Publication of Political Memoirs: Tony Benn makes the case for openess 4

The Public Administration Select Committee has been conducting an inquiry into ‘The Publication of Political Memoirs.’ We post here the uncorrected transcript of oral evidence given by Tony Benn, who presents a robust defence of openess.

“I believe Craig Murray, who was the ambassador in Uzbekistan, has been told that he cannot publish his diary. I think this is just in the interests of ministers; it is nothing whatever to do with the public interest, indeed quite the opposite, it makes it hard to hold people accountable for what they do.” Tony Benn

Oral Evidence Taken before the Public Administration Select Committee

on Thursday 16 March 2006

Witness: Rt Hon Tony Benn gave evidence.

Q386 Chairman: May I welcome Tony Benn, not for the first time, to the Committee. We draw upon you regularly, always to great effect and we are delighted that you are able to come to help us with one of our inquiries at the moment which is on memoirs. You of all people should be able to tell us about this as one of the great diarists of our time. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or shall we go straight to questions?

Mr Benn: May I just briefly say, and I put it in my note, that the balance of information between the Government and the people is what determines whether it is democratic or not. Looking over history, the Heresy Act of 1401 meant that if a lay person read the Bible they were burned at the stake. That was an attempt by the Government to control people thinking out for themselves their religious beliefs. Then the Church of England was nationalised by Henry VIII because he wanted to control the Church. Charles II nationalised the Post Office because he wanted to open everybody’s letters – I looked this all up when I was Postmaster General – and Hansard was imprisoned for reporting what was said in the House of Commons.

All of these related to the availability of information. The position at the moment is that the Government want to know all about us. When I use my Oyster card the police know what station I went into, where I went and when I came out again. My phone is bugged, or can be bugged, quite legally now and everything about us is known, but we are to know very, very little about what the Government do. Under the 30-year rule I shall be 111 before I know what the Cabinet minutes for yesterday are. I think that there is an imbalance and I am making a very, very simple point, which is that the argument about secrecy and so on confuses the convenience of ministers with the national interest.

My experience, if it is of any help, and I was a departmental minister for 11 years, is that there are very, very few secrets in Government at all. I once put this either to Burke Trend or Armstrong, I forget which, and they agreed with me. Some relate to security. For example, atomic matters are very, very secret, but even there I once had a document marked “Top Secret Atomic UK Eyes Only, page one of 20 pages, copy one of two copies”, so secret that we used to say “Leak before reading. Eat before you read”. It said that we could enrich uranium by the centrifuge. When I was reading this, New Scientist was publishing every week that it could be done. All I knew was that we could do it. They said they thought they could do it. I do not think that there is much.

The deployment of the military in war is secret; I accept that. I used to be told the Budget the day before and I was terrified I would sleep walk. The Budget is secret until it is published. In the old days, if your name appeared on a list of possible peers you were struck off immediately, but that is no longer the case. Postal information. Clearly there is a responsibility of Government to keep secret what they know about people in terms of information they may have given to the Ministry of Pensions or something of that kind, but otherwise there are no secrets. One example came to me last week arguing my case. I discovered that when I was Secretary of State for Energy, without my knowing, one of my officials was supplying plutonium to Israel. It was an outrage. I knew I did not know, because I did not. Once on another occasion when I suspected Pakistan had it I took it straight to a Cabinet committee. That is something which even ministers do not know.

Another example, when I was Secretary of State for Energy, plutonium from our civil power stations was sent to America for the weapons programme. I did not know that until afterwards and the man who reported it in a letter to Nature was sacked for reporting it. My argument really is that if you are talking about the interests of Government, it is malice and not information which damages the confidence in public business and that flourishes in the media and gossip and so on. Really, knowing what goes on is not damaging, with the limited exceptions that I gave and therefore I do not see why anyone should not publish what they know. I know of two Foreign Office officials: Sir Jeremy Greenstock is not to be allowed to publish his diary. Why? I believe Craig Murray, who was the ambassador in Uzbekistan, has been told that he cannot publish his diary. I think this is just in the interests of ministers; it is nothing whatever to do with the public interest, indeed quite the opposite, it makes it hard to hold people accountable for what they do. I have summarised the argument. The note I sent about my diary is only interesting because you have two accounts of the same meeting and that may or may not be interesting. I cannot think it did any damage, but obviously I could not have published them when I was in the Cabinet because then I was part of a collective and I should not expect a permanent secretary to publish a blog every week on what happens in his department. However, when they retire they become citizens again and I think what they learned ought to be in the public domain. That is my argument, very, very simply, no complexity about it and I have very briefly given you the reasons why I take that view.

Q387 Chairman: Thank you for that; it is very useful for us to have someone make the case for openness with such force and clarity. What you are really saying to us is that here we are worrying about what the rules should be about publication. Are you telling us that really we should not worry about this and we do not need any rules?

Mr Benn: I do not believe that anyone who has retired from public service should be restricted from writing what they remember, what they know and what they think. There is a way round it actually, which I have used in the past though I do not know whether it applies here. Whistleblowers got on to me because if they published they would be sacked. I told them to tell me about it and I would put down a question in the House of Commons about it, the information they had given me would be covered by the privilege I had in Parliament and if an attempt was made to sack them, I would take it to the Standards and Privileges Committee. I did once save a man from dismissal in Birmingham: they threatened him with dismissal because he was an official and he objected to the road race in Birmingham. He wrote to me and I took it up and took it to the Standards and Privileges Committee and, believe it or not, the Birmingham City Council was charged with a potential breach of privilege. That is a way round it which I have found but it would not exactly cover memoirs.

Q388 Chairman: We know that there is a public interest in openness, which you have made to us strongly. Is there a public interest in confidentiality too?

Mr Benn: You have a duty of confidentiality when you are working in the Cabinet; you have collective Cabinet responsibility, you have responsibility to your constituents, to your conscience and so on and so on. I do think that really people are entitled to know what is done in their name.

Q389 Chairman: One of the questions is: when are they entitled to know? Are they entitled to know the next day, the next month, the next year, the next century? This is the heart of the rules issue. When Lord Owen came to see us some weeks ago he made the little joke that in Cabinet Denis Healey would lean over and say to you “Tony, am I going too fast for you?”. The joke about your diaries. When is it proper to publish a diary or an account of a confidential meeting?

Mr Benn: If you have retired from the position which you occupy, you must be free. Within the Cabinet we once had a vote. Wilson asked those who were keeping diaries to put up their hands. Dick Crossman put up his hand, Barbara put up her hand and I put up mine. Barbara wrote shorthand, so her contemporary diaries were rather better on Cabinet. Dick used to write at the weekend what he wished had happened in the week and mine I did in the lunch hour from notes I made during Cabinet. I cannot believe that any of that was damaging to anybody, but clearly you could not do it while you were in the Cabinet, only when you were no longer in the Cabinet. They tried to force me to submit my diaries to the Cabinet Office, not that my diaries matter. I said I would not. My accountability is not to the Cabinet Secretary of the day; my accountability is to the people who elected me and my conscience. That was my position and I would apply that to everybody. Advisers can write their diaries but civil servants cannot. What is the difference between Alistair Campbell and Jeremy Greenstock?

Q390 Chairman: So the test is whether you are in office or not.

Mr Benn: Yes, it must be that. You could not have everyone in the Cabinet blogging the following day because you have a collective responsibility; you are part of the Government. When you are not a part of the Government, as a backbench Member, even if you have been, you must be absolutely free.

Q391 Chairman: You are saying that there is a limit to openness then; there is a limit, if you cannot do it the following morning.

Mr Benn: You cannot do it while you share the responsibility you have taken on for government. A Member of Parliament is not a member of the Cabinet.

Q392 Chairman: Even when you have gone and your colleagues are still there, surely they have the expectation that the confidences they shared with you and you shared with them will remain private at least for a period.

Mr Benn: I was only ever in office and out of office with my party, so it never applied to me. If I had been sacked from the Cabinet … Take the case of people like Clare Short who resigned from the Cabinet. I do not believe there should be any limitation on what she should write and indeed there has not been as far as I can make out. I am only saying that while you are part of the Government, whether you be a civil servant or a minister, then you are responsible by the nature of the obligation you have taken on. It is always presented as the national interest. It is nothing to do with the national interest at all. It is very embarrassing to ministers if it is known that there are different arguments going on.

Q393 Chairman: I am sorry to labour the point, but the argument that we are wrestling with and which has been put to us many times and is generally accepted is that there is a public interest in people being able to have a space in which private conversations can take place and that if people know that that space is not private, they will not say things they would otherwise say and therefore the quality of collective decision making will diminish.

Mr Benn: That was the case for locking up Hansard. They said that if people knew what was said in Parliament, then no-one in Parliament would ever dare speak their mind. This raises much more fundamental questions than you recognise. On the malice and the gossip, I used to open the papers every day when I was a controversial figure years and years ago and find my colleagues had leaked nasty things. You live with that and the media are full of it. Truthfully I think the electors are entitled to know what is done in their name. You asked about the 30-year rule. In America they have a 30-second rule: as soon as it has happened it is out. America is much better at freedom of information than we are. I am really incensed about these two plutonium cases I gave, that I was in the dark as a minister. If any civil servant had written about plutonium to Israel or the United States they would have been in prison and I would not have been able to know.

Q394 Chairman: Why not hold Cabinet meetings in public?

Mr Benn: I have wondered actually. I used to say that Cabinet was the best committee I ever attended in my life and the most interesting committee. In those days it used to meet for a full day; in January 1968 it had eight full days of meetings, morning and afternoon. Now it is for about half an hour to give the Prime Minister time to tell the Cabinet what he has decided. In those days the Cabinet discussions were absolutely riveting. To give an example of confidentiality, at the end of the IMF discussions where we had a very big argument, Jim Callaghan was then Prime Minister and he said publicly that we had discussed a number of options and the conclusion we came to was this. I was in a very fortunate position. People would ask why I had not applied import duties and I would say that the point was discussed in the Cabinet but we took a different view and I am a member of the Cabinet and I am committed. I was able to reveal the fact that there had been a discussion. Now, even to reveal that there has been a discussion would be held to be a breach of confidence.

Q395 David Heyes: I wonder about the corrosive effect on participants in key decision making – ministers, senior civil servants and the like – of knowing that all this is going to go into the public domain and, on your agenda, fairly rapidly. Does this not prevent people being honest and open? Does it not prevent a proper, full, private debate to thrash through all the issues, to have some grit in the discussion because of this anxiety about how it might be portrayed very soon after the event?

Mr Benn: I do not think so on reflection. Take some of the issues which come up, enormous issues, the question of the development of nuclear power is a really big issue and one in which I was involved, the development of industrial policy, what you should do when Rolls-Royce goes bankrupt, what you should do when British Leyland goes bankrupt, these are really big issues and the nature of your debate with your colleagues or with civil servants is a very mature debate. The fact that later it might come out that you disagreed with your permanent secretary does not make any difference at all, but it would be very inconvenient for ministers. The real point is that a minister would not want it to be known that he had acted either under the instructions of his permanent secretary or against the advice. He would not like it. It would be in his interest: it would not be in the national interest. I think you have to differentiate between the convenience of ministers and the national interest.

Q396 David Heyes: Apart from having to pr?cis it, did you ever leave key events and issues out of your own diaries?

Mr Benn: My uncut diaries, if you are interested, are 17 million words and what is published is only ten per cent of it.

Q397 David Heyes: For reasons other than those obvious time constraints and the limits on the number of words you can use, did you ever sit and make a decision along the lines of it being too sensitive, too difficult or something you could not put in your diary?

Mr Benn: No. A lot of material which was not likely to be of public interest was excluded. The rule I had with my secretary Ruth Winstone, an extremely competent woman, an agreement, was that every mistake I ever made had to be reported because otherwise the thing would lack credibility and people would remember the mistakes, but also that we concentrated on the things which had long-term interest. I would have been happy to publish the lot, except that there are probably a few small libellous statements, because I must admit that though I do not believe in personal attacks, at night I did sometimes find that releasing my feelings onto tape helped a bit. I never let them be published.

Q398 David Heyes: Did you comply with the Radcliffe rules which would have required you to submit them to the Cabinet Secretary for vetting?

Mr Benn: No, I did not; I refused. It is very, very interesting. We had a discussion in the Cabinet about memoirs and when the minutes came out it said that ministers agreed to submit their memoirs to Cabinet. I wrote to the Cabinet Secretary and said that I did not think that was the conclusion, but he said it was. At that moment Wilson resigned and then he wrote to me and said he wanted to see my diaries and I asked whether Wilson had submitted his. The Cabinet Secretary said he had not because he had resigned before it came into effect. So he exempted himself. I got on to Roy Jenkins and we agreed that we would not submit our memoirs or diaries to the Cabinet and I never did.

Q399 David Heyes: Are you saying that no-one should?

Mr Benn: I do not think I should have been asked to. Nobody ever suggested that anything I said damaged the national interest. It may have irritated colleagues, but that is not necessarily the same as the national interest.

Q400 Chairman: Did you not get a letter from the Cabinet Secretary of the day saying he had heard that you were going to publish?

Mr Benn: Yes, I did; yes. I had a letter from him saying that it was agreed that all Cabinet ministers would do it as a Cabinet decision. I disputed that that was a decision and I never submitted it and would not under any circumstances because my obligation was to my constituents, my colleagues and my conscience but not to an appointed official.

Q401 Chairman: So the whole idea of having a set of rules is …?

Mr Benn: Nonsense.

Q402 Mr Liddell-Grainger: May I just ask you about Peter Wright’s diaries, which came out and then Lord Armstrong had to go to scrutinise them. Peter Wright did have information which may or may not be right – we shall probably never know – but it was certainly devastating at the time where there was a potential plot against the Prime Minister and many others. You would say that we should know about that.

Mr Benn: Yes.

Q403 Mr Liddell-Grainger: I think there were parts of that we should not have known about, which was the burglary and all the rest of it. Is there a balance where national security has to do things? You have talked about uranium and certain securities.

Mr Benn: The Wright case is a very interesting one. I used to listen on shortwave radio to the diary being read. The Danish radio read it in English and I used to listen with earphones thinking that it was like living in occupied Germany during the war. I then decided to read the Wright book Spycatcher myself in Hyde Park. I consulted a lawyer who said I might be in trouble. I went to Hyde Park and I read it. When I read it every television camera was switched off for fear that they might be blamed for having broadcast it. What he said, which I had known for a long time, was that everyone was bugged and burgled. My rubbish was collected every morning in a Rover car. I know the Kensington Borough Council are very efficient but I doubt … My son made a rubbish bell so when the black sacks were lifted the spring brought the thing up and the bell rang. My phone was bugged and I know that because my daughter picked up the phone and heard what I had just said to some itten a potentially very damaging diary about her experiences down the road. She submitted them; there were changes; they came out fairly boringly. Do you think the things she agreed to hold back on should be kept in abeyance for a period of time and then published regardless? Obviously there is a lot in there which could be very interesting.

Mr Benn: I met Stella Rimington; she was busy bugging us all. If she was ready to talk about it, it would have been a good thing for us to have known it. Let me put it like this: if you do not know what goes on, that is by banning these memoirs, then the public are in the dark and ministers cannot be held accountable. Mind you, in many cases I do not think ministers knew what the security services were doing any more than I knew that plutonium was being sold. This idea that ministers always know is a great mistake. I raised this with Northern Ireland Ministers once or twice and I got the feeling that they had not the slightest idea what was going on.

Q405 Mr Liddell-Grainger: You talked at great length about the uranium being sent to America which you had no idea about. Nowadays, given the power of the press, the persuasion of the press, freedom of information, obviously things go on which ministers do not know about, that is the nature of it, but would you in your guestimate say that it has got less or more because the state has to hide more because it is being scrutinised more, or do you think it has got better? I cannot base it on anything other than just a question.

Mr Benn: The role of the free press is of huge importance and nothing I would want to say would go against that, although increasingly the press are embedded correspondents; they all go to Number 10 at eleven o’clock in the morning and they come out at twelve and tell us what they have been told, rather like the embedded correspondents in a war zone. I think the press are less free in their judgment than they should be and perhaps used to be, but you could not rely on the press doing it when there are people who do know and describe it. What is wrong, for example, about Sir Jeremy Greenstock writing an account of his period in Iraq at this particular moment? Would it not be beneficial for us to know his judgment on the matter?

Q406 Mr Liddell-Grainger: I do not agree or disagree, but let us just look at one other one which is Christopher Meyer. He wrote about his experience in Washington and called the ministers pygmies, he was fairly scathing about the Prime Minister and his ability to understand the issues, et cetera. How he quite came to that compared to Bush I have no idea, but never mind. That could be damaging potentially not because of what he said, but because the Americans in this case would say they were dealing with a bunch of has-beens or half-wits or whatever. That in its own way is damaging because it is undermining the credibility of the nation, is it not?

Mr Benn: That is malice and gossip and I agree that malice and gossip is damaging, but there is no rule against malice and gossip. There is a rule about publishing, but to be malicious and gossip Meyer could have gone to the Daily Mail.

Q407 Mr Liddell-Grainger: He did.

Mr Benn: I am talking about writing a book. He could have gone to them and said he thought the Foreign Secretary or whoever was a pygmy and that gets out all the time, but that is used as an excuse for denying us the knowledge of what he actually thought at the time about his role in Washington.

Q408 Mr Liddell-Grainger: He has sold a phenomenal number of books on being a red-socked fop and telling everybody that the Cabinet were pygmies basically and the Prime Minister really did not have a grasp of matters. I think that was really what he was trying to say. That was him making a commercial decision to sell as many books as he could regardless. The tittle-tattle is damaging because it makes us look ridiculous. Surely there has to be some mechanism – I do not know what and maybe you disagree totally – that we can say that after that period. It does not matter whether Jack Straw has retired and the Prime Minister has gone; it is irrelevant, but it is rather nice to know they are pygmies. However, at the moment it is not good, when we are in the middle of a situation which is fairly unstable in Iraq and Afghanistan; it is not bringing confidence to a nation with which we are working at the moment.

Mr Benn: It is very embarrassing to a minister to be described as a pygmy by a permanent secretary; I accept that, but I cannot say it isn’t in the national interest. It may be in the interest of the electorate to know. I did not read the book actually. I thought it was the source of a great deal of trouble. I should have thought it was in the interests of people to know how permanent officials saw the role of government in Washington. Walter Wolfgang said one word at the Labour conference “Nonsense” and he was charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. When we have an ID card, until the day he dies his ID card will say that he was interrogated under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and that is an example of the Government wanting to know all about us. When you examine these arguments, and you put them with very great skill but they are old and familiar arguments, it is embarrassing if the Americans discover that Sir Christopher Meyer thought a minister was a pygmy. I should think the Americans have thought that of many British ministers over the years without the help of Sir Christopher Meyer; a view no doubt reciprocated by British officials who have seen Bush and Cheney in action.

Q409 Chairman: You have made good points in response, but I think Ian’s point is that the world in which we live wants malice and gossip. The money is to be found in malice and gossip. That is what publishers want, that is what newspapers want. Once you say there are no rules because the public interest requires openness, it is not because people are after high-minded truths, but after this kind of stuff. The question then is whether it is actually in the public interest to have that happen.

Mr Benn: I think malice and gossip go on on such a scale that it has very little bearing on the issue I am raising which is the right of people who have held responsible positions to write and report what they learned when they were there. You say that malice and gossip sells. I suppose that may be the case; I do not know. The important thing is to know, for people to read it and if I read a book of the kind Meyer wrote, I should not be interested in what he said about ministers, I should want to know when the decision was taken to go to war in Iraq, who took it and when. I do not think you can use malice and gossip.

Q410 Chairman: The former Cabinet Secretary came here —

Mr Benn: Who was that?

Q411 Chairman: Sir Andrew Turnbull. He said they spent all their time trying to persuade ministers when they went on foreign trips to stay in embassies so that the whole diplomatic side of the things can kick in. The effect of Meyer is that no minister will stay in an embassy any more; they are going to stay in a hotel. If they know that the ambassador is going to publish a book giving these personal accounts of these visiting ministers, why would they?

Mr Benn: I do not think that is a valid argument at all. Mind you, if you do stay with an ambassador, the only time in my life when I stayed with an ambassador they unpacked my bag and took out my toothbrush and squeezed toothpaste on it. It was a level of support I had never even dreamed of, but I prefer to stay in a hotel myself. I think these are totally invalid arguments where the establishment cover it up themselves and that is wholly undemocratic.

Q412 Chairman: I do not think Sir Christopher Meyer was dispensing toothpaste for ministers.

Mr Benn: I do not know whether he was. I had better read his book. I cannot believe that it did any serious damage.

Q413 Mr Liddell-Grainger: We had Simon Jenkins before us who has negotiated to buy serial rights and he more than intimated that the thing that sells it is the gossip and tattle; that is what they are after, that is what they want. If you get a good story about the Prime Minister not being able to understand what you are talking about, it does not matter which Prime Minister, that is secondary. Surely it is the commercialism now. I accept that is not fair at all: you wrote yours because you wanted to do it and you wanted to make a point. Nowadays it is commercialism; it is blatant commercialism. We have Campbell about to come out, negotiating vast sums of money. We have had other people in front of us who made an enormous amount. It has just become a commercial circus. Surely we have to control it.

Mr Benn: If you examine what you have said, think about it: if malice and gossip is damaging you are not actually using the rules to protect malice and gossip but to prevent the real information from coming out. I do not think you can say “We have strict rules to prevent us saying malicious things about each other”. The rules are there to see that information about what Government are doing does not come out. I should have thought that if people buy books for malice and gossip, then they will not be interested in why we went to war with Iraq, if you see what I mean.

Q414 Mr Liddell-Grainger: I do admit that these Cabinet minutes of 1975 about the EU and the things which were said are fascinating, but I am a sad old anorak. I am not going to buy this as a story. I like what it says. I am just fascinated by what you and Jenkins and everyone else said in these minutes; it is fascinatingly interesting stuff. If you actually then said in the middle that you thought the Prime Minister was gay, it would have been the most fantastic seller; it would have been an absolutely brilliant piece of tittle-tattle. This is great as an historical document of enormous interest at the time. There is a lovely quote from you which says “… he was not inflexibly opposed to Britain’s membership of the EEC” which is wonderful.

Mr Benn: That was not me; that was Eric Varley, was it not? It says the Secretary of State for Energy; I was not Secretary of State for Energy at the time.

Q415 Mr Liddell-Grainger: I thought it was you. That is even more interesting.

Mr Benn: You thought that was me and so did I until I realised the date.

Q416 Mr Liddell-Grainger: It is fascinating history but it is a document, a very interesting document. If you want to cause the mischief and the trouble, you would spice this up in today’s terms. I am using today’s speak. Surely that cannot be right.

Mr Benn: I think you are helping my argument by saying actually what this is all about is to stop nasty stories getting into the public debate and I think that is what you are really saying, that is what it is really about and that is totally and absolutely contrary to the public interest. I accept the view that it was the sneers from Meyer about ministers which really annoyed them and actually what should have worried them, if the rules were being applied on high principle, would be what he described as what happened at the time. They do not bother about that; it is the malice and the gossip. You have to live with that in public life. I do not know what your party is like, they must be terribly friendly, but the Labour Party is known on occasions to be spiced up in conversation with a degree of malice and gossip which is unpleasant, titillating and entertaining.

Q417 Mr Liddell-Grainger: You have sat in the tearoom, we have all sat in the tearoom and we gossip like mad; you know that as well as I do. There is a slight difference between us lot having a jolly good gossip, which we all do, we love it, and potentially damaging revelations in a larger context. You obviously disagree totally. We are going to beg to disagree on this one, I am sorry.

Mr Benn: People are mature. Do not underestimate the intelligence of the electorate. One of the great problems of the establishment is that they think people are so ignorant that they cannot distinguish between malice and gossip and real information. The longer I live the more impressed I am by the incredibly high level of intelligence of people who are all on Google and the internet, they know, they read, they can discount and distinguish between the information which would be helpful to them and the gossip which titillates and sells books.

Q418 Kelvin Hopkins: The important thing, is it not, is to get truth out and particularly truth for the purposes of history. Is it not worrying that in the run-up to the Iraq war – and Lord Butler focused on this – a lot of the crucial discussions were deliberately not minuted, so we shall never have information even under the 30-year rule? This is precisely what happened; we shall presumably only have the accounts of the Prime Minister when he writes his memoirs. Is that not deeply worrying?

Mr Benn: The new form in which government is conducted – it was not the case when I was there – using e-mail and so on may mean that the basic information is not permanently in the records to be studied afterwards. The more informal the nature of government decision making – and I was last a minister in 1979 and it was quite different then because the technology had not developed at all – the more it becomes like that, the more important it is that people’s recollections of what was said should be available.

Q419 Kelvin Hopkins: Is it not also worrying that the Cabinet appears just to have taken really very little part in these discussions and to have had very little role in making the decision and, as you say, they just have reports from the Prime Minister? Will the 30-year rule record show a pathetic performance compared with what went on about the EEC in these documents?

Mr Benn: Of course I have not seen Cabinet minutes since I left the Cabinet in 1979, though these have come out. I do think that the nature of Cabinet government is totally transformed from what it was: short Cabinet meetings where announcements are made rather than discussions and debate. We outvoted the Prime Minister. Can you imagine circumstances where you went round the table and the Prime Minister was in a minority? I think that was a genuine democratic debate and I was proud to be a member of a committee where it was possible. They were formidable people: Jenkins, Crosland, Crossman and so on. I thought the Cabinet at the time was very high quality: Jim Callaghan, Wilson, Elwyn-Jones; very, very interesting. I used to sit with three bits of paper: one was what was going on; one was what I should say if I were called; thirdly, what I had to do after the Cabinet. I kept these three bits of paper and then if it was interesting I missed my lunch and went and dictated it straight away. Looking back on it now I find it riveting because I can go back on a CD-Rom and pick any Cabinet, any issue and follow it right the way through. It helps me now to be a sensible and useful citizen.

Q420 Kelvin Hopkins: In future, when memoirs are written, there will not be a formal record with which they can be compared.

Mr Benn: No, there will not be.

Q421 Kelvin Hopkins: There will not be formal records of many of these crucial discussions. Is that not damaging for our democracy?

Mr Benn: It is and I’ll tell you something else. I have come to this conclusion and I offer it to you. I am a Privy Councillor. The Privy Council has not met since I joined it; I was appointed in 1964. It only meets when the Queen dies. The thing about a Privy Councillor is that your allegiance is personal to the Crown. The oath for Privy Councillors was secret until I published it and I did publish it. When they read it to me I said I did not agree. They said that I did not have to agree. I said “What do you mean?”. They used a word I never understood until that moment. They said “We have administered the oath”. It was an injection; I had been injected with the Privy Councillor’s oath. The point I am making is that advisers today are now Privy Councillors. Their allegiance is to the Prime Minister, not to the party, not to the Government, not to Parliament, not to the public, in the way that my obligations as a Privy Councillor are simply to the Crown. I find that very interesting, because it re-interprets what is happening now in terms of mediaeval government. We are drifting back into a mediaeval form of government, just as the House of Lords has been modernised back to the fourteenth century. When it began there were no hereditary peers; they were all life peers and the King appointed them. We have modernised it back and I think our form of government is getting increasingly mediaeval. You have extended me beyond what I meant to say, but you did ask me.

Q422 Chairman: May I just bring you back to base? May I ask you about civil servants? What you are arguing, as I understand it, is that for ministers there can and should be no rules, at least the only rule you have suggested is that you should not publish this stuff while you are still a member of the Cabinet, but once you have gone, you think anything can happen; even if your colleagues are still there, if you have gone, you can do it. Does this apply to civil servants too? You seem to suggest that it does, but the traditional deal inside Government is that ministers take responsibility for things which go on. In return they get loyalty from civil servants, who in turn get anonymity. Once we say that civil servants can publish, presumably when they leave their post, immediately, that they can record what advice they gave, what ministers said to them, what they said to ministers, have we not completely changed the relationship which is at the heart of Government?

Mr Benn: I think two things. First of all, advisers have been brought in now who are in effect civil servants and they have the power to give civil servants orders, which I think is outrageous, but they do, and they can publish their memoirs. So why should civil servants be at a disadvantage to advisers? The second thing is that I used to argue and loved arguing with my old permanent secretary, with whom I had flaming rows, Otto Clarke, who was the father of the present Home Secretary. I knew what his view was. He did not retire before I did, but if he had and had published a book saying what he was saying and what I was saying, it would have opened up the nature of the argument. If he had been malicious about me, which I do not think for a moment he would have been, any more than I would want to be malicious about him, it would have been part of the public debate. There is in the back of all these questions which you put the idea that somehow the secrecy of the nature of the decision making is in the public interest, whereas my argument, as you will appreciate, is that the openness is in the public interest because citizens will know better how to cast their vote and ask their questions.

Q423 Chairman: I think it turns, as many things do, on this question of balance.

Mr Benn: Yes; of course.

Q424 Chairman: Many of us here have been ferocious in our support for freedom of information legislation.

Mr Benn: Yes; I know.

Q425 Chairman: Of course that does protect certain confidences under criteria. We may argue whether we have the right ones or not, but all such freedom of information legislation anywhere in the world seeks to strike a balance between the public interest in openness and the public interest in confidence. All we are trying to explore with you in relation to the publishing of memoirs is where that balance is to be struck, whether you believe there is a balance to be struck and how then it might be enforced.

Mr Benn: I think truthfully you just have to leave it to the common sense of the matter. If somebody leaves office and then writes a lot of malicious stuff about those with whom he previously worked, it will not do him a lot of good.

Q426 Chairman: It will make him a lot of money.

Mr Benn: Not necessarily. I do not think malice makes an awful lot of money; I do not know, maybe it does. Certainly diaries do not. You could have argued that in this select committee today I would not have been able to be candid with you if I thought it was going to be reported. However, I have been as candid as I could and you have been as candid with me and I do not think publicity damages candour.

Q427 Chairman: We precisely wanted you because of the fact that you would test our inquiry – I shall not say to destruction – by giving us a robust statement of the case for maximum openness. You have done that and in reflecting on these things we shall have to respond to what you have said to us.

Mr Benn: Thank you very much indeed. I am always available as I have retired.

Chairman: Thank you so much for coming.

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4 thoughts on “Publication of Political Memoirs: Tony Benn makes the case for openess

  • Chuck Unsworth

    I thought Benn's comments were excellent. A nice incisive approach, coupled with a sound no-nonsense view.

    He always gives such huge value and entertainment, although his wry final comment about his availability was poignant. Still, his son is carrying on some of the family tradition, if not all.

    A pity that such frankness, intellect and moral courage is not evident in today's 'leaders'. You don't have to agree with all that Benn has to say, but you certainly do have to stand in awe of his abilities and integrity.

  • Richard II

    I distrust politicians of all stripes.

    Tony Benn said:

    "My experience, if it is of any help, and I was a departmental minister for 11 years, is that there are very, very few secrets in Government at all."

    That's good to hear, because I never hear Tony Benn talk about Diego Garcia.

    The removal of a peaceful group of islanders to make way for a U.S. military base happened under the Labour government of Harold Wilson and during the years Tony Benn was a minister.

    Article here:,3

    Yet, it wasn't until 2000 that the British public got to hear about Diego Garcia, and it wasn't thanks to Tony Benn or any other politician.

    In the late 1990s, a British solicitor, Richard Gifford, happened to be holidaying in Mauritius. There, he listened to first-hand accounts of what had taken place decades earlier on a little known island in the Indian Ocean – Diego Garcia.

    Armed with documents the British government would rather have burned, Richard Gifford took the Chagosssians' case to the High Court. The judge ruled that what the British government had done was "illegal" and "shameful".

    At last, the story successive Labour and Conservative governments had try to bury, surfaced.

    The story in brief:

    America needed a strategically located military base in the Indian Ocean. Britain promised to hunt down a location.

    An island was found that seemed more than suitable. Only problem: around 2,000 people were living on it. Government ministers referred to these people as "Tarzans" and "Man Fridays". These "Ape Men" had to be got rid of.

    Intimidation often works, so the British government gassed the islanders' pets. Having given the Chagossians a bloody nose, government officials told the islanders to leave their homeland pronto.

    They did so – because the British government gave them no other choice. They were sent to Mauritius, where they were forced to live in grinding poverty, having received no compensation from the British government. Some could take no more of this punishment, and committed suicide.

    Blair has promised to fight the Chagossians to the bitter end, knowing that the islanders are increasingly reliant on the generosity of the British public to continue their battle in the courts.

    In 2004, Blair issued an edict banning the islanders from ever returning to their homeland – TO THEIR PROPERTY! – using terrorism as the pretext.

    Here are two articles about Diego Garcia:

    Timeline of events here:

    And here's another article from the BBC's Web site:

    Here's the U.K. Chagos Support Association:….

    The story so far:

    And here's a picture of the slums the Chagossians live in thanks to the brutality of the British government and decades of secrecy:

  • Richard II

    Correction: one remark on the brutality of the regime:

    "Uzbekistan, a truly gruesome dictatorship, is receiving $43 million in military aid…" (page 89)

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