Ben Thornberry, pictured in a café near Old Street roundabout, said he ‘cannot believe this wild reaction’
Published: 27 November, 2014
EXCLUSIVE by TOM FOOT
>>TRIBUNE COMMENT: Free speech loses, hypocrisy wins (click here)
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EMILY Thornberry’s truck-driving, builder brother Ben has leapt to the defence of the under-fire Islington South MP, warning her critics that defending the rights of the working class is in her DNA.
Ben Thornberry, who grew up with his older sister in a council flat, said he was baffled by the “wild reaction” over the infamous Rochester tweet that forced the Shadow Attorney General’s resignation last week.
Speaking to the Tribune in a café near Old Street roundabout, the 50-year-old blamed a culture of “cut-throat and dirty politics” and warned that the right-wing press had been “gunning” for his big sister for years.
He said: “I couldn’t see that perception that she was looking down her nose at anybody. I just didn’t understand it.
“What is happening here is that some people – not Emily – do look down their noses at the people in the construction trade, and they feel bad about it. Then when someone takes a pic of a house with a white van outside it is a chance for them to criticise them. Someone right wing makes a fuss about it and won’t let it go, then it snowballs. It says more about their own perception, and their real feelings, rather than the person who took a pic of a house that looks like the one they grew up in with their younger brother who works in the construction industry.”
Islington South MP Emily Thornberry
Mr Thornberry, who has recently returned to England after 26 years in America, works for a charity that gives disadvantaged young people a leg-up into the construction industry. In the States, he worked as a builder and freelance photojournalist, taking snaps of “gay rights, healthcare rights and activist kind of stuff”.
He said: “I have seen articles all around the world trying to explain how something like this can happen because outside of this country it is almost impossible to comprehend. It would not have happened in America. British politics is becoming increasingly cut-throat and dirty.”
“In America, I had two trucks with tools in. They were red, not white. From someone who is in the construction industry, and has been for many years in a foreign country, I cannot believe this wild reaction and how all these people are jumping on construed ideas. People are now taking a breath and saying: ‘What went on in those 24 hours?’”
High-vis-jacket-wearing and breakfast tea-drinking Ben has his home town of Guildford tattooed on his chest and does not use Facebook or Twitter.
He said: “I see my friends sit and take photos of their food and put it on Facebook. I just can’t understand it. People develop a self-importance. Subtlety is lost completely, and irony. Self-deprecating sarcasm, you can’t get that over on Twitter. You can say one thing and mean exactly the opposite. People can completely misconstrue what is going on.”
The Thornberrys grew up on the Bellfields estate in Guildford and were raised by a single mother who became Labour mayor in a Tory council heartland.
Mr Thornberry said his family “had no choice” but to go on and help the poorest in society. “It is in our genes,” he said. “When our parents divorced, my mother Sallie raised us three kids. She did whatever she could for us. She got into teaching while our dad was off ‘saving the world’.” Cedric Thornberry moved to America and became the United Nations Assistant Secretary General.
Ben said: “I remember going with mum to drop her off at Canterbury University in Kent. We asked her: ‘What are you going to do next?’ expecting to hear she was going to lunch or something, and she said: ‘I’m going to become head of the NUS, then I’m going to be a barrister and then an MP’.
“She is very driven. She gets that from our mother. And she got that from her mother, who lived in the East End and talked about a time when children couldn’t go to school because they didn’t have shoes.”
Not a Labour Party member, he admitted to “probably” being more left wing than his sister, who he said took him on his first protest march when he was 12. He recalled how they delivered Labour leaflets around Tory-controlled Guildford with their mother when they were children.
He said: “There is a prejudice about Islington and a weird stereotype of the people of Islington. I don’t think Emily fits into that. She will spend hours making sure that someone’s kid is properly supported, or a woman who is a refugee will be able to enter the country with their child, instead of ending up in prison or being murdered.
“She works very hard for the rights of the working class. The right-wing press have been gunning for her for years because she is an effective left-winger who supports Labour values. She is a strong woman and she will bounce back.”