Mary Wakefield Mary Wakefield

Tony Benn 1925 – 2014: a politician who actually believed in people

The former Labour Cabinet Minister, author and long-serving MP Tony Benn has passed away today, aged 88. In 2009, our deputy editor Mary Wakefield interviewed Benn about the financial crisis and the basic decency at the heart of all human beings. Here is the article in full.

I’m standing in Tony Benn’s front garden, on my way out but dawdling, reluctant to leave. Once I’m back on my bike I’ll be in Broken Britain again, snarling at the buses. But right now I’m still in Benn-land, where all people are kindly and the future is bright with mutual concern.

Even the outside of Benn’s house reflects the decency within. There’s a round brown plaque to commemorate his late wife: ‘Caroline de Camp Benn: writer, teacher and socialist, lived and worked here’. Below the plaque, a Labour-red front door hung with a polite sign: ‘Please come down to the basement’.

So, an hour ago, I did: edging through an open door, down a corridor into an underground empire piled high with papers. There are in-trays, out-trays, filing cabinets labelled ‘TB’s special projects’; records of nearly 60 years in politics: of Benn’s first job as MP for Bristol South-East (1950); of his second constituency, Chesterfield; of various, important roles under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan: energy secretary, industry secretary, minister of technology and postmaster-general.

‘Hello there!’ Tony Benn appears from a tiny kitchen. ‘Ish inshtant coffee okay?’ Yes, I say, and sit down for a chat with a man I soon realise is unique: the only politician I’ve ever met who believes completely in the people he was elected to represent.

Because of the financial crisis, we begin by talking about unemployment, which leads to a disagreement (polite) about benefit scroungers, which instantly illuminates the heart of Benn’s beliefs.

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