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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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



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LBC 97.3: Iain Dale talks to Ed Balls

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls talks about his jobs plan for the long term unemployed, child benefit, Peter Mandelson and how he spent Christmas.

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A Tribute to Bob Crow

11 Mar 2014 at 10:43

Sometimes you find out something which just leaves you reeling in shock. And so it was about ten minutes ago, when I learned that Bob Crow had died. He was only 52 years of age.

There’s no use pretending that Bob Crow and I agreed on anything. We didn’t. But he had my total respect. Over the last three years I suppose I have interviewed him a dozen times, and to say he was a worthy adversary would be a total understatement. I don’t mind admitting, he usually ran rings around me. A couple of months ago I remember doing an interview about the latest tube strike, and after it had finished wandering into the gallery and saying to my producer “Why is it that I can never do an good interview with that man?” I thought about it a lot, and decided that maybe I was trying to be just that little bit too clever and was trying to provoke a confrontation. So the last time I interviewed him I changed tack. I did a completely straight interview without any wish for fireworks, I just asked him questions to try to illicit some straight answers. And, incredibly, it worked.

There was no side to Bob Crow. What you saw was what you got. He was a lion, defending his members and I remember doing a phone-in asking the question: “Is Bob Crow the greatest living British trade unionist?” He fought tenaciously for his members but had a great love of the London Underground.

He struck up a great relationship with my colleague Julia Hartley-Brewer, who spent many happy an hour with him in the studio taking him to task for living in a council house and going on expensive holidays. But he took it in good part, and I think secretly rather enjoyed playing up to the stereotype the tabloid press had built up for him.

I think of Bob’s family this morning and how totally and utterly bereft they must feel. Many of us had our differences with Bob, but in many ways he was a very great man who has been taken from this earth at far too young an age.



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LBC 97.3: Iain Dale Entices Ed Balls to Play the Piano

The Shadow Chancellor tinkles the ivories at the Labour Party Conference

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An Evening of Taboos and Dogging With 'Fascinating Aida'

9 Mar 2014 at 23:07

How is it that ‘Fascinating Aida’ rarely get on television, when vastly inferior acts do? Having just seen them perform in Norwich it’s a question which continues to baffle me. I emerged from the Theatre Royal with my cheekbones aching, as did the rest of the audience. How come these three women don’t get on the BBC? How much funnier do they have to be? I mean, if Jack Whitehall appears on virtually every BBC comedy show without being that funny, why don’t this lot get a look in? They’ve been around for years, every show they do is sold out, yet someone in TV land doesn’t like them. They need to think again.

I hadn’t heard of Fascinating Aida until a few months ago when a friend sent me a link on Youtube. It was sketch about, er, dogging. Have a look at it and I guarantee you will find it the funniest thing you have seen this week.

See? Told you, didn’t I? And there’s a lot more where that came from. This was two hours of laugh out loud, quite risque humour. Indeed, bearing in mind all three are women of a certain age, they delighted in shocking an audience which was largely over the age of forty and very middle class. But it wasn’t just a sixty year old woman saying the C word which was funny, many of their song routines had an edge to them, even a political message. It’s safe to say they are not right wing. Take this sketch which takes aim at OFSTED

They even sail fairly close to the laws of libel and slander. I do hope Tom Cruise’s lawyers never go to see it. There’s also a very funny series of very short songs, all of which are hilarious and some of which are clearly updated very recently. I’m not sure Wendy Deng, Rebekah Brooks or Tony Blair would find one of them very amusing, but the audience certainly did. Here’s a recent little song about the floods…

Apart from the Dogging song my favourite of the evening was all about taboos. They started off by outlining some of the taboos you just don’t talk about in polite company. Things like eating bogies out of a friend’s hankey, smegma, and…. Ipswich. That was guaranteed a cheer in Norwich. Unfortunately I can’t find a video of it, but here’s the sound…

Anyway, it was a brilliant evening and I hope some bright TV producer makes them the national stars they deserve to be.

They’re on a national tour. If they’re appearing near you, book a ticket. You won’t regret it. Here’s their tour schedule


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Video: Iain at the Dublin Web Summit

Hosted by Silicon Republic

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A Tribute to Marion Thorpe 1926-2014

8 Mar 2014 at 15:01

If I were to compile a list of the 20 most impressive women I have ever met, Marion Thorpe would be right up there. I first met her back in 1998 when I published a book by her husband, Jeremy Thorpe. I went to their magnificent home in Orme Square, off the Bayswater Road, where I found Jeremy in his office, in a natty three piece suit replete with yellow waistcoat. I was let in by Jeremy’s faithful secretary, who had worked for him since before his political downfall in the late 1970s. Marion was stood behind Jeremy and I remember thinking she was like a lioness protecting her cub. This meeting came a couple of weeks after I received a call from Jeremy Thorpe, asking if I would like to publish a book of reminiscences he wanted to write.

Spending six months with him putting the book together was a fascinating experience as he was a key figure in my early political memories in the mid 1970s. Despite the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s Disease, his mind had remained razor sharp and we had some fascinating political discussions.

For anyone much younger than me Jeremy Thorpe is a name which is only associated with one thing – the trial. But we should remember that for a decade he was considered to be Britain’s most charismatic politician in an age of technocrats. He brought a campaigning verve to politics which few had bettered since.

Yes, in many ways he was a flawed politician, but in many ways he kept the Liberal flag flying against all the odds. His political career ended in the worst possible circumstances, yet he never embraced the bitterness which could so easily have dominated his long years of political exile. The Liberal Party itself was not kind to him. It’s easy to understand why, but on a human level it was deeply unforgivable. Jeremy always felt his party would come calling for him once again, if only for wise advice. But those calls never came. The peerage he so desperately wanted eluded him.

Back in the early 1970s my mother used to be besotted with Jeremy Thorpe and was a Liberal voter until the, er, events of the mid 1970s. My sister then got to know him in the 1980s through his work at the United Nations Association. So to publish his book was an experience I shall never forget, but it was largely down to Marion, as well as Jeremy, that I shall treasure that time,

John and I became quite friendly with them and enjoyed several meals at Orme Square and we stayed at their beloved North Devon home one weekend. Marion and John got on especially well, both being chain smokers. Every five minutes they seemed to disappear for a quick fag. Marion often displayed a very well developed and cheeky sense of humour. I have read in other obituaries that she could be icy cold. If that was the case, we never saw it. She was never anything other than welcoming, amusing, great company and full of anecdotes. Apart from Jeremy, the other great love of her life was music, and their living room was dominated by a giant Grand Piano. In her youth she was a renowned concert pianist, having been a disciple of Benjamin Britten. But when she married the Earl of Harewood her music took a back seat. She had three sons with him, but the marriage was not to last following his adulterous affair. They divorced in 1967 and she married Jeremy in 1973.

When i first met Marion she was 72 years of age, but still stunningly beautiful. She had a regal spirit about her and a tremendous sense of calmness. She had devoted her life to looking after Jeremy, and in many ways I regard her as a living saint. Jeremy’s Parkinsons dominated their lives. She did have help, but she was effectively his full time carer. I cannot imagine how dreadfully her death will have affected him.

Marion wasn’t blind to Jeremy’s flaws but she loved him, warts and all. She would go to any lengths to protect him, and in the months following the publication of his book I took felt incredibly protective of them both. They trusted John and myself not to put too much pressure on Jeremy to include material in the book that he didn’t want to. The book wasn’t a full scale autobiography, more a collection of reminiscences and anecdotes. I can’t pretend it was a great work of literature, but it was significant nevertheless. It allowed Jeremy to tell some of the tales he had been storing up for years and it provided him with a form of therapy, I think. Marion told me it was important that he always had a project to concentrate on.

Some time after publication of the book I got a phone call asking if I would visit Orme Square to discuss “a matter of some urgency”. It appeared that Jeremy had cooperated with a biography of him written by the historian, Michael Bloch. The Thorpes agreed to cooperate with it on the understanding that it would be published posthumously – something quite common in the literary world. Roy Jenkins had the same agreement with Andrew Adonis, as did Charles Moore with Lady Thatcher. Jeremy had encouraged his friends and former political colleagues to talk to Mr Bloch on the same basis. They were all rather shocked therefore to learn that Mr Bloch had finished the book and was going to publish in January 2002. Originally the book was going to be published by Transworld but Mr Bloch’s editor, Ursula McKenzie, moved to Little Brown and took the book with her. Ms McKenzie seemed totally unmoved by the fact that she and Mr Bloch were reneging on the agreement with. Two people at the publishers have justified this by saying: “Thorpe has lived too long.” What a disgrace.

Marion was distraught. Jeremy was furious. I promised to do all I could to ensure the book would never come out. Legal action was threatened. I remember having conversations with senior people at Little Brown and trying to make them see sense behind the scenes. In the end they did, and I remember a call from Marion telling me the good news. She was in triumphant and unforgiving mood. The lioness had won out again. Jeremy came on the line: “We saw them off, didn’t we?” That was thirteen years ago and the book has still not appeared. I hope they now have the decency to wait until Jeremy leaves us.

John and I last saw the Thorpes was five years ago at Jeremy’s 80th birthday in April 2009, appropriately held at the National Liberal Club. I was somewhat shocked to see Marion in a wheelchair. But there she was, making sure Jeremy was comfortable, protecting him from overzealous well-wishers. The fact that the Liberal leader Nick Clegg was there and made a speech seemed to be the welcome back into the Liberal fold Jeremy had always wanted. The peerage, though, was still elusive.

I’m proud to have known Marion. Had she persisted with her musical career she could have risen to any height of musical achievement. But if I know her she will have had few regrets that that last forty years of her life were devoted to caring for the man she loved very deeply.

Marion Thorpe died on Thursday at the age of 87.

Read the magnificent obituaries to Marion Thorpe in the Telegraph HERE and The Guardian HERE



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LBC 97.3: Iain Dale talks to Tom Bradby

Tom Bradby talks about the film dramatisation of his novel SHADOW DANCER.

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International Women's Day: Waste of Time & An Insult to Women?

8 Mar 2014 at 11:11

Yesterday on my show I hosted a panel discussion on women’s issues to mark International Women’s Day. Harriet Harman, Mary Beard, Zoe Williams and Cristina Odone joined me for a sparky hour long discussion.

Click HERE to listen.

But before that, Katy Hopkins had her say too. Suffice to say she was less than impressed by the lineup of my panel!


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LBC 97.3 Iain Interviews Anjem Choudary

It get's sparky...

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Sadiq Khan on Why He Uses Vaseline on His Nipples...

4 Mar 2014 at 22:28



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LBC Book Club: Iain Dale talks to Harry Wallop & Andrew Martin

Harry Wallop discusses his book CONSUMED and Andrew Martin talks about his book on the Tube, UNDERGROUND, OVERGROUND.

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UK Politics

The Quislings Who Give Putin A Free Pass

3 Mar 2014 at 20:45

Sometimes I despair of my own countrymen. Tonight on my LBC show I have endured listening to calls from a succession of people who seem quite happy to think the worst of their own country and yet think the best of an illiberal, intolerant, state which thinks nothing of invading another sovereign state with the stated intention of annexing part of it. These are people who are quite happy to give Vladimir Putin a free pass while imagining that their own country, and of course the United States, must be to blame for the fact that Russia is trying to bully Ukraine into submission. Sometimes I think I live on a parallel universe.

These are the very same people who would think nothing of marching on the streets to protest against their own government engaging in any warlike activity, yet when Putin does it, they actively urge him on, on the basis that America is clearly to blame.

Quislings. The lot of them.

On what left wing, peacenik planet is Vladimir Putin a guardian of any sort of freedom? He imposes policies on his people which these leftist zombies should recoil against. He persecutes homosexuals. He tolerates the killing of journalists. I could go on. But you see, he is not American. And that’s the main thing which drives the perverted minds of those who egg him on in the Crimea – their hatred of America and all it stands for. They conveniently forget that without American sacrifice in two world wars they wouldn’t even be free to promulgate their vile loathings. They would be living under the Nazi jackboot, that is unless they had the misfortune to be Jewish, homosexual or a gypsy. In which case they’d be dead or wouldn’t have ever been born.

I don’t pretend America is perfect, and I don’t pretend Russia is evil. But in the end you’re either on the side of freedom or you’re not. And in this crisis Russia is on the wrong side of freedom. It can come up with all the excuses it likes about protecting Russian speaking citizens of Ukraine. They know it’s bollocks. We know it’s bollocks. It’s all about subjugating a free people to the Kremlin’s whim and power. But there seem to be plenty of people in this country who think that’s just fine and dandy.

Tonight I am ashamed to call them my fellow countrymen.



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LBC Book Club: Iain talks to Alastair Campbell

Alastair Campbell talks about his new novel MY NAME IS...

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Attitude Column: Would I Have Been a Good Dad?

27 Feb 2014 at 21:13

Call me a hard hearted bastard but I have never wanted children. My nieces refer to me as ‘Uncle Herod’ so perhaps it’s just as well. Some of us have the child-rearing gene and others of us don’t. My partner would love to have had children and it’s only recently that I have come to realise what a sacrifice he has made by never pushing the issue with me. It came about like this…

Adoption and fostering are two issues I cover quite a lot on my LBC radio show and one day we talked about the challenges facing gay parents. We had dozens of calls but one stuck in my mind. Rob and his partner were in their early thirties and lived in Eltham, I think. He almost had me in tears at one stage as he described the unconditional love they have for their little girl. Even I began to get a little broody and when I got home I thought I would investigate what you have to go through to foster or adopt. I wasn’t sure if I really meant to take it any further or not, but one thing that Rob said kept running through my mind. He believes that if someone is in a position to offer a child a loving home, they have a responsibility to do so. I don’t know if he was trying to make me and my listeners think about our own situations, but I certainly did.

Having ascertained that the process wouldn’t necessarily take years or be too complicated I plucked up courage and said to my partner “You know you’ve always wanted a child, well….” His reaction rather shocked me. “Trust you to wait until we’re too old,” he said, and left it at that, apart from reminding me that we didn’t have a spare bedroom and were in the process of buying another property in Norfolk. I felt slightly deflated at his reaction, but decided not to argue about it. Maybe the status quo was for the best.

But were we really too old? I was 50 and he was 48. Neither of us feel particularly old and I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to adopt a new baby, but maybe society expects parents to be under the age of forty and frowns on people who don’t belong to the ‘norm’. But then again, society used to frown on gay parents, didn’t it?

There are of course people who still find the concept of gay parenting difficult to deal with. Some imagine that if the parents are gay, that inevitably means the child will grow up to be gay. It’s nonsense of course, but there are still such people around. Then there are the very few people who still equate homosexuality with paedophilia and imagine that gay parents will prey on their children. They are right, of course. There will be the odd ones who do just that, but surely not on the scale of straight parents who more commonly abuse their children.

Prospective gay parents need to worry about barriers being put in their way. Of course there are rigorous background checks. There should be. But adoption charities and local authorities now positively welcome applications from gay parents (and older parents), and it can now take under a year for the application process to be completed. If you want to adopt a baby the wait can be longer, but if you are willing to adopt an older child, or even siblings, you can expect to be fast-tracked.

There are 68,000 children in care at any one time in this country and the number rises all the time. Not all of these are available for adoption, but there is a huge shortage of foster parents, who are willing to foster children for anything from a week to several years. For some, fostering is more appropriate than outright adoption, although for me it would never work, as I am sure I would get too emotionally attached too quickly.

Whenever I host a radio discussion about adoption, I have to admit I do often wonder what kind of parent I might have been. To be honest I’m not sure it would have worked. But I’m sad it never happened as I know my partner would have been a brilliant Dad, and for that I shall for ever retain a feeling of abject guilt.

This article first appeared in the February edition of Attitude Magazine.


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LBC Book Club: Iain talks to Sir Nicholas Barrington

Iain talks to Sir Nicholas Barrington about his book on his time in the Foreign Office.

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Attitude Column: Why Prostitution Should Be Legalised

26 Feb 2014 at 09:08

An episode of the final series of the superb Danish politico-drama Borgen concerned itself with the vexed subject of legalising prostitution. Like the legalisation of drugs, it’s a subject politicians shy away from debating in real life.

Most people labour under the illusion that prostitution is illegal in this country. It isn’t. Not quite. Exchanging money for sexual services is legal. However, soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, pimping and owning or managing a brothel remain outside the law. Paying for sex with anyone who has been forced into it is also illegal and you can be prosecuted even if you weren’t aware of it. It is also illegal to buy sex from anyone under eighteen even though the age of consent is sixteen. So now you know.

Sex laws are always tricky to draft and usually tend to lag about twenty years behind the way society has progressed in its thinking or tolerance. Society still looks down on those who sell sex, and even more on those who buy it, but perhaps not as much as in previous ages. One explanation for this gradual acceptance of prostitution is that many women think nothing of paying men for sex nowadays, something which would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago. Also, gay prostitution is much more commonplace than it once was, and is seen by many in the gay community as much more acceptable, ‘normal’ and less shameful than in society more generally. The internet has a lot to answer for. Sites like Gaydar, Grindr and a multitude of others are quite happy to allow male escorts to play their wares.

I remember when I lived in Germany in 1980, I was driving past a building on the outskirts of town and asked my friend what it was. “Das ist ein Haesschen Bar,” he said and winked in a knowing way. “A bunny bar?” I thought to myself. “They eat baby rabbits there?” Well, I was eighteen and very naïve. Bear in mind that this was a rather conservative minded town of 25,000 people, in the middle of nowhere and it had its own licensed brothel.

These brothels are licensed by the local Bundesland, and are very far from being seedy and the women who work there do so entirely voluntarily. They work in a secure, clean and healthy environment and submit themselves to regular health checks. Their customers are closely monitored. That doesn’t mean that other forms of prostitution don’t take place in Germany; they clearly do. But the Germans have a far less puritanical approach to the sex industry than we do in this country and are none the worse for it. The thought of such an establishment outside Tunbridge Wells is a delicious thought, but frankly, it isn’t going to happen any time soon. More’s the pity.

Over the last ten years, the nature of prostitution in this country has changed, with a growing number of the women involved in it being trafficked into this country for the specific purpose of pimping them out for sex. On top of that, the need for drugs has encouraged more and more women (and young boys) into prostitution as the only way of feeding their habit. Often, pimps force their women to take drugs as a means of controlling them.

So we now have two very different types of prostitutes – those who are being controlled by others, and those who do it entirely voluntarily. I suppose it has always been so, but the proportions have changed dramatically in recent years.

The last government tried to address the problem by introducing a law which says that men to knowingly pay for sex with a trafficked girl would be charged with rape. In addition, men who have sex with a woman controlled by a pimp would be fined £1,000. I think they did it for the right reasons but it seems to me that a law which relies on the word “knowingly” is incredibly difficult to enforce.

A female Labour MP once told me she has always argued for the legalisation of prostitution as she thinks it would effectively make the trafficking of girls redundant. It seems on the surface that there are far fewer issues surrounding exploitation in the world of gay prostitution, but let’s not run away with the idea that there aren’t any problems. Research suggests that a large number of gay escorts use their income to fund a drug habit, which makes it less of a lifestyle choice, more of a means to an end. It may not be traffickers, or pimps who are exploiting gay escorts, but drug suppliers certainly are.

It is surely time we tried to have an adult debate about the legalisation and lawful regulation of prostitution. It has always seemed ironic to me that the very women who shout loudest on the abortion issue that it is a woman’s right to do with her body what she likes, are the very same women who would prevent her from selling her body for sex if that is what she chooses. They would ban prostitution altogether. If it were actually possible, they might have a point.

Sex is a commodity and always has been since time immemorial. If we accept that prostitution has always existed and always will, does it not make sense for it to be legalised and properly regulated – to the benefit of both the purveyor of sex and consumer of it?

This article first appeared in the March issue of Attitude Magazine.



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LBC 97.3: Iain Dale & Lynnette Burrows fall out over Kissing in Public

Fireworks occur over whether two gay people should be allowed to kiss in public. Mrs Burrows thinks not!

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