Friday, 14 March 2014

Tony Benn

"no [MP] has the legal or moral authority to hand over powers borrowed from the electors to people who would no longer be accountable to them" Tony Benn
Within the space of a week, we lose another left-wing Eurosceptic, this time the passing of Tony Benn. I had the privilege of seeing him speak when I attended Parliament during the Maastricht debates and so in his memory I reproduce one of them here. It still resonates 23 years later:
We are discussing whether the British people are to be allowed to elect those who make the laws under the which they are governed. The argument is nothing to do with whether we should get more maternity leave from Madame Papandreou than from Madame Thatcher. That is not the issue.

I recognise that, when the members of the three Front Benches agree, I am in a minority. My next job therefore is to explain to the people of Chesterfield what we have decided. I will say first, "My dear constituents, in future you will be governed by people whom you do not elect and cannot remove. I am sorry about it. They may give you better creches and shorter working hours but you cannot remove them."

I know that it sounds negative but I have always thought it positive to say that the important thing about democracy is that we can remove without bloodshed the people who govern us. We can get rid of a Callaghan, a Wilson or even a right hon. Lady by internal processes. We can get rid of the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). But that cannot be done in the structure that is proposed. Even if one likes the policies of the people in Europe, one cannot get rid of them.

Secondly, we say to my favourite friends, the Chartists and suffragettes, "All your struggles to get control of the ballot box were a waste of time. We shall be run in future by a few white persons, as in 1832." The instrument, I might add, is the Royal Prerogative of treaty making. For the first time since 1649 the Crown makes the laws--advised, I admit, by the Prime Minister.

We must ask what will happen when people realise what we have done. We have had a marvellous debate about Europe, but none of us has discussed our relationship with the people who sent us here. Hon. Members have expressed views on Albania and the Baltic states. I have been dazzled by the knowledge of the continent of which we are all part. No one has spoken about how he or she got here and what we were sent here to do.

If people lose the power to sack their Government, one of several things happens. First, people may just slope off. Apathy could destroy democracy. When the turnout drops below 50 per cent., we are in danger.

The second thing that people can do is to riot. Riot is an old-fashioned method of drawing the attention of the Government to what is wrong. It is difficult for an elected person to admit it, but the riot at Strangeways produced some prison reforms. Riot has historically played a much larger part in British politics than we are ever allowed to know.

Thirdly, nationalism can arise. Instead of blaming the treaty of Rome, people say, "It is those Germans," or, "It is the French." Nationalism is built out of frustration that people feel when they cannot get their way through the ballot box. With nationalism comes repression. I hope that it is not pessimistic--in my view it is not--to say that democracy hangs by a thread in every country of the world. Unless we can offer people a peaceful route to the resolution of injustices through the ballot box, they will not listen to a House that has blocked off that route.
There are many alternatives open to us. One hon. Member said that he was young and had not fought in the war. He looked at a new Europe. But there have been five Europes this century. There was the one run by the King, the Kaiser and the Tsar--they were all cousins, so that was very comfortable. They were all Queen Victoria's grandsons, and there was no nonsense about human rights when Queen Victoria's grandsons repressed people. Then there was the Russian revolution. Then there was the inter-war period. Then there was the Anglo-Soviet alliance.
Then there was the cold war. Now we have a Boris Yeltsin who has joined the Monday Club. There have been many Europes. This is not the only Europe on offer.
I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) is a democratic federalist, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes). They want an American-type constitution for Europe. It could be that our laws would hang on which way the Albanian members voted. I could not complain about that, because that is democracy, but it is unworkable. It is like trying to get an elephant to dance through a minefield, but it would be democratic.

Another way would be to have a looser, wider Europe. I have an idea for a Commonwealth of Europe. I am introducing a Bill on the subject. Europe would be rather like the British Commonwealth. We would work by consent with people. Or we could accept this ghastly proposal, which is clumsy, secretive, centralised, bureaucratic and divisive. That is how I regard the treaty of Rome. I was born a European and I will die one, but I have never put my alliance behind the treaty of Rome. I object to it. I hate being called an anti-European. How can one be anti-European when one is born in Europe? It is like saying that one is anti-British if one does not agree with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. What a lot of nonsense it is.

I ask myself why the House is ready to contemplate abandoning its duties, as I fear it is. I was elected 41 years ago this month. This Chamber has lost confidence in democracy. It believes that it must be governed by someone else. It is afraid to use the powers entrusted to it by its constituents. It has traded power for status. One gets asked to go on the telly if one is a Member of Parliament. The Chamber does not want to use its power. It has accepted the role of a spectator and joined what Bagehot called the dignified part of the constitution, leaving the Crown, under the control of the Prime Minister, to be the Executive part.

If democracy is destroyed in Britain, it will be not the communists, Trotskyists or subversives but this House which threw it away. The rights that are entrusted to us are not for us to give away. Even if I agree with everything that is proposed, I cannot hand away powers lent to me for five years by the people of Chesterfield. I just could not do it. It would be theft of public rights.

Therefore, there is only one answer. If people are determined to submit themselves to Jacques Delors, Madam Papandreou and the Council of Ministers, we must tell the people what is planned. If people vote for that, they will all have capitulated. Julius Caesar said, "We are just merging our sovereignty." So did William the Conqueror. It is not possible to support the Government's motion. I have told the Chief Whip that I cannot support the Labour amendment.

I invite the House to vote against the Government's motion and not to support a motion which purports to take us faster into a Community which cannot reflect the aspirations of those who put us here. That is not a nationalist argument, nor is it about sovereignty. It is a democratic argument, and it should be decisive in a democratic Chamber.


  1. A great democrat and constitutionalist who opposed the EU monstrosity with spirit.

    RIP Tony Benn.

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  3. Can't disagree with a word of that speech.Rare to see such integrity and good old patriotism.

    What comes across his belief in our nation and its ability and right to rule itself.

  4. I man whose politics I despised but whom I respected for his forthrightness. I agreed with him on Europe but not a lot else.

    My own post today :

  5. I watched this common thief steal British Leyland from the shareholders, and systematically destroy the UK, can we believe this is what he thought??

  6. When I posted a reply regarding Bob Crow I refrained from including a reference to Benn for fear that I may tempt fate.

    To no avail.

    I agree with most of the comments above - at least I had the feeling that he was on the side of this country's people; you couldn't say that for the rest of the present day vermin

  7. Back in the seventies I remember him saying that if the, then, Labour Government thought they were doing a good job they should be allowed to vote themselves back in. Some democrat eh? He believed in the power of the HOC and not the people, he was right in his fight against the EU but that was because he thought Parliament was the be all and end all.

  8. Tony Benn was one of the few left wing politian's, or as I prefer to call them, centralist politian's who vehemently supported true democracy. He was never different and never that I observed suffered the sour grapes reaction of recent Labour politian's when they lost. I almost never agreed with his centralist solutions to this countries needs, and he accepted that he had no monopoly on ideas of what was the right or wrong way to do something. RIP you will be missed not for what you did but more for your understanding of what democracy should be.

  9. Well he's dead now.

    He hated what he was, white (or, Caucasian) and I feel that definitely came through in his manner.

    Well he is survived now by a granddaughter who is not Caucasian, so he got what he wanted.

    Too bad for her future as Europe and the Anglo-sphere end up shedding blood to sort out immigration.

    His family linage ruined.

  10. I've scheduled the following 1993 Maastricht speech by Benn for 20 May (21st anniversary) - what he called his "last speech in a free Parliament" - thought you might like to include it sooner in your material here. Best wishes.