Tony Benn

From Wikiquote
Jump to navigation Jump to search
I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world.
There is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber. Both kill innocent people for political reasons.
A faith is something you die for, a doctrine is something you kill for. There is all the difference in the world.

Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn (born 3 April 192514 March 2014), known as Tony Benn, formerly 2nd Viscount Stansgate, was a British politician on the left of the Labour Party.



  • [I am against] the Treaty of Rome which entrenches laissez faire as its philosophy and chooses bureaucracy as its administrative method.
    • Encounter (January 1963).
  • Even relatively benign and temporary authoritarianism that rests upon elected power is being challenged. We are moving rapidly towards a situation where the pressure for the redistribution of political power will have to be faced as a major political issue. In a world where authoritarianism of the left or right is a very real possibility, the question of whether ordinary people can govern themselves by consent is still on trial—as it always has been, and always will be. Beyond parliamentary democracy as we know it, we shall have to find a new popular democracy to replace it.
    • Speech to the Welsh Council of Labour (25 May 1968), quoted in The Times (27 May 1968), p. 2


  • The flag of racialism which has been hoisted in Wolverhampton is beginning to look like the one that fluttered 25 years ago over Dachau and Belsen.
    • Speech at Students for a Labour Victory rally, referring to Enoch Powell who was MP for Wolverhampton South West, Methodist Central Hall, London (3 June 1970), as quoted in "Onslaught on Powell by Wedgwood Benn" by Denis Taylor in The Times (4 June 1970), p. 1.
  • Change from below, the formulation of demands from the populace to end unacceptable injustice, supported by direct action, has played a far larger part in shaping British democracy than most constitutional lawyers, political commentators, historians or statesmen have ever cared to admit. Direct action in a democratic society is fundamentally an educational exercise.
    • In New Politics (1970).
  • The demand for more popular power is building up most insistently in industry, and the pressure for industrial democracy has now reached such a point that a major change is now inevitable, at some stage. What is happening is not just a respectful request for consultation before management promulgates its decisions. Workers are not going to be fobbed off with a few shares...or by a carbon copy of the German system of co-determination. The campaign is very gradually crystallizing into a demand for real workers' control. However revolutionary the phrase may sound; however many Trotskyite bogeys it may conjure up, that is what is being demanded and that is what we had better start thinking about.
    • 'Towards workers' control', The Times (5 September 1970), p. 12
  • Workers now have, through interdependence, enormous negative power to dislocate the system. Workers' control—if it means the power to plan their own work and to hire and fire the immediate plant management just at M.P.s are now hired and fired by the voters—converts that existing negative power into positive and constructive power. It thus creates the basis of common interest with local managers struggling to make a success of the business and to get devolved authority from an over-centralized bureaucratic board of management now perhaps sitting on them from above.
    • 'Towards workers' control', The Times (5 September 1970), p. 12
  • We want industry to be in the public sector, to change the power structure of our society...We have not yet carved out of public enterprise a wide enough area of management decision which ought properly to be brought within the ambit of the workers themselves.
    • Speech in Brighton (6 October 1971).
  • [Men] who would rather go to jail than betray what they believe to be their duty to their fellow workers and the principles which they hold.
    • From an issued statement from Mr. Benn on five dockers imprisoned for contempt of court (21 July 1972).
  • [The first principle of British democracy is] our prime duty to each other and to what our conscience tells us to be right. If this leads individuals into conflict with the law, those individuals must be ready to take the consequences non-violently. In our democracy no man should tell another man to break the law, nor should any man break the law to by-pass Parliament. But a person who is punished for breaking an unjust law may if he is sincere and his cause wins public sympathy, create a public demand to have that unjust law changed through Parliament. This is the first and most fundamental principle of British democracy. It has a deep moral significance. Our religious and political liberties rest upon it.
    • Speech in Bristol (4 August 1972), quoted in The Times (5 August 1972), p. 2
  • [The third principle of British democracy was that national sovereignty belonged to the people.] We lend it to our representatives to use for five years at a time. ... Any Government or MP pretending to give away these sovereign powers without the explicit consent of the people is acting unconstitutionally. Laws that pretend to take away these powers permanently have no moral authority. ... [Heath's government] will fail because they are trying to act contrary to centuries of British tradition. The people will not have it. But the resistance that is building up is not, in any sense, revolutionary.
    • Speech in Bristol (4 August 1972), quoted in The Times (5 August 1972), p. 2
  • Britain is the only colony in the British Empire and it is up to us now to liberate ourselves.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool (2 October 1972); Labour Party Annual Conference Report (1972), p. 103.
  • I sometimes wish the trade unionists who work in the mass media, those who are writers and broadcasters and secretaries and printers and lift operators of Thomson House would remember that they too are members of our working class movement and have a responsibility to see that what is said about us is true.
    • Chairman's closing address to the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool (6 October 1972); Labour Party Annual Conference Report 1972, p. 349.
  • [The Conservatives' Industry Act contains] the most comprehensive armoury of government control that has ever been assembled for use over private industry, far exceeding all the powers thought necessary by the last Labour government...Heath has performed a very important historical role in preparing for the fundamental and irreversible transfer in the balance of power and wealth which has to take place...The whole nature of the mixed economy operating on market forces has been transformed by this quiet revolution in a way that is not yet fully appreciated.
    • 'Heath's spadework for socialism', The Sunday Times (25 March 1973), p. 61.
  • The 1973 Labour Conference will have before it the most radical programme the Party has prepared since 1945.
    • 'More equality and more democracy', The Times (1 October 1973), p. 16.
  • The fines on the engineering union and the heavy damages that may be levied against the transport union go well beyond questions of economic policy and strike at the roots of free trade unionism. Conscientious objection to the law is not a criminal act. It is not the same as an attempt to overturn the Government and set up a new one, without elections, by the direct use of industrial strength.
  • It takes powers which are permanent—this is not a temporary provisions Bill—and cover all fuels. I welcome the Bill because it will enable a Labour Government to do all they want under Labour's programme for Britain...It will give us the power to control all the oil companies, all the multi-nationals, to fix their prices and their distribution systems; and under these powers every other fuel and its use, including the chemical industry, will be brought within the control of the Government of the day. This will include road transport and private transport.
  • [Edward Heath], who sold out Britain's interests to the Common Market and gave our sovereignty away without our consent—with support of Mr Thorpe and the Liberals—is not entitled to wave the Union Jack to get himself out of the mess.
    • Speech in Bristol (30 November, 1973), quoted in ' 'Democracy in danger' warning by Mr Benn', The Times (1 December, 1973), pp. 1-2.
  • In developing our industrial strategy for the period ahead, we have the benefit of much experience. Almost everything has been tried at least once...The one constant element throughout this long history of policy has been the fact that these alternatives have been largely centrally decided and imposed and have been seen as problems of economics and management rather than as problems of politics and consent...Any constructive long-term industrial strategy must be developed by the longer, slower route of real consultation and power sharing, all done more openly. There is no alternative.
  • What we lack in Government is entrepreneurial ability.
    • Speech in London (6 June 1974).
  • This huge Commission building in Brussels, in the shape of a cross, is absolutely un-British. I felt as if I were going as a slave to Rome; the whole relationship was wrong. Here was I, an elected man who could be removed, doing a job, and here were these people with more power than I had and no accountability to anybody...My visit confirmed in a practical way all my suspicions that this would be the decapitation of British democracy without any countervailing advantage, and the British people, quite rightly, wouldn't accept it. There is no real benefit for Britain.
    • Diary entry (18 June 1974), quoted from Against the Tide. Diaries 1973-1976 (London: Hutchinson, 1989), p. 180, p. 182.
  • Britain's continuing membership of the Community would mean the end of Britain as a completely self-governing nation and the end of our democratically elected Parliament as the supreme law making body in the United Kingdom.
    • Letter to Bristol constituents (29 December 1974), reprinted in Tony Benn, 'The Common Market: Loss of Self-Government', in M. Holmes (ed.), The Eurosceptical Reader (Springer, 2016), p. 38.
  • We have come to the end of a chapter in our industrial history. The industrial system to which the Tory Party adheres—at least officially and in its manifestos—has failed us. ... It is no use blaming working people or the unions if they have to work in ancient factories with obsolete equipment producing old-fashioned goods at unecomonic prices and earning low wages as well. Working people not only are not responsible for the weakness of British manufacturing industry. They have hitherto been denied the tools and tackle that they needed to put it right. ... We have got to make a fresh start now. We have got to get investment up, and to get it up as soon as we can. If the market economy cannot or will not give us that investment, we must do it direct.
  • We have confused the real issue of parliamentary democracy, for already there has been a fundamental change. The power of electors over their law-makers has gone, the power of MPs over Ministers has gone, the role of Ministers has changed. The real case for entry has never been spelled out, which is that there should be a fully federal Europe in which we become a province. It hasn't been spelled out because people would never accept it. We are at the moment on a federal escalator, moving as we talk, going towards a federal objective we do not wish to reach. In practice, Britain will be governed by a European coalition government that we cannot change, dedicated to a capitalist or market economy theology. This policy is to be sold to us by projecting an unjustified optimism about the Community, and an unjustified pessimism about the United Kingdom, designed to frighten us in. Jim quoted Benjamin Franklin, so let me do the same: "He who would give up essential liberty for a little temporary security deserves neither safety nor liberty." The Common Market will break up the UK because there will be no valid argument against an independent Scotland, with its own Ministers and Commissioner, enjoying Common Market membership. We shall be choosing between the unity of the UK and the unity of the EEC. It will impose appalling strains on the Labour movement...I believe that we want independence and democratic self-government, and I hope the Cabinet in due course will think again.
    • Speech given in the Cabinet meeting to discuss Britain's membership of the EEC, as recorded in his diary (18 March 1975), Against the Tide. Diaries 1973-1976 (London: Hutchinson, 1989), pp. 346-347.
  • The industrial crisis now facing Britain is far deeper than is generally appreciated; and so therefore the scale and scope of the national industrial strategy needed to overcome it is correspondingly greater. ... It is no exaggeration to say that Britain's whole future depends upon major investment in the expansion and reequipment of our manufacturing plants, aimed at restoring British industry to a competitive position in world and home markets. Such an investment programme will be a huge and lengthy task. It would involve us as a nation in spending some £6,000m a year on capital investment in manufacturing, double what we have been spending.
    • Article for Trade and Industry, quoted in The Times (4 April 1975), p. 1
  • He has a deep contempt for Britain, the British people and parliamentary democracy. He is trying to climb back to power via the Treaty of Rome, and put Britain under government from Brussels for ever. In 1970 Mr Heath solemnly promised that he would not take Britain into the Common Market without the full-hearted consent of the British people. He broke his pledged word then, and he now says he will not accept a 'No' vote on Thursday. Heath promised more jobs and higher living standards inside the EEC. These promises were all broken, and he now tells us we are so poor we cannot come out; beggars can't be choosers. That is false, too. Heath's leadership has been a total disaster for the British people. The Tory Party threw him out.
    • Speech at an anti-EEC rally (3 June 1975), quoted in 'Heath attack by Mr Benn', The Times (4 June 1975), p. 6.
  • Through me the energy policy of the whole Common Market is being held up. Without opening old wounds, it pleases me no end.
    • On not attending an EEC meeting in order to attend a Labour rally (12 December 1975), quoted in 'Mr Benn delays EEC meeting', The Times (13 December, 1975), p. 1.
  • When we have a majority we will do it. I think the days of the Lords are quite genuinely numbered.
    • On Independent Radio News (12 November 1976), quoted in The Times (13 November 1976), p. 2.
  • Anyone from abroad will tell you that it is the class system that really lies at the root of our problems, economic and industrial. The House of Lords symbolises that.
    • As quoted in Yorkshire Post (22 November 1976).


  • I think that having 24 people around the Cabinet table whose future depends upon maintaining the good will of one man is fundamentally undemocratic and it would be far better if Cabinet ministers were accountable to the Parliamentary Labour Party.
    • Interview for London Weekend Television's Weekend World, quoted in The Times (11 February 1980), p. 2
  • The violence of the press attacks on Aslef, and the sustained and bitter hostility of the media towards the Labour movement is responsible for the refusal to handle some newspapers on the railways. Day after day Fleet Street conducts its campaign against working people, ignoring their interests, distorting their arguments and abusing their representatives. Working journalists can no longer evade their moral responsibilities by shielding behind their editors, nor editors by shielding behind their proprietors. Nor can arguments based on the freedom of the press be used as an excuse to deny freedom of expression to millions of people who have lost their jobs, suffered cuts in living standards or in essential health and education services.
    • Speech to the press (26 January 1982), quoted in The Times (27 January 1982), p. 1
  • [Journalists tell me:] "I didn't write the headline; the editor told me to say that. I will lose my job if I put it differently". But journalists were not exempted from what was happening in society. Their role could be likened to the Jews in Dachau who herded other Jews into the gas chambers.
    • Speech to the press (26 January 1982), quoted in The Times (27 January 1982), p. 1
  • It is wholly wrong to blame Marx for what was done in his name, as it is to blame Jesus for what was done in his,
    • The Benn Heresy (1982).
  • I think the SDP really is a very right-wing party. In a funny way it’s more right-wing than Mrs. Thatcher because Mrs. Thatcher is an old-fashioned liberal, if you know what I mean, she believes in market forces and small government. But my knowledge and experience of the SDP is that they believe in a centralised system, they believe in a federal Europe in which we would only be a province under Brussels, they believe in retaining the American bases, they want a statutory pay policy so they would govern the wages of everybody without proper negotiation. I think they’re a very hard right party and I think the Labour Party which has now got a decent policy as a result of all the work we’ve done is going to pick up a lot of support this year.
    • Afternoon Plus on ITN (29 January 1982)
  • I do not think we have a free press in Britain today. There is not a single newspaper that I can buy, not one in Britain that reflects my political position. And The Times, dare I say to you, is really disreputable. It does not print truthfully and faithfully what happens and it pretends, because it is printed in small print that it is above argument. But it is a political propaganda instrument like The Sun, but it is printed in rather better print and rather shrewder language.
    • Press conference in Athens (12 March 1982), quoted in The Times (13 March 1982), p. 5
  • Establishment necessarily involves a subtle corruption of the spirit of the church because it is safely embedded in the wider establishment of society, which includes the privileged and the powerful. ... How can those Christians who see monetarism being so cruelly applied to the old, the sick, the homeless, women, the black community, and the young unemployed, lead a struggle against this injustice from within an established church subject to a Cabinet and a parliamentary majority composed of those very people who are responsible for implementing those very policies?
  • The general election of 1983 has produced one important result that has passed virtually without comment in the media. It is that, for the first time since 1945, a political party with an openly socialist policy has received the support of over eight and a half million people. This is a remarkable development by any standards and it deserves some analysis … the 1983 Labour manifesto commanded the loyalty of millions of voters and a democratic socialist bridge-head in public understanding and support can be made.
    • The Guardian (20 June 1983).
  • It would be inconceivable for the House to adjourn for Easter without recording the fact that last Friday the High Court disallowed an Act which was passed by this House and the House of Lords and received Royal Assent — the Merchant Shipping Act 1988. The High Court referred the case to the European Court...I want to make it clear to the House that we are absolutely impotent unless we repeal Section 2 of the European Communities Act. It is no good talking about being a good European. We are all good Europeans; that is a matter of geography and not a matter of sentiment. Are the arrangements under which we are governed such that we have broken the link between the electorate and the laws under which they are governed? I am an old parliamentary hand — perhaps I have been here too long — but I was brought up to believe, and I still believe, that when people vote in an election they must be entitled to know that the party for which they vote, if it has a majority, will be able to enact laws under which they will be governed. That is no longer true. Any party elected, whether it is the Conservative party or the Labour party can no longer say to the electorate, "Vote for me and if I have a majority I shall pass that law", because if that law is contrary to Common Market law, British judges will apply Common Market law.


  • I have five questions that I ask people who have power, and I recommend them to the House. If I see someone who is powerful, be it a traffic warden, Rupert Murdoch, the head of a trade union or a Member of Parliament, I ask myself these five questions: "What power have you got? Where did you get it? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? How can we get rid of you?" That last question is crucial. We cannot get rid of Jacques Delors; we cannot get rid of the [European] Commission. We can get rid of a Government; but we cannot get rid of European legislation that a Government have entrenched during their period in office—be they a Labour Government with the Tories coming or the other way around.
  • The Labour party believes in the traditional values of society—in the idea that we have responsibilities one to another and that we are not just greedy all the time, looking out only for ourselves. Without being personal, the philosophy that has been propagated over the past 10 years has been wicked and set man against man, woman against woman and country against country and to build on nationalism and racism...and all the damage that has been done by the Conservatives has been disgraceful...I have a measure called the Margaret Thatcher (Global Repeal) Bill...It would be easy to reverse the policies and replace the personalities—the process has begun—but the rotten values that have been propagated from the platform of political power in Britain during the past 10 years will be an infection—a virulent strain of right-wing capitalist thinking which it will take time to overcome.
  • If democracy is destroyed in Britain it will be not the communists, Trotskyists or subversives but this House which threw it away. The rights that are entrusted to us are not for us to give away. Even if I agree with everything that is proposed, I cannot hand away powers lent to me for five years by the people of Chesterfield. I just could not do it. It would be theft of public rights.
  • Had a long talk to the Chinese First Secretary at the embassy — a very charming man called Liao Dong — and said how much I admired Mao Tse tung or Zedong, the greatest man of the twentieth century. He said that I couldn't admire Mao more than he did. I asked him how Mao was viewed now. He said Mao was 70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong; the Cultural Revolution didn't work. He said he had been named after Mao — it was amusing.
    • Journal entry for 6 June 1996 in Free at Last!: Diaries, 1991-2001 (2003) p. 371.
  • The House will forgive me for quoting five democratic questions that I have developed during my life. If one meets a powerful person—Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler—one can ask five questions: what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.
  • Having served for nearly half a century in the House of Commons, I now want more time to devote to politics and more freedom to do so.
    • Paul Waugh, "Benn retires to spend more time with his politics", The Independent, 28 June 1999, p. 5.


Multinational companies now aim to run the world... by buying both political parties in America and expecting a pay-off whichever one wins — and that is totally anti-democratic.
The danger is very great because the power is so overwhelming and the American capacity to bully, bribe and blackmail people into going along with their wars is something you mustn’t underestimate.
  • I have tried to define democracy, and worked out five criteria. If you meet a powerful person, ask them five questions: What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interest do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? How could we get rid of you?
    Because if you can’t get rid of the people who have power over you they don’t have to listen to you...
  • The United States has enough military hardware and technology to... bully, bribe and blackmail people into going along with their wars is something you mustn’t underestimate. ...The multinationals have no loyalty to the United States any more than they have any loyalty to Britain, but the way they express their interest is by buying both political parties in America and expecting a pay-off whichever one wins — and that is totally anti-democratic.
  • Well I came across Marx rather late in life actually, and when I read him, two things: first of all I realised that he'd come to the conclusion about capitalism which I'd come to much later, and I was a bit angry he'd thought of it first; and secondly, I see Marx who was an old Jew, as the last of the Old Testament Prophets, this old bearded man working in the British Library, studying capitalism, that's what 'Das Kapital' was about, it was an explanation of British capitalism. And I thought to myself, 'Well anyone could write a book like that, but what infuses, what comes out of his writing, is the passionate hostility to the injustice of capitalism. He was a Prophet, and so I put him in that category as an Old Testament Prophet.
    • Interview with John Cleary (23 February 2003).
  • My Great-grandfather was a Congregational Minister and my Mother was a Bible scholar, and I was brought up on the Bible, that the story of the Bible was conflict between the kings who had power, and the prophets who preached righteousness. And I was taught to believe in the prophets, got me into a lot of trouble. And my Dad said to me when I was young, "Dare to be a Daniel, Dare to stand alone, Dare to have a purpose firm, Dare to let it (be) known."
    • Interviewed by Kevin Zeese in 'Counterpunch', December 19, 2005.
  • [The Labour Party]'s never been a socialist party, but it's always had socialists in it, just as there are some Christians in the Church, it's an exact parallel.
    • Today Programme (10 February 2006).
  • I was born about a quarter of a mile from where we are sitting now and I was here in London during the Blitz. And every night I went down into the shelter. 500 people killed, my brother was killed, my friends were killed. And when the Charter of the UN was read to me, I was a pilot coming home in a troop ship: 'We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.' That was the pledge my generation gave to the younger generation and you tore it up. And it's a war crime that's been committed in Iraq, because there is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber. Both kill innocent people for political reasons.
    • Question Time (22 March 2007).
  • If we can find the money to kill people, we can find the money to help people.
    • Interview with Michael Moore in the movie Sicko (2007).
  • An educated, healthy and confident nation is harder to govern.
    • Interview with Michael Moore in the movie Sicko (2007).
  • I think there are two ways in which people are controlled. First of all frighten people and secondly, demoralize them.
    • Interview with Michael Moore in the movie Sicko (2007).
  • People in debt become hopeless and hopeless people don’t vote. They always say that that everyone should vote but I think that if the poor in Britain or the United States turned out and voted for people that represented their interests there would be a real democratic revolution.
    • Interview with Michael Moore in the movie Sicko (2007).
  • Choice depends on the freedom to choose and if you are shackled with debt you don’t have the freedom to choose.
    • Interview with Michael Moore in the movie Sicko (2007).
  • I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world, because if you have power you use it to meet the needs of you and your community.
    • Interview with Michael Moore in the movie Sicko (2007).
  • The way change occurs to begin with, if you come up with a good idea, like heathcare, you're ignored. If you go on you must be mad, absolutely stark-staring bonkers. If you go on after that you're dangerous. Then, if the pressure keeps up 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. That's how progress is made.
    • Interview with Michael Moore in the movie Sicko (2007) Probably derived from older version:
  • First they ignore you, then they say you're mad, then dangerous, then there's a pause and then you can't find anyone who disagrees with you.
    • The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, Robert Andrews, Columbia University Press, 1993, ISBN 0231071949, 9780231071949. A similar quotation is almost invariably attributed to Gandhi, but more likely derives from a 1914 US trade union address:
      • "And, my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you. And that, is what is going to happen to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America." General Executive Board Report and Proceedings [of The] Biennial Convention, Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, 1914. Google Books
  • When you think of the number of men in the world who hate each other, why, when two men love each other, does the church split?
  • The key to any progress is to ask the question why? All the time. Why is that child poor? Why was there a war? Why was he killed? Why is he in power? And of course questions can get you into a lot of trouble, because society is trained by those who run it, to accept what goes on. Without questions we won't make any progress at all.
    • Interview in Creating Freedom (2013).

Quotes about Benn[edit]

  • One of the twentieth century's most committed parliamentarians.
    • Adam Tomkins, "What is Parliament for?" in Bamforth N. and Leyland P. (eds.), Public Law in a Multi-Layered Constitution, Oxford, Hart, 2003, p. 53.
  • He was a very good Postmaster General, all those coloured stamps, still going well. Tony’s obsessed with shop stewards. That is why he liked planning agreements, because they would be run by shop stewards. We were having a shadow cabinet meeting and I asked for any other business. There was a deep sigh because we knew Tony would have something. And he said, I have just attended a meeting of the Bristol Aerospace workers, I think it was, and they just passed a resolution saying that they should have the right to sack the management at a week’s notice. I said, why should they have a week? Why not give them just a weekend to clear out their lockers? I have always said about Tony that he immatures with age.
  • Tony Benn is described as a politician by those who have never met him
    • Said by Gerald Kaufmann in 2002 on Have I Got News for You.

External links[edit]

Wikipedia has an article about: