Like the Beatles or Guy Fawkes, Tony Benn is part of our collective conscience; he’s in our national DNA.
Revered and reviled in equal measure, he’s said he thinks it’s a bad week if he doesn’t receive at least one death threat.
Which should give the pre-eminent left-wing politician of the last 50 years plenty to talk about on Monday, May 11, when he visits Lighthouse, Poole, to host An Evening with Tony Benn.
“It’s basically a discussion – I talk for quarter of an hour or so and then throw it open to questions and we have a discussion about all the things that worry people – the war, Europe, recession,” he explains.
“I find these events very friendly and interesting. I’m not asking anyone to vote for me, I don’t want anything from them, so we can have an open discussion without the punch-ups or the scandals. It’s great fun.”
First elected to parliament in 1950, the now 84-year-old grandee of British socialism famously retired from the House of Commons in 2001 to “spend more time involved in politics”.
A regular commentator on a range of issues, he covers the political ground like a modern- day polemicist, arguing passionately for ideas which excite him – like the retention of traditional social democratic values and progressive socialism – yet always willing to hear other voices.
“You know, the intelligence of the British public is being severely under-estimated by the media and politicians,” he says. “People aren’t just interested in sport, sex and gossip. Nothing excites me more than to hear a perceptive point made – I may not agree, but I want to hear it. I think things are changing again and people are willing to listen to ideas.
“I spoke at [trade union leader] Jack Jones’s funeral and I don’t know if you remember but there was a time he was called Emperor Jack and all the troubles of the country were blamed on him and the trade unions. Well, it turns out it wasn’t the fault of the unions but all these bankers gambling with money that didn’t exist. Now we’ve had to nationalise the banks to make them work again.”
As fiercely engaged with the politics of everyday life as ever, Tony Benn retains a clarity of vision that eludes many politicians half his age.
“During the war nobody said we can’t bomb Berlin because we’ve exceeded budget and after the war we decided we needed a health service so we created one, never mind that we were bankrupt. Why do we have legions of builders unemployed and people waiting longer than ever for houses – why, why, why?”
Dorset has seen Tony Benn speak most summers at the TUC’s Tolpuddle Martyrs rally, but he was surprised when I told him I’d spoken to a young Gordon Brown at Tolpuddle after a fiery speech in 1989 celebrating the end in sight of the “long night of Thatcherite sway”.
“I didn’t realise Gordon Brown had been to Tolpuddle – I’m sure he’d be quite embarrassed to hear himself talk today,” says Tony, obviously tickled.
“I do love Tolpuddle, especially now it’s been turned from a political rally into a lively weekend event with all the cultural and musical activity.”
I ask if he despairs of the Labour Party in power. He reiterates his oft-spoken view that one of Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievements was the creation of New Labour – “Blair was a Thatcherite, it’s quite simple” – before swiftly turning to the future. I get the feeling he prefers to look forward because he understands all too well what has already happened.
“I’ve just started a new book and it has the best title of any I’ve written but is easily the most difficult. A Letter to My Grandchildren is my attempt to pass on anything I may have learned that could be useful to them. I’ve learned that when you talk to young people you should start by saying ‘My generation has made a complete cock-up of the world and you must do better, you have to.’ Then they listen to you.
“I’m an old man now, I want nothing for myself, but I have 10 grandchildren and I worry about the world they’re growing into. I’m frightened by war, ecological disaster, the nuclear question – we might all die of swine flu now – so you have to keep questioning.
“It’s interesting that although political questions change, the moral ones never change – it was wrong to kill someone with a bow and arrow and it’s still wrong to kill them with an atom bomb.
“Anyway, it was good to talk to you, I’ve enjoyed it very much.”
And with that, ever the master of the conversation he’s engaged in, he’s gone.
• First published in Bournemouth Echo..