The Stansgate Tapes

John Turner

  • Years of Hope: Diaries, Papers and Letters, 1940-62 by Tony Benn, edited by Ruth Winstone
    Hutchinson, 442 pp, £25.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 09 178534 0

It is not often that a political diary is published in time to influence the events it describes, but it is common enough for politicians to serve present purposes by rearranging light and shade on the historical picture. Christopher Addison, for example, published an edited version of his war diaries in 1934, just as he was trying to cut a figure as a Labour frontbencher. The originals had recorded the private thoughts of a man who expected to be on the winning side after the Liberal Party had split in two. In the aftermath of war the new Lloyd-Georgian Liberalism would embrace the strong state. It would do so in the interests of the people as a whole, as against the sectionally-inclined Tories and Labour. It might even become an anti-socialist centre party, to be tough and realistic with Labour. In the editing, Addison had to re-invent himself as an anti-Tory progressive, leaving out his sarcastic comments about the Labour leaders with whom he dealt as Minister of Munitions and his swooning embrace of big business and trade associations while he was Minister of Reconstruction. The real Addison diary can only be read in the Bodleian, and the real story of the invention and re-invention of a politician obtained only by comparing it with the published version.

In this context, Benn’s published diaries are unusually candid and useful because his methods are less vulnerable than most to later interference. As a committed techno-freak, he was dictating into a tape-recorder when most of his contemporaries were still writing in longhand, often in lockable, leather-bound volumes. He generated even more words than Dick Cross-man and Barbara Castle, so many that the work of selection and editorship has been too much for him to attempt alone. He has therefore always relied on an academic editor. Unlike Addison, he has not apparently exercised editorial control over the selection, nor have we any reason to suspect the editor of this or any other volume of having axes to grind. The published diaries will also in due course be checkable against the surviving tapes, some of which are already in the public domain. This formidable mass of historical evidence is therefore relatively free of the taint of contemporary politics. To a greater extent even than Castle or Crossman, Benn put in the bias, distortion, inaccuracy and wishful thinking at the point of writing: what we get is quite close to what we would have got at the time.

The problem, nonetheless, is that this is the last of five volumes, the first four of which were published during the last episode but one in the continuing struggle for the soul of the Labour Party. Benn has been struggling for the soul of the Party almost since he joined it, and dictating his own version of events into the little black box for almost as long. None would suggest, as many suggested of Crossman, that he was dishonest in his political or personal dealings, even less that he would wilfully misrepresent what was happening either in public or in private. It could be argued, however, and would be argued by more than half of his erstwhile colleagues in Cabinet and the PLP, that he regularly missed the point of what was going on around him. The value of Benn’s record, therefore, is in inverse proportion to the distance from himself of the matters described.

The record is relatively immune from this difficulty until 1950, when the young Wedgwood Benn was elected in a by-election for Bristol South-East to succeed the ailing Stafford Cripps. Up to this point the story is told in family correspondence, from which a complicated but largely sympathetic figure emerges. As the ‘baby of the House’ – he was 25 – Benn decided to ‘try out a political diary’. The candour does not seem to have diminished, but it is clear that anyone who spent very long in the inner world of a party that was seemingly fated to permanent opposition would eventually lose touch with reality. In cases of chronic perceptual deterioration, the first sense to go is generally the sense of proportion, and this is no less true of Benn than of many others. As his later diaries show, the effect was largely reversible by a dose of office. More recently it has beecome evident that it is possible to overdose on office, but this never quite happened to Benn, and in general the diaries of the more recent period have been recognised as a balanced contribution to knowledge about the Labour Left, if not about the larger world.

This volume covers a period both of personal and intellectual growth, in which attitudes were formed and a persona created, and of hothousing, in which Benn was an engaged observer in Labour’s internal battles. The most striking characteristic of the young Benn, as here displayed, is that he was markedly conventional in social attitudes and, with some notable exceptions, in political attitudes also. He regarded himself in the Labour Party of the Fifties as, if anything, a ‘moderniser’; his contribution to the life of the Party was to improve its presentation to the media by using his (rather limited) experience of television production with the BBC, and it was this rather than his political views which brought him close to the leadership and even, temporarily, into close relations with Hugh Gaitskell.

It would be unkind as well as inaccurate to call him the Peter Mandelson of the Gaitskell years, not least because, unlike Mandelson, he had established constituency roots before he began and also because, unlike Mandelson, he had rather little impact on the actual presentation of the Party’s policies, which remained in the hands of more ‘political’ operators such as Crossman and the traditionally-minded bureaucracy of Transport House. Nonetheless, his reflections on the Labour Party’s failure to progress make very much less than he and his supporters have more recently done of its mistaken, media-driven occupation of the middle ground. Some hint of later attitudes can be found, though, in his criticism of Gaitskell’s 1959 Conference speech. ‘In effect he asked: “How much of what we once believed will the electorate now stomach?” The answer he produced was not surprisingly: “Very little.” But that is not the question you should ask.’

At first, the young Wedgwood Benn was a product of family and circumstance. As he was careful to note more than once, his father and both grandfathers were (Liberal) Members of the House of Commons – most Labour politicians of the front rank in the Sixties were former public schoolboys or hereditary politicians, and many, like Benn, were both. His father had fallen out with Lloyd George in December 1916, and drifted towards the Labour Party, which eventually made him Secretary of State for India in 1929-31 and, briefly, Secretary of State for Air in the Attlee Government. The Benn family were publishers (like the Macmillan family, though not quite as rich), and young Anthony (known at this point as James) grew up amid commercial and political affluence. He was sent to Westminster, where he was ‘miserable’, and which is recorded in these pages largely as a venue for scarlet fever and a host for the Air Training Corps. Much is made of Benn’s academic mediocrity, but more of his steady determination to emulate his brother and join the RAF as a pilot. This ambition was formed early, and frustrated by his youth, so a few months were spent at New College. Oxford gave him an early opportunity to join the Labour Club, apparently for hereditary reasons, and to sound off at the Union on Beveridge. Within a few months and a few pages. Benn is off to war, getting posted for pilot training to Rhodesia.

The picture of young Benn in Africa is charming and thought-provoking. On the one hand, he clearly resisted the brutalising influences of service life, largely by being a tee-totaller in a world where alcohol often seemed to offer the shortest route out of the madhouse. He records a discussion of towering sincerity on ‘whether contraceptive apparatus was unchristian’, in which he came down, but only just, on the side of those who rejected the proposition that sexual intercourse was simply a means of producing children. His relations with the opposite sex were ostensibly platonic and more than a little confused. On the other hand, he became solemnly interested in issues such as the ‘native question’, with a painstakingly balanced observation of the difficulties a multi-racial society might suffer when a colour-bar was prohibited: in Rhodesia the museums were crowded out with natives at the weekends, so that Europeans could not take their children. ‘Difficulties like this are real and the idealist must bear them in mind when he considers the possible solutions of the problem.’ He was deeply affected by the death in action of his elder brother, and disappointed not to see active service himself.

The post-war Benn returned to New College, where he became a success at the Union and worked up his debating skills on an American tour with Kenneth Harris and Edward Boyle. The tour allowed for an excited response to the vigour and variety of American civilisation, which many young Englishmen have felt; though not many young Englishmen in New York got to stay with Reinhold Niebuhr. The Oxford letters and diary are silent on the Benn apocrypha, which was current in the Seventies, that on more than one occasion he concealed his lack of effort by reading an essay to his tutor from a blank sheet of paper. The record is then rather thin for three years, in which Benn got married but also wrote out his ‘Thoughts on Socialism’, which are reprinted here. They state a creed centred on ‘real equality of opportunity’ and commitment to democratic methods, which the author acknowledges as springing from ‘a personal interpretation of a Christian faith’.

In 1950 he was elected to Parliament and experienced a sudden immersion in the politics of intrigue. Within a year Benn was a proto-Bevanite, but by April 1954, he was acting as ‘producer, script reader, personal private secretary, PPS and general bottlewasher’ to Gaitskell, which was ‘rather fun’. His interests as recorded in the diary were predominantly in overseas matters: a more mature concern for colonial independence, a reiterated sympathy for Israel, a careful interest in the problem of nuclear weapons accompanied by a rebuttal of the unilateralist position of CND. Within the Party his closest involvements, which did not seem to bloom into confiding relationships, were with Tony Crosland and Dick Crossman. Benn’s observations on internal party squabbles are lucid, if naturally partial, and are made from the position of a member of an inner group which was intermittently very close to the leader. By 1957, Benn regarded Bevan with sympathy but as a man with relatively little hope of returning to a significant place in the Labour leadership; his concerns were with others.

It was inevitable that the question of the Stansgate peerage should loom large on Benn’s political horizon as soon as he recognised that he had a potentially successful political career ahead of him. His concern was shared by others, notably Lord Hailsham, and some of the most interesting entries reveal Benn’s relationships with sundry Tory leaders who were interested in the House of Lords question. R.A. Butler was particularly forthcoming, his personal sympathy and obvious liking for Benn rather tempered by the understandable hope that any re-arrangement of the law regarding succession to the peerage should not let Quintin back in. The final two years of struggle, after Lord Stansgate’s death in November 1960 and Benn’s ejection from the House of Commons, are chronicled in great detail, as though the only political issue for Benn was the removal of this incubus from his political career. The story is well told, with good use of an extract from an interview with David Butler in which Benn describes the legal and political battle that led to the rejection of his case by the Election Court.

The struggle evidently played a large part in radicalising Benn, lending an edge to his political sense, and particularly his sense of political justice, which is not apparent in the earlier extracts. His preoccupation with democracy and the Levellers, and distaste for the constitutional trappings of monarchy, the Lords and the Establishment seems to have stemmed from this experience of rejection from a society he had come to regard as his entitlement. It only remains to wonder whether the mass of the population, without the advantage of such a rite of passage, will ever appreciate the intensity of his commitment to the overturning of what Cobbett, a natural Benn hero, called ‘the Thing’.