Tony Benn on politics, pipes – and a new dislike for shaving

Veteran politician Tony Benn told Enoch Powell he was wrong to speak out against mass immigration – but he still respected the former Wolverhampton MP.

Even sporting a new beard, Tony Benn is unmistakeable, with his trademark pipe and unshakeable views against war
Even sporting a new beard, Tony Benn is unmistakeable, with his trademark pipe and unshakeable views against war

In an exclusive interview with the Express & Star the 88-year-old left-winger told how he had challenged Tory Mr Powell around the time of the so-called ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968 in which he spoke about mass immigration and said the nation was ‘heaping up its own funeral pyre’.

Mr Benn, a former minister under both Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, was speaking from the flat where he is now awaiting the publication of the final volume of his diaries.

The 88-year-old father of four and grandfather of 10 said: “I knew Enoch Powell.

“I met him in 1950 and he always meant what he said and said what he meant. He established a relationship of trust with the public. I didn’t agree with him and said that candidly to him but for that reason I respected him.

“Politics is about a relationship of trust with electors. It must mean people believe what they are told and make up their mind on that. But Enoch’s attitude to race was quite wrong.

“He was in India in the war and was fond of India and I said ‘if you’re so fond of India why don’t you want Indians in Britain?’ and he just smiled. The fact that I respected him did not mean I agreed with him.”

In the interview Mr Benn also urges people not to give up on politicians, following the scandals over expenses and lobbying and to keep criticising them.

He also spoke of the time he interviewed Saddam Hussein in a bid to prevent the Iraq war and of his disagreement with Labour’s current acceptance of some welfare spending cuts.

After five decades in the House of Commons, one of the most famous members of the old Labour left wing stood down as an MP to ‘spend more time on politics’.

Twelve years on, aged 88 and officially retired he still has the respect of people from across the political spectrum for standing by his principles, even if they oppose his views.

Sporting a new beard because he is ‘fed up of shaving’ and wearing a dark red jumper, the former minister under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan reaches for his pipe – one of several dotted around his flat in London’s affluent Notting Hill – when his view of government cuts is brought up.

The former secretary of state for industry unsurprisingly disputes the need for spending cuts, despite current Labour leader Ed Miliband now acknowledging that there will be a reduction in the welfare budget should he come to power in 2015.

“I’m very doubtful about the theory that cuts are the answer to the problem because we’ve made a lot of cuts and on the whole the economy is worse than it was to begin with,” Mr Benn says.

As he outlines his disagreement to cuts the famous Tony Benn voice – a sort of warm and fluffy yet knowledgeable one – seems to have a croakier sound than it did in his heyday. He has smoked a pipe for 71 of the past 72 years since the age of 16, and started while he was in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.

He did give up smoking for a year but went back to it recently. “I thought I had kicked the habit but it was indispensable,” he says. “I wanted to give up for a year and when the year came I just started again.”

Asked if there was any way that a government could avoid cuts and increase its spending, he pauses and gets up from the comfy chair that is covered with a blanket and searches for one of his iconic pipes.

He moves to territory where his opinion has been unshakeable for decades – his opposition to war. “Defence spending is one area where I’m not in favour of spending billions of pounds on a new generation of nuclear weapons,” he says. But that in itself is still a cut, just one from a different budget to the welfare bill, is it not? There is another pause to inhale more pipe smoke.

“It’s an argument about what you should spend money on,” he replies. “I was opposed to the Iraq war. It wouldn’t have been a cut to not spend money on the war, it would have been a political decision.”

The subject changes to how people’s opinions of politics and government have been dented by scandals such as MPs expenses.

“I think being cynical about politics is a great mistake,” Mr Benn says. “You should be critical of politicians and what they do but to sit down and say they’re all the same, they’re all a dirty bunch and it’s not worth bothering is very damaging.” An area where Mr Benn has a polite disagreement with his party is over Europe. Labour has ruled out offering a referendum on membership of the European Union. “People should have a choice on changes to their country’s constitution,” Mr Benn says.

A poll voted Tony Benn the nation’s political hero in 2007 and yet he has never led a political party. He came within a half a per cent of being Labour’s deputy leader in 1981, losing to Denis Healey. “I made a million mistakes in my life,” Mr Benn says. “And I’m not ashamed of making mistakes. What I would be ashamed of would be if I said something I didn’t mean, to get on.”

Another mistake, he feels would be for Labour to be seen as not united just because there are members who disagree with the direction its leadership may take.

“Labour is an evolving coalition of its own between socialists and non-socialists,” he says. “It’s about how you conduct an argument. If you disagree you should be free to express your disagreement. If it becomes personal and bitter, it is damaging.”

l The final volume of the Benn Diaries, covering 2007 to 2009, comes out in November.