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Tony Benn on the Legacy of Slavery

In 2007, Tony Benn – who was an MP for Bristol for 20 years – gave a speech discussing the legacy of slavery, the fight which brought it down and the ideal of common humanity which powers progressive struggles.

Below is excerpted from a talk given by Tony Benn at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 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 I’ve worked with all the people that were involved in it.

And I’ve 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 Nkomo 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. The interesting thing about going to Bristol was it wasn’t discussable – oh no you couldn’t talk about slavery, they had all the statues of the benefactors, huge statues, who’d 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 Stephenson who led a boycott because they wouldn’t let blacks drive the buses. Now he’s persuaded Bristol to have a museum of slavery and they’re coming to terms with what’s happened. It’s quite a difficult thing because you don’t like finding you did the awful things, that you always assumed foreigners did.

And, of course, you musn’t think it’s 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, we gave him tea at the House of Commons with my dad. He’d had his passport taken away because he was supporting the colonial freedom movement, so it’s living issue, it’s not just the past and I think that’s worth remembering. Then the other thing too, is to look at Wilberforce.

Now, Wilberforce was a 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 that’s what we’re celebrating this year, the abolition of the slave trade. And, might I add, not the abolition of slavery, don’t 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, and what it said was this – this is an edition from 1848, two years before my grandfather was born. The Economist said you can’t abolish the slave trade because there are all these ignorant blacks in Africa with nothing whatever to do, and they’re needed on the plantations of America. So, The Economist said, 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 you’d had slaves like some bishops had, you got money from the government for giving up your slave but the guys who’d been slaves got absolutely nothing at all.

It is, of course, a very old tradition, slavery’s as old as history because rich and powerful people, land owners, owned the land and they owned the workers on the land […] 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 I’m 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 you’ve 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 that’s the background against which you have to look at the achievements of Wilberforce, and I don’t belittle him at all. But you mustn’t 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 wasn’t 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, “I’d like you to tell me more about this because I’ve got a museum of slavery in Jamaica on black slavery.” And I said, “Oh Michael that wasn’t black slavery, that was slavery in Britain in medieval times.” And so you have to think of slavery as being broader than colour though, of course, it’s identified 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 because he wanted oil, and that’s quite straight forward.

Sir John Boyd-Orr, a very famous Nobel prize winner, once said most empires conquer for physical resources, and that was why we went there. And there’s 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 poor? The right question to ask is why are the rich rich? Then you come to totally different conclusions. The rich are rich because 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 it’s not just a racial issue, it’s a class issue, in the economic sense, 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 can’t live on the money, you’re treating me badly.” he’d 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 form they were sent to Australia as convicts.

I’ve got an American friend who’s just been in Australia and I said, “How did you get on?” “Oh Tony,” he said, “the Aussies were great but by God,” he said, “they’re really tough.” I 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 it’s 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 brother’s 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. Judaism says ‘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.’ For Mohammad it was ‘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 that’s also what’s 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 interesting because nowadays, you see, religion is being used as a way of dividing us, you only have to look at what’s said now about Islam and the use of God. Bush said God told him to go to Iraq, I didn’t know God worked in the White House, but apparently he did. Then they say Moses went up Mount Siani and got Palestine allocated to the Jews, I didn’t 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 Mohammad’s banner going,’ they’d all be locked up at once by John Reid. So you have to recognise that there is, in every religion, a culture. There’s nothing whatsoever in the culture of religion to divide one from another. The people I’m 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 righteousness, and she taught me to support the prophets against the kings. It’s got me into a lot of trouble in my life but it explained so much. Because it’s one thing to be told love your neighbours as yourself. It’s another thing to be told by a bishop, ‘if you don’t do what I tell you, you will rot in hell’ […]

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. To understand that is very important, because if you don’t 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 it’s 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 that’s 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 Hurricane Katrina. That is the choice.

So the question then you have to ask yourself is, well how do you change the situation? Because there are only three interesting questions in politics, what’s going on? Which is not always easy to find out. Why is it going on? Which is harder to find out. 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 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. If you were rich you didn’t need a school, you hired tutors, you didn’t have a mortgage from a local authority for your castle because you owned it, you didn’t 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. What happened during the 19th century explains everything, I think, including the national independence movements.

When people had the vote power was transferred from the people with money to the people who didn’t have money. In 1837, when the Birmingham Corporation became law the people of Birmingham, or some of them anyway, had the vote, how did they use the vote? They used to the vote to buy with their vote what they couldn’t 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, that’s how the welfare state came about, of course, in the end, the idea of a National Health Service, the idea of state education, the idea, even, of a fire brigade. In the olden days there was no fire brigade, you insured your own house with an insurance company. So if your neighbour’s house burned down they didn’t bother to put that out because he wasn’t insured and that would obviously threaten your house and this idea of welfare, which is looked down upon in mockery, is on the basis that actually the interest of all of us are in common.

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 didn’t like it, Stalin didn’t like it, the Pope doesn’t allow the clergy to elect the Pope, it’s all done by shares of cardinals whom he appoints. I can’t 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 don’t have citizens, 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 can’t afford them they’re not consumers, and the language used to belittle collective activity is very noticeable.

Now when I look again at the future I think of what’s called ‘cultural diversity.’ When I was born it was terribly boring – they were all white, they had fish and chips, they watched cricket, a little bit of ballroom dancing. Now we’ve 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 it’s 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 that’s normal, that is the world we live in. It’s complete generational change because I think younger people understand it, very often much better than older people who were brought up in a different tradition.

That’s really what we have to try and, which is why I think the internet is very valuable because you get access to things which you wouldn’t necessarily find described in The Sun or The Mail. 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 don’t use the internet too loosely or you’ll be in trouble yourself.

I mentioned the trade unions and apartheid. I spoke in Trafalgar Square in 1964 in support of a very well known terrorist and I got denounced in the tabloids. I didn’t meet him for a bit, next time I met him he had a 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 you’ve got a sensible idea like abolishing slavery or votes for women or trade unions or ending apartheid, and they ignore you. Then if you go on you’re stark staring bonkers, I’ve had a touch of that myself, then if you go on after that you’re dangerous. Then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone at the top who doesn’t claim to have thought of it in the first place – and that is how progress is made.

It’s made by movements, by people who understand the world, who feel a sense of commonality with other people and say, ‘why don’t 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 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. I was taken to the Brighton hospital and given a pacemaker. I had a letter from the Prime Minister saying ‘hope my speech didn’t 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 you’re the nurse or a sister or a doctor or porter, what do you make of it if you’re told you work in the worst hospital in Britain?

People want encouragement and that’s what they don’t always want to give you, but if we encourage each other, my God there’s nothing you cannot do. And so that’s how the slave trade really ended, people got together and saw the truth and realised that we’re brothers and sisters and 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 pressure is off, they try and recapture the territory they’ve lost.

So it’s an ongoing struggle. I’m 82 now, and it’s wonderful, if I’d known what fun it was to be 80 I’d have done it years ago, because you have a bit of experience and you don’t 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 there’s a great sigh of relief and people saying, “well, if he doesn’t want anything we may as well listen to him.”

So that is really the function of the old, I think it’s to encourage people and to understand. So thank you for asking me here […]

This transcript originally appeared on the blog of Socialist Unity.

About the Author

Tony Benn was a Labour Party Member of Parliament (MP) for forty seven years, serving as Party Chairman, Postmaster General, Minister of Technology, Secretary of State for Industry and Energy. He ran unsuccessfully for the party deputy leadership and leadership in the 1980s and was President of the Stop the War Coalition until his death in 2014.