Speech of Tony Benn, 27 January 2005

Tony Benn, Carrs Lane church centre, Birmingham, B4 7SX, 27 January 2005. Recorded and transcribed by Stephen Hewitt.

[Editorial comments are in square brackets, like this one. Applause is not noted in the transcript except where it interferes with transcription. However, Benn was especially enthusiastically received - as with all his public speeches I have witnessed - for example Trafalgar Square, 2nd March 2002 . At the end of this speech he got a standing ovation. There were about 300 people present.]

Can i first say something about this organisation this meeting? The stop the war movement is in my opinion one of the most important political movements in the post war world and I'll come to its importance in a minute but we know that we represent a majority of the people in this country. This is not a little protest meeting in a church centre in Birmingham. We represent the majority of opinion in Britain we represent the majority of the people in the united states obviously in Iraq and in the moslem world and with that majority we have a responsibility to think very very carefully about how we conduct our campaign.

Second thing about this movement is that apart from its immediate purpose in stopping the war it has brought the different communities together in a way that has a great long term importance. [few unclear words] lot of reference has been made today in the speeches to the er attack upon the Muslim community but at least the moslem community can know confidently that what the stop the war movement has done has been to extend the hand of friendship in such a way as to build a warmth which will be of great value and importance to us in the years that lie ahead.

Now [about two words unclear because of applause] I'm eighty in a couple of weeks and er when you get to my age you begin looking at things in a slightly different way so will you forgive me - cause most of what has to be said about the war has been said and i agree with every word of it - just look back and forward a little bit. er for me it's rather emotional coming to Birmingham because about years ago i learned to fly in Birmingham at elmdon airport and i mention that not to show what i war hero i was - because i never killed anyone thank god - but because i have had experience of war at the receiving end of bombing attacks. I was in London in the blitz. I was fourteen. every night the siren went we went down to the shelter four or five hundred people killed round where i live one day, London burning lost a brother and many comrades in the war and i hate war. and when i see pictures of the bombing of Baghdad er i don't think of the brave pilots i think of the Arab women who are frightened that their children will be killed and i think we will destroy our own humanity if we allow what political corre what the military correspondents tell us to obscure our vision. Human beings are being killed every night in our name paid for with our taxpayers' money supported by our prime minister. And therefore to retain a sense of moral outrage about what has happened seems to me to be very important.

The other thing is i went from Birmingham to Africa to complete my flying and i was in Zimbabwe. At that time it was called Rhodesia was called Rhodesia because in 1897 a man called Cecil Rhodes went to matabele land and he stole the land from the black farmers and gave it to the white farmers and set up a colony known as Rhodesia. When it was a British colony no black was allowed to vote at all. Talk about imperialism bringing democracy [unclear word(s)] opposite. When i was there not a single African was allowed to vote. And on the queen's birthday the king's birthday in 1944 we were all paraded in front of the officer not that i was worried about the king's birthday because [unclear words] before d day but still the officer said and he spoke to us and he went to the Africans and he said - I've never forgotten it - he said everything here belongs to the king - the land, the aircraft guard them well, he said - and i put in my diary it sounded like goering in an occupied country i wrote that in my diary [words unclear because of applause] but there are some historical perspectives that help you churchill - we've been talking a lot about him in the last couple of days - he died forty years ago - but in the middle of the 1930s and I've got a video of him saying it - he actually said this about India - he said India was full of primitive people who depended on the British for their welfare. I think unbelievable this attitude to the empire and having been born in an empire 1925, twenty percent of the population of the world was governed by them - i don't quite see empires in the way that bush sees them. Indeed when his inaugural address was delivered I went to my computer - and i expect you all use google - and i typed in adolf hitler and god and i got all the references by hitler to god and how god was on our side and [unclear word] civilisation and you've got to be very very careful - the point's been made tonight about language - you've got to be very very careful they don't use your religion to drive you into war and that is what is happening now and of course everybody knows understands it very well america is the largest empire the world has ever seen. The defence budget in washington is greater than the ten next most powerful countries in the world put together. There's 780 american military bases around the world in 134 countries and the united states - now don't let's [unclear sounds like "conceive" but presumably meant "deceive"] ourselves - is an enemy, is an empire and it is using cynical arguments er of the kind you heard the one about spreading democracy. Anybody who really believes that after the Iraqi election if a government was elected that asked the Americans to go - would you please leave? would you please remove your bases? could we have our oil back? what do you think would happen? There'd be another invasion to bring democracy to Iraq.

So we have to understand that and as to the weapons of mass destruction it's a complete fraud. Everybody who knew anything knew they didn't have them. The argument was used because it was thought that it was a little bit difficult to persuade the British parliament to vote for a war to get rid of Saddam so they had to pretend he was about to blow us out of the water. and that's what it was all about. It was a lie. Everybody knows now it was a lie. Now they justify it by saying well the world's a better place without Saddam. Well I don't deny that. The world would be a better place without bush but I'm not [words drowned by applause] illegal Kofi Annan said [unclear] united nations said quite rightly in the charter of the you can only go to war if you're attacked or if the security council with the five permanent members decides there's a threat to peace and neither of those things occurred. It is an illegal war. It is immoral because as you know there is no question about it, torture on a massive scale is going on in Iraq and in Guantanamo bay and don't be surprised about it i mean war is an exercise of brutality to achieve an outcome and i heard mister Ridley i think his name is homeland security director of america being interviewed and he said well if you had an Iraqi who had information and you could get it out of him and it might save lives well inevitably you have to use torture. If I'd been there I'd have said well would you take the same view if an Iraqi captured an american pilot who knew something? See once you abandon the Geneva convention on how you treat people there's no limit below which you don't fall. And bush announced that the Geneva convention did not apply in Iraq or Afghanistan, just announced the law had been changed. And of course the torture is going on and i think that is a very important thing for us to carry on our conscience and as [unclear] said its an unwinnable war.

You cannot win it for a whole variety of reasons one is because the Iraqis are very determined that we shouldn't remain there. Secondly because the united states is at the limit of its military and economic power. I mean I'm not an economist but the americans have got a deficit of five hundred billion dollars a year covered by investments from china and er japan who buy dollars to keep the american economy going. it's er [unclear word] war i think they've asked for another eighty billion dollars today for the congress to keep the war going. They've got tax cuts for the rich and the whole of the american economy is in a state of er of serious crisis and they're privatising social security. Can you imagine a situation where a government in britain said the whole welfare state is to be privatised [unclear]? And what they means is that instead of having some insurance however limited it is if you're unemployed or ill or old you've got to take out a personal account and who's going to make the money out of that? It's the people who run the companies.

The united states is desperately over stretched.[unclear sentence] and there's something else about america that i think we should give a little bit more attention to and that is almost half the american population would agree with everything that has been said tonight. i [uncertain because of applause, but the next words sound like "i think its terribly important to remember that"] [more words covered by applause] because he fiddled the election but he doesn't. i was there in march at a big er rally in er in new york city - a hundred thousand people - not enormous but it was just an ordinary day i- and er it was a fantastic demonstration of the there were the parents of soldiers with a big placard saying bush killed my son and er there was a group of women old women with woolly hats on called the raging grannies and they were singing songs I've never heard of anything like it money for jobs and not for war, money for health and not for war, money for homes and not for war and the passion of the united states peace movement is one of our greatest allies in this battle because you see the way empires are defeated - and here i come to an historical [unclear word] - empires are defeated by two forces the determination of the national movement and the support of people in the imperial country. That's how the British empire [drowned by applause]

In the course of my life I've met a lot of people i suppose you're bound to call them terrorists - i can't think of any other word in view of the statements that have just been made [unclear 2 words] i met mister Gandhi in 1931. i was six. he didn't actually kill anybody but he was always put in prison.then i met [unclear] had a meeting with him in Bombay in 1960 and of course he was in prison then [unclear] was in prison, [unclear] was in prison and the number of terrorists i knew [unclear word] nelson Mandela was in prison. They all ended up having tea with the queen as head of commonwealth countries and the truth of the matter is that you have to talk to the people you're fighting because in that case they had they were right and we were wrong and we couldn't keep it up either because we were extended in the way the Americans are. So what we're doing now - and this is the main point i want to make before i finish - we're not just here to protest about the war. We're not just here to build up for march the 19th - although it's got to be a really big demonstration - you know the bbc'll say er the organisers are disappointed if it's less than two million. When i went there last time i the BBC said to me after that demonstration mister Benn you're a voice in the wilderness. I said well there are two million people in my wilderness how many are there in yours? We're not we're not just ["doing"? word unclear because of applause ] that. What we are doing my friends is to build a world peace movement of a kind that is so strong that no government in any country will be able to disregard it. That's what we're doing. That means we've got to work with the Iraqis we've got to work with the Arab world with the Muslims we've got to work with the people in France in Germany united states Australia people all over the world who are on our side, do not want to see the resources of the world wasted on war, do not want to see people locked up because they believe in liberty which is what happens terrifying to think that anyone in this room could be arrested tonight on the orders of the home secretary on the ground that you might have been taking action preparatory to terrorism. Well if you're a terrorist you've got to go to the lavatory that's preparatory to terrorism and - I'm serious about it - all the rights we fought for [unclear] and not just fighting the Iraqi courts for justice, we're fighting our courts for justice [unclear words because of applause]

It's a very a it's a very a gloomy prospect in one way with the power of the united states so strong on the other hand I'm an optimist. It is now possible to communicate much more easily. I expect many of you are on the internet or if you're not the grandchildren will be like mine and er I get information every day from all over the world I'd never read in the British papers, never hear on the BBC and i know from travelling around in Cairo a while back and in Washington and there are meetings going on all over the world i know what support there is. And of course remember we are in a world with weapons so dangerous that if they were used it could actually obliterate the human race. I'm not [unclear words] politics of fear but chemical, biological and nuclear weapons are of enormous power and the only somebody once said the only power strong enough to resist the splitting of the atom is the unity of the human race. And that just about sums it up so thank you for coming [words covered by applause]

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