More rightwing as you get older? Resist, comrades!
Visitors to the People's Bookshop will have noticed that it is, in part at least, a tribute to Anthony Wedgewood Benn. I make no apology for this. I think Tony Benn has made the most enormous contribution to the politics of resistance over the last 3 decades and deserves to be regarded as the grandfather of the movement. It is easy to forget that Tony Benn was one of the 'bright young things' of his generation and was, if anything, on the right of the Labour Party. One of the things I admire about Benn is his determinedly leftward drift as he's got older. To me, there was nothing more depressing than the baby boomers and hippies of the 60's becoming the conservatives (of any political colour, by the way) of the 80's and 90's and I sincerely hope they've learnt their lesson! Tony Benn is an example to us all. There's nothing inevitable, clever or funny about this rightward drift. Resist, comrades.
As far as Tony Benn goes, I think Paul Foot sums up my feelings in a lovely way, in his review of his then recently published 'Free At Last: Diaries 1991-2001. I'm reproducing this from the Guardian back in 2002, because I think it deserves re-reading. Paul Foot died in 2004.
Free At Last! Tony Benn's Diaries 1991 - 2001
There is an unsolved mystery about Tony Benn and his tempestuous journey in precisely the opposite direction to that taken by every other prominent Labour politician in our time. He has travelled consistently and unstoppably from right to left.
When he set out on his political career he was a New Labour man, a career politician hypnotised by the dreary language of the white heat of the technological revolution.
Half a century later he is a confirmed socialist, utterly committed to public ownership and comprehensive education. What inspired this dramatic U-turn? What turned a rather dull young careerist into the mischievous, infectious propagandist who, at the age of 77, can draw a substantial audience anywhere in Britain?
Wade through all seven volumes of these diaries, and the mystery is still unsolved. My guess is that he was shaken out of his early complacency by the strikes and sit-ins of the early 1970s, especially at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders whose deeply conservative management Benn put together when he was secretary of state for technology in the late 60s. Doubts about his early politics were compounded in his second term in the cabinet, from 1974 to 1979. In 1975 he was sacked as secretary of state for industry and transferred to a much less influential post.
Why he didn't resign then and fight for socialist policies from the back benches is still not clear. Instead, he served out the rest of his time in the cabinet moaning in private (and in his diaries) about the government's flight from socialism. By 1979, when the Tories came back and set about beating the fighting spirit out of the trade unions, Tony Benn's position on the left was unshakeable.
Diaries, especially diaries as detailed as these, can obviously help with this sort of mystery, but they can also be deceptive. Benn dictated his thoughts and impressions regularly, sometimes weekly, sometimes daily. The huge mass of dictated material must have posed appalling problems for his long-suffering editor, Ruth Winstone. She resolutely resisted any temptation to leave out the more embarrassing contradictions.
When Tony Blair became leader of the Labour party in 1994, Benn said he had "no complaint about it at all". Indeed he was "inclined to send Blair a note congratulating him and offering to help". A few days later, he reveals, he was "developing a new idea that Blair is a spokesperson for a new generation and I specially said that Blair's speech has a touch of Keir Hardie about it".
This flirtation with the new leader didn't last long. Soon after Clause 4 was dropped, but long before Blair took office, Benn revealed: "Every night I go to bed and say to myself 'I won't think about Blair any more. It will be all right when we win'." He knew, however, how hopeless was that prospect, and added prophetically: "But it is so obvious that when we win it will be a Tory victory - just a reshuffle." Contradictions like that don't spoil the main picture. On the contrary, the diarist emerges from them as a thinking human being, uncluttered with sectarian predispositions, anxious to listen to what people have to say and able to change his mind.
A more serious criticism of these diaries is the use to which they can be put. Their descriptions of senior Labour cabinet figures are seldom flattering. "No one takes Jack Straw seriously. He is just a little sort of weathercock, blowing with every wind." Gordon Brown? "I wouldn't trust him with a corner shop." Robin Cook is "very irritating", John Reid "very rightwing", David Blunkett "a Conservative in every sense", Paul Boateng "nasty" and George Robertson "a little twit".
All these assessments, in the context of the diaries, or even in the Guardian, seem perfectly fair, if not platitudinous. The same words published in the Daily Mail are transformed into ugly Tory propaganda. Yet these diaries were made available to the Mail, apparently without any restriction or control, and the rightwing ideologues who run that paper had a field day with them all through the Labour conference.
Contradictions and naivety apart, however, a consistent theme sustains the diaries for the whole decade, both before and after Labour took office. It is the theme of angry melancholy at the headlong flight of the Labour party from its former commitments not just to public ownership and comprehensive education but above all to civil liberties. The new socialist Tony Benn combines with the old Liberal Wedgwood Benn. He is never more indignant than when his colleagues are carving out some new law against alleged terrorists or alleged football hooligans or joining in the raucous chorus against asylum seekers.
What inspires him above all else is his belief in democracy, in open debate and discussion. He supports the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange because nothing else can bring the bloated industrial hierarchies under democratic control. Indeed, he is constantly seeking to extend democracy even into publicly owned undertakings, like the National Health Service. And he inveighs throughout against the "harsh authoritarianism" of the party leadership against dissenters.
Nor is he as passive outside parliament as the diaries suggest. Missing from them is a full account of Benn's consistent and active support of workers in struggle. When Heseltine closed most of the pits in 1992, Benn's fury was incandescent. "It is an absolute outrage. I think the House of Commons should be disruptive, but it depends whether there is action outside. You cannot do anything inside if there isn't anything outside."
I know from personal experience of at least three occasions when he agitated for such action with workers on strike or under threat from their employers. None of them is recorded here; and his many interventions on behalf of the Liverpool dockers who fought long and hard for their jobs only get one reference - when the strike is over.
There is a passion in Benn's writing and speaking that far transcends the miserable aspirations of most contemporary politicians. One evening, outraged once again (this time at the Blair government's refusal to respond to the enormous majority in the Commons against hunting), he found himself in the tea room with his former ally Chris Mullin, then a junior minister, and another minister, Elliot Morley. The conversation went like this:
Benn: The government has capitulated to the country landowners.
Mullin: I wouldn't say that. Why don't you have a word with the minister [gesturing towards Elliot]?
Benn: Well, I am having a word with the minister. What the fucking hell is the use of that?
Mullin: I have never heard you swear before.
His rage had got the better of him. And not long afterwards he was swearing again. In May 1999, on the night of the vote on the government's plans to cut incapacity benefit, he went to sleep in his chair in the House of Commons.
"I woke up at about 3am and thought to myself: 'What am I doing? I am the last surviving member of the post-war Labour government that introduced the welfare state on the basis of universal benefit, and here I am being kept up by the whips at night to dismantle the fucking thing... Why am I here?' "
Two years later, he proclaimed famously that he was leaving parliament to take a more active part in politics. I was intrigued to discover that he got that idea from his wife Caroline. And indeed Caroline Benn may have been the solution to the Benn mystery. Right up to her death from cancer in November 2000, she dominates the whole volume. I suspect that just as she thought up the best line for his retirement from parliament, so she had a huge and decisive influence on the rest of her husband's extraordinary political development.
Benn's description of her death on November 22 2000, with all her family around her, is almost too sad to bear. A couple of weeks later, on December 12, the diary records: "A letter arrived in the mail this morning to Caroline Benn signed by a senior Labour peer. It was an appeal for money and was asking 'Ms Benn' if she would like to remember the party in her will." The diary goes on: "It is really a silly thing to do." Silly? It was a disgusting, utterly contemptible thing to do and is only credible in the vulture culture that poisons the current leadership of the Labour party.
But Tony Benn is almost immune to the slings and arrows of New Labour. Every time I am lucky enough to speak on the same platform, I find myself pondering why he is so good at it, and I so bad. I think at last I have worked it out. While I engage in mockery and polemic, he prefers to lay off the personalities and concentrate his humour and forensic skill on ideas and issues. And if that means that he too often has a generous word for politicians I find detestable - Norman Tebbit for instance, and even Ian Paisley - well, that is a small price to pay for such an indomitable and exuberant political spirit.
Paul Foot, Guardian, 2 November 2002