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DAVID FROST: Their political careers have spanned nearly a century, both have been influential figures in their own party and both continue to speak their minds on the great issues of the day. Sir Edward Heath and Tony Benn. Ted Heath was the Conservative Prime Minister between 1970 and 1974, the man who took the country into Europe and ended his premiership having taken on and lost to the unions being forced to introduce a three-day week to the country seemed all to be going on strike. Tony Benn, more Socialist than New Labour MP, a minister of course under the Harold Wilson government, he stood against Denis Healey for the Deputy Leadership in the early '80s and many in New Labour blame his influence and the party's shift left-wards for the 18 years in opposition. I met up with the two men in the House of Commons where they both joined in 1950, to what extent were their political views shaped by the world they grew up in and the political events of the '30s and '40s.
TONY BENN: Our political opinions have been shaped by the period of history through which we lived. He lived in the '30s, I remember it because I was born in a political family and all our ideas come out of that experience. It's quite different from the experience of people who've only elected more recently.
TED HEATH: That's true but the ideas which come out of different, in fact.
TONY BENN: Well they are and they're not.
TED HEATH: When you say that they've been marked by the period I think never more than this present Parliament. Things have changed more in almost every respect during this time than in a lot of the previous Parliaments.
DAVID FROST: How do you mean?
TED HEATH: The make-up has changed completely and the behaviour has changed enormously in this Parliament, I mean the Prime Minister only turns up half an hour a week to answer his questions, most of the rest of the time he's not there at all. And as far as questions are concerned most of the Labour Party in the House sits there and meekly says aye or grins or nod their heads and there's very little controversy. There are controversies outside as far as one can hear whereas on our side they just keep on braying and shouting.
DAVID FROST: Do you find it's changed a lot in this house?
TONY BENN: Well it has but I was thinking of a rather different point, that if you were of our age in the late '70s and early '80s the threat of fascism before the war and the war itself and the need to build a fair society, through the welfare state, which was pretty bi-partisan because Churchill had been a Liberal before the First World War and Churchill was well to the left of New Labour and these ideas developed and matured and I've always seen my job as doing two things. First of all to understand the people I represent and represent them faithfully. And secondly to question what is the conventional wisdom. If I look back and I don't know whether Ted will agree with me, will agree with me, but I think the theory that the Red Army was planning to invade Britain was the biggest myth there ever was and it was done for quite different purposes, pumped across to us. We wasted a lot of money on weapons and so on and missed out on a lot of things we should have done so I try to question the conventional wisdom and see whether it's really valid.
TED HEATH: Yes well you've always done that, not always very successfully but I wouldn't agree with your analysis that there was really no threat from the Soviet Union at all. The other place where we have disagreed of course I think, is in being able to obtain this opinion which you quite rightly mentioned because you believe that it should come by, I mean people more and more evidence, particularly through a referendum, well you were the main cause of the first referendum we ever had in this country, that was on our membership of the European Community as it was at that time and now you see where it's got us. You've got the leader of the opposition calling for a referendum on every conceivable subject and that has really completely changed the nature of Parliament. I believe wrongly because our doctrine has always been that it's for Parliament to decide.
DAVID FROST: But you were pretty proud of being one of the key forces in producing that '75 referendum?
TONY BENN: I respect Ted's view, he saw Europe in two world wars, at least remembered the first and participated in the second but he said we must have a united Europe to prevent another war. No nonsense about convergence or criteria or conditions. For Ted it was a political decision of enormous importance and I respect him for it, I think all this idea that the Treasury computer will tell you when you can join is rubbish. Having said that on the question of the powers of the electors, you see as a Member of Parliament I don't own the powers leant to me by my constituents, they lend them to me and if I come back five years later and said by the way I gave the power to govern you to somebody else there's nothing they can do about it. And I think that the way in which constitutional change took place without the consult of the people was fundamentally undemocratic.
DAVID FROST: But do you think as Ted was saying just now that the Commons is less powerful today than when you first entered it in 1950?
TONY BENN: Without any doubt, I mean we were elected there was the remains of an Empire Ted, wasn't there, we used to have Colonial questions twice a week where you were asked about all sorts of things. But the media are more powerful, the multi-nationals are more powerful, the gamblers are more powerful, but Ted made a very powerful speech once, if I remember, about the unacceptable face of capitalism, I mean he has, had a view of the way in which business should be responsible and if it didn't behave like that then it was unacceptable. I hope I'm not embarrassing you by reminding you¿
TED HEATH: Not at all¿
TONY BENN: But I think it was a very important statement he made and I've often quoted him.
TED HEATH: Well I remember in a way the most powerful thing was Churchill after it was announced that Eden had to go to America for this operation and everybody knew was a rather a doubtful one, Churchill said therefore there would have to be a replacement for Eden in the circumstances, and after long consideration I have come to the view that the best way of dealing with this would be for me to become Foreign Secretary myself.
DAVID FROST: If you had your time over again Tony would you back Aneurin Bevan against Gaitskill for the leadership again in '55.
TONY BENN: Oh yes, I think Nye, you heard Nye's speech of resignation in 1951, at the time I was totally persuaded by it but he said the Russians don't want to attack us, they haven't the power to attack us, we can't afford the defence programme, that ruined the economy and he said it'll lead to a witch hunt against Socialists. And I think on all four counts he was right, it became a very bitter struggle but Nye did have a bit of imagination and that's not a very well known quality in politics, I think you would agree Ted, people who have got some, Churchill had that vision, some capacity to look beyond the day to day stuff and give people a proper understanding and perspective. You have it because of your feeling on Europe.
TED HEATH: Our trouble is that in both major parties you have got a minority of wealth, you've got a group, the minority in the Labour Party at the moment and in the Tory Party they've left the party and gone outside it. And the result is that when you have elections and such forth the whole thing swings over. Now this means an unstable approach to Europe and it means that the rest of the Europeans despise us for it.
DAVID FROST: Both your parties have recently been moving to the right, not necessarily with your agreement, the latest example this week, I mean did you, did you support William Hague's speech on the police and race for instance, Ted, or not?
TED HEATH: No I wasn't asked to¿
DAVID FROST: Well would you like to support it now?
TED HEATH: No.
DAVID FROST: Why not?
TED HEATH: Well he seems to have got into a slight muddle but I don't believe in that, my position on race has been known all the time, every since I sacked Enoch Powell and nobody's ever questioned that. So I think what the leader of our party's got to do not is to make absolutely plain where he does stand on all of this.
DAVID FROST: In terms of New Labour Tony, people have talked about the way in which, first of all Neil Kinnock and then more spectacularly Tony Blair had to move the party back to the centre after the disaster of the 1983 election and so on, looking back on that election do you still feel as you did then, as you said to me and to others at the time that the trouble was not that Labour was not, Labour in '83 was too socialist but that it was not socialist enough?
TONY BENN: Well I think the elements in this¿not discussed is ten per cent of the Labour MPs left the party which had elected them, joined the SDP and tried to destroy the Labour Party with full media support. But I tell you something else I find interesting at the moment, I don't know whether Ted shares this view, I'm getting a lot of letters from people now, for example on the railways, so why in God's name don't we have publicly held railways, properly financed and on a whole range of issues¿
DAVID FROST: So this, this thing, renationalisation of the railways¿
TONY BENN: Well public ownership¿
DAVID FROST: Is the one area where you might¿
TONY BENN: Well I think¿
DAVID FROST: You might get it?
TONY BENN: 90 per cent support for that because people see this absolute mess, I'm not making a point about privatisation and all that, that's a cheap point, but you have to have in the railways a proper system of control and it has to be accountable and should be publicly funded. That's my view, it has been and I think you find most people take that view. So many of the ideas that were rejected as wild and extreme a few years ago have actually lodged in the public mind because now Communism is over people are beginning to see what crude capitalism is like and they're not altogether happy about the impact it has on their lives. I have a sort of feeling that Harold Macmillan and Winston Churchill and Ted Heath might find some merit in that, I don't know whether I'm¿
TED HEATH: Oh I think they would, I think the trouble has been that both parties are¿because your party in the '60s moved over to more and more nationalisation of something which really wasn't necessary and they didn't gain anything from it. Either the industry or the party. On the other hand our people have gone far too far in denationalising and making really an arbitrary arrangement which is what the railways are, very badly thought out, the result of lots of internal arguments about all of these things and I think it's proved thoroughly unsatisfactory. Having got a one-way, one-controlled system for railways we should have kept it.
DAVID FROST: So what are you going to miss about the Commons when you leave?
TONY BENN: Most of the causes that I've taken up with my life I will be free to work on later. Now I think Ted you said you weren't going into the House of Lords so presumably you have a strategy for creative politics outside in post-parliamentary politics and you probably noticed the two of us are both very free, the Whips don't frighten him and they don't frighten me and we're both free to put such experience as we have at the disposal of the causes in which we believe and I'm sure he will do that in Europe and the things he cares about and I certainly intend to do it.
DAVID FROST: And you wouldn't, could you be tempted into the House of Lords Tony?
TONY BENN: Well it's a funny question isn't it? It took me ten years to get out of the place, I think I once asked you Ted, when you were chief Whip, if I could have a word with Harold Macmillan on the subject and I think you said I couldn't?
DAVID FROST: Is Tony right, do you not want to go into the House of Lords?
TED HEATH: No I was clear, I won't go into the House of Lords, I wouldn't go in in any case but what is the House of Lords, at the moment it's just a jamboree of, been thought up, well it hasn't even been thought up in, in Blair's mind, really it's a horror that they've, been in opposition for 18 years which is the time, when if you're a party you've got time to think and work out solutions and when they came into power they hadn't got a clue about what they were going to do about the House of Lords and now it's just a mess, a ridiculous mess.
TONY BENN: You know the Speaker of the House of Commons is made a peer by the election of the House of Commons, suppose the House of Commons sent you into the House of Lords what would you do¿Betty Boothroyd was made a peer, Jack Wetherell made a peer by the House of Commons, I'm trying to find a way of getting you in there by election.
DAVID FROST: He is not, said no to that?
TONY BENN: No he hasn't.
DAVID FROST: From the House of Commons to send you to the House of Lords, that might be different?
TED HEATH: Yes I don't think it's important. I'm not going to the Lords, that's the final answer.
DAVID FROST: Well that answers it, thank you both a million times over. Well Ted Heath and Tony Benn resisting the idea of elevation to the House of Lords. END
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