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“Hope is the Fuel of Progress”–Former British MP and Leading Antiwar Voice Tony Benn On Imperialism and Resistance

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As the 9/11 investigation continues to dominate the news with former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke reiterating his claim that the Iraq invasion was a diversion form the war on terror, we hear from former British MP and leading antiwar voice, Tony Benn. After serving in the British Parliament for over half a century, Benn is now president of the Stop the War Coalition in Britain. [includes rush transcript]

The investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks continued to dominate the news this weekend.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, at the center of a political firestorm over her refusal to testify under oath before the Sept. 11 commission, yesterday renewed her determination not to give public testimony.

In an interview on 60 Minutes, Rice said, “Nothing would be better, from my point of view, than to be able to testify. I would really like to do that. But there is an important principle here…it is a longstanding principle that sitting national security advisers do not testify before the Congress.”

Despite Rice’s statement, the 9/11 Commission is not a congressional committee, but an independent body signed into law by the president.

But even setting that aside, according to commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, an April 5, 2002 Congressional Research Service report shows that “many precedents involving presidential advisers” testifying before congressional committees.

At least two presidents have allowed their national security advisers to testify in public, but in both cases the issue at hand involved political scandal. President Carter allowed Zbigniew Brzezinski to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee concerning allegations that Carter’s brother, Billy, had tried to lobby the government on behalf of Libya. And Clinton allowed Sandy Berger to appear in public before the House Governmental Affairs Committee on allegations of wrongdoing in campaign fund raising during the 1996 elections.

Also in the 60 Minutes interview, Rice admitted that President Bush ordered then-counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke to find out if Iraq was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.

In his book “Against All Enemies,” Clarke charges that on Sept. 12, President Bush pulled him and several other aides into the White House Situation Room and told him “go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way.”

All week long, the White House has said it had no recollection that the Sept. 12 meeting ever took place, and that it had no record that President Bush was even in the situation room that day. But this weekend they changed their story, saying the meeting did happen.

  • National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, interviewed by Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes.

On NBC’s Meet the Press this weekend, Clarke again said he had insisted Iraq should not be the focus of the war on terror.

  • Former Counterterrorism Chief Richard Clarke, interviewed by Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet the Press.

The U.S. went ahead with the invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003 over the loud and public objections of most of the world’s nations and people.

Last week, millions took to the streets in cities around the world to protest on the first anniversary of the invasion. Of the roughly 250 anti-war protests around the United States, New York’s crowd was the largest with organizers estimating up to 100,000 people taking to the streets in midtown Manhattan.

Rally speakers included antiwar activists from around the country and the world. Former British MP was one of those who took the stage.

  • Tony Benn, Former British MP and President of the Stop the War Coalition speaking at the antiwar rally in New York City on March 20, 2004.

Benn served in the British Parliament for over half a century and is the longest serving Labour MP in the history of the party, which he joined in 1942.

In May 2001, Benn retired from House of Commons to 'devote more time to politics.' While most politicians in this country leave office to work for corporations or become corporate lobbyists, Benn left government to become one of the harshest and most vocal critics of war and is now a leader of the Stop the War Coalition in Britain.

After the rally New York, Democracy Now!s Amy Goodman had a chance to interview with Benn in his hotel room.

  • Tony Benn, interviewed by Amy Goodman.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Benn, the former member of the British parliament with the labor party, came to New York last weekend to address the anti-war protests in New York. He served in parliament for more than 50 years. While most politicians in this country leave office to work for corporations or become corporate lobbyists. Tony Benn left government to become one of the harshest and most vocal critics of war. He is now the chair of the Stop The War Coalition in Britain. After the rally in New York, we sat down to talk about war, Iraq, and the Bush administration. I began by asking him why he was in New York protesting rather than being at the major protest in London.

TONY BENN: I was in Cairo at a conference in December and Ramsey Clark who is an old mate of mine, said would I like to come? So I said I would and the invitation came and I’m really glad to come because the American peace movement has got a difficult job. You’re coping with the back ground of the Patriot Act and all the hostility and so on and what you are doing is doing more for America’s standing in the world than any number of weapons you might have. If this demonstration had been filmed around the world, people would have said that’s the real America, the America we know and love. So, never underestimate the importance of the American peace movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Today there was also a major protest in London. But you chose to come here.

TONY BENN: Yes. Well, I’m the president of the Stop The War Coalition and they authorized me to come and I passed on the greetings, which they would have wanted me to pass on. There is about 100,000 in London, I heard a million in Rome. I don’t know if it’s true. But the Spaniards did even better. I think Europe is giving some sort of a lead now, which might be followed.

AMY GOODMAN: Now most people who retire from public office in this country, who were senators or congress members go on to a business career, to parlay that position they’ve had with political power into economic power. You’ve gone a different route.

TONY BENN: Well, my father was a member of parliament, a radical socialist member of parliament. I have memories going back to the 1930’s. I met Mr. Gandhi in 1931 and I remember seeing the fascist march in 1935. I campaigned in the 1935 general elections as a 10-year-old putting leaflets through the door. I heard Hitler’s broadcasts from Nuremberg. I was in London during the blitz. I lost a brother and many people during the war. And at the end of the war, when we had this huge Labour land slide, we built the welfare state. We endorsed the United Nations and I have 10 grandchildren now and I worry about them and their future. And so for me politics is not about a career at all. It is about trying to understand what’s happening in the world and make a contribution in some way. So, since I left parliament, I’ve done 400 meetings in 120-130 cities. I’ve done about 800 broadcast, written a couple of books and just busier than I’ve ever been in my life, but I’m free of the pressures of elected office where you always worried about whether you’ll get on. When you’re 80, you don’t bother about yourself. You’re just trying to concentrate on the issue.

AMY GOODMAN: You met Gandhi. What is your memory? You were how old?

TONY BENN: Oh yes, I do remember him. Yes. All I — I don’t remember what he said — I was 6 — but I sat on the floor and he was sitting on the floor and you see the thing about Gandhi that impressed me was like he didn’t, like most people pat the child on his head and go talk to your dad. He said, come and sit on the floor and my brother and I sat next to him and I don’t know what I said and what I said and it wouldn’t have mattered. But he made a huge impression and I was in the States, funnily enough, when he was assassinated and I felt it very strongly. It was about 1947, ’48 when he was assassinated in India by I think a Hindu extremist and Gandhi played a huge role. Like Mandela. There are some people who in each generation speak for the human race and Gandhi spoke for the human race. You know when he was in London, a journalist said to him, what do you think of civilization in Britain? Gandhi said, I think it would be a very good idea, rather like — so, he made a big impact on me. Nonviolence.

AMY GOODMAN: As a member of parliament, for decades, what do you think — where do you think you can wield the most effective power and engage and effect social change the most?

TONY BENN: The thing about being a member of parliament is this — you are a representative. It is the only job in the world where you have one employee and 60,000 employers. And when I was in my district, everyone employed me. The buss driver, the street sweeper, the home help, the cab driver, the policeman–they employed me. And my job was to represent them and to speak for them and everything I learned, I learned from my constituents. 1,000 people came to see me in my last year with problems. You do no good by lecturing them, you just wanted to help them. And then you say to yourself, what have I learned from that? That’s where my politics came from. It didn’t come from school, it is experience is the real thing, the real teacher and it committed me and during a miner strike in Britain 20 years ago, I went to 299 public meetings of the miners in a year because I represented a mining district. And all the bids were closed when Thatcher launched a war against the National Union of Mineworkers. So that’s where my ideas came from. And freedom now, not wanting anything is so important politically for yourself.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Tony Benn, former Member of Parliament. Exactly how many years did you serve in parliament?

TONY BENN: 51. 51 in all. I was elected at 25. And I tell you the day I was elect, no one would ever forget, was the day that Harry Truman said that he might use an atomic bomb in the Korean war. And Mr. Attlee, the Labour Prime Minister, flew straight to Washington and stopped it. And that’s the special relationship that means something. I’ll give you another example. In 1956 in the time of the Suez war, President Eisenhower stopped Eden from continuing the war. And when I was in the cabinet with Howard Wilson, Howard Wilson wouldn’t send troops to Vietnam. I mean if a special relationship means anything, it means friendship. You tell the truth to your friends whether they want to hear it or not and I think all these things have made a deep impression on me. I was in Cairo in December. I was introduced to a meeting by an old man who said, last time I saw Tony Benn was in Trafalgar Square when we were campaigning against the Suez war. That was 50 years ago. And I do think that some historical perspective helps. All empires come and go. The British Empire I was born in–it all disappeared. And I tell you, the only way you can get peace if you run an empire is to get out. I mean, our relations with the empire, the old empire are far better now when we left than when we tried to run them. And maybe there are lessons for the United States from that, I don’t know. Possibly.

AMY GOODMAN: What about that, this idea of — well, you certainly have seen the British Empire. Do you see the U.S. as building empire right now?

TONY BENN: Oh, it is the biggest empire the world has ever known. I mean, your defense budget is it greater than the 10 or 20 next most powerful countries in the world, 745 bases in 130 countries? I mean, it is the most powerful empire, but like all empires, if it falls, it falls partly because the opposition to it is so strong, but partly because in the imperial country, the people realize that its money for the empire or money for their health or education. And in Britain, there is a very, very strong support for all the colonial leaders. And I’ve known 70 terrorists. I have to admit this whom I’ve met. Gandhi wasn’t a terrorist because he believed in nonviolence. But Nero is in prison all the time. Kwame Nkwumah is in prison, I know him very well Kenny Coler is in prison. Shady Jenkin is in prison. Ben Bella, the Algerian leader, was arrested, kidnapped by the French and sent to the Bastille. I know them all. And the thing about these terrorists is, that they ended up as head of state. In Britain, they ended up having tea with the Queen, having been terrorist. So maybe you learn something also about the use of world terrorism because Osama Bin Laden is a terrorist armed by Bush, Bush’s father to get rid of the Russians from Afghanistan. And so I think clarity of language is important. That’s where Democracy Now! is such an important–if I may say so to you -broadcasting outlet because it allows people to hear different perspectives so they can think about it and make up their own mind. You are not trying to impose an explanation, but when people think about it, they may realize that they’ve been misled by the mainstream media and political leaders.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Benn, leader in the British parliament for more than 50 years, speaking in New York last weekend after the protests. We continue with our conversation with him and if you’d like to get a copy, you can go to our website at or you can call 1-800-881-2359. Back with the conversation in a minute.

AMY GOODMAN: Elvis Costello, “Peace Love And Understanding” here on Democracy Now!, the war and peace report, as we continue with our conversation with the chair of the Stop The War Coalition and former member of the British parliament, Tony Benn.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re here on a major day of protest, not only in New York and the United States but around the world. But what difference does protest make? We saw this a year ago right before the U.S. and Britain invaded Iraq and they went ahead and did it.

TONY BENN: Well, I know. But you have to take a proper perspective. If you’d been interviewing me 30 years ago about Apartheid, you could have said to me, now look Tony, Mandela is in prison the whites control the army and the police and the media, there are no trade unions. Be realistic. Apartheid will never end. But it did. How long did it take women to get the vote in the United States? They campaigned for years as they did in Britain. They got the vote to organize trades union, the environmental movement when the environmental movement was first aired, people though it was just these bearded weirdies who worried about the climate or something. Now everybody has to pay tribute to it. So, progress comes in different ways. But the one thing you could be sure about, all progress starts at the bottom and it reaches the top at the end. Leaders are the last people to get the message, congress and parliament. I used to say this when I was in the House of Commons, they didn’t like it very much, but when the House of Commons decides something, you know for certain the public decided it years ago in their own minds and maybe we didn’t stop the Iraq war. But Bush couldn’t get Blair to go along with the war against Iran or Syria. I mean that is the end of that episode and so it was a tremendous and significant thing — and look at Spain. If you wonder what the peace movement does, we now have a new Spanish government. And you know, votes are a bit more important than opinion polls because they tell you what’s got to happen. They don’t just indicate public opinion.

AMY GOODMAN: You say that Blair stopped at Syria and Iran. How do you know that?

TONY BENN: Well, he couldn’t get away with it. You see, what’s the price that Blair has paid and maybe Bush, too, nobody believes what they’re told anymore. And this theory, people are apathetic, I don’t accept. I think people are angry that no one listens to them and they don’t believe what they’re told and anger and mistrust are not the same as apathy. It is a political movement growing up outside the established political system and that movement has got to be reintegrated with the political system so the result reflects what people think and I think that is the price the Prime Minister has paid. People don’t believe him, not just on the war but on anything. And can you imagine him coming along and saying that we now believe there are weapons of mass destruction in Iran? We’ve got to deal with them? It wouldn’t wash anymore. So, we have — hope is very important. Hope is the fuel of progress. Fear is a prison we put ourselves into. And pessimism is a prison we put ourselves into. Hope is the fuel that makes people work.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain the British Prime Minister Tony Blair to the American people?

TONY BENN: Well, when he became leader of the Labour party 10 years ago, he said New Labour is a new political party. And I’m very, very glad he said that because I’m not a member of New Labour, I’m a member of the Labour party. The Labour party has never been a socialist party, but it has always had socialists in it, just as there are some Christians in the church as everybody knows–it is the exact parallel. And the Labour party is built on working-class movement, the trade union movement with some socialists with a commitment to — well, to progress and peace and justice. And Mrs. Thatcher was asked the other day what was her greatest achievement? And she said New Labour. Now that tells you all you need to know about New Labour.

AMY GOODMAN: Will Blair last?

TONY BENN: I don’t know. I think it is a great mistake to think of politics in terms of personalities. You know, you kill Saddam or capture him. What difference does that make? You kill Osama Bin Laden, what difference does that make? It isn’t about that. It is about movements and what the peace movement is about. Its strength comes in the fact that it is not asking you primarily to elect anyone. Its saying we got to have an understanding of the world and that understanding then becomes the mainstream of opinion, which no political leader could ignore.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Tony Benn, in the parliament of Britain for more than half a century, now head of the Stop The War Coalition. This coalition you have in Britain, how networked is it with other peace movements around the world?

TONY BENN: Very closely networked. I mean, I get about 10 emails a day on my laptop at home telling me about the American peace movement, exactly what it is doing. Very few people in Britain generally know, but the Stop The War People know and I think the biggest change, technically, that’s occurred is not the stealth bomber or the star wars but the fact that people communicate with each other now. And although it doesn’t go to everybody, the organizers know it. You see, we had two million in London on February 15th last year. Simultaneously, what was it, 60 countries, there were demonstrations? Same today, 250 demonstrations in the United States, today, 1,000 in London and all over the world people are coming together and you see the peace movement is linked to the anti-globalization movement, the World Social Forum, the environmental movement, student movement, pensioners movement, all these movements are converging or as you say networking to build a body of opinion that you cannot disregard. I think last year the New York Times said there are two super powers left in the world — the United States and the world peace movement and that was a very interesting recognition of a new reality, which perhaps people have been slow to pick up.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been observing what has happened to the President of Haiti, John-Bertrand Aristide —

TONY BENN: Yes, I have. With your help.

AMY GOODMAN: Taken out of Haiti by the United States. He says he was kidnapped. He says it was a coup d’etat and put in the Central African Republic and now a small group of citizens from the Caribbean and the United States, a Congress member from the United States, Maxine Waters, went and brought him back from exile to Jamaica where he’ll decide his next move. What do you — what is your observation about that?

TONY BENN: Well, it is in a long line, Pinochet supported by the C.I.A., Allende–I know Madam Allende, his widow, and just toppled. The Bay of Pigs was to get rid of Castro and the attempts to assassinate him. The bombing of Libya to kill Qaddafi but actually it killed one of his family members. And the president now says that Arafat should be replaced. Well if you look, Chavez is on the threat. And I think that’s what empires do. I know we did when we had an empire. We toppled people we didn’t like and all the Maharajahs in India, Maharajah of Maisor, Maharajah of Hyderabad, these great Indian rulers were only allowed to remain there so long as they did everything queen Victoria told them to do. And I sometimes think that reproduction by American imperialism is almost identical. You know, there are a few lessons. We invaded Afghanistan in 1830. The Viceroy of India, the British representative there, said that the Shah of Iran — Shah of Persia was interfering, so we invaded. We occupied Kabul and a tremendous triumph. 18 months later, the British troops were beaten, forced to retreat from Kabul and 15,000 troops were killed. We bombed the Sudan 100 years exactly to the month before we occupied the Sudan, 100 years to the month before Clinton bombed it and I looked up in the papers because I was interested and the Prime Minister today said the Africans would have grams to thank us for doing it and we kill 11,000 Muslims that day. And I sat in parliament with a young cavalry officer who took part in that operation, Winston Churchill. We liberated Iraq from the Ottoman Empire in 1920. 100,000 Iraqis were killed and Winston Churchill said, authorized the use of mustard gas against the tribesmen. I mean learn a bit of history if you want to avoid making the same mistakes.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment or accomplishments?

TONY BENN: Very simply — I think I have encouraged people and on my gravestone, I would be perfectly content if it said, Tony Benn, he encouraged us. I would be perfectly satisfied with that because encouragement is what its’ all about. People say it’s easy to get despairing and despondent and pessimistic. But if somebody comes along and says, you on the right line, carry on, try it this way but you are on the right line. That’s what makes people do it and blaming people and naming people and making people feel small is part of the technique that the power elite use to keep everyone else down. Because if people are confident, they’re difficult to deal with.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think are the most significant movements over your lifetime, the most effective ones?

TONY BENN: The anti-colonial movement, unquestionably. The colonial liberation movement. And I worked for them my first 30 years in parliament, almost entirely devoted. That’s how I met all the people that I mentioned. And what we learned from that that was so important, you see Gandhi defeated the British, but reconciled with us. He defeated us and still retained good relations with us. It was a brilliant achievement, that is what like Desmond Tutu is doing now, truth and reconciliation. And the other thing about colonial liberation leaders is that they all had friends in Britain all the time. So, that’s how I got to know them. And they would come and see us and we would plan their strategy and then because they knew they had friends in Britain, they didn’t hate Britain, they hated the policies that repressed them. But they knew they had friends and I think that — and then the peace movement because, you know, the only power in the world strong enough to deal with the danger created by the splitting of the atom is the unity of the of the human race. You can split the atom and that means you have got to unite the human race if you are going to control it. If you don’t, if you are going to split the atom and the human race, you’re finished, like the dinosaurs.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Kwame Nkwumah. Can you talk a little bit about the founding President of Ghana?

TONY BENN: I met him a couple of times, I met him just before his prime minister. And he had dinner with us and he was so modest and so charming and asked our advice. What should we do? I was really touched. I was only about 30, I guess. And then when he came back, I met him again and hosted a reception for him and the guy was a great national leader. Another one was Shady Shegan who was married to an American, Janet, and he and I corresponded right up until he died and he came to see me just after we had toppled the regime because he didn’t like it, Shady Shegan was so dangerous. And he was a very — these were very significant people. But always denounced by using the same language that is used now. Big, terrible, careful about terrorism. It is the elimination of violence and I do not myself see much difference between a stealth bomber and suicide bomber in that both are killing innocent people for political purposes and that’s what we’ve got to eliminate. Otherwise, we’re in trouble.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think is the most effective form of resistance?

TONY BENN: Well, everyone does it their own way. Some people set fire to themselves. You know, that has happened. It happened in Czechoslovakia. It happened in Buddhist monks. And what they do is they recognize that by dying, they educate people. The hunger strikers in Northern Ireland, Bobby Sands was in the prison. And do you know what he said was before he died, he said, our revenge will be the laughter of our children. I’m quite moved by that phrase. He didn’t want to kill people. He said when our children are laughing, that will be the only revenge I need. And it is the educator, all campaigns are mainly educational if they’re just about a coup d’eta to replace a dictator with another dictator. It’s — they’ve got no democratic legitimacy. Democracy Now! is the right slogan. You’ve got to replace with consent if you’re going to hold the power you’ve won in order to do what you said you’d do. Otherwise, seized power, revolutions have seized power, could end up like Joe Stalin.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to the honorable Tony Benn, in the parliament for 51 years, now the leader of the Stop The War Coalition, has come to United States as part of the protest movement here, to be here for the world protest against the invasion of Iraq one year later. What about the BBC and the real showdown with the Blair government? Who won?

TONY BENN: Well, the government won in the sense they appointed a high court judge to do a report who blamed the BBC and acquitted the government. Although David Kelly, the scientist, died and the inquiry was supposed to be into that and the BBC top management resigned. But you see the problem for Blair is that people trust the BBC more than they trust him. So, although he has traumatized the BBC and the producers are frightened — when I did a broadcast the other day attacking Hutton on the BBC, they cut it out before they broadcast it. But at the same time, there is support for the BBC. I used to be a BBC producer. I’m an old BBC man myself and the BBC worldwide is highly regarded and respected. And if it’s thought to be an agent like the Voice of America or Radio Moscow, it would destroy its value. Truth is will set us free, you know, and I do think the BBC has tried, even though in terms of its domestic political coverage not particularly sympathetic to the left. But at the same time, it is independent of government and of commercial pressures.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Benn, the former member of the British parliament with the Labour party, 51 years, now chair of the Stop The War Coalition in Britain, came to New York last week to join with more than 100,000 people in New York, protesting the first anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

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