Tony Benn’s Five Questions for the Powerful

No one has power: they are given it

March 14, 2014

Tony Benn was a British Labour politician. When I was growing up, he was rarely off the news—he was typically to the left of his colleagues, and was not reticent to shame them if he felt they were not toeing a socialist line. And he was popular—he was a member of parliament for half a century.

On the occasion of his death, I came across his “Five Questions to ask the Powerful.” They come from a speech he gave to the House of Commons in 2001:

If one meets a powerful person—Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates–ask them five questions:

  • What power have you got?
  • Where did you get it from?
  • In whose interests do you exercise it?
  • To whom are you accountable?
  • And how can we get rid of you?

It strikes me that these are questions everyone should ask themselves from time to time. And maybe public figures—from police to judges to politicians—should be asked to publish their answers when assuming office. Of course, the answers will be rote, but at least they will serve as a baseline for their future actions.