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An Evening with Tony Benn

Brussels, Theatre du Residence Palace, November 12th 2002

A bare stage, a wooden screen, a plain chair with a side table. An old man sits on the chair, bright-eyed, leaning forward like the figurehead on some ancient brigantine. He gazes into the auditorium like the Ancient Mariner scanning the horizon for his albatross. Tony Benn, aged seventy-seven, is in his natural element, working an audience.

In shirt-sleeves, he sports blue braces. His tie is at half-mast. Periodically he hitches up his trouser legs and replaces elbows on knees, until by the end of the show his turn-ups are almost up to his knees, revealing vast expanses of septuagenarian shin above beige socks. Deaf he may be, but the fire and folly of his youth, his acknowledged ability to wow a crowd, are undiminished.

In the first half of the show he delivers his homily from his chair. He produces wonderful one-liners: "I'm a socialist and that's all you need to know". "People are disillusioned with democracy because they feel managed, not represented". He identifies five sources of power in the modern world: money, faith, knowledge, technology, the military. He fulminates against the power of global corporations, against privatisation, against Tony Blair and New Labour, against Thatcher.

After his bravura performance comes the interval, during which the punters queue up in front of his chair, with copies of his book purchased in the foyer, for a signature and a few kind words. The scene is curiously reminiscent of a department store Santa Claus greeting a line of starry-eyed children in his grotto.

Then, he lights his pipe ready for his favourite section of the event -- questions. Like Labour with its zippered lists, he insists on taking men and women alternately. I manage to get in first, mentioning that as an MEP I now represent, inter alia, his old constituency of Chesterfield. Remarkably, Tony has done his show in Brussels without, so far, mentioning the EU. I ask him to comment on the Convention and the proposed EU Constitution, and I ask if British parliament-ary democracy can survive the advent of the United States of Europe. A voice from the back of the hall shouts "Watch out, Tony, that's a Tory".

His answer is tantalising. He is passionately opposed to nationalism. He is not a Euro-sceptic. And yet, and yet ..... he goes on to make many of the points that I make in speeches day after day, sometimes using uncannily similar terms. The European parliament "is not a proper parliament -- it isn't able to pass laws". The EU fails the defining and fundamental test of democracy, because we the people have no power to sack our rulers.

He makes a key point that even committed Euro-sceptics frequently miss -- not only that the EU is undemocratic, but that it is incapable of being democratic. Why? Because, says Benn, a Europe of twenty-five or more nations is just far too diverse to have a common sense of identity, a common public opinion, which alone can give democratic legitimacy to majority decisions. Without a sense of shared interests, a majority vote is mere arithmetic, not democracy.

With his encyclopaedic knowledge of political history, Benn must surely know that essentially the same point was made by John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century, and by Enoch Powell in the twentieth? Perhaps he would not wish to acknowledge a debt to Enoch Powell.

He argues for a "European Commonwealth", in which members would only accept harmonisation measures that they individually agreed with. He doesn't go into much detail, but again his European Commonwealth sounds very like the Conservatives' flexible Europe of independent nation states, trading and co-operating together, and reaching other arrangements on a ad hoc basis only if and when it seems to be in their interests to do so.

Another questioner seeks, reasonably enough, to link socialism with nationalisation, but Benn will have none of it. He quaintly insists that the Church and the Army are nationalised industries, and he asserts "The Church is not socialist. The Post Office is not socialist. The Army is not socialist. The BBC is not socialist". A voice from the audience shouts "Oh yes it is!", and gets one of the best laughs of the evening. It takes me a moment to realise, to my consternation, that the voice was my own. Perhaps my brain is on auto-pilot.

Someone else asks about the possible outcome of a British referendum on the euro. Benn thinks there will be no referendum in this parliament, because Blair cannot win it. Why not? "Because the British public would relish an opportunity to vote against Tony Blair without letting IDS into Downing Street". Unkind, perhaps, but he has a point. The British people are increasingly disillusioned with Blair's failure to deliver, and might well jump at a cost-free chance to give him a bloody nose.

Tony Benn believes passionately in democracy, in social justice and prosperity, and in socialism. Yet a half-century in the House of Commons seems to have taught him nothing. We have seen every possible variant of the socialist theme tried in countries across the world, and the vital lesson is that socialism delivers neither democracy nor prosperity, and may indeed deliver the most despotic and poverty-stricken régimes imaginable.

Just about everyone in mainstream politics in Britain agrees that healthcare, for example, should be free at the point of use. That means that the government should pay for it. It does not mean that the government has to provide it. Benn is so far divorced from reality that he fails to see how our centrally planned NHS, despite the unstinting efforts of dedicated professionals, is a hang-over from the era of Soviet central planning, a system that works for itself not for the patient.

Scan the horizon as he might, Benn will not find his Albatross out there. Because it is hanging round his neck, and it is called socialism.