Family History

Miles Taylor

  • Free at Last: Diaries 1991-2001 by Tony Benn
    Hutchinson, 738 pp, £25.00, October 2002, ISBN 0 09 179352 1
  • Free Radical: New Century Essays by Tony Benn
    Continuum, 246 pp, £9.95, May 2003, ISBN 0 8264 6596 X

In February, two elderly men met in a Middle Eastern suburb and took afternoon tea. As old men do, they reminisced, chatted about their grandchildren and speculated on the perilous state of the world. The younger of the two had a problem: he had a reputation for being an aggressor and none of his neighbours, or his neighbours’ powerful friends, believed him when he said he had put away his weapons for good. Puffing on his pipe, the older man offered reassurance. Many years ago he was known as the most dangerous man in his neighbourhood, yet now everyone thought of him as harmless. Several months have passed since tea and talk in Baghdad; the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein remain unknown, but Tony Benn is alive and well and coming soon to a concert hall near you.

Leaving Parliament in 2001 to devote more time to politics, Benn joined the B-list of political celebrities. He has appeared at the Glastonbury Festival and boasts his own website (www.tonybenn.com). As Tony Blair’s Government spins itself further into policy confusion, the world according to Benn has never seemed clearer. From the public platform, and from his column in the Morning Star, he has aligned himself with a new generation of popular protest – anti-war, anti-globalisation – as well as remaining as soundbiteable as ever on hardy perennials such as European integration, industrial democracy, reform of the House of Lords and the royal prerogative. Benn is fashionably unfashionable. The smoking classes have had no better champion since John Wayne. The nation’s youth have another icon on which to click.

What makes his resuscitation the more beguiling is that New Labour’s project has been built on an emphatic rejection of Bennism. In 1981, backed by the hard Left in the unions and the constituency parties, Benn came within a hair’s breadth of becoming deputy leader of the Party. Opinions differ, but a Party led by Michael Foot and Benn would probably have seen a mass defection of MPs to the SDP. As it was, Benn’s failure paved the way for Neil Kinnock’s purge of the Militant Left, as well as the crucial policy switch from renationalisation of key industries to ‘social ownership’. By the time Benn contested the leadership in 1988, he was a spent force. Voted off the NEC in 1993, he could only watch as first John Smith and then Blair and Gordon Brown modernised the Party. That they did so from Millbank Tower, built on the site of the house in which Benn was born, added pathos to the triumph of New Labour over old. The fate of the Bennite Left under New Labour underlines the point: stalwarts from the early 1980s – Tony Banks, Margaret Beckett, Jeremy Corbyn, Michael Meacher, Clare Short, Gavin Strang – have been given only walk-on roles in the Cabinet, while younger recruits to Benn’s Campaign Group, such as Paul Boateng and Dawn Primarolo, have not been allowed to speak in their own voices by Gordon Brown.

No one has been more aware of the collapse of the Bennite agenda than Benn himself. His volume of diaries from the 1980s – The End of an Era (1992) – described his fall from the heady days of 1981. This last (or latest) collection chronicles his continued decline and the parallel ascent of New Labour. At one level this is an old man’s diary. Out of office, and off the Labour front bench, Benn does not take us through the corridors of power so much as into his sitting-room, to look at family photos and other mementos of a long life. Funerals, family illnesses, including the death of his wife, Caroline, in November 2000, bouts of loneliness, memory loss and depression recur. The diaries become less of the public archive that Benn intended them to be, and more of a private confessional, in which the deep past becomes more significant than the last 24 hours. References to ‘Father’ (William Wedgwood Benn) and to his elder brother Michael (killed in the Second World War) crop up frequently, and merge with moral reminders from Labour Party history. Benn’s father led the Liberal defection from Lloyd George in 1924, and stood up in Ramsay MacDonald’s ill-fated Cabinet to argue against dole cuts in 1931. Michael died as the brave new postwar world of the UN and the welfare state was taking shape.

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