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banner Tuesday, 1 January, 2002, 11:30 GMT
Transcripts: Tony Benn - The Labour Minister
Tony Benn
Tony Benn was Minister of Technology from 1966-1970
Tony Benn first took a seat in the House of Commons as the newly-elected MP for Bristol South East in 1950.

In the 1960s and 1970s he was a minister under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan. His various government roles included those of Energy Secretary, Industry Secretary, Minister of Technology and Postmaster General.

Tony Benn became chairman of the National Executive Council in 1971.

Documents released under the 30-year rule reveal that the British government in 1971 saw Concorde as a way into Europe.

In an interview to UK Confidential, Benn comments on the three key events in 1971: Concorde and its relationship with the EC: the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and internment.


When Labour came to power in 1964, what was the attitude towards the Concorde project?

Oh they wanted to cancel it. You see Macmillan took it on because he wanted to get Britain into Europe and because they didn't trust the French, they insisted on a no-cancellation clause so when we got to power in 1964, I wasn't involved.

Getting Concorde off the ground
March 1969 - First model made its maiden flight from Toulouse, France
April 1969 - Second prototype, the British-built Concorde, took off from Filton aerodrome, Bristol.
November 1970 - both prototypes had flown at twice the speed of sound - known as MACH 2.
December 1973 - Concorde's first production aircraft took to the skies.
January 1976 - the first commercial Concorde services were flown simultaneously by British Airways to Bahrain and Air France to Rio de Janeiro.
I was Postmaster-General although I had an interest because it was built, part of it in Bristol. They tried to cancel it and couldn't on the advice of the Attorney-General, Elwyn Jones.

And really from then until it was finally approved Whitehall all, and the Treasury, always wanted to cancel it and my last few weeks as Minister of Technology in 1970, Sir Ronald Melville who was the aviation secretary came to me and said we all think that Concorde should be cancelled and then of course we were defeated.

It wasn't until December 10th 1971 that it was announced that Concorde would go ahead and then when we came back in 1974 they all came to my office and said everyone in Whitehall agrees it should be cancelled, and then I had the job of trying to save it.

But it was an extraordinary story really and it has been a success.

In 1971 when obviously you were in opposition but Edward Heath was negotiating with President Pompidou about accession to the EC, could we in any way cancel at that point? Would it be political suicide?

I think it would have been very damaging to our relations with France.

Why did you encourage the creation of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS)?

Upper Clyde Shipbuilders was of course a response to the decision by the Heath government to pull the plug on the shipbuilding industry in the Clyde, and they decided - I knew nothing about it - they decided to have a work-in.


Ted Heath was well to the left of New Labour

Tony Benn
A statement was made in the House of Commons by John Davis. I got in a plane and went straight there and supported them. I didn't have much support at the time from Wilson, the Prime Minister, because he thought this was an illegal act and so on but when he realised how popular it was, he was very quick to go up there himself and give support, though he didn't go into the yard.

But I had been involved in it from a much earlier period because although I didn't actually set up UCS as such, it was set up just before I became Minister of Technology. You see the thing is this, in 1948 Britain launched 48 percent of all the ships launched in the world.

Nearly one in two ships in the world was launched in British shipyards and now what is it, one or two shipyards trying to get a Trident refurbishing contract.

We've thrown away shipbuilding.

What did you think of the U-turn effectively made by Edward Heath in February 1972 concerning Upper Clyde Shipbuilders?

I wrote an article in the Sunday Times called Heath's Spade Work for Socialism. I went through all the powers that Heath had taken - power to control companies, to put in commissioners, to control prices, to control profits, to invest, and when I was subsequently Secretary of State for Industry in 1974/75, the only bill I had was Ted Heath's bill.

My own industry bill was introduced in 1975 and Wilson sacked me before the bill came into force so I relied entirely upon Ted Heath. Ted Heath was well to the left of New Labour.

So how much of a turning point do you think that U-turn on Upper Clyde Shipbuilders was when we look at it now with hindsight?

I think it shows that people are not quite as powerless as they make out. If a determined body of people campaign for something, it might be for votes, might be for votes for women like the Suffragettes. It might be the environmental campaign.

You dismiss it to begin with, obviously a lot of rubbish all these funny environmentalists. Then a few years later the prime minister makes a speech in favour of the environment. And that UCS campaign, the work-in, inspired people, gave them hope, gave them confidence.

In the end he said to himself it's not worth the candle and then he ended up of course losing on the miners' strike. The miners didn't beat him but when Heath said who governs Britain, the electors said - not you, Mr Heath - and we had a Labour government of 1974. But he was responding to pressure.

Finally Northern Ireland. What do you think that Ted Heath got so wrong in Northern Ireland when he came into power? Things got particularly bad in 1971, obviously leading into 1972.

Well, if you go back to the beginning, I mean you have to go back to partition, go back to if you like to Mr Gladstone's Home Rule Bill. The Unionists always prevented a settlement that would bring the Nationalists in and then Carson in 1910 or whenever managed to prevent the Home Rule Bill from going through and then the partition was enforced and the Black and Tans were sent in and the Irish Free State was set up and so on.

And in 1969 I was in the Cabinet when the troops were sent in on the advice of Jim Callaghan, who was Home Secretary at the time.

And I think the interesting thing when I look back at the whole policy in Northern Ireland, every single policy failed.

Occupation failed, partition failed, Stormont failed, strip-searching failed, internment failed, the Sinn Fein ban on broadcasting failed, plastic bullets, everything failed until talks began and I think one of the great contributions in 1997 was bringing Sinn Fein in. Until that happened there was no prospect whatever of solving the problem.

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