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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 October, 2004, 13:34 GMT 14:34 UK
Iraq, hunting and pensions
Please note BBC Politics Show must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

NB:This transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.

On Politics Show, on Sunday, 10, October 2004, Jeremy Vine interviewed:

  • Tony Benn former Labour MP and Cabinet Minister
  • Lord Strathclyde, the leader of Tory peers
  • Rodney Bickerstaffe, President of the National Pensioners' Convention

Interview with Tony Benn

Tony Benn
Tony Benn former Labour MP and Cabinet Minister

Jeremy Vine: I speak to Tony Benn, anti war campaigner, and former Labour Cabinet Minister. Your thoughts on the events of the last few days first of all.

Tony Benn: Well I just heard from America, the estimate of the number of people killed in Afghanistan and Iraq and they say - including Iraqis and Afghans and Americans and British, fifty five thousand eight hundred and forty two killed; a hundred and fourteen thousand, three hundred and ninety one seriously injured.

Ken Bigley was a victim of the war and we now know that we were systematically, deliberately and consistently misled about the reasons for the war, and now, we're counting the cost.

It is a terrible tragedy for his family, but then of course the Americans have got hostages in - they've kidnapped and put them in Guantanamo Bay, and Mr Begg, another British citizen, sent a message from Guantanamo Bay, saying he's seen two of the hostages there killed; so you have to see the whole thing in balance.

It doesn't make it any less of a tragedy for the Bigley family, or anybody else who suffers.

Jeremy Vine: But for those backing the war, it is evidence that Britain needs to be in Iraq, fighting terrorists.

Tony Benn: Well, Saddam did not have weapons, the war was illegal. Saddam was not responsible for 9/11 and we were misled, and these casualties are a product of that and I think a lot of people feel as I do, that you'll have to set a date for withdrawal, and only then can the UN go in and try and help.

But the Spaniards have pulled out, other people are pulling out and British troops will have to leave. We should set a date, I'm not suggesting we do it tomorrow, set a date and say, on that date, British troops will be withdrawn.

Jeremy Vine: But is not the case that more chaotic it gets inside Iraq and the more we see evidence of outsiders, al Qaeda and so on, coming in, that the case for staying there, seems to be strengthened.

Tony Benn: Look, Jeremy, apart from all the arguments I've given, it's un unwinnable war. That happened in Vietnam, all the same arguments were used.

A million people died in Vietnam and the Americans were in there and ultimately they had to go. So if you don't like the moral, the legal, the human arguments, face the fact that Britain and America cannot continue to occupy Afghanistan and Iraq.

And the crisis there is a crisis in a way that we have produced. I mean Saddam was a brute, don't make any mistake about it but this argument you can remove anyone you don't like, I mean and many people think the world would be a safer place if Bush wasn't President.

But if anyone, could anyone have gone in to Iraq - would China have been entitled to go in Iraq? I mean the arguments don't stand a moment's examination and most people in Britain realize this; it's not being personal about the Prime Minister.

I mean he, he did mislead us but an apology is not what it's about. You've got to have a solution that offers some prospect for peace.

Jeremy Vine: Paul Bigley, one of Ken's brothers has been fiercely critical of Mr Blair for not doing more to save him. Was reported as saying, Tony Blair had blood on his hands. Do you think Mr Blair is personally to blame in some way, for Ken Bigley's death?

Tony Benn: Er, the Prime Minister himself said before the war, the peace movement has blood on its hands. I don't believe personal charges get you anywhere and if the Prime Minister apologised, I'm not sure I'd even believe him. I think you've got to get the policy right.

Focusing it all on individuals doesn't help. We went in to a war on a false premise; it was illegal. The crisis we now face is a product of what we have done and we now have to find a solution?

Jeremy Vine: Do you, looking at what is happening in Afghanistan now and the election that is taking place there, see whatever the rights or wrongs of the beginnings of the war were, and you've gone through that - do you see some cause for hope that democracy can take root, despite chaos.

Tony Benn: Well some of the presidential candidates have withdrawn cos they say it's a fraud.

But you see in Afghanistan, the War Lords are still there, and the funny thing, even about Afghanistan, who funded Osama bin Laden to get the Russians out? - the Americans.

Poppy production in Afghanistan has now reached new peaks because market forces mean if you can sell poppies, at least the opium trade will make you prosperous.

I'm afraid it is a tragedy. We invaded Afghanistan in 1830, the Russians went in, the Americans have gone in. They now have to get out of Afghanistan as well. I mean a little bit of history does help.

Jeremy Vine: If you set a date though for leaving Iraq, there is a danger that the chaos, the mayhem could escalate and the arguments for going get weaker and weaker.

Tony Benn: Well, I mean the one thing Bush has done, and he's a genius, he's brought the Sunnis and the Shi'ites together, they are united in wanting him out.

And of course there's a crisis there, but you see the Americans armed Saddam, it's such a disgraceful story. Rumsfeld was there selling Saddam, I've got a picture of him shaking hands with Saddam, selling chemical weapons, at a time when the British government was saying Saddam was an ally.

I think the moment of truth has come and I think the reality is that British troops will have to go, and the responsibility, not just the Prime Minister, it's every MP who voted for the war shares the responsibility; so don't make it personal. It was a catastrophic decision to take and the chaos is a product of what we have done.

Jeremy Vine: Again, coming back to this idea of the chaos and how you deal with it. What if the chaos escalates as we get close to this date you want for removing soldiers, what do we do.

Tony Benn: Well, would you apply that argument to the Russians, would you have said the Russians had to stay in Afghanistan because of terrorism, which there was, funded by the Americans.

Or Saddam to stay in Kuwait, because there was chaos in Kuwait. I mean once you use that argument, you can go to war illegally, then stay there on the grounds that there's no alternative.

I think most people in Britain do understand this now and they don't want to make it personal about the Prime Minister, that's not to me what's interesting. The fact is it was a catastrophic decision, with catastrophic consequences and if we remain the crisis will get worse.

Jeremy Vine: Do you see a way of bringing in a UN force, a multi national force or is that just replacing one bad policy with another.

Tony Benn: Only after the Americans and British and coalition forces have withdrawn, and then, if there was a UN force, it would probably come from Muslim countries and so on. It wouldn't be the west and I think people are beginning to see it.

I don't feel any more that this is an isolated position; I think it's a position held by most people in the world, overwhelmingly in the world, and even in Britain and America, a very substantial number of people feel this and I just wish that the government could get the message.

Jeremy Vine: Can you see why it is or explain why it is that in the middle of all this, with so many people worried about the war, we have polls this morning which show the Prime Minister and the Labour Party, seven, eight points ahead of the Conservatives, as if, as if they are moving away from what may have been this bad decision.

Tony Benn: I don't think those polls indicate support for the war. I think the truth is Michael Howard does not have a, a wide appeal and you remember Mrs Thatcher said that her greatest achievement was New Labour.

I think there are many people feel we have the best Conservative Prime Minister we've ever had, and I think that explains some of the polls, but they don't represent a confirmation of the decision to go to war, not at all.

Interview with Lord Strathclyde

Lord Strathclyde
Lord Strathclyde, the leader of Tory peers

Jeremy Vine: I'm joined by Lord Strathclyde, welcome to you. We mentioned there what your average Lord is thinking about doing. What are you thinking about doing?

Lord Strathclyde: Well first of all, I think it's important to point out that this is a free vote issue; there are Conservatives that are in favour of banning hunting, and there are many Labour people, particularly in the House of Lords, who are in favour of keeping hunting in one form or another.

In fact the last time the House of Lords voted on this issue, if not a single Conservative had, had voted, then the ban would still have been overturned. So it shows the, the measure of difference that exists in the House of Lords, compared to the House of Commons.

Now I've been urging my colleagues in recent weeks not to reject this bill, in a wholesale manner. I think the time has now come for the House of Lords to do what it traditionally does, to be sensible, to look carefully at the bill that's being offered and try and find a middle way between those who want to abolish hunting and its entirety, and those who want to preserve something, possibly through regulated hunting, and perhaps even go back to the bill that was first presented to the House of Commons, by the government minister, Alun Michael, for some kind of regulated system of hunting.

Jeremy Vine: But there isn't a middle way is there. When you have that many MPs deciding that they want an outright ban, there's no compromise, there's only reversal.

Lord Strathclyde: I think that that is probably the most likely outcome. But I think that in, I equally think that in a two chamber system of parliament, and the House of Lords is the revising chamber, that we should revise the legislation, the law that's being sent to us by the House of Commons and use the evidence that is before us, from the Burns enquiry set up by the government, from other hearings that have been sponsored by the government; look at the evidence on animal welfare terms.

Let's deal, let's put aside the blind prejudice which is sometimes shown by members of the House of Commons and let's debate this in a reasoned and sensible manner so that at the end of the process, we can send back to the House of Commons, a bill that has been properly thought through, that is enforceable, supported by the police, supported by hunters, supported by reasonable opinion everywhere, and let's try and hope that the House of Commons might accept it.

Jeremy Vine: But that's back to the ping-pong isn't it and the Parliament Act has been brought in to stop the ping-pong. You just have to knuckle down.

Lord Strathclyde: You're entirely right in saying that this is the last possible chance, the ping-pong, the exchange between the two houses. Room for that is extremely limited.

This is the last possible opportunity for us to stop a, a deeply illiberal piece of legislation, to ban it.

Jeremy Vine: But last year was the last opportunity wasn't it?

Lord Strathclyde: No, because if, if the House of Commons rejects any of the work that the House of Lords now does, then it can be applied to the Parliament Act and it would become law, instantaneously and there is nothing the House of Lords can do about it. In other words, we have almost exhausted everything that the House of Lords can possibly do.

But it's a very serious matter to use this cudgel of the Parliament Act, this blunt instrument on something quite as controversial as this, and something which is, at the end of the day, a matter of conscience.

Jeremy Vine: But isn't it right in principle to use it, when they are elected and you are not.

Lord Strathclyde: I'm always nervous about using something as powerful and as strong as the Parliament Act, when it is so controversial, when there is such a great deal of dispute, and that it is on a matter of conscience.

Of course the Parliament Act, I believe, can be used under these circumstances, but it is something that I very much regret.

Jeremy Vine: And so, at the moment, if you were to soften and say yes to what you're getting from the Commons, you get the ban with, as we were discussing, an eighteen month delay.

If you hold out, and you have as you know, the last ditch stand and so on, you then get back to where it was a year ago, and it comes in straight away. Now that puts you in a difficult position doesn't it.

Lord Strathclyde: Yes, to some extent. It's rather an odd situation we have here where the, the government are trying to legislate, or the House of Commons is trying to legislate very very quickly, that this is a bill that passed all its stages in the House of Commons, minimum of debate in one day, and then they say, oh it doesn't need to come in to effect for eighteen months or two years.

This seems to be rather absurd. If we have got two years before a ban comes in to effect, wouldn't it be far better to start the process of seeking a reasonable compromise, working it through, discussing it with everybody that it needs to be discussed and we keep on getting hints that the Prime Minister, Mr Blair is keen for there to be found a compromise, and why don't we do that.

Jeremy Vine: And so what do you think will happen next week?

Lord Strathclyde: Well I'm convinced that the House of Lords will not reject the bill. I think that is a right and sensible position to take, and we will start the process of scrutinizing and providing an alternative, based on the government's legislation, and then we'll have to see whether the government, whether the House of Commons are going to listen to reason.

Interview with Rodney Bickerstaffe

Rodney Bickerstaffe
Rodney Bickerstaffe, President of the National Pensioners' Convention

Jeremy Vine: I'm joined now by Rodney Bickerstaffe, President of the National Pensioners' Convention.

Do you agree with Jean in our film there, who said that the government should increase taxes and pay pensioners more?

Rodney Bickerstaffe: Well certainly, we're a rich enough country to be able to pay for all the things that the National Pensioners' Convention want; we want a big increase in the basic state pension, we want an end to means testing, which demeans older people, and we want a link of the basic state pension to average earnings, in order that we can all share in the rising prosperity of the nation.

This isn't just about today's generation of old people by the way Jeremy. Fifty nine million people in the country, eleven million pensioners to-day, but of course, there's all those who are coming after. If we're lucky enough, we all to old age, even you perhaps.

Jeremy Vine: But don't you need to start re-educating people and telling them that the state will not bail them out. We say at the beginning of that film, people blowing their pensions in Sheffield retail park.

Rodney Bickerstaffe: Well, I mean what, what they're saying now because of pensions credit, because of means testing they know that they'll get a very little return for any savings that they do have, because the government will discount it against government benefits, as they say. But we are a rich country, and at the moment the, the basic state pension, under eighty pounds a week for a single person, this is not a fortune.

The one hundred and five pound forty five pence guarantied pensions limit, yeah, I mean that's nothing in this rich, rich country of ours and there must be a better system and electorally speaking I think all the political parties, not least the government party, have got to get hold of these issues; the grey vote is important.

Jeremy Vine: But we saw people, younger people in the Sheffield retail park in the film, spending money like there's no tomorrow, they've got their own money to create their own pension, why don't we encourage that.

Rodney Bickerstaffe: Well I think the government will have to encourage more saving, but of course they, young people want to know they're going to have a reasonable return.

There's no point scrimping and saving now, if the return that they eventually get is next to nothing and you'll know that the government really hasn't got a grip yet, of the question of means testing, and we say get rid of it. Give everybody in this country, man and woman if they're at retirement age, something decent. I mean we're supposed to be a country that is civilised, well we've got, at the moment two million of our pensioners who are under the poverty line, under eighty pounds a week.

Jeremy Vine: But the maths don't add up do they because we won't have enough workers in say fifty years, to support the number of pensioners.


Rodney Bickerstaffe: Well I think that's scare mongering. I mean it will do, not least because younger people know that they're going to be, unless they support today's pensioners, when their comes, they're not going to get anything either; so it's a societal issue.

It's not just about older people. Of the current work force, ten million out of twenty six million, don't have anything other than the basic state pension to look forward to, ten million people. And to live on a hundred and five pounds, forty five pence a week, if they're lucky.

Jeremy Vine: So the message should be, the state isn't there for you, shouldn't it?

Rodney Bickerstaffe But the state should be there for you.

Jeremy Vine: But it's not.

Rodney Bickerstaffe. I mean that's my point. Other countries poorer than us can do so much better. We've got a six months run-up to that election, probably in May, er all the political parties will be saying this is what we think that our older people should be having, unless the labour government spreads out its wares and says we're going to have an end to this demeaning means testing, well there will be problems.

Jeremy Vine: And we all have to work till we drop as well?

Rodney Bickerstaffe. Well I, I hope not. I don't know if that's the Prime Minister's view either. But, so far as I'm concerned.

Jeremy Vine: That's a solution.

Rodney Bickerstaffe: Well I mean the poorer people obviously, manual workers often die in their early 70s anyway. If you work till 70, you are going to be working till you drop.

We do need to have a look at it all, a fresh start. The government certainly has to be bold and I believe that it can be done.

NB:This transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.

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The next Politics Show will be on Sunday, 17, October at 12.30.

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