This interview with Tony Benn was never published by Weekend FT:
Tony Benn has not been chatting for long when my right hand begins to ache and I regret leaving my dictaphone at home.
The 83-year old has led the conversation through the Iraq War, training as a pilot in Rhodesia, Alan Greenspan, John Bolton and Herbert Asquith.
We have only been going for ten minutes or so. A cup of tea, balanced on a wooden stand in the corner of Benn’s living room, remains untouched as I scribble away.
Mr Benn has agreed to meet for a “Lunch with the FT” interview but asked do it at his house over tea rather than a restaurant.
The note pad on my lap is filling with reams of scrawled shorthand as my pen struggles to keep pace with Benn’s fruity vowels.
The voice, reminiscent of 1940s broadcasters, is one trademark of this most reknown of British politicians. Another is his pipe, from which he emits streams of tobacco smoke in my direction.
Some would say that Benn, former flag-bearer for the left-wing, has never stopped fighting a series of lost causes – from unilateral nuclear disarmament to the nationalisation of British industry.
Even now he is at it again, writing to all MPs urging them to vote for a referendum on the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. It probably won’t happen, but that’s not the point. Benn opposed the UK’s Common Market membership in the 1975 referendum and will not give up the fight.
The man’s energy is impressive. On the day we meet he is due to attend a meeting of the Stop the War Coalition, of which he is president, ahead of a demonstration at the weekend. He is meanwhile putting together a guest speech to the Scottish Parliament.
He is a natural orator. The opinions come spilling out, sometimes in an ordered fashion, at other times in a jumble of inter-connected thoughts.
Carbon trading? Dreadful idea. The troops in Afghanistan? They should all be called back, like Prince Harry. Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama? Definitely Obama.
Not that Benn is entirely self-centred. Most interviewees, especially politicians, show little more than a cursory interest in the person they are talking to. Why bother, if you might never see the journalist again?
By contrast, he has done his homework on Google: “I see you worked at the Western Daily Press in the 90s,” he beams as I arrive at the door of his house on Holland Park Avenue, in one of London’s most expensive areas.
Later, he comments: “I saw that you won a prize last year?” I know I shouldn’t succumb to this flattery but the effect is disarming.
He offers tea or coffee, shows me into a living room filled with old furniture and paraphernalia – ranging from a Toby jug in his image to old miners’ lamps – and swiftly appears with a tray of hot drinks. His hands tremble as he pours my tea.
There are busts of Keir Hardie and Karl Marx, a mug (”Labour and Proud of It”) and a piano which he cannot play. “It’s a bit of a museum,” he says, faux-apologetically.
I lean back in my chair to avoid the fug of smoke and ponder Benn’s status as a political hero to the most unlikely of people.
Previously I had sieved through Benn’s press cuts. Recent profiles had all been glowing, Read more