In February, two elderly men met in a Middle Eastern suburb and took afternoon tea. As old men do, they reminisced, chatted about their grandchildren and speculated on the perilous state of the world. The younger of the two had a problem: he had a reputation for being an aggressor and none of his neighbours, or his neighbours’ powerful friends, believed him when he said he had put away his weapons for good. Puffing on his pipe, the older man offered reassurance. Many years ago he was known as the most dangerous man in his neighbourhood, yet now everyone thought of him as harmless. Several months have passed since tea and talk in Baghdad; the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein remain unknown, but Tony Benn is alive and well and coming soon to a concert hall near you.
Leaving Parliament in 2001 to devote more time to politics, Benn joined the B-list of political celebrities. He has appeared at the Glastonbury Festival and boasts his own website (www.tonybenn.com). As Tony Blair’s Government spins itself further into policy confusion, the world according to Benn has never seemed clearer. From the public platform, and from his column in the Morning Star, he has aligned himself with a new generation of popular protest – anti-war, anti-globalisation – as well as remaining as soundbiteable as ever on hardy perennials such as European integration, industrial democracy, reform of the House of Lords and the royal prerogative. Benn is fashionably unfashionable. The smoking classes have had no better champion since John Wayne. The nation’s youth have another icon on which to click.
What makes his resuscitation the more beguiling is that New Labour’s project has been built on an emphatic rejection of Bennism. In 1981, backed by the hard Left in the unions and the constituency parties, Benn came within a hair’s breadth of becoming deputy leader of the Party. Opinions differ, but a Party led by Michael Foot and Benn would probably have seen a mass defection of MPs to the SDP. As it was, Benn’s failure paved the way for Neil Kinnock’s purge of the Militant Left, as well as the crucial policy switch from renationalisation of key industries to ‘social ownership’. By the time Benn contested the leadership in 1988, he was a spent force. Voted off the NEC in 1993, he could only watch as first John Smith and then Blair and Gordon Brown modernised the Party. That they did so from Millbank Tower, built on the site of the house in which Benn was born, added pathos to the triumph of New Labour over old. The fate of the Bennite Left under New Labour underlines the point: stalwarts from the early 1980s – Tony Banks, Margaret Beckett, Jeremy Corbyn, Michael Meacher, Clare Short, Gavin Strang – have been given only walk-on roles in the Cabinet, while younger recruits to Benn’s Campaign Group, such as Paul Boateng and Dawn Primarolo, have not been allowed to speak in their own voices by Gordon Brown.
No one has been more aware of the collapse of the Bennite agenda than Benn himself. His volume of diaries from the 1980s – The End of an Era (1992) – described his fall from the heady days of 1981. This last (or latest) collection chronicles his continued decline and the parallel ascent of New Labour. At one level this is an old man’s diary. Out of office, and off the Labour front bench, Benn does not take us through the corridors of power so much as into his sitting-room, to look at family photos and other mementos of a long life. Funerals, family illnesses, including the death of his wife, Caroline, in November 2000, bouts of loneliness, memory loss and depression recur. The diaries become less of the public archive that Benn intended them to be, and more of a private confessional, in which the deep past becomes more significant than the last 24 hours. References to ‘Father’ (William Wedgwood Benn) and to his elder brother Michael (killed in the Second World War) crop up frequently, and merge with moral reminders from Labour Party history. Benn’s father led the Liberal defection from Lloyd George in 1924, and stood up in Ramsay MacDonald’s ill-fated Cabinet to argue against dole cuts in 1931. Michael died as the brave new postwar world of the UN and the welfare state was taking shape.
The diaries also record Benn’s obsessive love affair with the square mile of Westminster (‘my village’), where he was born, went to school and worked for fifty years. Free at Last displays the great Parliamentarian, as familiar with the historic fabric of the House of Commons as he is jealous of its procedure. Even here private nostalgia is never very far away. Benn writes about his clandestine trips to video behind the scenes at the Commons, and his attempt to turn the broom cupboard in the crypt into a shrine to the heroes and heroines of Parliamentary democracy. With great pride and symbolism, he describes introducing his own son, Hilary, to the House in June 1999, just as his father had introduced him in 1950, and just as his grandfather, John Benn, had introduced William Wedgwood Benn in 1906. Such anecdotes make this the most personal and moving of Benn’s diaries to date.
In political terms, however, this is a record of a somebody becoming a nobody. Although Benn daydreams of being invited to join another Labour Cabinet, offers ‘TB’ advice on hereditary peers, and confides that he would accept a peerage if the second chamber were elective, his stature is not what it was – and that prickles. He notes the disrespect meted out to him by Labour yuppies, Question Time presenters and Millbank apparatchiks. With good grace he accepts his fate as fall-guy to Paula Yates (on The Big Breakfast) and Ali G. An unlikely friendship blossoms with John Major and provides him with a vicarious sense of power – for example, hitching a lift on the Prime Ministerial jet back from John Smith’s funeral in 1994. But life is not what it was. In Denmark in 1993, Benn forgets the names of fellow speakers and notes that ‘when you are a minister, somebody gets names and addresses for you, but there is nobody to do that now.’
Nor is there much comfort in venerability. His daughter, Melissa, offers the maxim ‘if an old man sits quietly by the river bank for long enough, the bodies of all his enemies will float by.’ But in Benn’s case, the sons of his friends and former colleagues are swimming with the New Labour tide: Edward and David Miliband, sons of his old friend Ralph; Charles Clarke, son of Benn’s former Permanent Secretary, and so on. Some of the most poignant moments come when the Millbank machine tries to whip in its oldest member, reducing him in May 1999 to writing ‘fuck’ for the first time in a diary entry, and inducing nightmares involving Tony Blair as a parking warden. How times have changed. In 1975, Harold Wilson put a temporary halt to Benn’s leftward march by moving him from Industry to Energy, on the grounds that he was safer in the Cabinet than on the back benches. On the evidence of these diaries, Benn’s final years as a Member of Parliament posed no such threat.
Benn despises New Labour: the venom with which he attacks his own Party’s makeover outstrips any other animosity in his long career. Even Thatcher provoked some admiration – Benn once noted that he sympathised with ‘her dislike of the wishy-washy centre of British politics’. New Labour is a different matter. Benn doesn’t like Blair, seeing him as a slick mannequin in the Bill Clinton or Felipe González mould – or even a mixture of Billy Graham and Prince Charles. Initially, he seemed prepared to give Blair a chance, comparing him favourably with Keir Hardie – a Benn family hero whose biography Caroline wrote in 1992. But once Blair began to include Lloyd George in the Labour Party’s radical ancestry, Benn’s filial loyalties rose to the surface. Just as his father led the attack on Lloyd George’s ‘prime-ministerial’ style of government in the 1920s, so Benn has homed in on the court of New Labour. In his opinion, Blair has continued and expanded the ‘presidential’ system begun by Thatcher. The Cabinet has now become a ‘short weekly staff meeting’ summoned to rubber-stamp the decisions of unelected advisers, MPs escape from public scrutiny into the back rooms of Select Committees, and trade unions are run by consultants and pollsters.
According to Benn, an international conspiracy of bureaucrats and bankers is really pulling the strings of New Labour. Labour came to power in 1997 not only because the public were sick of the Tories, but because Whitehall and the City believed that a strong Labour Party was a better safeguard for Tory policies than a weak and divided Conservative Party. Having got their man, Whitehall and the City are now getting their policies, too. Under New Labour, Britain is becoming increasingly integrated into the European super-state run by bureaucrats in Brussels and bankers in Frankfurt. Voices of protest are swept aside. Since 11 September the Government’s powers of surveillance have increased, and as a result ordinary people are dissuaded from political dissent and effectively disempowered. Just as the Labour Party under Blair has become a ‘police state’, Britain under New Labour has become truly Orwellian.
We have been here before. Like all good preachers, Benn knows that the text can change, but you interfere with the moral of the tale at your peril. In 1970, for example, in the wake of Labour’s election defeat, Benn prophesied the capitulation of Parliament to the Treasury, and of the Treasury in turn to the EEC. He called then for a ‘decentralisation’ of power to trade unions and student movements, and looked to workers’ control, regular referendums and open government as the guarantors of democracy. A decade or so later – and in the wilderness once more – he used his Arguments for Democracy (1981) to liken Britain to a colony fighting a ‘liberation struggle’ against an alliance of the press, the Civil Service and the security services. He celebrated the labour movement as modern-day Levellers, Christian socialists and Chartists, defending the hard-won freedoms of the British voter.
Twenty years on, although the forces of darkness remain the same, Benn’s message of socialist redemption, as set out in Free Radical, is much simpler. As befits one of the last survivors of Attlee’s Labour Party, he sets up the ideas and achievements of old Labour as an alternative to the sham modernisation of Blair. Inevitably, the reflective and misty-eyed tone of the diaries carries over into the journalism. There is a close fit between old Labour principles and episodes from the Benn family story. Old Labour, we are told, supports nuclear disarmament and the disestablishment of the Church of England: fundamental principles that Benn imbibed from the Bible stories read to him by his Congregationalist mother. Old Labour was rooted in the sort of ‘gas and water socialism’ pioneered at the municipal level by the London County Council (of which Benn’s grandfather, John, was a member). In the 1931 crisis, old Labour (including ‘Father’) was saved from the bankers and Ramsay MacDonald by the resolute action of the trade unions. Above all, after 1945 old Labour in the shape of Attlee’s Government (still including Father) delivered the welfare state, endorsed the UN Charter and, via the Commonwealth, pursued a middle way between the Cold War powers in foreign policy. In 1956, old Labour (including young Benn) led the opposition to Eden’s Palmerstonian strike on Nasser’s Egypt. And so on. Benn’s socialism has always been steeped in a certain reading of the English radical tradition – 1640, 1837, 1900 – but in his twilight years it is the spirit of 1945 that he invokes with most passion.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that the cult of Tony Benn comes down to his dogged restatement of old Labour values. For his importance has never really been about what he says, but how he says it and to whom. As is well known, Benn’s old Labour credentials are not entirely watertight. A previous volume of the diaries contains the startling revelation that he read the Communist Manifesto for the first time only in 1976, two months after William Rees-Mogg had explained Marx’s theory of the declining rate of profit to him. Similarly, a ministerial career which included such highlights as the reduction of the Queen’s head to a silhouette on postage stamps, Concorde and an over-zealous promotion of nuclear power places Benn at some distance from the real achievements of the Wilson years. And although the British public has always loved patrician figures like Benn who go AWOL from the political establishment – witness Gladstone (briefly) in the mid-1870s, Stafford Cripps in the 1930s, Michael Heseltine in the mid-1980s – his odyssey from Cabinet Room to Speakers’ Corner has involved calculation more than sacrifice. He has resigned only once (as deputy shadow spokesman on Air in 1958), and never been sacked. It is hard to be righteous when you have never been wronged.
The secret of Benn’s current success lies not so much in his old Labour rhetoric as in his consummate ability to reinvent himself and his politics. His image as the friendly dinosaur of the English Left and wizened scourge of New Labour camouflages the modernising instincts that have shaped his career. His diaries record his constant fascination with new technology. During the 1990s he invested in a dymo-labeller, a talking clock, a battery-operated letter-opener, an electric motor-scooter and a voice-recognition computer, which appropriately enough garbled its new owner’s name into ‘Bogey Benn’ when tested for the first time. It was as a protégé of the modernising Tony Crosland (his former tutor at Oxford) that he settled into the Labour Party in the 1950s. Speech writer and media adviser to both Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson, Benn ushered the Party into the age of TV electioneering in the 1959 campaign, reassuring doubtful colleagues that ‘the prune had been resuscitated without a change of name by clever selling.’ It was also Benn who turned JFK’s 1960 ‘New Frontier’ campaign slogan into Wilson’s ‘New Britain’ slogan of 1964.
Benn has never lost his touch for media management. Even when he was being vilified by red-tops and broadsheets alike in the 1970s, he still had time for Rupert Murdoch (‘a bright newspaper man’) and Bill Deedes (‘frightfully nice’). It is worth recalling, too, that Margaret Thatcher’s press hound, Bernard Ingham, cut his political teeth at Benn’s side in the Department of Energy in the Wilson-Callaghan Government. Despite being sidelined by New Labour, rarely a week went by when Benn did not pop up on one news programme or another. As late as June 2000 the Sun was offering him a regular column. As a young man he had noted: ‘I want the limelight too much.’ The instinct has served him well as Britain has moved from the Reithian era of gentlemanly broadcasting to today’s non-stop news coverage.
Benn’s resurgence also owes something to his gift for plain-speaking. Few politicians have his ability to transform tedious and technical issues into headlines. In 1961, he turned the drawn-out renunciation of his peerage into a battle of ordinary youth against the establishment. In 1965, as economists and sociologists began to analyse the British disease of entrepreneurial decline, Benn rushed into print with The Regeneration of Britain, denouncing ‘galloping obsolescence’, and, with a flourish worthy of Saint-Simon, calling on the scientific and creative professions to unite in technological progress. Following a chance conversation with Brian Walden in 1973, Benn created ‘The Twenty-Five Club’, attempting to commit the Labour manifesto to renationalisation of the 25 leading companies in the UK. In 1980, a throwaway remark by a Tribune supporter on the difficulties of Lords reform led Benn to promise the Party Conference that a future Labour government would create ‘a thousand new peers’ in order to overhaul the Constitution. In 1990, as Charter 88 deliberated over the linguistic and legal implications of the absence of a written constitution, he whipped out his Government of Britain Bill, pausing only to complain that ‘it’s extremely difficult writing a completely new constitution from scratch on your own.’ Benn may not be the most reliable political weather-vane – there have been too many freak gusts for that – but he rarely misses the chance to spin.
In the end, however, his recent popularity points to a deeper change in British politics and one which New Labour would be wise not to ignore: the mobilisation of the class of ‘45. It is largely Benn’s own age-group who are flocking to his shows. The pensioners of today are the beat generation of the late 1950s, who warmed to him as he took on the establishment when renouncing his peerage. In turn, they became the young professionals of the mid-1960s, enthused by his embrace of new technologies. Fifteen years later, they were the disaffected mid-lifers, who dominated the constituency Labour parties and who nearly delivered the deputy Party leadership to Benn. Now, in 2003, they are a relatively affluent and articulate section of the electorate; and they have been disempowered. Wary of bankers since the pension scandals of the late 1990s, and distrustful of politicians since the Poll Tax fiasco and the onset of long hospital waiting-lists, they need a familiar face to remind them that things used to be different. Harold Wilson famously observed that ‘Benn immatures with age.’ Maybe. But as the lights go down on another evening with Tony Benn we might conclude instead that the Peter Pan of British politics has finally caught up with his own generation.