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.

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

You are not logged in