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Tony Benn 1925-2014: a politician shaped by Christianity

A quarter of a century ago the Labour politician described how Nonconformism shaped him

By on Friday, 14 March 2014

Tony Benn, who died this morning

Tony Benn, who died this morning

Veteran Labour politician Tony Benn has died at the age of 88. In 1989 Mary Kenny interviewed Benn for The Catholic Herald, where he spoke about the Christian influence on his beliefs. 

THOSE who observe the speeches and writings of Tony Benn — sometime Labour Cabinet Minister, currently the scourge of Neil Kinnock on the Left of the Party — have noticed that in recent times a more religious strain has crept into his utterances. He seldom misses an opportunity, these days, to allude to the moral basis of society, or to the duties and obligations of those in power to follow a righteous path.

No, he told me, it is not a new strain in his thinking: this sense of the religious has always been there. Not in a pious way, you understand, but as part of the ethical traditions of nonConformism.

He descends on both sides from Protestant pastors — his paternal grandfather, Julius Benn, was a Congregationalist Minister in the East End of London. His mother, born Margaret Holmes, is a Scot from the Calvinist and Liberal tradition. Tony Benn says he is very proud of his mother — who is still alive, aged 91. She became, at the age of 75, the first President of the Congregational Federation, and was thus the first lay-woman ever to head a Christian denomination.

“When my mother married, she went to Kings’ College and studied the Old Testament. She was made a fellow of the Hebrew University at the age of 85. Her theological library is enormous. I was brought up on Bible stories — 1 absorbed the Christian ethic by a form of osmosis. It was a real influence in my life.” Mr Benn has a very marked sense of family closeness and family traditions. He talks to his mother every single day.

He has always been interested in church affairs, because of his background. “But also because for many many centuries, political arguments were fought out in religious terms, and I’ve never thought we can understand the world we lived in unless we understood the history of the church. All political freedoms were won, first of all, through religious freedom. Some of the arguments about the control of the media today, which are very big arguments, are the arguments that would have been fought in the religious wars. You have the satellites coming in now — well, it is the multinational church all over again. That’s why Mrs Thatcher pulled Britain out of UNESCO: she was not prepared, any more than Ronald Reagan was, to be part of an organisation that talked about a new world information order, people speaking to each other without the help of Murdoch or Maxwell.”

Yet, in seeing political and religious arguments being mixed up, were there not the dangers?

The Holy Spirit expected us to learn from history, too I put it — and history taught that mixing politics and religion was perilous: look at the Third Reich — the Christians who had endorsed the Reich (sometimes with good intention, because, say, Hitler cured unemployment) were seen afterwards to be profoundly mistaken.

No, Mr Benn shook his head, he didn’t look at it that way. “How can you separate yourself From the world you live in? I can’t imagine a world where people have their religion in a water-tight compartment. Religion can’t just be a private matter.”

Here Tony Benn warmed to a theme he reiterates constantly. “Society is ultimately founded on moral values. All societies rest on moral values.” Religion, he sometimes thinks, is a bit like the Labour Party, however. “You’ve got the structure and you’ve got the flame. The flame is what people believe in; the structure is the bureaucracy.” It is the flame, not the structure, finally, that animates him. “People will die for what they believe in. They won’t die for the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement.”

We had morning tea in his pleasant, comfortable, yet unostentatious home in Holland Park Avenue, in a room crowded with the artefacts that touch the heart of Tony Benn: Keir Hardie’s chair, busts of Marx and Lenin, decorative plates commemorating Gladstone, folksy miners’ lamps galore, and laughing photographs of Tony and Caroline Benn with their five grandchildren.

His family feelings are manifest for all his family; he has said that his marriage of 40 years has been idyllic; he is very close to his 4 children; he speaks with enduring devotion of his elder brother, who died in action in 1944, and who intended to be ordained; and of his grandchildren he says that if he had known it would be such fun he’d have had the grandchildren first.

Mr Benn, who will be 64 in April, is a Socialist and a gentleman — unfailingly courteous and well-mannered. His strong, some say extremist, political views are delivered without personal venom or abuse. He deplores, morally, what is happening to British society today as a consequence of

Thatcherism (as he sees it). “We are being taken back to the jungle by injustice, by tolerated injustice. We have chosen Mammon rather than God. See the homeless people in our streets, the young people living rough because their housing benefit has been cut!” He deplores the “rottenness” and “brutality” of capitalism today, and yet never a word of abuse does he speak, personally, about Mrs Thatcher or anyone around her.

In almost every aspect of his personality, it is possible to glimpse the morally upright NonConformist preacher he might have become — like so many of hisforefathers — in another age, even down to his teetotalism. In his diaries, one could perceive a Puritan reaction to George Brown, a man who might easily have become Prime Minister of Britain if it had not been for the drink, Tony Benn claims he is not judgemental about those who drink, but he still sees how it was a terrible scourge in Victorian Britain, and is so becoming once again today. “George Brown was a brilliant man who destroyed himself,” Tony Benn says now. “At his best, he was one of the most brilliant intellects I ever remember. But after 11 o’clock in the morning, he wasn’t able to cope.”

If one strand of Tony Benn’s roots is that of Protestant NonConformity, the other is Home Rule Gladstonian liberalism; so when it comes to Ireland, Tony Benn suddenly becomes, it seems, anti-Protestant and proCatholic. He dissented, in the House of Commons, from the general celebration of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which is generally seen by Parliamentarians as the foundation of modern parliamentary democracy. How could people celebrate a so-called revolution, Benn asked, which had omitted both Catholics and women from the agenda? He seems to dismiss 1688, still, as “just a plot to get rid of a Catholic king”; it had no popular element to it, he stresses.

On Ireland, Benn is uncompromising. Set a date and withdraw, he says. It’s as simple as that. Indeed, he can see it all happening. “Mrs Thatcher pulled out of Hong Kong, she’s obviously pulling out of Gibraltar, she will eventually pull out of the Falklands. The process is a very common one. When I was born, 20 per cent of the world was governed from the House of Commons. When I was a child I went to the Coronation in 1937, and I sat on a stand and watched all these soldiers march by — they were from everywhere, and it was just normal. Everyone who fought „agaiost us was a ‘terrorist’, and then the ‘terrorists’ always end up having tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, because they became heads of Commonwealth countries.”

“Yes, I see GerryAdams ending up having tea with the Queen, as easily as anything. Look at the number who have done it before. Don’t misunderstand me — I want problems to be solved by peaceful means. But I can never recall Mrs Thatcher describing the people in Afghanistan fighting to get rid of the Russians as terrorists.”

He recalled that back in 1900 his grandfather John Benn, Liberal Home Ruler, was even then being denounced as supporting “terrorism” because of his Gladstonian and Parnellite sympathies. Tony Benn feels that Ireland has been most undemocratically divided, historically. “There was a majority for a united Ireland in 1918. A Protestant minority was then turned into a Protestant majority by gerrymandering.” Today, Mr Benn believes that the British establishment’s desire to “hang on” to Ireland, is to do with defence interests. “If the Republic were to join NATO, I think the British would be out in about a year.”

The one area where Tony Berm would not seem to be in sympathy with Catholics is, of course, abortion, although it is a subject over which he treads with great care. “You have to be tremendously respectful, throughout life, of other people’s convictions. You have to understand the way people feel. And drawing the boundaries of life is very delicate, very important. You’ve got to protect life, because that’s an instinctive thing to do.”

“But having said all that, I don’t feel that I could set myself up in judgement and say that women should be punished for resorting to it (abortion). In Parliament, you are passing laws that punish. You are not reaching a moral judgement. Some things are crimes and not sins, some things are sins but not crimes. It’s not a sin not to pay your income tax, but it’s a crime. Adultery is a sin, but not a crime. When it comes to this matter.. (he doesn’t like using the word “abortion”, notice) “1 couldn’t bring myself to vote for the legislation that has been proposed. (The Alton bill.) That’s not to say that I’m happy about these things. They’re very difficult, really — like euthanasia What did he think of those 33 Labour MPs who were threatened with de-selection for having voted for Alton? “Look, as an MP, you have to do what you think is right. But when people choose their candidates, they have to do what they think is right.”

Mr Benn filled the pipe that is now causing him a smoker’s chestiness. I said that I had got the feeling from what he had said publicly, that although he stood by the feminists and the Left in their stance on abortion, he didn’t really like the whole idea.

“Does anybody like it?” he asked, serously. “I can’t imagine that anyone actually wants one. It must be an agony. There must be a self-correcting mechanism in that alone. 1 can’t believe that any doctor or nurse relishes it either. I just can’t believe it.”

I thought of the doctors I had come across for whom abortion is a nice little earner, and of the nurses who had stressed the regular hours and good pay of abortion work; I thought of the more sinister medics for whom abortion means power over women, and of the women themselves for whom it is an opportunity to test their fertility or the strength of a relationship.

Tony Benn can’t imagine such motives, I decided, because he is naturally good, idealistic, and believes in the perfectability of man, and of woman. And perhaps because, in some worldly matters, he still seems to retain a curious naivity.