We have an extended conversation with Tony Benn, one of Britain’s most distinguished politicians and the longest serving MP in the history of the Labour party. Benn discusses the new revelations the British government helped Israel build the atom bomb. Benn also speaks about U.S. and U.K. relations, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay, torture, religion, and the state of the media. [includes rush transcript]
BBC News revealed Thursday the British government secretly supplied Israel with hundreds of chemical shipments in the 1960’s, despite fears the chemicals could be used to develop nuclear weapons. Analysts say the shipments, which included plutonium, helped speed up Israel’s acquisition of an atomic bomb. All told, the BBC reported the British chemicals could have been used to produce bombs 20 times as powerful as those dropped on Hiroshima.
The deals were made in violation of strict government policy. According to de-classified government documents, a British government official named Michael Michaels oversaw the shipments behind the backs of his superiors. One of these superiors is our guest today. Tony Benn was Britain’s Minister of Technology at the time. That post was one of many that have come in the career of one of Britain’s most distinguished politicians.
Tony Benn served in the British Parliament for over half a century. He is the longest serving MP in the history of the Labour party, which he joined in 1942. In May 2001, Benn retired from House of Commons to, in his words, "devote more time to politics." While many politicians take on corporate or lobby positions when they leave office, Benn became one of the harshest and most vocal critics of the Iraq war. He is a prominent leader of the Stop the War Coalition in Britain.
In February 2003 — one month before the invasion of Iraq — Benn interviewed Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. In December of last year, Benn was the lead signatory to an appeal sent on behalf of dozens of prominent British political and cultural figures asking the UN to investigate the US and British governments for war crimes in Iraq.
- Tony Benn, former British Labour MP, one of Britain’s most distinguished politicians and the longest serving MP in the history of the Labour party. He is the author of several books, including "Free Radical: New Century Essays" and "Dare to be a Daniel: Then and Now," an autobiography.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We welcome Tony Benn to the studios here in London to Democracy Now!
TONY BENN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Well, let’s begin with why you’re in the news this week in Britain, and that has to do with — well, we’ll talk about Iran in a minute, but right now, this expose on, some 40 years ago, Britain helping Israel develop the atomic bomb secretly.
TONY BENN: This came out of the availability of papers that have previously been secret. I knew Michael Michaels very well. I went through my diary, which is about 17 million words long, and picked out every reference to him. And I had good grounds for not trusting him. But I had no idea of this, of course, at all. And he was doing it behind the back of ministers, and he undoubtedly did assist Israel and was intended to assist Israel, because I believe after he retired, he was given a job by the Israeli government. So there could be little doubt that that was what it was about.
But if you look at the story of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, it’s very interesting. What I remember, as a navy pilot, hearing at Hiroshima, and I visited it later and Nagasaki, then Eisenhower said, "atoms for peace." And that moved me, I thought a classic case of swords into plowshares, if you remember the Bible. And I a became an advocate of civil nuclear power. I was told it was cheap, safe and peaceful. And having been responsible for it for many, many years, I learned from experience, it wasn’t cheap, with the cost of storage of nuclear waste and the research; it isn’t safe, because Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and Windscale and so on; and it wasn’t peaceful. But all the time it was motivated by the desire to build nuclear weapons.
And, I mean, the example we’re just discussing was one. But I discovered after I left office, that without telling me, the plutonium from our civil power stations, what we called "atoms for peace power stations," all the time was going to the United States for its weapons program. So, I’ve learned a lot from this. I’m now a passionate opponent of nuclear power and nuclear weapons, always was against nuclear weapons. But this story highlights the hypocrisy that lie behind so much of the comment about the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
AMY GOODMAN: In the BBC Newsnight story that we watched last night, that’s big headlines today, one of the people interviewed is a man named Peter Kelly, who was at Whitehall, who was a defense intelligence analyst, who said he recognized quickly, back then in the 1960s, when shown pictures of what the Israeli government was saying was a textile factory — this was Dimona — he said, this is a nuclear factory.
TONY BENN: Well, of course, Mordechai Vanunu, who was arrested by — he was kidnapped in London by the Israelis — he was telling the Sunday Times what was going on — in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, recently released with restrictions. But he warned us about Dimona. And I did know later about Dimona, as an Israeli military establishment, but I never knew until yesterday, or until it came out a few days ago, that we had helped to assist the Israelis in building it.
AMY GOODMAN: And you, as technology minister, would have had to sign off on this if you had known, is this right?
TONY BENN: Well, it wasn’t put to me at all. It wasn’t put to ministers. I mean, this is the trouble with the nuclear industry, I came not to believe what I was told, and that throws a doubt on more than nuclear power: the question of democracy, if officials can operate as a state within a state. Where is the democratic control of policy? So it was a very, very serious thing to happen. And, of course, it also comes up at a time when, as you’ve been pointing out, there’s a lot of pressure now on Iran not to develop nuclear technology in any form.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to Iran in just a minute, because I want to play you some clips of politicians in the United States, like Donald Rumsfeld, like the New York Senator Hillary Clinton, about Iran. But before that, do you think Harold Wilson, the prime minister at the time you were technology minister, signed off on this, knew about what Britain was doing?
TONY BENN: I have no reason to believe he did. I would find it very hard to believe he had known. But I can’t be absolutely sure. He was very sympathetic to Israel, I knew that. But he was so strong on non-proliferation, and you see in another case later, when we discovered Pakistan was developing the bomb, I took it straight to a cabinet committee on nonproliferation to see if we could take action to prevent it. So there’s no question of that government being weak on the proliferation question. So, I have no reason to believe he knew.
AMY GOODMAN: I also heard Mordechai Vanunu interviewed on the BBC, responding to this expose in Britain, and he said, "I continue to call for international inspections" — or rather, "independent inspections of the Dimona nuclear plant."
TONY BENN: Well, you see, the United States and Britain are in total breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Non-Proliferation Treaty says three things. One, the nuclear powers will agree to disarm collectively. Secondly, that other countries can develop nuclear technology. And thirdly, that nuclear powers will give absolute assurances they will never use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state. And both the United States and Britain have now said that if their security was at stake, they would use nuclear weapons. What Bush has done — I don’t think you realize it — that make the case for the spread of nuclear weapons, because I tell you this, if Iran had nuclear weapons now, he would not dare to attack it. So, actually, Bush is encouraging the spread, and when he went to India the other day, which isn’t a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, he signed an agreement. So, I mean, the thing is total hypocrisy. I think if we could get that clear, then we can consider how we deal with the situation that faces us.
AMY GOODMAN: Technology that could be used for nuclear weapons to India?
TONY BENN: Well, I mean, India is a nuclear weapons state. It isn’t a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And Bush’s technical agreement will obviously assist the whole thing.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me play you some of the U.S. politicians talking about Iran. I wanted to talk about the Bush administration stepping up its rhetoric against Iran. This is Vice President Dick Cheney, addressing the annual gathering of the American Public Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: The Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose meaningful consequences. For our part, the United States is keeping all options on the table in addressing the irresponsible conduct of the regime.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking on Tuesday. That same day, the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked about Iran at a Pentagon news conference, and this is what he had to say.
DONALD RUMSFELD: I will say this about Iran. They are currently putting people into Iraq to do things that are harmful to the future of Iraq, and we know it. And it is something that they, I think, will look back on as having been an error in judgment.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk of military force against Iran has not been exclusively Republican. This is Democratic Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, speaking at Princeton University in January.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: We must move as quickly as feasible for sanctions in the United Nations, and we cannot take any option off the table in sending a clear message to the current leadership of Iran, that they will not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons.
AMY GOODMAN: New York Democratic Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. We’re going to go to break, and I’ll get your response to what the U.S. and Britain are saying about Iran and what you think should happen. We’re talking to long-time politician here in Britain, Tony Benn.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to long-time activist and Member of Parliament, Tony Benn. He left Parliament five years ago, the longest-running Member of Parliament in the history of the Labour Party. Now, your title is President of —
TONY BENN: President of the Stop the War Coalition and a lot of other things, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: And I like your tie, by the way. And for our radio listeners, he is wearing a tie with a peace sign on it.
TONY BENN: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: Tony Benn, you know Billy Bragg, the musician we just played?
TONY BENN: Very well, indeed, yes. I’ve known him for years and years, and I appear with him from time to time, make speeches and sings songs. I’m a great admirer.
AMY GOODMAN: Who makes the speeches, and who sings?
TONY BENN: Well, I make the speeches usually, and he sings.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to talk about Iran with you. We just played the quotes of Donald Rumsfeld, saying they’re currently putting people in Iraq to do things that are harmful to the future of Iraq, talking about Iran; Dick Cheney, who said the Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose meaningful consequences; Hillary Clinton, we must move as quickly as feasible for sanctions at the U.N. Your response?
TONY BENN: Well, a lot of responses. First of all, I was Energy Minister in 1976, thirty years ago, and I had three hours with the Shah in Iran. The Shah, as you know, had been put there by the C.I.A. They got rid of Mosaddeq, the very courageous Iranian leader, and they put the Shah on the throne. And when I was there, the Americans were pushing me to give nuclear technology to the Shah. And indeed, President Gerald Ford, with Cheney as one of his very junior officials, and I rather think Wolfowitz involved as well, was trying to get Iran to adopt nuclear power.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait, talk specifically, say again —- the U.S. was trying to get you, as Energy Minister -—
TONY BENN: Well, the U.S., itself, I mean, there’s no doubt, the U.S. was involved, as well. But I was also involved, because they were trying to persuade me. And I was a bit nervous about it, because I knew the link between nuclear technology.
Second thing to say is that those three statements would justify Iran going to the Security Council and making a complaint that those three statements constituted a threat to them and a threat to world peace. Now, of course, with the veto, would never get it through, but that is something that if it were the other way round, supposing Iranian ministers had made that statement, Bush would have made a preemptive strike. And, you see, language is so important. And I think that it’s totally hypocritical, particularly as Britain and America are building new nuclear weapons and are defying the Non-Proliferation Treaty themselves. I think, actually, Iran could go to the International Atomic Energy Authority and complain that the United States was in breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
AMY GOODMAN: We just broadcast last week from New Mexico, of course, the home of Los Alamos and the building of the atomic bomb. And Britain and the U.S. just participated in another — well, I don’t know if it was supposed to be secret, but it certainly wasn’t, test, at the Nevada test site.
TONY BENN: Well, all along the line, I mean, Blair says he wants a new generation of civil nuclear weapons, which — nuclear power stations, which is what Iran wants, and also he wants to upgrade the Trident missile, which is out of date. So, while Blair and Bush are planning nuclear power and nuclear weapons, which is in breach of the treaty, they’re then accusing Iran of being in breach of the treaty, which they’re not. Nobody has suggested that Iran is in breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. What the IAEA says is that they should be more transparent. So this is being whipped up exactly as in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, the president of Iran has said he will make the U.S. feel pain if the U.S. does the same to Iran. Do you find that threatening?
TONY BENN: Well, if you’re about to be attacked, and the three statements you’ve made indicate that a military attack may be on the cards, and there are far more explicit statements than that from the Israelis and from others — if you’re under attack, or threatened attack, I suppose it’s reasonable to say, "If you attack me, there will be consequences." Now, don’t think I’m defending Ahmadinejad, who has made some statements that have been very unhelpful, but this is all being built up.
Remember when Colin Powell went to the Security Council and said he had pictures of mobile biological laboratories, a complete lie, and it’s a terrible thing to say, but I no longer feel under any obligation to believe what my own prime minister says. I’ve never — I’ve disagreed with prime ministers in the past. But I do not feel we are told the truth, and I don’t think the President tells the truth, and we are being moved into a situation rather like Iraq, where, you remember, they went to the U.N. Security Council, couldn’t get support, so they attacked, anyway, and if I were the Iranians, I would be very concerned.
I broadcast to Iran about once a week, and I say to them exactly what I’m saying to you, and I think there is a danger. I don’t think the United States plans to invade Iran, but to bomb it. And when they complain that Iran is involved in Iraq, well, who really is involved in Iraq? United States and Britain have occupied the country, and then they say Iran is providing some support for the Shias. I mean, it is an extraordinary story, and most people in Britain, I think, understand that, and even in the United States, the President’s popularity seems to be very low, so there must be a lot of people in the United States who understand this, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: We were talking to a New York Iranian professor about what happens to the pro-democracy movement in Iran when the U.S. intensifies a campaign against Iran, and they said the pro-democracy movement there is the first to suffer —
TONY BENN: Of course.
AMY GOODMAN: Because they’re very critical of the regime, but in times of heightened tension, the regime sees them as allied with the West, with their critics outside, when they’re not.
TONY BENN: Well, that’s exactly parallel with what’s happening in the United States. I mean, the United States, under attack, following 9/11, is giving up its civil liberties, so if you threaten Iran, such civil liberties as they have will be given up, and those who advocate more democracy will also be locked up as agents of the United States. I do think language is so important.
I mean, take Guantanamo Bay, for example. We never say about Guantanamo Bay the truth, which is that America has kidnapped these people and is holding them as hostages. We say it when the Iraqis seize people, but there’s been a kidnapping of all of these people by the United States, and they’re held outside international law. We don’t say that. So, I think language — this is why Democracy Now!, my favorite program, is so important, because you bring to people’s attention facts that are indisputable, that throw a different light upon the situation.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the crackdown on civil liberties here at home. It’s interesting, we spent this morning — it was very cold outside, but we went over to Parliament Square, right across from the Parliament, where Brian Haw is.
TONY BENN: Yes, I know Brian Haw.
AMY GOODMAN: I think he’s very famous here, perhaps not as well known in the United States, but a man who has stood outside the Parliament for more than four years now, probably right around the time you left Parliament.
TONY BENN: Oh, yes. I’ve known him from long before, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: He’s taken up an encampment there. He’s the only one in Britain who is allowed to stand there. Yesterday on Democracy Now!, we had Milan Rai, who has been arrested because he was too close to Parliament as he read off the names with another protester, standing without a permit, of British soldiers who have died, Milan Rai, and also, Iraqis who have died in the Iraq war, and he will be tried next week. What about the crackdown?
TONY BENN: Well, it’s very interesting, because Brian Haw is a very principled man. He’s been there, and his revolutionary slogans say things like, "Don’t kill children." "Love thy neighbor as thyself," from the Bible, but this so worried the government that they introduced an act of Parliament with the incredible title, the Serious Crime and Disorder Act. So it is now a serious crime and disorder to say, "Love thy neighbor as thyself," within yards of Parliament.
Then, when they took him to court — the judges said, "Ah, half a minute, he’s been doing this before the act came into force." So the only man who can commit this "serious crime and disorder" is the man it was intended to deal with, and they tried to apply it to others. Mind you, the police are a bit worried about it, because I went and read the names of soldiers killed and Iraqis killed in Parliament Square, and I said to the police, "Be very careful," and they didn’t do anything about it. So it’s a bit flexible. They don’t go for people who are well known, but it is the most restrictive policy on public protest.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the discussion of a national I.D., national identification?
TONY BENN: Well, national identity cards, you see, I’ve had identity cards. When I was a pilot in the Air Force, I had a picture and my address and office and same in other — the real problem is the database. Every bit they can pick up about you will be put on a database, and under the arrangements we have with the United States, the United States lends us nuclear weapons — we don’t have our own — but in return, demand access to all of our intelligence.
So, all the information on my identity card, which may or may not be true, on the database, will be available in the United States, and it is a police state. I mean, let’s use plain language about it. When you can’t move or do anything without an identity card, and that identity card links to a database, and the database contains lots of information —- I’ll give you one example, you may have heard of him. There was an old man of 83, who said, "Nonsense!" at the Labour conference last year. He was interrogated by the police under the Prevention of Terrorism -—
AMY GOODMAN: He said what?
TONY BENN: He said, "Nonsense." All he did was to shout during the Foreign Secretary’s speech, the single word "nonsense." He was thrown out of the conference and interrogated under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and that will be on his database forever.
AMY GOODMAN: Parliament, the place where you resided for many decades, is also debating the whole issue of so-called extraordinary rendition."
TONY BENN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: What others call kidnapping. Can you talk about this, with the latest revelations of perhaps more than a dozen C.I.A. flights going through British airfields?
TONY BENN: Well, what is clearly known is that the United States has found it convenient to send people they suspected of some terrorist activity to countries where torture occurs and to ship them there by aircraft. Now, since the United States is a long way away from Jordan or Algeria or Egypt, they’ve been landing at British airports. And since torture is absolutely banned by international law and by our own domestic law, it is a scandal that the British government allowed this to happen. They denied it was happening, and some countries in Europe raised it, and now they’ve had to admit that some of these flights have occurred.
But you see, this is a problem for Bush and Blair. How can you talk about maintaining your values when you hold people without trial, don’t allow them access to lawyers, shift people across the world to be tortured? I mean, it completely invalidates the argument that this so-called war on terror is a war between people, on the one hand, who have absolute disregard for human rights, and people, on the other side, ourselves, who are absolutely above reproach.
And I think the impact of the rendition flights and Guantanamo Bay and all the other policies has gone back to Iraq and quite properly has infuriated those Iraqis who want American and British troops to withdraw, so it’s making the situation worse and totally undermines our idea that this is a crusade for high moral standards against brutality. There’s no truth in that at all. I regret to say, but I’m afraid there is no truth in that argument we hear from the White House and Number 10 Downing Street.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re flying out of Britain today. It has been a remarkable week, and last night we spent with Moazzam Begg at the Institute for Contemporary Art. He was speaking out. His book has just come out. He is synonymous with Guantanamo, though was tortured also at Bagram, and as we went back home last night to the hotel, we turned on Channel 4, the network here in Britain, to watch The Road To Guantanamo about the Tipton Three, the three young men who were held at Guantanamo for years, a devastating documentary. Can you talk about Guantanamo and Tony Blair and the British people?
TONY BENN: Well, Guantanamo, of course, is part of Cuba and was held by the United States after the Spanish-American War, and because it’s in Cuba — first of all, Castro has no control over it, and Castro has been criticized for civil rights breaches, but the greatest civil rights breaches in the island of Cuba is in Guantanamo Bay, controlled by the Americans. Then the President says that there is no jurisdiction in Guantanamo, because it’s not on American territory. So he gets it both ways and, of course, what happens is torture.
And Moazzam Begg was held. He’s written this brilliant book in which — what’s interesting about it, he gives credit to those of his captors who were nice to him, were good to him. There’s not a bitterness about it, although there are grounds for being bitter, and the torture there, the forcible feeding — there’s now evidence that — well, we know that this has been going on for a long time, and British citizens or British residents are being held in Guantanamo Bay, and all the Prime Minister says, "It’s an anomaly." I was very pleased that Kofi Annan, whom I saw again — I’ve known him for some time, saw him in London the other day — very, very pleased he came out about Guantanamo. The Archbishop of York, the second-most senior bishop in the Church of England, in the Episcopal Communion, he’s come out against it, and I think the United States is totally isolated.
You see, the funny thing about this, looking back at my life, because I was born in an empire, twenty percent of the population of the world was governed from London, and we locked people up. I met Mr. Gandhi; he was locked up. I met Nehru; he was locked up, Mandela was locked up, Kwame Nkrumah was locked up, and then they all ended up having tea with the queen as head of Commonwealth countries, and I suppose you could argue, though it might be unacceptable to your audience, George Washington was a terrorist. He raised an army against the King of England who was a legitimate king of the colonies. And so, the whole thing is completely fraudulent. It has nothing to do with morality. It has to do with power, and when Bush said the United States was addicted to oil — which I’ve been saying for years — but he said it, addicts have a way of killing to get what they need, and I think the thing — I think the important thing for us now is to understand what’s happening.
AMY GOODMAN: Alberto Gonzales has also been here this week.
TONY BENN: Yes, I heard him.
AMY GOODMAN: Campaigning on behalf of the practices at Guantanamo, said you can interpret torture in different ways. What’s your interpretation?
TONY BENN: Well, I thought it was an amazing thing, that since Britain is supposed to be the closest ally to the United States, that on their "Hearts and Minds" campaign, they had to come and persuade the British people that torture was okay, and, you know, once you apply this argument, you see, supposing that Saddam Hussein had been criticized for the brutalities of which he was guilty, and he could have done a broadcast just like Gonzales and said, 'Well, we're under attack. We’ve got people trying to undermine us. How regrettable it is. I have to put them in Abu Ghraib prison. I’m sorry about it.’
And, you see, these arguments, there’s a parallel that is never drawn and although sometimes people feel powerless, if you understand what’s happening, you’re very powerful, which is why the United States now is launching a big attack on Google and the internet, because they realize that under FOX News and CNN, information is spreading now, people are understanding it, and on the March the 18th, there’s this big demonstration in London. It’s going on simultaneously in 40 countries. You remember three years ago, the New York Times said, "There are two superpowers in the world: the United States of America and the world peace movement." We are a superpower, and in the end, the pen is mightier than the sword; the mind is mightier than the bomb. So we have to be optimistic. We mustn’t allow all this to depress us.
AMY GOODMAN: What makes you optimistic? Why don’t you get depressed? I mean, here you are, head of the Stop the War Campaign. You’ve served in Parliament for many years, trying to stop war and torture, and yet, look at the state of the world today. By the way, Abu Ghraib, that — well I don’t know if the U.S. is going to be closing it. There was the big news here in Britain last night that Abu Ghraib prison was closing, and now the Defense — the Pentagon is saying it might not be true, but symbol of torture under the U.S., symbol of torture by Saddam Hussein, but built by British contractors.
TONY BENN: Well, I know, but let me put this to you, because I’m 81 in a week or two. I’ve mentioned I met Mr. Gandhi in 1931. He was locked up.
AMY GOODMAN: Where was he locked up?
TONY BENN: I met him in London. He came to London. I sat on the floor. I was six, and he sat next to me.
AMY GOODMAN: Your father was a Member of Parliament?
TONY BENN: My father was the Secretary of State for India at the time, and he brought him over. India became free. My mother was born in 1897; women didn’t have the vote, and then they did. I spoke in Trafalgar Square, a big center in London, in support of a very well known terrorist in 1964, and I was denounced in the tabloids. The next time I met him, he had a Nobel Peace Prize; it was the president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, and if you look at history, I mean, how did the environmental movement become important? How did the third world movement become? Because people went on working at it.
I have ten grandchildren, and I think about them, because my grandchildren, that generation, have got a choice to make that no one in history has ever had to make. For the first time in human history, the human race has the capacity to destroy itself with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, but also for the first time in human history, we have the technology and the knowledge to solve the problems of the human race, and a fraction of the cost of the war in Iraq would have given everyone in Africa with AIDS free drugs. That is the choice, and, you know, if you like, my interest in politics has intensified, and I don’t want anything now.
Old age has certain disadvantages, but (a) you have experience, and (b) you don’t want anything for yourself. I’m absolutely free of any hint of ambition, not that I ever had much, and that is what keeps me going, and that’s what keeps everybody going. So don’t allow your viewers, who follow everything you say, Amy, because you’re brilliant at it — don’t let them read into the bad news the idea that nothing can be done.
AMY GOODMAN: Your son is Secretary of State for International Development?
TONY BENN: Yes, yes indeed, yes, for International Development. He’s just been in New York this week with Kofi Annan trying to build up a permanent fund for drought, so they don’t have to go around collecting money. He’s a lovely lad, and my dad was a cabinet minister, three generations of cabinet ministers, five members of my family in four generations in Parliament in three centuries. I’m afraid we’re all very committed.
AMY GOODMAN: As head of, now, Stop the War campaign, going back to Iran, you talk about how the U.S. and Britain are perhaps scapegoating Iran, but you are fiercely opposed to nuclear proliferation.
TONY BENN: Yes, I am.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that Iran has nuclear weapons ambitions?
TONY BENN: Well, I don’t know about that. All I know is that if you want a nuclear-free Middle East, which I do, then Israel will have to make all its installations open to inspection, and indeed if that happened, I think the Iranians would probably say the same.
But you have also to recognize, even Iran, with its massive oil reserves will have to think of the day when oil finishes, and there are people advocating civil nuclear technology. I don’t, myself, but I can understand it, because after all, that’s what the President himself said in the United States. He said we’ve got to think of alternative sources of energy, and I think conservation and benign sources are probably better, but you could see the case for civil nuclear power, even though I don’t share it. I understand it.
AMY GOODMAN: You even teach about the issue of religion and politics.
TONY BENN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: I think Tony Blair just recently invoked — Talk about that.
TONY BENN: Well, I was brought up by my mother on the Bible, and she told me something that I’ve never forgotten. She said the stories in the Bible are stories about the conflict between the kings who have power and the prophets who preach righteousness, and she taught me to support the prophets and not the kings. It’s gotten me into a lot of trouble in my life, but if I look at the great founders of religion — Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha — they were teachers.
They taught us how to live, and then people come along and try to use religion to get power. 'If you don't do what I tell you, you’ll rot in hell. If you don’t do this, you’re hostile to the Quran or the Bible,’ and I think the abuse of religion — because for most people, including myself now, my religion is part of my culture. I think Jesus was a prophet; I think what he taught was good, and I think that in my society, I’m used to Episcopalian churches and Catholic churches and the odd synagogue and now a few mosques. It’s part of my culture, and to try and turn it into grounds for war — when Bush said it was a crusade, what a foolish thing to say.
Because maybe they didn’t teach you about the crusades in Texas, but by God, in the Middle East, everybody knows what the crusades were. We went there. There were seven crusades over 175 years. We sent armies into Palestine to recapture Jerusalem for the Christians, and the bitterness was enormous, and of course, we lost all the crusades, as well. So I see great dangers in the abuse of religious power, but I am myself, a follower of the teachings of religious leaders.
I mean, Moses said, "Don’t worship the golden calf." I always took that to be a direct criticism of the Dow Jones Industrial Average as the criteria by which you judge human happiness. You sort of know what’s happened to the stock market. So they all have to say something, but the abuse of it is so dangerous, because this is not a war about religion. It’s about oil and power, and if you understand that, then all the religious language disappears, and you can go back to following the culture of your faith. And I respect people of all faiths, and I would expect them to respect my faith, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Perhaps one thing that has changed more than most other things has been the power of the media. What role do you see it playing now, as the sword or the shield?
TONY BENN: Well, I’m an old broadcaster myself. My first job was in the BBC as a producer in the North American Service in 1949, and I think the media have replaced religion, because, in the old days in Britain, you see, Henry VIII had a row with the Pope about one of his weddings. I can’t remember; he married six times. So he nationalized the Church of England. The Church of England is a nationalized institution. The bishops are appointed by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister in Britain could be a Muslim or a Jew, an atheist; he would still appoint the Archbishop of Canterbury.
So, what the king recognized was that you have to have the church as a media on his side. So you went to church and the bishop would say, 'God wants to you do what the king wants you to do,' and now, with all the multinational corporations, Rupert Murdoch and all that, they’re in effect saying, 'You must do what the President tells you to do,' and in the interest of commercial interests as well. And so, what we need is a free media.
That’s why I’m so interested in the democracy movement. I think of you as the Martin Luther of the media, somebody who is able to hammer something, with a hammer on the Church in Rheims, I think, or wherever it was, proclaiming the right to think for ourselves. If we think for ourselves, we’re safe, but if we allow religion, if we allow the mullahs or the rabbis or the bishops to control what you think, or if you allow Rupert Murdoch to control what you think, then truthfully, we become slaves in a society, which we ought to control, because it belongs to us.
Thomas Paine said, "God didn’t make rich or poor. He made men and women, and he gave the earth to be their inheritance," and he also said, "My country is the world, and my religion is to do good." You can’t do better than that.
AMY GOODMAN: Tony Benn, I want to thank you very much for being with us. We have interviewed you for so many years on the telephone or when you came to the United States. It’s very nice to come here on your soil.
TONY BENN: Good luck.
AMY GOODMAN: Tony Benn, long-time Member of Parliament, is the longest-serving Member of Parliament in the Labour Party, now the head of the Stop the War Coalition.