Now I have more time for politics!

After more than half a century in Parliament, Tony Benn could be forgiven for enjoying a leisurely retirement.

Lynne Mortimer

After more than half a century in Parliament, Tony Benn could be forgiven for enjoying a leisurely retirement. In fact, as he tells LYNNE MORTIMER prior to his evening at the Ipswich Corn Exchange later this month, he is busier than ever.

A MAVERICK; a firebrand - however he is described by the media Tony Benn doesn't raise an eyebrow. He's heard it all before and it bothers him not at all.

At the grand age of 83, nearly 84, and with a life of left wing politics, he is not fazed by the familiar adjectival accusations of the press.

It would take a cleverer journalist than me to catch him out with a question and yet, though you get the sense he's been asked the same a thousand times, he still takes a moment to think and answers carefully; barely a word wasted. He is also highly amusing although he is doubtless saving his best jokes for his appearance at the Corn Exchange, Ipswich on March 19.

In An Evening with Tony Benn, the Labour politician will be talking about his life in politics and what he thinks about the changes in the Labour party.

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“I think people are fed up with sound bites, spin, sensation and scandal from politicians. What people really want is a chance to discuss issues that affect all our lives, the things that really matter.

“I get quite excited by this opportunity of bringing politics back to the people, which is probably not a good thing for a man of my age!”

Whatever you may think about Tony Benn's political opinions - and he cheerfully acknowledges he has critics even in his own party - he could not be considered dull. On the BBC1's Question Time programme, he probably elicits more cheers from the audience than anyone else.

This is surely because, despite being in his eighties, he stays in touch with the issues that genuinely concern people. He has said in other interviews that every generation has to fight the same battles again and again but he shows no weariness in continuing the battle.

Where does he find the energy to take on so much?

In his unmistakeable, slightly patrician tones he replies with perhaps his most famous quote of recent years.

“I left Parliament as you probably know because I said I wanted more time for politics.

“I've had a lot of experience; I'm 84, very nearly, and I don't want anything and I just sit and think about it.

“I've got grandchildren and I worry about them because that generation is the first generation in history that has the technical capacity to destroy the whole human race - chemical fusion, biological weapons - that has never been true before. And fortunately it is that generation that has the technology and the money and the know how to try and solve the problems of the human race and I'm very interested in them because my generation made a bit of a muck of it really. Two world wars and 105 million people killed in two European wars, virtually in my lifetime.

“You can kill one person with a bow and arrow or a few more with a machine gun or a bomb but these are very, very serious weapons and they're spreading very widely. So I think about that a lot and, as I say, I don't want anything any more. I always say at the beginning of my talks you can relax I'm not asking you to vote for me and everybody sort of breathes a sigh of relief,” he says with a chuckle.

When asked if politics still excites him he says: “It interests me very much.”

Benn is not a man who tends to superlatives or emotive words. He employs the word “very” for emphasis and “very, very” for great importance.

“As a Member of Parliament … I was employed by 60,000 people - funny job being an MP; the only job in the world with one employee and 60,000 employers - and therefore I learned everything from people.”

He continues to pay heed. “Last year I did 169 public meetings and I take up the issues. Peace, pensioners, trade union rights, civil liberties, student rights and so on.”

He says discussing politics in an atmosphere where he is not making party points, simply exploring the issues in public, interests him because he learns from what people say. He has little yearning to return to the House of Commons.

Asking Benn what shaped his political thinking he says it has been listening to people's concerns and seeking solutions to their real problems.

“Why is he unemployed? Why hasn't she got a house? Why hasn't he got a pension? It keeps you very close to the ground and that I found very, very educational.

“The nicest letter I had when I left parliament was a man who said, 'Dear Tony I've just retired as a teacher and I want to thank you for getting me a grant to go to teacher training college 40 years ago.' And I thought boy, that's what being an MP is about.”

For Tony Benn, the future is full of family, friends and work.

“I don't know how long I have left but I've got four children and ten grandchildren and they're very, very sweet. They look after me so well. I've got lots of good friends and I'm very, very busy. I'm working harder, I think, than I've worked for a very, very long time in my life. And I get tired. I have medical problems. I collapsed at the Labour Conference and somebody wrote and said, 'I hear you've had a peacemaker put in your heart'. When there's a war, my peacemaker bleeps,” says Benn, clearly chuffed by the thought. He pauses a moment and concludes: “I'm a very, very happy man as must be apparent.”

The Corn Exchange, Ipswich, hosts An Evening with Tony Benn on Thursday March 19, at 7.30pm. Tickets, �17.50, more details and booking online at

box office tel: 01473 433100.

Tony Benn on New Labour

“Well I joined the Party in 1942 - 67 years ago, I guess, and when Blair became leader he said New Labour is a new political party and I think he has no right to reclassify my party

“The Labour Party has never been a socialist party. It's always had socialists in it. Just as there are some Christians in churches - that's one of my jokes.

“I think New Labour has been killed off by the so-called credit crunch I don't think there's anything left in that argument, which was leave everything to the market; get out, the market will sort everything out. The real victim of the credit crunch has been the whole of their philosophy and Thatcherism that went with it.

“And so I think events will drive people to look for new solutions that are more relevant.”

Tony Benn biography

Born on April 3 1925, the son, grandson and father of MPs, he retired from the House of Commons in 2001, after 50 years in Parliament, the longest serving Labour MP in the history of the party.

He was a cabinet minister in the Wilson and Callaghan governments from 1964 -79, serving as Minister of Technology, Secretary of State for both Industry and Energy, and President of the Council of European Energy ministers in 1977.

He was an elected member of Labour's National Executive Committee from 1959-1994 and Chairman of the Party in 1971/2.

His has published his diaries in several volumes and has also written a number of other books and many pamphlets and articles.

In 1949 he married Caroline Benn, educationalist and author of the biography of Keir Hardie who died in 2000 and they have four children and ten grandchildren.

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