R.W. Johnson

The Opposition is at a low ebb. Labour consoles itself for its third consecutive thrashing with the thought that at least its leader put up a good show and the Party was well-prepared and ran a good campaign. None of these things was true: Kinnock trailed Thatcher massively in the leader polls and was far less popular than his party; the campaign, largely a matter of a few videos and avoiding the London press, was good only in comparison to Foot’s; and the Party was so ill-prepared that, despite four years of reflection, it was still chronically unsure even about such key issues as its taxation policy. For some years now, the most impressive intellectual input to the Kinnock camp has been that of Eric Hobsbawm, who is actually a member of quite another party, a fact which is surely comment enough in itself. But Labour still exists, which the Alliance no longer does. In their different ways all the members of the old Gang of Four have effectively admitted that it was 1987 or bust. Three of them have moved purposefully towards retirement while the fourth seems to have gone mad. The resulting collapse in Alliance support has seen the Tories reach 50 per cent in the polls, a fact which, like the tremors from the Stock Exchange, is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Thirties. Why has the Opposition done so badly? Two recent books afford a clue.[*]

Tony Benn’s diaries are full of interest, in many ways the more so because we already have such plentiful diaristic accounts of the 1964-70 Labour Government. (Benn reveals, incidentally, that Harold Wilson promised that he would publish posthumously the real inside story of his government.) Many of the incidents and personalities that Benn describes are now of historical interest only, as indeed is the great battle he fought for the right to disclaim his title. This, together with his struggle as Postmaster-General to have stamps issued without the Queen’s head, occupies no little part of these diaries, and in both cases Benn argues that, though the issues were small, they provide a chilling insight into the machinations of the Establishment and the dense and pervasive network which operates in this country to throttle democratic impulses.

Benn’s attempt to hype up the significance of these two battles in the anti-Establishment struggle seems almost deliberately naive. Few passages are more unconsciously telling than that in which he describes how his triumphant re-entry to the Commons as a commoner in October 1963 was spoilt by the ironical cheering of Tory MPs celebrating Lord Home’s appointment as premier, made possible only through Benn’s Act. This, he records,‘discomfited the Labour Members and confused the nature of the victory’. I am not sure it did confuse it. After all, such an Act was always likely to be most useful to the Tories, enjoying as they do the support of the overwhelming bulk of peers, and the new phenomenon of life peers spawned by Benn’s Act has simply breathed fresh life and respectability into the whole institution of the peerage. And surely the true significance of the battle of the stamps was that it symbolises so exactly the way in which those full of zeal to abolish private schools, redistribute wealth or bring about rapid economic growth end up by doing nothing whatsoever about such things while getting enormously waxed up about matters like hare-coursing, motorway speed limits, British policy towards Anguilla or Antigua, and whether or not the sovereign’s head is on stamps. It is all very well for Benn to inveigh against the way in which the Establishment deflects reforming politicians, but for this to work such politicians, in the last analysis, have to be willing to be deflected. As these diaries only too copiously show, Benn was willingly deflected into all manner of things.

Whether or not he realises it, he emerges from these diaries as an earnest, good-natured man of a naivety so complete as to verge, occasionally, upon stupidity. If one puts that together with the unforgettable picture of Benn which emerges from Susan Crosland’s biography of Tony Crosland – Benn ringing up at all hours with phone pranks, practical jokes, impersonations and Goon Show voices – one realises that the common strand is a good-hearted boyishness. Far from being the sinister ogre of the hard Left, Benn is, simply and irretrievably, an honourable schoolboy. One senses that his later radicalism springs from the same source. Early on, he seems to have swallowed the whole school prospectus and everything the Head said on speech days, a reaction to which the son of a Labour MP sent to a private school was more vulnerable than most. He set out to serve his constituents with a truly rare unselfishness and worked with an even rarer zeal as a minister for what he saw as the national good. But late in the day – long after the period covered by these diaries – he seems to have realised that the Head was not quite the Arnold he presented himself as, that the prefects were smoking behind the cricket pavilion, that the teachers were trying to seduce the boys, and that the whole prospectus was a fraud. His reaction was an outraged sense of honour, a righteous indignation knowing no bounds, and a root-and-branch denunciation of the school in terms of the rather pious school ethic, now clung to more fiercely than ever. God knows what actually happened to Benn at Westminster to explain all this.

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[*] Out of the Wilderness: Diaries 1963-1967 by Tony Benn, reviewed by Ben Pimlott in the last issue of this paper, and Labour: A Tale of Two Parlies by Hilary Wainwright (Hogarth, 338 pp., £5.95, 28 September, 0 7012 0778 7).