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banner Monday, 1 October, 2001, 20:12 GMT 21:12 UK
Tony Benn: retired but not resting
It was like a religious revival meeting in a shabby old hall.

But no-one can doubt the passion and conviction of those who braved the Brighton winds to see the likes of Tony Benn and Alice Mahon talking peace.

At the CND and Labour Action for Peace fringe meeting there were veteran campaigners whose beliefs have taken on a new urgency in the wake of the US atrocities.

The loss of innocent lives was condemned as much as what has been dubbed Son of Star Wars - America's proposed missile defence system.

Up first was Ms Mahon, who condemned wholeheartedly what she termed the "mass murder" in New York and Washington DC.

She also condemned the Taleban's "odious regime" in Afghanistan.

But for those many Afghans who were already starving, blighted by decades of war, there was sympathy and calls for aid.

Offensive system

Missile defence would not have prevented the US tragedy and Prime Minister Tony Blair could play a "huge part" in persuading President George W Bush against a system she said was more offensive than defensive.

Tony Benn's speech was passionate, witty and brought cries of agreement from his audience.

When he said he was retiring from parliament to go into politics he meant what he said.

This was vintage Benn from the man who was regarded by friend and foe alike as one of the greatest orators of his generation.

It wasn't just about missile defence.

First it was identity cards - one of the measures being considered by the government as part of the wider attempt to tighten up security in the wake of the US attacks.

He pulled out his ID cards from 60 years ago and pointed out that the ANC in Apartheid-era South Africa had burned their cards which they saw as a "tool of repression".

There was historical context in the speech.

He reminded the audience how Hugh Gaitskell had stood up against armed intervention during the Suez crisis, how Clement Attlee had flown to the US to prevent them carrying out a threat to drop an atomic bomb on Korea.

Nuclear dependant?

Mr Benn also argued that the UK's nuclear deterrent was entirely reliant on the US and that fact made us bound to go along with their policies.

It was a speech delivered with the intensity of sermon and it went down well with an audience of the already converted.

But it was all over quickly. Mr Benn has many engagements on the fringe circuit.

"The Labour conference is worse than the Open University - going from seminar to seminar," he remarked before departing to speak at another meeting.

See also:

01 May 01 | Americas
The battle over missile defence
14 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
China warns against US missile defence
19 Sep 01 | Americas
New York loses hope for survivors
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