‘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.’


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