Tony Benn’s testimony for the defence, Jun 21
He outlined the sequence in attitudes towards new and revolutionary ideas: ‘At first, they’re ignored,’ he said, ‘then, if you press on, people think you’re mad. Next, you become dangerous. At last, after some pause, you won’t find anyone at the top who doesn’t claim to have thought of those ideas in the first place. The village at Parliament Square is in the early stages of that process.’
When asked about the impact of Democracy Village on the Square, he said that all public events, including coronations and state openings of Parliament, cause disturbance, but to use that as an excuse to prevent people getting as close as possible to Parliament would be completely indefensible.
Benn expressed his great admiration for Brian Haw as a hero, ‘a man ahead of his time’. In the future, he explained, ‘the Afghan and Iraq wars will not be seen as acceptable.’ While Benn had visited to support Haw many times in the nine years he has been the famous peace campaigner at Westminster, since May 1st, he had also visited Democracy Village on the Square. He did not know all the different causes represented, but in general he supported them. ‘The idea of turning Parliament Square Gardens into a Democracy Village is an imaginative idea. It exactly sums up my view of its role.’
Was Democracy Village deterring others from use of the Square? This democratic process has to be understood in its entirety, Benn said. Referring back to great historic predecessors like the Suffragettes, the Chartists and the Tolpuddle Martyrs, he also talked about Nelson Mandela. The Square had been completely packed out when the Mandela statue was inaugurated. ‘He’s another man ahead of his time. Now, Mrs Thatcher used to describe him as a terrorist. No change happens without people putting pressure on governments from below.’
Was there evidence on his visits that Democracy Village was intimidating to others? No, none whatever. The defence lawyer Ms Harrison then asked if he was aware that the Democracy Village was being treated as an assembly, and that according to Mayor Boris Johnson’s bye-laws, anyone who wishes to take part in an assembly on Parliament Square must ask for permission. Prior permission? Now that, Benn insisted, is intimidating.
Your own presence, Harrison further explained, could constitute a criminal offence. Part of the proceedings the Mayor is bringing is to prevent people being present and, once evicted, to stop them coming back. That could apply to you; people could become victims of court action just for being present on the Square, for talking to villagers or encouraging them. That, Benn pronounced, is an attack on the democratic process. ‘It is terribly important for young people to be interested in Parliament. If those young people are intimidated, they will just become cynical about the process.’
The Mayor of London’s lawyer, Mr Underwood attempted to exploit divisions between Haw and the Democracy Village, but Benn was having none of it. He simply and truthfully stated of the villagers in relation to Haw: All the people around him, support him.
Some of the defendants of Democracy Village, as young as 18 years old, actually hardly know who Tony Benn, aged 85, is. Today in court, he was still learning from their example, while giving all of us a vital history lesson.