Off with her head

John Lloyd

  • Office without Power: Diaries 1968-72 by Tony Benn
    Hutchinson, 562 pp, £16.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 09 173647 1

In June of this year Tony Benn took part in a radio discussion on the working of Parliament, together with John Biffen and Roy (Lord) Jenkins. Asked by the chairman, Peter Hennessy, if he did not think that the Lords now functioned as a ‘focus of opposition’, Benn responded that it was, instead, ‘part of an attack on democracy. After all, why bother to vote in the next election if you’ve got a friendly peer you can write to ...’ After a little more of this, Jenkins cut in, the dwawl part amused, part irritated. ‘You do live in a wonderful fantasy world,’ he said.

For many, most of all for many in Benn’s own Party, that is seen to be the truth of it. The caricature has shifted in the past few years: he is no longer seen as mad and dangerous, just as mad. Soon, he will have to fight hard against being patronised, slotted into that role of the English Eccentric for which central casting is always anxious to find new recruits.

I have never thought he lived in a fantasy world and do not think so now (though that belief has been hard tested – especially when, after just losing to Denis Healey in Labour’s Deputy Leadership contest in 1980, he claimed in a television interview that he was the deputy leader of the Party, since more people had defected from it to form the SDP than made up Healey’s margin of victory. In this role, he urged the country to stay calm). What has happened to Tony Benn, I think, is that he has constructed a world, not of fantasy, but of certainty: one in which great forces are at work which only some understand – and that understanding puts them in touch with the true needs and desires of the mass of the people. It is a kind of idealist Bolshevism. Like any system, it ruthlessly marshals facts into its preconstructed framework: but it does not prevent him from being lucidly correct about, for example, the direction in which the Labour Party is travelling; nor does it prevent him from giving beautifully crafted and often very funny speeches in the Commons, especially on constitutional matters. At least one of these speeches, on the Zircon issue in 1987, persuaded the House to vote against its ‘natural’ bent. However, his system has proved rotten at securing for him what he wanted – and may still want – leadership of the Labour Party.

What is Bennism now? In many ways, as he keeps insisting, it is the polar opposite of Thatcherism – though, as both volumes of the diaries show, Benn saw many of the same social-cum-political movements at work as did Keith Joseph, Mrs Thatcher’s pathbreaker. Where Thatcher has consistently preached that the citizen should look after himself, Benn has just as consistently called for the state to become ever more enveloping in its care. Where she proclaims that she has set the people free, he sees a political establishment (which includes, of course, his own Party’s leadership) ‘huddling together at the top’ in order to suppress the demands of the citizenry. Where she emphasises her break with all previous governments – previous Conservative governments especially – he sees her as simply the latest mask worn by reaction – a view which puts him sharply at odds with the ‘revisionist’ school of leftism, who see in Thatcherism the will to make a decisive break with a post-war consensus. Where she finds inspiration in Victorian capitalism, and in the edifice of private charity which emerged in the latter half of the 19th century, his is found in the English revolution – in particular, the passions of the Levellers, who, though suppressed by Cromwell, ‘grew out of the conditions of their own time. They represented the aspirations of working people who suffered under the persecution of kings, landowners and the priestly class and they spoke for those who experienced the hardships of poverty and deprivation ... their advocacy of democracy and equality has been taken up by generations of liberal and socialist thinkers and activists, pressing for reforms, many of which are still strongly contested in this country to this day.’

For her, morality is rooted in the individual and the family: he is less clear on this, but it seems he would root it in class, though his conception is not strictly Marxist. Both adore the memory of their fathers. From hers, she takes a dedication to work, thrift and duty; from his, he takes a dedication to worker rights and social justice. ‘You might be interested to see,’ he records saying to a Shadow Cabinet meeting on 31 July 1971, ‘the address on which my father’ – William Wedgwood Benn, a Liberal, then Labour MP, created Viscount Stansgate in 1941 – ‘fought the election in 1906: cheap food, reform and prosperity for the Port of London, freedom for the trade unions and justice for Ireland – and it doesn’t seem as if we’ve made progress on any of them.’ It is not hard to guess what this hard-boiled gathering – Bob Mellish, Denis Healey, Tony Crosland, Barbara Castle, Roy Jenkins, Jim Callaghan among them – made of that. Fifteen years later, Benn showed me his father’s election handbill and made the same point – one he must have made to hundreds of others.

Where Thatcher rose up the English class ladder through education and marriage to a millionaire, Benn has descended from Viscount Stansgate through Anthony Wedgwood Benn to Tony Benn, his suits becoming baggier, his hair longer and his cool, posh voice flattening out. She has striven to be regal, he to be proletarian. Both have unfinished agendas: hers assumes a further purging of the remnants of state control while his assumes that there’s a deep radical stream running through British history which it is the duty of a politician of the Left to bring to the surface.

In short, when Benn claims – as he does, at least by implication – that he is the only major political figure who is wholly opposed to Thatcher, then he could well be right – temperamentally, philosophically, emotionally, by birth, upbringing and habit of mind. And it is a measure of her success in installing a politics of the Right, and of Neil Kinnock’s in turning Labour round to social democracy, that Benn’s period of being a ‘major’ figure is probably now over.

But his period as a diarist is only just beginning – and this will be a work of huge interest, since it covers so long a period and is in places so detailed. Much of the fascination lies in seeing how Benn himself developed from being a left-of-centre Wilson fan (and he was a fan) to having, as he puts it in the foreword to the first volume, a ‘real socialist understanding of the structure of our society’: the diaries are thus those of a ‘socialist in the making’. At another level, they are an account from the inside of ministerial power and of the nature of shadow ministerial life. Finally, they record the shift to the left in the Labour Party which Benn did so much to promote.

The two volumes we now have cover the years 1963-67: from opposition, fighting to retain his Commons seat in the teeth of an unwanted peerage, to Minister of Technology in the Cabinet, and on to 1968-72, from Minitech to opposition in 1970 to chairmanship of the Labour Party. He points us towards the second period as the one in which his convictions began to reshape themselves round socialism: and to be sure, he is no revolutionary when we meet him first. And yet something which he also points to as a formative part of the radicalising process had largely happened by 1963: his ten-year fight to rid himself of the incubus of ‘Viscount’, which had removed him from his Commons seat of Bristol South-East after the death of his father in 1960. The diary entries for the first few months have much to say about this – to the virtual exclusion of the Profumo scandal. This is well enough documented elsewhere – but it would have been fun to see it rehearsed once more through Benn’s eyes. His account shows that he was able both to run a populist campaign with the full-hearted support of his constituents and to twist the arm of the establishment, left and right, in order to get his way: ‘this evening I rang four’ – Tory – ‘cabinet ministers.’ He dwells quite a bit on the election of Harold Wilson as party leader in succession to Gaitskell, whom Benn disliked, and he expresses again and again his admiration for Wilson: ‘imaginative’, ‘tough’, ‘pretty impressive’.

He comes across, in these early years, as decent but impulsive: anxious to belong to the inner circles but not to be seen as other than his own man. He is very close to Peter Shore, who is mentioned more often than any other colleague: what a way both have travelled since then! His diplomatic contacts seem to be largely Soviet, East European and African: he usually mentions West European political parties, left or right, with scorn: ‘the German social democratic party just wants to join the Adenauer coalition. They have no guts or sense of purpose and are licked before they start.’ Though this is very much a political diary, his warmth towards his wife Caroline and his four children is everywhere evident: and while, as the diaries progress, he becomes more feminist (as does she), it is clear that he unself-consciously assumes that she will take care of the child-rearing in order to allow him to concentrate on the political career he so assiduously cultivates, and that she will be both a comrade and an asset. A generation later, not all ambitious young male politicians can assume that.

During his time as Postmaster-General (from October 1964) a new obsession replaced getting rid of the peerage: getting the Queen’s head off stamps. His campaign lasts a year and includes one of his longest and most vividly written entries: a description of how he brought the new stamps from St Martin’s Le Grand to Buckingham Palace, how he spread the designs on the carpet and how he and the Queen sat there (he on the floor) and looked at the stamps which had neither crown nor Queen’s head on them: ‘something which had obviously never been shown to her or even thought about at the palace before’. He is terribly pleased with himself over her apparently favourable reception: ‘the best day since I took office’. Wilson showed ‘great interest’, and asked: ‘Did she get down on the floor with you?’ But for all his charm and his ‘doing a little Disraeli on her’, he lost. The Queen, nice and non-committal to him as she had been, told the royalist Wilson that her head would appear on all the stamps. Having wasted his charm upon the desert air of Buckingham Palace, he bitterly concludes that ‘within its limited power, the monarchy is one of the great centres of reaction and conservatism in this country.’

This episode has been ridiculed, but deserves better than that. The monarchy is one of the great centres of reaction in this country, however much it may pose – in the person of the Crown Prince – as a liberal force. It embodies what the first incarnation of political Benn – the best, for me – rightly saw as stultifying, deferential and mystifying: a huge obstacle to our becoming a mature democracy. Getting the head off was a good, gradualist measure towards moving the monarchy to the margins of our national life.

Also engaging is Benn’s sharp nose for efficiency and entrepreneurial talent. He is taken with Arnold Weinstock, the then relatively young boss of the General Electric Company: ‘an extremely bright guy. He sees the whole of business in terms of money and reduces every problem to cash flow.’ On a visit to Japan in January 1966, he quickly grasps the power of the growing Japanese industrial machine. He writes of his anger that British inventions had been put into production in that country while trials were still being held in Britain: ‘our great weakness is the gap between invention and development and we simply have to close it.’ He is in continual despair about the lack of ‘dynamism’ in the Civil Service, and in industry. His own work rate was clearly formidable, and he takes great pleasure in senior ‘officials’ shock that he should be so pushy, and so egalitarian as to eat in the canteen.

The composite picture is of an impatient, intelligent man of radical instincts, a natural corporatist in governing style, whose talents were recognised even by those older colleagues who were inclined to be cynical about them. When Benn protested to Wilson that the Queen, who had just refused to remove her head, had liked the designs he had shown to her on the carpet, Wilson responded: ‘Ah, but the Queen was quite unable to resist your youth, enthusiasm and charm. You were clearly a working man’s Lord Melbourne.’ Benn reports this without comment. It is impossible to believe he did not know he was being guyed: and he is the more attractive for that. For much of the period he was learning a trade: he is promoted to the Ministry of Technology and to the Cabinet, and the entries become shorter as a crushing burden of work descends on him.

The last sentence of the first diary is of great significance: ‘I was beginning to be aware,’ he writes, concluding a survey of his year, ‘of the grave dissatisfaction of the Party with the leadership.’ The entries on Wilson and his entourage had grown steadily less respectful and less friendly: he increasingly regards Wilson as a fixer, a man who sees plots everywhere, whose principles cannot be discerned and may not exist. ‘Number 10 lives in an atmosphere of intrigue, encouraged by George Wigg who is a completely crazy adviser, Marcia who gets a bit hysterical and Gerald Kaufman who just sits wisely and nods ... I find the upper strata of politics less and less attractive. It’s not exactly that I’m naive, but I am really only interested in politics in order to get my job done.’

It is not quite right to say that, in the second volume, we enter a different world. Indeed, it is at first exactly the same world: constant pressure, the endless succession of large or small crises – the decision to subsidise the Rolls Royce RB211 engine, devaluation, the demise of the Department of Economic Affairs, the cuts brought in by Roy Jenkins, then Chancellor, in 1968 and the battle over ‘In Place of Strife’, the paper which set out the legislation proposed by Barbara Castle, Minister of Labour, to limit the ability of unions to call disputes. There are some glorious passages: best is his description of George Brown’s resignation as Foreign Secretary when Wilson closed the gold market on 14 March 1968 without consulting Brown:

What had happened was that Harold had been at a meeting all evening and had gone to the Palace for a Privy Council to get this Proclamation out to close the gold market, and George had not been told. While we were all sitting there, George picked up the phone and got through to Harold and exploded. He shouted at Harold and said it was intolerable and there were a lot of discontented Ministers. All we could hear at our end was George saying, ‘Will you let me speak. Christ, Christ, will – you – let – me – speak. Now look, look, will you let me speak,’ and so on. Then we heard George say, ‘Now don’t say that: don’t say in my condition. That may have been true some other nights, but not tonight. Don’t say in my condition.’ It was obvious Harold was saying he had tried to contact him but that George was drunk. I don’t know whether or not he was drunk, because you can’t always tell.

If there is a pattern in this diary, it is of the slow emergence – more rapid after the loss of power in 1970 – of the second incarnation of political Benn from the womb of the first. He supports ‘In Place of Strife’ at first because, as he records himself saying in Cabinet on 17 June 1969, ‘I thought the damage due to bad industrial relations and strikes was very serious, that interdependence made the industrial system get dislocated by strikes and that there was broad public support for what we had done.’ But he buckles under pressure from the TUC. Fuming with rage at the whole Cabinet and threatening to resign, Wilson goes to see the TUC General Council the next day and agrees a ‘solemn and binding’ pledge on industrial disputes which is soon mocked by events.

Benn chides Jeremy Bray, his young junior minister, for publishing Decision in Government, which called for a different process of decision-making and caused him to be sacked by Wilson: ‘Although Jeremy has got many talents he has not much idea of what is politically advisable.’ He is in favour of joining the European community: ‘I want to make it clear I am in favour of Europe. All the arguments against it are short-term arguments, based on what it looks like now, and omit the possibility that we might make changes when the time comes.’ When he swings round in favour of a referendum on membership, probably because he sees this as a way of uniting the Party and of gaining credit for himself in what is beginning to look like a leadership bid, he goes to Rupert Murdoch – ‘a bright newspaper man who has made a humdinger success of the Sun ... and the News of the World’ – to ask for editorial support. Not much change from the first political Benn, except that he has more self-confidence.

At the same time another stream of thought becomes more insistent. Always part fascinated, part repelled by journalism (he continues to this day to claim that he remains a journalist, and he retains his NUJ card), he gave in 1968 two carefully-drafted speeches on the media, openness, and the ‘redistribution of political power’, both of which got him into trouble with his colleagues. The first, to the Welsh Council of Labour in May, said that ‘the day may well come when independent groups of publishers would be allocated so many hours of broadcasting a month and told to help those with something to say.’ This foreshadowed the debate about and practice of ‘access’ television, in which TV companies did help those with something to say, but found only a tiny handful willing to watch. His second speech – famed as the ‘broadcasting is too important to be left to the broadcasters’ speech, of October 1968 – was more important and fleshed-out: it was followed by a debate which still rages, the more fiercely since the main protagonist on one side of it, John Birt, is now Deputy Director-General of the BBC. Birt’s thesis, first adumbrated by himself and Peter Jay in the early Seventies, agreed with Benn that broadcasting did not get at ‘the full depth of thinking that lies behind certain political (and other) arguments’: and that programmes had to be much more richly textured, rigorously conceived and carefully shot if they were both to command the respect of viewers and be useful to democracy. Indeed, Birt and others within the BBC now argue that the BBC has not essentially changed since Benn made his observations exactly 20 years ago: that, for the most part, depth has not been attempted. In this debate, and in others which he initiated, or in which he was centrally engaged, Benn now seems to take no interest.

But it is in opposition, after June 1970, that the new Benn fills out. Wilson tells him, towards the end of that year, that had he been elected he would have resigned after three years. ‘This is an interesting piece of information because if we win the next election he wouldn’t continue the full term ... as he is determined he will never be defeated again. That means that the next Leader of the Labour Party will be elected in the next few years – that’s my view. If I am going to make any sort of bid for the leadership at any stage, I shall have to begin preparing for it soon.’ Prepare for it he does. That preparation, which one could say has lasted one and a half decades, was composed, on the ideological side, of the following elements:

– A recognition that the Party was swinging to the left. The new MPs were more imbued with the Sixties spirit, and the most active and persuasive union leaders were leftist, like Jack Jones (transport workers), Hugh Scanlon (engineers) and Clive Jenkins (white-collar workers).

– Industrial militancy was on the increase. Benn had been aware of the looming crisis on the Clyde, a product of purblind management’s refusal to modernise: in opposition, he championed the cause of the Upper Clyde Shipyard workers, as they occupied their yard in protest against redundancies, led by the charismatic Communist Jimmy Reid (now a columnist for the Sun). On a visit to Glasgow, in spite of a few reservations about supporting an illegal occupation, he told the workers that ‘I supported them 100 per cent, it was the stuff of which great events were made and I gave them wholehearted encouragement.’ Later, realising that he has supported them before any of their union leaders had pronounced, he muses: ‘This is a difficult area in which one is operating. Undoubtedly the real battle in Britain today is between the powerful shop stewards’ movement coming up underneath and the bureaucratic national trade union movement. I have seen and felt this for some time.’

– Opposition to EC membership was strong and growing, especially in the constituency parties. Benn remained ‘in favour of Europe’ for some time – probably (it is not clear) until the second volume closes, in October 1972 – but is increasingly backed by Anti-Marketeers who see in his idea to submit the issue to a referendum a means of mobilising what they were sure was an Anti-Market majority. Benn himself saw the issue more and more as to do with democracy and sovereignty.

– More inchoately, he was groping for a new style of politics which he foreshadowed in his media speeches as a minister. In a speech to the Fabians, later expanded to a pamphlet in 1970, he argued a series of theses which proposed greater decentralisation of political power to the ‘new citizen’ – a figure better-off, better-educated, better-informed, and less deferential to business or political leaders. Benn’s citizen could easily become a Thatcherite: in a sense, did become a Thatcherite a little way down the track. According to Benn, though, he wants, not more things, but more political leverage: he wants politicians, union leaders, management and the media to be more accountable to him.

To repeat an earlier point: these are political diaries, and they invite a response which is one of political evaluation. But at every turn they arouse speculation as to character. Benn has seemed to attract that kind of coverage in ways in which other equally strong political personalities – say, Denis Healey or Nigel Lawson – have not. Even as he stresses the importance of objective forces, of the masses, his own personality acts as a magnet, especially for the tabloid press. They have their own imperatives of ridiculing and exposing, of course – but part of the reason why reporters were despatched, to their shame and their bosses’ shame, to sift through his dustbins was the feeling among them that they might find some discarded plans for a work which was always in progress – the creation and recreation of Tony Benn.

Like others on the right of the Labour Party, I found that Benn in his later phases – especially after Labour’s defeat in 1979 – was hard to understand and hard to bear. When one reads the diaries of an earlier, apparently much more attractive man, the building blocks for the construction of the later Benn are visible enough. One in particular stands out. When Enoch Powell made his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech before the 1970 General Election, Benn responded with a speech condemning Edward Heath’s silence on the issue (he was not, in fact, silent, and later sacked Powell from the Shadow Cabinet), saying that ‘the flag that was being raised over Wolverhampton’ – Powell’s constituency – ‘was getting to look more and more like the flag that fluttered over Belsen.’ He noted later: ‘It created tremendous press interest because of the strength of the language used.’ More than ten years later, Benn was to make a speech likening journalists to ‘concentration camp guards’. That, too, caused some press interest because of the strength of the language: in this particular press man, it caused revulsion. It seems to me that such language is close to unforgivable in a mature man who has reflected on society and politics, as his diaries show him to have done.

By the Party Conference of October 1972 – the conference he chaired, at the end of his year-long chairmanship of the Party – the metamorphosis from the first to the second political Benn is nearly complete. On 2 August he thinks to himself:

Today I had the idea that I would resign my Privy Councillorship, my MA and all my honorary doctorates in order to strip myself of what the world had to offer, but whether this would be a good idea, I don’t know. It might be ridiculed. But ‘Wedgie Benn’ and the ‘Rt Honourable Anthony Wedgwood Benn’ and all that stuff is impossible. I have been Tony Benn in Bristol for a long time.

It speaks well for his courage that he has published that entry today. It is a terribly intimate, and for sure a terribly easily ridiculed, glimpse into the state of mind of a man in his mid-forties trying to remould his very self – and yet still fearful of what the world about him will think. Yet, as we know, he did it – with what consequences the further volumes of this protean man’s diaries will remind us in the years to come.