Radical Democrats

Ross McKibbin

  • Conflicts of Interest: Diaries 1977-80 by Tony Benn, edited by Ruth Winstone
    Hutchinson, 675 pp, £20.00, September 1990, ISBN 0 09 174321 4
  • Words as Weapons: Selected Writings 1980-1990 by Paul Foot
    Verso, 281 pp, £29.95, November 1990, ISBN 0 86091 310 4

When historians come to account for the dégringolade of modern British politics both Tony Benn and Paul Foot will find a place: Benn as actor, Foot as an observer. The two have much in common: both were born into very similar families; both see their lives as a continuing re-education, a casting aside of cultural baggage packed with the detritus of a worn-out social system; both have come to discover a superior morality within socialism and the organised working class. In both, this process has been incomplete, perhaps deliberately so. They both have a strong sense of Englishness, though they have defined it with recourse to a radical vocabulary. Both see themselves within an English radical-democratic tradition – Levellers, Paine, Cobden – onto which both have grafted Marxism.

This is the fourth volume of Benn’s published diaries and in some ways it is the most interesting. Perhaps it could hardly fail to interest, given the years it covers: the more or less perpetual ‘crises’, the Lib-Lab Pact, the Winter of Discontent, the demoralisation of the Callaghan Government, its fall and electoral defeat, the first year of the Thatcher Government. They also cover the rise of Benn: not in the Government itself, where it is clear he was marginalised both by Callaghan and his own actions, but in the wider Labour movement. He calls Part Six of the book (May 1979-May 1980) ‘Beginning Again’, and it was on the strength of that new beginning, and of the ‘youngsters’ (of whom more later), that he was to prepare his campaign for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party. Although this volume may have too much on the details of Seventies energy policy – throughout their period Benn was Energy Secretary – for everyone’s taste, it makes engrossing reading and must be a major source for the history of the Callaghan Government. Nor is there any obvious reason to doubt their accuracy – to the extent, at least, that they generally represent fairly what was said or done. It is not clear, however, on what basis the diaries were edited; Benn suggests that they were merely cut, but we do not know what was cut or why. The diaries have helpful appendices and a list of principal persons, but no attempt appears to have been made to notify the reader when descriptions of people or events are wrong.

The detail of the diaries is fascinating, but they still leave Benn a somewhat puzzling figure. We must assume that they were intended for publication and were designed to present Benn in a particular way. The way he appears is as a political ingenu; a man with little control over his department or influence in the Government, someone who feels that power is always elsewhere and who is reduced to the role of fretful onlooker. The diaries record a series of unfoldings: what the nuclear-power lobby is really like; how cabinet government actually operates; what in fact preoccupies the head of the Civil Service (the Honours List – ‘Amazing’). It may he that the apparent artlessness of the diaries is indeed just artlessness, though I doubt it. Whatever the intention, the effect is both to make Benn seem a far-seeing critic of the Callaghan and Thatcher Governments and to legitimate his later crusade.

Benn as critic is not to be underestimated. Much of what he says about his department and the larger developments of British economic policy can hardly be faulted. As Energy Secretary, he pretty soon saw through that nuclear lobby which has consumed so much of the national patrimony and given so little in return. He speaks of a kind of managerial, trade-union and scientific ‘fascism’ whose function is to exclude the ‘layman’ – that is, those who might be sceptical – and much of the diary records their activities. For those who are paranoid about the Lobby, pages 360-62 should give them some particularly chilling moments. In the long term, the real importance of this volume will probably be what Benn says about the nuclear industry: though he appears to have been unable to do much about it, his instincts were clearly right.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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