The Man Of The Year category are notoriously hard to choose any year, but 2003 was different for many reasons. With George Bush in power and Tony Blair constantly by his side pandering to his every whim it was to people who stood up against The War Against Terrorism that stood out as the true heroes of the year. Tony Benn was one such man and a constant reminder of what the Labour Party used to stand for. Designer Magazine caught up with Tony to discuss the war, Tony Blair and the Labour party.
Q: You're down for the Man Of The Year category in the Best of 2003 issue with George Galloway and Michael Moore. How do you feel about it?
A: First of all it's very nice, but remember that progress is always made by political movements never by guys on white horses. The important thing at my age is to try and encourage people and if by nominating me you said I encourage people then I'm perfectly happy. I know Michael Moore and I know George Galloway and I feel that in their own way they will encourage people too.
Q: The difference between yourself and George and Michael is that whereas those two attract love and hate in equal measure with yourself people tend to like you regardless of whether they agree with your politics.
A: Well I try not to make political arguments personal. It doesn't help and it switches a lot of people off. The real questions: Will we have peace? Will we have justice? Will we have pensions? Will we have free education? Will we have public services? .... those are the sort of things which interest me. I don't think that having a go at individuals really helps get your point across apart from anything else.
Q: You are really straight talking in your arguments
A: I say what I think, it's much simpler
Q: Huey Newton of the Black Panthers once said that to really push ideas through you have to truly connect with the people and show them change on a day to day basis. Would you agree?
A: Sometimes that's true. But even so if you take pre-war Germany the problem was fascism and Nazi's, I know Hitler was the guy that played a large part in bringing it about, but it really is about what sort of society people create. If you look at South Africa for example. Nelson Mandela didn't end Apartheid, the poor guy was in jail for 27 years, it was the African people that ended it but he was a symbol of their struggle. Or Gandhi in India, Gandhi was a great believer in non-violence and he was in and out of jail, but India became free. I think it's better to look at what people can do collectively and that's why it's so important to encourage them.
Q: If you look at the Anti-War movement this year where the people en mass demonstrated against the war...
A: ...fantastic, i've never seen so many people together in my life and afterwards someone from the BBC interviewed me and said "Mr Benn, you're a voice in the wilderness" and I said "Well there are 2 million people in my wilderness so i'm perfectly happy".
What was important was not the platform of speakers, although there were a lot of interesting speakers, was the fact that people, many of whom had never thought of going on a demonstration before, turned up because they wanted it to be known and they wanted to identify with the piece movement. And it is not just a British Movement, there were 10 million people who marched all over the world that day in America, Europe, all over the place. There is a very strong movement for peace and we need these things to be organized on an international basis because one country by itself doesn't have that much power.
Q: About 6 months before I was on an Anti-Nazi march and the difference in the participants as you said was amazing. Every possible person from every background was on display at the Anti-War marches.
A: That was an indication of the breadth of appeal and now that Iraq's been invaded they haven't found any weapons of mass destruction, the whole thing was a complete fraud. That was just an idea cooked up to win support in the British parliament for what Bush has decided to do anyway, which was to grab Iraqi oil.
Q: People are seeing through the spin much more easily nowadays.
A: I think they are actually and I think that's good news because you do need to reach your own opinions and reach your own judgement and if you're just subject to propaganda all the time it demoralizes society as a whole and encourages apathy, not that I think people are apathetic. I think people are really really angry that they don't think anyone listens to them and they don't believe what they are told. Anger and mistrust are not the same as apathy. If you like, they are apathetic about some politicians, but they are not apathetic about the issues.
Q: Obviously the facts have come out about what happened, why it happened etc. and 20 years ago these facts would probably have been covered up and kept secret.
A: I think the internet and websites do make a difference. I get about 20 emails a day from America describing all the meetings of trade unions against the war and the peace movement and the number of people attending. Not a word appears in the press, but sufficient number of people now, particularly those that are active, have access to the internet so they don't depend on the BBC or CNN or Fox Channel.
Q: The fact that in this country alone 2 million people demonstrated and "they" still walked over us to a large extent is terrifying.
A: Oh gosh I say. It's an amazing experience that and see the BBC don't report speeches broadly. They send a camera there hoping there will be a punch up, but they don't cover any of the speeches ever cos the only people that are aloud to speak straight to the camera are the news commentators. Everyone else is just a puppet in the play they've scripted .
You've got to realize that first of all the police never give the true number of people on a demonstration, I've often thought of setting up a college to teach the police how to count. The second thing they do is, as I say the media ignore the speeches, and sometime I have known on occasions where they've been agent provocateurs. I remember once in Wapping when I was on the Picket line for the Print Workers, somebody in a balaclava threw a stone and I just happened to watch him and he popped behind the police lines and a cavalry charge came. I just have a feeling that when they want to deal with a crowd they create conditions in which they can argue later they had no alternative.
Q: Earlier in the year you interviewed Saddam Hussein, the first person in 12 years.
A: I did it in 1990 and I got all the hostages out and I wanted to hear what he said. I asked him some very straightforward questions - Do you have WMD? And he said no - and everybody laughed at me when I came home and said "you're a sucker", but he didn't have any. I asked him did he have any links with Al Quaeda which I knew he didn't have and he said no and even Bush now says that he (Saddam) didn't have anything to do with September 11th.
I'm very glad I went, but you get kicked about if you do anything that doesn't fit in with the public image. But the man's a brutal dictator, i've been saying that for years.
Q: As you said people did see the line of questioning as quite naive.
A: Well, when you're having a diplomatic political discussion you don't try and do a Jeremy Paxman. I think if journalists were responsible for international policy we'd have a nuclear war every week. You go there to find out what he say's, you don't just go there to make him look stupid. At least people had an opportunity of hearing something before they turned on his country. However unpopular he was, and he was very unpopular, I think it's pretty obvious that the Iraqi's find the American occupation even less so.
Q: Moving onto our life specifically in politics. Today in the Labour Party is there anyone you can actually relate to at all?
A: Oh gosh yes. I've just been at a Campaign Group that network with people all over the country and the Labour MP's that are present at the campaign group are very influential. Each time whether it be the War last year, hospitals or the question of tuition fees the campaign group of labour MP's is having a greater and greater influence.
Q: We were speaking to George Galloway a couple of weeks ago and he believes that there aren't enough people in the Labour Party with a back bone to bring it back to what it used to mean. How do you feel about this?
A: He didn't want to be expelled. I went and gave evidence for him because I thought what he said was quite true, if you go to war and kill people don't be surprised if people make strong comments. But i've seen the Labour Party go left and right so many times in my life that I think we can recover again, I think we have to. But it does depend on the amount of press that is put to them by people that have a concern with peace or pensions or student things...they've got to bring pressure to there and the thing will right itself, but it doesn't happen automatically.
Q: Do you think the Labour Party is a one person party nowadays?
A: I think he would like to dominate, but I think increasingly particular after the fiasco with the WMD, more and more people are more and more alert to the dangers so it's not so easy. But i've no doubt that many leaders would like to do.
Q: Finally, if we take the possibility that Tony Blairs career is quite probably going to be over in 2004, who would you consider to be a great leader for the Labour Party?
A: I'm very reluctant to say and I tell you why. If you turn it from a debate on peace and pension and tuition fees into a discussion about who would succeed Tony Blair the media would love it. There would be weeks and week about the relative merits and demerits of Brown and Straw and Blunkett and it would suit them fine because they would be able to ignore the political issues.
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