:: Thursday, August 15, 2002 ::

Tony Benn

Tony Benn on stage

Last night I went to do a spot of leafletting at 'An Audience with Tony Benn' which is part of the Edinburgh Festival. He has been speaking here for two days as part of a national tour. On both nights 1800 people have turned out to hear Benn's socialist message. A kind member of the public offered me a ticket, which is lucky as they are £14 each. So I was fortunate enough to attend.

Now there are a few who decry Benn or Bennism, a trend of the 'hard left' of the Labour Party which essentially failed. But Benn fills an interesting rôle in British politics. He recently retired as an MP, saying he wanted to spend more time on politics. He is widely popular, across the political spectrum and still spends a lot of time supporting grassroots causes of one type or another.

The audience was a mixed bunch, mostly older, in their forties or more. But there were a few youngsters there too. Our leaflets for the European Social Forum went down well and many copies of the Scottish Socialist Voice were sold. But there were quite a few New Labour hacks there too, councillors and MSP's out for some 'old time religion' and then back to implementing cuts and privatisation.

Tony said that the night was really a public meeting (albeit a somewhat expensive one I thought) reviving the tradition of public debate. Half of the night was taken up by a talk from Benn and after the interval he took questions for an hour or so.

In his talk he put todays events in a historical context. With references to Marx ("last of the old testament prophets" whose ideas "were obviously right") and the history of British imperialism he looked at Zimbabwe, Palestine and the new US imperialism.

The interval is worth discussing. Benn had brought his own tea in a flask, but didn't have much time to drink it as he spent the whole interval signing autographs.

The questions session was also interesting. There was, in my opinion, a divide in the audience between those who would never desert Labour and those who had had enough.

One woman explained that she had been in the LP for years but now had decided to join the Scottish Socialist Party. There was a round of applause in the audience. Half of the gallery where I was standing applauded the mere mention of the SSP. And I had never seen most of those people before, I doubt if many of them were SSP members.

Tony of course remained loyal to the LP, drawing a distinction between Labour (a party which was not socialist but contained socialists in it) and New Labour (the hideous creation of Tony Blair.) He said Labour is the party of the unions and there were too many tiny socialist parties ("too many socialist parties and not enough socialists" as he put it) for them to succeed. At the same time he spoke of his liking for Tommy, who had attended the previous evening, and condemned his expulsion from the LP for fighting the poll-tax. At this there was another big round of applause from the audience!

The exchange did make me think how important the process of socialist unity has been for the SSP, when the left joins together it creates confidence in the class and creates a body which is greater than the sum of its parts.

All together an interesting evening and Benns attempt to revive a genuine democracy and democratic debate in Britain is interesting. Possibly all a bit cosy though, and the older generation present are now giving way to a new generation of activists and leaders. I have included a couple of pictures of Benn speaking (taken from 'the gods) and a marvellous portrait by Scottish artist Elizabeth Mulholland which was on display.

Tony Benn portrait

:: Alister | 11:03 am | save this page to del.icio.us Save This Page | permalink⊕ | |


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