The Time to Organise Resistance is Now

by Tony Benn

Comment Is Free  

It is time to organise a broad movement of active resistance to the Con-Dem government’s budget intentions. They plan the most savage spending cuts since the 1930s, which will wreck the lives of millions by devastating our jobs, pay, pensions, NHS, education, transport, postal and other services.

The government claims the cuts are unavoidable because the welfare state has been too generous. This is nonsense. Ordinary people are being forced to pay for the bankers’ profligacy.

The £11bn welfare cuts, rise in VAT to 20%, and 25% reductions across government departments target the most vulnerable – disabled people, single parents, those on housing benefit, black and other ethnic minority communities, students, migrant workers, LGBT people and pensioners.

Women are expected to bear 75% of the burden. The poorest will be hit six times harder than the richest. Internal Treasury documents estimate 1.3 million job losses in public and private sectors.

We reject this malicious vandalism and resolve to campaign for a radical alternative, with the level of determination shown by trade unionists and social movements in Greece and other European countries.

This government of millionaires says “we’re all in it together” and “there is no alternative”. But, for the wealthy, corporation tax is being cut, the bank levy is a pittance, and top salaries and bonuses have already been restored to pre-crash levels.

An alternative budget would place the banks under democratic control, and raise revenue by increasing tax for the rich, plugging tax loopholes, withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, abolishing the nuclear “deterrent” by cancelling the Trident replacement.

An alternative strategy could use these resources to: support welfare; develop homes, schools, and hospitals; and foster a green approach to public spending – investing in renewable energy and public transport, thereby creating a million jobs.

We commit ourselves to:

• Oppose cuts and privatisation in our workplaces, community and welfare services.

• Fight rising unemployment and support organisations of unemployed people.

• Develop and support an alternative programme for economic and social recovery.

• Oppose all proposals to “solve” the crisis through racism and other forms of scapegoating.

• Liaise closely with similar opposition movements in other countries.

• Organise information, meetings, conferences, marches and demonstrations.

• Support the development of a national co-ordinating coalition of resistance.

We urge those who support this statement to attend the Organising Conference on 27 November 2010 (10am-5pm), at Camden Centre, Town Hall, London, WC1H 9JE.


Tony Benn Click to continue reading

Tony Benn on Slavery, Religion and Justice

tony-benn.jpgTony Benn’s talk at the Victoria & Albert museum, May 2007

Thank you very much indeed for inviting me. May I just begin by describing how my interest in the abolition of slavery began? I learned to fly during the war in Zimbabwe, they sent RAF pilots there because it was safer than learning to fly there, than in Britain where you might be shot down.

When Zimbabwe was an English colony, Rhodesia, not a single black was allowed to vote. Cecil Rhodes was shown a land in the 1890s and seized all the land, handed it to the white farmers and in 1937, Southern Rhodesia, and laws of assembly, made it a criminal offence for an African to have a skilled job. So that interested me in the African cause and all my life I’ve worked with all the people that were involved in it.

And I’ve been interested in all the people we locked up. I met Gandhi once, we locked him up; I met Nehru, he was locked up, Mandela was locked up. I think Nicoma was locked up, certainly Kenneth Kaunda from Zambia was locked up, we locked up Nkrumah, and all the people we locked up ended their lives having tea with the Queen as head of Commonwealth countries. And so historical perspective helps a little bit.

Then I became a Member of Parliament for Bristol and, of course, Bristol was one of the great slave cities and the interesting thing about going to Bristol was it wasn’t discussable, oh no you couldn’t talk about slavery, they had all the statues of the benefactors, huge statues, who’d given money to churches and schools, who made all their money out of the slave trade. There was a very bright, black Bristolian called Paul Stevenson who led a boycott because they wouldn’t let blacks drive the buses and now he’s persuaded Bristol to have a Museum of Slavery and they’re coming to terms with what’s happened, and it’s quite a difficult thing because you don’t like finding you did the awful things, that you always assumed foreigners did [laughter].

And, of course, you musn’t think it’s so very long ago because I knew the son of a slave, his name will be familiar to you – Paul Robeson, he came to London in 1958, gave him tea at the House of Commons with my dad. He’d had his passport taken away because he was supporting the colonial freedom movement, so it’s living issue, it’s not just the past and I think that’s worth remembering. Then the other thing too, is to look at Wilberforce.

Now Wilberforce very interesting man, he was a Conservative, he supported Pitt, he voted for the Combination Act which made it a criminal offence for more than three people to get together to call for a trade union or political reform, and then he became a Christian and he was stirred by the injustice of it and campaigned, and that’s what we’re celebrating this year, the abolition of the slave trade. And, might I add, not the abolition of slavery, don’t think that Wilberforce brought about the abolition of slavery but only the slave trade.

And the funny thing is somebody sent me a leading article from The Economist the other day about the slave trade. Now as you know The Economist is a very responsible newspaper that everybody should read [laughter] and what it said was this – this is an edition from 1848, two years before my grandfather was born. The Economist said you can’t abolish the slave trade, ’cause there are all these ignorant blacks in Africa with nothing whatever to do and they’re needed on the plantations of America, so said The Economist, you should regulate the slave trade. And I thought of an organisation called Ofslave, headed by Chris Woodhead which would name and shame slave ships where the sanitary arrangements fell below acceptable standards.

But I mention it all because, you see, we are a bit Anglo oriented. Ten million Africans were shipped, ten million of them, many died on the way, were thrown overboard and we now claim the credit for ending it. I think that the denial of the role of the Africans themselves in ending the slave trade is something we really do have to take much more seriously. All sorts of people supported the slave trade, of course, at one time the churches thought the slave trade could be justified because the Africans could be converted to Christianity when they were slaves. It was interesting idea: you imprison them and then you persuade them that Jesus brought a message of love, but they were still slaves.

The other thing that interests me about Wilberforce and the slave trade was when slavery was abolished, which was a bit later, the Government compensated the slave owners but not the slaves. So if you’d had slaves like some bishops had, you got money from the Government for giving up your slave but the guys who’d been slaves got absolutely nothing at all.

It is, of course, a very old tradition, slavery’s as old as history because rich and powerful people, land owners, owned the land and they owned the workers on the land. The brutality of it was horrific, slaves who escaped were crucified. Slaves who had been made slaves were branded with the name of their owner and–, and when you bring it right up to date, because you have to, there are – according to the definition of slavery, which is that you lose the right to control your own life – there are 27 million slaves, still many of them, of course, women bought and trafficked. And that is part of the slave trade, and all sorts of bondage and indebtedness makes you a slave.

But just to come back for a moment to the question of how it ended. There were strikes by slaves in British colonies. In the 1730s, the 1760s, 1780s and the 1800s. When we talk about the role of Wilberforce – now I’m not belittling him in anyway because he was dedicated man who fought a wonderful parliamentary campaign. But in the 1780s, 27 years before that, the northern states in the United States abolished slavery. In 1787, as you’ve heard, there was the first British campaign against slavery, the Danes banished the slave trade in 1792, in 1794, after the French revolution, the revolutionary French abolished slavery and Haiti in 1804 was liberated by slaves, they just went against their owners and took over the country and liberated it from the slave trade. And so that’s the background against which you have to look at the achievements of Wilberforce, and I don’t belittle him at all. But you mustn’t think that every good thing comes from our race because we have been responsible for some of the things we now claim to have abolished.

The other thing to remember is this, it wasn’t just the black slaves, we sold white slaves to Ireland. We took convicted people and criminals and so on, and we shipped them off to Ireland as slaves. When Michael Manley, the Prime Minister of Jamaica, whom I knew very well, came to London I was asked to introduce him, which I did, and I gave a lot of examples of the slave trade and he said to me afterwards, “I’d like you to tell me more about this because I got a museum of slavery in Jamaica on black slavery.” And I said, “Oh Michael that wasn’t black slavery, that was slavery in Britain and Medieval times of slavery.” And so you have to think of slavery as being broader than colour though, of course, it’s identified very largely–, very largely in those terms. It was therefore an economic phenomenon, not just phenomenon of lack of political democracy. And remember this, that Africa, which is still rich in gold and copper and oil, was conquered for economic reasons. Indeed Bush is now following it out with his own version of the empire, he goes to the Middle East ’cause he wanted oil, and that’s quite straight forward.

Sir John Boyd-Orr a very, very famous Nobel prize winner, once said most empires conquer for physical resources, and that was why we went there. And there’s a very interesting aspect of this that links to the movement Make Poverty History. I think they asked the wrong question, they always say why are the poor poor? Right question to ask is why are the rich rich? This–, well you come to totally different conclusions, ’cause the rich are rich ’cause they live off the backs of the poor and if that sounds very controversial to you, Adam Smith said the rich are the pensioners of the poor, the rich live off the backs of the poor, so it’s not just a racial, it’s a class, in the economic sense, a class issue, and has always been that.

In this country, I come back to the Combination Act which made trade unionism illegal. Until 1834, it was illegal for people to form a union and if you were a worker in on a farm in Britain, the land owner owned the land, and he also owned the cottage. If you went to him and said, “I can’t live on the money, you’re treating me badly.” he’d get you off the farm and pinch your cottage, so you were homeless and poor. So they thought if we get together we might be able to solve it and, of course, trade unionism was illegal. So when the unions tried to be formed they were sent to Australia as convicts.

I’ve got an American friend who’s just been in Australia and I said, “How did you get on?” “Oh Tony,” he said, “the Oz’s were great but by God,” he said, “they’re really tough.” Said, “What do you mean?” “Well,” he said, “when I applied for a visa they asked me if I had any previous convictions and I said ‘no’, is it still required?”

So, you see, it all comes together it’s all part of a bigger picture and this is what happens whenever you take an issue, it seems very narrow, you suddenly find it explodes into a million other issues which are equally interesting and important.

Now the other thing that interests me very much is the role of religion in all this, and I know the question ‘am I my brother’s keeper’ has been raised. On the internet, from which, I get a lot of very useful information, I got the other day a summary of what all the religions of the world say. The Judaism, ‘what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow men’, that is the entire law, all the rest is commentary. Then Christianity, ‘all things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do even so to them’. Mohammed, where are we, yes, ‘no one of you is a believer until he desires to his brother what he desires for himself’. And the same with Brahmans, the same with Buddhists, the same with the Confucians, and that’s also what’s on every trade union banner, ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’.

So you can see it all coming together as a recognition that you cannot build a society on other than on a moral basis. And that I find very, very interesting because nowadays, you see, religion is being used as a way of dividing us, you only have to look at what’s said now about Islam and the use of God. Bush said God told him to go to Iraq, I didn’t know God worked in the White House, but apparently he did, and then they say Moses went up Mount Siani and got Palestine allocated to the Jews, I didn’t know God was an estate agent. But the way in which you use religion to justify your power is a tremendously important question.

If you now look at it in a cultural sense, all the religions apart from people who control them, all the religions are part of our culture. I was brought up as a Christian and when I go to church I like the churches, I like seeing bishops in funny outfits. I sing hymns like ‘onward Christian soldiers marching as to war with the cross of Jesus going on before’,

Now if anyone sang ‘onward Muslim soldiers going as to war’ with Mohammed’s banner going’…., they’d all be locked up at once by John Reid and so you have to recognise that there is, in every religion, a culture. There’s nothing whatsoever in the culture of religion to divide one from another. The people I’m nervous of are the people who use religion to get control of us, and that is the difference.

I mentioned that I was bought up as a Christian, my mother taught me that the story in the bible was the story of the conflict between the kings who had power and the prophets who preached riotousness, and she taught me to support the prophets against the kings. It’s got me into a lot of trouble in my life but it explained so much. Because it’s one thing to be told love your neighbours as yourself, it’s another thing to be told be a bishop, “If you don’t do what I tell you, you will rot in hell.”

Using religion to get control of people is an abuse, I think, of religious teaching and to rediscover Moses and Jesus, Carpenter – of Nazareth and Mohammed, rediscover what they were saying gives you some opportunity to learn how to live your life in peace, but it has to relate to the present. You can’t just have some dream of the future because in the old days you went to a bishop and you said, “Bishop it’s a very unfair world.” And the bishop would say, “I know my child, but if only the rich were kind and the poor are patient, we shall all be rewarded in heaven.” And people said, “That’s wonderful news bishop, but could we possibly have it while we’re still alive?” And out of that came a political movement, where heaven on earth is what people want.

And so that is a conflict and that’s why I think the use of religion for political purposes is such a desperately dangerous thing to do and it goes on all the time. One of the ways in which you control people of course is to frighten them, divide them and demoralise them and those are instruments of control that have been used from the time the slavery right through to the present time. And so then you say, well what did this lead to?

And, of course, it led to a demand for justice. When I look back is in every period of history, two flames have always been burning in the human heart, the flame of anger against injustice and the flame of hope that you can build a better world and those two flames are really material by which we make progress and to understand that is very, very important, because if you don’t have some aspiration then you find yourself in a position, which I think about most of the time now – and that is how the human race is going to cope with its problems.

We live in a very remarkable period, quite unlike any other in history, when the human race has the capacity to destroy itself, and you can kill one man with a spear, a few more with a bayonet, one or two with a machine gun or a plane, but with chemical, nuclear and biological weapons it is possible to destroy the human race, that has never, ever been true before.

But it’s also the first generation in history which has the technology and the know-how and the money to solve the problems of the human race. And that’s where you really come right into the contemporary political scene, because a fraction of the cost of the war now would see that everyone in Africa with Aids would have free drugs. A fraction of the cost of the war would see everyone in America has a health service, would protect New Orleans from the Katrina Hurricane and that is the choice.

So the question then you have to ask yourself is, well how do you change the situation? ‘Cause there are only three interesting questions in politics, what’s going on? Which is not always easy to find out, why is it going on? Which is harder to find out and the third question is, what are you going to do about it? And if you look at the way in which it all developed, it developed really with the greatest revolution of all, far more revolutionary than the French or Russian or American revolution, it was the revolution of democracy and the reason.

I mention it is because throughout the 19th Century a huge change in power occurred, in the olden days all the power was in the hands of the rich and if you were rich you didn’t need a school, you hired tutors, you didn’t have a mortgage from a local authority for your castle because you owned it, you didn’t have to bother about anything else, if you were ill you hired a doctor, when you were old you were okay, you were never unemployed because you never did any work anyway, and that was the basis of society and what happened during the 19th Century explains everything, I think, including the national independence movements.

Power, when people had the vote power was transferred from the people with money to the people who didn’t have money. In 1837 when the Birmingham Corporation became law the people of Birmingham, or some of them anyway, had the vote, so how did they use the vote? They used to the vote to buy with their vote what they couldn’t afford personally, municipal hospitals, municipal schools, municipal fire brigade, municipal museums, municipal art gallery and what democracy did was to transfer power from the market place to the polling station, from the wallet to the ballot.

What then happened was the whole prospect changed, that’s how the welfare state came about, of course, in the end, the idea of a national health service, idea of state education, the idea, even, of a fire brigade, in the olden days there was no fire brigade, you–, you–, you insured your own house was an insurance company. So if your neighbours house burned down they didn’t bother to put that out ’cause he wasn’t insured and that would obviously threaten your house and this idea of–, of welfare, which is looked down on in mockery, is on the basis that actually the interest of all of us are in the interests of all of us.

If you meet a diseased person your health is threatened, if you work with an uneducated person your work is threatened and so the recognition of the common interests we have in survival and prosperity was a product of democracy, and nobody really likes democracy very much, nobody in power likes democracy very much. I mean, Hitler didn’t like it, Stalin didn’t like it, the Pope doesn’t allow the clergy to elect the Pope, it’s all done by shares of cardinals whom he appoints. I can’t say I find all that much enthusiasm for democracy even in a capitalist society of where the market is everything, because the thing about having a market society is that you don’t have systems, you only have consumers. Now to be a consumer you have to have some money, I mean homeless people in the streets of London need homes more than anybody else but as they can’t afford them they’re not consumers, and the language used to belittle collective activity is very noticeable.

Now when I look again at the future I think of what’s called ‘cultural diversity’, when I was born it was terribly boring, everybody–, they were all white, they had fish and chips, they watched cricket, a little bit of ballroom dancing, and now we’ve got such a fantastic cultural diversity in Britain. Two of my granddaughters are at a primary school in London with 77 nationalities in the school and a refugee centre in the school, so when I go and talk at the school it’s like addressing a meeting of the General Assembly [of the United Nations]. My granddaughters have got Russian friends, American friends, Malaysian friends, West Indian, for them that’s normal, that is the world we live in. It’s complete generational change because I think younger people understand it, very often, much, much better than older people who were brought up in a different tradition.

That’s really what we have to try and–, and utilise, which is why I think the internet is very, very valuable because you get access to things which you wouldn’t necessarily find described in The Sun or The Mail and the information you get allows you to reach a judgement of your own which is independent and probably puts you in the category of the prophets against the king. So I warn you don’t use the internet too loosely or you’ll be in trouble yourself.

I mentioned the trade unions and apartheid. I spoke in Trafalgar Square in 1964 in support of a very, very well known terrorist and I got denounced in the tabloids, I didn’t meet him for a bit, next time I met him he had an Nobel peace prize and was president of South Africa. Well look at the suffragettes who were locked up for just wanting votes for women.

The way I think progress occurs, you see, is this: to begin with is you’ve got a sensible idea like abolishing slavery or votes for women or trade unions or end apartheid, and they ignore you. Then if you go on you’re stark staring bonkers, I’ve had a touch of that myself, then if you go on after that you’re dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone at the top who doesn’t claim to have thought of it in the first place – and that is how progress is made.

It’s made by movements, by people who understand the world, who feel a sense of commonality with other people and say, “Why don’t we get together and do it ourselves”. In order for that to succeed you need to have encouragement and I think encouragement is the most important quality in political leadership, because they do try, all the time, to put you down. I don’t know what you feel but the league tables in schools, this idea that a school has failed, well I know schools have problems, but a school has failed.
I went the other day to a failed school, they were utterly demoralised and I had an example of it myself which I might mention. I went to the Labour conference 18 months ago and the Prime Minister made a speech which I listened to and I got up to go to the loo and I collapsed, and I was taken to the Brighton hospital and given a pacemaker. I had a letter from the Prime Minister saying “hope my speech didn’t cause it” and I was too polite to reply.

The interesting thing was this, when I left I discovered that was the worst hospital in Britain under the league tables. Well what if you’re the nurse or a sister or a doctor or porter, what do you make of it if you’re told you work in the worst hospital in Britain?

People want encouragement and that’s what they don’t always want to give you, but if we encourage each other, my God there’s nothing you cannot do. And so that’s how the slave trade really ended, people got together and saw the truth and realised we’re brothers and sisters and then we made an advance.

But one final warning, every generation has to do it for themselves again, there is no railway station called justice that if you catch the right train you get there, every generation has to fight for their rights because rights are taken away. They concede what they have to, and then when the pressure’s off, they try and recapture the territory they’ve lost. So it’s an ongoing struggle and at my age, I’m 82 now, (and its wonderful, if I’d known what fun it was to be 80 I’d have done it years ago) because you have a bit of experience and you don’t want anything. And when I speak, as I do tonight to you, I say you can relax, I am not asking you to vote for me and there’s a great sigh of relief and people saying, “Well if he doesn’t want anything we may as well listen to him.” So that is really the function of the old, I think it’s to encourage people and understand. So thank you for asking me and I do hope we have some questions, and as I’m a bit deaf [to V&A staff] you’re going to tell me what the questions are otherwise you’ll all say typical politician he doesn’t answer the questions. Thank you very much.


Q: In your opinion, the British Government has fulfilled its obligations under international law towards asylum seekers?

TB: No it hasn’t. There’s no doubt about the term asylum seekers, a term almost of abuse and whipping up hostility, because refugees, if you call them what they are, refugees, then we brought masses of Jewish refugees before the war and they were saved from the Holocaust, and so we have to look at it again in a much more humane way. The other thing you have to remember is the people who come in make a huge contribution to our society, but we are going to face a big issue on that. Do you know two million Iraqis have left Iraq because of the war, two million refugees and with climate change and other things, you’re going to find a lot of people trying to come out of what maybe a draught stricken Africa into Europe, what are you gonna do about it? So the basic human understanding of the rights of other people is going to be tested.
 I was in Leeds during the election and a man said to me, he said, “Mr Benn, do you realise that every asylum seeker coming to Britain is given a free car, a free mobile phone, a free black jacket and a free house and they don’t even speak English?” So I said, “What are you going to do about it?” He said, “I’m going to live in Portugal.” I said, “Do you speak Portuguese?” And he nearly strangled me ’cause–, so I’m glad you asked that. It’s a difficult question for political people but it has to be answered plainly.

Q: How can we abolish the current sexual slave trade?

TB: Yeah, well it’s a huge issue isn’t it? Tremendous issue because these people are captured, offered perhaps a job in Britain, a young woman from Romania, Albania, simply gets a job as a waitress, they come here, the guy brought them here, takes away their passport, threatens to disfigure them or kill them and they are slaves, there’s no other way of putting it. And this requires an enormous amount of police effort and public sympathy and, I say sympathy, and understanding and demands for this to be dealt with. I suppose like every other aspect of the slave trade it can be dealt with but there’s a lot of money in it isn’t there?

It is, after all, treating people as resources to be sold and–, and people who make use of it are partly responsible for the continuation of the crime. I’m glad you raised that, I did mention at the beginning that it was one of the great examples of a continuing slave trade and I think the Government is probably doing what they can but I would have thought required a huge intelligence operation as well as ordinary policing.

Q5: Thank you, do you think Britain should apologise for the slave trade today and, if so, who should do that?

TB: Well I’m often asked about apology and I think we should. But the same time if you really want to compensate for slave trade, what you would do would be to lift all the debt of African countries and the rich countries carry it themselves. That would be the way to do it [applause] and I think if you did make them an apology they’ll—[appreciate it], but after all we’re not personally responsible for the role in slavery, so you could say it and it’s polite and welcome but there’s still suffering.

I give an example Kenneth Kaunda who’s the president of Zambia, who’s an old friend of mine, I saw him the other day and he said, “We had a debt in Zambia so the IMF came along and they said we’ll lift your debt if you’ll sell all your schools and all your hospitals to multinational corporations.” So what that did was to transfer power from ballot box back to the market place, from the ballot to the wallet, and I think privatisation as an instrument of so called level playing field is one of the causes of poverty, that’s why I said you should ask why are the rich are rich and not why the poor are poor.

Q: In Africa most of the leaders are men who following their countries independence, did not actually run Africa for the benefit of their country men but actually ruled it and robbed their people. And all have Swiss bank accounts with lots of money – and these were elected Governments, so what would you prescribe for Africa now?

TB: Oh well, I mean, corruption in Africa–, mind you, it’s not entirely uncommon in Britain. I don’t want to suggest–, I mean we sold a lot of bombers to Saudi Arabia and the basis was we bribed the princes to buy them and then the Prime Minister said we can’t examine it because matters of national security are at stake, well if that isn’t corruption I don’t know. But, of course, it is true and you see one of the interesting things about corruption in Africa, where does it come from? It comes from rich companies buying corrupt leaders to get access to the resources of the countries they’re supposed to govern. The companies want the resources for themselves so they bribe a leader to give it to them, and then when the leader goes he’s got all his money salted away in a Swiss bank.

So it’s a complex thing but the answer to that is democracy isn’t it? And just getting rid of a foreign power that happened when they became politically independent didn’t actually solve the problem, as we know from Mugabe and we know from all over the place – and Mark Thatcher was sentenced for trying to organise a coup in Equatorial Africa so he could get hold of the oil, you know. I think once you understand who benefits and why it happens it helps you. See I’m a supporter of Chavez, he’s taking the oil and using it for schools and hospitals and do you know the richest country in the world, even richer per capita than America, is Norway, why? ‘Cause they nationalise their oil, they’ve got tonnes of money in their pension funds and everything else ’cause they decided the natural resource of oil should belong to the Norwegian people and I agree with that.

Anyway, thank you very much indeed, I’ve really enjoyed the questions and discussion, thank you very much indeed for coming.