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CHRONICLES OF WELL-SPENT TIME,
This review is from: Free at Last!: Diaries 1990-2001 (Hardcover)
This is a thoughtful, illuminating and surely unique commentary on ten years of Britain's recent political life. The one-time secretary of state has, I would guess, done more for posterity by his high-profile stance as an independent radical thinker than he ever did, or was ever likely to do, as a cabinet minister.
Obviously these diaries are political history first and foremost. It is as a politician and political theorist that we know him from his speeches and media appearances, but this volume of the diaries gives more insight into the man himself. Early on he recounts the death of his mother, and towards the end there were tears standing in my eyes as I read his laconic and restrained account of the death of his much-loved wife after a long and courageous battle with cancer. He has more to say about his family than about the Labour party figures with whom he is usually associated, and his reticence makes this a fascinating issue for me. He admires Dennis Skinner quite obviously, but I got no sense of personal closeness whether because there is none or because he is simply reticent in such matters. Similarly with Tam Dalyell, Brian Sedgemore, George Galloway and Arthur Scargill - what comes across clearly is what independent figures these are and how un-cohesive as some supposed left-wing grouping or movement. It is pretty clear - all the more so for his terseness - who he doesn't like (Kinnock, very obviously indeed), but the tone is always calm and controlled. His perfect civility, which I have never seen desert him in public, only once or twice falls victim to his exasperation and disgust in the course of these diaries. He tells us what we would have inferred anyway, that he greatly prefers to be on friendly terms with everyone whatever the political differences, and the real tone of personal warmth appears in relation to John Major, Ian Paisley and, intriguingly, Norman Tebbitt, whom he characterises as being personally a softie. This is a man people talked to, and that gives his diaries all the more significance.
His Achilles heel, it seems to me, is his sentimental view of radical history, in particular Labour history. Time and again he criticises the current Labour junta for their disregard of the traditions of the Labour movement. That's all very well, but what did he learn from the party's experience with dear old Michael Foot? I sympathise strongly with his revulsion at the question-begging and deceitful inanities mouthed by the Blair troupe about adapting traditional values to the modern world. That they are in practice largely abandoning the values and the people they are supposed to represent I am in no doubt at all, but at least they have found a constituency. Nor am I in any doubt that Mrs Thatcher inflicted a vicious defeat not only on supposed radicals and militants but on the working class generally and on the disadvantaged generally, and that all kinds of unsavoury managements now get a pretty easy ride. The Labour party as a whole, and the trade unions in particular were largely the architects of their own misfortunes through naivety, pigheadedness and arrogance, and socialism has fallen foul of what Galbraith calls the Culture of Contentment, sc enough of us are happy enough with the status quo to object more to anyone rocking the boat than to injustice. A return to old Labour ways does not seem much of an answer all the same.
It may be that with some supposed communist threat now behind us people will begin to see the sheer ugliness of capitalism. Socialism to me is a mentality, not a system, and it is a collective mentality. Whatever its virtues in theory, it has a lot to live down in practice, a lot of unpleasant associations to shed and a lot of skeletons to clear out of various cupboards. If more socialists resembled Tony Benn the task would be a lot easier.