Tony and Caroline

Ben Pimlott

  • Out of the Wilderness: Diaries 1963-67 by Tony Benn
    Hutchinson, 592 pp, £14.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 09 170660 2

Give me chastity and continence, prayed the youthful Augustine, but do not give it yet. Perhaps the young Tony Benn, slithering up the greasy poll, made similar entreaties. For this, his fascinating first volume of diaries, is the story of an attractive, vital, boundlessly energetic young man having the egocentric time of his life without a thought for the morrow, except to move onwards and upwards. ‘I did not, at that time, have a real socialist understanding of the structure of our society,’ he writes in the Foreword. ‘That came as a result of my experiences over many years.’ Hence these are to be seen as ‘the diaries of a socialist-in-the-making’. What they read like, however, are the diaries of an effective politician on the make.

Benn would certainly acknowledge as much. So far from seeking to disguise it, he makes clear that he is presenting his diaries as a grim moral tale. This places the reader in a dilemma. Should one try to sympathise with this frenetic, unstoppable, ambitious, arrogant, élitist, un-self-conscious, radical, enthusiastic, honourable, priggish, yet undeniably engaging young man, or object to him? If you identify with him, accept him as a likeable and basically commendable person, which is the natural temptation in a book as agreeably written as this, then you inevitably have doubts about his later persona. If, on the other hand, you have been swayed by Benn in his post-1979 phase, then it is impossible to read his early diary without impatience. A great deal of historical imagination is needed to make the leap from Benn and the hard Left of today to the prospering Hampstead/Holland Park Labour village of the mid-Sixties.

In those days socialism did not feature – even in the rhetoric. True, Anthony Crosland, Benn’s mentor and former tutor, had used the word in the title of a famous book in 1956. By the time this section of diary opens, however, it had gone right out of vogue. In the run-up to its most important postwar election victory, Labour’s only remaining trace of socialism, Clause IV of the Party Constitution, which called for public ownership and workers’ control, had become no more than a mildly embarrassing emblem. The party which Morrison and Gaitskell had fashioned in the Fifties, and which Wilson inherited, was a Keynesian, welfarist party with modest redistributive aims. Its radicalism was not directed towards the working class, whose actual existence was beginning to be doubted by sophisticated progressive opinion, influenced by theories of embourgeoisement and by rapidly increasing real wages. Crosland had hoped for a classless society, which seemed an attainable aim – through improved, comprehensively-organised education, and an assault on social snobbery. The most passionate attack of the middle-class Labourites – and here Benn, inheritor of 19th-century Radical instincts, was in the vanguard – was on something called the Establishment, which meant the institutions of Whitehall, the City and the judiciary, dominated by old money and the old school tie. In his Foreword, Benn accuses Labour at this time of propping up the consensus. Yet it was a growing popular consensus that the alternative, Private Eye-reading, TW3-watching, Holland Park-dwelling establishment deserved a turn on top, that gave Labour its 1964 victory, and Benn his first taste of office. This volume covers the strange episode two decades ago when Labour was not only electorally successful but also, in middle-class terms, fashionable. Tony and Caroline Benn were in the vanguard of that too.

There can be few prominent and literate members of any political party in the late Eighties who do not fill the odd moment between division bells or Cabinets (if not, like Barbara Castle, actually at them) writing up a currilous version of events in order to give themselves financial or other forms of pleasure in their old age. Not only is there a good market for diaries among the book-buying and Sunday-newspaper-reading public: diaries are also by far the most effective way of establishing a niche in history. Given the dryness of official records, the misinformativeness of the press and the guardedness of political correspondence, historians and biographers turn with relief and enthusiasm to a contemporary diary. And those who keep good diaries get their reward. If we see the politics of the Sixties more from the point of view of Richard Crossman than, say, of Michael Stewart, the reason is that Crossman kept a diary and Stewart did not.

Nevertheless, the possibility of publication is seldom the only reason for keeping a diary. Like any habit that becomes addictive, diary-writing has its effect on the life of the person who keeps one, and the function of a diary may not be the same as the rational justification. Beatrice Webb, for example, used her diary for deep introspection. Hugh Dalton used his sometimes as a private seminar, for working out new ideas, on other occasions as a kind of mirror, in order to practise a political pose, or as a psychic release, a place to express feelings of frustration or despair. The bizarre, explosive diary of Lord Reith – which he conceived of as a sober historical record – was, in practice, a depository for the bad feelings he had towards everybody who stood in his way. However happy they may be in their private lives, it is unusual for politicians not to feel the strain of competition in their public ones. Here is Benn, waiting anxiously after Labour’s 1964 victory:

One of the oldest jokes in politics is about hopeful candidates for office who stay by their telephones when a new Government is formed, just like husbands waiting for their wives to have their first babies. For both it’s awful.

  The TV and news bulletins kept describing people who were turning up at Number 10 and I was getting gloomier and gloomier and planning a completely new life. Then at 4.45 Number 10 phoned. Would I stand by for tonight or tomorrow morning. It was a great relief. I worked till about 2 a.m. reading all the Post Office stuff I had collected and just couldn’t go to sleep.

The best political diarists acquire the habit before they enter politics. This was true of Benn, who began in his youth, wrote extensively on active service during the war, and has kept a brief diary note ‘meticulously’ every night since 1948 – which means a total, allowing for one short break, of more than 140,000 entries to date. (The break – 15 months, from September 1966 – occurs in this volume.) Since 1963, his diary – in common with those of Dalton (for much of the time) and Crossman – has been dictated. The total amount of diary so far produced he estimates at more than nine million words – if published verbatim, the equivalent of some forty hefty volumes. Many people would regard such a composition as a life’s work in itself.

This volume begins with Hugh Gaitskell’s death, and ends with the aftermath of devaluation in November 1967, when Labour’s economic plans were abruptly curtailed. It was a period of optimism and confidence on the Labour side, and then of disenchantment. At the start of the book, Benn is out of Parliament having inherited an unwanted peerage which he is fighting to disclaim. At the end he is Minister of Technology and a member of the Cabinet. The volume covers the Profumo scandal, the build-up to the 1964 Election, the Kennedy assassination, the deaths of Churchill and Attlee, the Nelson Mandela trial, the replacement as Tory Leader of Home by Heath, Rhodesian UDI, the nationalisation of steel, the launching of Concorde, as well as debates over comprehensive schools and the Common Market – and all of this against the background of Wilson’s early and mainly triumphant years as premier. For the British Left, and possibly for the country, there has been no period of comparable importance from the Forties to the coming of Mrs Thatcher. The closeness of the author to the source of power, as well as his clear judgments and sensitive political antennae, makes this a book of unusual importance.

Yet important for what? The author describes its publication now, while he is still actively engaged, as ‘a conscious political act’, by which – as we have already noted – he means that it is a declaration of mea culpa intended to remind us of the failure of traditional Labour methods of governing, as illustrated by his own experience. This political purpose makes one fractionally suspicious. Benn did not tamper with his own text, correcting only to clarify. But what did he leave out? More than half the original text was excised, and there is no indication of where the deletions were made or on what grounds.

Though shorter than Crossman for the same period, and less reflective, the volume conveys the atmosphere better. This is odd, for Crossman was a better writer. The reason probably has to do with age. Crossman belonged to the same generation as Gaitskell, and had an avuncular attitude towards Wilson. He was, however, completely out of touch with the mood of the Sixties. Benn, by contrast, was part of it: the progressive trend-setters in journalism, the arts, the academy, were his contemporaries and friends, as his party-lists frequently remind us. At the same time, unlike the dilettante Crossman, who came into politics as a third or fourth career, Benn had been political from infancy, and had been the triumphant holder of a safe seat before his 25th birthday. Benn’s later career – and the obsessiveness of this diary – reflect the fact that he had never really known any other life.

Not many people manage to change the law themselves when they are not even in Parliament. Benn’s success in disclaiming his title must have made him feel that everything was possible. Indeed, one of the most stimulating features of this book is the sense it gives that obstacles to progress – personal or social – exist only to be kicked down. The Almighty must also have seemed to be lending a hand. The death of Gaitskell, who had promoted him but with whom he had no personal dealings, and the succession of Wilson, a friend and ally – this was a stroke of luck. ‘It is a great shot in the arm and opens up all sorts of possibilities for the Party,’ he wrote. ‘I have known him well personally, have always agreed with his general line and voted for him against Gaitskell in November 1960. He is an excellent chairman, gets on well with people and has some radical instincts where Hugh had none.’

A sub-plot in this volume is Benn’s good, though increasingly wary relationship with Wilson. He does not conceal his initial admiration for the Party Leader or the advantages to be gained from having his trust. ‘It looks as if I am going to stand in relation to Harold as Tony Crosland did in relation to Hugh,’ he notes, with satisfaction. Soon he was proudly describing himself as a member of the Kitchen Cabinet, along with Gerald Kaufman, Marcia Williams, Thomas Balogh and Peter Shore.

Leaders, however, have difficulty in maintaining the unqualified devotion even of their closest followers. It is interesting to see that there were rumbles of discontent as early as June 1964, before Wilson was in office. ‘He is doing a great job but doing it alone and this is not calculated to stimulate loyalty,’ Benn observed. It was to become a familiar complaint. There was, however, a carrot: Wilson had offered him the middle-ranking job of Postmaster-General should Labour take office, but with a promise of more to come. ‘My real Cabinet will be made in 1966,’ predicted Wilson, accurately, ‘just as Clem’s was made in 1947.’ The pact was kept, and Benn was duly promoted. 1966, however, like 1947, also turned out to be the year in which the Labour Administration ran out of steam.

Benn would no doubt be the first to criticise himself today for inertia on the issue of Vietnam. Yet it is hard for a later generation, which learnt to reject the Labour Government of the Sixties for its cowardice on this issue, not to feel – still – a sense of puzzlement and betrayal at the complete indifference of ministers, including Benn, at a time when Britain might have exerted a restraining influence. Michael Foot, a left-wing outsider who does not appear often in these pages, is mentioned in passing for his brave stand: Wilson ‘went on to say that he had offered Michael Foot the Home Office but that Michael had refused on the grounds that he was not prepared to accept collective Cabinet responsibility for Vietnam.’

On the whole, Benn thinks well of people and he is not often critical on personal grounds (contrast Crossman, Dalton, Webb). It is the more interesting, therefore, when he is. His relations with George Brown, ‘completely erratic and irrational and an impossible old boozer – rarely being sober after lunch’, were unusually bad. There was one serious political row with Brown which spilled over into personal recrimination. Generally, however, political clashes were conducted in a civilised and even chivalrous manner. This was particularly true of one entertaining battle over postage stamps with the Queen, Benn’s account of which fills many pages. As Postmaster-General, Benn wanted to introduce a new design of postage stamp that excluded the Queen’s head. Her Majesty, though very polite about it, was not amused. What for her minister was a matter of aesthetics, and also of democratic principle, was for her one of symbolic power. Having lectured the Prime Minister, the Queen won. Benn sees it as a sinister example of the Palace and Establishment closing ranks. Possibly. But it is arguable, I suppose, that if you are going to have a monarch there is no harm in having one who can put up a spirited fight on details that might be seen to fall within her domain.

In a lecture at Oxford in 1966, Benn declared ‘that no book I had ever read on the British constitution had been any help or had given me any indication of what to expect.’ This readable and often amusing book does not contain many surprises about government in the period it describes. Although Benn’s tussles with civil servants are sometimes strenuous, it does not give a more damning portrait of the way government works in Britain than other accounts do. Its value is oddly affirmative. Here is an account of political life as something to be enjoyed, something full of fun and excitement, where it is possible to retain a sense of humour and not end up hating everybody in your own party. Perhaps this experience did indeed provide a training ground for Benn’s socialism. Yet there is little sign of it. What it did do was to turn him into a major national political figure, whose later changes of opinion would make wide ripples and even waves. Contained here is a tale of adventure and enterprise, and of personal and governmental success. We shall await the next instalment with eager interest. Will it be called Damascus Road?