It must have been sometime in early 1979. The Interior Secretary and I had just finished our morning review of public and government affairs matters. Andrus turned and asked, “What can you tell me about a member of the British Parliament, Anthony Wedgewood Benn? The British Embassy called to set up a meeting for him with me.”
“All I know is the conservative press has called him “the most dangerous man in Britain,” I replied, adding “I don’t know why but I’ll do a briefing page for you before you see him.” Andrus added the Embassy had not said why, they had just asked for the meeting.
A week later one of the more fascinating figures Andrus ever met was sitting in his office. Memories of the meeting came back to me as I read the news of Benn’s death on March 14th at the age of 88.
A voluminous writer and speechifyer, Benn was long-time member of Britain’s Labour party, but a more apt description was that he was a true socialist. He waged an eight-year battle to renounce his peerage because rather than take his father’s seat in the House of Lords he wanted to sit in Parliament where the action and power really were.
He won a seat from the Bristol Southeast and Chesterfield riding and his native intelligence soon captured the attention of his party’s leadership. He first served as Minister for Industry in the Labour government of Harold Wilson, then as Minister for Energy for Prime Minister Jim Callaghan.
His reason for visiting Andrus ostensibly was to discuss energy policy in the United States under Carter and since Interior oversaw offshore oil leasing and onshore coal leasing, programs that generated through royalties considerable income for the U.S. Treasury, he wanted to probe Andrus’ views. I couldn’t help thinking though that Benn was trying to take the measure of Andrus, that the Brits knew the former Idaho governor was one of the very few stars in the Carter Administration.
By the time he came to see Andrus critics were charging that he had almost single-handedly destroyed the Labour Party (And thereby helped to clear the path for Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party’s rise to power), and Rupert Murdock’s press was calling him “bonkers.”
What generated this charge was a bill he introduced to Parliament in 1975 which called for more centralized government, state planning and nationalizations. It was dead on arrival but some observers saw it as the beginning of the end of Labour, and Benn’s fervid support for disarmament, a tax on wealth and import controls did not exactly endear him to party leadership.
Benn never wavered though in his base belief that it was the working men and women, the shop stewards, the common laborers, the taxi drivers that he represented and who needed a sympathetic government to protect them from the predatory and exploitive practices of big business and the excesses of capitalism.
In Andrus parlance, Tony Benn was a “spear chucker,” one who enjoyed throwing the spear rather than holding up a shield. While never embraced by Labour leadership and never a serious candidate to inhabit Number 10 Downing Street, he remained a public figure with some influence for the rest of his days.
By the time of his death the very conservative Daily Telegraph had designated him to be “a national treasure,” which Benn called ludicrous.
What I remember most about this iconoclastic figure’s meeting with Andrus was his penchant to lace his comments with quotes that displayed his erudition and education. Phrases such as “Aristotle once wrote,” or “as Churchill once said,” were constantly being cited.
Andrus listened politely, but finally had enough. He saw his opening when Benn started talking about government ownership of land and its resources, as if government was the end-all and be-all. Looking Benn in the eye, Andrus said, “Let me quote to you a statement by a noted Native American, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Nation.”
With perfect recall Andrus then cited “The Creative Power, when he made the earth, made no marks, no lines of division or separation on it. The Earth was his mother. He was made of the earth and grew up on its bosom. The earth, as his mother and nurse, was sacred to his affections, too sacred to be valued by or sold for silver or gold. He could not consent to sever his affections from the land that bore him.”
Benn wasn’t quite sure what Andrus was saying to him, but he clearly knew he’d been (Pun intended) both one-upped and nicely put down.
Rest in peace, Tony Benn.Share on Facebook