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3.6 out of 5 stars8
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Weighing in at 550 pages, including a long and detailed index, Jad Adams's book is just the sort of traditional and detailed work of biography that befits a politician who was an MP for half a century and who became a government minister, won promotion to the Cabinet and served his last day as a minister all before most of the current generation of ministers were even in Parliament.

Tony Benn's career was not only lengthy, it was high profile and - at least before the twilight years as 'the nation's favourite retired politician' - deeply controversial. This newly revised biography does a good job at telling the story, albeit in a slightly unusual style. The narrative has a friendly account of Benn's career based on Benn's own records and interviews with himself and his supporters, studded with critical comments from others. The reader is left with plenty of information on how unpopular Benn was with many of his Labour colleagues, let alone those in other parties, but it makes for a slightly disjointed picture as Jad Adams only rarely tries to reconcile the two conflicting accounts. Thus, for example, we get a picture of Tony Benn as a warm, charming, charismatic and intelligent man and also one of a man who repeatedly found his career undermined by a lack of popularity amongst his fellow Labour MPs. It is a shame the book does not do more to try to reconcile these sorts of contradictions.

Largely unexplained too are the contradictions in Benn's approach to events in foreign countries, being both in his early years a frequent opponent of abuses by the ruling establishments but becoming in his later years much more known for his opposition to action against such abuses, not only most famously (and least controversially) over Iraq but also taking far more controversial stances such as supporting the Serbs. Through this time too he seems to have had a very forgiving attitude towards abuses - if carried out by the Soviet Union, for he was willing to write "Congratulations on everything" in the visitor's book at the Soviet embassy, only subsequently half-apologising by saying he didn't mean quite everything.

Was there a consistent humanitarian streak running through his views, did they change over time or was it a matter of the wrongness of abuses and the rightness of intervention being determined by where on the political spectrum the two sides were? The reader in the end is left no clearer at the end than at the start of the book.

What the reader is left with is a picture of a man whose in his earlier ministerial career was a moderniser, pushing policies on areas such as transport that may have been controversial at the time but with hindsight often look to have been the right ones. Compulsory provision of seat-belts in cars, the MOT and more are now uncontroversial and widely accepted; they were not when Benn was campaigning for them. A good account is given too of his early grasp of the importance of a modern approach to TV by political parties and his role in overhauling Labour's party political broadcasts, helping pioneer an active style that was soon widely copied.

His subsequent move to the left means that as he got older, his political views became more controversial. There are occasional hints of why he was quite so unpopular with some contemporaries, as in the account of his 'spontaneous' decision to resign from Labour's National Executive Committee: "The air of spontaneity about Benn's resignation was somewhat spoilt by his calling a press conference immediately afterwards and reading a prepared statement". Benn's switch from loyalist supporter of the Labour right to left-wing rabble rouser certainly didn't help with his popularity with colleagues many of whom viewed the switch as convenient careerism. The book puts the case for the defence on this too, arguing that Benn saw policies such as nationalisation as a natural extension of his earlier modernising approach - in this case to sweep away old fashioned and inefficient private management practices.

At times the book assumes the reader has a fairly good knowledge of the times through which Benn lived. If you do not recognise the "desiccated calculating machine" political quote, then this is a book to read with the internet close to hand to look up such references. Those familiar with events of the time will, however, find a bonus in the book because due to Benn's views at the time this is one of the rare accounts of Labour's infighting under Hugh Gaitskell that is written from a perspective largely unfavourable to Gaitskell and his battles with his party over nuclear weapons and clause four. Accounts of this period published in recent decades have been dominated by those such as subsequent Labour defectors to the SDP or those who remained in Labour but were on the right; in other words, from Gaitskell supporters. This book provides a very different perspective.
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on 27 December 2015
Tony Benn was one of the most visionary politicians of all time, constantly trying to implement democracy from the bottom up so that grassroots members, constituents and workers would hold the majority of power rather than M.P.s or managers. A lot of his socialist beliefs never reached fruition - or they did so temporarily only to be wiped out by the venomous Thatcherite policies in the 1980s - but nonetheless Benn tried his hardest to reform democracy for the better. This book recalls all of Benn's major life moments, from the more pragmatic policies (as Postmaster General, Minister of Technology and Energy Secretary) to the more radical beliefs of necessarily reforming the Lords peerage system and bizarrely opposing all wars regardless of moral justification. His energy and vitality in politics were second to none, while continuing to be a good family man at the same time.
This biography is more readable than some of the more 'literary' / verbose political biographies currently on sale, so hopefully people won't be put off by its length. It has also been extended to detail how Benn rightly condemned Tony Blair's treacherous 'New Labour'. But I do have two minor criticisms. First, Harold Wilson is not treated fairly. Wilson was a great Prime Minister who implemented quality liberalised social reforms, but this biography only deals with the negative side of conflicting with Benn. Second, the author suggests that the S.D.P. split from Labour was only due to a reselection crisis, when in fact it was primarily because the right-wing scabs couldn't handle the excellent left-wing policies of Michael Foot.
But these are only minor criticisms in a book which every fan of Benn should read. If only all of Benn's bottom-up democracy had been implemented and maintained we would now be living in a much fairer and happier society. It is very possible that Tony Benn was the best Prime Minister we never had.
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on 19 April 2016
Sadly this book fails to portray the real Benn, who was a legend in his own mind! Every leader of the Labor Party he ever served under was wrong, and in his self indulgent diaries, he was always right, always the hero. With Benn as party leader the party would have been doomed to be the opposition party forever.
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on 20 March 2012
Regardless of what you think of Tony Benn he's a great character in British politics (unlike all the saps hanging around Westminster nowadays; sadly I suspect Benn might be part of a dying breed) and this book does a great job of highlighting that. I've read some of Jad Adams' books before (his biography of Emmeline Pankhurst was a great read) and really enjoyed it; it's great to read a biography of a political figure that isn't so obviously biased in one direction. I don't want bias. I want facts, which are well written and painted with colour. This book has that. In these days of New Labour it's easy to forget that staunch socialists like Tony Benn were once at the very forefront of the Labour Party - this book is sure not to let you forget, with its brilliantly written accounts of Benn's clashes with the Labour leaders of days gone by. It also does a really great job of recounting how Benn was involved in the movement of opposition to the Iraq war. If you're looking for a really thorough, well written bio on Tony Benn then this is it. A great read that I'd really recommend.
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on 19 November 2015
Not bad condition excellent value for money fast delivery.
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on 9 November 2012
A lot of Tony Benn's career is well-known as are his views but it is still immensely fascinating to read about the major issues throughout the years and Tony's approach to the issues of the day even if it made him at odds with his own party. This book does a great job of showing how that happened.
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on 20 April 2014
This was a gift and the receiver has reviewed it for me. The book is really good and interesting read
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on 29 August 2011
To Tony Benn, history is an endless parade with himself taking the salute. He has recorded his own life in such detail that it is hard to see the need for an admiring biography. However, Jad Adams has updated the one he wrote twenty years ago: Tony Benn (Biteback Publishing £14.99).

I skipped at once to the chapter on Benn's Deputy Leadership challenge in 1981. As Denis Healey's chief of staff in that year I am a biased critic. But I do know what happened in that contest and Benn's friends and foes agree that it represented the summit of his influence on British politics. It gets only 12 pages out of nearly 500 and these are inaccurate and inadequate.

Throughout that contest Benn claimed that it was about "the issues", which he pronounced like a long sneeze, but Adams does not analyse Benn's actual platform. Here's how we saw it in the Healey camp, and if Adams thinks we were wrong and unfair he offers no evidence for this in his book.

First and foremost, we saw it as a giant ego-trip - as did many of our opponents on the Left. Benn tried to identify loyalty to the Labour Party with loyalty to himself. His campaign put out badges saying "Vote Benn, Vote Party Policy", as if party policy belonged to him. His own loyalty to that policy was highly selective (for example, over NATO and Ireland) but he appointed himself as its sole custodian.

Second, Benn exploited the perennial paranoia of Labour activists over betrayal by their leaders. He put out a specious narrative about the 1974-79 Labour governments, and his role in them, and attributed their alleged failures to the personal weakness or secret treacherous agendas of other ministers. He peddled a seductive fantasy: achieving socialism simply by amending the governance of the Labour party. All that was needed was to strip Labour ministers and MPs and councillors of power and independence and keep them under the control of Labour activists.

On international issues, Benn sought immediate withdrawal from the European Community and from NATO, and pursuit of a neutralist foreign policy. Denis Healey described this programme at the time as "deserting all of our major allies at once and then preaching them a sermon."

On domestic policy, Benn stood for the policies he had advocated in government, with very scant success: import controls, massive government intervention backed by enforceable planning agreements, support for workers' co-operatives, and general acquiescence to any demand from any trade union. Indeed, Benn incorporated into his policy virtually all demands from any Left-wing pressure group, regardless of their cost, their practicality, their mutual compatibility or their popularity with the mass of voters. For example, Benn supported the Hard Left's demand for expropriation of shares in privatized utilities, and this frustrated Michael Foot's attempt after the Deputy Leadership election to entice him back into the Shadow Cabinet. This is one of many significant episodes which Adams does not analyse or even mention.

Adams describes Benn as courageous for defending the Trotskyite organization, Militant Tendency, and its right to advocate Marxism within the Labour party. But Militant did not infiltrate the party just to spout Marxism (although they did so, interminably, in local party meetings to bore other party members into leaving before key votes were taken. According to Adams, Benn admired this.) Militant practised entryism to achieve power. They sought to exploit Labour's name to achieve by deceit a revolutionary agenda which had nothing in common with Labour's democratic values. By gaining control of several local parties, especially in Liverpool, and Labour's youth movement, they were able to help themselves to Labour's money as well as its good name. Courageous? At the time, I found Benn's defence of Militant unprincipled. I still do.

Having failed to explain why Benn challenged Denis Healey, Adams equally fails to explain why he lost. He blames Benn's defeat on the abstentions by Tribune Group MPs in the second ballot, with special venom for an ambitious Neil Kinnock. This is foolish. If everyone had voted like Neil Kinnock Denis Healey would have got no votes at all.

Adams gives a glancing reference to John Silkin, the third candidate in 1981, but offers no explanation of why he stood. Of course, that would have forced him to explain why so many people who agreed with Tony Benn on "the issues" had no personal trust in him and refused to accept him as a representative of their chosen policies. Silkin's candidacy was a courageous act, which helped to change the fate of the Labour party. It deserves more attention in any account of the Deputy Leadership contest.

Not mentioned at all by Adams is the contribution of party and union democracy to Denis Healey's victory. He won the crucial vote of NUPE in the trade union sector of the electoral college - because its members voted for him in a ballot. He also won every constituency party (around 60) which balloted all its members. One of the leading Bennite campaign groups was called the Rank and File Mobilizing Committee. It should have been called the Rank and File Disenfranchisment Committee, because the Bennites never trusted the rank and file to vote the right way. Adams remarks at one point: "the election had the helpful side-effect of highlighting the undemocratic nature of trade union decision-making." Indeed so, but he does not mention the most glaring example, Labour's biggest affiliated union, the TGWU. A consultation of its branches produced a 2-1 majority for Healey: the union's delegation nonetheless cast its second vote for Benn. This episode discredited the whole Labour movement and was a gift to Margaret Thatcher when she introduced a raft of new anti-union legislation.

Adams nowhere attempts to assess the impact of the contest on Labour's standing with voters. During that period, when the Thatcher government was highly unpopular, it was overtaken in the polls by the newly-formed Liberal-SDP alliance. There were other factors behind this, but the contest dominated coverage of the Labour party and it was undoubtedly a free gift to the SDP. Still less does Adams assess the consequences of a Benn victory - the extinction of the Labour party as a major force in national British politics.

I admit that I am biased, but even neutrals and Benn supporters should feel short-changed by Adams' account of the Deputy Leadership contest. I was equally dissatisfied by his accounts of other matters of which I have direct personal knowledge. On the Labour government's divisions over the IMF loan and public spending cuts in 1976, Adams exaggerates Benn's role and is perfunctory and unjust about Tony Crosland - who led the real resistance.

On the Falklands war, Adams states (without any source) that "there was an argument in the upper levels of the Labour party which suggested that they should give tepid support to the government until the task force was defeated, then round on Thatcher when she was down." I was involved day by day in the formation of Labour policy in the Falklands war. That statement is simply not true.

I have not read the whole of Adams's book and I don't want to. What I have read reminded me how vital it was to defeat Tony Benn in 1981 and I am glad to have played a part in this.

Richard Heller was chief of staff to rt hon Denis Healey MP, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and Shadow Foreign Secretary, from 1981 to 1983. His latest novel is The Network.
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