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British Politician Tony Benn Condemns Escalation of War in Afghanistan & Defends Britain’s Socialized Healthcare System

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While President Obama defended his escalation of the war in Afghanistan on Monday, in Britain, America’s closest ally, antiwar sentiment is growing. This week, the number of British troops killed in Afghanistan since 2001 surpassed 200. Yesterday in central London, protesters read the names of the 200 British soldiers, as well as the names 200 Afghan citizens killed in the war. The demonstration in Whitehall was led by former British MP Tony Benn, who is currently the president of the Stop the War Coalition. He is a former Cabinet minister and the longest-serving MP in the history of the British Labour Party. [includes rush transcript]

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

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: On Monday, President Obama gave a speech in Phoenix before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the nation’s largest veterans group. Obama defended his escalation of the Afghanistan War, which he called, quote, “a war of necessity.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As I said when I announced this strategy, there will be more difficult days ahead. The insurgency in Afghanistan didn’t just happen overnight, and we won’t defeat it overnight. This will not be quick nor easy.

But we must never forget, this is not a war of choice, this is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people.

AMY GOODMAN: While President Obama defended his escalation of the war in Afghanistan, in Britain, America’s closest U.S. ally, antiwar sentiment is growing. This week, the number of British troops killed in Afghanistan since 2001 surpassed 200. Yesterday in central London, protesters read the names of the 200 British soldiers, as well as the names of 200 Afghan citizens killed in the war. The demonstration in Whitehall was led by former British MP Tony Benn, currently president of the Stop the War Coalition.

Tony Benn joins us now from London, a former Cabinet minister and the longest-serving MP in the history of the British Labour Party, served for more than half a century.

Tony Benn, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about the reading of the names yesterday in London.

TONY BENN: Well, it was a solemn occasion, and the names were read.

But, you see, I think you have to understand the history of this. Britain invaded Afghanistan in 1839, captured Kabul, and was defeated the following year, and 15,000 British troops were killed in the retreat. Britain invaded Afghanistan in 1879. Britain was in Afghanistan in 1919. The Russians were in Afghanistan. I led a delegation to the Russian ambassador in London to protest that. The United States government, President Bush, the first one, funded Osama bin Laden to fight the Russians to get them out of Afghanistan.

And the situation we’re in now is very straightforward. The United States and NATO, 40 countries with 64,000 troops, in eight years have been unable to defeat the Taliban. And this is a Vietnam War for America and for the rest of the—well, for the people involved, soldiers and civilians on both sides, it’s an absolute tragedy.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Obama defended the war yesterday, calling it “a war of necessity.” Your response to that?

TONY BENN: Well, I think you just have to ask yourself the question: Is it a war on terror, or is it a war on Afghanistan? It’s a war on Afghanistan. And to call it a war on terror just entitles you to do what you like. And I don’t think it’s going to succeed.

The other thing I have in mind is very simple. A few years ago, London was bombed by terrorists. And how did it end—from northern Ireland. How did it end? It ended when we talked to Gerry Adams, who was the IRA leader in prison. Nelson Mandela was denounced as a terrorist by Mrs. Thatcher, and peace came in South Africa when the South African government talked to Mandela, and he came out and became president. I mean, history tells you, and Churchill put it very clearly: Jaw-jaw, talking, is better than war-war. And there will have to be negotiations with al-Qaeda and Taliban to secure the end of this conflict. Of that, I have no doubt whatsoever.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Tony Benn, we also wanted to talk to you about the issue of healthcare. Here in the United States—


SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: —several congressional Democrats rallied around a public healthcare option on Monday, one day after the Obama administration suggested it was prepared to abandon the proposal to attract bipartisan support. Senator John Rockefeller of West Virginia called the public option “a must,” while House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi vowed to ensure the public option stays in the final House bill. Congressmember Anthony Weiner of New York said President Obama risks losing around a hundred Democratic votes if the public option is dropped.

AMY GOODMAN: The Obama administration’s dwindling support for the public option follows weeks of intensive media campaigning from Republicans and right-wing pundits. Part of that campaign has been to denigrate the single-payer systems of foreign countries. In Britain, the U.S. debate over healthcare is being closely watched, and now the political and medical establishment in Britain have launched a spirited defense of the National Health Service in response to attacks on the system by conservative commentators in the United States.

Tony Benn, you’re a former Cabinet minister, longest-serving MP in the history of the British Labour Party. Explain your system in Britain and what the battle looks like to you across the Atlantic in the United States.

TONY BENN: Well, I mean, for me—and I love, know America. I’m married to an American, known America for 70 years. It’s amazing. I think most people in Britain just regard it as being uncivilized for a great, rich country to ignore the health of 47 million people. And I don’t say that as an insult; we just don’t understand it.

It was set up in Britain in 1948, 61 years ago. And I have with me the statement made by the government at the time. “Your new National Health Service begins on the 5th of July. […] How do you get it?

“It will provide you with all medical, dental, and nursing care. Everyone—rich or poor, man, woman or child—can use it or any part of it. There are no charges, except for a few special items. There are no insurance qualifications. But it is not a 'charity'. You are all paying for it, […] as taxpayers, and it will relieve your money worries in time of illness.”

And, I mean, my family has benefited enormously. I had an operation a few days ago in London. I’ve got a pacemaker put in under the Health Service. My wife died of cancer and for four years had the most brilliant healthcare.

And I suppose one way of looking at it is this: There’s a lot unemployment in the United States, as there is in Britain, and one way of creating jobs would be to build hospitals, recruit nurses, train doctors, and then meet the health needs of the country, as well.

I just don’t understand what’s being said. Well, I do understand, because I know the people who are saying it. But it’s absolutely no relation to the Health Service in Britain or the needs of the United States.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Tony Benn, I wanted to get your response to the comments of British member of European Parliament, Dan Hannan. He was interviewed on several news networks earlier this year, criticizing the British healthcare system. This is what he had to say on Fox News. He was interviewed by anchor Sean Hannity.

SEAN HANNITY: Can you explain in—with some specificity, why you are giving such a dire warning to the people of the United States?

DANIEL HANNAN: Because you’re our friends, and if you see a friend about to make a terrible mistake, you try and warn him. And we’ve lived through this mistake. We’ve lived through this mistake for 60 years now.

It began with the best of intentions. It began because people thought it was wrong for those who weren’t well off and couldn’t afford the best healthcare to be treated differently, and everyone felt, well, this is—it’s kind of a nice togetherness kind of solidarity thing if we all take part in this experiment.

But the reality is, it hasn’t worked. It has made people iller. We spend a lot of money, and we get very bad results. You look at survival rates for cancer or heart disease, we are well down on all the leagues. We have very few doctors. We disincentivize people from practicing medicine in this country. A lot of our best and brightest doctors emigrate. A lot of them go to North America, because there’s no market. There’s nothing that helps them.

And, of course, the government, for a long time, would always say, “Well, we can just make this work a little bit more if we spend more,” so the current government has almost increased by about 80 percent spending on healthcare. But, of course, as long as you have a socialist system, no amount of extra spending is going to rescue it. And so, there was an absolutely neat example of the unplanned consequences of socialism.

The government decreed centrally that all general practitioners were going to get a big pay raise. Well, doctors are human beings. They understandably started working shorter hours.


DANIEL HANNAN: So, the effect of this massive injection of government cash—


DANIEL HANNAN: —wasn’t just to be useless; it actually made it worse.

AMY GOODMAN: That is the—those are the comments of the British member of European Parliament Dan Hannan, not to be confused with the man who’s interviewing him, Hannity, on Fox. Tony Benn, your response?

TONY BENN: Well, I just don’t recognize it as the Health Service that I know and use. I mean, the number of doctors has doubled. A waiting list is down to very little for people. And talk to anyone in Britain who’s used the Health Service—I must say, I have one suspicion: I don’t believe that man has ever used the National Health Service. He uses private health insurance. Nobody who uses the Health Service, as all my family have done, have ever, ever had criticism of that character.

And, you see, I suppose it’s really basically a question of, do you regard the health of the nation as a national interest? Now, in the United States, taxpayers pay for the education of children. Does that make it socialized education? The police are paid for by the taxpayers. Does that make it a socialized police force? The fire services are public services. Does that mean they are socialized fire services? You see, this is just the language of very, very rich people who don’t want to make a contribution for the healthcare of others.

I’m afraid it’s getting an end of it, the whole argument. And the member of Parliament you quoted is being denounced by his own leader. And Mrs. Thatcher said the “Health Service is safe in our hands.” And when she said that—and she was the most right-wing leader we’ve had in Britain for many years—when she said that about the Health Service, that gives you the clearest recommendation I can think of for a right-wing American audience.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Benn, finally, any thoughts on the comparison of the debate you’re seeing today with what happened before the British—the National Health Service was ushered in in Britain? Are you seeing an echo of it?

TONY BENN: Yes, in a way. I mean, some of the doctors were opposed to it, but they all came around. Some of the consultants said, “We don’t want to be civil servants.” But they’re not civil servants. You had a little bit of it.

But I’ll tell you what really changed it, and it takes you back to the 1930s. We had mass unemployment, as you did in the United States. And I was a pilot in the Royal Air Force in the war, and we were discussing on a troop ship coming home once how we would deal with the problems of unemployment. And one lad got up, and he said something I’ve never forgotten. He said, “In the 1930s we had mass unemployment, but we don’t have unemployment when we’re killing Germans.” He said, “If you can have full employment by killing Germans, why can’t you have full employment by building hospitals, building schools, recruiting teachers, recruiting nurses, recruiting doctors?” And that’s how we got it.

We took the view that a government had a responsibility to focus on the needs of a nation in peacetime in the way in which it does in wartime. And if that principle is followed, then all the ideological language can be set aside. You’ve got to judge a country by whether its needs are met, and not just by whether some people make a profit. I’ve never met Mr. Dow Jones, and I’m sure he works very, very hard with his averages—we get them every hour—but I don’t think the happiness of a nation is decided by the share values in Wall Street.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Tony Benn, very much for being with us, former Cabinet minister, longest-serving MP in the history of the Labour Party, also president of the Stop the War Coalition, speaking to us from London.

As we wrap our British segment, before we move on to Canada’s healthcare system, by repeating that story that many Britons were surprised to read a recent editorial in the American newspaper Investor’s Business Daily. The editorial stated, “People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the UK, where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.” Well, Hawking was in fact born in Britain and has lived there his whole life. The newspaper was forced to run a correction. Hawking said, “I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for the NHS.” That’s the National Health Service of Britain.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back from our break, we’ll be in Toronto to look at Canada’s healthcare system. Stay with us.

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