‘We mustn’t assume people aren’t interested in politics’

As Tony Benn publishes the final instalment of his diaries, I thought I would republish this interview, which I did with Benn for Adults Learning in autumn 2007, some six years after he left parliament ‘to devote more time to politics’. We met, over a flask of tea, in the basement of his house, a spartan space crammed with papers and cassette tapes. He told me that he now saw himself as a sort of ‘untrained classroom assistant to the nation’, encouraging people to take charge of their own political destinies, and talked about his appreciation of the value of adult eductaion and its role in empowering communities and supporting democracy

When he speaks at public meetings Tony Benn likes to leave plenty of time for discussion. ‘I have heard myself speak before,’ he tells audiences. It is a typical remark from a man who believes he has something to learn from everybody he meets. Little wonder then that the political idea he considers most revolutionary is not socialism but democracy. Democracy, he says, ‘transfers power from the market place to the polling station, from the wallet to the ballot, from the king to the subjects’, which is why, of course, nobody in power much cares for it. Benn is deeply sceptical of talk about public apathy and the so-called ‘democratic deficit’. For him, democracy is not only, or even principally, about what happens in polling stations every four or five years. It is about what people do and say where they live and work. ‘We mustn’t assume that people who do these things locally aren’t interested in politics because politics is about that,’ Benn says. ‘Have you got a house? Have you got a job? Have you got a good income? Have you got a good education? Have you got good health? Am I employed? If I’m old am I treated with dignity? That’s what communities are interested in.’ Six years after leaving the House of Commons ‘to devote more time to politics’, Benn’s faith in people’s capacity to think for and govern themselves is as strong as ever. Education, whether it takes place in the classroom, at public meetings or on demonstrations, is ‘fundamental’ in helping people turn their ideas and passions into change, and, for Benn, a ‘broadly based lifelong educational system is the main life-force of a working democracy’. The loss of one million adults from publicly funded provision over the past two years suggests, he says, ‘a total misunderstanding of the function of education in the world in which we live’.

Benn’s appreciation of the value of adult education has roots in two places: in the ‘dissenting tradition’ in which his parents raised him and in the work of his late wife, Caroline, who taught in further education until she was 70 and campaigned actively and effectively in the cause of comprehensive education. Adult education was her ‘great passion’, he says. ‘She taught at the Open University and then at the local college. Even when she was very ill, she wouldn’t give up. I go to some of the classes she used to teach because they ask me to come back. And to go to a class with an age range of 80 to 18, people doing courses quite unrelated to the way they earn their living, it’s just so exciting.’ Education for older learners is a particular passion. ‘I suppose it must have always been true that old people got a bit out of date, but this is the first generation where the young know more than their parents and grandparents.’ Learning, he believes, is becoming obsolete at a far greater rate than ever before. But adult education is not just about learning how to use a mobile phone. ‘It’s essential to thinking things out and understanding them. The turning point in my life was when I realised this extremely simple fact: I get up at seven o’clock each morning and I go to bed about midnight and I learn something new every day. And every day two billion people in the world learn something new, so when I go to bed at night I know less of what there is to be known than when I got up that morning. When I go to universities I always say, “When you leave here you’ll be relatively more ignorant than when you came”. The teachers look horrified but it’s true. The purpose of education is to allow you to discover what is known and then to think about it. And that’s the role of adult education.’

Benn shows me a quote from Gerard Winstanley, the seventeenth century activist and leading light of the Diggers movement, which laid claim to common land in pursuit of the ‘levelling of all estates’:

In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Bird, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation: for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, that one branch of mankind should rule over another. Every single man, Male and Female, is a perfect Creature of himself; and the same Spirit that made the Globe, dwells in man to govern the Globe; so that the flesh of man being subject to Reason, his Maker, hath him to be his Teacher and Ruler with himself, therefore needs not run abroad after any Teacher and Ruler without him, for he needs not that any man should teach him.

This, says Benn, is a secular statement of the religious philosophy imparted to him by his mother, Margaret, a Congregationalist who rejected the Church of England because she believed it discriminated against women. ‘I was brought up on the Bible by my mother who said something I’ve never forgotten, and it’s more meaningful as I get older: “The Bible is the story of the conflict between the kings who had power and the prophets who preached righteousness”. She taught me to support the prophets against the kings. It’s got me into a lot of trouble.’ Benn’s father too was a Congregationalist, and his grandfather a Congregationalist minister. It left its mark. ‘The principle of Congregationalism, as I understand it, is very simple. It’s that everyone has a hotline to the almighty. You do not need a bishop or a priest to help you. It’s what they call the “priesthood of all believers”. It’s a religious idea but it built in the idea that, actually, everyone is quite capable of reaching their own view. It was combined with other ideas which I learned from my dad. “Dare to be a Daniel”, he said. “Dare to stand alone/Dare to have a purpose firm/Dare to make it known”. Independence of thought and independence of speech.’

The ‘revolutionary idea’ at the heart of his parents’ beliefs was that ‘people have a capacity within themselves to reach their own view’. It is, says Benn, ‘a very dangerous idea’, because ‘it undermines authority and challenges everything. It is the basis of a dissenting tradition but also it’s the whole basis of the idea that we are geniuses in ourselves and the purpose of education is to develop it, not just at the beginning of life but throughout life.’ The idea continues to inform his work. In his recent tour of public meetings – he has attended 1,200 since ‘retiring’ from politics – he encouraged audience members to consider five questions which should be put to any powerful person: ‘What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you use it? To whom are you accountable? How do we get rid of you?’ But he isn’t interested in lecturing people. It is the interaction of public meetings, so removed from modern politics’ obsession with presentation, which interests him. The events are educational, not only for the many thousands who turn out – the meetings are invariably sold out – but for Benn himself. In fact, every meeting or demonstration, every train or cab journey, is an opportunity to learn something new. ‘I learn almost everything by listening,’ Benn says. ‘I listen to everybody because I find what they say is interesting, and what is confirmed – and I’ve suspected it for a long time – is that most people are more interesting than important people. I think of all the cab drivers I talk to, people I meet on the train, people I meet in the street, people who put a question, with tremendous imagination and knowledge behind it. I don’t always agree with it but I think the whole political class, the media, do underestimate everybody’s intelligence. I think the spin-doctors underestimate it. All that talent is there and you wonder why it can’t be encouraged and helped to form and develop through adult education, even if it is only for human satisfaction, because that’s not a bad objective.’

What about the people who say ‘Why should we pay for someone to do gardening classes or flower arranging?’ Benn has a ready answer: ‘What if you don’t have children, why should you pay for education? If you’ve never had a fire, why should you pay for the fire brigade? If you’ve never had a burglary why should you pay for the police? If you oppose the war why do you have to pay for the bloody thing? That argument is a very, very narrow one. We are a community and just as the community benefits from people’s health being kept at a high level so we all benefit from the educational level of people being high.’ That means doing more than training young people for work. ‘The idea that it is also about the discovery of talent in people that has been missed when they were young is something that seems to be ignored,’ Benn says. ‘I remember once making a joke, a very dangerous thing to do in politics. I went to Exeter University and I said: “I’m going to introduce an education discrimination bill. At the age of 30 a policeman will come to your house and remove all your qualifications, and it will be a criminal offence to disclose them to anybody, on the ground that if you haven’t learned something new by 30 the diploma on the wall will be of no use to you anyway”. They were terrified. They thought I was serious but the point I was making was that some people can get a degree and make very little contribution later in life, whereas many people are natural long learners.’ Benn is a believer in the old adage: ‘knowledge is power’. ‘If you know more, you’re in a better position than somebody who doesn’t. Whereas other people were taught to obey the king and the landlord and the priest, people in the dissenting tradition would feel much more confident and that makes them very difficult to deal with. That’s why I don’t think really the establishment has every wanted, really, an educated population.’

What might give embattled adult educators some hope is the ‘long and sometimes bloody’ progress of revolutionary ideas that have ‘got through in the end’. It is, says Benn, a question of government priorities. ‘How did women get the vote? They locked up the suffragettes. They went on hunger strike. They were forcibly fed. The Prime Minister said in 1911, 14 years before I was born, that if women get the vote it will undermine parliamentary democracy. How did Apartheid end? How did anything happen? Swampy used to be arrested for causing trouble and now the Prime Minister talks like Swampy. Education and campaigning does change things. Once you believe that you won’t change anything then you don’t try and it doesn’t change.’ Those in power, Benn believes, have an interest in spreading apathy. ‘If people really were apathetic there would be no challenges to what they do,’ he says. ‘They do spread pessimism. It’s very easy if you allow them to do it to you to get discouraged and you mustn’t get discouraged. Hope is the fuel of progress and fear and pessimism are a prison in which you confine yourself.’ Benn’s impression from talking to ‘ordinary’ people is that they are angry and mistrustful, both highly political things to feel, but with no obvious purchase in what he sees as an emerging one-party state ‘where everybody agrees’.

‘Nobody in power likes democracy,’ Benn says. ‘The Pope doesn’t allow Catholics to elect the pope, Stalin didn’t allow the Communist Party to elect the leader, the Prime Minister appoints the Archbishop of Canterbury. What democracy does is to create circumstances in which poorer people who don’t have resources can buy with their vote schools, hospitals, universities and so on. The whole welfare state is a product of democracy. The establishment doesn’t like it but rather than have bloodshed they will concede it. Then, when the pressure is off, they will try to recapture the territory they have lost.’ Every generation, Benn thinks, is obliged to fight the same battles ‘again and again’. ‘There is no victory and no defeat. This idea that peace, justice and socialism are a railway station and if you catch a train driven by the right driver you’ll get there, it’s a complete illusion. We all live in a sliver of a sliver of a sliver of time but because of language we have the opportunity of learning from the past. You have to struggle for everything because there will always be people who want to take it away for their own reasons, because it makes them money or it gives them power or domination. And I think that is the thing that I’ve really learned from it all, that what happens depends on what you do. If you don’t do anything nothing will happen, if you do, something will.’

Teachers, Benn believes, have a key role to play in creating conditions for change. ‘When I look back on history, kings, emperors, dictators, prime ministers and presidents come and go; the people you remember are the people who left a legacy of teaching: Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Galileo, Freud, Darwin, Marx. Whereas a leader has a torch and points it down and says “Follow me”, a teacher fires a pyrotechnic into the sky, like fireworks, and all of a sudden you can see for a second where you are, where you’ve come from, what the dangers are. That’s another reason why teaching is so important because the only real legacy is not “my great achievements”, it is what, if anything, you have done in your life that helps people to deal with their problems and you hear about later. That’s why we remember all the great religious leaders. And they all said the same thing anyway: treat other people as you’d like to be treated yourself.’ Teachers, Benn argues, pose a threat to the dictatorships of the world. ‘Education challenges authority. Authority says, “Do what I say”. The educated man says: “Half a minute, why? Why not do this?”’ Once we have learned what needs to be done, he says, we should set about doing it ourselves and not wait for ‘a leader on a white horse’ to gallop onto stage and solve our problems.

Democracy, according to Benn, demands not only freedom of information and the knowledge of how to access it, but also that people’s talents and capacities are recognised. But a frightened, demoralised populace is easier to control, he argues, and that is why adult education is unlikely ever to win the support of the powerful. ‘They like to divide us – men, women, black, white, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, clever, not clever – and to demoralise us: “You failed the 11-plus and that’s really the end for you”. You’ve been told at 11 you’re a failure. And they make us cynical: “Oh, they’re all the same”. Therefore, if you are going to make progress you have to not be frightened, not be demoralised, not be divided, not be cynical. And, on the whole, education, where you meet with different backgrounds and you argue things out, is a way of giving all those qualities.’ The purpose of education, Benn argues, should be ‘to discover the genius that is in everybody’, not just when they are young but later on too. ‘If you do that people will enjoy it because they are appreciated. The greatest quality of all – and teachers can excel in it – is encouragement. If somebody tells you that you are doing a brilliant job you walk ten feet tall, and it’s the same with me. The purpose of life, particularly among older people, is to encourage, and I like to think of myself as an untrained classroom assistant to the nation about what’s going on, why and what they can do about it.’


A critical moment for part-time and mature higher education

Few will be surprised at the continuing decline in part-time higher education, highlighted in The power of part-time, the Universities UK review of part-time and mature higher education, which was commissioned by the government in response to falling student numbers and was published this week.

The report had been eagerly anticipated by those in the sector who appreciate the value of part-time higher study – and many have embraced its fairly broad statement of the critical importance of part-time. Its publication is undoubtedly an important moment in the campaign to revive the fortunes of part-time and higher education. But if is not followed by concerted, long-term action, underscored by the commitment of institutions and government, there is a danger that it will change little.

This is one of the problems with what is, in many ways, an excellent and valuable report – and one of the reasons it has disappointed some. Its recommendations are long on commitment but are rather short on specific policy interventions. Many, while agreeing that government, institutions and funding councils should ‘consider the needs of part-time and mature student as an intrinsic part of their thinking, not as an add-on’, will feel that the time for such injunctions has passed and that action is what is now needed. Others will be disappointed that the review did not feel able to make a bolder statement on the equivalent or lower-level (ELQ) rule, which denies funding to students looking to take a second degree and which has played a significant part in the late devastation of university continuing education. More, I fear, is needed if we are to galvanise the sort of immediate action we will need if part-time and mature learning is to have a future.

It is difficult to overstate the urgency of the situation. The review reports that the numbers of students recruited to undergraduate part-time courses in England fell by 40 per cent between 2010-11 and 2012-13 – equivalent to 105,000 fewer students – a dramatic drop which follows a decade of steady decline in part-time student numbers. The vast majority of part-time students are mature, most of them combining work with study and taking vocational courses. Full-time mature student numbers have also declined sharply since the increase in tuition fees in 2010. At a time when the need for a flexible, resilient workforce, capable of re-skilling throughout their adult lives, has never been clearer, this is depressing news indeed.

The report identifies a number of potential causes for the decline, including the current economic climate, pressures on employer support for further study, the changing pathways into higher education and shifts in demographics, and the effects of the 2012–13 changes to the funding system in England and associated increase in fees – a ‘perfect storm’ of factors, the report says. It also points out that information on courses and finances can be patchy and that employers and potential students are often not fully aware of the value of part-time higher study.

In response, the review recommends that part-time and mature higher education should form an intrinsic part of the plans of higher education providers, government and funding councils and calls for an ‘urgent push at all levels to help potential students and employers to understand the value of part-time higher education’. It also recommends that universities ‘take bold steps’ to meet the needs of potential part-time students and to improve the part-time experience, and calls for a boost to employer-focused part-time higher education.

This is all laudable stuff, and well worth saying. But the report stops short of saying what the government and institutions need to do to make this happen. This is a missed opportunity, I think, particularly in an area in which there is a lack of clarity about where responsibility lies. The government is looking to institutions to set out their stall more clearly in attracting part-time and mature students, while institutions would like the government to do more to incentivise and support them to engage with part-time and adult students. Despite government rhetoric about a diverse system characterised by a variety of modes of learning and types of learners, most institutions see little reason to change their focus on full-time residential degrees for school leavers. In a sense this is understandable: part-time students are harder to recruit and support, and more likely to drop out. To make a difference here will require a thoughtful, holistic approach taking in issues such as cost (both to students and institutions) and affordability, course design, credit transfer, employer engagement and attitudes to debt. And all of this must be supported and nourished by a genuine vision for a true learning society, which offers accessible, affordable opportunities for adults to learn at every stage of their lives.

I think it is important to note also that the decline in part-time and mature higher education is not only extremely bad news for the economy and for prospects of growth and the development of a knowledge economy worthy of the name, but also for democracy, social mobility, culture and active citizenship. The focus of provision should not just be on employment and economic benefit but should reflect the wider motives, interests and ambitions of adults (while giving them affordable opportunities to pursue them). The UUK report, while recognising the wider benefits to society, overwhelmingly (and, perhaps, understandably) focuses on the contribution of part-time higher education to economic growth. This is important, of course, but if we are serious about the role of universities in creating an engaged, knowledgeable and aspirational citizenry we need to ensure these are not the only kinds of opportunity available. Self-realisation should not be the sole preserve of the already privileged. The revival of university lifelong learning should be at the heart of an enhanced community engagement mission for institutions.

Reading the report sent me back to Jonathan Rose’s landmark study, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, and his account of the motivations for study of continuing education students in the 1930s. A survey of WEA/Ruskin College students found them concerned both with the ‘fullest expression of the faculties of the individual’ and with ensuring ‘the maximum co-operation of the individual towards the happiness of the group of which he is a part’. One student described the object of study as:

First, to equip the student with adequate knowledge in order that he or she may make a more adequate and effective response to his or her social obligations. Secondly, to enable one to appreciate and cultivate a desire for the best in art, literature, music, etc., to more readily understand the significance of science and generally to raise the level of intelligence in order that the student may enjoy a fuller and more harmonious existence, freer from the trammels of prejudice, superstition and dogmatism.

Engaging potential part-time students needs to be about more than information and guidance, important though those things are. It needs to recognise the diverse motives and ambitions of adults, as well as taking seriously the issue of cost and the clear negative impact of the new loans system on this group of learners. The removal of the ELQ rule would be a constructive start.

As I said at the outset, the UUK report represents an important moment in the campaign for part-time higher education. It should help give this critical issue the attention it deserves. But it remains to be seen whether it will mark a sea change in attitude and approach or become yet another landmark on the long road of decline. My fear is that we are still some way from genuinely integrating part-time and mature higher education into the mission of institutions, and that the kind of commitment needed to make up the ground already lost will be very difficult to secure.

Instead of flinging brickbats at the poor, give them hope

It may be that familiarity breeds contempt for individuals, but contempt for whole groups of people requires distance – cultural, social, economic or geographical (and in some cases all four).

When the Conservative Party brands itself as being ‘for hardworking people’ and George Osborne sets out plans to make unemployed people work for their benefits – using punitive language that will be icily familiar to anyone who endured long-term unemployment in the eighties, or who, like me, was part of a family (indeed, a community) that did – they are making a calculated gamble.

They believe that the majority of people will share the intuition (it is no more than that – evidence is unwelcome in politics of this sort) that the long-term unemployed are workless by choice, because they are lazy and refuse to knuckle down. They suppose that people will be willing to believe that this is one of the biggest, most urgent social problems we face.

Unhappily, they may well be right. It is natural when times are hard to look for someone to blame, and the unemployed are a convenient target. That is why this divisive technique has proved so popular for so long, with politicians of all parties. But it is ugly. It appeals to the worst in us. And while it may appear to be politically expedient, it is, morally, pretty repugnant.

What problem is such rhetoric supposed to address? It isn’t an economic problem – or at least not one serious enough to warrant the ceaseless gushing of hot air on the subject. The cost of out-of-work jobseekers’ benefits is relatively small – it amounts to just three per cent of the total welfare spend – while the vast majority of jobseekers find work within two years. And, in any case, as the government’s own research points out, workfare is the ‘least effective’ method to get the long-term unemployed back into work. If the need to bring in extra revenue really were as pressing as the rhetoric suggests and the moral outrage about people not doing their bit were genuine, as much effort would be put into pursuing and vilifying tax dodgers – a potentially much more lucrative source of income for the state, and a much more significant moral issue.

The real issue here, it seems to me, is the problem of how to manage political dissent. It is much easier to manage people’s moral outrage if it is dispersed, and especially if it can be directed towards the man across the street who has his curtains drawn all morning rather than at the real, systemic causes of worklessness and low living standards.

We should be honest about this. A party which believes in hard work and wants to promote it should also want to reward it. Yet the dreadful toll taken by in-work poverty shows that those who strive the hardest do so for very small rewards, and at huge cost to their personal and family lives. At the same, those who are unemployed and looking for work are faced with a lack of vacancies and huge competition for the (frequently low-paid) jobs that do exist.

What should a party serious about promoting hard work and self-reliance be doing? Well, it should first back the living wage (4.8 million people in Britain earn below this level – 20 per cent of all employees) and find ways of encouraging/obliging employers to follow suit. The tax payer should not be expected to subsidise employers who are not prepared to adequately remunerate their hard-working staff.

Second, it should stop attacking the poor – the vast majority of whom are hard-working – and blaming them for their poverty. Vilifying people who are already struggling on the breadline doesn’t help. It is counter-productive. Better instead to target interventions that will make a real difference, prioritising educational interventions in particular. Education is by far the best way of giving people the resources they need to take charge of their lives and change them for the better.

We hear in the press each week about how working-class parents are failing their children, sending them to school without the basic skills they need to flourish – or even just to cope. But, all too often, these parents are themselves struggling with their own lack of education, having been failed by the system the first time around. As anyone who works with these families will tell you, they want to do the best for their children, as surely as any middle-class parent does.

Instead of spending more later on the consequences of our failure to intervene where it can make most difference, we should invest more in adult education and ensure it is a core part of properly coordinated cross-departmental efforts to address poverty and worklessness. An educated, skilled and enterprising workforce is key not only to an economically prosperous society but also to an engaged, resilient and creative one (something we surely must be if we are to flourish in the harsh decades to come).

It is positive that literacy interventions form a part of Osborne’s welfare-to-work scheme – but while carefully targeted skills development should be a part of any such programme, we also need a much broader lifelong learning offer, giving people the chance to learn at different moments and in different spaces throughout their lives, in and out of work; helping create a culture of learning across – and between – the generations capable of supporting growth of every sort and accessible to the whole community. Education must be about more than employability, important though that is – it should develop curiosity and help people engage as citizens. Instead of flinging brickbats at those on the breadline, we should be offering them hope.