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What was on - A visit to 'An Evening with Tony Benn'


“The Sage”, Gateshead, is an appropriate billing for the wit and wisdom of this venerable parliamentarian. Tony Benn is the consummate political performer, working his audience with a skill, acquired over more than six decades, that many a professional stand-up comic must envy. This is a stage show masquerading as politics.

It begins with a brief preamble where he draws his audience in by massaging their expectations. These are sympathetic folk wanting their preconceptions confirmed: he starts by reminding them of his honorary membership of the National Union of Mineworkers, number 001. Cue the evening’s first of many rounds of applause. Later he will expound on the 1984/5 strike and allude to a few difficulties in Nottinghamshire. Perhaps he would not wish to dwell on that theme as being the ex-MP for Chesterfield it might call into question his influence in local matters.

The format is largely that of BBC’s Question Time, with a panel of one. Roving microphones invite audience members to ask largely anodyne questions – Who was your favourite prime minister? What’s your opinion of the new US president? Were you too leftwing in the 80s for Labour to get elected? – allowing Benn to draw on his extensive repertoire of anecdotes and make generalised “lefty” pronouncements. Unlike Question Time there’s no opportunity for the questioners to respond, so no indication of how satisfied they were with the answers. They largely played the straight man to Benn’s jester.

He is, or at least has become, the Bob Monkhouse of politics. Monkhouse would similarly invite his audience to give him topics and then respond with appropriate jokes from his vast collection. So it is with Tony Benn. There is certainly no analysis. His claims to be horrified by war were not tempered by his being a minister in Labour governments that deployed nuclear weapons capability. The welfare state resulted from the munificence of the Attlee (Benn’s favourite PM) government, apparently. And no sense of irony when he repeatedly said that the prominent individual wasn’t important and then went on to list all the major world leaders and politicians he’d known personally.

If he truly believes that everyone is equally significant and that no one should be seen as special, how come he was sitting up there on the stage pontificating to 1,600 paying punters and selling his book in the foyer? Once politicians addressed public meetings for free, and the public expected to play an active part. But this is performance, ultimately reassuring the audience that whatever doubts they might have about Labour’s recent history, actually there is no other future than with Labour. The CPB (ML) did receive a passing mention as he listed the initials of various communist and socialist parties and groups. Their members, however committed, are misguided, according to Benn, as the only future for socialists and socialism is in the Labour Party.

Democracy is Benn’s main theme, but it does not go beyond the ballot box. This evening was the epitome of what passes for democracy in Britain; a passive audience invited to applaud (or boo in the full pantomime of parliamentary politics) and then place an X against which of the very similar predetermined bundle of policies they dislike least. An entertaining evening, but no laughing matter.