CILIP in London organised the evening event, a speech by Tony Benn. He entered the lecture theatre, mug of tea in hand and wearing what I thought was an NUM tie, though I was too far away to be sure.
Introduced by Peter Beauchamp, President of Cilip in London, he gave a characteristic Benn performance. He described libraries as universities which anyone can enter without A levels, and the record of the nation's experience. He pointed out how, with rapid advances in knowledge, all six billion of us go to bed each day more ignorant than we were that morning.
He said there were only three questions worth asking: what's going on, why and what should we do about it? He described his diaries and archives, telling us how a Miners Federation of Great Britain leaflet from 1935 proved invaluable many years later. His diaries now consist of some 13 million words, spoken into a tape-recorder every night; he felt he had to do it daily so as to be accurate. Crossman, he reminded us, used to leave writing his diaries till the weekend. He felt, as do bloggers, that he should not edit retrospectively, even if he later proved to be wrong. His archives are costly to maintain, not least in the cost of storage, occupying several damp garages, and he faces the problems of changing technologies, from the early wire-recordings through tapes to CDs.
He discussed freedom of information. Governments have always wanted to control what we know, and he cited the 1491 Heresy Act as an example. which forbade lay people from reading the bible. The nationalisation, as he described it, of the Church of England by Henry VIII, which was as much about control of information as the king's marital difficulties; later Milton advanced a theoretical basis for the freedom of press and after the Restoration, Charles II started the Royal Mail to be able to read his subjects' letters. The founders of Hansard were imprisoned for reporting parliamentary debates and Google is now being told by the US government to reveal enquiries to the security services. Governments want to know all about us, but what if we want to know about them? Existing freedom of information legislation is, he said, inadequate, allowing government to make charges for providing information and to suppress information it does not want to disclose. He cited the case of Walter Wolfgang, who made the best speech at the 2005 Labour Party conference, consisting of one word, "Rubbish", who was thrown out of the conference, interviewed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and consequently can now not travel to the US.
Are there any real secrets in government, he asked? Apart from the details of the budget, personal information and details of negotiating positions, he thought probably not. The most secret document he ever saw as a minister was a centrifugal method for enriching uranium; the same week he saw this highly classified document, it was published in the New Scientist. Malice, gossip and rumour are damaging, accurate information is not. He suspected ministers do not want the public to know quite how ignorant they are, while civil servants do not wish it to be known how powerful they are. The younger generation have to live in a world where we have the power to destroy the human race, never possible before, but equally have the power to solve the world's problems, to provide free HIV drugs for Africa, to protect New Orleans from floods. to illustrate this, he quoted from a letter sent to him while he represented one of the Bristol constituencies, at the time when the Soviet Union had landed a vehicle on the moon; if the USSR could do this, asked the constituent, was there any possibility of a better bus service in Bristol? (He quoted this same example when I heard him at Tolpuddle earlier this year).
Questions from the floor:
How public libraries could comp[ete with other local government services for resources. Tony reminded us of the introduction of museum charges, and said public libraries should be defended, being universities for so many people.
What will happen to your archive when you die? Someone will take them over; and he has been talking to the British Library
Would you encourage others to keep a diary as you do? He felt that most political memoirs were worthless, citing Douglas Hurd and David Blunkett's efforts as examples. He uses his archive every day
Why do so few young people vote? He thought it was not apathy, but that people no longer feel represented but managed by politicians.
I there were greater transparency in government, would ministers be more cautious? No, he thought. Some claimed that it might undermine cabinet cohesion, but he thought rumour, gossip, malice [of which there must have been a great deal in the Wilson cabinet, and indeed in every other-TR] were worse. These battles have to be fought in every generation, there is always the possibility that the victories won by Milton and Hansard, Milton could be reversed.
What about the History Matters campaign? He felt a historical understanding to be essential, though not the history of the rich and powerful. For example the lessons of the first British imperialist adventure in Afghanistan in 1834, new Labour have the illusion that history began in 1997
He mentioned Paul Robeson's visit to SOAS, where we met, the English Revolution, and the Tolpuddle martyrs.
How can public libraries stay free in the face of threats of privatisation from the World Trade Organisation. He thought the privatisation of libraries awful: democracy is revolutionary, citing the example of Birmingham where power at the polling station developed public services, by contrast now any one with a few million can buy a city academy.
Does he read other people's diaries? No, he uses books mostly for reference and finds writing terribly slow. Authenticity doesn't always come out of a book.
Are you a member of your public library? I use it, but I'm not registered. He uses the House of Commons library and has high praise for the staff there, though he is conscious of an old tradition there, where the librarians seem to be guarding against theft. There is a high desk he likened to that at a police station.
His speech has also been described by Ruth Rikowski. Readers may care to compare her account and mine http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Tony%20and%20Caroline%20Benn