Salter Lecture 2011 – More Time for Politics

Tony Benn

Back to the Salter Lectures page

Thank you very much for inviting me, and what a huge crowd this is – I think it reflects the fact that there are a lot of people in Britain who are beginning to question the society in which we live and worry about the future and how it’s going to be tackled. I’m 86 years old, and left Parliament – I wanted more time for politics – I look back and try and understand where we came from, and try and look forward to see how we can tackle the things which have to be tackled for the human race. So that’s my position.

Can I just say a word about where I come from. My mother was a very dedicated Christian. Her father was an atheist, and it worried her as a little girl – she said she felt that she’d been born in an orphanage. So at the age of eight she used to go off to the Church of Scotland, where she lived, and then later when she married my father, came to England, joined the Church of England, left the Church of England because they wouldn’t ordain women, and became a Congregationalist, which was the faith my father had inherited from his grandfather, who was a Congregational minister. As you know, the Congregationalists believe in the priesthood of all believers, there’s no special category for priests or bishops, everyone in the congregation is able to work out for himself what he believes in and propagate it.

And so I was brought up in that tradition – we used to read the Bible every night at home. My mother said to me once, “Have you ever thought about what the Bible is about? – It is the story of the conflict between the kings who had power, and the prophets who preached righteousness.” Now she taught me to support the prophets against the kings – it’s got me into a lot of trouble in my life – but the older I get, the more relevant I think it is. Because if we are to understand the world, we have to understand that there are two views of it – one is the authoritarian view, where the church is just used as an instrument of state policy, or the Pope parades his power over the Christian faith – or the Archbishop of Canterbury, for that matter – and the view of those who think for themselves and try and understand what is happening, and speak according to their convictions.

That is the sort of starting-point for what I want to say, because if we look at capitalism, it’s goes back right to the very early years, people don’t realise that the land was originally common land, and then by a series of Acts of Parliament, the so-called Enclosure Acts, Parliament handed over the common land to farmers, and I can well imagine the arguments that must have been used at the time. They said, well, farmers will make good use of the land, rather than leaving it to common people just to dig and sow for themselves. Once the land had been transferred, then of course land as a source of political and economic power became absolutely dominant.

It’s a fact today that the richest man in Britain is, I think, from the Grosvenor estates, because the Grosvenor family own most of London, so if you live in London, and you buy a house, you probably buy it from the Grosvenors, or if you rent a house, you rent it from the Grosvenors, and that has brought them a great deal of money.

And of course land carries with it the ownership of what is under the land, which is coal, copper, oil – so those who owned the land became enormously powerful, and that was the position until we came to the Industrial Revolution, when those who had the money acquired the companies which we had in modern capitalist society – the first capitalist empire in the world I suppose is Britain – and in those circumstances power became more and more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

If you want to know how we look at this society, then watch the business news every night. Every night we are told by the BBC what’s happened to the FTSE, and what’s happened to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. I’ve never met Mr Dow Jones, but he must work really very hard, working out every hour what the average profit is of all the companies in the world. To take a common phrase, you either worship God or Mammon – we clearly worship Mammon, because the FTSE and the Dow Jones are a clear indication that profit is the key to our society, and everything rotates around that.

Then on the other hand, you look and see, aside from what is happening in industry and agriculture, what is happening from the point of view of the people. From the very beginning of time, people demanded some control of their own society, and what’s happening in the Arab world now is an example of what happened in Britain many many years ago, and if you look back, you will find that successively, more and more people did succeed in getting power. Two hundred years ago, only two out of every hundred people in Britain even had the vote – none of them women, of course – and power was demanded by working people and as the franchise was extended then people gradually did have some say over how they were governed. That has been a very important ingredient in developing our political democracy, where at least you can get rid of a government by voting, even if you can’t get rid of Mr Dow Jones or the FTSE.

So democracy is a sort of accompaniment of this, and it does give people real power, and indeed, if I take it from a personal point of view, in the old days, for example, when the market-place was the only source of power, if you had enough money you could afford to be educated, have your health looked after, and have a big house, and if you weren’t rich enough, you couldn’t. And then when the vote came along, people realised that they could use their vote to vote for what they wanted, even if they couldn’t afford it. And they voted for public health, for public hospitals, schools, and so on, and the public services as we know them were a product of democracy; because what democracy did, in these circumstances, was to transfer power from the wallet to the ballot paper, from the market-place to the polling-station, and it’s interesting to me that even today, the great hostility on the right in Britain to the public services is for the same reason that they were opposed to working people having the vote in the first place.

Now, these campaigns, for the vote, the campaigns for trade unions, which is what the Tolpuddle Martyrs were all about, and the Suffragettes, these campaigns did culminate about a hundred years ago, in the moment when every man and woman had the vote. Out of that came the Labour Party, because people, trade unionists, who had campaigned for the vote, said, now we’ve got the vote, we’d better be represented in Parliament, so the Labour Representation Committee which became the Labour Party came into being to represent working people in Parliament. It adopted a socialist programme and the socialist clause in our constitution, Clause 4, was an interesting one, because it said the object of the Labour Party was to secure for the workers by hand and by brain the full fruits of their industry and the best possible administration of each industry and service on a popular basis, i.e. democratic control of industry.

Keir Hardie said at the beginning of the 20th century, we’ve got political democracy, now we want economic democracy. That was a very important development, and the Labour Party has been officially supposed to be a socialist party, but all I can say is that it is possible to be a socialist in the Labour Party, but that’s about as far as I feel we should go.

If you look and see how the public perceive what’s going on, you can see that they see the growth of international capital – multi-national organisations are enormously powerful. I remember when I was energy minister dealing with the oil companies, and they all had a navy far bigger than the British fleet, and they had enormous power, and they came here and wanted just to get control of the oil, and my job was to see that we got a better deal out of it.

But it’s not just the multi-national corporations – they, these corporations, were responsible for setting up institutions which are undemocratic. We read a lot about what’s happening in Greece, and what’s happening in Italy and so on, and we’re told the IMF has come in – well, the International Monetary Fund is in effect the capital version of the United Nations – nobody votes for it, you get there because you’ve been nominated by big business. Similarly, in the European Union, the Commission which run the EU are not elected at all, they are appointed by the national governments.

Or if you take the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, that’s not elected – that’s just appointed by the German government. So at the moment when democracy was, on the one hand, beginning to spread its wings and have an impact on the way we were governed, on the other hand, democracy was being over-topped by capitalist institutions which had their own criteria. What we can see now is the problems we face as we go ahead.

I am totally committed to democracy because democracy provides people with the opportunity for people to get rid of those who govern them. I’ve often thought that if you meet a powerful man, ask him five questions: What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?

If you can’t get rid of the people who govern you, they may be brilliant – but you don’t live in a democracy. I think democracy at every level is the way that we are going to make progress. My mind goes back to 1944 when I was on a troop ship going to South Africa to train as an RAF pilot. In war-time, people were always discussing what would happen after the war – what are our war aims, what do we want? We had a meeting on war aims on this troop ship. One lad got up, and I’ve never forgotten what he said – “In the 1930s we had mass unemployment. We don’t have mass unemployment in war-time. And if you can have full employment killing Germans, why can’t you have full employment building hospitals, building schools, building homes, recruiting nurses, recruiting doctors” – and it was that that really explained the vote in 1945, for what we now call the Welfare State. It was a conscious decision to use the vote to change the political policy of the country in which you live – and very significant it was.

Then you had of course the development of the cooperative movement which, as an alternative to capitalist ownership has great potential, because it does mean that the people who work in it do control it. They share the profits and share the objectives, and are an alternative to competitive capitalism. I think the cooperative movement has an enormous part to play, and I would like to see it able to do so.

Then of course, out of this type of cooperation you get better equality of income, and when you look at the enormous billions paid out in the profits to the banks, compared to what the banks pay their own employees, you realise that equality is a fundamental requirement of a fair society.

So, there we are – those are the thoughts that I have as I look at these things, and certainly all this links very closely to the question of peace. Because you cannot have peace without justice. If people feel they have been badly treated, someone will take to the sword. And with nuclear weapons at the disposal of governments, the possibility that this might end in a catastrophe for the human race cannot be ruled out.

I once went to Hiroshima and was taken round by a guide, and as we walked around the streets he stopped, and pointed to a mark on the pavement – he said, “That mark is where a child was sitting when the atomic bomb landed. The heat was so great that the child was vaporised, and all that was left of the memory of that child was just a mark on the pavement.” And next to the mark was a bit of twisted metal. He said, “That was the child’s lunch-box” – and although the bomb was very hot, it couldn’t melt the metal, it just contorted it so, a mark on the pavement and a piece of twisted metal was all that was left of a human being.

The danger that this poses to our survival is so great that we have got to look again at the way in which we organise our world and particularly our international organisations, to see that they serve our need and are not there just in the pursuit of profit.

So I think that if you talk about peace, you have to talk about justice. Justice is something that is very deeply embodied in all our minds. That’s what the prophets were talking about – how we treat one another.  It’s a prophetic message, and it’s not just enough to palliate it by going along and helping people who have a rough deal – you have to get to the root of what causes inequality and deal with it. I think this is where our democracy failed in a way because, without being too critical, when I look back at my period as a minister, I think that what the Labour Party was at the time was a team of people with a plan for making capitalism work slightly better; and the Conservative Party similarly was a party with a plan of people who thought that they could make capitalism a little bit better; but nobody in the public arena was really discussing the fundamentals which I have tried to touch on now, about why it is that there should be such enormous amount of power – unaccountable – and how it clashes with those who want to control their own lives. So these are my thoughts – I hope they help – and I hope we can have a really good discussion.

Next lecture