When we think about inspirational people in our society; people who will stand up for what they think, irrespective of image or public support, one man’s name comes to the forefront. As Prime Minister Harold Wilson described him as an "Old Testament prophet", who "immatures with age". That man is of course Tony Benn, formerly a Peer of the Realm, formerly an MP and presently the busiest he has been in his life, as a civil liberty campaigner at the ripe old age of 82.
I met with the Right Honourable Anthony Wedgwood Benn, “just call me Tony” in the foyer of the Soho Hotel in London. He was slightly smaller, older than he perhaps looks on television, but none the less rather dapper for a man in his twilight years. Despite being as sharp and as a passionate as ever, he was also relaxed and perhaps for the first time in his career at peace with himself. That said, he surprising appeared a little nervous to meet with me as he explained;
“I am always a bit over-rawed when it comes to meeting lawyers. As you may know I once appeared in court and made a speech that lasted for nine days, getting out of the House of Lords. The result was that two judges said that a peerage was an incorporeal hereditment affixed in the blood and annexed to posterity”.
This was very much in the days before the recent Buy a Peerage row which has so ensconced his old Party.
“My dad was a politician in the war, he was an MP,”
Referring to his father William Wedgwood Benn was a Liberal MP before subsequently defecting to Labour.
“Churchill wanted more Labour Peers and my dad took it. I had an elder brother who would have inherited it on my father’s death as there were no life peers in those days. But then my brother died. I entered Parliament as an MP” at the age of 25 “but then my dad died and his title came to me. I was disqualified as an MP and I had to become a Peer. There was a by-election for my seat and I stood in that election. I increased my majority. The election court gave the seat to my runner up and there was then such a row about that. I learnt such a lot from that”
The position was overturned three years later with the enactment of the 1963 Peerage Act which allowed for the renunciation of peerages. It was made law shortly after 6 p.m. on 31st July 1963 with Benn becoming the first peer to renounce his title some twenty-two minutes later.
So I asked him what he learnt from the experience?
“I learnt that you do not get justice from the top. Well when does justice come from the top? Who at the top wanted women to have the vote? Nobody. This is why suffragettes went to prison, went on hunger strike. How did apartheid end? Mrs Thatcher said that Mandela was a terrorist. There is a stature of Mandela now in Parliament Square. All justice comes from the bottom and comes from the people. It has always been the case. A lot is said about Magna Carta as the foundation of our legal rights, actually Magna Carta was a row between the King and the Barons and he wasn’t strong enough to beat the Barons so he had to make some concessions, it had nothing to do with common people at all.”
It is now seven years since Tony Benn, after 50 years as an MP decided to give up the trappings and power of Parliament.
"Well I resigned so that I could devote more time to politics"
But I thought politics was about being in Parliament?
“Not real politics. I have never been busier in my life. I am completely enjoying it. For the first time in my life I don’t want anything. I don’t want anyone to vote for me. I can just speak my mind. I just do what I think is right. I just say what I mean, mean what I say and don’t attack people personally. That’s my principle.”
So what has concerned you since “your retirement”?
“The question of our civil liberties and the battle allegedly against terrorism”
Benn has been a very active campaigner involved in supporting the release of the Birmingham six, the captives at Guantanamo Bay and against both Iraqi Wars. He has also since leaving Parliament been “campaigning for peace and pensioners, students, trade unionists, civil liberties and more generally for human rights, democracy and internationalism".
“I think our civil liberties are being taken away. People are beginning to realise that the role of fear, whether realised or imagined. It is a very important element in the maintenance of power of the establishment. The fear of the danger of invasion, the danger of revolution or the danger of riot justifies governments in doing anything they want to do. They are being used to frighten us.”
But why would the government elected by us, want to frighten us?
“If they can frighten people then they can persuade people to give up their rights. The government want to do know everything they can about us, but they don’t want us to know anything about them. That is why they added the thirty year rule on documents so you can not discover what they are doing. It is all tied in official secrecy. Information is the lifeline of democracy.”
But do people really care?
“Well you don’t care until you discover that you live in a Police state.”
Is that where we are?
“Well we are moving into a situation where the normally accepted principle of privacy is being abandoned. Well takes ID cards. Well I don’t know what is on my id card and I might find that I could never go to America because they have made a mistake on my ID card. What do you do about that?”
Should lawyers do more for society?
“Being a lawyer does not separate you from humanity.”
Now here was an announcement which might come as a surprise to some of our brethren.
“We all have the same interests. Society tends to divide us. As a divided society is an easier society to control. I don’t want to give lectures to lawyers, but we are all in the same boat and we are all in it together we are members of the human race and I think that is what we perhaps need to be reminded of. When that is made clear we see what our responsibilities are. Lawyers have a specialisation and perhaps that is what they have to be reminded of now and again. We are all members of the human race and when that is made clear we see what our responsibilities are. We all have responsibilities and you have to work it out yourself. Some people give it back with voluntary work, some people give money. It is very simple and straight forward. I am just reminding people of something so very obvious.”
Is there any advice which you could give to lawyers?
“It is not for me to lecture lawyers but I once worked out my five democratic questions. If you meet a powerful person, ask them question: What powers have you got? Where did you get them from? In whose interests do you exercise them? To whom you are accountable? And how can we get rid of you?”
So does anything else particularly concern you at present with regard to state of legal affairs?
“The campaign on legal aid is one of the campaigns that I have taken up. Legal aid was set up to protect the poor and ensure that all people had an access to justice and to law. This is being eroded because of financial limitations”
But Lord Carter said that it cost too much?
“Well there is always a case against helping the poor. But I think that it is becoming increasing difficult for people to get legal aid and as such people will be denied their rights. It is becoming like America where you have no legal aid or health service. If you see Michael Moore’s movie Sicko, you will see that over fifty million people in America have no health insurance or access to health care whatsoever. I see the analogy here with the removal of legal aid.”
Perhaps Wilson was thus right when he called his old ally and occasional nemesis an “Old Testament Prophet”. Benn has fought against injustices all his life; frequently taking positions which at first sight would appear to have him at odds with the popular feeling. It is interesting to note that with time and passion his arguments have frequently won but common support and favour. Maybe we need more lawyers to adopt a similar stance over the erosion of our civil liberties and our civil liberties.