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.

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