BOOK REVIEW / Lord Wedgy, Citizen Benn: 'Tony Benn: A Biography' - Jad Adams: Macmillan, 20 pounds
Sunday 12 July 1992
Tony Benn was one of the first to recognise the importance of television and to become a skilful performer. After the 1959 election, he was among those prepared to concede that the unpopularity of the trade unions had been a major factor in Labour's defeat. Then in the early Sixties, on the death of his father, Lord Stansgate, he fought a brave and lonely battle to change the constitution and enable a hereditary peerage to be renounced. Anthony Wedgwood Benn, as he still preferred to call himself, had become a rising star, a bit of a gadfly, but in the political mainstream.
How can we relate the Boy Scout Benn of his early and middle years (he joined the Scouts when a schoolboy at Westminster) to Citizen Benn, who did more than anyone else to wreck the Labour Party in what should have been his maturity? From the Seventies he put himself at the head of the dissident and increasingly hard left. He became a semi-detached member of the Callaghan Cabinet, going to the brink in his minority opinions - as in the IMF discussions of 1976 - but pulling back from resignation.
After the 1979 election he came into his own. Although deeply mistrusted by a majority of his parliamentary colleagues, who failed to elect him to the Shadow Cabinet, he became the darling of Labour's constituency associations and many others besides. The rhetorical sleight-of-hand that had made him a successful performer in the Oxford Union became a familiar platform device. But the teasing note of self-awareness had gone. The tone was now unrelenting.
We can only speculate on how this remarkable change came about. Tony Benn later described the struggle to renounce his peerage as his first radicalising experience. But there was little evidence of this in the technological whiz-kid who ran the Ministry of Technology and kept alive the Concorde project which diverted scarce resources from urgent social priorities. His change of direction probably owed more to the experience of industrial action in Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, Fisher-Bendix and other syndicalist phenomena of 20 years ago.
There is no reason to doubt Tony Benn's genuine concern for workers trapped into unemployment by the decline of heavy industries and takeover bids. But he also discovered that he evoked in them a respect and attention quite unlike the amused scepticism shown towards him by the chattering classes among whom he had grown up. He became a downwardly mobile populist of the left, increasingly convinced of his own personal mission to ensure 'a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families'. This was to be his text up to and through the dramatic high point of his career, which culminated in his narrow defeat for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party by Denis Healey in 1981.
But for all his characteristic attempts to find a silken thread of radicalism from the prophet Micah through the seventeenth-century Levellers and Marx to the Labour Party constitution of today - uniquely described by him as 'the clearest and best possible statement of the democratic Socialist faith' - citizen Benn was swimming against the tide. He and his friends did more than anyone else to ensure that Labour became an unelectable party and faced terminal decline.
Jad Adams gives only a handful of pages in a big book to the critical years when Tony Benn persuaded his party to re-select their MPs and choose their leader through an electoral college, measures which greatly strengthened the power of the trade unions. He fails to convey the anger and despair of many loyal and long-serving Labour Party members at successive conferences deeply split by Tony Benn's proselytising. He seems unable to grasp how, at an earlier stage in his hero's career, many able and devoted civil servants (often ones sympathetic to a Labour government) were driven spare by their Minister's doctrinaire simplicities.
Jad Adams's fault is to rely almost entirely on the Benn archives, to which he was given access by the family, and on uncritical interviews with friends. As a result, he is often nave about events and relationships, and almost always gives Benn the benefit of the doubt. He has shown narrative skill in finding his way through an action-packed political life, but he would have written a much better book had he widened his sources.
As for Benn himself, it is too soon for epitaphs. He is still there to charm and infuriate us, occasionally making a shrewd challenge to the conventional wisdom, but still capable of outrageous nonsense. His dissenting voice, and his place in the long line of what A J P Taylor called 'troublemakers', will ensure him at least a large footnote in the domestic history of our times.
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