Tony Benn

“I dreamed last night that the house was covered in green slime and fungus, and I went upstairs and in the bedroom was Caroline lying on the bed, and the bed was a complete mess of papers and things. She was absolutely white, her eyes were red, and a fattish woman was cutting huge chunks of bloody meat and giving it to her to eat. I said something and the woman replied, and I said, ‘Never speak to me like that again – get out!’ And she shouted at me. There was Caroline, with all this meat around her … and I woke up and Caroline was gone. Strange!”

It may be that lurid meat-dreams like this one are a common feature of the vegetarian/vegan life – or, more generally, that dreams of misused animals are recurrent in the sleep of anyone properly alive to their sufferings in the real world. I notice, for instance, a series of such dreams in the diaries of John Ruskin, the art critic and professor who resigned his chair at Oxford University in 1885 when a vivisection laboratory was first built there. But this particular meat-dream was recorded on 2 March 2009 by a more recent Oxford alumnus, the politician Tony Benn. Those who know of his remarkable life (those for instance who have seen the stage play titled Tony’s Last Tape which has been on tour this year, or who have seen the 2014 documentary film about his life, Will and Testament) will recognize some of its characterizing elements in the dream: the huge archive of papers (and tapes) recording day by day his long political career; the big old house in Holland Park Avenue, West London, which habitually let in the rain; his devotion to his wife Caroline, whom he had married in 1948 and whose loss from cancer in 2000 the dream makes him relive, in the ruthless way dreams have (how did Freud ever suppose that dreams were wish-fulfilments?).

But yes, the meat. Tony Benn had stopped eating meat in 1970. He had been persuaded by his young son Hilary (who later became the U.K.’s first vegetarian cabinet minister instarvation-text charge of food and environment) that the crops which should have been feeding the world’s poor were being fed to cattle to produce meat for the affluent. But it wasn’t a matter only of inter-human injustice to him; it was morally shocking in itself: “I am particularly revolted by religious slaughter but the slaughter of all animals is barbaric. Why breed animals simply to kill and eat them. How is it different to killing people?”

A little background to explain Tony Benn’s thoughts about animals. Although his reputation is that of a politician and political diarist, passionately involved in some of the most acute political controversies of his time in the U.K., Tony Benn should really be classified as a moralist. Bismark’s famous and worldly saying about politics as the art of the possible would have repelled him. Politics for him was a moral cause: “Is it right or is it wrong? You can argue about it, but that is really the key question to ask.” He did not call himself a Christian, but he inherited from his devout mother at least her faith in “prophets as against kings”: that is, ideas and ideals challenging and subverting authorities and powers, just as the Old Testament prophets challenged their kings. He himself was exactly a prophet, in the sense a moral teacher and visionary. He was, accordingly, too absolute in his convictions to appeal to his party’s pragmatic kings and king-makers. A successful minister in the 1960s and 70s, Benn was at one time regarded as a probable prime minister, but in fact he never again served in government after the 1979 election.

When he finally left parliament in 2001, he explained that he wanted to devote more time to politics. It was Caroline Benn’s joke, but it was founded on a serious conviction that the House of Commons was no longer where political power resided, or where the important decisions were made. All his working life, Benn had for his purpose “the democratic reform of our savagely unjust society”. Instead, he had had to watch power migrate ever further away from the people and their representatives in the House of Commons and into the hands of financiers, media owners, unelected global agencies like the International Monetary Fund, and president-like prime ministers and their cliques.

So, more and more, Benn came to trust only the radical and unmediated expressions of democracy. He told a ‘Stop the War’ rally in Trafalgar Square, “Parliament belongs to the past; the streets belong to the future.” (“They really liked that”, he adds in his diary.) He loved the annual Durham Miners’ Gala, with its brass bands, embroidered banners (at least two of them picturing Tony Benn himself), and vehement political speeches, all indeed there on the streets: “It’s a tremendously moral event really.” Latterly he was a regular speaker at the Glastonbury Festival: “Glastonbury’s always fantastic … it’s really the recreation of the old folk-festival atmosphere, so I love going.” He admired these radical scenes not as something nostalgic or touching, though they did move him very much, but as confirmations and promises of what he believed: “everything comes from underneath”. They were his hope for the future.

Therefore the following scene, recorded in Tony Benn’s diary, was wholly characteristic. In June of 2007 he was attending former American president Jimmy Carter’s honorary degree ceremony in the grand Sheldonian building in Oxford (elaborate robes, the Chancellor reading the award in Latin, etc.: “institutions love all that ceremonial stuff”). At that time, the University was in the middle of building its new vivisection laboratory, and outside the Sheldonian could be heard, as habitually at the such events, “a lot of animal-rights protesters shouting”. The University had been doing all it could, with limited success, to prevent these protests against the laboratory, or at least to move them to more manageable times and places; its recourse meanwhile was to pretend they weren’t there. Of course Tony Benn would have nothing to do with that: “when it was all over, I thought I’d go and have a word with the animal-rights protesters. I walked up and down and shook hands with quite a few of them …” From ex-presidents and other establishment tony-benn-at-demodignitaries congratulating each other, then, he came out into the street among the placards and passions – the “underneath” from which the future must come – and showed his approval publicly with that most egalitarian of ceremonies, the hand-shake. A photograph of the occasion catches him at no loss for words or commitment.

Vivisection had dismayed Tony Benn since early childhood. During family walks in London, he had seen one of those window-displays which were a feature of earlier anti-vivisection campaigns, showing a model monkey among gruesome equipment (a street-show again). When Oxford University began to build its new laboratory, and the controversy was at its height, he chaired a debate on the subject, doing his best as chairman to redress the imbalance of rank and numbers, there in the University, against the dissenting side. He was a patron of Voice for Ethical Research at Oxford, and when the laboratory was formally opened, he helped publicize VERO’s objection by joining us at Nuffield College, and speaking to the press: “Vero is one of the courageous organisations challenging outdated orthodoxy.” tony-benn-with-othersFor him, again, it was a matter of morality: as he asked  the science-publicist Richard Dawkins, during a television discussion at about this same time, “where is your moral teaching in science?”    

Tony Benn was (notoriously to some) a socialist. There may well be other political philosophies capable of accommodating the interests of animals: let’s hope there are many. (I see there’s an argument about this in the web-pages of the new online forum called Animal Justice Currents.) But more essentially Benn was a radical democrat, restlessly arguing for political powers to be passed downwards to the people – or more plausibly, as we’ve noticed, for the people to reach upward and take them (take them back, as he would have said). Perhaps he romanticized ‘the people’. Certainly he was a romantic, but then prophets have to be: “All real progress throughout history has been made by those who did find it possible to lift themselves above the hardship of the present and see beyond it to an ideal world.”

In recent years, Tony Benn became less of the public bogeyman which he had been, at least for cropped-tony-benn-17-11-08-img_3737the right-wing press, in the 1970s and 80s (“The most dangerous man in Britain?” asked the Sun newspaper). Now instead he was sometimes called, rather patronizingly, a ‘national treasure’. He was bemused by this, but quite unassimilated: “To my surprise and delight I am rediscovering idealism as I enter my eighty-fifth year.”

Animals were increasingly a part of this latter idealism. They can, after all, be viewed politically as the most ancient of the ‘folk’, battered and dispossessed even more ruthlessly than the rest of their kind by capitalist modernity. Watching his garden birds taking their immemorial part in the common pursuit of food and security, Benn indeed felt them to be “a scaled down version of humanity” (a ‘more modest’ or ‘less rapacious’ version might say it better). And since they can have no money and no votes of their own, one must suppose that the only kind of democracy which will adequately provide for the lives and interests of the non-human animals is exactly the folk-minded kind which Tony Benn prized: one that seeks the common good not primarily through the spread of individual affluence and consumerist power, urged and promised by vote-seeking politicians at successive elections, but rather by promoting the sense of mutuality and life-solidarity. As the banners at the 2008 Durham Gala declared, while the 83-year old Tony Benn stood watching them pass by from his hotel balcony (“there were moments when I was in tears”): “Fellowship is Life”, “Fellowship is All”. Yes, there’s surely a place in that scheme for all of us, human and other.

 

References:

Tony Benn’s comments on animal slaughter come from an interview he gave to Tony Wardle for Viva!LIFE (issue 31, Spring 2006).

The phrase about democratic reform, and what Benn says about progress through idealism and about his own renewed idealism, are taken from The Best of Benn, ed. Ruth Winstone, Arrow Books 2014, pp.73 and 323-4.

“Is it right or is it wrong?” and “prophets as against kings” come from the rather oddly titled but excellent Skip Kite film about Tony Benn, titled Will and Testament and released in 2014.

Other quotations are from The Last Diaries: a Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, ed. Ruth Winstone, Hutchinson, 2013: the meat dream from p.225, the Stop the War rally p.109, Durham Gala p.150, Glastonbury p.18, his question to Dawkins p.162, and the Oxford degree ceremony, where he talked with members of the SPEAK campaign, p.15.

Other material comes from a talk given for Animal Aid in December 2007 and from personal conversations. The discussion in Animal Justice Currents can be read at http://www.animalliberationcurrents.com/2016/11/06/socialism-and-animal-liberation-a-necessary-synthesis/#more-681

The photograph of Tony Benn at the demonstration is kindly provided by SPEAK campaigns. The other photographs are by Paul Freestone.

 

Advertisements

For not quite all of the Fallen

Next Sunday, November 13th, a few hours after the remembrance services have ended in Whitehall and elsewhere in the UK and far beyond, a service for the other war-dead will take place at the Animals in War Memorial in Park Lane. The Memorial was designed by the sculptor David Backhouse, and built there in 2004. Its commissioning and making blog memorialwere a notable achievement, giving permanent and very public recognition for the first time to the part which animals have been made to play in human wars.

In letters cut into its pale Portland stone, the Memorial declares, “This monument is dedicated to all the animals that served and died alongside British and Allied forces in wars and campaigns throughout time. Officially, therefore, it remembers only the animals who sided with ‘us’, rather than all the animals who have anywhere been forced, tricked, or otherwise induced to risk their lives in war-efforts. In this respect, perhaps disappointingly, it’s a very traditional war memorial, rather than (like the Brown Dog statue shown in the post for 7 August 2015) a statement of dissent.

But at least it doesn’t glorify or sentimentalize its subject. The suffering of the animals, and their preference for freedom, are plainly shown: burdened, crowded, unnaturally jumbled as to species like the ruin of Noah’s Ark which war indeed makes of them, they war_horse_bannerpress towards a gap in the curving stone stockade, and out into the freedom of the grass and trees beyond – a freedom actually reached and enjoyed by a great bronze horse and dog. And any disingenuousness in that word “served” is properly corrected by the brief but eloquent sentence cut into the stone by itself at the far right: “They had no choice.”

Better still would have been ‘They have no choice’, reminding the visitor to this monument that ‘they’ are not simply history, but have a countless posterity today and to come. Perhaps in fact this memorial does have too much of a historical – specifically a First World War – feel about it. But then that was the war in which animals have been most visibly used: not just the ubiquitous horses but, as the Memorial shows, mules, dsc04737camels, goats, dogs, cats, pigeons, even elephants. But yes, horses most visibly and numerously of all. Hence that cry of distress in a letter written by the composer Edward Elgar as early as 25 August 1914: “Concerning the war I say nothing – the only thing that wrings my heart and soul is the thought of the horses – oh! my beloved animals … Oh, my horses.”

And that too was the war which set the style for modernity in battle, where humans and animals would be only the perishable element in a contest largely to be characterized and determined by science and machinery. And here the setting of the Memorial is uncomfortably apt: not a pastoral or even a tolerably quiet scene, but Park Lane’s contribution to carmageddon, vehicles crowding past on either side (the Memorial is in between the two carriage-ways), suggesting in their roar and stink that peace, in a consumerist society, is only the continuation of war by other means.

There is one aspect of that war, however, about which the memorial says nothing. It was the First World War, specifically its science front, which enlisted animals into a wholly new variety of war work: weapons research, which for the UK began in 1916 at Porton Down with the study of poison gas.

This is the least glorious and photogenic of all types of animal ‘war service’, lacking any scope for the mutual affection and loyalty suggested in that telling word “alongside” in the text of the Memorial, and unlikely to earn any animal the PDSA’s Dickin Medal inscribed “For Gallantry (we also serve)”. All the more reason to give it this much recognition, a place among the representations here in Park Lane. But most unfortunately no such place is made for it. There are no images of monkeys to recall, for instance, their service to ‘allied forces’ on the hellish Primate Equilibrium Platforms at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas, or their continuing service at Porton Down testing the fatal effects of biological agents. There are no dolphins or whales to memorialize the ways in which their kind have served in cruel and unnatural trials at the Kaneohe Bay Naval Undersea Centre near Pearl Harbour. (It was about these last experiments that the marine biologist Jacques Cousteau commented, “No sooner does man discover intelligence, than he tries to involve it in his own stupidity.”)

Nor are there any pigs shown on the Memorial, to record the service of their species in the training of British military surgeons. The gruesome nature of that service, and its needlessness, were the subject of an open letter addressed to the Ministry of Defence a while ago by a group of vets led by VERO’s science advisor André Ménache. It has been taking place for some years mainly at Jaegerspris, Denmark: courtesy, then, of other ‘allied forces’, though a Ministry of Defence enterprise. Until recently, it was code-named ‘Exercise Danish Bacon’, a helpful insight into the Porton Down mentality.

The exigencies of battle may impose cruel demands upon the animals innocently induced to take part. The Park Lane Memorial records something of those demands with proper sadness and respect, if without explicit protest. But fear of war is an even more pitiless taskmaster. One witness speaking on behalf of Porton Down to a House of Lords committee a few years ago said, of the possibility that pneumonic plague might be used as an infective agent against us in war, “For an agent like that, there is virtually no price not worth paying to get an effective antidote.” He meant, of course, ‘not worth their paying’. The familiar mixture of cowardice and ruthlessness in that attitude – qualities so antithetical to the conduct of war as we prefer to remember it in our memorials – perhaps provides an explanation of why this aspect of animals’ war-work was omitted in Park Lane. It’s simply too ignoble to be willingly remembered.

 

Note and references:

‘For the Fallen’ is the title of Laurence Binyon’s famous poem about remembrance (“At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember them.”)

Edward Elgar’s letter (“Concerning the war …”) is quoted by Andrew Neill in ‘The Great War: Elgar and the Creative challenge’, The Elgar Journal, vol.11 no.1, March 1999, pp.9-41 (at p.12).

The Dickin Medal was instituted in 1943 by the founder of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, Maria Dickin. The first recipients of it were three pigeons.  

The experiments using the Primate Equilibrium Platform are described in Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (Pimlico Books, 1995) pp.25-29, and those at Kaneohe Bay in Richard Ryder, Victims of Science (Poynter Davis, 1975) pp.79-80, where also Jacques Cousteau is quoted.

Because weapons research is especially secretive, up-to-date instances are not easily available, but an example of the use to which Porton Down’s colony of marmoset monkeys is presently being put can be read here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/iep.12161/full.

The open letter to the Ministry of Defence was reported in the Daily Mail for 6 May 2014: a link to the article can be found on the VERO web-site under that date (see www.vero.org.uk/press.asp ).

The quotation “For an agent like that …” comes from evidence given by Dr Lewis Moonie, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, to the Lords’ Select Committee on Animals in Scientific Procedures, April 2002.

This post is a revised version of the one posted on 4 November last year.