“Nothing is true, everything is permitted”
Recovering from being down for a couple of days with a stomach bug, or massive sinus/allergies. Hard to tell the diff… A different entry today, including a speech from Tony Benn, one of my favourite Labour Party Members.
Some new music from Sophie and Ives…
And Art and Poetry from William Blake (a hero, a true star!)
We have moved into October, a wonderful time of the year. I love the changes, but I feel the grief of summer passing… ah.
On The Menu:
Sophie & Ives
TONY BENN ON SLAVERY, RELIGION AND JUSTICE
The Poetry Of William Blake
Sophie & Ives – Clouds
Sophie & Ives – Awaken
TONY BENN ON SLAVERY, RELIGION AND JUSTICE
Tony Benns talk at the Victoria & Albert museum, May 2007
Thank you very much indeed for inviting me. May I just begin by describing how my interest in the abolition of slavery began? I learned to fly during the war in Zimbabwe, they sent RAF pilots there because it was safer than learning to fly there, than in Britain where you might be shot down.
When Zimbabwe was an English colony, Rhodesia, not a single black was allowed to vote. Cecil Rhodes was shown a land in the 1890s and seized all the land, handed it to the white farmers and in 1937, Southern Rhodesia, and laws of assembly, made it a criminal offence for an African to have a skilled job. So that interested me in the African cause and all my life Ive worked with all the people that were involved in it.
And Ive been interested in all the people we locked up. I met Gandhi once, we locked him up; I met Nehru, he was locked up, Mandela was locked up. I think Nicoma was locked up, certainly Kenneth Kaunda from Zambia was locked up, we locked up Nkrumah, and all the people we locked up ended their lives having tea with the Queen as head of Commonwealth countries. And so historical perspective helps a little bit.
Then I became a Member of Parliament for Bristol and, of course, Bristol was one of the great slave cities and the interesting thing about going to Bristol was it wasnt discussable, oh no you couldnt talk about slavery, they had all the statues of the benefactors, huge statues, whod given money to churches and schools, who made all their money out of the slave trade. There was a very bright, black Bristolian called Paul Stevenson who led a boycott because they wouldnt let blacks drive the buses and now hes persuaded Bristol to have a Museum of Slavery and theyre coming to terms with whats happened, and its quite a difficult thing because you dont like finding you did the awful things, that you always assumed foreigners did [laughter].
And, of course, you musnt think its so very long ago because I knew the son of a slave, his name will be familiar to you – Paul Robeson, he came to London in 1958, gave him tea at the House of Commons with my dad. Hed had his passport taken away because he was supporting the colonial freedom movement, so its living issue, its not just the past and I think thats worth remembering. Then the other thing too, is to look at Wilberforce.
Now Wilberforce very interesting man, he was a Conservative, he supported Pitt, he voted for the Combination Act which made it a criminal offence for more than three people to get together to call for a trade union or political reform, and then he became a Christian and he was stirred by the injustice of it and campaigned, and thats what were celebrating this year, the abolition of the slave trade. And, might I add, not the abolition of slavery, dont think that Wilberforce brought about the abolition of slavery but only the slave trade.
And the funny thing is somebody sent me a leading article from The Economist the other day about the slave trade. Now as you know The Economist is a very responsible newspaper that everybody should read [laughter] and what it said was this – this is an edition from 1848, two years before my grandfather was born. The Economist said you cant abolish the slave trade, cause there are all these ignorant blacks in Africa with nothing whatever to do and theyre needed on the plantations of America, so said The Economist, you should regulate the slave trade. And I thought of an organisation called Ofslave, headed by Chris Woodhead which would name and shame slave ships where the sanitary arrangements fell below acceptable standards.
But I mention it all because, you see, we are a bit Anglo oriented. Ten million Africans were shipped, ten million of them, many died on the way, were thrown overboard and we now claim the credit for ending it. I think that the denial of the role of the Africans themselves in ending the slave trade is something we really do have to take much more seriously. All sorts of people supported the slave trade, of course, at one time the churches thought the slave trade could be justified because the Africans could be converted to Christianity when they were slaves. It was interesting idea: you imprison them and then you persuade them that Jesus brought a message of love, but they were still slaves.
The other thing that interests me about Wilberforce and the slave trade was when slavery was abolished, which was a bit later, the Government compensated the slave owners but not the slaves. So if youd had slaves like some bishops had, you got money from the Government for giving up your slave but the guys whod been slaves got absolutely nothing at all.
It is, of course, a very old tradition, slaverys as old as history because rich and powerful people, land owners, owned the land and they owned the workers on the land. The brutality of it was horrific, slaves who escaped were crucified. Slaves who had been made slaves were branded with the name of their owner and, and when you bring it right up to date, because you have to, there are – according to the definition of slavery, which is that you lose the right to control your own life – there are 27 million slaves, still many of them, of course, women bought and trafficked. And that is part of the slave trade, and all sorts of bondage and indebtedness makes you a slave.
But just to come back for a moment to the question of how it ended. There were strikes by slaves in British colonies. In the 1730s, the 1760s, 1780s and the 1800s. When we talk about the role of Wilberforce – now Im not belittling him in anyway because he was dedicated man who fought a wonderful parliamentary campaign. But in the 1780s, 27 years before that, the northern states in the United States abolished slavery. In 1787, as youve heard, there was the first British campaign against slavery, the Danes banished the slave trade in 1792, in 1794, after the French revolution, the revolutionary French abolished slavery and Haiti in 1804 was liberated by slaves, they just went against their owners and took over the country and liberated it from the slave trade. And so thats the background against which you have to look at the achievements of Wilberforce, and I dont belittle him at all. But you mustnt think that every good thing comes from our race because we have been responsible for some of the things we now claim to have abolished.
The other thing to remember is this, it wasnt just the black slaves, we sold white slaves to Ireland. We took convicted people and criminals and so on, and we shipped them off to Ireland as slaves. When Michael Manley, the Prime Minister of Jamaica, whom I knew very well, came to London I was asked to introduce him, which I did, and I gave a lot of examples of the slave trade and he said to me afterwards, Id like you to tell me more about this because I got a museum of slavery in Jamaica on black slavery. And I said, Oh Michael that wasnt black slavery, that was slavery in Britain and Medieval times of slavery. And so you have to think of slavery as being broader than colour though, of course, its identified very largely, very largely in those terms. It was therefore an economic phenomenon, not just phenomenon of lack of political democracy. And remember this, that Africa, which is still rich in gold and copper and oil, was conquered for economic reasons. Indeed Bush is now following it out with his own version of the empire, he goes to the Middle East cause he wanted oil, and thats quite straight forward.
Sir John Boyd-Orr a very, very famous Nobel prize winner, once said most empires conquer for physical resources, and that was why we went there. And theres a very interesting aspect of this that links to the movement Make Poverty History. I think they asked the wrong question, they always say why are the poor poo
r? Right question to ask is why are the rich rich? This, well you come to totally different conclusions, cause the rich are rich cause they live off the backs of the poor and if that sounds very controversial to you, Adam Smith said the rich are the pensioners of the poor, the rich live off the backs of the poor, so its not just a racial, its a class, in the economic sense, a class issue, and has always been that.
In this country, I come back to the Combination Act which made trade unionism illegal. Until 1834, it was illegal for people to form a union and if you were a worker in on a farm in Britain, the land owner owned the land, and he also owned the cottage. If you went to him and said, I cant live on the money, youre treating me badly. hed get you off the farm and pinch your cottage, so you were homeless and poor. So they thought if we get together we might be able to solve it and, of course, trade unionism was illegal. So when the unions tried to be formed they were sent to Australia as convicts.
Ive got an American friend whos just been in Australia and I said, How did you get on? Oh Tony, he said, the Ozs were great but by God, he said, theyre really tough. Said, What do you mean? Well, he said, when I applied for a visa they asked me if I had any previous convictions and I said no, is it still required?
So, you see, it all comes together its all part of a bigger picture and this is what happens whenever you take an issue, it seems very narrow, you suddenly find it explodes into a million other issues which are equally interesting and important.
Now the other thing that interests me very much is the role of religion in all this, and I know the question am I my brothers keeper has been raised. On the internet, from which, I get a lot of very useful information, I got the other day a summary of what all the religions of the world say. The Judaism, what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow men, that is the entire law, all the rest is commentary. Then Christianity, all things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do even so to them. Mohammed, where are we, yes, no one of you is a believer until he desires to his brother what he desires for himself. And the same with Brahmans, the same with Buddhists, the same with the Confucians, and thats also whats on every trade union banner, an injury to one is an injury to all.
So you can see it all coming together as a recognition that you cannot build a society on other than on a moral basis. And that I find very, very interesting because nowadays, you see, religion is being used as a way of dividing us, you only have to look at whats said now about Islam and the use of God. Bush said God told him to go to Iraq, I didnt know God worked in the White House, but apparently he did, and then they say Moses went up Mount Siani and got Palestine allocated to the Jews, I didnt know God was an estate agent. But the way in which you use religion to justify your power is a tremendously important question.
If you now look at it in a cultural sense, all the religions apart from people who control them, all the religions are part of our culture. I was brought up as a Christian and when I go to church I like the churches, I like seeing bishops in funny outfits. I sing hymns like onward Christian soldiers marching as to war with the cross of Jesus going on before,
Now if anyone sang onward Muslim soldiers going as to war with Mohammeds banner going ., theyd all be locked up at once by John Reid and so you have to recognise that there is, in every religion, a culture. Theres nothing whatsoever in the culture of religion to divide one from another. The people Im nervous of are the people who use religion to get control of us, and that is the difference.
I mentioned that I was bought up as a Christian, my mother taught me that the story in the bible was the story of the conflict between the kings who had power and the prophets who preached riotousness, and she taught me to support the prophets against the kings. Its got me into a lot of trouble in my life but it explained so much. Because its one thing to be told love your neighbours as yourself, its another thing to be told be a bishop, If you dont do what I tell you, you will rot in hell.
Using religion to get control of people is an abuse, I think, of religious teaching and to rediscover Moses and Jesus, Carpenter – of Nazareth and Mohammed, rediscover what they were saying gives you some opportunity to learn how to live your life in peace, but it has to relate to the present. You cant just have some dream of the future because in the old days you went to a bishop and you said, Bishop its a very unfair world. And the bishop would say, I know my child, but if only the rich were kind and the poor are patient, we shall all be rewarded in heaven. And people said, Thats wonderful news bishop, but could we possibly have it while were still alive? And out of that came a political movement, where heaven on earth is what people want.
And so that is a conflict and thats why I think the use of religion for political purposes is such a desperately dangerous thing to do and it goes on all the time. One of the ways in which you control people of course is to frighten them, divide them and demoralise them and those are instruments of control that have been used from the time the slavery right through to the present time. And so then you say, well what did this lead to?
And, of course, it led to a demand for justice. When I look back is in every period of history, two flames have always been burning in the human heart, the flame of anger against injustice and the flame of hope that you can build a better world and those two flames are really material by which we make progress and to understand that is very, very important, because if you dont have some aspiration then you find yourself in a position, which I think about most of the time now – and that is how the human race is going to cope with its problems.
We live in a very remarkable period, quite unlike any other in history, when the human race has the capacity to destroy itself, and you can kill one man with a spear, a few more with a bayonet, one or two with a machine gun or a plane, but with chemical, nuclear and biological weapons it is possible to destroy the human race, that has never, ever been true before.
But its also the first generation in history which has the technology and the know-how and the money to solve the problems of the human race. And thats where you really come right into the contemporary political scene, because a fraction of the cost of the war now would see that everyone in Africa with Aids would have free drugs. A fraction of the cost of the war would see everyone in America has a health service, would protect New Orleans from the Katrina Hurricane and that is the choice.
So the question then you have to ask yourself is, well how do you change the situation? Cause there are only three interesting questions in politics, whats going on? Which is not always easy to find out, why is it going on? Which is harder to find out and the third question is, what are you going to do about it? And if you look at the way in which it all developed, it developed really with the greatest revolution of all, far more revolutionary than the French or Russian or American revolution, it was the revolution of democracy and the reason.
I mention it is because throughout the 19th Century a huge change in power occurred, in the olden days all the power was in the hands of the rich and if you were rich you didnt need a school, you hired tutors, you didnt have a mortgage from a local authority for your castle because you owned it, you didnt have to bother about anything else, if you were ill you hired a doctor, when you were old you were okay, you were never unemployed because you never did any work anyway, and that was the basis of society and what happened
during the 19th Century explains everything, I think, including the national independence movements.
Power, when people had the vote power was transferred from the people with money to the people who didnt have money. In 1837 when the Birmingham Corporation became law the people of Birmingham, or some of them anyway, had the vote, so how did they use the vote? They used to the vote to buy with their vote what they couldnt afford personally, municipal hospitals, municipal schools, municipal fire brigade, municipal museums, municipal art gallery and what democracy did was to transfer power from the market place to the polling station, from the wallet to the ballot.
What then happened was the whole prospect changed, thats how the welfare state came about, of course, in the end, the idea of a national health service, idea of state education, the idea, even, of a fire brigade, in the olden days there was no fire brigade, you, you, you insured your own house was an insurance company. So if your neighbours house burned down they didnt bother to put that out cause he wasnt insured and that would obviously threaten your house and this idea of, of welfare, which is looked down on in mockery, is on the basis that actually the interest of all of us are in the interests of all of us.
If you meet a diseased person your health is threatened, if you work with an uneducated person your work is threatened and so the recognition of the common interests we have in survival and prosperity was a product of democracy, and nobody really likes democracy very much, nobody in power likes democracy very much. I mean, Hitler didnt like it, Stalin didnt like it, the Pope doesnt allow the clergy to elect the Pope, its all done by shares of cardinals whom he appoints. I cant say I find all that much enthusiasm for democracy even in a capitalist society of where the market is everything, because the thing about having a market society is that you dont have systems, you only have consumers. Now to be a consumer you have to have some money, I mean homeless people in the streets of London need homes more than anybody else but as they cant afford them theyre not consumers, and the language used to belittle collective activity is very noticeable.
Now when I look again at the future I think of whats called cultural diversity, when I was born it was terribly boring, everybody, they were all white, they had fish and chips, they watched cricket, a little bit of ballroom dancing, and now weve got such a fantastic cultural diversity in Britain. Two of my granddaughters are at a primary school in London with 77 nationalities in the school and a refugee centre in the school, so when I go and talk at the school its like addressing a meeting of the General Assembly [of the United Nations]. My granddaughters have got Russian friends, American friends, Malaysian friends, West Indian, for them thats normal, that is the world we live in. Its complete generational change because I think younger people understand it, very often, much, much better than older people who were brought up in a different tradition.
Thats really what we have to try and, and utilise, which is why I think the internet is very, very valuable because you get access to things which you wouldnt necessarily find described in The Sun or The Mail and the information you get allows you to reach a judgement of your own which is independent and probably puts you in the category of the prophets against the king. So I warn you dont use the internet too loosely or youll be in trouble yourself.
I mentioned the trade unions and apartheid. I spoke in Trafalgar Square in 1964 in support of a very, very well known terrorist and I got denounced in the tabloids, I didnt meet him for a bit, next time I met him he had an Nobel peace prize and was president of South Africa. Well look at the suffragettes who were locked up for just wanting votes for women.
The way I think progress occurs, you see, is this: to begin with is youve got a sensible idea like abolishing slavery or votes for women or trade unions or end apartheid, and they ignore you. Then if you go on youre stark staring bonkers, Ive had a touch of that myself, then if you go on after that youre dangerous, then theres a pause and then you cant find anyone at the top who doesnt claim to have thought of it in the first place – and that is how progress is made.
Its made by movements, by people who understand the world, who feel a sense of commonality with other people and say, Why dont we get together and do it ourselves. In order for that to succeed you need to have encouragement and I think encouragement is the most important quality in political leadership, because they do try, all the time, to put you down. I dont know what you feel but the league tables in schools, this idea that a school has failed, well I know schools have problems, but a school has failed.
I went the other day to a failed school, they were utterly demoralised and I had an example of it myself which I might mention. I went to the Labour conference 18 months ago and the Prime Minister made a speech which I listened to and I got up to go to the loo and I collapsed, and I was taken to the Brighton hospital and given a pacemaker. I had a letter from the Prime Minister saying hope my speech didnt cause it and I was too polite to reply.
The interesting thing was this, when I left I discovered that was the worst hospital in Britain under the league tables. Well what if youre the nurse or a sister or a doctor or porter, what do you make of it if youre told you work in the worst hospital in Britain?
People want encouragement and thats what they dont always want to give you, but if we encourage each other, my God theres nothing you cannot do. And so thats how the slave trade really ended, people got together and saw the truth and realised were brothers and sisters and then we made an advance.
But one final warning, every generation has to do it for themselves again, there is no railway station called justice that if you catch the right train you get there, every generation has to fight for their rights because rights are taken away. They concede what they have to, and then when the pressures off, they try and recapture the territory theyve lost. So its an ongoing struggle and at my age, Im 82 now, (and its wonderful, if Id known what fun it was to be 80 Id have done it years ago) because you have a bit of experience and you dont want anything. And when I speak, as I do tonight to you, I say you can relax, I am not asking you to vote for me and theres a great sigh of relief and people saying, Well if he doesnt want anything we may as well listen to him. So that is really the function of the old, I think its to encourage people and understand. So thank you for asking me and I do hope we have some questions, and as Im a bit deaf [to V&A staff] youre going to tell me what the questions are otherwise youll all say typical politician he doesnt answer the questions. Thank you very much.
The Poetry Of William Blake
Ah, Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done:
Where the Youth pined away with desire
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow
Arise from their graves, and aspire
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.
Sweet dreams, form a shade
O’er my lovely infant’s head!
Sweet dreams of pleasant streams
By happy, silent, moony beams!
Sweet Sleep, with soft down
Weave thy brows an infant crown
Sweet Sleep, angel mild,
Hover o’er my happy child!
Sweet smiles, in the night
Hover over my delight!
Sweet smiles, mother’s smile,
All the livelong night beguile.
Sweet moans, dovelike sighs,
Chase not slumber from thine eyes!
Sweet moan, sweeter smile,
All the dovelike moans beguile.
Sleep, sleep, happy child!
All creation slept and smiled.
Sleep, sleep, happy sleep,
While o’er thee doth mother weep.
Sweet babe, in thy face
Holy image I can trace;
Sweet babe, once like thee
Thy Maker lay, and wept for me:
Wept for me, for thee, for all,
When He was an infant small.
Thou His image ever see,
Heavenly face that smiles on thee!
Smiles on thee, on me, on all,
Who became an infant small;
Infant smiles are his own smiles;
Heaven and earth to peace beguiles.
To The Accuser Who is The God of This World
Truly My Satan thou art but a Dunce
And dost not know the Garment from the Man
Every Harlot was a Virgin once
Nor canst thou ever change Kate into Nan
Tho thou art Worship’d by the Names Divine
Of Jesus & Jehovah thou art still
The Son of Morn in weary Nights decline
The lost Travellers Dream under the Hill
I dreamt a dream! What can it mean?
And that I was a maiden Queen
Guarded by an Angel mild:
Witless woe was ne’er beguiled!
And I wept both night and day,
And he wiped my tears away;
And I wept both day and night,
And hid from him my heart’s delight.
So he took his wings, and fled;
Then the morn blushed rosy red.
I dried my tears, and armed my fears
With ten-thousand shields and spears.
Soon my Angel came again;
I was armed, he came in vain;
For the time of youth was fled,
And grey hairs were on my head.
Never seek to tell thy love,
Love that never told can be;
For the gentle wind does move
I told my love, I told my love,
I told her all my heart;
Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears,
Ah! she did depart!
Soon as she was gone from me,
A traveler came by,
He took her with a sigh.
Sophie & Ives – Clouds