Late Developer

Paul Foot

  • Against the Tide: Diaries 1973-1976 by Tony Benn
    Hutchinson, 512 pp, £20.00, October 1989, ISBN 0 09 173775 3

For nearly a century, Labour MPs have been going to Parliament to change the world, but have ended up changing only themselves. Tony Benn is unique. He went to Parliament to change himself, but has ended up determined only to change the world. This extraordinary conversion has taken place not on the backbenches, where a young socialist’s revolutionary determination is often toughened by being passed over for high office, but in high office itself. Indeed, the higher the office Tony Benn occupied, the more his eyes were opened to the horror of capitalist society, and to the impotence of socialists in high office to change it.

This unique journey from right to left adds enormously to the value of Tony Benn’s Diaries. His contemporaries Dick Grossman and Barbara Castle have also published diaries. Others have written autobiographies. All are full of evidence of the impotence of office. Even Denis Healey in his recent popular autobiography admits that the notorious ‘IMF cuts’ in 1976 were probably based on a false prospectus presented to him by international bankers who knew they were deceiving him. But in all these cases the former Secretaries of State have a basic belief in what they were doing. ‘We tried to change the world’ is their theme. ‘We had a little bit of success, and would have done more if it hadn’t been for bankers or, as Harold Wilson used to call his hidden enemies, “speculators”.’ Only Tony Benn, even as he was signing papers in the red dispatch boxes, travelling round in chauffeur-driven limousines and dining at Lockets, began to realise that he was playing a lead part in a grim charade whose chief effect was to hypnotise and paralyse the people who voted Labour.

In his Foreword, Benn says he has included whole passages which embarrass him today. We have to trust him and his editors when they say that the editing of what he read into the tape evening after evening has not been influenced by what has happened since 1976. It does not seem as if it has. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this volume is the open and apparently unembarrassed way in which Tony Benn’s conversion – from career politician to committed socialist – lumbers from contradiction to contradiction: here leaning backwards to his careerist past, here leaning forwards to his campaigning future, and here stuck in between, not knowing what to think or which way to turn.

The volume starts rather curiously with the final year of Labour in Opposition, during which Tony Benn’s ideas were increasingly winning the votes at Labour Party Conferences and among the rank and file. There runs through all the Diary entries of this period a tremendous confidence. At a CBI dinner in October 1973, he rounded on the gloomy industrialists, telling them: ‘You’re licked, pessimistic. There is more vitality on the union side than there is on the management side ... We have got to have redistribution of power and establish a new social contract.’ None of the guests, it seems, could manage a reply. Industrialists, bankers, rich Tories of every description felt that the day of doom was nigh. John Davies, Secretary of State for Industry in the Tory Government and a former Director-General of the CBI, called his children round the hearth to tell them this was the last Christmas of its kind they would be enjoying together. Tony Benn, his planning agreements and his Social Contract were in the ascendant. The Tories lost the Election of February 1974, and Tony Benn went straight to the Department of Industry as Secretary of State. In April, his Diary glowed with confidence: ‘Sunday April 28. As I look at it, I can see my way through now in breaking industry’s resistance to my policies. I shall win over the managers and the small businessmen, and I shall get the nationalised industries to welcome the planning agreements; I shall isolate the big Tory companies, then show how much money they have been getting from the Government, and if they don’t want it, they don’t have to have it.’

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