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