During more than 60 years in politics, Tony Benn has become known for his honesty, passion and humanity and, at 88, he shows no sign of slowing down
Tony Benn and his wife Caroline outside the Houses of Parliament in 1963. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
Tony Benn with his daughter Melissa and son Hilary. Photograph: AFP Photo/Adrian Dennis/Getty Images
Tony Benn has always had something of a special relationship with Scotland; whether in solidarity with the 1971 Upper Clyde Shipyard protests or generally striving to save diminishing communities. He’s in Scotland for the preview of part of a documentary about his life: My Last Will and Testament. In the questions section there’s a discussion about Scotland’s referendum on independence, something Benn was prepared for.
“It was the first time I had done a debate in Scotland about the independence issue and you have to be very careful, as you can give offence. There was an SNP Member of the European Parliament there, and an academic woman, who was giving a balanced view. But for me it’s an emotional question – my mother was a Paisley woman, my father was member for Leith, and I’ve got a Scottish son-in-law. If Scotland became independent it would feel like my parents were getting divorced, I would be really upset by it. I think you have to be candid, but I don’t know. I can’t see Scotland voting for independence, can you?”
We talk about family and history, the ties that bind, and the complicated terrain of identity, referencing Parnell’s assertion: “No man has a right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation; no man has a right to say to his country, thus far shalt thou go and no further.”
“It is such an emotional issue and I knew it could get very excitable, and I didn’t want to release all that tension, but the conclusion I came to was that if they do vote for independence not much will change. I don’t imagine it will give Scotland the independence that they think it will, and that is a different argument to put forward.”
Benn has always put forward different arguments, considering communication the key to understanding.
We talk of his support for a united Ireland through non-violent means and the progress of Sinn Féin as a political force, and its policy of abstentionism (refusing to take seats) from Westminster.
“I wish that the Irish MPs had taken their seats at the time – but they felt they couldn’t – so then you never really heard the true Irish case in the House of Commons and, however sympathetic you are, you cannot represent it with the same passion and feeling.
“The decision to talk to the IRA was the most sensible thing we ever did and it created a completely new atmosphere.”
Benn’s policy of talking to those on the fringes has brought both positive and negative reactions, but he remains fearless.
“The people I am interested in, no matter what party, are people who say what they mean and mean what they say.
“Mrs Thatcher meant what she said, but the trouble was she had a signpost pointing in the wrong direction. The strength she had was that when people listened to her they knew she meant what she was saying, and that gave her a great advantage, because you have to persuade people. However, she was very oppressive and she dampened down any initiatives she didn’t like.”