Rosalind Robson reviews Tony Benn’s Diaries 1991-2001, Free at Last, Hutchinson
Now is a good time to read the latest volume of Tony Benn’s diaries, beginning as they do with accounts of the 1991 Gulf war and a highly-charged political struggle: at that time over the closure of Britain’s remaining pits.
But the 1990s were not great years for socialists. Good to remember it all through Benn’s humane, funny, gossipy, sad (Caroline Benn died in November 2000) and sometimes abrasive late night reflections.
The complete set of Benn’s diaries (starting in 1940) is a very interesting historical record in a number of ways. Benn is a witness to changes in the labour movement, to Parliamentary democracy, to British economy and society, as well as the capitalist world order. What Benn, the politician makes of these changes is also interesting, because his own political viewpoint shifts over the years.
Benn was first elected to the House of Commons in 1950. He fought to renounce a peerage. He was a Minister in both the Harold Wilson and James Callaghan governments of 1964-79 and a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee between 1959 and 1994. He fought for, and very nearly won, the Deputy leadership of the party in 1981.
Benn started out as a mainstream Labour reformist, a politician with plenty of ambition, who wanted to make his mark in government.
The experience of the 1974-9 Labour governments’ betrayal of the working class, the catastrophic defeat of Labour in 1979, and the bitter experiences of the Thatcher years pushed Benn to the left. On basic working-class issues Benn, to his credit, remains a consistent socialist. And he is possibly the most popular public speaker in Britain today, an ambassador for socialist ideas in a reactionary world.
What is most interesting about Benn and his diaries is the way in which you see his ideas evolve. Yes, he moved to the left, but in many ways he did not change, did not redefine his ideas at all, but either adapted the received wisdom of Old Labour or adopted a far left consensus.
For instance, Benn’s well-known and continued opposition to the EU is rooted in Labour and the trade union movement’s old sectional (jobs for British workers) anti-European attitudes. Here Benn has adapted but essentially not changed his views. He says the EU is a bureaucratic colossus (true) which is about to swallow up British parliamentary democracy (not so simple). Partly his view is shaped by his idealism about parliamentary democracy.
The latter half of this volume of Benn’s diaries records the rise of the Blairites, the gutting of British domestic politics. And some of the notes on which the diaries end are quite despairing: “watched the Princess Diana interview. She is a very disturbed person… I think she will just soar to the top of the popularity poll; but I also think it is the end of politics. We have seen socialism killed; we have seen Parliament diminished in public esteem; we have seen democracy undermined. And now we have seen the end of politics… Just back to a gossiping nation wondering what will happen to the royal princes and princesses.”
Fortunately now the firefighters have put politics back on the agenda.
Reviewer: Rosalind Robson