BOOK REVIEW / Lord Wedgy, Citizen Benn: 'Tony Benn: A Biography' - Jad Adams: Macmillan, 20 pounds

FOR OVER 40 years Tony Benn has been making waves in politics, even if they are now little more than ripples on the pond. When I first met him in the Fifties, he was formidably energetic, fertile in ideas and thoroughly engaging. He lacked intellectual depth, and his judgment was often wild. But in the stuffy atmosphere of the Labour Party he was a welcome antidote to opponents of reform.

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.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices