Radio

Nominated For Interview of the Year Award

2 Apr 2014 at 14:37

Bit of a good day at work. For the second year running I have been nominated for a Radio Academy Award, something which I have to say wasn’t at all expected. It’s for Radio Interview of the Year, for my interview with James, an eyewitness to the Woolwich murders. The other nominees are Stephen Sackur, Iain Lee, Winifred Robinson and Becky Milligan.

If you don’t remember the interview I wrote it up on the blog HERE. Here’s the interview, which came right at the start of my show on May 22.

Obviously I am delighted to be nominated, and one of the reasons is so I can acknowledge the work of my two brilliant producers Matt and Laura. Matt took the call from James on that afternoon in May 2012, calmed him down and then briefed me in about 30 seconds before I had to start the programme. Laura is leaving the LBC to return to her north east roots, but it was she who not only talked to James immediately after the interview, to ensure he was OK she phoned him back several times over the next twenty four hours and has remained in touch with him ever since. That’s called exercising a duty of care.

LBC has picked up 9 nominations, a record for the station. Call Clegg and Nick Ferrari deservedly got two each, with our senior reporter Tom Swarbrick being nominated for radio journalist of the year and also getting two nominations for his ‘Slavery on our Streets’ documentary. And we’re also nominated for Radio Station of the Year. And finally, I was delighted to see Newsbeat’s Declan Harvey getting a nomination two. He was at LBC for my first two years and is a star in the making.

Looking forward to the ceremony on May 12th!

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LBC 97.3: Iain Dale talks to Nadine Dorries

Nadine accuses female Tory MPs who criticise her for her jungle exploits of 'jealousy'.

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Books

Why I'm Writing David Cameron's Authorised Biography

1 Apr 2014 at 08:07

Back in 2006 I nearly wrote a semi-authorised biography of David Cameron, only shortly after he had been elected leader of the Conservative Party. I had decided to take six months off, having been fairly burnt out by two failed election campaigns during 2005 (my election in North Norfolk and then the DD leadership campaign) but during that period I pitched the idea of a Cameron biography to a couple of publishers and to Cameron’s team. In the end, I pulled the project partly because I got a new job, but also I heard that Francis Elliott and James Hanning were pitching the same idea.

However, eight years later, I can announce today that I have been commissioned by HarperCollins to write an authorised biography of the Prime Minister to be published in the autumn of 2015, a few months after the general election. I am delighted that David Cameron has agreed to cooperate with the book. In return I have promised him a soft interview on LBC at a time of his choosing.

As readers may know, Lord Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott are also writing a biography of David Cameron, to be published at the same time. Er, by me.

Awkward.

I am sure the Good Lord will see the funny side of the situation and won’t be at all irritated by his own publisher writing a book on the same subject for a, er, different publisher. He’s got a great sense of humour….. hasn’t he???

I’d like to thank LBC for being very understanding about the time I will need to devote to this project. So from today I will no longer be hosting a four hour daily show. Instead, I will be broadcasting for 15 minutes every other Friday afternoon.

If I can spare the time.

UPDATE: April Fool…

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LBC 97.3: Iain Dale talks to Ann Clwyd

Iain and Labour MP Ann Clywd discuss their experiences of nursing failings and take calls from listeners.

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Video

If You Don't Like Gay Marriage, Don't Marry a Homosexual

29 Mar 2014 at 10:06

Today we live in country where love and commitment are celebrated between a man and a woman, a man and a man and a woman and a woman. Some people still don’t like that. They should watch this seven second video.

It really is as simple as that.

Video H/T LiarPoliticians

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LBC Book Club: Iain talks to Princess Michael of Kent

HRH Princess Michael of Kent talks about her new book THE QUEEN OF FOUR KINGDOMS

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Diary

ConservativeHome Diary: Just Before I Interrupted Myself...

28 Mar 2014 at 20:02

As I was saying…

It’s that time of year when every Minister of State, and quite a few Parliamentary Under Secretaries, start pushing themselves forward with a single aim of getting two people to notice them: the Prime Minister and the Chief Whip. Why? Because they know that in two months’ time there will be a reshuffle, and it’s likely to be the last before the election. They also know it’s probably going to be quite a radical reshuffle with five or six cabinet departures and promotions. There’s also another dead certainty. If you’ve got a pair of knackers the odds on you being promoted to the cabinet are near to zero unless your surname is Hancock. Or perhaps Fallon. If these things were done on merit Michael Fallon would be a shoo-in for a top Cabinet job, but if that were the case it’d have happened last time around. No, this is going to be a reshuffle in which several women get promotion, and in each case I think it will be fully merited. Who are they? Esther McVey, Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan and possibly the much tipped (not least by herself) Liz Truss. Assuming the current female cabinet ministers remain in situ, that would bring the total number of women at the top table to eight if they are all promoted. Three of the four are PUSS’s rather than ministers of state, so it would be a stratospheric and some would say risky thing to do to promote all of them, but in the run-up to the election Cameron may calculate that he needs media friendly faces around the cabinet table.

Of course, if five or six people come in, that means five or six people must leave. I don’t buy the rumours that Grant Shapps will be sacrificed at the altar of George Osborne’s government takeover. He will be rescued, if he needs to be, by the Prime Minister, but a move from the party chairmanship is probable. That’s not a reflection on him, but a new face who can work hand in glove with Lynton Crosby is on the cards. And the face probably belongs to Michael Fallon. Who else might get the chop? I hate putting the black spot on people, but Ken Clarke, Andrew Lansley and Sir George Young must all fear the worst.

I think it is also entirely possible that William Hague might decide to free up the Foreign Office to give the PM a little room for manoeuvre at the top. Hague has enjoyed being Foreign Secretary more than I suspect he thought he would, but he may be hankering after a more normal life after four years of travel. I wouldn’t bet my house on it, but you never know in politics.

At the beginning of this piece I suggested that lots of junior ministers would be prostrating them in front of the chief whip. Actually, they needn’t bother. Traditionally it is the chief whip who decides on most junior appointments and they are rubberstamped by Number Ten. Not under this prime minister. I’m told that the chief whip was barely consulted about the last reshuffle and the whole thing was done by Number Ten. Bizarre, but apparently true.


Someone said by returning to do this diary, I am like a dog returning to its own vomit. Mr Goodman can be a persuasive chap, so I am coming back to do a weekly diary between now and the Euro-elections. It may not be as long as it used to be (the problems of old age, eh?) but nonetheless I hope it hits the spot. See, two double entendres in one sentence. You can’t say fairer than that. I like to provide good value. And to those who love to complain about the smut in my column [no, stop it – ed], the more you whinge, the more I’m likely to be smutty. If you don’t like it, feel free not to read, or collect your refund at the exit. Bye bye UKIPpers and BNPers.


On Wednesday night I had the unique experience of hosting the pre debate build-up and post-match commentary for the Clegg v Farage contest. And quite an experience it was too. I thought both Farage and Clegg put in strong performances and it was a real debate between two political leaders who were at the top of their game. The polls showed a decisive victory for the UKIP leader, but I have to say I thought it was a lot closer than that, not that I hold any candle for Clegg or his Europhilic views. In political terms I think both of them got out of it what they wanted and needed to. For LBC it was a massive night, and I think we surprised a few people with the show we put on. Eat your heart out BBC. It will be interesting to see if the BBC debate next week generates as much interest.

It was quite clear after the debate that it engaged a lot of people in politics, so well done to everyone involved for that. I think it also put beyond doubt the fact that there will be pre general election debates between the party leaders. I think that there is a very strong case for the UKIP leader to be included in one debate. My preferred scenario would be one Miliband v Cameron heads to head debate and a second debate involving any party leader whose party puts up candidates in 95% of seats across the United Kingdom. So, yes, that could include the leader of the Green Party. This idea that only parties whose leader could potentially be prime minister should be included is a complete red herring.

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LBC 97.3: Iain Dale talks to Margaret Beckett & John Rentoul

Discussion on Tony Blair's speech on Britain's need to remain at the heart of Europe.

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UK Politics

The Ban on Sending Books to Prisoners is Just Plain Wrong

26 Mar 2014 at 07:58

The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation – Goethe

I know I have developed a reputation for being as wet as a lettuce on prison reform, so no doubt what I am about to write will just burnish that reputation.

When I heard that the government was banning friends and family from sending books to prisoners in jail I almost scratched my head in disbelief. If you’re banged up in a cell for 23 hours a day, surely allowing prisoners free access to books is just the sort of thing a prison governor would want to encourage just to keep them occupied. If you believe the maxim that the devil makes work for idle hands it is a pretty obvious thing to do.

In November the government decided to ban family and friends from sending any packages into prisons, not just packages containing books. They justify it on the basis that drugs and other things were being sent, hidden in packages. An understandable response maybe, but in my view totally over the top. I did an hour’s phone in on my show on this on Monday, which Chris Grayling got to hear about. Later in the evening he texted me refuting the allegation that books were being banned. Er, that was never the allegation actually. I quite understand that prisons have libraries so books are indeed available to prisoners, but quite often they have a fairly restricted choice. They are not run by prisons but by local authorities. Chris also explained that prisoners were still able to buy books themselves through their allowances or money they have earned. On the face of it a fair point, but in reality a smokescreen. If a prisoner earns £4 a week he or she is likely to spend it on necessities rather than a book, which inevitably will cost a lot more anyway.

If there is such a problem with smuggling things into prison I don’t think it is unfair to suggest that the Prison Service needs to look at its security procedures. And in addition, would it be beyond the wit of the Ministry of Justice to come to an arrangement with Amazon or Waterstone’s so family and friends could order books from them to be delivered securely by them to prisons? Apparently so. Chris Grayling points our that prisoners can order via Amazon or Waterstone’s but the deliveries have to go via the prison shop.

Prison is indeed about punishment, but it is also about rehabilitation. You don’t have to be left wing to believe that. It is the mark of an decent society. I have a lot of respect for Chris Grayling, but i think he has got this one wrong, and that is why I have signed the letter along with 80 others, organised by the Howard League for Penal Reform to urge him to think again. He may regard the organisation with disdain, but on this one I think they are right. Here’s the letter

SIR – We are extremely concerned at new rules that ban family and friends sending books to prisoners. While we understand that prisons must be able to apply incentives to reward good behaviour by prisoners, we do not believe that education and reading should be part of that policy.

Books represent a lifeline behind bars, a way of nourishing the mind and filling the many hours that prisoners spend locked in their cells. In an environment with no internet access and only limited library facilities, books become all the more important.

We urge Chris Grayling, the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, to reconsider the Prison Service instruction that limits books and other essentials being sent to prisoners from family and friends.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive, Howard League for Penal Reform
Mark Haddon

Salman Rushdie

Julian Barnes

Ian McEwan

Carol Ann Duffy

Alan Bennett

Philip Pullman

Jeffrey Archer

Irvine Welsh

Joanne Harris

Hari Kunzru

Ian Rankin

Nick Hornby

Deborah Moggach

Ruth Padel

Mary Beard

Sir David Hare

Colin Thubron

Maggie Fergusson, Director, The Royal Society of Literature

Simon Stephens

Laura Wade

Samantha Ellis

David Edgar

Jack Thorne

John O’Farrell

Caitlin Moran

David Harsent

Linda Grant

Andrew O’Hagan

Iain Dale

David Eldridge

D C Moore

Caroline Moorehead

Stella Feehily

Alecky Blythe

Moira Buffini

Lucinda Coxon

Susannah Clapp

Kathryn Gray

April De Angelis

Elif Shafak

Vivienne Franzmann

Tim Gee

Colin Beveridge

Melanie McFadyean

Melanie McGrath

Shami Chakrabarti, Director, Liberty

Jenny Diski

Stella Duffy

Janice Galloway

Jackie Kay

Darian Leader

James Robertson

Niall Griffiths

Kamila Shamsie

Kathy Lette

Terence Blacker

Alice Rawsthorn

Jenni Fagan

Blake Morrison

Tiffany Murray

Rhian Jones

Rachel Holmes

Robin Tudge

Ahdaf Soueif

Nikesh Shukla

Sophie Mayer

Nikita Lalwani

Peter Hobbs

Maggie O’Farrell

Ian Dunt

Naomi Alderman

Lise Mayer

William Fiennes

Bidisha

Ali Smith

Helen Walsh

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LBC Book Club: Iain Dale talks to Sandi Toksvig

Sandi Toksvig discusses her new book HEROINES & HARRIDANS

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UK Politics

The Quiet Rise of Nicky Morgan

22 Mar 2014 at 19:51

If David Cameron wants to promote more women to the cabinet he need look no further than Nicky Morgan, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. I’ve known Nicky and her husband Jonathan for more than ten years, although we’re no close friends. She was selected for Loughborough around the same time I got North Norfolk. She didn’t win the seat at the first time of trying, but unlike me she had another go, and in 2010 she won it with a majority of nearly 4,000.

Since her election she has risen through the ranks without attracting the notice of the Westminster lobberati. And that is a good thing. She started off as PPS to David Willetts before being appointed a whip in 2012. She’s been a Treasury minister for only six months but she is beginning to attract some rave reviews for her quietly effective performances. She has some steel in her and is no one’s pushover. It has been reported that as a backbencher she wasn’t backward in coming forward in the 1922 committee if she had criticisms, and her views on Sayeeda Warsi were said to be crucial in the decision to remove her from the party chairmanship.

Of all the Treasury ministers who appeared on the media trumpeting the budget this week, it was clear that Nicky Morgan was being pushed forward more than the others. She did a 15 minute stint on my show and was on the Daily Politics the next day for most of the programme. Her performances were superb. She looked good, she was eloquent, she displayed an infectious sense of humour and an ability to make partisan points without appearing to do so.

Nicky Morgan’s problem is that her profile, so far, has been so low that no one really knows what she believes. Her only foray into real controversy came a couple of months ago when she said Conservatives must send out an optimistic message and not just ‘the language of hate’ if they are to win the next general election. It might sound a statement of the ‘bleeding obvious’ but she attracted some approbrium from the usual suspects on the right. Expect her to up her profile in the next couple of months. She need to give the Prime Minister an excuse to promote her in the reshuffle which I imagine will come at the end of May after the European elections.

It seems to me that there are going to be five or six new entrants to the Cabinet at the next reshuffle. Nicky Morgan has every chance to be one of them.

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LBC Book Club: Iain Dale talks to Simon Callow

Simon Callow talks about his new book on Charles Dickens.

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Tribute

A Tribute to Corinne De Souza 1955-2014

18 Mar 2014 at 21:45

This site seems to have become a repository for obituaries and tributes in the last week, and I am afraid here’s another one.

John and I first met Corinne De Souza back in 1997 just after we opened Politico’s. It turned out that unbeknown to me at the time I had taken over her job at the PR firm Charles Barker back in January 1990. She became a very good friend to us both and also became a shareholder in Politico’s. Her book, SO YOU WANT TO BE A LOBBYIST, was one of the first books published by Politico’s Publishing in 1998. It was, it has to be said, not a brilliant book, as she herself admitted later. Only last year did she admit that she gave us the wrong disk… I had to laugh.

Corinne was one of the sweetest people John and I knew. She died on Thursday after a six month battle with lung cancer. When she first told us the diagnosis back in September she was only supposed to have two or three weeks to live. But it was only in her last few days that her health deteriorated very dramatically. She had come to terms with her death and planned every last detail of not only her last few months but also her funeral. John was with her when she died, along with several other of her close friends. She never complained once about her illness and bore it great fortitude. She didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her.

Corinne, as she would herself admit, was slightly eccentric. No, she was very eccentric. Two stops short of Dagenham would be another way of describing her. But in a good way. I remember one year she came to help us sell books at the Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth. She drove down from London with our friend Rena. Corinne’s sense of direction left something to be desired, and as they drove along the M3 she suddenly said: “Sweetie, shouldn’t the sea be on the other side?” Somehow they ended up driving towards Portsmouth rather than Bournemouth.

It has to be said that Corinne wasn’t a natural retail sales assistant. She accessorised her bottle green Politico’s branded sweatshirt with a rather fetching neckscarf, and point blank refused to sell our politically themed knickers. “Sweetie, I couldn’t possibly sell them,” she bleated. Most of her sentences invariably started with the word “Sweetie”. I remember a very funny moment in Politico’s, just after George Bush’s Axis of Evil speech, when John was filling in the conference application forms. Corinne and Rena were upstairs in the coffee shop. John shouted up to them and this is how the conversation went…

JOHN: Corinne, I need your date of birth and where you were born!
CORINNE: 1955, Baghdad.
JOHN: Okaaaay… Rena?
RENA: 19xx, Tehran
JOHN: Riiiiight…. Oh. Right.

Corinne was born in Iraq to an English mother and an Iraqi father who worked as an agent for SIS. She wrote a book about him called BAGHDAD SPY. She had a very English upbringing, though and retained a delightful, sweet naivete about life in general for all her life. She was far too willing to place her trust in people who would let her down. One in particular.

Corinne started her own publishing company, Picnic Publishing. She was determined to make it succeed on her own and her stubborn streak prevented her from taking advice or well-meant help from others. When I found out she was having terrible distribution problems I offered to help sell her books through Biteback’s sales agents. There was nothing in it for us, but I knew it was the only way she could get her books out into the market. But she refused because she thought I was doing it out of charity. I explained that I was doing it as a friend, and not out of charity, but she wouldn’t hear of it.

It has to be said that Corinne was taken from this earth at a much too young age – 58. She outlived her beloved mother by little more than a year. She really was one of the sweetest, kindest people I have ever met. Those who knew her will miss her infectious laugh and happy go lucky nature. Her funeral will be a very sad event indeed.

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LBC 97.3: Iain Dale talks to Leon McKenzie about Depression

Former Crystal Palace, Norwich and Fulham Footballer Leon McKenzie joins Iain to discuss depression and his attempt to take his own life, detailed in his book MY FIGHT WITH LIFE

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Video

WATCH: Tory MP & Putin Supporter Clash (Again) Over Crimea

17 Mar 2014 at 23:09

Two weeks ago I hosted a debate on Ukraine between Tory MP Brooks Newmark and former Kremlin advisor Alexander Nekrassov. Today I hosted Round 2. Here it is for your viewing pleasure.

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LBC Book Club: Iain Dale talks to Lord Ashcroft

Michael Ashcroft talks about his new book HEROES OF THE SKIES

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Tribute

A Tribute to Tony Benn

14 Mar 2014 at 12:40

Even before I first met him in the mid 1990s, Tony Benn was always a source of endless fascination for me. I remember buying a volume of his diaries from a second hand bookshop in Cambridge and being transfixed. By the time I met him I had bought all the other volumes and I remember taking them down to the House of Commons for him to sign. He got out his red pen and put a different personal message in each of them. This became particularly poignant last November when I met him for the last time. We were sitting in the living room of his flat, just round the corner from the Holland Park house which he and his beloved Caroline had spent their whole married life in. I had just done a 25 minute interview with him, which had clearly tired him greatly. I produced three more volumes for him to sign. He started signing them and then instantly fell asleep. It was a rather touching moment. I couldn’t decide what to do, so I just let him have a little snooze. He woke up after a couple of minutes and carried on as if nothing had happened. His writing had become very spidery and almost illegible. I felt very sad as I bid him farewell. I just knew that it would be the last time I would see him. Over the years he had become a friend. He always called me his “favourite Thatcherite entrepreneur”, not that I am sure he knew very many others. We had so much in common, yet politically so much divided us.

Tony famously said it politics was all about the “ishoos”, not personalities. Yet, either knowingly or unknowingly, he cultivated a bit of a cult of personality. He loved the hero worship he would attract during his one man theatre shows. He adored people coming up to him in the street and paying their respects. He craved the approval of the crowds he would address up and down the country. I think he had convinced himself it was all about the ideas he was propagating, but in reality they came to see him because of his personality, not necessarily because they were waiting to be convinced by his latest political thoughts. The theatre audiences were a mix of out and out left wingers, but the majority were middle class Tories who came out to see someone they believed to be a conviction politician. He was fond of saying that you could divide politicians into two categories – signposts and weathervanes. He liked to think of himself as a ‘signpost’ and in many ways he was, although he did change his mind on many great issues of the day including nuclear power.
In his later years he was known predominantly as an anti-war campaigner. His stance on military conflict was at least consistent and he was a prominent supporter of CND throughout his life.

As a politician in government I am not sure he could be described as an unalloyed success, but I’ll leave others to evaluate his time in Harold Wilson’s cabinets. From his diaries he was never far away from resignation but could never quite bring himself to do it. He knew if he did he would become a marginalised figure with no real power, and one thing Tony Benn understood very quickly was that if you were in power, you had to wield it and lead public opinion.

In some ways Tony Benn successfully transformed his reputation from the ‘most dangerous man in Britain’ to the nation’s favourite political uncle. And it was quite a transformation. When I was a teenager in the 1970s to me, politically, he was the devil incarnate. He represented all that was wrong about the left of the Labour Party. His flirtations with the extreme left ensured that the Labour Party remained fractured throughout most of the 1980s and it is not an exaggeration to say that he was almost single-handedly responsible for the creation of the SDP in 1981. Some believe he was the single reason Labour was out of power for 18 long years in the 1980s and 1990s. That is inevitably somewhat of an exaggeration, but all exaggerations have a kernel of truth about them.

The Tony Benn I knew was a kind man. A family man, who idolised his children and grandchildren. He was tickled pink to see his granddaughter Emily stand in the last general election while still a teenager. He was so proud of his son Hilary when he made it into the cabinet. He positively beamed with pride, and it shines through the pages of his diaries. He went out of his way to help people and was always available to impart his words of wisdom to a pliant media.

I did several interviews with him. Apart from the most recent one for LBC back in November 2013, the one which sticks in my mind is one I did for Total Politics in 2009. I spent more than two hours with him in his basement in Holland Park and the result was an intensely personal exchange, which I wrote up verbatim in an In Conversation format. The whole time he puffed away on his trademark pipe. I remember walking out of the house after the interview thinking I had interviewed someone who was a truly great politician. But was he one of the political greats of the 20th century?

I’m not sure. I think he was certainly one of the great political personalities, but apart from serving in three cabinet positions and being an inspiring figure what did he actually achieve? He failed in his bid to become deputy leader in 1981, split his party and left parliament in 2001 to “spend more time on politics”. I don’t mean to diminish him as a figure of political importance, but if you drew up a list of top 20 post war Labour politicians, I wonder if he would really feature on it.

I was proud to know him. He enriched my life. I felt I was sitting at the feet of someone of historical importance and often found myself hanging on his every word. We agreed on more than we expected to. He developed an interesting strand of euroscepticism in later life and we shared common ground on many constitutional issues. But Tony was not a massive original thinker in his later years. He adopted and championed many causes, but in terms of changing the political weather, those days really ended in the 1980s.
In my Total Politics interview I asked him what he’d want as his epitaph. This was his reply.

“All I’d want on my gravestone, would be: HERE LIES TONY BENN: HE ENCOURAGED US”.

Note: You can hear my last interview with Tony Benn, recorded in November 2013 HERE

You can read my extended In Conversation interview with Tony Benn from 2009 HERE

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Video: Iain & Sally Bercow on the Politics Show

BBC 1 Politics Show with James Landale

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Interview

Two Extended Interviews With Tony Benn

14 Mar 2014 at 10:16

I’ll write a proper tribute and obituary to Tony Benn later. I first met Tony in the 1990s and we became quite friendly. He said he regarded me as his “favourite Thatcherite entrepreneur”. I am not sure how many other Thatcherite entrepreneurs he knew, but I took it as a compliment! When I heard of his death this morning I felt a profound sense of sadness. It wasn’t unexpected, but I know how much he meant to Hilary and the rest of his close family. They will be bereft.

At the end of November last year I did what I believe to be is the last extended interview anyone did with Tony Benn. We were talking about his latest volume of diaries. I’ll be playing it out on my show tonight in our 7pm hour. But if you’d like to listen to it now click HERE

Back in 2009 I interviewed Tony for Total Politics. It was a very personal interview, and I thought you might like to read it. So here goes…

ID: When you stood down from Parliament did you think you would enjoy your post-parliamentary life?
TB: Before she died, my wife Caroline said, when you do stand down (and we had agreed I would) you should say it’s to devote more time to politics. It was a joke but also serious, and that’s exactly I have done. I have never been busier. Last year I did 161 public meetings, 175 broadcasts and I go round supporting the causes I believe in and do my theatre performances, which are the equivalent of a constituency meeting. You are not asking people to vote for you but the people who come and generally not of your opinion. I get from that something I used to get from constituency work. I was 76 when I gave up and the strain of getting up at 5am every Friday to go to the constituency to do your surgery was getting a bit much. I don’t have a secretary. I do all my own letters and emails so it’s a busy life, but I am enjoying it very much.
ID: Do you miss the parliamentary side of politics?
TB: The Speaker gave me and Ted Heath a pass called the ‘Freedom of the House’ and I go there a couple of times a week. What I miss is the constituency. I miss the surgeries. They were very emotional events because people would often burst into tears and unload their problems. If you are a conscientious constituency member you are really in touch with what people are thinking. You’re not there to lecture them on your ideology. You’re there to help, and that’s what I miss most.
ID: The constituency side is a big part of the job, but it’s largely ignored by the Westminster media, isn’t it?
TB: They say MPs are out of touch but most MPs are diligent and hold regular surgeries. No journalist does that – it’s not part of their job, of course, but the idea that journalists are in closer touch with public opinion than MPs is wrong. I once filmed a surgery. It will never be shown, but I wanted a reminder of what surgeries are like. A man who had had a stroke burst into tears, a mother told me of the sexual abuse of her child. It was so moving. It would make a fantastic television programme, but you couldn’t use real people because it’s secret, but it does show the relationship between real life and politics.
ID: You were quite outspoken about the Damian Green arrest, partly because of the dangers of that confidential relationship between constituent and MP apparently being breached.
TB: It was an outrage to go into a Member’s office and go through his files. If you write to an MP it’s like going to a doctor or a lawyer. It’s a confidential relationship. If people thought the Police could get hold of what they said to an MP the whole thing would come to an end. They have turned the House of Commons into a government department. Originally the House of Commons used to control the Executive, but now the House of Commons is a government department with the Leader of the House in charge.
ID: Whose fault is that?
TB: The pressure from underneath has been defused in a whole series of ways. It will come right again when the pressure builds up. All progress has always come from underneath, by demands that are made that can’t be resisted. That’s why I spend all my time now on grassroots things, supporting pensioners, students, firefighters or whoever it happens to be. When the pressure gets to a certain point the guys at the top have to listen.
ID: Isn’t it partly the fault of MPs themselves? They have allowed the Executive to get so many powers and to bypass Parliament.
TB: Yes, I agree. The Damian Green case is a good example. I went to speak for David Davis because I felt so strongly about the 42 days issue. It was a principle. I must be the only Labour candidate to have had a letter from Winston Churchill endorsing me. He wrote it when I was thrown out of Parliament because he saw it as a principle. I photocopied 50,000 copies of it!
ID: So your cross party alliances go back nearly 50 years!
TB: On issues where we can agree, yes. I think politics has become far too tribal. There should be less hostility and more of the argument and then you would find people coming together from different sides on different issues.
ID: Do you think the age of the political party is drawing to a close?
TB: I have heard that said, but on the other hand how do you get anything done? I joined the Labour Party in 1942. I have seen it swing from left to right. It isn’t a socialist party, but it is a party with socialists in it. When you look at all the alternatives, all the left groups – Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party, Communist Party and the rest – there’s no future in ideological splits so you work with the people with whom you feel most comfortable, and that’s the Labour Party. The whole idea of leaving everything to the market is discredited. The effect of a slump is not only economic but political. It produced Mosley in the thirties – I had tea in his house at the age of three in 1928. The next time I saw him he was in a black short in Parliament Square. That plus war radicalized people. But the Labour Party didn’t surge to the left ideologically in 1945. Attlee was a practical man, he said let’s utilize the wartime spirit to deal with the problems of peace and provide food, homes and health for the nation.
ID: Do you think that’s what Gordon Brown is doing now, trying to evoke a wartime spirit using the language of Churchill and Roosevelt?
TB: He’s talking in that way yes, and I think public opinion is ready to accept that now. It’s a realization that when it comes down to it, the things that really matter are very simple and you have a responsibility as a government to address people’s problems. British politics has never been dominated by ideology pure and simple.
ID: Keith Joseph said he only realized in 1974 he had not, until that point, been a true Conservative. Did you have a similar epiphany when you lost office in 1979 and only then did you become a real Socialist?
TB: Not really. I think office turned me to the left. I realized when I was there that shouting ‘Thatcher Out’ didn’t get you very far. But when the American Ambassador delivered a note about energy – and in diplomatic terms, when one government sends a note to another government, Whitehall quivered. And he came to see me. You realize that when you are there you are locked into a system that you don’t control, and that was what really radicalized me. Europe makes laws we have to obey. We don’t elect the Commission. They decide the agenda. So this wasn’t a swing back to my faith from being in office, it was the development of my understanding in office which gave me the confidence to put forward my arguments when I was out of office.
ID: It’s difficult as a Minister, when you are bound by collective responsibility, to drive forward an individual agenda. You are always compromised by the system.
TB: Not really. I developed a way of dealing with that. I realized that collective responsibility applied to the present Parliament, so I would say “looking ahead ten years this is what we will have to think about…” so I could open up a whole area. They couldn’t get me on that. I would also say “I’m getting an awful lot of letters at the moment saying this, that or the other…” It didn’t please colleagues but I think that on the whole a government where it is known there is a debate going on is more credible than the pretence of unanimity. The idea that a Cabinet is unanimous on every issue isn’t true and everybody knows it isn’t true.
ID: That boxes you in as a Minister because you are never going to get one of the top jobs if you are seen as a maverick.
TB: It isn’t about that. I was defeated many times. The biggest of all was in 1976 over public spending cuts and the IMF. I thought it was wrong. The oil was bubbling ashore and I tried to persuade the Treasury to publish the gold, oil and dollar reserves every month, in which case we could have said boo to the IMF. I lost the battle, but I give full marks to Jim [Callaghan]. He allowed the debate. The Cabinet was a really interesting, clever group of people. It was riveting. At the end of it all I was able to say, well, you know my view, but this was a decision and I am a member of the government and I accept the decision. I never minded being defeated as long as I had a chance to put my case. There’s a credibility about that position.
ID: And you never came close to resigning?
TB: I went to my local Party in Bristol. I am probably the only Minister who ever did it, and I said I want you to tell me whether I should resign. If they had asked me to, I would have stuck to it. In the end they said “stick it out, say what you think, and if you are sacked, we will support you”. I did think that through very carefully. If you’re in Cabinet you lose half the time and win half the time, but if you resign and then there’s a vote of confidence, do you then vote for the government you’ve resigned from, or not? I came to the conclusion that if I had argued my point and lost it was a credible position to accept the decision and move on. I could never have voted for a war. In 2003 if I had been a Minister I just couldn’t have stayed in the government, but it’s very rare for it to be of that degree of magnitude.
ID: In your eleven years as a Minister what is the one achievement you’d single out?
TB: Maybe the creation of the Giro Bank. By the time Mrs Thatcher abolished it, it was the fifth largest bank in Britain. But I would like to be remembered for having encouraged people. It sounds very innocent, but if you have given people confidence that they can do something, that is a real achievement. I look back and think, have I always explained things to people truthfully? Have I always said what I meant and meant what I said? And as a result of that, have I encouraged people to have confidence in themselves? All I would want on my gravestone would be “Here Lies Tony Benn: He Encouraged Us”.
ID: Do you think about death? Is it something you fear?
TB: Well, I’m 84. I don’t mind being dead. I don’t want the circumstances to be too unpleasant. Until about a hundred years ago, no one knew what they were dying of. They just felt unwell, got into bed and died. Death is a natural part of the process of life.
ID: Does the physical limitation manifested by old age frustrate you?
TB: I haven’t the energy I had. I was on a march in Trafalgar Square and holding a banner, and being pushed by the people behind. That made me reach the limits of my physical capabilities. I’m trying to write a book with a brilliant title of ‘A Letter to my Grandchildren’. It details what I have learned about war, violence, religion and the economy. It’s not my life story, but it’s the things I think I have learned. It’s a challenge because it has to be credible to that generation when they read it. I’m not trying to force them to share my views but I am using my experience to explain.
ID: Your granddaughter Emily is standing for Parliament at the age of 19. What do you think of the continuation of the Benn dynasty, and do people of that age have enough life experience?
TB: I didn’t get elected to Parliament in 1950 because my Dad had been an MP. She’s doing it on her own merits. She’s a very clever girl and very active. She’s fighting Worthing, which is not a Labour seat. When I came back from the war I was 20. I had been a pilot for three years and I was furious that I wasn’t allowed to cast a vote. The principle of no taxation without representation is a good one. I am in favour of votes at 16. It would radically alter things at school. If teachers had to respect that pupils had the same vote as they do, it would change a lot. We don’t apply criteria to voting, do we? We don’t have an education test, or a literacy test, you have an inherent right to have some say in the laws you are expected to obey. Why should someone aged 16 obey a law passed by someone he didn’t elect and can’t remove and who doesn’t need to listen. It’s the European argument again, on which you and I would agree.
ID: How would history have been different if you had become Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in 1981. After all, you only lost by half a per cent.
TB: I took the view that an election campaign was an opportunity to present an argument. I wasn’t motivated by the single minded hope of winning. Obviously if I had won I would have been thrilled to have won, but I don’t know how it would have changed things. I know people find it hard to believe but I don’t think about that particularly. I stood, I campaigned, I said what I thought and I lost. The people who defeated me all joined the SDP, so without them I did defeat Healey, but that’s by the by.
ID: Do you think the Labour Party in power and the Labour Party in opposition are two different parties?
TB: Not really. If you look at the Labour Party in the thirties Cripps was expelled, Foot was expelled, Nye Bevan was expelled but they still played their part when an election came. Government is hard work and you are locked into a system you don’t control and even more so now, where 80 per cent of our laws are made in Europe. I find the role of European Commissioner even more offensive than the House of Lords. The Commissioners can do what they like and can’t be criticized. When I was President of the Energy Council of Ministers I found I couldn’t even put in a document. Only the Commissioner could. It’s as if I had gone into the Energy Department and only the Permanent Secretary could say what should happen. You could veto it, but you couldn’t put in another paper. The whole European argument for me is a democratic one and not about nationalism. I am not a nationalist at all. I was very pleased to go to Ireland and see the Lisbon Treaty defeated.
ID: What’s the solution?
TB: There are three solutions. The status quo, which is fundamentally undemocratic and it will crack up. There’s a United States of Europe which would be democratic but cumbersome. But I have always favoured a Commonwealth of Europe. Get rid of the Commission and have a Secretary General. The countries would adhere to it from their national parliaments. It would be slower, but more democratic. I would like to see the Russians brought in. It’s ridiculous that they are not included in the European family of nations now that the Cold War is over.
ID: Do you think the Cold War would have ended if Britain had adopted the unilateralist agenda you advocated in the 1980s?
TB: I saw Gorbachev a few years ago at the TUC and I said to him, if we had been friendly to Russia after the revolution would Perestroika have come earlier? He said it was an interesting idea. I gave a talk to 70 senior defence staff at the Defence College at Shrivenham recently to talk about alternatives to war. I thought they were going to chew me up for breakfast. But it was a riveting discussion. I asked how many of them believed that it was because we had nuclear weapons the Soviet Union didn’t attack the West. Only two put their hands up. There never was military threat. There was an ideological threat from Communism.
ID: Sorry, but you cannot seriously say there was no military threat from the Soviet Union…
TB: There was no military threat to the West, no.
ID: Well why did they have all the missiles?
TB: Well why did we have all the missiles? We had them before they did. What’s the point of nuclear weapons? You can’t use them. They didn’t help the Americans in the war against Iraq. The Israelis have got them but they’re not helping them in Gaza.
ID: My point was that the Cold War would not have come to an end, or the Communist system brought to its knees without the policy of multilateralism in the 1980s and indeed rearmament on the part of the West.
TB: I understand the argument but I don’t believe that. It’s an illusion. The European Union was set up to save capitalism in Western Europe and NATO was set up to protect capitalism. They were really a diversion.
ID: Wasn’t it a scandal that Tony Blair committed us to renewing our own nuclear deterrent without any sort of debate about Britain’s future strategic defence needs? Didn’t that illustrate what is wrong with our politics today?
TB: The existence of nuclear weapons destroys democracy. You can’t ask any questions. There’s no accountability. Do you really believe Gordon Brown would ever press the button? I don’t. I resigned as a front bench defence spokesman in 1958 because I said I couldn’t support the use of nuclear weapons. Perhaps that’s what we should do – press Gordon Brown on whether he would press the button. He would be put in a very awkward position.
ID: Keynes once said, when the facts change, I change my mind. What have you changed your mind on?
TB: Many things. Nuclear power, for example. In 1955 when Eisenhower said he was going for ‘Atoms for Peace’ I became a passionate supporter of it. Having been brought up on the bible I liked the idea of swords into ploughshares. I advocated it as Minister of Technology. I was told, and believed, that nuclear power was cheap and safe and peaceful. Having been in charge of nuclear power I discovered it wasn’t cheap, wasn’t safe and when I left office I was told that during my period as Secretary of State for Energy plutonium from our nuclear power stations went to the Pentagon to make nuclear weapons. So every nuclear power station in Britain is a bomb factory for America. I was utterly shaken by that. Nothing in the world would now induce me to support nuclear power. It was a mistake.
Israel is another one. I was rowing on the Sea of Galilee in May 1945 when the war ended. I was all I favour of a Jewish homeland, but now I see what has happened and it was absolutely wrong.
ID: Why do you go on demonstrations against Israel, yet say nothing against the launching of rockets into Israel by Hamas?
TB: The Israelis have blockaded Gaza for two years. They have arrested ships that bring supplies. They occupied Gaza for many years. Israel is the American instrument for the domination of the middle east. Hamas is an elected government. Hamas won but no one will talk to them.
ID: What do you hope for from Barack Obama?
TB: He raised hope among the American people. He built a movement. He transformed American opinion. America is a declining empire. In the end it will change. Obama is imaginative. Attlee was an imaginative leader managing a declining empire too. How declining empires decline without bloodshed is the great task.
ID: Do you think people are hoping for too much from Obama, are their expectations of immediate, radical change too high?
TB: Well, how does change occur? It occurs when the demands get so strong that the guys at the stop cannot resist. It can’t come from the top, it has to come from underneath. You’re right, Obama is locked into the Pentagon. Remember that Roosevelt was elected on a very conservative programme in 1932 but when he got there he effected change…
ID: But government was so much smaller then. The state is like an oil tanker now, so vast, so intrusive and all pervasive, partly because of technology, that it’s difficult to put it into reverse. And there are so many vested interested ranged against you.
TB: But it is possible. Look at history. I’ve been thinking about world government and if you had a world government based on the normal principles of constituency members, China would have two billion votes at the UN, India would have two billion, the USA four hundred million and the UK sixty million. That transformation would be fantastic, wouldn’t it?
ID: If you say so [laughs]! I don’t wish to be governed by the Chinese.
TB: But that was the argument used in 1832. You cannot let the poor have the vote. They will challenge the rich.
ID: No, no. It’s nothing to do with that. I would love the Chinese to have the vote in their own country, but I do not wish to endorse a system which would give China any powers over my life, thank you very much!
TB: The most revolutionary idea is democracy. Nobody in power likes sharing power with anyone else. Democracy transfers power from the market place to the polling station, from the wallet to the ballot. Stalin wouldn’t allow it, Bush isn’t all that keen on it and you’re not wildly enthusiastic about it…
ID: I am totally enthusiastic about democracy…
TB: Not globally.
ID: No, because I believe in nation states, not world government. You admit you are disillusioned with the EU, why should a world government be any different to that?
TB: Globalisation is spoken of in such a narrow sense. We live in a world which is now a village, where news travels quickly but without any democratic control. Fear is what makes the guys at the top concede power. The only reason we ever got democracy was because they thought that if they didn’t concede it there would be a revolution.
ID: Did you ever, as a Cabinet Minister, ever feel you had real power – that you could change things with the stroke of your pen?
TB: No. The only way you could change something was by arguing for it. The internet is where the power is nowadays. That’s why the Chinese are clamping down on Google, and why the Americans are altering entries in Wikipedia.
ID: You like your gadgets and you are quite internet savvy, aren’t you?
TB: Not as much as you, but my grandson keeps me up to date. He can get on my computer if it goes wrong. I just sit here and watch the mouse whizz round. The internet is great for organizing meetings and protest marches. It’s a formidable organizational power. My twelve year old granddaughter just emailed me a paper she has written on the Chinese policy of one child per family. She had googled all the information. It was fantastic. I have a lot of time for the younger generation yet the old treat the young with arrogance, but it is we who made such a cock up of the world. One hundred and five million people killed in two world wars, yet we lecture them on violence in Africa. We lecture kids about hideous stabbings, yet compared to what we have done… A little bit of modesty by the old is not inappropriate.
ID: Do you think the internet is a force for good in democratic terms?
TB: Yes, it’s empowering. People talk a lot about inaccurate information on the net but there are also a lot of bad books around. You have to make up your own mind. Access is the key. I am an optimist. This is the first generation in history which has the technology to destroy the human race, but it is also the first generation to have the ability technological knowhow and the money to solve the problems of the human race.
ID: Does the spontaneity on the internet and the 24 hour news agenda damage democracy? Everyone wants an instant reaction. There’s no time to think.
TB: I know what you mean, but ignorant people have played leading roles in world politics for a long time! Read some of the Victorian speeches on the Empire. Ignorance should not be a barrier to discussion and we have to hope that good ideas will beat bad ideas. It depends on the media. The BBC has a rule never to report a speech on a public meeting, unless of course it is in support of Greg Dyke. If the public could ever hear anything directly which hadn’t gone through Paxman or Humphrys or Jon Snow it would undermine their authority.
ID: Who’s your favourite interviewer?
TB: I like Jon Snow very much. I get on well with Paxman.
ID: If you were Chancellor of the Exchequer, what would you be doing now?
TB: It’s very difficult, but the all party market philosophy running from the monetarism of Callaghan and Thatcher through to Blair has failed. I am not looking for scapegoats but it has failed. The case for the banks, like the army, police and health service to be publically owned is unanswerable. If you put it like that people think it’s sensible. Thatcher was a very clever woman. She realized that if you were going to reverse what had been done after the war you had to destroy trade unionism, which she did with the miners and then made trade unionism illegal.
ID: She did nothing of the sort, apart from GCHQ.
TB: Well, no, but the legislation is worse than in 1906. She then said to people you don’t need a wage claim, borrow. She created a debt slavery then she destroyed local government and began privatization. She understood that local government, trade unionism and public ownership were the foundations of the Labour Party. Blair was a Thatcherite. She even said that her greatest achievement was New Labour! She’s right and that’s why Blair had such a wonderful press. That whole philosophy crumbled with the credit crunch. You now have to intervene publically. Look at the rail fares and energy companies. How many people really think those privatizations were sensible? If you could make such huge profits, why doesn’t it go to the Treasury?
ID: It does, in business taxes.
TB: A lot of the things we argued for I could make a case for. But the big thing is recognizing that it is global in character and how you cope with that. That’s why in the end there will have to be some form of global system. The IMF and WTO, like the EU, are run by people who are not elected and cannot be removed. They don’t listen to you or me in Brussels, or the WTO or IMF. They are running a global dictatorship of the wealthy. How can you have any system which calls itself global without any form of accountability to the people who have to obey it? The older I get, the more idealistic I become. Now I know what the world is like, I realise the importance of having a dream.
ID: So Harold Wilson was right. You have immatured with age!
TB: That was one of the nicest things ever said about me! You have to retain some dream. I have a dream of a non aligned, non nuclear Britain with a special relationship with the UN.
ID: What do you make of David Cameron?
TB: I have only met him once. He told me his interest in politics began when he read my book ‘Arguments for Democracy’. I saw him at the unveiling of the Mandela statue and told him it was a pity he didn’t read ‘Argument’s for Socialism’! I do try, seriously, not to think in terms of personalities.
ID: I’m going to take issue with you because I think personality is incredibly important in politics. Personalities define which direction a country goes in. Blair would be doing very different things now to Brown, partly because of his personality. Thatcher was a force in politics because her personality drove things through. Churchill’s personality was vital to Britain winning the war.
TB: I’m not sure. It wasn’t Churchill’s personality but what he said. He articulated something which gave us an understanding. Blair didn’t give us any understanding of anything and he won’t be remembered. Mrs Thatcher will be remembered. The idea of a spin doctor controlling Mrs Thatcher was laughable. She was a signpost, not a weathervane, although she was a signpost which pointed in the wrong direction.
ID: You always got on quite well with her, didn’t you?
TB: She came to Eric Heffer’s funeral. There was someone behind me coughing. I didn’t know who it was but after I had gone up to speak I saw it was her, so I thanked her from coming. She burst into tears.
ID: Who were the two or three parliamentarians you think made a difference during your 50 years there? I know you have been quite kind about Enoch Powell.
TB: He said what he meant. Someone once said that Enoch Powell had the finest mind in Parliament until he made it up. The last time I spoke to him, he said you do realize that Lord Mountbatten was murdered by the Americans, don’t you? He said it to me in the library in the Commons. I said, what do you mean? He said, well, Mountbatten was against nuclear weapons and that wasn’t acceptable. I’m just reporting to you what he said as an illustration of his judgment. The Rivers of Blood speech was a speech of a professor of Greek. It did enormous damage, I don’t think he meant it to, but it released something which was very dangerous to society. Compared to the thinkers, though… I mean, why do we still study Moses, Jesus, Mohammed. It’s because they explain the world. In so far as I have any function now, it is to try to use such experience as I have to give my best explanation. I describe myself as an untrained classroom assistant to the nation.
ID: What’s your everyday life like?
TB: It’s a bit of a struggle to be honest. I come down here to my basement office in the morning and there are up to 150 emails waiting and then there’s the letters and organising engagements. My family are very supportive.
ID: Do you get lonely?
TB: Yes, but I have lots of friends, but it’s nine years since I have been alone and Caroline died.
ID: You’re still keeping up the diary, I assume?
TB: Yes, but it’s not very interesting at the moment. I have been writing it for 67 years now. I was looking at some previous entries the other day and came across a funny story. I had just come out of my publishers in Vauxhall Bridge Road, and at my age your bladder can play up a bit. It was clear I wouldn’t make it home in time. So I got out of the car, opened the hood, looked in and, well, did what I needed to do. A man came up and said: “I think I know your problem.” “Oh yes, I said, what’s that?” “I think your radiator is leaking.” I zipped up, closed the hood and drove off [roars with laughter]. People are so kind. I’ve never mentioned by bladder problem, but from all over the world I get emails offering me Viagra. Isn’t that sweet of them?! I tell this at my theatre shows and I can see the audience not quite sure if I am joking, or if I know what Viagra is.
ID: A good note to end on. Thank you very much.
A much longer version of this interview can be found on the Total Politics website www.totalpolitics.com

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LBC Book Club: Iain Dale talks to Bob Marshall-Andrews

Former Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews discusses his autobiography.

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