Tony Benn on the Middle East

Tony Benn is wearing a sharp black suit with a blue shirt. The beard, he says, is because he’s given up on shaving. His appearance suits his personality: refined, wise with a flare of rebelliousness.

From an armchair in his West London flat he explains that growing up in a political family meant Middle Eastern issues were often discussed at home. But many of his views on the region are derived from personal experience.

Serving in Egypt during Britain’s colonial days meant he witnessed the cruel effects of the empire.

“I saw the imperial power and it was pretty crude and brutal and so I became very much involved in the anti-colonial movement throughout the whole of Africa and the Middle East” he says.

We meet amidst the escalating crisis in Egypt in which the army and security forces have launched a series of violent, deadly attacks on pro-Morsi demonstrators. Supporters of the ousted President Mohammed Morsi have been protesting for days, demanding his reinstatement.

“It’s another use of military force in this case Egyptian military force” says Benn, “and it does set back the Arab Spring very much because it looked as if there was a chance of democracy in Egypt and as soon as it went the way the military didn’t want they toppled it. Therefore there will have to be some resolution of that.”

“I imagine now that the Egyptian people see what the military are up to there will be a growing support for Mohammed Morsi” he adds.

Since the President’s ouster many in America and Britain have refused to label the military take-over a coup. According to Benn, this is part of the “old imperial world in which things you do are alright and things that other people do you just take into account.”

“I suppose there must be a lot of military links between the Egyptian military and the American military and therefore they said well leave it to us, we’ll handle it, and we’re fighting there and extremism and so on and trying to win support for what they did. But I think it will be a difficult thing to conquer Egypt in the way they’ve planned to do it, I think they will be in serious difficulties.”

A Labour Party politician for 50 years, Benn is now President of Stop the War Coalition. Established in 2001, the group campaigns against unjust conflicts, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been launched in the name of the war on terror.

It was Stop the War – along with Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Muslim Association of Britain – who called for Britain’s biggest ever political protest in 2003, where hundreds of thousands took to the streets of London to oppose the war in Iraq.

“I was always opposed to war” he replies when I ask him how he became involved with the group. “I was opposed to the Second World War, I lost a brother and many of my friends were killed. I’ve always been very much a peace movement man.”

“I think the way we’re seen in the world is representatives of the old Victorian imperialism, and believe that God gave us the right to tell everybody else how to govern themselves. Well America does it now but we’re very much a part of that scene yes.”

The danger now, says Benn, is which wars will come along next. There has already been one in Libya, and then there is Syria. “The Stop the War movement will always be there, it will be a very powerful movement” he adds.

The ideal role Britain could play in Syria now is to try and bring about a settlement, “but not to intervene military, that’s the main thing” says Benn pulling a black pouch filled with tobacco out of his pocket.

“I think the danger of getting sucked in to a civil war in Syria is something you can’t overestimate so the question is whether we have any influence of working with others to bring about a negotiated settlement.”

Earlier in the interview, Benn had pointed out that he has a great interest in the Arab Israeli conflict.

Back in 2009 the BBC banned the broadcast of an appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee, who were raising money for aid relief and reconstruction for Gaza. They said it affected their impartiality.

But Benn appeared on the BBC and read the ‘forbidden’ address of where to send money to live on air anyway, despite the protestations of the presenter. The station were “capitulating to the Israeli government” said Benn.

Before he started his career in politics Benn held a junior position at the BBC North America service. “I was always aware that the government played a huge role in the development of the BBC” he tells me.

“And that particular example of refusing to allow details to be broadcast about the Gaza appeal was so clear an example that I got onto the BBC and refused to stop quoting the figures myself of the appeal and it was obvious that the Israelis had played a part I think in shifting the British BBC opinion with the support, I think, of the British government.”

He pauses, hooks his pipe in his mouth, lights the end and pulls through the smoke.

“The question is what influence the British government might be having on the American government. It wouldn’t be a decisive influence, but it would be a factor the Americans would take into account if they thought they were alienating Britain.”

He uses the Vietnam War as an example. George W. Bush realised he couldn’t cope without the support of Britain, which is why Blair gave the assurance that if he went to war with Iraq Britain would be with him; “fighting a war on your own is a very difficult thing to do nowadays” he says.

“I think the Americans would not have dared fight Iraq without British support and similarly they’re very keen to get us in to whatever is done about Syria or Egypt or the Middle East generally.”

“It was very courageous of Wilson to oppose the Vietnam War,” he continues “I remember him telling the cabinet about the arguments he had with the Americans.” Benn recounts a dinner at the Whitehouse where Lyndon Johnson, President at the time, welcomed Wilson as “our closest dissociate.”

Within political circles, standing up against the Israeli denial of human rights for the Palestinians can also present its own obstacles.

“Well if you come up with an idea like that, which I think is an important one, to begin with you’ll be ignored then if you go on they’ll say you’re mad. Then if you go on after that they’ll say you’re dangerous. Then they’ll be a pause. Then you’ll find you’ve won the argument. That’s how change occurs. And in the end everyone agrees with what you’ve said” says Benn.

A prominent charge has been that of anti-Semitism, which is often levelled at those critical of Israel. “It’s a ploy” says Benn. “It isn’t a very credible ploy, but it’s a ploy they use to frighten people into silence. But if you’re going to make a change you’ve got to be prepared to stand the risk of your view being misinterpreted and that’s part of the price you pay for standing up for what you believe in.”

If we come to accept the view that the Israeli denial of human rights for the Palestinians is such an abuse, we will have an influence on the United States, France and elsewhere, says Benn, and gradually the Israeli government will realise that there’s no future for itself if it pursues this line of policy.

He brings up the boycott movement; an example of an effective weapon through which Israel would be adversely affected if it grew in strength. I think it’s been noticed in Israel, says Benn. “Israel feels its advantages through the world economy and promoting its interests are threatened by the boycott movement.”

Still, there is a long way to go. Last week the Israeli government announced that it will build over 1,000 new settlements homes in the occupied territories, despite the fact that they are illegal under international law. Often such acts are condemned publicly, but continue to take place.

“Well that’s really where Obama’s been a disappointment because he’s made hopeful speeches but he hasn’t done what America and only America can do, which is simply to put a veto on that type of Israeli policy” says Benn.

When President Obama started out he was much more popular than he is now, with promises, for example, to close Guantanamo Bay. But four years later the prison – in which scores of detainees are held without trial or evidence and are force fed when they embark on hunger strike – is still open.

“It’s a characteristic of progressive people that they come out with a bold idea which captures public imagination and gets them into power and then they don’t do it. And then you can be very cynical about it or say well we’ve got to give a bit more of a push. I mean that is a problem not just in America but in Britain. Labour governments have disappointed people, and that’s the case for maintaining the pressure.”

“I’m not in favour of being cynical” he adds as an afterthought. “But at the same time it’s very tempting to be cynical about people who get elected on a promise and then don’t realise the hopes they’ve raised.”

Compared to Bush though, “Obama was a great asset” says Benn. “I’m glad he was re-elected for a second term. But he’s a machine man and his history is as a machine politician. Not as a great reform figure.”

Since he took office, Obama has pursued a policy of targeted drone strikes against suspected ‘terrorists’ in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, which has killed thousands of civilians. “The use of language is so important because every drone strike is a terrorist attack if you use the language properly. You kill people you’ve never heard of and couldn’t know their connection and it is a terror strike” says Benn.

But there is still room to be optimistic.

“If you look at history and see how many times active campaigns have been successful then what you are saying to people is never give up the belief that you can win because we have won – we’ve defeated slavery, got votes for women, trade unions and so on – and these have all been the products of campaigns that have been fought with courage by imaginative people and if they can do it, we can do it. I think pessimism is an instrument of the right. The right say, you’ll never win, don’t try, everyone’s the same. They spread cynicism and pessimism and I think that is something you have to watch out for very carefully. So I’m an optimist against that type of pessimism.”

Benn is currently working on a film, Will & Testament, about his political life and his work for Stop the War Coalition.

Tony Benn was Member of Parliament for 50 years. He was a Cabinet Minister under Prime Minister Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. He is now President of Stop the War Coalition.

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Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Interviews