Scoutmaster General

Peter Clarke

  • Tony Benn by Jad Adams
    Macmillan, 576 pp, £20.00, July 1992, ISBN 0 333 52558 2
  • The End of an Era: Diaries, 1980-1990 by Tony Benn, edited by Ruth Winstone
    Hutchinson, 704 pp, £25.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 09 174857 7

Where did it go wrong? How did it come unstuck? Here was the making of a gilt-edged, silver-spooned career in Labour politics, surely marked out for the leadership from an early stage. He was born with every advantage. Good-looking and good-natured, eloquent and earnest, well-educated and well-connected, Anthony Wedgwood Benn had the best of both worlds. Father was a radical Liberal MP who switched to Labour in the Twenties and ended up representing the Party in the House of Lords as the first Viscount Stansgate. The family lived at 40 Grosvenor Road, Westminster, next door to Sidney and Beatrice Webb. With his elder brother Michael, Anthony went to the local school (Westminster), and he grew up thinking that he might work locally too, just like his dad.

Lady Stansgate gives another insight on the boys’ upbringing: ‘They used to pretend they were workmen called Bill and Jim – Michael was Bill, Anthony Jim. Nurse Olive made them working clothes and they used to come and ask for jobs and I used to give them little jobs and pay them.’ At the age of ten, Jim was already soliciting the votes of his fellow workmen on behalf of the Labour candidate for Westminster, and on his 17th birthday he popped round the corner to Smith Square and joined the Labour Party himself. Later that year he went up to New College, Oxford, to begin a degree course in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. After an interruption in his studies due to war service in the RAF, the dashing young socialist was elected President of the Oxford Union in 1947 and, within three years, became Labour candidate in a by-election in Bristol South East. He was literally returned to Westminster.

Jad Adams has written a much needed biography, largely based on Benn’s own voluminous archive, notably his massive diaries, which are a major source for the political history of the past thirty years. Ruth Winstone has edited them for publication and the welcome appearance of the fifth volume completes her task, which she has carried out with unobtrusive skill. She clearly needed to eviscerate the text, publishing less than 10 per cent of the three and a half million words which Benn dictated in the Eighties. Readers who weary of the long accounts of Labour Party disciplinary matters should gratefully note her comment that there was a good deal more in the original. Drawing on the diaries, but supplementing them with a number of interviews, not least fruitfully with Benn himself, Adams sets out to challenge the view that Benn failed to become leader of the Labour Party because of tactical miscalculation, arguing instead that his move to the left in the Seventies was ‘not a sudden leap but a natural working out of ideas’. The result is a sympathetic but by no means sycophantic study which sheds light on its subject from a number of angles, some of them already familiar to Benn-watchers.

The rise of Benn in the Fifties and Sixties is not at all mysterious. He was a chip off the old block. He had inherited a family tradition of populist politics suffused with unabashed religiosity. William Wedgwood Benn had started as a Congregationalist and a Liberal: at 28 the youngest MP in the 1906 Parliament (whereas his own father had had to wait for a seat until he was 42). ‘Now Anthony has been chosen at the age of 25, so the family seems to be getting more precocious from generation to generation,’ Lord Stansgate observed in 1950, adding: ‘He is a very keen and active member of the Church.’ Though young Wedgie was moving away from institutional religion, he remained a true disciple of a secularised nonconformist ethic, ready to declare in 1989: ‘The link between religious dissent and political dissent is in the best tradition of the radical left.’ He likewise remained a teetotaller.

So far, so traditional; but Benn was nothing if not forward-looking. His American wife, Caroline, came from a churchgoing Ohio family with a commitment to good causes which her Vassar education did nothing to dilute. Her stark, moralistic perspectives on fuddy-duddy England were, as Adams brings out, an important influence on her husband, whose progressive bent was reinforced by the example of the Great Republic. In the Fifties Benn took to brewing up his daily six pints of tea with that wonderful American innovation, the tea bag. Fast food was another boon for someone who thought meals were a waste of time – Benn admitted in 1963 that he ‘yearned for America where eating has become much more mechanised’. His brave new world, at once priggish and ingenuous, was not everyone’s cup of tea. When Benn became Postmaster General, his cynical colleague Dick Crossman wrote that ‘even among us in the Cabinet he doesn’t inspire conviction, partly because, although I doubt whether he is a believer, he has at times a kind of mechanical nonconformist self-righteousness about him.’ Others called him the Scoutmaster General.

This was, of course, the golden age of another Congregationalist, Harold Wilson. Though his much misunderstood resignation from the Attlee Government in 1951 had identified him as a Bevanite, Wilson spent most of the following decade trying to build bridges with the Gaitskellite leadership, whose doctrinal debates about the future of socialism he professed to find incomprehensible. Instead, when Wilson succeeded to the leadership on Gaitskell’s death in 1963, science and socialism were jointly enlisted to rescue Britain from decline and the Labour Party from dissension. Benn offered a Mark II version of Wilsonian politics – a thoroughly up-to-date, restyled, lightweight modification of the original model, but one which embodied many of the same features, even down to the reassuring pipe-smoking image. No more than Wilson could Benn see the need for ideological disputes in the Labour Party, whether over nationalisation or defence policy. Benn did not join the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958 and called the unilateral strategy ‘a typical bit of British self-deception’. This was consistent with his position as Gaitskell’s front-bench spokesman on the RAF. But Benn nonetheless felt that he could not continue to serve since he had come to the conclusion that nuclear weapons were impractical and would never be used. He resolved his difficulties by resigning – but discreetly and without fuss. This simultaneously appeased his conscience, kept him in good standing with the leadership, and did him no harm in the eyes of the rank and file.

In 1959 he was elected to the constituency section of the National Executive Committee, only to resign again before his year of office was completed. Not that he missed a lot, since his resignation came within 24 hours of the annual election in 1960, when he would have lost his place anyway. His resignation was a dual protest against the intransigence of the unilateralists and the inflexibility of Gaitskell in resisting them. ‘My generation is not just prepared to sit by and watch this great party commit suicide,’ Benn declared: ‘Our battle is not a battle for compromise, but for common sense.’ He quickly saw that he had overbid his hand, and resolved henceforth to kick the resigning habit. ‘I overestimated my own influence and the role I could play,’ he acknowledged subsequently, ‘but I was tremendously angry that the Party was splitting quite unnecessarily.’ This was all in the finest Wilsonian style of broad-church Labourism. Benn naturally supported Wilson when he stood against Gaitskell in the election for the Labour leadership in November 1960. But this did not mean that the young MP for Bristol South East could count on office in a prospective Wilson Government. The snag was that Benn would only be an MP so long as Lord Stansgate was alive and that Wilson was hardly likely to form a government so long as Gaitskell was alive.

Benn had become heir to the Stansgate peerage on the death of his elder brother in the Second World War. There were, of course, some good jobs available for Labour members of the House of Lords: but not the top job. This was a problem on which father and son, Big Benn and Wedgie, worked on and off for years, laying contingency plans for a Houdini escape from the hereditary principle. When Lord Stansgate died in November 1960, the scenario unfolded, not exactly to plan, but eventually with the required result. After fighting a by-election for which he was ineligible, and increasing his majority in the process, the second Viscount Stansgate prosecuted his cause through the electoral court, amid colourful publicity which made him a national figure as never before. He lost and he won. He was debarred from sitting in the Commons but the Government was spurred into legislation which enabled a peer to renounce his seat in the Lords and thereby – in a happy ending worthy of Iolanthe – become leader of his party. The fact that, in 1963, the peer’s name was Home merely adds a quaint twist to the tale. It seems that everyone enjoyed the show except the leading actor, who lapsed into acute depression during the case, faced as he was with the threat of financial as well as political ruin. Luckily, he could rely throughout his struggle on sturdy allies in the media – ‘I have regarded the press all along as my friend.’ Bereavement did not, therefore, bring political oblivion, and the death of Gaitskell a couple of years later was a clear career bonus for Benn from the not-so-grim reaper.

At the Post Office, in the days when it ran the telephone service, Benn revelled in the gimmicks and gadgets of communications technology. Adams calls it ‘one of Wilson’s more inspired appointments’. Overworked, underfed, Benn measured out his life with teaspoons. In 1966 he entered the Cabinet as Minister of Technology, again in the fray of proselytising innovation. It was a humbling experience. ‘MinTech is becoming a bit too much for me,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘All the decisions are so frightfully complicated and technical and I’m not really qualified to judge them.’ But his puritan conscience drove him on, working till two or three in the morning, with consequent fatigue and ill health to dull the brightness of his sloganeering: ‘The battle of Britain 1966 must be won on the parking lots of America.’ If this made a change from Harold Wilson’s ceaseless invocations of the spirit of Dunkirk, it was not much of a change.

Only after Labour’s defeat in the 1970 General Election did Benn break with the Wilsonian agenda. The white heat of the technological revolution had cooled. Benn did not dissimulate his ambition to lead the Labour Party, and as late as 1975 Wilson could flatter and cajole Benn by saying: ‘I’ve got to do this. When you have my job, you’ll have to do it.’ The difference between them was that, while Wilson trimmed to the left in opposition as a calculated bid to stabilise the Party and keep it together, Benn lurched to the left with a born-again zeal which endeared him to the disillusioned cadres in the constituencies as much as it alienated him from his erstwhile allies in the leadership. Hitherto Benn had not even been a member of the Tribune Group, which represented the soft left in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Now he vaulted over it and challenged not only Roy Jenkins, the old Gaitskellite, but also Michael Foot, the old Bevanite, for the deputy leadership in 1971. The fathers of the other two candidates had been, respectively, a Labour and a Liberal MP; Benn’s father had been both. Rejected nonetheless by his fellow Parliamentarians, Benn found a warmer response from the Labour movement in the country and learned to pitch his message directly at trade unionists who had previously had little time for Brother Benn. The symbolic moment in his transmogrification, of course, was when he stopped using the name Wedgwood, expunged Westminster and Oxford from his entry in Who’s Who, and became simply Tony Benn. Adams lets him off very lightly here: ‘Most people, after all, do not use their middle names.’ Nor do most people doctor their biographical details.

It was the debate over British membership of the Common Market which provided a populist bridge between Sixties TechBenn and fully-fledged Eighties’ Bennery. His inspired move was to urge a referendum on the issue, even while he himself was still committed to British entry. This was a cry taken up by opponents of membership, confident that public opinion was on their side; and it also provided a means for Labour to maintain a fragile unity before the 1974 general election, essentially by agreeing to differ until the issue was settled by extra-parliamentary means. In the end, with Labour back in office, it was the pro-marketeers, led by the reviled Roy Jenkins, who took advantage of this stratagem to secure a conclusive popular endorsement of British membership in 1975. Benn had completed his traverse to the anti-market camp, just in time to be hoist with his own petard.

By this stage, however, Benn was playing a more complex game, not only as a popular tribune of the Left but as a cabinet minister in a government for which the hard left nurtured a suspicious contempt. In the Wilson-Callaghan governments of the Seventies, he was marginalised: but, having learnt the futility of resignation, he opted instead for the futility of staying in office without real power, while claiming the privilege of making lightly-veiled attacks on his colleagues in the name of the party outside. One old ally, Barbara Castle, was now ‘getting a bit sick of his clear determination to strike attitudes publicly whenever he can’. Benn was plainly no longer the good scout when Wilson could rebuke him openly: ‘You will have seen in the Cabinet today the indignation of your colleagues. Once again, it is simply not acting as a member of a team.’

The fact is that Benn had a different team. As Michael Foot put it, Benn’s belief in collective responsibility ‘frayed’ as it was elbowed out by other loyalties: ‘gradually from the point of view of his Cabinet colleagues, or even his small group of associates, he became – literally, it is hard to avoid the term – not to be trusted.’ Benn’s diaries now give his own perspective, making it clear in the process why he could write that ‘Michael Foot hates my guts’. Inclined now ‘to write off the leaders of the left-wing movements’, not here or there but everywhere, Benn became the leader of the unleadable. He was their ideal champion because he was now more interested in the politics of participation, as an existential experience, than in facing hard choices about strategy in attaining realisable policy objectives. More populist than socialist, Benn viewed his rainbow coalition through rose-coloured spectacles, indiscriminately championing the struggles of all who struggled and celebrating the dissidence of all who dissented. This was the army of righteousness to which Benn appealed – and with astonishing success for a while in the early Eighties. As his diaries vividly recall, it was a switchback ride which sent him soaring to dizzy heights of popularity in the Labour Party, only to plunge abruptly into oblivion.

Benn’s campaign to democratise the Labour Party organisation was a magnificent success in exposing its ramshackle structure. In 1980 came ‘a watershed of a Conference’ in which the Left swept the board and at the special conference at Wembley in January 1981 a new electoral college was jobbed through by the unstable coalition which had now captured the block votes. Benn recorded that it was ‘the end of a historic day – the product of ten years’ work’. The Labour Movement had asserted itself against the Parliamentary Party, and purged itself of the Gang of Four in the process. Since the SDP was hardly more than a creature of the media – ‘the BBC is now the voice of Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins’ – it might seem that the future would lie with the Left, once the power of the media had been broken. It was in this spirit that Benn launched his bid for the deputy leadership, as his contribution to the permanent revolution needed to cleanse the system: ‘the Labour Party are having a Turkish bath, and the sweat and the heat and the discomfort are very unpleasant.’ As with the peerage case, it was evidently no picnic for Benn himself, with a perceived danger of personal humiliation (‘but actually I don’t really care because it is only the beginning and it may be necessary to fight this battle year after year’). As it turned out, it verged on a triumph for Benn, since Healey’s margin over him in the electoral college was, as he justifiably put it, ‘an absolute whisker’s difference’. But this, as it turned out, was the high tide of Bennery.

The subsequent setbacks were both personal and strategic. With few friends in the leadership, Benn became an increasingly isolated figure. His health, which had played up during the deputy leadership election, was a nagging problem. Within twelve months, his power base in the Labour Conference had, as he recognised, suffered badly. ‘We did unleash a violent backlash from the Right supported by the media and the general secretaries,’ he noted in September 1982. The result was the displacement of the Bennites from their control of the National Executive. Benn’s own reaction – ‘I feel quite liberated, frankly’ – is not the least interesting aspect. He already foresaw the nature of his own eclipse. He regretted ignoring his wife’s warning against standing for the deputy leadership. ‘I think in future I will actually take her advice.’ Insofar as he did, it pointed to an increasing disenchantment with the Patty. Admitting that ‘I suppose I really did once believe in the Parliamentary system,’ Benn was now at loggerheads with leaders like Foot who maintained that the Parliamentary Party was ‘answerable to the electorate as well as to Conference’. To Benn this was simply ‘the Edmund Burke belief, absolutely nothing whatever to do with democracy within the Labour Party’.

In retrospect, Benn had a glimmering of the flaw in his great democratic campaign. ‘It came to me,’ he wrote in 1987, ‘that the trouble with the 1981 deputy leadership campaign was that it was directed at members of the Party, whereas it should have been directed at the public.’ Yet his strategic mistake surely stemmed from a long-standing propensity to entertain wide-eyed expectations of institutions like Parliament and the Labour Party, and when they failed him to project increasingly visionary hopes upon the trade unions and the working class. To say he was driven by bourgeois guilt – in itself not an ignoble sentiment – is not enough: he was disabled by it. As many of his associates noticed, when Benn gave his allegiance to the working class, it was to an idealised, romanticised construct of his own creation. This was partly the result of his discovery of the 17th-century Levellers not to mention the Chartists and the Suffragettes; it was partly derived from his loyal constituents (‘Scratch a trade unionist in Bristol and there’s a lay preacher underneath’); it was partly based on his perception of the miners he saw on the picket lines (‘like Greek gods’); and maybe there was still a dash of Jim and Bill in their nursery clothes.

A more pragmatic view of the political developments of the period might have led to a lower estimate of what was possible – but also to fewer nasty surprises and less acute disillusion with the wickedness of the world. While the Labour Party stumbled from bad to worse in the polls, Benn seems to have had no inkling that part of the reason might be his own activities, rather than those of the media or the SDP or the general secretaries or the axiomatically right-wing leaders of the Labour Party. Benn lost his own seat at Bristol in 1983. This result was the more shocking for being unanticipated – at least by the faithful. ‘We didn’t expect to lose nationally,’ said one of his supporters. ‘I don’t think he expected defeat and he was quite devastated.’ Did it show that the electorate was sceptical about socialism? Of course not. ‘In 1983,’ Benn reflected, ‘not only couldn’t we persuade the public to support Labour policy, we couldn’t persuade the leadership to support it.’

Out of Parliament, Benn was in no position to stand for the leadership of the Labour Party in succession to Foot. Not that he would have won, as he admitted in his diary – and not that he really cared any more about mere Parliamentary baubles. Chesterfield gave him a haven, returning him in a by-election after Neil Kinnock had been installed as leader. Benn’s constituency was now literally on the coalfield. Thus ‘the most remarkable and important event in my lifetime’ was the miners’ strike of 1984-5, which Benn supported warm-heartedly and wholeheartedly. He was as incredulous over the treatment the pickets received as he was credulous over the stories they told him – ‘incidents like a policeman threatening to stick a man’s darts up his nose’. Afterwards he remained ‘confident that future generations will commemorate the heroes of Saltley and Orgreave just as we now celebrate the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Chartists’. No blame attached to the strategy pursued by Arthur Scargill. ‘I have no doubts about it at all.’

By 1985 there was talk of ‘Bennism without Benn’, as many of his former supporters succumbed to ‘the new realism’ – or perhaps just realism. In his diary Benn bitterly noted a report that former supporters, like Michael Meacher and Frances Morrell, ‘have all completely deserted me and joined the Kinnock camp and that I am now alone with Dennis Skinner and the headbangers’. A couple of weeks later he had to record again that ‘Frances Morrell attacked me for being a fundamentalist with an authoritarian bent, only interested in the struggle in the workplace.’ Yet he remained undaunted, unrepentant and unapologetic: Marx vying with Bunyan for his heart and soul. Jad Adams argues that Benn’s life ‘resembles more a quest for martyrdom than a struggle for power’, and he has made out a cogent case. If this perspective is not wholly flattering to Benn, it is at least one that his own words corroborate, and in no unduly modest terms: ‘I dare say that the General Secretary of the Scribes and Pharisees announced in Jerusalem in AD 32; “What’s the point of following a leader who gets crucified?” That may have been the birth of the new realism for all I know.’