling very well to day".

Tony muses - roars of laughter

Rev - Brilliant

Mark - Do you consider yourself a disciplined individual?

Tony - Well, I work hard, I'm not complaining, because I don't have to, I could have retired ages ago. I suppose you have to have a certain discipline, and then I get 20,000 letters a year, so I have to open all of them, it's fairly hard work, I attended 170 public meetings last year all over the country, Scotland, England, Wales all over the place, and then I went to India to give a lecture, and so I work hard, but I enjoy it. It's a pleasure but it's also a grind, you know, it's a combination of pleasure and hard work.

Mark - Are there any present day British politicians that you admire?

Tony - My own feelings about leadership is really "Oh hell", oh dear, there goes that phone again, he is a busy man, So my own feeling about things is that progress is made by movement and not by individuals and that really the function of a leader is to encourage and help to guide and support and teach and so on. Which is rather different from the normal idea of a charismatic figure or peer. So I've been influenced by a lot of people, in the miners strike. Arthur Scargill played a very important part, but because he supported his members really, the idea of leadership as being a kind of central general of the Army doesn't appeal to me very much. Some of the best speeches that I have ever heard in my life were made by women in the women's support groups during the miners strike. It's the experience that shapes you, I have got a nice quote about leaderships: "The best leaders are not noticed, the next best are hated and the worst type are feared".

Mark - Why did you become a politician?

Tony - Well, my dad was an MP, and I was brought up in a very political home, from very early we discussed politics at home, and so I suppose that it was an interest that would naturally happen. He had an office a bit like this, and he would come down and work, it's always what I've been interested in, I was very lucky I got in when I was 25.

Mark - Have you considered any other careers?

Tony - Well, you never can be sure what you'll get into. I've worked for the BBC, that was the first job, I was in the war, then I came back from the war, then I went to college for a bit.

Rev - As a politician, do you feel you have mellowed with age?

Tony - Well, I've learnt a lot you see, and if I am right that the only real teacher is experience, I moved to the left as I got older, because the more you learn the more you realise what a hell of a lot is wrong you see - in that sense, but I've never believed in politics being productive personally, I don't attack individuals, just the whole cabinet. All this abuse that goes on does not get you anywhere, and I find if you try and address your mind to the problems that people have and get into them and listen and learn and then from it draw your own conclusions and explain things, people are interested in that. And I go to, as I did last Friday, I sit in a surgery for 6 hours, and about 25 people came, two or three of them burst into tears, there was one woman who was Pakistani, she was born in Wakefield, she was not allowed any benefits at all. She was not allowed Income Support, Child Benefit, she was brought to me by a social worker, and then there was a woman with a baby, she was going to be made homeless, these are the things that keep me going and stir me up, and I don't find that people in the streets or who knock at the door or anything ever raise the questions that are on Newsnight or the Today programme. They are never raised, it's all will Virginia Bottomley be re-shuffled and who gives a damn! Will I get a job, will my son get a house, will my daughter get a grant for college, will my Aunty get her operation. So that really is the thing that shapes my thinking. I'm more fired up than I was when I was young because I've learnt a lot.

Rev - If you were offered cash for questions, how much would you require and what would the question be?

Tony - Nobody has ever asked me that before! Oh, I feel a bit offended now -Mark cracks up laughing - I've never been able to say to anybody, "get thee behind me saturn", but I am quite sure it should be dealt with by law. If I offered you a thousand quid to vote for me, I'm guilty of a corrupt practice, if when I am elected you offer me a thousand quid to work for you secretly, it's not illegal. The real problem is, why is it that what they did was not illegal, because they haven't made it illegal, so I am in favour of changing the law, and I think that argument is winning the day slowly. It should be dealt with by court but not by parliament, and I think that is the proper way of dealing with it, and I have been saying this time and again - yah.

Rev - Politics is a serious business, what makes you laugh?

Tony - Ha ha ha - I've got a sense of humour, Rory Bremner makes me laugh, do you ever watch him? everyone answers yes - I think he's marvellous, he's brilliant, it's safe to say I have got a sense of humour.

Rev - Have you any harboured ambitions to be Prime Minister?

Tony - Well, I wouldn't have minded. I have to plead guilty like a guy before the magistrates with four other offences to take into account, but I stood for the deputy leadership twice and the leadership twice, and now when I look back each of those campaigns I saw as a sort of education opportunity. I would have only been interested to have won if people really supported what I was saying, I wasn't interested in saying what they wanted to get there! If I look at the people that I stood up against, the first guy I stood up against was Lord Jenkins, deputy leadership '71, well, he won, he left the party and became a peer. Second guy I fought against was Callaghan, he won and lost the election and went to the House of Lords. Third guy I fought against was Healy - Tony muses and chuckles - he won, he lost the election and he went to the House of Lords, and the fourth one was Kinnock and he lost and went to Brussels, so I mean it's not a disreputable record - more chuckles of laughter from everyone - Well, if you mean am I sort of cheesed off that I'm not, the answer is no, I mean if I had a chip on my shoulder, I would have enough chips to open a fish and chip shop.

Rev - What are your feelings on the National Lottery?

Tony - I've got very mixed feelings about it, you can't stop people putting a quid on a flutter, on the other hand if you do put a quid on the lottery, you've got a 14 to one million chance of becoming a millionaire, and in taxation you've got a hundred odd chance of getting a hip operation, but you know I smoke my pipe and I spend more on tobacco then if I went on the lottery, so you can't stop it. I'm a bit nervous that if this thing gets launched, in the end they'll say the health service depends on the lottery. Then you destroy the idea that the community has the responsibility for its members, and the health of the nation, the education of the nation, the care of old people is a national responsibility, not just a personal one. I think that the welfare state is being wound up, so the National Lottery, I haven't got an interest in it. I did once buy a premium bond.

Rev - Do you feel you spent your life going against the flow?

Tony - Not really, not really, a lot of things I've campaigned for have come about, my test of a useful political life is whether when you said it you believed it and meant it and you say the same to everybody. People I respect are the people who say the same at home. So in that sense although I've made a million mistakes, the very details of my diary, so I hope when I look back that when I said something I meant it, and that is quite satisfying, I would hate to think I said it to get some personal advance.

Well, tell me about yourselves, because I should have asked you at the beginning.

Rev - Well, Mark is in the pop group called the Levellers, I'm a songwriter that's done a lot of work with Mark, and we share common interests in that period of history that we were talking about, around the 17th century. The interview that we are doing here will go out to the Levellers fans that are on the Levellers database in their fan club magazine.

Mark - It's basically a fanzine about the band, but also like things like issues, all the issues that we might be interested in or that people write in from all around the world about all sorts of things.

Tony - I can believe that.

Mark - Yeah, it's really good, and a lot of people that get it are like 15 year olds, that sort of age group, and we don't brain wash them or anything like that, we report loads of issues for them to take up or not to take up.

Tony - How did you get involved in this? because you don't learn anything about this sort of thing at school I learnt much, much later. How did you learn about them?

Mark - I did learn about them at school.

Tony - You did learn them at school?!

Mark - Yeah, yeah, we chose the name the Levellers, not really as the historical name but for the literal meaning of the word.We realised its historical relevance, and then we actually started to study that period a lot more.

Rev - I learnt about it through attending one of your "Writings on the Wall" shows.

Tony - I was going to say, we've issued a cassette, have you seen it?

Rev and Mark reply, yeah, we've got it at home actually

Rev - I saw you twice at the Hay on Wye literary festival, both years when you were doing it and I thought they were absolutely great shows.

Tony - Yes, we recorded it at Leicester last year, and we launched a cassette a couple of weeks ago at Saffron Walden Folk festival, and Roy Bailey rang me up the other day and said he'd covered his costs for the fortnight, so there must be a market, and he goes around the world to Europe and Australia, New Zealand and Canada and so on, but the BBC won't use him you see because he is too radical.

18th November 1996


1998-2004 Stefanie Fröhlke
Last update 23 Apr 1999