Being the proverbial 'floating voter' I have a large and unbiased appetite when approaching 'Political diaries'. Alan Clark's were deliciously frank and irreverent, John Major's autobiography (though not strictly a Diary) was noble yet suspiciously sanitised for me and the overblown Alistair Campbell tomb last year frankly rather dull considering he was Britain's media spin-king. But Tony Benn is always excellent value for money. Coming from the old Coventry and Warwickshire automotive heartlands I recall an Uncle regaling me as a boy with stories of picking Mr Benn up at Coventry station and conducting a whistle-stop tour of various BL factories in the 1970s. He was hugely impressed with his concise ability to sum up the sheer morass of industrial rancour in the UK at the time. I had previously purchased the Benn tapes and was utterly engrossed in the nitty gritty 'content' and adversarial 'detail' of government. The face-to-face show downs with Wilson, Callaghan and Foot illustrate the 'day-to-day' of the career politician better than any Government & Politics text book could. True, there are the usual 'hot-potatoes' that Tony embraces with the utopian - and almost naive- stance of an idealist. But perhaps we could do with one of two of idealists just now. The book has an epistolary feel to it with his observations, critiques and conclusions on everything from New Labour, Cameron (Blue Labour as he calls it), Bush, British celebrity culture and his day to day sketches and contemplations on life-sometimes hugely poignant and moving. I can't say that Tony has made me a card carrying Socialist but I certainly felt all the more richer and rewarded for the reading experience. I'd rank it in the same league as Alan Clark -though obviously for different reasons! Tony Benn remains among the very best political diarists we have.
Commenting yesterday evening on the current infighting within the governing Labour party, a famous British tycoon said that whether in a business organisation or in a government if the team are not all on-side you're sunk. The latest volume (2001-7) of Tony Benn's diaries brings us the latest thoughts of the most celebrated serial dissident in British politics. Throughout his long career as successively the Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood Benn then Viscount Stansgate and latterly plain Tony Benn, the author has been a cabinet minister, almost deputy leader of the Labour party, and longest-serving member of the House of Commons. He is now well over 80, widowed and retired from Parliament, no longer in robust health but still phenomenally active with speeches, broadcasts, interviews and journalism, and of course as articulate and nonconformist as ever.
Benn is not an intellectual of the stamp of Richard Crossman, whose background and career were similar and whose diaries were in their time as famous. By political instinct he is a man of the people, by temperament a perfect gentleman. He is almost a kind of English Chou En-lai, but less cerebral and with a passionate commitment to the politics of consent. The strongest thread running through this volume is his detestation of the politics of Tony Blair, which he represents as manipulative, messianic, egotistical and deeply undemocratic. On every page this diary prompts, but does not resolve, the question 'How is representative democracy compatible with any kind of effective action?' He laments the slowness of the earnest left-wing talking shops, he knows what Labour committees can be like, specifically the one immediately after 9/11 which he had difficulty in getting to discuss that pivotal event because it was concerned as usual with leaflet distribution, but when it comes to what he perceives as Blair's answer, namely just ignore everyone else and 'do what you think is right', every instinct in his makeup revolts.
That Blair achieved the electoral success he did largely through contempt for the processes of the party he led I don't doubt, and I wish Benn had addressed this matter with the candour he shows elsewhere. He is pretty dismissive himself of rigmarole and flummery, and I have to quote one jewel of his typical style, following the death of John-PaulII
'The election announcement has been delayed, the royal wedding has been delayed, because the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister want to go to Rome and therefore couldn't be there for the wedding. The whole thing is a complete farce really.'
As well as the manner in which Blair drove through his policies, Benn is of course in complete opposition to the policies themselves. 'Modernising the poor out of existence just won't work' is memorable and, one suspects, true, as the inherent nature and particularly the ongoing cost of the 'reforms' become evident. Again I wish Benn had addressed the public perception that the kind of socialism he represents is cumbrous, but he is more concerned with attacking what 'New' Labour has put in its place, which it is hard to view as any model of efficiency either, though of course some are still trying to. He opposes the war in Iraq as you might expect, but also the campaigns in Afghanistan and in the former Yugoslavia, and he charts his own descent into disillusion with Israel, of which he had once been a fervent supporter.
Benn will talk to anyone, and his interview with Saddam is given in extenso here. He is on friendly terms with Conservative opponents, and his patrician courtesy and impeccable good manners have even made him good buddies with Dr Paisley, despite his open support for Sinn Fein and a united Ireland. What complete oafs he makes some of our leaders seem, and while on the topic of Mr Bush I recall another delicious remark regarding the President's supposed fondness for giving people nicknames 'I wonder what nickname he gave Tony Blair.'
More than in previous diaries, we meet the family man here, now elderly, living alone and bereaved of his beloved American wife Caroline de Camp Benn. There are numerous accounts of how he was reduced to tears, and I have no difficulty with this image of him despite the composure that he so rarely loses in public. There are several photographs of the clan, and also numerous accounts of his interactions with his children and grandchildren. One particularly interesting facet of the diaries is of course that one member of the cabinet appointed by his abhorred Blair is none other than his own able and adored son Hilary, currently Secretary of State for the Environment and uncannily reminiscent of his father in face, voice and gesture. We hear a bit of their conversations, but not as much as I would have liked to hear. You could not make Tony Benn stay on-side for any government or Labour party establishment if he did not happen to agree, but this is something different.
In a touching postscript he leaves open, as he obviously must, the question whether he will ever publish another volume of diaries. I am still left unclear and tantalised as to how his precise way of operating would make modern governing possible, or how he would, in the top job, cope with any such figure as himself in his cabinet. However the warnings he sounds about the decline of democratic process are loud valid and clear. It is not just the fault of Blair, or of New Labour, or of politicians in my own opinion. It is a matter of our own inertia and complaisance as citizens and electors. Benn rightly castigates the House of Commons for dereliction of its duty to keep a rein on the executive, and from America I don't hear many voices from either side of the political divide averring that the Congress is doing much better in that regard. Tony Benn you do a great job and don't kill yourself doing it.
on 30 December 2012
I am not a particular fan of Mr Benn but I enjoyed reading this volume of his diaries. Benn is very frank about his opinions about New Labour but when it comes to the other Tony (Blair) his emotions take over. He is vitriolic about the man and constantly predicts a dire end for him and New Labour. Another interesting aspect of the diary that Mr Benn's hypocrisy comes through very clearly. He still has a spot of fondness for communism and always tries to minimize the crimes committed by extreme left wing regimes by quoting reprehensible deeds of capitalist regimes, particularly his bete noir the US. The war in Iraq is,, of course,, the main topic of the diary and he compares and more or less equates the death of over 100,000 Iraqi deaths (American crime) with over 20 million Russians (Stalin). What he fails to mention that the majority of Iraqi deaths were brought about by fellow Iraqis!
I found very amusing to read about his problems with old age (I am going through the same time span myself) and very touching those passages when he talks about his late wife, Caroline. In spite of some reservations the book gives you a illuminating insight into Tony Benn's feelings and thinking and therefore it is a good read!
on 6 April 2009
Well, for a start, I'm a big fan of TB's, and I was not let down by this set of diaries. The style is vintage Benn - he gets straight to the point on issues, slicing through the nonsense which most politicians spew with a hearty dollop of old-fashioned common sense. I find this refreshing. He is an intelligent man and his arguments for socialism, linking them with democracy, are also refreshing. The beauty of these arguments are that he can talk about socialism without sounding daft and/or the need to punctuate every sentence with a trillion "isms".
Aside from the political, I found these diaries to be quite touching, showing Benn at his most human, and the warmth radiates from the passages detailing his most heartfelt emotions.
A cracking read, I'd recommend it to anyone who has an interest in British politics.
on 22 July 2015
One of the greatest ever socialists & parliamentarians. This volume , like his others, is warm, witty and moving. What I like most about his diaries, especially the later ones, is how they reveal his humanity and inner thoughts. Here he finally leaves parliament but not of course politics. How I wish we had more people in politics like him. Reading this diary you can imagine yourself sitting down with him for a cup of tea and putting the world to rights. A lovely principled man. This is a wonderful book that you will enjoy, regardless of whether you agreed with his politics
on 25 November 2012
This follows on from "Free At Last" chronologically and in terms of the general format. If Free At Last covers major changes in the domestic political landscape during the nineties, then the backdrop of this is the huge change in the global political landscape in the noughties from 9.11 onwards. Tony Benn, freed from the constituency concerns of an MP, is able emerge as more of a senior statesman on the world stage and a figurehead for the anti-war movements. Like all of Benn's writings and recordings, the political stuff is fascinating but it's the human and family threads running through all of this that create such warmth, humanity and humour. So in amongst meetings with Saddam Hussein and Bill Clinton, there are flirtations with Natasha Kaplinski and Saffron Burrows, and more Mr Bean-esque misadventures with missed-trains and collapsed-ceilings. Overall another complete delight - I'm desperately hoping that the publication of the next segment of Tony Benn's diaries is now imminent.