On the Politics Show, Sunday 22 October 2006, Jon Sopel interviewed Tony Benn and Dr Liam Fox
Tony Benn said Clare Short's decision to resign was "absurd". He attacked the government's policy for House of Lords reform, saying what the Prime n to resign the Labour whip was "stupid" and that the conclusion that she needed Minister had done was to "modernise the House of Lords, back six hundred years".
Shadow Defence Secretary Dr. Liam Fox attacked the government over its treatment of military forces, criticizing changes to forces benefits as a "stealth tax".
Also on the programme... Chancellor Gordon Brown attacked the Conservatives for their tax and spending plans: "The great failure of the Conservatives at the last election, the election before that and in the parliament from 1992 to 1997 was that they put the stability of the economy at risk by having unfunded promises, telling people they could afford the things they could never afford and it's absolutely clear that not only to the conservative proposals not add up they simply don't add up, it's also clear that if they were ever to be implemented then the most of the benefits would go to the people who are the wealthiest members of the community and not to the average citizen in the this country."
Dr. Fox responded: "I suppose the only thing you can really say about Gordon Brown is that he's taken longer to screw up the economy than most Labour chancellors have in the past."
Full transcripts of both interviews are below:
JON SOPEL: Tony Benn joins us now. Welcome to the Politics Show. Wise, foolish?
TONY BENN: Well I think she's identified some problems but she's come out with the wrong conclusion. I mean the problems are twofold really. First of all New Labour is basically a Thatcherite government and Mrs Thatcher when asked her greatest achievement said New Labour. And I think the New Labour, trio Brown Blair and Mandleson decided you couldn't win unless you followed basically Thatcher policy. Now that's one argument.
The war is part of that if you know what I mean. But the other question which needs to be looked at is what has happened to democracy. I mean power now isn't in parliament, it's in Brussels where they decide our trade policy. The central bank in Brussels, the IMF, the World Trade Organization, we don't elect them we have no say. So what's happened in the world in so called parliamentary democracies created a one party state, Bush and Kerry, Merker and Shroder, Belosconi and Prodi, Blair and Cameron. They're basically part of a one party system and that means people feel shut out.
JON SOPEL: So everything you've just said points to you supporting what Clare Short has decided to do.
TONY BENN: No, I think the real problem, but I think resigning from the Labour party is a stupid idea because you actually have to work for other people but at the same time, major reforms are needed. I mean for example the centralization of power, the use of patronage by the Prime Minister, Royal Patronage. The way in which everything is decided from the top, this is quite unacceptable and Labour MPs have some - have to do something about and Clare should be campaigning for that.
JON SOPEL: And what about her saying that the best outcome for the next election would be a Hung Parliament, which I'm sure if you're sitting in a marginal seat and you're fighting to hold on to it, that's the last thing you want to hear.
TONY BENN: Well I say I think her conclusion is absurd. I mean supposing the BNP came second to a Labour MP, is she going to support the BNP to get him out, no it's an absurd idea but the issues that she raises do need to be considered and then the remedies have to be considered and people ought to campaign for what they believe in, all the powers of the royal prerogative should go to parliament. The Labour Party should have a greater role. Parliament should listen to - the cabinet should meet to discuss and decide things. These are very big questions.
JON SOPEL: Clare Short is often seen with a misty eyed romanticism among some people of the left do you think she's alienated herself by what's she's done.
TONY BENN: Well she said she'd leave the government, she's opposed to the Iraq and she stayed and I think her record is questionable. But I don't want to be personal about her but just saying I'll become and independent hasn't actually contributed anything. She could say what she liked in the Labour Party, I've been in the Labour Party sixty five years nearly, I've always said what I like.
But I think you mustn't be personal about your - the people you disagree with, just argue your case and in the end public opinion shifts. Look at the war. Three years ago when the war began the people who opposed it were considered mad and treacherous now everybody knows the war was a catastrophe.
JON SOPEL: Just on some of the powers of patronage that you were talking about I mean we see a leak in the Sunday Times today that there may be reform of the House of Lords back on the agenda. Jack Straw looking at ways of increasing the numbers of... you're raising your eyes to heaven.
TONY BENN: I think it's utterly ridiculous. What the Prime Minister has done is to modernize the House of Lords, back six hundred years, when the Lords began there were no hereditary peers they were all the Kings cronies and he's reinstated that system and calls it modernization. Now... got a scheme that will appoint people, half will be elected, I mean it's ridiculous. In a democracy, you vote for the people who make the laws you're expected to obey. And the Prime Minister, no Prime Minister wants democracy because he depends upon the patronage to control MPs and everybody else.
JON SOPEL: But hasn't this been a government that's wanted to give away powers, I mean you know, the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly, power sharing in Northern Ireland. I mean these are things that the...
TONY BENN: Oh yes, that is true but on the central question of the power of the Prime Minister is greater in every way. Look at Mandelson. He was appointed to commissioner in Brussels, never asked parliament. I mean he would have got a huge majority, no no that was a royal power, goes to war, that's a royal power. Even David Cameron will come round to the proposal I put up ten years ago that the power to go to war should be transferred to the House of Commons I think opinion on these things is shifting.
JON SOPEL: You are also remembered as a great diariest and the Benn diaries were a fantastic read. I mean I wonder what you thought of the Blunkett diaries. Interestingly being published while the government is still in power.
TONY BENN: Well that's for him to decide. But I don't...
JON SOPEL: I'm asking you what you think.
TONY BENN: Yes, I know but... I don't think information ever damages democracy. What damages democracy is malice and gossip and rumour but if somebody says this is what we're discussing, that actually strengthens democracy.
You see when we had the big debates on the IMF where we made huge cuts in '76 the cabinet met five or six days, morning and afternoon and in the end Jim Callaghan said, all these other points were put forward, this is what we decided to do. Now that actually reassures people.
JON SOPEL: But have you ever known diaries to be reacted to so swiftly by some the, you know the civil servants breaking cover and saying, actually, it was nothing like that when there was a riot at Lincoln prison.
TONY BENN: Well that's the argument there always is about history and what really happened but I don't object to somebody describing what's going on because I think secrecy is a ..
JON SOPEL: But while the government you support is still in power. Isn't that an issue. Your diaries came out afterwards.
TONY BENN: Well they did in fact but if we'd back in office early and I'd been in the government they might have come out at the same time. I don't think that particularly matters but you see what the government wants is to know everything about us, about your phone what¿ but you're not to know much about what they do. But I think that inbalance of information is one of the reasons why people are cynical.
JON SOPEL: Tony Benn, always a pleasure to have you on the programme. Thank you very much.
END OF INTERVIEW
LIAM FOX, MP Shadow Defence Secretary
JON SOPEL: I'm joined now by their Defence Spokesman, Liam Fox. Liam Fox, welcome to the Politics Show.
LIAM FOX: Thank you.
JON SOPEL: Has America and for that matter Britain as well been arrogant and foolish.
LIAM FOX: Well I think mistakes have been made by, by the coalition. And I think that the security situation is worse than almost anyone would have wanted or expected at this point and this length of time after the initial military involvement. The question is, where do we go from here and I think the first thing to understand is that there are no easy solutions in Iraq, it's a very complex picture. You've got effectively three different regions. You've got the Shia against Shia violence in the south. You've got Sunni against Shia violence in the middle of the country. You've got the Kurds in the north. So clearly, there's not going to be a partition solution that's simple or a withdrawal solution that's simple.
JON SOPEL: So what do we do. I mean for example, one of the ideas that's been floated and this follows James Baker, the former US Secretary of State's visit to Iraq, is that maybe it's time to try and bring in Syria and Iran in to the process of sort of honest brokers. What would you feel about that.
LIAM FOX: Well I think that we do require a genuinely open and honest debate in this country about the options and we of course don't know what the Baker Commission will propose. But at the same time that that debate is held in the United States, you need to have that same debate in the United Kingdom. Here it's likely to come around the time of the Queen's Speech in the House of Commons and the Conservatives will make sure that we have a debate, a full debate in the House of Commons on foreign and security policy. So that we can have a proper look at the different options in the House of Commons.
JON SOPEL: Sure. It does seem that the sands are shifting, that people are changing policies, they're looking at alternatives. I'm asking you, what would you do differently.
LIAM FOX: Well we need to be attempting to find ways in which we can make the Iraqi government more stable, provide more of their own security and to be able to create for example, workable, judicial and policing systems in the South. When I was there in the summer, when I was down in the south the Commander said to me, if you want to really understand where we are here, it's like 1920's Chicago in the desert. A lot of our problem is criminality. Organised crime, gangsterism, that requires not a change in the political system but a proper judicial system. So these are developments that need to come if we're going to get better security and a better chance for the re-building of the infrastructure upon which the legitimacy of our presence there depends.
JON SOPEL: But how, specifically. What should we be doing differently than we're doing now.
LIAM FOX: Well it's not necessarily different but perhaps the speed and emphasis that we give it has to change. For example, we are way behind in terms of police training. It needs to be speeded up. We're behind on where we should be in re-building the judicial authorities and systems, that needs to be speed up. Now it may well mean that we have to bring in bodies from outside in terms of giving support ¿ (overlaps)
JON SOPEL: What do you mean bodies from outside.
LIAM FOX: Well it means we've got to have a greater involvement with other powers in the region, as you, as you suggested. That's one potential option. It also means that we perhaps have to put more emphasis even financially on the reconstruction in Iraq. What Sir Richard Dannatt said last week had a great deal of resonance to it.
When I was in Iraq earlier in the year our troops were telling me that the relationship with the people of Iraq had gone from welcoming to consent to tolerance. If you extrapolated that at some point we would no longer have the legitimacy of the support of the ordinary people of Iraq. Now, they were looking for two things I think.
One is greater security, but also greater re-building of their infrastructure. And I think we have to accept in the coalition that the length of time that was taken to get that reconstruction underway and also our lack of intelligence about just how bad things had become under Saddam Hussein has made our involvement in Iraq more difficult and probably more prolonged than it otherwise would have been.
JON SOPEL: You mentioned General Dannet, and he raised the whole question of the mission. What is the mission now.
LIAM FOX: The mission is to create a stable state, that is governed by the Iraqi people themselves, providing their own security arrangements. That means the Iraqi army, Iraqi police, rebuilding the civil institutions and making sure that they can actually govern themselves in a way which creates stability in the region.
JON SOPEL: I just wonder whether we have gone from a sort of maximalist position whereby we talk about democracy, a flourishing democracy, rebuilding the Iraqi economy, sort of, a land almost flowing with milk and honey to the minimalist position now, which is roughly speaking the moment we can hand over security to the Iraqi forces, we get the hell out.
LIAM FOX: Well I think there's been perhaps a naivety in Western foreign policy, it's something that I raised, something William Hague has raised and that is, the emphasis on democracy almost as being defined by the use of electoral mechanics. We're a liberal democracy in the United Kingdom but we were liberal long before we were democratic, in other words our institutions of the rule of law, respect for human rights, of our ability to exercise our economic liberty in a market system, the ownership of property, these are all things that underpin our democratic system and I think that what we are learning now is the lesson that you can't take a country that was as degraded and as broken as Iraq and turn it in to a sort of Western style democracy overnight. We have to develop the institutions which will underpin democratic structure.
JON SOPEL: Kim Howells said that it's possible that British troops would be out within a year. Do you think that's possible.
LIAM FOX: Well, why not eleven months, why not thirteen months. Again, picking an arbitrary figure and having an artificial time table is simply to fail to recognise either the complexity of the position we're in or previous mistakes. We don't know exactly what the security position will be, we don't know the level of legitimacy we will have in the eyes of the Iraqi people, the level of reconstruction that's going on so to pick twelve months... (interjection)... was I think a very very silly thing to say.
JON SOPEL: In the meantime British servicemen are still getting injured both there and in Afghanistan. Tony Blair has said today that while there won't be separate hospitals, that they will be treated on separate wards. Does that go far enough for you.
LIAM FOX: Well why now? This problem has been going on for some time. We've been questioning it for some time and it seems that the government only take action when it's a political embarrassment to them.
Why hasn't it happened before because I think as somebody, putting my Doctor's hat back on for a moment, one of the things that our troops in combat, when they come back require is the environment for psychological healing for the trauma that they've had as much as almost a level of medical care that's got to be done in completely independent units and it means no mixing with civilian patients and what we've had so far in my view as been an absolute betrayal of people who've put their lives on the line for our security and it's simply not acceptable.
JON SOPEL: Do you agree with the criticism made by Brigadier Ed Butler who was in charge of 16th Air Assault in Afghanistan that part of the problem we face now is that we committed all the resources to Iraq and took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan.
LIAM FOX: Well, two things have happened since the current government came to office. We've seen a further contraction of our armed forces. The army cut by nine thousand, the navy by ten thousand, the RAF by sixteen thousand and our defence budget as a share of national wealth at its lowest level since 1930. At the same time, we've increased our commitments in Sierra Leone and the Balkans and Iraq and Afghanistan.
What you cannot do is increase your commitments without increasing your resources and in 2004 the government for example cut the helicopter budget from 4.5 billion to 3.2 billion in the middle of two big international conflicts. That made no sense whatsoever. I'm afraid the government are now suffering from a consequence of their own bad judgements.
JON SOPEL: Okay. So assume you become Defence Secretary after the next General Election, what's the answer to that.
LIAM FOX: Well, the question is first, the question is what will our level of commitment be. Clearly, if our commitments are as they are just now, although I would be surprised to see in three or four years time, the same level of commitment in Iraq, the question is, how do we actually carry out those commitments, what level of resources do we require. What you cannot do...
JON SOPEL: Sounds like you'll need a bigger defence budget.
LIAM FOX: Well you would need a bigger budget if you had the same level of commitments as we have at the present time. (interjection )...
JON SOPEL: You've been critical of the equipment levels, force reductions, lack of armed vehicles, lack of body armour. Also in favour of renewing Trident. I mean...
LIAM FOX: Some of these decisions, some of these decisions are not just about resources, some of them are about procurement decisions taking far too long, far too long to get the appropriate body armour. Not necessarily about the money and we have also to look at the way we get decisions, in defence, on procurement. Why do we have so many civil servants working in procurement and yet we take so long to be able to deliver the equipment... (interjection)... required.
JON SOPEL: Doesn't this lay you open to the charge that from Labour and from Gordon Brown - that he's making for viewers in Scotland later on, but I mean essentially that a lot of your commitments are uncosted.
LIAM FOX: Well we'll make our full plans clear when it comes to the Election. What we have said is that we may not be able to provide the tax reductions that the Conservatives instinctively want, because we may have other commitments national security being top of that list. But Gordon Brown, before he lectures us, should be taking a close look at this own behaviour today when he gives our troops on the front line a bonus of two thousand two hundred pounds but the government at the same time is reducing their allowances by two thousand three hundred. This stealth tax on our troops is exactly the same as what he does to the rest of the population which is he gives with one hand and takes with the other.
JON SOPEL: I just want us to listen to the point that Gordon Brown makes and I want you to respond to that afterwards.
GORDON BROWN: The first thing that an economy needs and I thought the Conservatives would have learnt the lesson from their failures in the past is stability and you cannot put the stability of an economy at risk by having tax and spending proposals that don't add up. The great failure of the Conservatives at the last election, the election before that and in the parliament from 1992 to 1997 is they put the stability of the economy at risk by having unfunded promises, having, telling people that they could afford things that they could never afford and it's absolutely clear not only do the Conservative proposals not add up, they simply don't add up, it's also clear that if they were ever to be implemented then most of the benefits would go to the people who were the wealthiest members of the community and not to the average citizen in this country.
JON SOPEL: Gordon Brown, and as I said, you can hear more of that interview if you're watching in Scotland. Liam Fox, let me just put the point to you.
LIAM FOX: We've made it very clear, economic stability will be the number one priority for us in terms of our economic management. We will only give tax cuts when we believe it's sound to do so. But there is Gordon Brown, a man who's massively mortgaged the future by overspending, who's created a huge pensions crisis in this country, lecturing us about fiscal common sense. He's the man with his big PFI projects, which mean that future generations will be paying for his spending for a very long time to come. He inherited a golden economic legacy from the Conservatives and a stable economy. I suppose the only thing you can really say about Gordon Brown is that he's taken longer to screw up the economy than most Labour chancellors have in the past.
JON SOPEL: Liam Fox. Thank you very much indeed.
END OF INTERVIEW WITH LIAM FOX
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NB:These transcripts were typed from a recording and not copied from original scripts.
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The Politics Show Sunday 22 October 2006 at 12:00 BST on BBC One.
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